Sunday, May 13, 2012

Titanic: Life Story

There are countless stories about immortals, Vampires, and long-lived fantasy races. How many stories are there about human centenarians?

Really, how many honest-to-gosh, non-supernatural centenarian humans are there in fiction? You’d think Hollywood would’ve gotten the memo about humans living longer. No one’s interested in stories about centenarians? Or is that just what Hollywood thinks?

I wonder. I get people asking me questions about the 1950s through the 1970s. And not just vampire questions, either. And I’m just sitting here wondering if they ask their grandmothers or, well, mothers the same questions. Sometimes, yeah – they’ll even relay their grandmother’s stories to me, which is great. Other times, well, it’s hard not to be cynical.

How often are older characters ever protagonists? When you do see centenarians in fiction, they’re usually played for laughs – as are most older characters, even if they’re under sixty and therefore barely twice the age of much of the audience. Look at Grandpa swear, because older people don’t do that. Hilarious! Look at Grandma have a sex drive, because older people can’t have that. Hilarious the second! Look at Gramps forget things and walk slowly, because memory problems and the systematic loss of your mental and physical faculties is really goddamn fucking Hilarious, isn’t it my fellow young person?

Okay, occasionally they mix it up and give us a psychotically evil old person like Mr. Burns, but that's not what I call progress. If they're not giving us Mr. Burns, it's Grandpa Simpson.

The Simpsons sometimes tries to make up for it with a few sympathetic nods to the plight of American old folks and some Lisa Speeches. I'm talking Golden Years Simpsons, here, too. Guys, that doesn't work if you're laughing at Grandpa, too, and you treat him as 'Generic Old-Shaped Old Person Representing all Old People.' 

Even Titanic does that a bit. In an early scene with 101-year-old Rose, she forgets a social encounter that happened a few minutes ago - which, of course, her granddaughter condescendingly reminds her of. And earlier, before Brock Lovett talks to her, he gets reminded to: ‘speak up; she’s kinda old.’

Sigh. If she needs you to speak up, she’ll tell you. Don’t start by barking at her – she’ll know what it means. And Brock urges her to tell the story – the movie, basically – by saying ‘anything you can remember, anything at all.’

She snarks back: ‘Do you want to hear this or not, Mr. Lovett?’ (Ha - I'd have been tempted to say: 'well, I was on the Titanic - and it sank! True story.')

And then – fast forward to the end of the film, when all the characters are hanging on Rose’s every word, after she’s told this story at the level of detail any historian would weep for.

They hear about Rose the Younger, the bold, witty, Progressive-era girl who wanted more out of life, and they start seeing her again in the present. And we the audience see her too. They give Rose a sense of humor and a wealth of wisdom and depth that older characters should have, and she becomes a person with a rich and interesting life story instead of the ‘very old goddamn liar’ they reduced her to at the start of the film.

I’ve been there. God, I’ve been there. For my people, talking about our history is like Pinocchio syndrome: we become real. It makes us real, and it makes history real.  

I love that. And I love how the Titanic characters go from seeing the sinking of the Titanic as nothing but an excuse for collectibles and trivia questions to seeing it as a real event affecting real people. (God, especially Brock, who calls Rose his 'new best friend' after he infers that she must have the Heart of the Ocean if she really was on the Titanic. That's right, Brock: beg the disaster survivor for the valuables she secured the night she watched thousands of people die. 'You lived through a hurricane? Did you bring me some loot?' At least he got better.)

I love the way the film almost effortlessly conveys that this is what history was – historical people were not aliens with incomprehensible motivations, and had romance and sex and drives and ambitions that steered them right or wrong, in this case literally. It’s so great to hear that, in an era of anti-presentism and ‘historical relativism’ – which usually translates to ‘history is really hard to understand, so we give up.’

My people are hyper-aware of our place in history. It’s a huge part of our culture. And we were partly founded by Enlightenment people from circles that were just as hyper-aware of the past and the future. But most people you meet just aren’t, whatever time period they’re from. They live for today, and that’s where they stay.

Rose and Gloria Stewart single-handedly elevate Titanic from just another disaster movie with a big ego, an ungodly budget, and special effects that'll look impressive for about ten years, and will be unintentionally comedic in forty. Hell, it's one of the only disaster films that actually shows one of the survivors years later and gives any thought to the long-term. At least for a little while, it stops being just another film exploiting an historical catastrophe and becomes an historical commentary.

Victor Garbor actorThomas Andrews shipbuilder

It could have done a better job at being that. Mr. Andrews and the Unsinkable Molly Brown, played by the excellent Victor Garber and Kathy Bates, should have been co-protagonists if they really wanted to make the film a first-rate historical drama. But as a fictional account of fictional people’s historical love lives in interesting times, it succeeds much better than most, and better than I ever would have anticipated.

Kathy Bates Molly BrownUnsinkable Molly Brown

I love Gloria Stewart’s quote: “When I graduated from Santa Monica High in 1927, I was voted the girl most likely to succeed; I didn’t realize it would take so long.” I hear you, Gloria. I love that she was the only Titanic cast member who was alive when it happened, and lived to be 100-years-old herself (RIP). Hollywood society even gave her respect and admiration in the only way it knows how: she got nominated for an Oscar and she was voted into People magazine’s ’50 Most Beautiful People in the world’ list in 1998.

In an industry that treats people like fashion trends, casts out any forty-plus woman who isn’t Meryl Streep, and has had more influence on the modern youth obsession than air-brushing, Gloria Stewart’s story is a breath of fresh air. Her biography is pretty damn interesting, too.            

She helped found the Screen Actors Guild and, in 1936, the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. After getting stage roles in New York, she opened a successful art furniture shop, got some of her oil paintings into the permanent collection at the Los Angeles County Museum, then got some of her professional-grade bonsai trees in the Huntington Library Japanese Garden permanent collection – and this was all after re-marrying and while raising a daughter. Gloria returned to acting in her sixties – when most women’s careers are long over – and got to be the oldest person ever nominated for an Academy Award at age 88. Meanwhile, she was writing fine art printing books, one of which is in the permanent collection at the J. Paul Getty Museum. She was still acting at the age of 94, and made her last appearance in film at age 100.

I wish she had gotten to see the Titanic Anniversary.
Gloria Stuart

Titanic, for all its flaws, gave us a great centenarian character and treated her, and the historical event it was depicting, with at least a modicum of respect.

One great thing about historical relativism is that it works just as well on the present and recent past – you can use it on 1897 just as easily as 1997. Titanic was made in a time period that’ll be remembered for (among other things) its ageism. And I might have to defend non-ageist 1990s people the same way I defend liberal 1912 people from generalizations like ‘those were the times,’ while acknowledging that we have made progress and the culture really has changed. After enough time has gone by, all citizens represent their eras, and all fiction becomes historical.

For all these reasons and more, I declare Titanic the movie ‘fair for its day,’ and can’t wait to look back at it in relief for how far we’ve come. 

No comments:

Post a Comment