Nostalgia is a tricky bastard. While it frames the past gracefully, it also alters perception in ways inescapable to the sentimental, a partiality that only deepens with time. At my brother Kevin’s insistence, my siblings and I watched Titanic on its centennial, fifteen years after I first saw it in theater. It was their first time; I was their age in 1997. I loved Titanic then, and I love it now. Sepia-filtered memory makes distance impossible.
Everyone knows the story. Rose (Kate Winslet) is a beautiful, intelligent girl suffocated by the trivialities of high society. Aboard Titanic with her controlling mother and tyrannical fiancé Cal (Billy Zane), she meets Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), a third-class passenger whose carefree outlook shows her the possibility of a different life. But on the fourth night of its maiden voyage, Titanic sinks into the freezing Atlantic, carrying with it the lives and dreams of over 1,500 people—to be remembered only as one of the greatest disasters in history.
James Cameron has yet to impress me with recent works, but he does hit all the right notes in Titanic. Although the movie stretches for three hours, the story moves onward at an ideal pace, never unsatisfying and never dull. With hardly any superfluous scene, Titanic embodies the epitome of a well-told story and a well-rendered movie (perhaps at the expense of being too conventional, too whole). True, the rich-girl-poor-boy narrative is downright cliché, and the couple’s whirlwind romance does require some leap of belief, but both leads play their parts so convincingly that it’s not hard for viewers to make that emotional jump. Many memorable scenes (by now iconic) also help in establishing character, although they do nothing to humanize Cal, whose caricature treatment inspires the same hatred as any old-fashioned villain.
I don’t think I have ever not cried while watching this movie. No matter how many times I see it, the feeling of loss never fades. In combining personal drama with history, Titanic conveys an overwhelming sense of both private and public tragedy. We mourn for Jack and Rose, but we know that their story is only a mirror of all those that went down with the ship, a sorrow augmented by its sheer preventability. For all its melodrama, Titanic expresses poignant insights on the transience of things and the permanence of memory. When Celine Dion starts crooning, who can help but cry?
‘Titanic was called the ship of dreams. And it was. It really was.’
‘Do you trust me?’ ‘I trust you.’
‘Three years, I’ve thought of nothing except Titanic; but I never got it. I never let it in.’