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I Love the '90s: Titanic 3D

The shelf life of Clinton-era nostalgia is tested.

A historical romance with a then-unheard-of price tag, James Cameron's 1997 Titanic was the nearest thing to a Gone with the Wind-style cinematic event that the millennials could call their own. Now Titanic has bobbed to the surface yet again in a 3-D re-release, making a play for an audience that its original viewers babysat.

Rewatching the affair between Kate Winslet's rebellious haut-monde refugee, Rose, and Leonardo DiCaprio's free-spirited steerage passenger, Jack (as in London), it's hard to find a line that might resonate across generations like a "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." But the power of Titanic didn't come from originality; it came from punching clichés across with a seldom-seen directness and sincerity that seemed pure-of-heart, old-fashioned or plain corny, depending on your perspective.

"Life's a gift," Jack says in a typical homily. "You never know what hand you're gonna get dealt next." The people who release movies, however, like to stack the deck. The ostensible reason for the re-release of Cameron's Titanic is the centennial of the RMS Titanic's abridged voyage. The real reason is that some studio panjandrums have decided that now is the moment in the green-lighting circle of life that this franchise — like Transformers and G.I. Joe before it — is ready to be taken out of mothballs and relaunched for the key teen-to-35 demographic, ideally appealing to one end of that spread through novelty, the other through nostalgia.

Titanic will float or sink on the enduring charisma of its stars, Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Paramount Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox
Titanic will float or sink on the enduring charisma of its stars, Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Once a very real $200 million gamble, Titanic's sequel-resistant story offered the particular combination of technophilia and technophobia that Cameron, now tweeting from the ocean floor, adores, as author of movies (The Terminators, Avatar) that warn against the hubris of technological arrogance through vanguard special effects.

But CGI spectacle doesn't age gracefully, not even with a 3-D facelift. (Although the spruced-up version was not, in fact, screened for press.) Today, Titanic must float or sink on the enduring charisma of its young stars. Winslet's Rose, flipping an anachronistic bird at the patriarchy, suffers from the "feminist" pandering of Cameron's script, which seems today even more over-deliberate in a pop culture glutted with matter-of-fact warrior-women. What is most remarkable, viewed with the hindsight of nearly 15 interceding years, is the sight of DiCaprio, famous bangs bounding as he runs through the ship's endless corridors, flashing a sharp little triangle of a mouth and actually smiling. It was Titanic that properly launched "Leo-Mania," which the actor would spend his subsequent career distancing himself from, finding torturous roles to seam his baby face with worry lines, making the leap from matinee idol to Our Serious Actor. DiCaprio has been unusually successful in this aim, but rewatching Titanic, you wish that his growing gravitas had not completely smothered his ability, wonderfully evident here, to convey simple joy.

The French New Wave director Jacques Rivette analyzed the Titanic phenomenon incisively when it first blew up. Citing Winslet as a placeholder for "inhibited, slightly plump American girls who see the film over and over as if they were on a pilgrimage," Rivette concluded that "they recognize themselves in her, and dream of falling into the arms of the gorgeous Leonardo." Taking a less weightist view of things, Titanic also offered an immersion in the classical romantic Hollywood cinema — yearning, worshipful close-ups; a transporting score; seismic sentiments — to a multiplex-bred generation that had little familiarity with this idiom, and the experience was intoxicating.

Will a contemporary 16-year-old be able to swoon quite the same way for Leo, knowing that Jack has become the burly and brooding DiCaprio of latter years, caked with old-age makeup in J. Edgar, as Robert Pattinson stays eternally young? As for the viewer, like myself, who saw Titanic as a teenager on the first go-round, it is certainly a difficult movie to grow up with, for it has so little use for adulthood. As Kurt Vonnegut noted of A Farewell to Arms, Titanic elides all of the messy stuff of marriage, nipping off the bloom of Rose and Jack's affair while it is still young and perfect — before wilting Rose actually feels the bite of poverty or catches syphilis from one of Jack's Montmartre models. The tragedy of their doomed romance is, then, a Happily Ever After in disguise.

 
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