In Defense of Titanic
Even though I’m not the most regular blogger, I think we know each other well enough by now for me to reveal a deeply personal fact: I was shaped by 1997’s “Titanic.”
To say I have an obsessive personality would be a gross understatement. I live for those all-consuming, brain overloading fixations that keep me up half the night in a search engine frenzy, and Titanic was the thing that showed me how deep an obsession could go. (2.5 miles, to be exact.)
I saw the movie in a crowded theatre with my parents one Friday night in early December. I was 11. I remember being nervous as we drove to the movies, but I can’t remember exactly what had already been explained to me. I knew it would be long, I knew there would be boobs, and somehow, I knew Leo was going to die. This last part was the most troubling. I’d loved others before, but not the way I loved Leonardo DiCaprio.
Like every other teen and preteen girl, my bedroom was already plastered with his pictures, and I’d practiced introducing myself as Alexandra DiCaprio to various family members. I memorized weird pieces of trivia about his life (his middle name is Wilhelm, you guys), I taped all his episodes of Growing Pains off Disney Channel reruns, and I hunted down every movie he had ever been in – even the ones that were probably not appropriate for an 11-year-old, like “The Basketball Diaries” and “Total Eclipse.” (As an added bonus, both of these also got me into inappropriate poetry.) As always, when I found something I liked, I was determined to like it better and harder than anyone else. “Titanic” shook my world because it combined things I already liked a whole lot into one big perfect storm of feelings.
2. Romance. It’s a safe assumption that I’d never been in love at age eleven, but there were boys who I liked “SO MUCH IT HURT MY CHEST.” Romance was a topic I thought about a lot. Clearly, Titanic is an accurate portrayal of what it’s like.
3. That ghostly beginning sequence. Any allusion to ghosts hooked me immediately: ghost people, ghost ships, ghost DiCaprio, ghost anything. This has not changed.
4. Historical drama. No one loved old timey things more than my preteen self. Besides Leo, period pieces were my one true love.
5. History in general. This is A THING that REALLY HAPPENED. (!!!!) Guess who checked out every single Titanic book in the middle school library during Christmas vacation ’97?
6. ADULT CONTENT. Nothing made me feel more sophisticated than a solid PG-13 rating.
7. Billy Motherf*cking Zane. I’d seen “Dead Calm.” I knew what was up.
I breathlessly watched the first half of the movie, eyes glued to the screen, loving it more with every second. And then the ship crashed and I proceeded to completely lose my shit. Breakdown, right ahead! I started crying as soon as poor old Jack was dragged away from Rose in handcuffs, and I didn’t stop until the Celine Dion credits rolled. And it wasn’t just like a, “oh there are some tears in my eyes and maybe one or two rolling down my cheek.” This was an all out, puffy eyed, snot spewing 90 minute sobfest. I was weeping. “Wailing!” as my mother will tell you.
I was causing a scene and people were turning to stare, but I could not be contained. My parents silently debated removing me from the theatre. And as sad as I was over the plight of Jack and Rose and everyone besides Cal, I could tell that something more was happening to me. I had never been that invested in, or that heartbroken for a bunch of fictional people. Sure, movies had made me cry before, but there was always the quiet, it’s only a movie reminder in the back of my brain. That did not happen here. The only thing happening in my brain was This is LIFE or DEATH ahhh Leo, Leo AHHH! I walked out of the theatre that night with my 11-year-old heart completely shattered, and with the belief that I had just seen the greatest movie ever made. From then on, I lived and breathed Titanic.
Do you know what it’s like to live and breathe a three and a half hour movie about an improbable love story and a simultaneous historical disaster when you’re 11? It takes commitment. For one thing, you’re 11, so three and a half hours basically feels like two years. Your puny prepubescent brain then takes on the arduous task of separating fact from fiction. No, there were no Jack and Rose, BUT there were young couples in love on the Titanic. Clearly I must research ALL OF THEM. Yes, the band did play as the ship went down. I MUST LEARN ALL THE SONGS.
Over the next few months, I saw the movie 15 times, and I developed some strange rituals. I held my breath every time Jack and Rose went under at the end. I read every book I could find on the sinking, and memorized a ton of factoids about the disaster and the making of the movie. For my birthday that year, my parents got me a bootleg copy of the yet-to-be released VHS tape, and a Heart of the Ocean keepsake necklace, which I secretly wore to bed until the chain snapped one night. Friends who hadn’t been allowed to see the movie came over to watch the bootleg and eat junk food. I was basically running a speakeasy for preteen girls. I spent every piano lesson for the next two years learning various songs off the soundtrack. And at the end of each nightly shower, I forced myself to turn off the hot water and stand in the freezing spray for one whole minute, just to see what Jack meant about that water being so cold. But probably the most bizarre thing I did was make my friends act out various scenes from the movie while we floated in the ocean on boogie boards or strapped ourselves to the top of my swing set in order to yell, “you jump, I jump!” at each other. The weirdest part of all of this is that I always cast myself as Jack. I think it’s because Jack Dawson was the most perfect human I had ever encountered, and I knew that in a group of middle school girls, no one else would do him justice. Once a control freak, always a control freak.
These productions quickly became a favorite weekend activity, and my friends and I made ample use of dialogue we’d memorized, along with the official James Horner soundtrack and costumes I pulled together from a box in my basement. Mine consisted of my favorite and most versatile pair of Mudd cargo pants, a button down shirt that possibly belonged to my father, and an old pair of his suspenders. I topped it off with an ancient plaid jacket I found at a tag sale, and lace up leather booties I made my mom order from the American Girl dress-like-your-pioneer-doll catalogue.
I know this because all of it happened during a phase where I videotaped every single thing I did. Most of the time, it was up to two my two best friends and me to reenact the whole movie (minus the sexy bits), and that was exhausting. So, we somehow evolved this into “Leonardo DiCaprio & Kate Winslet: Best Friends.” Our movies became a series of adventures where Leo and Kate routinely found themselves in all sorts of trouble. Leo and Kate go to a haunted house. Leo and Kate get lost in the woods and find a spaceship. Leo and Kate get in trouble with James Cameron. Naturally (I guess?), I was Leo. One friend always played Kate because she had the most perfect curly hair, while the other ran the camera and could do a great maniacal laugh, so she was James Cameron. Also, for some reason James Cameron always wound up being unmasked as some kind of evil genius, even though an off screen Billy Zane took much of the initial blame. A staple scene included one of us yelling “GODDAMMIT BILLY!” while glaring at something out of frame. Sometimes we made my 4-year-old sister play Old Rose.
A video from my 12th birthday party shows a group of about ten of us, starring in our own version of a behind-the-scenes DVD extra. We enter playing the part of our assigned actor, and then begin shooting bloopers as their character. It’s very middle school meta. In the final scene, one of my friends pretends to punch me in the stomach, while I’m chained via plastic handcuffs to a pole in my basement. Rose charges in waving a plastic axe, we all laugh and then they leave me stranded in the basement with the lights off. We all giggle in the darkness, and then ten 12-year-old voices yell, “NEVER LET GO.”
As time passed, the obsession gradually faded, and it became more of a running joke than anything else. But some things did last in private. For years, I set an alarm to go off in the early morning hours of April 15 so that I could commemorate the sinking. I would actually get up, put the Titanic soundtrack in my Discman, and listen to “Nearer My God to Thee.” The first year I didn’t do this, probably the year I started high school, I felt like a traitor to my former self.
Last week, I went to see Titanic in 3D. And, it really is kind of an awful movie. Nobody is at their best, except maybe the 1997 special effects guys. And possibly Bill Paxton’s zany, offensive sidekick. But seeing it on a big screen like that brought back the visceral memory of being a kid and feeling something that intensely for the first time. There are entire scenes I still know by heart. (After saying the lines into my camera lens or to myself in my bedroom mirror so many times, I will probably always know them.) And it’s stupid and silly, but, I mean, I’m flying, Jack!
Do you remember all the 1997 news reports about women climbing onto the bow of some cruise ship or whatever, waiting to see if Jack Dawson would rescue them? I do, because I cut them all out and put them in a goddamn scrapbook.
There are plenty of things about this movie to hate on, and I agree with everything in this hilarious Jezebel post. (It’s-a-me! Fabrizio!) But this movie (this MOVIE!) was my thing, and to hate on it would be to hate on my 11-year-old self, and she had enough to deal with (especially since she spent her free time running around pretending to be Leonardo DiCaprio).
I’d never really had a thing before, and I liked being an expert in something. I’m a girl who likes her trivia, and this movie taught me how to obsess. I mean really obsess, to the point where you don’t really care if you ever sleep again, because there is just so much to KNOW. Plus, when you’re an 11-year-old girl in love with a boy in your music class who tells your friend he won’t dance with you because you’re not popular enough, the belief that there might be dudes out there willing to freeze to death for you is weirdly comforting.
Jack Dawson: setting impossible and dangerous standards since 1912.
The 100th anniversary of the sinking is this Sunday. I don’t think I’ll be waking up at 2am to listen to the Titanic soundtrack or anything, but maybe I’ll post some weird factoids on Tumblr or something. 11-year-old me would like that. (Sidebar: you can tell I’m old now because I said ‘waking up’ instead of ‘staying up.’)
Oh, by the way, did you know an iceberg 1-4 meters high was classified as a Bergy Bit? This has been your Adorable Nautical Trivia for the day.