The Titanic Beauty of Unknowable Things

I watched Titanic for the first time, I wrote 3,000 words about it.

The Titanic Beauty of Unknowable Things
Photo by K. Mitch Hodge / Unsplash

I used to scream so loud the neighbors threatened to call the police. Scream in abject terror. I would scream so loud that it might wake God, rouse them from their bed and force them to walk into their Godly kitchen to wonder in a half-dream haze if the cats had knocked some shit over in the dead of night.

I screamed because it was bath time, and because I hated the sensation of water rushing over my face. I was too young to be able to verbalize my needs, or more importantly in this moment my fears, and instead they washed over me. Embedded within me. Haunted me. I’ve been afraid of the water my whole life, in a life filled with tangents and forgotten paths my fear of water – specifically being underwater and on boats – is my constant.

This week I watched Titanic for the first time.

Lysh has been asking me to watch James Cameron’s 1997 epic with her since we started dating, which makes us now many years deep into a journey towards this very particular place in our life together. There are gaps in my cultural knowledge; I've never seen a full episode of Friends, never caught a Pokémon, never watched Titanic, and this was finally the right time.

It’s become this kind of running joke, the same way that we will point to a Subway restaurant and say “oh what about Subway” if we know the other is interested in eating. This object of passive but dangerous desire.

There is an easy joke to make about having never seen Titanic. The boat dies at the end. I do know a lot about the Titanic. My many years of anxiety and depression have led to an on-again-off-again dalliance with insomnia and I have stayed up many nights to read through histories and accounts and facts. Shipwrecks, lost explorers and fateful journeys are fascinating to me. When I was a kid my dad would read books like Up In The Air and maybe I just absorbed some of that through him.

There is beauty in all the people and ideas in this world lost to nature and time. There is beauty in the unknowable things, there is wonder held deep by the jaws of the ocean and the chill of the air at its most powerful. And there is something in the light of a life as it flickers in the name of a journey to somewhere beyond all the trappings of the point of origin. This speaks to my love of Gordon Lightfoot’sThe Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald”. The story as he told it, not the way it really happened but the way he imagined these lives as they were lost. The cook saying “fellas it was good to know ya” when they all knew they would all die here together. Lives claimed together by the water, the cold and the dark.

It is sad, and it is beautiful, and there is something in the waltz of these two ideas together.

So we watched Titanic, because Lysh asked me, has been asking me to for years, and finally this time it felt right. I have never seen this movie but I know of its importance. I know the scenes and I know the way it has been converted over time into the memeification of conversation in our lives. I know the king of the world, I have seen him standing there out on the deck of that ship.

Let us not spend too much time on a post-Twister Bill Paxton with his cable knit sweater, oddly dyed hair and earring decision. The elder Rose Dawson Calvert (played by Gloria Stuart) seeing a naked drawing of herself on the TV news playing on a 13” TV on the counter, off to the side of her poetry nook and deciding now was the time to tell her grandchild that she was on the Titanic. You know, the boat from the news. The news in the mid-late 90s, famously always putting uncensored live drawings of naked people on the mid-afternoon broadcast.

What a dish I was.

You get the sense from her house that Rose has a certain joie de vivre. She has perfect weird aunt energy, one who rolls her own cigarettes and tells you stories about the time she got arrested for selling pot to a plainclothes cop.

And so she goes back to the boat, lands with her luggage and her granddaughter and sits with these men, treasure hunters of some kind or another, who have amassed the perfect equipment with which to dive down and scour the remains of a boat that claimed the lives of more than 1500 people. Most of them middle to lower class passengers, most of them men (approx 66% of passengers on board were men), a lot of them crew members, a lot of them children. A lot of them.

These men are here to poke the graves, dig past the dust that was once bone that was once muscle and skin and life and promise. Looking for a diamond, the heart of the ocean, to sell it. To hold untold wealth in their hands and know they have stolen it from the icy hand of death. My mind wanders only slightly to do a cost/benefit analysis of the many expeditions and gear that have led them to this place, where they are exploring the ruins of the Titanic, a boat at the bottom of the ocean many others have failed to reach. Why not simply not spend the money? But that belies the spirit of Titanic; Opulence above all things.

We meet a young Rose DeWitt Bukater played by Kate Winslet. We meet Jack Dawson ,Leonardo DiCaprio post Romeo+Juliet, still looking every bit like a child forced to pretend to be a man, fated to die by the roll of the credits. I know how this ends, I know the beats and the memes. I did not know about Fabrizio (played by Danny Nucci), and there is a lesson learned here that there is always time to gather new knowledge by letting go and trying something new. Even when something new has now become something old.

Fabrizio is a delight as a comically Italian counter-weight to the heaviness of the film, a hidden thriving heart. The glimmer of promise that he will survive this ordeal beyond Rose Dawson Calvert and hundred others. I know it will not come to pass, but I can dream of its possibility.

This is perhaps the hardest thing for my brain to work through in a movie like this. That it wants to imagine that all things will work out fine. Maybe the boat lives this one time that I watch it. We see Rose meet Jack, we understand through context clues that she feels trapped in this life of wealth and status, and knows that it is all an act. That she must marry Billy Zane, who plays the comically over the top wealthy businessman Cal as this kind of Wario George Bailey. Heir to a steel fortune, man of status. If you were forced to draw a rich man from memory you would conjure this caricature, and it takes a man of Zane’s talents to pull this role off.

I am struck by the heavy handed script in parts. The references to the great unsinkable ship, the subtle mockery of potential danger. The lives of the wealthy on board, the paintings by some guy named Picasso.

There is one thing I find distasteful about this kind of period dwelling, where we obsess on the winks to the future. Rose laying out her favorite work from “Something Picasso”, Cal laughing at her vapid interest in art. Oh, you mean PABLO Picasso, the film asks if you’ve ever heard of him. This trope repeats once more, in the dining scene where Rose makes mention of the boat as this sort of phallic symbol, wondering what Freud might think of all this. The men laugh at her. Silly little girls and the silly little names they drop like clues and letters.

Rose and Jack fall in love, there is no need to explain the core plot of this movie because everyone has fucking seen it apparently. He draws her like one of his french girls, they fuck it out in a car locked in the loading bay like they’re taking the ferry to the island and simply got bored of the food court. I post a screenshot to my Instagram stories, people text me bewildered.

This is my first time seeing this movie?

What do you think of it?

We’re getting there.

I tell Lysh I think I'll be unable to watch the movie all at once. I know the iceberg is coming. I know the end is coming. I know people will die. I think about the story my father has; his belief that he was on board this boat in a previous life, that he probably died in steerage like all the other men who fell below status and rank. I think about the water, I think about the boat breaking. I notice my hands are clenched, I'm holding onto things to stabilize my brain. Lysh knows this is hard for me. We pause for the night. Watch New Girl for the billionth time and fall asleep with our pets and our bed and dry land and I don’t think about boats or water or fear at all.

The next day we picked it up one last time, this time in the afternoon. The sun doing its level best to break through the clouds out our window. Jack and Rose kiss, passionately kiss. The men watching for icebergs spot the two lovers on the deck and their attention is swayed by them just enough that they don’t notice until it’s too late that their deaths are upon them.

If there is a theme to this movie and I swear there are many, it’s that loose lips sink ships.

Cal refuses to let Rose go peacefully with Jack, because he is a man who owns things and she is a thing to him. He tries to frame Jack for theft, locks him up with a pinkerton in the basement and tries to force Rose to save herself with him. They are rich, after all, and the rich deserve to live do they not? She almost relents, until she remembers that she loves Jack, and that Cal is only a purse with no heartstrings and runs off to save Jack. On their journey through the end of their life together they pass Victor Garber who expertly portrays Thomas Andrews amongst other portrayals of real lives lost to this boat and this ocean. They find a child that Jack goes back to save and it is a reminder that many of these children, children in wool coats that drape over them like cloaks will never grow old enough to fill them out. They lived and were trapped there below deck, many of them not saved by men rushing through with their true loves.

Their lives belong to the deep the same as so many others.

We see chaos, are led to understand its whims and desires to destroy without a sense of class or gender. Only death lives here. Men, especially those in second and third class, fight for their right to survive the same as anyone. Desperate ship hands push and pull, one shoots a man before claiming his own life. Things are moving quickly.

The band plays stoically on deck as water finds their ankles, the perfect kind of reference for the internet age that I have parlayed into at least one viral tweet and suddenly I’m struck with how often the tragedy of loss will turn to bones, then to dust, to nothing but memory, only to be reborn as the idea of something you can use to describe a life those souls will never claim. We don’t know if the band actually did play on til the end that night, but Cameron has chosen to believe that they did. Like the cook telling the lads it was nice to know them on the Edmund Fitzgerald, it is better to imagine the idea of humanity amongst all of these lives moving towards oblivion.

The boat breaking is hard for my fears and my anxieties and I look away often. Even though the CG doesn’t really always hold up and at times it feels a bit uncanny valley it is still terrifying and all of my worst and most potent fears are here, showing me the depth of their destructive power.

I need to tell you all one very important thing. Rose does not cling to a door. That piece of wood that they try to climb on – once the boat has split and sunk and the lives once on board are all lost or in the water desperate to survive – is a wooden transom panel from above a door, and they show it flip up in the water as they both try to climb on and that is because it will not support them both. They know this, Jack knows this.

Jack seems to know a lot about a lot of things despite his character being given no real depth beyond spitting and lust and this sort of laissez faire attitude, the kind of lower class character rich men love to write because it’s fun to imagine how nice it is to be poor but somehow pure of something evil and that’s not always true. It is just that people are people, flawed and perfect all at once. Some of us just never have to worry about our pockets staying empty.

We know Jack dies. We know he was never meant to live. He is just an idea to haunt Rose forever, haunt her wealth and status and upbringing. She needs to be free of the trappings of her life and the only way to do that is for her to suffer such unimaginable loss that she will forever be changed. Another trope written by the wealthy, only imagining changing one's status or desires through suffering, lessons only learned through loss. Rarely through shared humanity with people we are constantly reminded exist on a floor lower than where the elite rest their feet.

The elder Rose is done with her story, told on a boat floating over the corpse of the one that nearly claimed her. Somewhere below her Jack's body became part of the ocean floor like so many others. More than 1500 lives lost below them, where she can only recount her tale and watch as tears flow from their eyes. They had never, until witnessing and hearing it told, imagined the lives of all the people lost to the cruelty of nature and the folly of man. Only what they might rip from their graves and sell to turn themselves into men of means beyond the ability to finance expensive oceanic endeavours.

I shed a tear here at the end too, because despite all the tropes and the heavy handedness of it all the story is perfectly aimed at a delicate heart. Rose walks out in her nightgown, gleefully stands on the railing as she once did and drops the heart of the ocean to the darkness that nearly claimed it once. Then she sleeps, and we the audience are left with two urgent questions:

One: does Brock Lovett fall in love with her granddaughter?

And two: does she die when her eyes close, her heart and mind at peace having told her story at long last?

She pictures herself there, back in the grand ballroom, surrounded by the well-dressed souls of the lost people of the Titanic. All dressed in their black-and-whites save Jack, roguishly at the top of the stairs in corduroy and suspenders, his hand waiting for hers to arrive all these years. So they might be together once more on this boat. The great and grand dream, to live in this place forever, amidst the extravagant wealth of the Titanic. It feels more limbo than heaven, trapped here forever with the lives of many all stuck on board the boat that claimed them.

I never saw Titanic when it came out, but I watched the Academy Awards every year, and in 1998 saw Elliott Smith walk out onto a stage in a white suit, walk to a microphone, and sing “Miss Misery” to a quiet and dark room with only the hint of haunting strings unseen behind him. Just this man, alone on a stage with his song written for Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting.

I remember thinking this was the most sad and beautiful thing I had ever seen. Amidst all the pomp and circumstance of Titanic’s Oscar run, a movie about the hubris and folly of man's commitment to wealth and status above all things now ruling over an award where you are given a golden statue for your efforts.

I think about Smith telling people about Celine Dion, there to sing and win with “My Heart Will Go On”, how everyone wanted to lambast her for the extravagance of the song from Titanic. Smith was quick to tell people how nervous, anxious and scared he was to walk out onto that deck. Stand still and alone and sing his beautiful, tender and heart wrenching song about a fractured relationship. Just a white spot in a dark room, lit by a spotlight and held in careful hearts by a quiet room. How Celine Dion was the one to come over to him and wish him well. Smith said that she was one of the nicest people he had ever met in his life.

And she didn’t need to be. She chose to be, she is a woman of wealth and means blessed with a real and beating heart who knew that she could provide some comfort to ease the heart of another and simply chose to.

And maybe this is what I think about now with Titanic being over. I watched it, I will never watch it again, but I enjoyed it. I have watched all three hours of it. There is terrible, unimaginable tragedy in so many hidden corners of our lives. Sometimes our worst fears might come alive, might come to claim us. We can only choose to live these lives best we can, look out for those who might otherwise be forgotten, find the beauty in the stories of people and the unknowable things we have lost.