83. Titanic (1997) - James Cameron
I had to.
What’s it all about?
Titanic the film, much like the ship and it’s tragic voyage, explores the notion of hope versus despair. Cameron takes the world of Titanic’s grand maiden voyage, and it’s inevitable fate, and places the two lovers, Rose and Jack, within it to both embody and contrast the ambition and ill-fate of the ocean liner. The film is ripe with contrast of this sort - mainly in the form of Jack and Rose’s opposing, then merging outlooks.
Symbolism - Supporting the Thesis
I haven’t written about symbolism that much on this blog yet, but I can’t hold back with Titanic. The obvious symbolism at play here is the bow and stern of the ship representing the themes of hope and despair, respectively. Let’s look at how these parts of the ship play out, in order:
Bow (J) - Jack has his classic, “I’m the king of the world!” moment. He is the perfect embodiment hope, optimism, and as he says ‘making each day count’. It’s fairly obvious why the bow of the ship represents this emotional state - Jack is looking ahead, etc.
Stern (R) - Rose stands on the rear-railing of the stern, preparing to leap to her death. She has established that she, onboard the Titanic, is trapped in a life she doesn’t want, and wishes she could have remained ashore. It’s equally as obvious why the stern of the ship represents this emotional state - Rose is looking back. Also note that now that both characters have been fully exposed, they can now meet, and do.
Bow (J&R) - The relationship of Jack and Rose has been fully expired (between the bow/stern) and after some deliberation, Rose finally confesses to Jack that she is now committed to him and his way of life. This just so happens to take place at the bow of the ship - Jack’s territory. They share their iconic embrace with the world ahead of them.
Stern (J&R) - We return to the stern of the ship when Jack and Rose are quite literally forced there by the sinking of the bow (also great, and historically accurate, symbolism). The sinking of the ship is in direct opposition to their future together and they must face conflict (Cal, Mother, etc.) on their journey backward to the stern. They are very much reflective, or looking backward, as the ship sinks into the ocean - “This is where we first met!”
Character - Overcoming Flaw
A fully developed character arc has two sides - what is gained, and what is lost. What is gained is typically the overall arc, or character change, and comes to fruition at the end of the narrative. What is lost, or dealt with, is typically the main character flaw and happens at a mid-way ordeal, preparing the protagonist for the final conflict with a new found sense of self. Rose is a great example of this ‘standard’ character development. Specifically, the shedding of her flaw. (This is typical of the Hero’s Journey in the ‘Approach the inmost Cave’ and ‘Ordeal’ stages).
Rose is fed up with the world of being controlled by those around her (Cal and Mother). She yearns to be free of this life, but she is not yet an independent woman. She has been sheltered for so long that her flaw is in fact her reliance on those she wishes to escape from. This is a huge part of the development of her relationship with Jack - he teaches her to be free and independent. The moment for Rose to overcome her reliance on others comes in the form of helping Jack escape from his handcuffed predicament in the lower decks of the ship. She has to venture into and face this ordeal alone. Rose quite literally begs for help from passersby until she is forced to solve the crisis herself - chopping Jack free with the axe. When she succeeds, although it has never been overtly stated that Rose has suffered from or has finally overcome her dependency on others, we sense her triumphant step into independence. There’s no turning back now, and this sets up why she would rather die with Jack then live with Cal (when she jumps back onto Titanic).
Character - Groups/Classes as Extension
There’s no shortage of rich versus poor contrast and conflict in Titanic, and for obvious reason - they represent the world’s Rose must choose between. I say that these are an ‘extension’ of character because the immediate choice Rose must make, Cal or Jack, is directly reflected by those worlds. In service to the love story, whenever a wealthy passenger acts rudely, that is translated into how much we as an audience despise Cal. Conversely, when we explore the accepting and hopeful world of the poor, this plays in favor of Jack. After all, Rose’s decision between Cal or Jack is really just a masquerade for her making a greater choice of who she is, so the more the opposing philosophies are reflected in that decision, the better.
Show, Don’t Tell - Contrasting Characters
Something I want to quickly point out in Titanic is it’s great use of contrast of character, and more specifically, in visual, character-based moments. Take for example when Jack and Rose are running through the depths of the ship, being chased by floods of ocean water, and find a young child crying. Jack makes the noble, and obvious choice, of attempting to save this child’s life up until the point that the father appears and takes the child away. Now why put this in the movie? It becomes obvious when, in the next scene, Cal himself finds a crying child but instead uses the encounter to ensure his placement on a life boat.
Seven Plots - Voyage and Return
Rose’s journey on the Titanic is really just a tumbling down the rabbit hole, exploration of a new world, and emergence as a changed woman.
Anticipation and ‘Fall’ Stage - Rose leads a mundane existence, she begs for change, to the point that she will end her life. She involves herself in a moral bond with Jack, and begins to explore his philosophy on life.
Dream Stage - Rose is fascinated by Jack’s carefree existence. This is even further propelled by the fact that Jack obviously doesn’t fit into her world.
Frustration Stage - As Rose further explores this new world, her existing one starts to cast a shadow. She is repeatedly threatened to avoid Jack, and even her mother pleads that Cal is their only way out. Also, the boat will sink.
Nightmare Stage - Not only will the Titanic sink, but Cal is chasing her and Jack into the depths of the ship with a pistol.
Thrilling Escape and Return - Rose miraculously survives the sinking of Titanic by staying aboard in the name of her new found place in the world (and love). Like most Journey and Return stories, Rose cannot take anything with her, and so Jack must die. This is also why she must return the Heart of the Ocean back to the Atlantic. It is then revealed that Jack had a profound effect on Rose’s life, and she became the woman she always wanted to be.