Lisa Epstein saw the movie “Titanic” for the first time on Christmas Day. She’s seen it four times since, and when she says it has changed her life, her voice trembles, rises slightly and then sinks.
Epstein and her friend Carrie Tislow discuss James Cameron’s saga about the world’s most famous seagoing disaster constantly. They divide people into two groups: members of “the club” of fans and everyone else. Tislow is saving her five ticket stubs as souvenirs. She, like Epstein, owns a movie poster, soundtrack and book and even a tiny piece of coal (price $10) retrieved from the real ship’s wreckage.
In the theater, these two are easy to spot: They’re the ones carrying the extra coats, which they put on the seats around them as a buffer.
“We don’t want anybody’s ‘this is just a movie’ attitude to be surrounding us while we’re having a moment,” Epstein said.
Tislow agreed: “After the movie, you just sit and you cry. We don’t want anybody to intrude.”
You could chalk all this up to teenage infatuation with actor Leonardo DiCaprio or to the romantic excesses of adolescence--except that Epstein and Tislow are grown-ups. The 29-year-old training consultant and 30-year-old account representative at Airtouch Paging in Atlanta know their obsession with the movie is extreme. They say they can’t help themselves.
Most movies are lucky to strike a few emotional chords with an audience. “Titanic” seems to be playing a symphony. Eight weeks after its release, it remains No. 1 on the box office charts, and is widely expected to receive several Oscar nominations today. Despite mixed reviews, some which deemed the movie sappy or overwrought, it has grossed $337 million, edging out “Forrest Gump” as the fourth-highest-grossing domestic film ever and prompting predictions that it may be the first film ever to gross $1 billion worldwide.
With its doomed lovers and its eye-popping special effects, the 3-hour, 14-minute epic is a chick flick with muscle. Exit polling done by Paramount Pictures (which co-financed the $200-million-plus film with 20th Century Fox) shows that 40% of viewers are male. And it’s not only youngsters who are hooked: Of all those polled who have seen the film two times or more, 37% are 25 or older.
But even broad demographic appeal cannot completely explain the current frenzy. In recent weeks, the nation’s pundits have evoked the sunken luxury liner to symbolize everything from the failure of technology to the future of President Clinton’s popularity.
Meanwhile, in cyberspace, Titanic-related chat abounds. And although the film’s subject matter doesn’t exactly lend itself to scores of promotional tie-in items, the soundtrack is the biggest-selling score since SoundScan began keeping figures in 1991. A book about how the movie was made, “James Cameron’s ‘Titanic,’ ” has topped the New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction paperbacks for four weeks, and booksellers report a surge of interest in anything related to the ill-fated ship.
Observers of popular culture, industry analysts and die-hard fans say the film has tapped into something, well, deep.
Throughout history, only a handful of movies have emerged as cultural touchstones. “Gone With the Wind” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” were so in sync with the hopes and fears of their eras that audiences took them to heart, using them as prisms through which to view their own lives.
Could “Titanic” be next?
Repeat Audiences Find a Catharsis
Thomas Terashima, a 31-year-old film school technician from Vancouver, Canada, thinks so. He has seen the movie four times and plans to go at least twice more because, he says, he learns something new every time.
“The movie asks the big question: How do you face a situation of certain death?” he said, recalling a favorite scene: The quartet of tuxedo-clad musicians bravely playing the hymn “Nearer My God to Thee” as the great ship goes down. “Sure, there are special effects. Sure, Cameron spent umpteen millions of dollars. But what people actually go for is connection or catharsis. For something human.”
That connection is rooted in part in an enduring fascination with the real Ship of Dreams, the New York-bound vessel that sank in 1912 after hitting an iceberg in the frigid North Atlantic. The British ship was not carrying enough lifeboats for its 2,200 passengers and crew, and 1,517 people died--a tragedy whose scope gives the movie a built-in emotional charge.
“Don’t single out the girls. Guys cry too,” said Kyle Yauck, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Wisconsin who got teary-eyed each of the five times he saw the film. “You know they’re all going to die. That’s what makes it so ‘oh my God!’ ”
Add to that the fictional love story, between the wealthy Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) and Jack Dawson, a pauper-artist played by DiCaprio. Sentimentalists have not had this much to choke up about since “The Bridges of Madison County,” Robert James Waller’s slender 1992 novel (which became a 1995 film) about a four-day affair between an Iowa housewife and a nomadic photographer.
Jack, like Waller’s Robert Kincaid, is the archetypal free spirit, traveling the world to pursue his art. Rose, like Francesca of “Bridges,” is tied down (she’s engaged to a domineering but rich cad named Cal). Nevertheless, our heroes can’t keep their hands off each other: Jack and Rose end up in the back seat of a car (true to the period--Cameron is a stickler for detail--it’s a Model T.)
Alluring Themes of Romance, Freedom
Although “Titanic” is schmaltzy and even dopey at times, fans insist that it combines the grandeur and sweep of “Dr. Zhivago” with the Cinderella-like themes of “Pretty Woman.” And it does something else, too, says David Smith, president/entertainment at Frank N. Magid Associates, an international media market research firm: It offers a new model of a love affair in which the man not only woos the woman, he also sets her free.
“Rose’s fiance personifies the constraint of women in society. He says, ‘Keep in your place,’ ” Smith said, adding that women he’s talked to (namely his 16-year-old daughter, Harper) are bowled over by Jack because “he empowers Rose to live out her fantasies and break out of her bonds. That’s what makes my 16-year-old and all her friends keep going back.”
DiCaprio’s ability to lure teenage girls was proved in 1996, when he played the lead in Baz Luhrmann’s wild-in-the-streets version of “Romeo and Juliet.” That is clearly part of the drawing power of “Titanic"--so much so that some in the industry have given it a name: the “Leo factor.”
Fourteen-year-old Jaime Stuppy, an eighth-grader at St. Brendan’s Catholic School in Los Angeles’ Wilshire district, was so moved by DiCaprio’s performance that she has seen the movie four times and even built a miniature model of the ship. Meanwhile, 13-year-old Erica Diem, a seventh-grader at El Rancho Middle School in Anaheim Hills, says she and her friends have even incorporated DiCaprio into their study habits.
“We were doing vocab words the other day and one word meant that a woman could have more than one husband,” said Diem, who has seen the movie twice and plans to go twice more. “My friend said that would be really great. You could have one that could cook, one that could clean and one that was really hot: Leonardo DiCaprio.”
But the pull of “Titanic” goes beyond DiCaprio’s pretty face. Here is proof: Even people who think the actor looks like a scrawny punk next to the womanly Winslet say they are moved by the movie’s mushy parts. Jim Sadur, a 42-year-old software engineer and history buff from Wayne, N.J., saw the movie twice and cried both times.
“If you didn’t,” he said, “you may not have a pulse.”
Tislow, the account representative from Atlanta, admits that DiCaprio, for all his boyish charms, fails to enthrall her. Nevertheless, she credits the film with nothing less than changing her definition of what it means to be in love.
“I want what they had,” Tislow said of Jack and Rose. “And I’ll tell you, I’m not going to stop until I find it, now that I know it’s out there.”
In the end, the runaway success of “Titanic” may come down to this: Whether by design or coincidence, it is simply the right movie at the right time. As the art critic Deborah Solomon recently observed in a profile of painter Chuck Close, people today, weary of risk and uncertainty, crave familiarity in their lives and in their art.
“We want novels that have beginnings and ends, plays that tell stories and don’t leave us stranded with characters who are passively waiting for someone or something that may not exist,” she wrote. “In art, too, we yearn for plot. . . . This is the ‘90s and we’re all very busy, so please, spare us the big cosmic riddles.”
Leo Braudy, an English professor at USC, says “Titanic"--grounded in history, chockablock with footage of the actual ship and richly told in narrative style--does just that for its audience. And its story is particularly compelling now, he says, at the end of the millennium when people are seeking “an antidote to the paranoia about where the world is going that is keyed up by the coming of the year 2000.”
The main engine of that paranoia, expressed in earlier, bleaker films such as “Brazil” and “Blade Runner,” is the fear that in the future individuals will be powerless to improve their lives, Braudy said. But “Titanic” is different.
Movie Altering People’s Lives
“This movie says that individual will counts,” he said. “You may die but you’re going to die honorably or dishonorably--and that’s up to you. That’s reassuring: That it’s within your power to say something about your own character no matter how catastrophic an event it is.”
Sign on to the Internet, and that theme is evident. On the Countdown 2 Titanic message board, fans with pseudonyms like “Titanicholic” compare favorite lines of dialogue and argue over the particulars of certain scenes. A spirited debate was waged over whose hand--Jack’s or Rose’s?--smudged the steamy window during the love scene in the Model T.
But under the heading “Personal Impact,” scores of people with apparent earnestness describe how the movie has improved their lives. “After seeing this movie,” one fan wrote, “I’m a completely different person. I respect life more.”
Not everyone is so serious on-line. One woman, determined to break the movie’s hold on her, created the Post-Titanic Stress Disorder Web site--one of dozens of sites inspired by the film. And during nightly chats, fans get playful, discussing whether “Titanic” will become a cult movie like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” whose devotees go to theaters dressed as their favorite characters and act out the movie as it plays.
“Imagine all the scenes that could be played out in front of a live audience: Rose jumping off the ship, the ‘I’m flying’ scene, the sketch scenes, Rose wielding an ax, Rose spitting in Cal’s face,” one man wrote.
Leigh Grinstead, the director of the Molly Brown House Museum in Denver, Colo., says all this is cause for celebration. Her museum, located in the 14-room mansion of the Titanic’s most famous unsinkable survivor, has its own Web site, and ever since the movie opened, it has been overrun with visitors. What was once a few hundred hits a day has mushroomed to as many as 100,000, and the museum has had more foot traffic than ever.
“All of a sudden,” she said, “those people who didn’t care about history, who just think it’s about old or dead people and dusty libraries, have discovered that history was filled with people just like them--that it’s really the tale of all of us.”
Maybe that’s why the movie’s themes are proving so resonant these days, especially when it comes to the subject of the 42nd president of the United States.
A San Francisco critic, questioning Clinton’s unswerving faith in the power of technology, called “Titanic” a “fable of fallibility for the high-tech age.” A Minneapolis radio station used the film’s signature song, Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” to poke fun at Clinton’s alleged affair with a White House intern, remixing the track with Clinton’s voice saying, “I did not do that,” again and again. Still another commentator used the boat’s compartmentalized structure to describe the way Clinton has tried to separate his personal and professional lives.
Steven J. Ross, a USC historian whose book, “Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America,” is due out this month, published an essay in The Times accusing the movie of reinforcing conservative ideas about the inevitability of class hierarchies and injustice.
“Cross-class fantasies have always had a powerful grip on the American imagination. This film has the veneer of liberalism--[Rose] is willing to give up her class for [Jack]. But in the end it is still the poor that die and nothing changes,” Ross said. Still, he had to admit: His 11-year-old daughter loved the film.
“She’s so thrilled,” he said. “Her mom just got her a poster.”