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You Try to Stop It

Times Film Critic

Memo to the incensed gentleman who called a Times editor after the Golden Globe Awards were announced to express the hope that “now that ‘Titanic’ is the best film of the year, you’ll take that guy who didn’t like it outside and shoot him.” For better or worse, I’m still here.

Yet even allowing for serious overestimation of the Golden Globes’ importance, there can be no doubt that events are moving the caller’s way. “Titanic” earned a raft of nominations from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and at this juncture has to be considered the favorite for the best picture Oscar.

But all this doesn’t translate into personal chagrin at having turned in a perhaps less than enthusiastic review of the film, even though a reader from Bigfork, Mont., took the time to write and say that if I had any doubts about “Titanic’s” greatness, “your proof is in the box office.”

Film critics, general opinion notwithstanding, are not intended to be applause meters. Just as restaurant critics don’t send couples seeking that special anniversary meal straight to McDonald’s on the “everybody goes there, it must be the best” theory, the overall mandate of critics must be to point out the existence and importance of other criteria for judgment besides popularity.

Yet as “Titanic” has turned itself into the top box-office attraction of all time, the first film to grasp the once unapproachable grail of the $1 billion worldwide gross (though ticket price inflation is a factor), there can be no doubt that its success is a genuine sensation, one whose far-reaching consequences are fascinating to examine for quite specific reasons.

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In a mass audience business by and large run by people with no instinctive sense of what a mass audience truly wants, all kinds of powerful people will be taking a variety of lessons from this unprecedented outpouring of money and support. What does the phenomenon of what one executive called “the best film ever made from the worst script ever written” mean for the future of Hollywood?

While the lackluster nature of “Titanic’s” script is key to any discussion, the intention here is not to beat a dead horse. Rather it’s to point out that the success of the James Cameron film with both the academy and the public is unmistakably a watershed event. It will likely solidify trends already apparent in Hollywood and lead, unless we’re lucky, to changes in the kinds of movies we’ll be seeing in the future, changes that all audiences will notice and not necessarily applaud.

Though no one, not even its staunchest partisans, predicted the kind of success for “Titanic” that it ended up achieving, the reasons for this bonanza are not difficult to discover, though some of the key factors involved are not the ones usually cited.

For one thing, certain films succeed in part because the makers have been canny enough to recognize an audience predisposition to embrace particular subject matter. That was what happened with the first “Batman” and, as filmmaker James Cameron has himself noted when he talked about receiving and passing on this story like a baton, that was the case here.

From the moment it went down until today, the Titanic has never gone through a period in which the public was not fascinated by it to one degree or another. “Down With the Old Canoe,” Steven Biel’s incisive cultural history of that phenomenon, notes that more than 100 popular songs were published in the year following the ship’s sinking. More recently, “A Night to Remember,” Walter Lord’s nonfiction book (basis of the 1958 film), has gone through an impressive 71 printings and captivated readers of that generation as fully as the film does today’s viewers.

And while Cameron’s version is attracting paying customers in unprecedented numbers, that success paradoxically says at least as much about how poor a job Hollywood in general is doing in reaching the mass audience that should be its bread and butter as it does about the filmmaking skill of its creators.

The flip side of “Titanic’s” ability to draw hordes of viewers into theaters is the question of where these viewers have been for the past several years. In its unintentional underlining of how narrow an audience net most movies cast, “Titanic” is not an example of Hollywood’s success, it’s an emblem of its failure.

For “Titanic’s” ability to attract a crowd also shows how desperate the mainstream audience--alienated by studio reliance on the kind of mindless violence that can be counted on to sell overseas--has become for anything even resembling old-fashioned entertainment. As Cameron himself said in a recent interview, “We thought there was a hunger for emotion, for character, for drama.” Deadened by exposure to nonstop trash and willing to confuse the on-screen chemistry of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet with writing ability, audiences have been sadly eager to embrace a film that, putting the best face on it, is a witless counterfeit of Hollywood’s Golden Age, a compendium of cliches that add up to a reasonable facsimile of a film. “It’s close enough” is how one Oscar-winning screenwriter accounted for the film’s success. “If you give today’s audiences just an idea of what the film is about, they’ll go for it.”

What, then, does that audience appetite portend for the future of studio films? One conclusion at least is inescapable: Despite the pious promises of self-deluded studio executives who insist that this film is not going to be the forerunner of a raft of $200-million ventures, that’s exactly what we’re in for.

Because human nature in the Hollywood habitat being what it is, ego-driven directors will feel it’s an insult to their greatness to be denied what another director received. Just as most top filmmakers now insist that holding a film to a plebian two-hour length is out of the question for creators of their vision, so they will insist that they too are worthy of Cameron-sized budgets.

And in a day and age when most studio executives act like guilty parents too timid and conflicted to discipline their wayward children, there’s no force strong enough to stand in the way of rampant ego on the march. If a fiasco like 1980’s “Heaven’s Gate” didn’t ultimately curtail studio spending despite promises to the contrary, does anyone seriously think a success like “Titanic” is going to keep the lid on?

The problem with that megabudget scenario is twofold. For one, though Cameron is not someone to be trusted anywhere near a word processor, he is a master of the physical side of filmmaking and one of the few people who can make effective use of $200 million. What will happen when Cameron wannabes with considerable studio clout start turning out grotesquely bloated, “Postman"-type disasters on a regular basis is not a pleasant scenario to contemplate.

The other difficulty is that what Cameron does naturally--write lowest common denominator screenplays that condescend to their audience--other writers have to be forced into. The more a movie costs, the bigger its audience tent has to be, the more it has to appeal to every person on the planet if it’s to have a hope of breaking even. So these movies ruthlessly bludgeon writers into dumbing down their scripts, removing any trace of intelligence that might put off even a single potential viewer.

Potentially more troublesome and destructive than any of this is what the embracing of “Titanic” by the public and the motion picture community says about the future of studio filmmaking as a whole. For make no mistake about it, what we’re witnessing is the wholesale jettisoning of the notion of anything resembling a literate script as a necessary part of the filmmaking process, a change in the very nature of film that is not going to be any less fatal for being largely unrecognized.

Never in the past has a film with a script as lacking as “Titanic’s” been so universally (well, almost universally) acclaimed as the acme of the medium. Think of any celebrated venture from the past, whether it’s “All About Eve” (which shares “Titanic’s” Oscar record of 14 nominations), “The Godfather,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “E.T.,” even the genuinely clever “Star Wars” or “Jaws” with its marvelous Robert Shaw shark attack monologue. Audience pictures all, and all of them had strong scripts at their core. They were written to be classics, not slavishly and ineptly copied from them.

But “Titanic’s” success means that from now on all bets are off. Today’s audiences, with their taste corrupted and denatured by ‘round the clock exposure to bad TV and worse features, now have difficulty discerning a slick and derivative fake from the real thing. And if audiences can’t tell the difference, you can be sure that studios are going to start thinking that time and effort put into memorable writing is a waste.

Because if there is a hidden cause to what’s surreptitiously happening all around us, it’s the enormous advances made recently in computer-generated visual effects. As “Jurassic Park,” “The Lost World” and “Independence Day” proved with a vengeance, audiences tend not to notice feeble writing if they get their money’s worth of astonishing sights.

In “Titanic,” that trend has reached its point of no return: Terminally distracted by some truly spectacular physical effects, both audiences and the academy have stampeded toward spectacle and decided that, especially with a pair of attractive actors thrown into the mix, language is a nonessential that can easily be dispensed with. If that is in fact the wave of the future, few of even “Titanic’s” fans are going to be happy about where it comes ashore.

Exasperated by my unyielding stance toward “Titanic,” a friend recently informed me that I “care too much about words.” To that charge I’m forced to plead guilty. My fear, however, is not standing alone; it’s that by the time more people wish they’d stood on the dock with me, it will be too late to make any difference.

Can ‘Titanic’ tug the Oscars telecast into a ratings safe harbor?F2


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