Thoughts On: Titanic - Narrative Purpose


Titanic - Narrative Purpose

Thoughts On: Titanic

A romantic twist of action and drama set on a boat we all know will sink.

Titanic is a film I've seen many times over the years, usually on TV or when someone else decided to put it on. I've always enjoyed it, appreciated its scope, but wouldn't really consider it a great film. This is because, at its core, this is a rather empty film. To discuss this we won't be delving too deep into this film itself, instead what it best represents: a film based on a true story. The 'true story' of this film is only in the fact that the H.M.S Titanic sunk in 1912. The whole Rose and Jack thing, of course, never happened. What you can then be left questioning is if the 'true story' elements of the movie are really necessary. Because when we watch this film, we aren't waiting for the Bill Paxton sequences, we don't even consider them apart of the narrative. Everything technical and historical about this film is pushed to the background - and, in all honesty, rightly so. Considering this as a writer, I question the process of screenwriting that I'm familiar with. You start with a premise, an idea you can already feel flourishing by itself. From here you start planning, eventually drafting. But, that crucial moment of epiphany, of creative resurgence where you think-feel you have a film on your finger-tips is one founded not on what you have, but what could be. To clarify, you can have an idea as open as an evil Japanese warlord tries to take over the world--wait, no, the warlord has a star ship, this will be sci-fi, he will try to take over the galaxy... fuck me, that's a good idea. Wait! He has a plasma--light--sword--thing. He wears a mask, rules an army of laser shooting... this is a terrible idea. No one will take this serious. Wait! They won't have to! Let's make it an opera. A space opera! And that's how you can imagine something like Star Wars brewing in a person's mind. You start with something that lights a fire within you. This settles a subconscious, very vague, vision of what your film will be. To build towards a solid idea, to start planning, you play with a concept of 'what could be'. You allow the film to evolve, to grow around your original intent. This is as true for space operas as it is, dramas, rom-coms and thrillers. But, is it the same for true stories? This, to me, is a very interesting question as it says an awful lot about this genre. To apply the speculative Star Wars revelation to Titanic, we can understand the original spark to be: there should be a film about the Titanic sinking! It will be tragic, epic, historically poignant - an important picture that says something that needed to be said. Shit. No one would want to see that. How the fuck am I going to get the budget for something as expansive, yet banal, as this? I know! Romance! Everyone loves a good romance. If we write it well, it just might work, we just might be able to justify telling this incredibly important piece of history...

It's in that, that I hope the fault of these movies becomes clear. The creative process of evolution that allows an idea to flourish into a movie here is not natural like it may be with a fantastical film such as Star Wars. The evolution is manufactured, is mechanical, monetary and pseudo-cinematic. This is a stupid thing to do quite simply because an audience isn't dumb. We know, we can sense, why a story is being told to us. The narrative purpose of many 'based on true events' films is often little more than a bad book adaptation's or a pointless remake's. They're films made to reap the reward of a popular piece of intellectual property. This is damaging to a film as the intent for writing, though originally well-meaning, is corrupted. When films naturally flourish from a good idea, there's a very prominent atmosphere of love and confidence around the final product. Someone had a creative idea, they saw an artistic goal and they worked towards it. This is immeasurably important for two reasons. The first is the audience. By having a point and purpose to your narrative - one that may be vastly abstract - an audience can see a reason and a movement in your narrative. They see the scenes as part of a collage of ideas or points that build to one revelation - philosophical or emotional. What we then have is powerful, poignant and lasting cinema, entertaining, artistic or a mix of the two. The second reason for having solid intent in a movie is for the creators themselves. By having a point to your film, your book, your painting, you know what you are working towards. If you wanted to write a film to comment on an idea such as failure, you'd initially delve into your pretentious core to extrapolate your aphoristic tidbits that the film has to say. You may emerge wanting to say something as cliched as: failure is an inevitability, but never a reason to quit. Cliches at this stage aren't the end of the world (most probably something you should avoid though). This is because you have to find a cinematic way of portraying this idea which allows for originality to be layered into the movie. You are then combining your artistic intent with a good idea you've had - something about star ships, aliens and plasma-light-swords. This is, in my opinion, how the best movies are made. They have both something interesting to say, and something enthralling to show. Such is cinema in its essence in my view. When you come to Titanic, you see, as you would do in almost any half-worthwhile film, this premise. What fundamentally separates Star Wars from Titanic though, is how artistic intent and created narrative interact. Themes of family and hope drive the hero's tale of Star Wars. There's no thematic interaction between the idea of a ship sinking and the plot of the given romance in Titanic apart from a couple of images...

... things sink and are lost, what else? There's a tangential implimence that as the Titanic is rediscovered in the beginning, Rose rediscovers her love for Jack, the memories, such and so on. But, what does this juxtaposition actually say? It would have made a lot more sense to have greater focus on the creators of the Titanic, to have the descendants of those who lovingly constructed the ship to have found it again, be a prominent parallel plot-line. This may take you further away from the 'true story' aspects of the film, but would only beg the question: why does this have to be about the Titanic? How I see it, the narrative really doesn't need it. Couldn't this have been about a small row boat that a couple spent years constructing together? A row boat they finally finish, but then take too far out to sea, the boyfriend drowning as a consequence of a storm they run into. This narrative would then focus on an idea of love both in a material and social sense, but could be layered with ideas of caution, of respect of the climate around you - both in literal terms and, metaphorically, social ones too. This, based of the romance given to us, would be a much stronger narrative taken from the core idea of things being lost, and to top it off, the couple call their little row boat Titanic. Tragic, poignant, and if made well, possibly a great film.

But, this is not what we get. This is actually an absurd idea in face of the original intent: to make an epic movie about the Titanic sinking. There's no scale to this idea, no technological reason for someone like James Cameron to involve himself. I'm not hereby saying that my idea is better than Titanic, I'm simply trying to demonstrate that the idea provided by the themes of this film does not pragmatically end up as this film. The narrative message does not match the plot. All this emphasises is the pseudo-cinematics of some ' based on a true story' films. Great cinema is a culmination of a great idea and a great plot as constructed by artistic intent. Titanic holds a good narrative, a sweeping romance, strong characters, solid plot, emotional weight. However, the plot does not speak to original idea in a concise and meaningful manner. This isn't just something that'd piss off a film geek who looks way too deep into movies. This essentially poisons your film. As we've touched on, an audience isn't dumb. They can easily work out why this movie has been made. They clearly see that the Titanic elements of this film are there only for the purpose of a few powerful images or cool shots. It's for this reason that you may insinuate that this film is 'just a blockbuster' not to describe it as something with a big budget that's given a wide released, but a movie made just to bring in a lot of money. The same may be said for Star Wars remakes, Marvel Movies - almost all of the blockbusters in the cinema today. There's something tainted and slimy Titanic though. Star Wars earned its blockbuster stature, it can claim that is giving people something they want to see, that it's carrying on the lineage of an original idea, a naturally flourished narrative that was cared for and nurtured. The same can kind of be said for comic book movies and book adaptations. This stands to reason why we do get good film adaptations. That's not to say there's no such thing as a 'based on a true story' film...


However, Titanic has no reason to be about the Titanic, and, as these films demonstrate, what makes good 'based on a true story' films work are the cinematics, are the elements that stray from the 'true story'. Moreover and nonetheless, these films emphasise the essence of their original idea - the true story. The narratives here are constructed from themes taken from the people, the lives, the events that the films are based on. This can, in no way, be said about Titanic. This, to anyone who cares about cinema and a film's meaning, is then rather painful. We are essentially being sold a lie. We are being brought to the cinema with promise of a true story, but given something utterly tangential. And that isn't even the true lie. The lie is in the pointlessness of the tangent. It holds no thematic links to the title of the movie, let alone its historical context and draw.

This then leaves Titanic as a great example of good story telling put under the wrong title, as a film that has no artistically justifiable reason for being told. I reiterate: I really like this film, it isn't bad - just conceptually flawed. So, if such notions of purpose and artistry matter to you, then I think it becomes clear that matching your intent for story telling to the right type of story to tell is pivotal. Not only does this construct a more powerful film to experience, one an audience can grip, understand, see as a cohesive and succinct piece of art, but it helps you to construct something natural and true. For truth sprouts from an illusion of reality. However, films do not have to have basis in reality to be truthful, they simply need to be consistent, cohesive and articulate in the world they create as well as the events that occur within them.

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