A short time ago, Entertainment Weekly magazine ran a feature on the Academy Awards. They were not choosing winners and losers, or speculating on the recent ceremony. Rather, the authors revisited previous winners and decided, as history so rightly allows us, if those winners actually deserved their Oscar award.
Some readers judged this endeavor harshly. Self-righteous, nasty, letters-to-the-editor ensued. Readers were aghast and bitter. I was not. If the Oscar is the most coveted award in the film industry, we should debate if certain films, performances, or technical feats actually do stand the test of time.
In that spirit, I would like to reflect on James Cameron’s film Titanic. It sucks. The film won eleven Oscars at the 1997 Academy Awards ceremony: best picture, director, costume design, cinematography, visual effects, sound, sound effects, original song, original score, editing, and art direction and set decoration. Even so, it still sucks.
The lackluster script, inane dialogue, and trite storyline prevented Titanic’s screenplay from even garnering a nomination. Although, the obvious lack of chemistry between the doomed lovers Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio did not hinder Winslet from receiving a Best Actress nomination, which she rightfully lost to Helen Hunt’s performance in the brilliantly-written As Good As It Gets. For all of its superb work to obtain realism, to remain true to the intricate details of the ship and those people who were involved in the tragedy – costuming, set, special effects – the most intrinsic part of Titanic, the storyline, was a total farce which undermined the entire project. Many argue that its commercial success speaks to the film’s quality, however, most of the profit the film gained came from the parents of teenage girls, very similar to this year’s Twilight.
Titanic reminds me very much of the effects-laden The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Both films are like cotton candy at the carnival: beautiful to look at, wonderful to taste, but full of sweet wistfulness that wears off quickly and leaves you empty. Like Titanic, Benjamin Button did not fail in spectacle. Gazing upon Brad Pitt scene after scene, no matter how aged, is an incredibly lovely way to spend three hours. Also, witnessing the progression of history, the body, and the mind, so stunningly rendered throughout Benjamin Button, even encapsulated in a fairly weak script, provided more sustenance than the melancholy Titanic. However, both films strayed far too deep into nostalgia at their ends, when each film’s lead characters, all dead, are lovingly resurrected onscreen, hovering over the audience, sparing us from leaving the theatre emoting over their deaths. It is always a bad sign when the film’s beloved haunt the credits.
Even though Benjamin Button was overlooked this year, the Academy still loves nostalgia. They proved it again in several categories, especially in bestowing Best Picture honors unto Slumdog Millionaire. Feel-good movies always fare much better than those that move the audience through a sublime range of emotions: Milk,Frost/Nixon, The Reader. Discussion surrounding Slumdog Millionaire before this year’s ceremony emphasized its underdog identity and its low budget. After it won, it was immediately transformed into a distinctly Indian film which rejuvenated India’s slum population and shed light upon their extreme condition. The ensuing newscasts constantly replayed images of Indian citizens crowded around tiny televisions, watching Oscar footage and the film’s youngest stars returning to their slum, lauded by fans. Not once did any of these newscasts mention that this distinctly Indian film was adapted and directed by Brits and backed by EU and American funding, an interesting consideration for a film set in India, a hotbed of post-colonialism.
In the end, Titanic simply stands as a technical masterpiece, a sentimental haze of lighting, sound, and effects. I would have honored any of the other films nominated that year in its stead. L.A. Confidential still reeks smartly of the corrupt tension it so powerfully set to the screen and As Good As It Gets, a film whose dialogue will forever stand the test of time. Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting bordered on maudlin, but was keenly tempered by Matt Damon’s angry lead. This year, in Milk, Gus Van Sant again demonstrated his acute ability to direct a heavily emotional film away from becoming sappy or self-pitying. Last, British director Peter Cattaneo’s The Full Monty, is perhaps the most deserving of the bunch. This stark comedy about unemployed mill workers who striptease to make ends meet, contains some of the most riveting and intensely emotional scenes in film history. Consider, especially in light of our current economic climate, Tom Wilkinson’s character, Gerald, distracted by dancing garden gnomes during a crucial job interview, a job he must land to preserve his marriage, his manhood, his identity, essentially, his life. Unless you are a tiny mythical being in stone statue form, devoid of emotion, you will find yourself laughing too hard during this scene to realize you are actually sobbing.
Entertainment Weekly chose not to re-examine the Titanic phenomenon. However, twelve years later, Titanicstands as a technical masterpiece, which is key to its staying power. Like Benjamin Button and even the Bollywood pageantry of Slumdog Millionaire, Titanic is very simply, nice to watch, but offers nothing to contemplate, except for, perhaps, what James Cameron has been doing since his big win.* I am surprised that nobody at VH1 picked up on his ridiculous “King of the World” acceptance antics and cast him and his 1998 counterpart-in-silliness, Roberto Benigni, on the celebrity has-been reality program, The Surreal Life. After all, this is a show which cultivates spectacle.
*It would be absurd of me not to point out that since his big win, James Cameron was busy working on Avatar, the highest-grossing film of all time. Alas, it also sucks. March 2010, PLO.