Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Rose DeWitt Bukater, Titanic, and Freedom

Note: this is a repost of a previously-removed piece.


Let’s be honest: we’ve all made fun of Titanic at one point or another.  You know - the sweeping love story, the weeping audience, the overwrought Celine Dion song that just wouldn’t go away in 1997.  There was Titanic mania, Titanic backlash, and now the film’s legacy exists almost exclusively as a pop culture echo, woven intrinsically into the collective psyche as the subliminal urge to stand on the bows of ships and shout, “I’m king of the world!”  There is a strange and permanent aura surrounding the film that can’t be denied, let alone erased.

To that end, it’s easy to lose the original merits of the actual film amidst the cultural discussion and film history reverb.  Titanic came to define what it means to create a “blockbuster” - a vast, sprawling epic that requires a mammoth shooting schedule, unprecedented CGI, and at least two and a half hours of end result.  The investment is huge, and so is the payoff - monetarily speaking, of course.  But films so large in scope as Titanic often miss the emotional investment, the emotional payoff.  The narrative can easily get lost in the grandeur, the special effects, the “blockbuster moments.”  And every good film, no matter how big or how small, requires an intimate and specific story anchoring the spectacle.  

You’re probably two steps ahead of me by now.  You’re probably thinking, “Ah yes, she’s referencing the intimate love story set against the huge historical backdrop!”  Alas, you would be incorrect.  While the ballad of Jack and Rose is effective, powerful, and transcendent, their love story is not quite the center of the film.  Their love story is not precisely what makes Titanic emotionally resonant and honest.  It’s a part of it, certainly, but it’s not the source.  Because at its core, Titanic is not a love story.  No - at its very essence, Titanic is a story about freedom.  And that freedom is embodied in the character design and journey of Rose DeWitt Bukater - the film’s sole main character.

It’s not difficult to defend Rose as Titanic’s individual lead.  She is the voice of the story, the only character that spans from 1912 to 1997, and the only character who changes.  She is afforded a hero’s entrance, a developed design, and a flawlessly constructed arc.  Every story decision made about Titanic - its historical context, the DeWitt Bukater family, Jack Dawson as love interest, the Jack-Rose love story, the conflicts and obstacles - it all comes back to Rose as a main character.

Rose DeWitt Bukater exists at a very unique place in history.  Coming of age in 1912, the world around her was changing.  Technology, communication, business, social norms - they were all on the brink of modernity, poised for a huge shift from Victorian order to contemporary chaos.  Rose, without realizing it, was very much a part of that.  Born to a good family name whose liquid assets dried up, it is of the utmost importance that Rose marry into new money in order to keep her status.  This is why she is on board the Titanic - after meeting her fiancĂ© Cal in England, the family is now traveling back to America where an engagement party awaits them.  But Rose, already embodying the 20th century’s disdain for tradition and inhibition, feels suffocated by her lack of choice in the matter.  She is not content to be a pawn in someone else’s game, denied the freedom of opinion and choice in favor of serving a fading ideal.  To her, the Titanic is a prison.

But Rose can’t articulate her place as it relates to social history.  She doesn't understand that she feels the stirrings of modernism, while she reads Freud and revolts against propriety and etiquette.  She instead languishes in a constant state of despair, unable to comprehend her own feelings.  She buys modern art because it speaks to something inside of her, but she can’t explain what she likes about it - it’s “truth but no logic.”  She rebels against her mother, who tightly binds her into the confines of a corset without second thought.  She feels like she’s “standing in the middle of a crowded room screaming at the top of [her] lungs, and no one even looks up.”  This unacknowledged frustration with Victorian repression leads to a bold - and necessary - character choice for Rose.  Unable to take the suffocation anymore, she rushes to the stern of Titanic and prepares to throw herself into the ocean.

Of course, this is where Rose’s story becomes entangled with Jack’s.  The easiest takeaway from their initial encounter is to say that Jack saved Rose’s life.  Yes, that is true.  But there is much more to understand about their relationship than a mere knight-saves-damsel construct, even when it’s expanded to umbrella their journey together, as in Rose’s description of “he saved me, in every way that a person can be saved.”  Truthfully, “Jack saves Rose” as a unilateral statement cheapens Rose’s character arc a bit.  It’s actually much more interesting to explore the dynamic from a slightly different angle, especially as it pertains to Rose herself.  Even more, Titanic as a film hints encouragement at this analysis.

I say this because Jack Dawson is actually kind of a boring character.  He's weirdly good at everything, he's kind, he's lucky, he's handsome, he's poor but happy.  There's not a lot of dimension there.  He’s of the utmost importance, sure - but only insofar as he extends to Rose.  He is designed to be a representative foil, although calling the relationship “poor boy falls in love with rich girl” is an extreme oversight.  It’s more textured than that, even if the paradigm helps fuel the lovers’ obstacles.  More than anything, Jack represents modernity.  He exists to pull Rose into her true identity, to model a life she herself never knew she wanted.  He travels with only the clothes on his back, and lets his art take him to Paris.  He feels more than thinks; he has no responsibility but to his own happiness.  Where Rose is threatening to end it all at ship’s stern, Jack is embracing the freedom of flying at ship’s bow.  With his boho philosophy of “make it count” and no lack of coincidentally-important survival skills, Jack serves mostly as a spirit guide to Rose’s emotional fulfillment and physical safety.  He is a bizarre spectral over the whole film, beckoning Rose forward and forward until she’s ready to take the steps for herself.

I was gobsmacked when I realized this, because it means that the second-most grossing movie of all time - the movie that redefined the modern blockbuster - has a main female lead whose male love interest is simply an accessory to her own arc.  Because while Rose may say that Jack saved her, the fact of the matter is that she saved herself - with Jack’s help.  This can be seen perfectly in Jack’s encouragement to Rose after she’s slipped off the railing.  She dangles there in a panic as he desperately holds on, and the expectation is that he’ll be able to pull her up and over.  In any other flattened love story, it’d be as simple as that.  But Titanic does something in a tiny microcosm that echoes into the larger story of Jack and Rose: Jack tells her he won’t let go, but she’s got to pull herself up.  He can’t do it for her.  This same sentiment is echoed during their conversation in the gymnasium - Rose tells Jack that it’s not up to him to save her.  He replies: “Only you can do that.” 

Sweet merciful feminism, how much more loving could this film be of its main character’s empowerment?  Titanic puts forth the concept that while Jack may be there to save Rose, it’s on her to take initiative.  This is therefore all the more rewarding when she actually does.  She takes Jack’s hand and pulls herself up; she meets Jack at the clock; she finds Jack at the bow of the ship and says, “I changed my mind.”  The entirety of Titanic is Rose DeWitt Bukater actively fighting for her life - her own life. In a genius twist on tragedy, the sinking of the ship provides the perfect opportunity for her to externalize that.  At film’s beginning, Rose is ready to fling herself from the back of the Titanic.  At film’s end, she clings to it with every hope and intention of survival.  Even when a boat comes back to rescue her from the water, she must let go of her love, swim to a whistle, and proclaim her intent to live.  She has to fight for it.  And for a character who was one step from throwing her life away at the beginning of the film?  These are huge moments.

Ultimately, Titanic is a film about freedom.  This concept tethers Jack to Rose, and Rose to the story itself.  Every step of Rose’s journey moves her closer to freedom from the shackles of what society demands of her, closer to the kind of life Rose might choose for herself if given the opportunity.  In the film’s final act, she poses naked, has sex, and fights with her life to save the person she loves.  Even when she can save herself, she chooses solidarity with her love over waiting idly for fate to run its course.  She spits in a man’s eye, punches a guy in the face, and wields an axe.  The hair and costume choices are purposeful: she wears a simple dress with no corset, her hair down and unadorned.  Rose even takes ownership of her name, choosing to call herself Dawson instead of DeWitt Bukater.

By the end of the film, Rose’s transformation is complete.  When we first see her embarking in the beginning, she looks up to see the Titanic - her prison.  When Rose arrives in America, she looks up to see the Statue of Liberty - freedom.  And we know, through the photos that tell us what she did with her life, that she embraced that freedom Jack helped her choose, and lived a life she wanted.  It is this journey, and how it’s connected to her identity and her love story, that provides the emotional depth to Titanic.   So while this film may forevermore reign as one of the biggest movies of all time, presented with cinematic gloss and occasional Hollywood implausibility, it’s tethered emotionally to a well-constructed main character, whose design and arc interact beautifully with her historical context to create the love story that’s transcended the film itself.
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