Today i’m going to be looking at the 1997 blockbuster hit titanic. I will be exploring how looks are used to convey ideas without words. So hold your heart of the ocean and hear me out.
Titanic Film Analysis And my View on This
I will also warn you that this will include spoilers. So if you have somehow not managed to see this film proceed with caution. Titanic is estimated to have eaten through a budget of over 200 million dollars which was the highest budget given to a film up to that point. It went on to make one billion dollars before DVD sales even began, making it the highest-grossing film ever. It took the number one spot at the u.s box office for a record 15 consecutive weeks.
This has been credited to the mixing of genres. In creating a romantic tragic comedy where the mixture of disaster, special effects, and romance acts as a potent universalize. What this means is that it elicited emotional interest and attachment by rooting its story in universally recognizable experiences. Those of falling in love and of experiencing tragedy.
One of the methods it utilizes to achieve this is through the use of looks. The exploration of looks in relation to film began with Laura mulvey’s seminal book visual and other pleasures, in which she terms it gays. She identified three main types of gays or looks. Those of the characters within the film the camera capturing those characters and the audience watching the film.
Let’s look at the first time we see our lovely couple. We are first introduced to rose as she steps out from a car at the port where titanic sits. We first see her hand, then her foot, then her umbrella, and then her hat. The camera then moves down as she lifts her head up and we can finally see her face.
For jack’s introduction a little later on the camera moves through the window of a bar, and then moves down to reveal a table of four men playing cards. Then retreats further behind the back of one of the men. It then pans round to reveal that jack is the owner of the back that we have been behind. Laura Mulvey describes how pleasure derived from looking is traditionally split between an active male looker and a passive female, especially in old Hollywood films. The male gaze determines how the female should be styled to suit the heterosexual male fantasy.
For the strongest visual and erotic impact women need to connote to be looked at this which forms the basis of pinup girls and burlesque. These visual norms or expectations apply to the year 1912, in which this film is set. The way the camera captures rose and jack in their introductions shows these ideas.
Rose is revealed bit by bit before being bathed in a glorious sunlight that reveals her face and those scandalous red lips. In comparison jack is revealed all at once with no sense of teasing and has a comparatively under-lit face that reflects the monotone palette of the bar. Essentially rose is something to be gazed at and jack is not. The characterization presented in these introductions of jack and rose is only the start of a film filled with constant references to their differences. Differences between them in terms of social class and around them in terms of the society i.e. the expectations of how a man should act versus how a woman should act.
Their young age also differentiates them from the older generation that judges them based on a presumed naivety about the world. Let’s apply these ideas to when the couple first see each other. Rose is having dinner on the first class deck and becomes frustrated by the conversation. So she excuses herself to go outside on the deck. Jack is on the lower class deck and spots rose as she appears on the balcony above him and is transfixed.
Rose does not see jack at first then spots him but quickly averts her eyes. She then goes back for a second look briefly before returning her gaze back to looking in front of her. At this point her fiance Kal comes out onto the deck and they both leave. The most obvious difference between jack and rose in this scene is the direction of their looks based on their positions.
Jack is sat on the lower class deck looking up at rose who is standing on the upper class balcony. Jack is looking up at the wealthy and rose is looking down at the poor. Though their love proves stronger than their social class, this first encounter represents, how their relationship will always be considered from the outside.
Let’s look later in the film, when jack is invited to a first class dinner. Jack is waiting for rose at the bottom of a flight of stairs. Rose enters at the top and looks at him from above. This time she spots him first. When jack spots rose they hold each other’s gaze for the entire time that she takes to walk down the steps. She is physically becoming level to jack symbolizing, how she must remove herself from her social class in order to be with him.
She is also now fully owning her gaze and not shying away from maintaining that eye contact as she did before. There is also another look in this scene that is worth noting. As rose is coming down the stairs for a brief moment she stares directly into camera, which acts as if it is jack. She is breaking the fourth wall and this is used multiple times in this film to establish an emotional connection between the audience and the characters.
This happens after dinner when jack invites rose to go see a real party in the third class deck. He is speaking directly to camera which this time acts, as if it is rose climbing up the stairs. James Cameron wants us to be taken in by this story. It is the audience that are being invited to escape with jack.
Later when the couple are dancing Cameron switches between both characters. We are spinning with rose then we are spinning with jack the audience is having fun just as the characters are having fun. This breaking of the fourth wall means that we are more likely to be able to put ourselves in the characters shoes at least psychologically, which makes the final act of the film all the more heart breaking.
Titanic is a doubly temporal narrative within a narrative as old rose recalls the events of the tragedy. However as the narrative finishes we are shown something that did not happen. A version of the events without the tragedy, a fantasy!
The camera floats past the wreck of the ship which transforms to its former glory. Inside the ship the camera once again moves as if it is rose approaching the stairs from before where jack is standing at the top. As rose ascends the stairs jack stares directly into the camera. Therefore at the audience before the camera finally moves round to reveal jack and rose together. Having become so attached to this couple, especially through previous point of view shots placing the audience in rose’s shoes and more importantly her eyes. It means that our hand is metaphorically held through this imagined sequence. We can gain closure through jack and rose’s happy ending.
Furthermore it shows an ideal version of their welt where classes of no value and their union is celebrated by everyone aboard the ship. What i have tried to do in this analysis, is introduce the many layered uses of looks within titanic, focusing on the relationship between jack and rose. But there are many other noteworthy examples of looks not associated with the couple.
You could analyze the presentation of old rose’s narrative and how although we are supposedly being shown everything through her eyes and her experiences. We are often privileged to see things that she would not have seen especially moments between other characters such as in the sinking of the ship. You could even analyze the ship’s architecture as Michelle Foucault has done with prisons and the Panopticon structure. The ship has varying heights but the watchtower just as in the Panopticon is meant to provide a view of everything. It only gives the illusion of surveillance and safety.
The lookouts the illusion that they can see all, as they ultimately do not see the iceberg until it’s too late. Titanic may be one of the biggest earning and most famous Hollywood blockbusters. But it is certainly full of many titillating details that are worthy of even more analysis. After all as john Ellis suggests the position of ultimate vision in any fiction film is not that of any of the characters but that of the spectator.