Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Reexaming Titanic 16 Years Later

If there's one thing the 1997 James Cameron film and the 1912 steam liner both have in common is that they were unprecedented cultural juggernauts. Simply by setting sail out of Southhampton, England on April 10th, 1912, the Titanic set a world record for the largest moving object. Of course, it would go onto set more records later in the week for death and disaster, but it was a symbol of crowning achievement for the guilded age nonetheless

Similarly, no movie had captured the public attention in my lifetime like the film did. It's budget and attention to detail was unimaginable and clearly enhanced the film in an era when the American blockbuster was still evolving as an art form. It's 15-week run as America's number one film (very few films today last more than 2 weeks at the number one spot and I highly doubt any film has gone more than four weeks at #1 since 2000)  and subsequent shattering of a 20-year-old record for domestic gross was ample evidence that this is the film everyone saw if they were alive in 1998 and not living in a cave.

I first saw the film in the theater a few months after its release in my early teens with my late grandfather (on a bittersweet note, this was the last film he saw) and was overtaken with sadness. To witness the senseless tragedy of those lives lost was a severely depressing experience that haunted me for a couple days. I wasn't a film enthusiast back then so rather than admire James Cameron for so effectively depressing the hell out of me, I just wished I hadn't seen the film in the first place.

About nine years later in college, I saw the film again with a more detached emotional perspective and found the film to be a brilliant film and used it as the topic for a term paper in one of my film courses. I no longer saw Titanic as a portrait senseless tragedy but a well-thought out expose on class tension. The tragedy wasn't that a lot of people died but that existing views on class (the fact that lifeboats for third class passengers weren't provided because they'd aesthetically clutter up the deck strolling experiences of the first class is the kind of thing you can go wild with in such an essay) prevented lives from being saved.

Fast-forward to the present where I've become much more educated on the Titanic. The 100th Anniversary of the sinking had an article in National Geographic that spurned my interest along with a recent Reddit question and answer session by a preservationist for the Titanic exhibit. The more I've diven into the research about the Titanic, the more I've realized that the mysteries of the Titanic are unknowable. We now have greater forensic technology to piece together what happened in the North Atlantic at 41'N, 48'W in the early morning hours of August 15th and research and new books have kept going on the disaster but those new books have the effect of disproving what the earlier books said and those new books are in doubt too.

For instance, the Californian and its captain Robert Lord took a lot of heat because they were apparently closer to the Titanic than the Carpathia (the ship that eventually picked up the survivors, making contact with the first lifeboat, approximately an hour and forty minutes after the Titanic sank and everyone not in a lifeboat died of hypothermia from being in 29 degree water) and did not respond to the disaster in time. However, new research by the British Department of Transport and another maritime historian David Gittins have supposedly cleared Lord's name by calculating that the Californian was likely too far away to be able to make a rescue in time. This pushed forward the theory that the ship that the people on board Titanic and the Californian saw over the horizon was a third unidentified ship (The Samson) that was sailing illegally in those waters. The problem with that theory is that another Titanic researcher, Leslie Reade, followed this revelation by consulting Icelandic port records (the Samson's destination) and did the math to discover that the Samson couldn't have been there in time. With that myth debunked, most Titanic researchers are pointing their fingers again at the Californian as the likely mystery ship on the horizon but how does that explain the fireworks seen on the bow of the ship?

These are still issues hotly debated today and whether the water was even 29 degrees or whether anyone lasted more than an hour in the water (see Charles Joughin) were up for debate.

Several of the survivors such as Colonel Archibald Gracie and Molly Brown made names for themselves as amateur historians after the incident and perhaps that's where James Cameron fits in: Cameron pieced together the most exacting details of history he could find while sifting through inexact historical speculation to create a powerful story and perhaps that's as good as one can hope for.

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