Stacked Decks

Is it callous to call the Titanic’s sinking everybody’s favorite disaster? No doubt, but you know what I mean. Considering how oodles of the tragic minutiae no buff can do without bump up against the climax’s unknowns, April 15, 1912, is like an ideal cross between the assassination of JFK and the Alamo.

The unprovoked attack on a blameless iceberg by the pride of the White Star Line is far from the worst maritime disaster on record. It’s dwarfed in loss of life by the 1945 torpedoing of the Nazi leisure tub turned refugee ship Wilhelm Gustloff. Only three years after the Titanic’s demise, the Lusitania’s sinking in 1915 had more historical consequence, rallying neutral America against the Huns and dangling the temptation of playing world policeman.

For resonance and romance, though, there’s no contest. On a bitterly cold night 100 years ago, modern civilization didn’t just say goodbye to more than 1,500 boosters. It gained an industry. Now that the centenary is here, Titanic--mania is getting its biggest revival since James Cameron’s 1997 movie. The main event is said flick’s rerelease in 3-D, giving us our best chance yet to pick a winner in its most momentous collision: Leonardo DiCaprio’s plucky chin versus Kate Winslet’s Olympian jawline. But that’s only the tip of the … ah, never mind.

A glut of anniversary-themed books is headed our way, from Bianca Turetsky’s The Time-Traveling Fashionista on Board the Titanic to Stephen Spignesi’s fact-packed The Titanic for Dummies. The list of home-video Easter treats is topped by the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray edition of 1958’s remarkably sturdy A Night to Remember, based on the Walter Lord book that did the most to repopularize the whole tale.

Meanwhile, two new TV epics will compete to drown us in tears: the 12-part Titanic: Blood and Steel, starring Derek Jacobi in a dramatization of the doomed ship’s story from its construction on, and Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes’s terse-by-comparison (only four hours) Titanic. Since Downton Abbey itself began with the news of the Titanic’s demise, and social hierarchies are Fellowes’s bread and butter, there’s a certain inevitability about his eagerness to clamber aboard. But his Titanic is as frothily watchable as you’d expect.

Cameron’s movie has made the ship’s environment and real-life celebrity passengers so familiar that Fellowes’s version can’t help seeming, and sometimes being, imitative. Fellowes knows his strengths, though. He’s much more juicily expert than Cameron about class distinctions—not only between categories of privilege but also between layers of underlings. His thumbnail sketches of 1912 politics—Irish Home Rule, anarchist plots, and women’s suffrage all get cameos—root the story in a historical moment more unsettled than we’re usually nudged to recall.

Despite the miniseries’s elegant structure (we keep looping back for the inside scoop on scenes we’ve seen only in fragments) and entertaining dialogue, at heart this Titanic is another swank Fellowes soap opera: doomed shipboard romances, snubs, revelations, Toby Jones as a mousy husband who reconciles with his shrewish wife before the big glug-glug. It lacks Cameron’s extravagant, vulgar pop poetry. Yet we’re hooked for the most primitive reason: We want to find out who lives.



That the story can hardly be bettered as an illustration of how inequality works is one reason for its enduring fascination. Still, who’d have supposed yet another retelling would be so timely? The pernicious but amusing flip side is that the tale lets us revisit a time when our plutocrats were elegant, poised, and even had codes of conduct that weren’t wholly chimerical in the crunch.

So it’s just as well that, as historian David Donald once wrote about Abraham Lincoln, “consistency is not an essential in folklore.” Jostling each other and yet reconciled in the popular imagination, both the proletarian interpretation of the Titanic’s notoriously imbalanced casualty list, which does give “stacked deck” a whole new meaning, and the aristocratic version (“I say, our chaps behaved awfully well when the chips were down”) have been part of the legend pretty much since the sinking.

The economic disparities haven’t lost their power to shock. While 97 percent of the women in first class survived, fewer than half of those in steerage did. Yet to bluebloods and male chauvinists at the time, the statistic that mattered most was that two-thirds of the men in first class had apparently met death with fortitude. So had an even larger percentage of their less moneyed counterparts down below. As prescriptive behavior for gentlemen and proles alike, all this was an excellent tutorial for World War I.

 As Stephen Biel recounts in his 1997 Down with the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster, the ship’s sinking was the most adaptable of tragedies. Whether as a byword for overconfidence, an indictment of capitalism’s heartlessness, or an example of how to drown in style, it really had something for everybody. That included its use as an argument against women’s suffrage on the grounds that “women and children first” wouldn’t be long for this world once those bitches got the vote.

As for the drowning-in-style bit, Biel is especially good at explaining how the image of silk-scarved but gallant toffs accepting their noblesse oblige doom as the womenfolk got rowed away was used to teach the unnervingly no-longer-supine Great Unwashed why their social betters had the gig in the first place. Yet in all fairness to yesteryear’s richies, the myth wasn’t spun from whole silk. White Star Line owner Bruce Ismay really did spend the rest of his life as a social pariah after ignominiously boarding a lifeboat to listen to his clientele’s dying screams. Moneyed New York was proud of John Jacob Astor, the richest man on the passenger list, for stoically welcoming the Atlantic’s embrace.

In fact—as Fellowes shows—Astor had asked permission to join his pregnant, much younger wife on a lifeboat but didn’t argue when he got turned down. Say what you will, it’s hard to imagine Donald Trump playing the same role—or being turned down, sadder still. Even Warren Buffett is a maybe at best.

Because James Cameron is a leftist the way Zelda Fitzgerald was a ballerina—all that effort, and no one cares—his movie tried to spell “chivalry” without using the letters “r-i-c-h.” The lead upper-crust nabob, Caledon Hockley (Billy Zane), is a psychotic coward. Honor and sacrifice are left to DiCaprio’s footloose Jack Dawson, whose mission in death is to make Rose DeWitt Bukater (Winslet) safe for democracy.

The shallowness of the writer--director’s politics—or maybe just how they’re outranked by opportunism—is most blatant in his use of the Titanic’s stewards and such as authority figures worth humbling. Most often, it’s for comic relief, which is fairly grotesque in this context. Does Cameron have anger-management issues with parking valets? If so, he’d hardly be the first Hollywood radlib who’s failed to spot the contradiction.

I’m an unreconstructed fan of Titanic just the same. What’s most original about it is Cameron’s affirmation of modernity. It’s traditional to view the sinking as a microcosm of a doomed society—those blinkered Edwardians, suddenly knowing they’re going to die (the Alamo parallel) in the traumatic curtain-raiser to even worse cataclysms to come (the JFK-assassination one). Yet only Cameron’s version salutes what replaced it by sending forth the now-liberated Rose to live through and incarnate the rest of the 20th century before dying satisfied at age 100. The ship went down to let her arise, you see.

Like many a filmmaker, Cameron does keep telling the same damned story. The Terminator, Titanic, and Avatar all pit technological hubris against a naif who triumphs over it after the conversion experience of great sex with someone outside her or his comfort zone—a time traveler in Terminator, a bohemian interloper in Titanic, and a member of a literal alien species in Avatar. Whether his setting’s the present, past, or future, this is a man with a theory of history. An upbeat one, too, even though Marx would blush.

Predictably, though, Cameron does no better than anyone else at telling us what we most want to know. What went through people’s minds at the last? How did it feel to die aboard the Titanic? We’d all like to make plans. The appeal of disaster cultism may be how it turns the ultimate metaphysical puzzle into a detective story by adding special circumstances to the mix. The question can’t be resolved, but it’s here in our brains. And our brains do go on and on. 

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