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On December 19, 1997 I was thirteen years old, living in a town that still had a downtown movie theater, with two screens and a mediocre sound system. Movies were a part of the thrum of everyday life for me, entertaining but unremarkable. I would just as happily see Batman and Robin on an outing with my friends as take the time to bother with Braveheart.
On December 19, 1997 that all changed, and all I have to do is cue up the music to tell you why: the pan flute, the searing strings, and yes, Celine Dion. That year just before Christmas, ten years ago today, Titanic was unleashed upon the world, and it hasn’t been the same since.
Looking back at Titanic mania it’s hard to remember what the hell got into us. Grown women, who may or may not have been like my mom, crushed on Leonardo DiCaprio alongside their daughters. Grown men, who may or may not have been like my dad, and who didn’t care about any movies not starring James Bond, saw it at least twice. Watching the big ship go down became a cultural landmark, like American flag lapel pins after 9/11: America created Titanic, and we loved it in proportion to its size.
I saw Titanic nine times in theaters. Somewhere in my parents’ house there is a scrapbook with all of my ticket stubs and the list of who I saw it with; my mom and sister figure heavily into that list, since they each saw it as many times as I did. It became a regular part of our lives, like going to church or watching a favorite TV show. The longer it was #1 at the box office (15 weeks in a row), the more Oscar nominations it got (14, a tie for the most ever), the more money it made (almost $2 billion when all was said and done) the more fun it was. Titanic was a phenomenon, and we were part of it, right there from the very beginning.
Usually in Hollywood, when something is a success it is replicated into lesser copies. Lord of the Rings begat The Golden Compass, Saw begat Hostel, ad nauseam. But Titanic was different. The expected waves of epic romance/action movie hybrids never came; with the exception of Pearl Harbor, no one really even gave it a shot. By July of 1998 we were pretty much back to normal. Kate and Leo continued the serious movie careers they’d been working on before the whole thing began, James Cameron disappeared entirely, and a few years later it was the The Matrix that turned our heads and made us say “Now this is the future of movies.” That time we were right.
I’m not sure why Titanic didn’t set a precedent, why the current attempts at global blockbusters are Spider-Man and Transformers when we told them long ago we wanted something else. But I’m happy with the way this has turned out. Titanic continues to stand alone, a record breaker and an icon, a memory of a specific time and a place that can’t, and won’t, be repeated.
Like many great movies Titanic has grown into something bigger than itself over time. Back in 1997 it was one of the first things my mom, sister and I shared, the three women of our family rushing to the theater again and again. Ten years later the three of us assemble every Christmas Day and pop in the DVD. We rarely make it past the iceberg crash, but the ritual is what matters. Titanic is part of what makes us a family, engraved in our identities like curly hair and Southern accents.
Ten years ago Titanic inspired me to watch the Oscars for the first time, seeing the other movies in competition and paying attention to the race. I got a subscription to Entertainment Weekly for its regular Titanic coverage, but in the process learned how to read box office reports and chart the careful language of movie critics. It was the first time I understood movies as a business, as a whole world, something that I could be a part of. It’s fair to say I wouldn’t be doing this job today if Titanic hadn’t sparked that love in me.
I have loved many movies since Titanic, and certainly respected many more, but like a first romance, it won’t ever go away entirely. Torture me with “My Heart Will Go On” (which I never liked, by the way), ponder why the hell the old lady dropped the diamond into the ocean, remind me that DiCaprio was way better in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?. I don’t care. Titanic, for better or for worse, made me who I am, and in those totally silly but immortal words, I’ll never let go.
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