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That happy sinking feeling

Titanic was the odd movie out, setting a precedent for risk-sharing; Fox had teamed up with Paramount to cover the escalating costs, writes Khalid Mohamed.

india Updated: Jan 10, 2008 21:22 IST
Khalid Mohamed
Khalid Mohamed
Hindustan Times

How time sinks. In an era where every day is a peg for, let's say, pop reflection or even rah-rah celebration, the tenth anniversary of the world’s most adored blockbuster cruised by. It was just another day in movie paradise.

On December 19, 1997, James Cameron’s Titanic turned ten. Normally, the day would have enticed at least a commemorative screening, a smartly orchestrated worldwide re-release (no doubt that would sell as many tickets as woollens in winter) retro-analyses and repackaged versions on DVD, not to forget CD remixes and cover versions of Celine Dion’s tossed shrimp salad ditty, My heart will go on.

Nothing happened except for the appearance of a rather assembly line repackaged ‘special’ edition DVD of which there are several already.

So why did the Titanic just sail by unnoticed? Tough to pinpoint. Because as a rule, Hollywood never tires of reminding the rest of the world about its movie heritage, ranging from Gone with the Wind and Ben-Hur to The Sound of Music and the Star Wars series. The force is always upon us.

Perhaps, already bulging with more special effects sagas than the computer consoles can handle, American cinema is still striving to out-scale the 1997 formula which aligned the magnitude of the sea disaster with emotional resonance. Boy-meets-girl to be separated by the fury of nature — now how can this be re-told with an element of novelty and indeed, entertainment? Like it or not, even tragedy can be felt and experienced in cinema, only when it is vicariously enjoyable.

Of late, the film of imagination has been extended to comic book exploits, most notably to the daring-do of Spider-man. The web-cloaked Spidey has become as much of a fantasy role model as Superman and Batman. In another suit altogether, there are the adolescent Harry Potter in tweed jackets and the 40-ish James Bond stirring up more Houdini acts than classic Martinis. By comparison, the star-cross’d lovers divided by class and cabin sizes, flaying their arms in the Titanic breeze, today seem like curio pieces.

Which is to say the movies have only become bigger (and dumber?) to grab an audience allegedly challenged by shorter attention spans and shrinking intelligence. Rarely will the camera in any film from any part of the world hold on to a moment without the flash of a jump-cut, a blinding white bleach, an eye-blinking fade-out and editing cuts which treat images like so much meat on the chopping block.

Cinema has come its longest way in the briefest of times in the last ten years. Prophetically, a theory had been advanced by film technicians as well as critics that Titanic would alter the mathematics of the movie industry. The films’ narrative styles would have to become snazzier. And the studio honchos would have to be taught to count past a billion dollars.

Cameron’s aqua-spectacular, which collected $ 1.8 billion retains its clout as the No. 1 top-grossing movie of all time. It became the must-shed-a-tear-event across the globe, cutting across the diverse tastes of the US and Europe through Asia. Not surprisingly, its bootlegged video also became the covert favourite of romance-deprived people who suffered under the Taliban. The snatched moments of tenderness between the Titanic twosome, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, suggested that no one was alone. Yearning, obviously, loves company.

To date, it is remembered that the route to this blockbuster was paved with obstacles. The gone-way-beyond control budget of Titanic was finally approximated at $ 200 million, which turned out to be small beer when it came to toting the ticket receipts. The film’s producers who were crying doomsday, eventually guffawed all the way to the bank. Consequently, the purse-strings have relaxed, explaining the escalated expenditure on Spider-Man 3 ($ 270 million) and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End ($ 300 million).

Conventionally, a major studio bankrolls its productions entirely. Titanic was the odd movie out, setting a precedent for risk-sharing; Fox had teamed up with Paramount to cover the escalating costs. An entirely new studio was to be constructed in Mexico for the waterlogged action sequences. The advance buzz on the movie was iffy. But upon its release, the carping Cassandras were silenced. The epic love story was on top of the box-office charts in the US for 15 consecutive weeks. Since then, it is no longer unusual for studios to form partnership deals for mega-projects. Without these, it is believed that other Oscar-grabbers like Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind would have never been made.

According to a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, "Analysts have credited repeat viewing from 13-year-old girls for the Titanic success, and sure enough, look no further. The success of High School Musical — a TV phenomenon that’s now on its way to the big screen — is evidence that tweens are still the sweet spot for Hollywood’s marketing departments.”

In hindsight, it is felt that the doomed ocean liner was the star of the show. DiCaprio and Winslet were fresh faces which clicked fortuitously. That continues to be the credo. Star power is not enough. Techno-wizardry allied to a strong emotional content is. It goes without saying that our Bollywood mughals need to learn that too.

In the wake of all the lessons and trends that Titanic left behind, it’s odd that its tenth anniversary just went by and no one sang My heart will go on.

Not even Celine Dion.