Wednesday, April 4, 2012

My Titanic Experience

The 3D conversion of Titanic opens today. I’m going to mostly unashamedly say right now that I will go to see this. I am Ready To Go Back. Like everyone old enough to have seen the initial theatrical release, I have warm, fuzzy, uncynical memories of this movie.

It opened in December of 1997. I was 13 and a half years old. I was excited to see the movie but only because my girlfriend was excited to see it and this was to be our first official chaperone-less date. Our parents were going to drop us off at the theater and come back 3-and-a-half hours later to pick us up. The thought of being alone with Jennifer for that length of time in a dark, cloistered space made me ridiculously giddy. It was going to be like 210 Minutes In Heaven, I thought. I was more excited for it than I was for Christmas, which even at the time struck me as kind of nuts. But that was truthfully how I felt.

I remember getting dropped off and seeing her outside waiting for me. We shared a shy, happy smile (with a hint of mischievousness) and immediately clasped hands and walked inside. The theater was a really nice one, not at the palatial level of the IMAX 3D ones now, but still one of the higher-end ones at the time. As we walked through the doors I felt very mature, entering this place alone, removed from the parental sphere of influence. It was up to me to navigate myself and my date through what presented as a very adult world, with its concession stands at which my $20 had to be judiciously spent and its very regimented process of purchasing a ticket, showing it to the usher, and finding a seat. The atmosphere was unlike the overly bright, colorful haunts of my childhood like the indoor play areas and fast food joints. The lighting here was subdued, tasteful, fostering a mysterious and romantic ambience. The employees wore vests and button up shirts, one of the many classy touches which included polished, brassy fixtures on the walls and a quietly burbling fountain in the middle of the lobby. There was no escaping the feeling that we were out in the evening partaking in very grown-up activities. There was even a small café where we could sit and order things beyond our years like a cappuccino—without whipped cream.

It’s a little silly thinking about it now. As adults (or even older teenagers), we realize that the inside of a movie theater resembles nothing from the real world. It’s as much of a fantasyland as Chuck E. Cheese’s. The things that were once seen as classy and sophisticated are now recognized as somewhat hokey and kitschy. But at the time, adulthood was an inscrutable and fantastical concept to me, so it was easy to believe that the movie theater experience was an accurate representation of what it would be when I was older.

So with our arms laden with oversized buckets of popcorn, tubs of soda, and boxes of candy, we found our seats—near the back, of course. We couldn’t help giggling before the movie began, both of us feeling like we were getting away with something in the middle of this crowded theater. When the lights dimmed for the previews we gave each other sly glances and the first of what I hoped would be an incessant stream of kisses. As the Paramount logo popped up, I was hardly paying attention. The movie seemed almost superfluous, just a convenient excuse to be alone with my girlfriend.

Throughout the first 20 minutes, I was probably watching Jennifer more than the movie. She seemed more into it than I was but still looked over at me many times and squeezed my hand and returned my little love pecks. Then the story turned to the past and the music swelled and I remember being a little stunned at the sight of the ship. It was such a wonderful and meticulous recreation of that time period. I was still naïve enough about movies to be awed by the sights on the screen…I think everyone was. These days, it’s hard to imagine—even with giant IMAX screens—being truly blown away by digitally created imagery. But you could tell everyone was pretty impressed with it all, and I started to get sucked into the story more. My girlfriend was starting to intently watch the movie as well, although I don’t think it’s happenstance that her increased interest coincided with Leo’s first appearance on the screen.

As Rose and Jack’s story progressed, I found myself really enjoying the movie. It was so different from the movies I usually watched. It was grand and epic and everything was of the highest quality. It was obvious that all the art departments were firing on all cylinders, from the costumes to the acting to the set designers. I also started to take notice of the actress playing Rose.

As the romantic part of the story bloomed, I didn’t start groaning or making sarcastic comments like any self-respecting teenager would’ve in order to make a show of how non-emotional and cool he is. The movie was really actually getting to me a little, despite all my defenses. By the time Rose and Jack ended up at the bow of the ship during a gorgeous sunset, dreaming of taking flight, I had a slight lump in my throat. I leaned over and kissed my girlfriend on the cheek, tenderly this time, minus the clumsy fervor of the previous ones. She smiled and remained transfixed by the images, her eyes wet and glistening. (She was obviously feeling the emotional content of the scene, but I’m also not sure she had blinked in a while.)

After the only slightly awkward nude scene (you could tell all the people my age in the theater were also totally buying the movie at that point because there were no audible snickers or whisperings during that scene), the movie kicked into the post-iceberg second act. And for well over an hour, nothing else existed in my world except for the movie. My hand remained clasped in Jennifer’s, but now her squeezes were done out of tense anxiety rather than affection. Titanic had done such a good job of connecting us to the characters that we were invested now, even though we all knew what would happen. In fact, since we liked the characters so much, it made the inevitable that much more dreadful and nerve-wracking.

When the sinking played out and Rose and Jack’s ultimate fates were revealed, I will cop to letting a tear or two fall down my face. Jennifer was pretty much sobbing. The one single napkin we had grabbed was soaked through with her tears. As the credits rolled and what would become the ubiquitous signature song by Celine Dion played, we just sat there, not saying anything. I waited for Jennifer to compose herself a little and we finally walked out, all but dragging our feet, feeling wracked and emotionally spent. I remember standing there in the lobby waiting for our rides and idiotically trying to lighten the somber mood by saying “Yeah, I guess that was all right.” She didn’t even say anything, just gave me a small, sad smile. It was only on the way home, sitting in my mom’s car, that I realized we had squandered a whole hour and a half of make out time during the second half of the movie.

It was quite a movie to see at that time and place. It made an indelible impression on me, and not the way I thought it would’ve, it being my first “real” date and all. I ended up seeing it again in the theaters and I know Jennifer was one of those girls who saw it like 20 times (most of them without me, for we ended up breaking up a few weeks later.) It really was the first movie I can point to that gave me the first inkling that a movie could be an affecting work of art. I also came away from it with a lifelong admiration of (and crush on) Kate Winslet, who remains my favorite actress. (I don’t know if Jennifer’s affection for Leo remains as strong as it was, though it should be since Leo has done plenty of work good enough to justify prolonged adoration.)

Yes, it’s cheesy to say that the fond memories I have of Titanic will stay with me forever. But that doesn’t mean it’s untrue. I can see myself in 50 years as a doddering 77-year-old, sitting down in a movie theater to watch the 65th anniversary Autostereoscopic 6D Super-Triple-IMAX re-release of Titanic and reliving that magical December evening in 1997.


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