' ' Cinema Romantico: Dissecting My Favorite Sequence from Titanic

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Dissecting My Favorite Sequence from Titanic

We meet 17 year old Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) on April 10, 1912 as she steps down from her Renault, though her face remains concealed beneath that purple wide-brimmed hat, and as she does, director James Cameron’s camera swoops down from above, closing in on her as she looks up, toward the colossal British passenger liner she is about to aboard, her face finally revealed. And her face looks less impressed than indignant, from teenage brattiness, I suppose, but also because to board this ship is to be taken back to America to be married off to possessive, snooty steel tycoon Cal (Billy Zane) not out of anything remotely resembling love, of course, but social obligation. To board is to relinquish control of her own life, which an on-the-nose voiceover makes clear moments later, but which Winslet’s expression conveys all on its own. She doesn’t know the damn thing is about to sink, but she still knows she is about to go under.  

It deliberately mirrors a shot near the end of the film, almost three hours later, when Rose, having been rescued from the icy north Atlantic after the Titanic has sunk, is aboard the Carpathia as it enters New York Harbor. This time, Cameron does not conceal her face. It is right there, naked, no longer beholden to the status quo. The camera gazes down on her as she gazes up at the Statue of Liberty, and it is quite clear simply from the image itself how much she has changed. Gone are the fancy clothes, makeup and haughtily dissatisfied countenance and in its place is something like a laid-bare expression, standing in the rain in the midst of a baptism. Gone is Rose DeWitt Bukater, bride; here is Rose Dawson, rocket queen.

Of course, the question becomes: how did she get from there to here? She meets Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), yes, a young American artist, and the boat sinks, of course, as it is fated to, and she escapes, though Jack does not. But there is so much more, bound up in both the boy and the boat, and while Jack helps her learn how to live, she has to make the decisions for herself, she has to press forward, keep moving, not let herself be caught with what she does not want. This is never brought home better than in the movie’s most pivotal scene, which is evinced with James Cameron’s fluid camera, underscoring the necessity of her forward movement. Aside from selected scenes of “Last of the Mohicans”, it might be my favorite cinematic sequence of the thousands upon thousands I have seen, which I saw for the first time twenty years ago tomorrow because “Titanic” was released twenty years ago today, and which I will now break down virtually shot by shot. There are a whopping 122 screen shots in this post and we cannot stress how much we do not apologize. I made this as much for me as you. 


For all intents and purposes, the sequence in question begins here, as Rose waits for a lifeboat after her snooty, overprotective fiancé has seen to it that Jack is separated from his future bride by framing the young artist for theft and having him locked far below deck in the office of the Master-at-Arms. Being stupid, however, in addition to iniquitious, Cal has said something giving away the whole game.

And as Rose realizes this, a signal flare is shot off to her left, illuminating her face, a luminous visual underlining of the A Ha! moment. But of course, the light has not just gone for Jack; the light has gone on for her whole life.

Rose’s mother (Frances Fisher) then summons her daughter toward the lifeboat.

And as the camera cuts back to Rose looking back toward her mother, Winslet invests this moment with the weight of someone on the verge of re-altering her entire life, of saying goodbye to everything and everyone she has known, to see what she can do, to test the limits and break through. Rose DeWitt Bukater was letting it go years before Queen Elsa. These kids today, man, these kids don’t even know.

And as Cal expectedly commands her to climb aboard, as if she’s his pretty little marionette, she turns her self-actualizing gaze on him.

That self-actualization is met by Rose’s mother re-commanding her daughter to get into the boat, like she still thinks her daughter is merely throwing a temper tantrum rather than about to officially declare her independence.

Rose says goodbye. And I like how Winslet takes a beat to sort of size up Fisher as she says it, like she’s snapping a mental picture before moving on, and also says it with this sort of proper, if you will, cadence, like she is asking to be released from the dinner table.

Cameron frames Rose turning to go so that she is directly in the line of vision of mom.

And while Cal chases her down, and she spits in his face, a nifty callback to an earlier moment she shared with Jack, and Cal is too stunned to follow, it is this shot, the lifeboat lowering as Rose’s mother ineffectually grabs hold of the ship railing as she descends that brings home what’s up. Here Fisher lets her character’s prim facade disintegrate, turning that lowering of the lifeboat into something like her own burial.

Ever mindful of the full scope of the situation, Cameron then cuts to a shot of Jack down below, looking up through a porthole that is now underwater.

And then cuts to water beginning to fill the lower decks, conveying that Rose is now on a clock.

Cameron’s almost rhythmic quality throughout the ensuing sequence is on display instantly, with a static shot of the hallway as that passenger in the left of the frame moves to the right...

...and disappears from view as Rose emerges from the right.

Then she moves forward, practically lunging into the frame, the low camera angle giving her the scope of the heroine she very much is, frantically calling for Mr. Andrews (Victor Garber), the shipbuilder, the one who might know where to find Jack.

Here we see Mr. Andrews checking rooms to make sure everyone is evacuated, though Cameron conspicuously leaves that big chunk of frame open...

...so that Rose can hustle right into it...

...and then rush toward him...

...and right up to him, filling the frame with her determined panic.

Andrews, however, not certain this is the best course of action considering the ship’s precarious state, tries to talk her down.

But she expresses her intent to forge on with or without his help, and while the camera has to look down since it is over the shoulder of Andrews, it doubles as a conscious flip from a lower angle to a higher angle, diminishing just a bit that heroism of the moment before, also conveyed in how Winslet sort of lets her voice droop and looks down and away from her eyes. There is a push and pull all throughout this scene. She is not simply furnished the status of action hero; she carves that distinction out for herself in spite of her fear.

Andrews tells her where to find Jack, and as he does, Cameron circles them with the camera, illustrating the enveloping confusion of Andrews giving a quick, detailed explanation of where to go...

...a confusion that Winslet plays (though you cannot completely tell from this screenshot) with a series of blinks and grimaces like a math-illiterate trying to follow an algebra equation on the blackboard.

Cameron then ups the urgency of Rose’s already urgent quest by cutting back to Jack where he watches as the water begins flooding the room.

Back to Rose, pushing her way past passengers, but always politely saying “Excuse me” or “Pardon me” as she does. However...

...that politeness, so instilled in a 17 year old socialite, gets tested to the extreme when she asks the lift operator to take her down to the crew quarters and the lift operator declines her request.

Winslet has Rose first look into the lift, like it’s the promised land, so close, so far away, and also like she’s debating whether to ask again nicely...

...or tell this bloke what’s what...

...at which point Rose, who has been forced all her life to put on airs, finally, once and for all, lets those airs go scattering in the wind, bellowing “I’m through being polite goddamit!” (both italics are necessary because Winslet emphasizes both words)...

...and shoves him into the lift...

...and then points toward the lever as she commands him to take her where she wants to go, which is not the upper crust belittling the help but the bold taking the reigns from the meek.

Cameron follows the lift operator over to the lever in one motion sickness kind of jerk of the camera.

In the elevator on the way into the ship’s innards, Cameron lets the camera linger on Rose’s face, darkened by eerie shadows thrown by the lift, where her preceding ferocity has morphed into something more like fright, another of the infinite swings of the emotional pendelum throughout this sequence.

An overhead shot shows the descent...

...and catches the turn from fear to terror when water rushes in.

Not that Rose is about to tuck tail and run. She goes right for that gate, throwing it open.

And tromps into the water of a flooded deck.

The lift operator, just another cowardly dude, announces his intention to flee.

And as he sends the elevator back up, Rose turns to watch-

-as Cameron cuts closer to Rose’s face, watching the lift depart, realizing she is on her own, that flip again from all-in resiliency to oh-my-god-what-have-I-done.

And as she presses on, Cameron makes sure to catch sight of the lift in the background moving up and away, as if Rose is turning her back on safety.

She looks up-

-spies the crew passage entrance that Andrews cited (she says this aloud to herself, which is not unnecessary verbal reinforcement of the visual but someone out of her element talking herself through this)-

-and forges ahead.

Reminding us of the clock that Rose is very much on, Cameron then returns to Jack...

...who is now forced to climb onto a desk, signaling that the water is swiftly rising.

But here comes Rose! Picking up a floating drawer that is in her way and hurling that shit to the side!

She wades down the hall...

...and into another hall, looking right, looking left...

...at which point Cameron jump cuts to close-up of Rose...

...and then switches to her point-of-view, which he does a couple times in this sequence, and which I love because each time it stresses the foreboding vastness of the situation...

...and then employs a whip pan to provide an acute evocation of her disorientation as she spins around to look the other way.

Knowing she is disoriented, knowing she does not know exactly where Jack is, she just shouts his name.

And then keeps moving and shouting, hoping the sound of her voice will carry to him.

But as she does, the lights flicker and dim...

...and then come back up...

At which point, Jack finally hears her and shouts back.

As he does, Cameron smash cuts to Rose-

-and then does a jump cut to close-up of Rose as she pivots back around toward the sound of his voice, all these quick cuts eliciting his palpable sensation of how every single second of this sequence is lived under extraordinary pressure.

She calls his name again.

He bangs his handcuffs against the pipe to give her an audio beacon.

She rushes forward.

Into the room, finally, where Jack waits.

And that look on Leo’s face, man, is a flash of such innocence in the midst of such terror that it just scorches you.

So he shows her the situation with the handcuffs...

...and she goes looking for the key.

But as she does, Cameron cuts to an exterior shot of the ship, its bow going under. Shit was already real, but its getting realer still.

No key, says Rose.

So Jack tells her to go find some help.

And these two expressions...O.M.G. Again, if half this sequence she is sort of channeling Jeanette Goldstein in “Aliens”, the other half she is a very much a 17 year old girl who just ditched her mom in the mall on purpose and now isn’t so sure it was the best idea.

But fuck that. Right back to Jeanette Goldstein, as she shoves this chair aside blocking her path to Rose, which is sort of this callback to Cal shoving aside the table as he comes at her violently in an earlier scene.

And leans into this kiss, which is the best kiss in the movie, because it’s this kiss wrapped up in this passionate frenzy born of desperation, this Not A Last Kiss but, like, maybe A Last Kiss?

Rose wades back out the door.

As she disappears into the hall, Cameron cuts back to Jack, this nice wide angle where he is stranded, entirely dependent on Rose. He says: “I’ll just wait here!” It’s a line I remember getting some guff at the time, particularly from older, more harumph-y critics, which I find ironic, because when I was younger I thought the line was a little stupid but, like a lot of seemingly stupid lines, as I have aged and been made to reckon that much more with mortality, I now hear this line and wish that were I in a similar situation that I might manage to mirror Jack Dawson’s self-efficacy.

In the hall, lights have gone out but still Rose presses on.

And presses right into the kind of close-up that lets you know what she is looking at before the camera has a chance to show you...

...which it does in the next shot.

So she climbs up the stairs to her right instead...

...and into a dry hallway where Cameron again escalates the drama by returning to her point-of-view.

Looking down one hallway.

Turning rapidly to look down another one, and another one, and another one.

Cameron finally cuts back to her as she shouts for help.

And as she does, this random passenger appears over her shoulder in the background, as lost as she is.

She turns and moves toward him...

...and he moves toward her, though with a faraway look in his eye that suggests he barely registers her presence.

Sure enough, he blows right past her and disappears from view.

In the reverse shot, she watches, helplessly.

Which Cameron underlines by cutting to a wider shot to illustrate the emptiness of her surroundings.

That emptiness turns scary when he cuts to another shot behind her, like something ominous is creeping up, which, in a way, it is.

The lights flicker and dim again, as Cameron cuts to a close-up as a means to let us feel the panic that Winslet lets fill her face.

And that panic then seems to take the form of incredible, indelible moan that belches forth from the ship as darkness ensconces her, a moment I will never forget experiencing for that first time inside the glorious, old school wraparound theater, which seemed to creak itself, like we were living inside the movie, which is what it felt like to me.

The lights comes back up,

She hears something and manages to emit a “Hello?”

Sure enough, a crew member appears. But, look at his face. That’s a man who has gone around the bend...

...and even as Rose tries to explain the situation...

...he just grabs hold of her hand and drags her forward, not listening to a word she’s saying.

She pleads for him to listen.

He tells her not to panic with, as is usually the way of these things, a look in his eye that betrays all the panic in the world.

And Rose, tired, so tired, of being told how to feel by men and being told where to go by men, tries to impede their progress.

And tries to yank her hand free.

And tries to tell him to just stop yammering, dammit, and “LISTEN!”

He’s not going to obviously, so she rears back...

...and punches him right in the face.

And then she falls back with this expression that a girl might have in 1912 if she’s just straight up physically assualted the patriarchy.

The hell with you, he expectedly says before fleeing on his own. It’s a line good for a laugh, sure, but it’s not accidental that both people Rose encounters who spurn her cries for help, and who is literally has to shove into helping her, are men. This is part of her hero’s journey to independence, evoked in these next shots.

All on her own.

Eyes closed.

Which she then slowly opens to see...well, something.

It’s a fire axe behind In The Case Of Fire Break glass which she does break to grab the blade by its wooden handle.

Life comes at you fast, that’s what the kids meme on Twitter these days, and life never came at anyone faster than it did Rose DeWitt Bukater, which is sort of what this shot embodies, where one minute the dude you don’t want to marry is taking your cigarette and stubbing it out and the next minute you’re grabbing an axe and carrying it through a sinking ship.

And though she returns to Jack, of course, and breaks him free of those handcuffs with the axe even as she swings the axe with her eyes closed, a moment that always seemed less a stretch than an embodiment of Hysterical Strength, the sequence, for me, ends right here. Because this shot reflects both extremes, fear and Jeanette Goldstein in “Aliens”, because no one is one thing, not even in their life-defining moment, and Rose DeWitt Bukater (Dawson) is everything, my hero not just for those times when I first met her and not just for these times when I still need her but for all times, an ineradicable reminder to turn and face the strange.


Alex Withrow said...

Tremendous breakdown, my friend. Loved every frame and word of it. I had no idea you held Titanic in such high regard, but your passion for the sequence came through so clearly. Loved reading this, thanks for sharing.

Nick Prigge said...

Awwwwww, thanks Alex. Thanks for reading it and for the comment. I really appreciate that.