I honestly don’t know why over the past few years I’ve developed a bit of an obsession with the movie “Titanic.” It really makes no sense.
I’ve tried to figure out why I enjoy the movie so much and why I was so excited to see it in 3D (on opening night!) and then watch it again less than two weeks later on the night of the 100th anniversary of the ship’s sinking.
My excuse is to say it’s a great movie to make fun of. And it really is. I can watch it with a group of friends and crack jokes about listening to Billy Zane since he’s a cool dude (Zoolander reference), or even just throw out random quotes from Titanic at various wrong points in the movie. In many ways it’s a movie begging to be mocked.
But since I want to believe I’m not such a horrible person as to derive great pleasure at mocking a tragedy that cost the lives of 1,500 people, I’ve been trying to figure out the deeper reason I love it so much. And I think I found it a few months ago.
Shortly after I moved to Ashland I was living in a very nice empty house (subletting for my first month here) and I didn’t really know anyone. I would go home from work and watch TV every day, and for some odd reason two movies pretty much aired constantly during those first few weeks. Titanic and Sweet Home Alabama (the Reese Witherspoon classic!) were playing on a cable loop, or so it seemed. And I’m ashamed to admit (although not really) that I watched both numerous times.
One night it finally hit me. Old woman, mulleted Rose is almost through with her story when she is told that the researchers found no documentation on Jack Dawson ever being on Titanic. She expects this and mentions that she never even had a picture of him, that he lives only in her memories.
It is almost overwhelming to really think about that statement. Today’s culture and technology means there is documentation of pretty much everyone. When people pass away, at least in our first-world society, others know about it. Facebook is the most obvious example of this, but it seems almost impossible to imagine a world where there would be no proof that a person ever existed.
Obviously, Jack is a fictional character created with such a vagabond backstory intentionally so he could play this role. But when we think back 100 years we can see such a story would not be that extraordinary. Even for people who were documented as being aboard Titanic, how many came from such a lowly position that upon their death on April 15, 1912, there was little to no proof that they’d ever lived?
All throughout my college experience at Pacific Lutheran University, we were prompted by the (overused) Mary Oliver question, “What will you do with your one wild and precious life?” Our desire is to live a story, so that our lives will have meaning and be worth reading someday as if we truly are characters in a book. How heartbreaking is it to think about so many of the people who lost their lives in that tragedy, and how many of them left behind absolutely nothing?
I think it hit me that I had just moved to a new place, started a new job and hardly knew anyone. I was in the opening pages of this chapter of my life story. And I was watching a fictional movie on TV that revealed so many minor stories of these characters that would die and leave nothing behind to prove they’d ever lived.
It is kind of a haunting thought. Perhaps that played a role in my realization that Cal is not nearly the villain we try to make him out to be. As I tried to see the story being told by each of these characters, I started to pick up on the fear, weakness and emotional toll that each experienced in such different ways throughout this process.
It is amazing how much we can watch that movie and decry the class distinctions and the hysteria and the selfish nature of so many of the people on board the sinking ship. But be real for a minute: if we were in that situation with likely less than two hours to live, many of those same experiences would play out.
We are not equipped for traumatic experiences, otherwise they would not be traumatic. Instead we are brainwashed with arrogance that sees others’ struggles and claims we could never experience something similar. That is the reason Titanic sank to begin with, the builders’ arrogance over the strength of the ship led to the captain’s arrogance in speeding up and ignoring countless warnings of danger. We assume the ship cannot sink and that we cannot be struck down.
We love to hear stories and see stories. That’s why we love movies and books. The opportunity to watch characters we come to love and hate experience gain and loss gives us the chance to live vicariously through them while never facing the danger of living ourselves.
One hundred years later, I think much of what happened on Titanic would unfold in exactly the same manner if the tragedy struck today. And the great tragedy is the unrealized potential. That is the tragedy of every death, when someone loses the opportunity to “make it count,” as Jack would say.
One of the more emotional moments in the movie comes in the closing moments, as the camera pans over the photos of Rose doing all the things she and Jack talked about. We see her riding horseback (like a man!) in the surf on a beach with a roller coaster in the background. She learned the lesson of Titanic and realized that life really is precious and each day could be her last.
If we allow it to, the movie forces us to confront our own laziness and lack of accomplishment. We want to put everything off until tomorrow, and then we go into shock when we are struck with the realization that tomorrow will not be there. In the final minutes, Bill Paxton talks about how he’d been researching and visiting Titanic two miles under the ocean’s surface for three years, but he’d never really gotten it. He’d never let it in.
With the internet, we have people following every word we see and every move we make. We don’t face the same dangers of fading into obscurity with no proof of our existence that Jack and others faced 100 years ago. But there is so much we can learn from the real-life tragedy and from the movie that so neatly sums it up into a romantic tale that tears at our hearts.
Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. We are called to so much more. We are called to appreciate life as a gift, and we should not intend to waste it. We don’t know what hand we’re going to be dealt next.
Live a story worth telling 100 years later. You might still be alive at that point, or you might die tomorrow. But whichever it is, make each day count.