Wednesday, August 22, 2012

My Heart Will Go On (For At Least Four Episodes)

There’s a story, one you may have heard, set in the first part of the 20th century about mankind’s hubris. The story is about two young people, unknown to each other, who set out on a ship across an ocean and who meet along the way. Our two young heroes, hale and attractive as they are, are of course brought together despite the obstacles of class and society around them on board this ship, only to have it all threatened when the bloody thing encounters disaster in the form of an iceberg and sinks to the bottom of the sea, taking many other members of the world’s largest floating class metaphor with it.

But here’s the thing: this story is not Titanic. It’s Titanic. Confused? So were all the characters in the new miniseries that aired this year. That many of them also followed a narrative story similar to Jack and Rose, despite slight variations on their class, position on the ship, employment and background, only adds to the inevitable comparisons between the two.

 Yes, yes, yes. Get to the good stuff. Which characters have sex in a 1912 Renault in the ship's cargo hold?

This Titanic, not to be confused with the 1997 mega-blockbuster starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio as the K-Stew and R-Patz of the grunge era, comes to us from the mind of Julian Fellowes, better known as the creator of Downton Abbey. Just like that show, the miniseries uses the world of the British class system in 1912 as more of a backdrop to showcase the different lives of the people onboard the ship, rather than tell the story of the ship itself. And while the characters from the two shows aren’t exactly cookie-cutter versions of each other, viewers of Titanic will have no problem identifying the same tropes, from the ridiculously overly-wealthy countesses who are appalled at the indignity of having to board lifeboats that also hold second class passengers to the ever-present servants who, shockingly, have thoughts and opinions of their own, almost as if they were actual people.

It’s impossible not to compare this miniseries with James Cameron’s film. Many of the same types of characters populate both and, sadly, the quick-and-easy dualism that was so strong in the film hasn’t really gone anywhere for the miniseries. The upper classes are uniformly stuck-up, entitled (literally, in many cases) and turning up their noses at all the immigrants and other mundanes who didn’t have the decency to be born with an estate. The Steerage and the working class are all honest, hard-working, pure of heart folk who just want a life of opportunity in (say it with me, preferably with an Irish accent) “The New World.” Each class of course has an exception; Amongst the First Class it’s Lady Georgiana who at 17 years old is blue-blood, but has a proclivity for attending Suffragist rallies and being attracted to “revolutionaries and freedom fighters.” In the bowels of the ship, it’s Peter Lubov, an immigrant who murdered London police officers and convinces a young Irish mother to have an affair, despite her husband and children being only decks away.

 With so many different kinds of us on board, you'd almost think there was a metaphor at play here. Oh who cares - Waiter, more freshly ground immigrant pate, please!

The focus on the wide variety of characters is really the only thing about this version of the story that makes it worthwhile watching over Cameron’s film or even other earlier films like A Night To Remember. The story is told slightly out of sequence; each of the first three episodes roughly follows a different class from their boarding of the ship right up until the critical moments of the sinking as the prow slides under the water and the true panic sets in. The fourth and final episode ties all three classes together and resolves the plotlines, including who lives and who dies. This multi-perspective approach gives the miniseries it’s only real toe-hold on the Titanic cinematic legacy, oftentimes showing the same scene two or three times only from the perspective of the different classes each time. The end result is a central character in episode one is barely a tertiary character in episode three and though we see some of the same action, each time around we see it with all the antecedents of a different class, and cast, of characters.

All this attention on the people, of course, means that we get very little attention on the actual ship. Unlike Cameron’s film, in which Titanic was as much of a character as the romantic leads were, we really barely see her at all. Almost no attention whatsoever is paid to the ship herself, save for the one moment in each of the first three episodes when the iceberg is either spotted or when it collides with the ship and her final plunge into depths, and even that is only seen in the background as a bunch of cold, wealthy people shiver in their furs and wonder when another boat will come to rescue them. As such, the entire series feels like it could have been set in a typical English drawing room, right up until those surreal moments when the world’s axis starts to shift, literally and metaphorically, and water and immigrants begin to rush into the luxurious sets.   

 Or as modern day Republicans call it, "Class Warfare."

Your mileage may vary as to how important Titanic herself is to the story of her sinking. As it is, there are plenty of real-life luminaries to focus on, including all the usual suspects in the form of Molly Brown, J. Bruce Ismay, the Astors and Captain Smith. The “downstairs” contingent is made largely of fictitious names, seeing as how many of the real-life staff of the Titanic didn’t exactly survive to make names of themselves. The exception, again, being Peter Lubov, who was a real gang leader in London’s East End in 1911, escaping from the city never to be heard from again. You know, until he boarded the Titanic and got sexy with an Irish lady. Or so we’re told.

Because 2012 is the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, the obsession with the event is understandable and, to the extent that it can, the miniseries attempts to wrap itself around what has long been the central perception of that tragedy; that the ship was a microcosm of the nascent 20th century not only in how unfortunately proud mankind was for building an “unsinkable” ship, but also for the various class divides that were only starting to be questioned and found wanting.  Unfortunately, it lacks for the time to really explore the issues, since when your ship is slowly sinking into the Atlantic Ocean, not many characters are inclined to wax philosophical about the Bigger Meaning Of It All. As viewers, we’re left both expecting it to hit the same action-y notes as the film and hoping that it will give us something more. Truly, a titanic task. (Sorry. I had to go there.) As such, it comes off a little like a smaller version of both the more famous film and its spiritual predecessor, Downton Abbey. Still worth the watch, especially for Titanic buffs, but like several of the characters in the end, you’ll be left feeling a bit at sea.

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