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He's Mad as Hell at Turan

James Cameron Gets the Last Word on Our Critic's 'Titanic' Commentary

March 28, 1998

I have shrugged off Kenneth Turan's incessant rain of personal barbs over the last few months, since he is clearly not a big enough man to admit when he is wrong, and it has been amusing to watch him dig himself into a deeper hole each time he tries to justify his misanthropic sensibility with regard to "Titanic." But it's time to speak up when Turan uses his bully pulpit not only to attack my film, but the entire film industry and its audiences.

Turan says that "the flip side of 'Titanic's' ability to draw hordes of viewers into the theaters is the question of where these viewers have been for the past several years. In its unintentional underlining of how narrow an audience net most movies cast over the American public, 'Titanic' is not an example of Hollywood's success, it's an emblem of its failure." It shows, he says, "how desperate the mainstream audience . . . has become for anything even resembling old-fashioned entertainment." They have, he says, been "deadened by exposure to nonstop trash."

Having gone on record condemning "Titanic" as so bad "it almost makes you weep in frustration," he is now desperate to account for the phenomenon of its unprecedented global critical and commercial success. To do so, he has settled on the outrageous conclusion that since "Titanic" is garbage (because it has been spoken and so it must be), then everything else around it--every other film in recent years--must be worse garbage. With one sweeping statement he condemns and dismisses the entire output of Hollywood.

Turan has tipped his hand. We now see his true heart. It's not that he doesn't like some movies, as is a critic's prerogative. It's that he doesn't like all movies. Simmering in his own bile, year after year, he has become further and further removed from the simple joyful experience of movie-watching, which, ironically, probably attracted him to the job in the first place. The best critics keep that joy alive, while the worst let their cynicism twist them beyond any recognizable connection to the experience of a general audience in a movie theater.

Turan sees himself as the high priest of some arcane art form that is far too refined for the average individual to possibly appreciate. He writes as if the insensitive masses must be constantly corrected, like little children who do not have the sense or experience to know what is good for them without the critic's patient instruction. This is paternalism and elitism in its worst form, and utterly insults the movie audience, which is theoretically his constituency.

Turan says I write "lowest common denominator screenplays that condescend to their audience." The condescending one here is Turan, who is insulting the majority of the filmgoing public by telling them that they shouldn't like what they like.

"Titanic" is not a film that is sucking people in with flashy hype and spitting them out onto the street feeling let down and ripped off. They are returning again and again to repeat an experience that is taking a 3-hour and 14-minute chunk out of their lives, and dragging others with them, so they can share the emotion. Parents are taking their kids, adults are taking their parents. People from 8 to 80 (literally) are connecting with this film. After 14 weeks in release, "Titanic" is still No. 1 in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Japan, Mexico, Australia, the U.K. and almost every other country in which it is playing. Audiences around the world are celebrating their own essential humanity by going into a dark room and crying together.

The script for "Titanic" is earnest and straightforward, wearing its heart on its sleeve. It intentionally incorporates universals of human experience and emotion that are timeless--and familiar because they reflect our basic emotional fabric. By dealing in archetypes, the film touches people in all cultures and of all ages. Is this pandering? Or is it communicating? Turan mistakes archetype for cliche. I don't share his view that the best scripts are only the ones that explore the perimeter of human experience, or flashily pirouette their witty and cynical dialogue for our admiration.

He says that "Cameron is not someone to be trusted anywhere near a word processor" and calls the "Titanic" screenplay "the worst script ever written," carrying on as if this is an accepted fact, a "given" upon which all his further arguments are then built. He conveniently ignores the fact that the Writers Guild of America voted "Titanic" one of the five best original scripts of the year with its nomination for best screenplay written directly for the screen. There is no more critical and discerning body in the world when it comes to screenwriting. But in Turan's private reality, the vast majority of the worldwide audience and the majority of Hollywood screenwriters are wrong, and only he is right.

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