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THE NATION / CINEMA AND SOCIETY

Would Scarlett Accept 'First, Save Yourself'?

March 29, 1998|Steven D. Stark | Steven D. Stark is a commentator for National Public Radio and author of "Glued to the Set: The 60 Television Shows and Events That Made Us Who We Are Today."

BOSTON — With a record-tying 11 Academy Awards and box-office receipts still pouring in, it's clear that "Titanic" is the blockbuster film epic of our age. As such, the film it recalls the most is a similar saga, "Gone With the Wind," made almost six decades ago.

There are many similarities. Both "Titanic" and "Gone With the Wind" center on the survival of privileged, rebellious heroines (played by British actresses), caught in a tragic love triangle. Each is set against the sweeping panorama of a well-known American historical event that occurred some 78 to 85 years before it was made. Each movie is quite long by traditional standards and had already made headlines by the time of its release for an extravagant budget. That included special effects: What the burning of Atlanta was to 1939 film audiences, the sinking of the Titanic is to ours.

Yet, for all their similarities, what's striking are the differences between the two films in dealing with comparable themes. Take, for example, the way each film idealizes romance. The whole premise of "Gone With the Wind" is that the most meaningful relationships are those that can survive a lifetime of hardships, which in "Gone With the Wind" include a cataclysmic war, the loss of one's wealth and even the loss of a child--circumstances that had great resonance for Depression-era audiences.

In contrast, the ideal romance in "Titanic" is a three-night stand on a boat cruise, which is finally consummated in the back of a car. One can almost see the follow-up ad: A few nights aboard ship changed Rose's love life: Now let Carnival Cruise Lines change yours, too!

The view of men and women in each film is far different, too. In one sense, Rhett Butler and Jack Dawson are similar: Both are financial con artists of a sort who display courage when the chips are down. Yet, one look at Clark Gable, then at Leonardo DiCaprio, reveals that the paradigm male today is something of a child, almost a full-generation younger than his '30s counterpart. Rhett teaches Scarlett about commerce; Jack teaches Rose how to spit. In the culture of the '90s, the "ideal" man is a perpetual child or young adolescent: Jerry Seinfeld, Don Imus, David Letterman.

It's no coincidence, then, that the lead woman in each film is also different. For all her vanity and personal pettiness, Scarlett is a grown-up who runs a business, fights for her land and endures an unhappy marriage to keep her extended family financially afloat--themes, again, that struck a chord with Depressions-era moviegoers.

By the '90s, of course, such sacrifices would strike an audience as absurd. Today's heroine earns her spurs by becoming the anti-Scarlett: Rose rejects the unhappy marriage that would keep her family credit-worthy so she can pursue personal self-fulfillment through a relationship with a man she met a few days before. Whatever one thinks of the choice, it is a revealing quality for a culture to immortalize in a heroine. Damn the family--full speed ahead!

The historical occurrences that drive the two films are also far different. The Civil War was the great event that forged this nation, and almost any treatment of that conflict is bound to acknowledge, at least on some level, the defining American issues of regionalism and race.

In contrast, while the Titanic legend has retained a strong hold on the American imagination, it is of trivial historical consequence. What it is, instead, is the first great tabloid tragedy of the modern media age, precursor to everything from the sinking of the Andrea Doria, to the rescue of Baby Jessica, to the current coverage of El Nino. In many respects, James Cameron's "Titanic" is inseparable from disaster coverage in the tabloids and throughout television: the graphic portrayal of death and destruction, the emphasis on small, human-interest stories and the identification with "the little guy." All that's missing is Geraldo.

Finally, "Gone With the Wind" was based on the most popular book of its era. While producer David O. Selznick ordered many scenes changed or cut from Margaret Mitchell's 1,000-page-plus novel, the film industry then was new enough that it still looked to books and plays as a dramatic model. The result is a film that, at least by contemporary standards, remains quite theatrical and literary. Despite the visual pyrotechnics, what viewers tend to recall is the complexity of the plot and characters; the outstanding performances and key lines such as "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." The art is such that the technical details fade: One leaves the theater wondering what Scarlett or Rhett will do next.

In contrast, "Titanic" offers no memorable lines, no Oscar-winning performances and not much in the way of plot or character. What it features instead is what popular movies of today often give audiences: spectacular technical effects, a simple soap-opera-like plot and a musical soundtrack that features at least one song that can be played endlessly on MTV. Like so many other movies and cultural artifacts of this decade, the artfulness of "Titanic" is ultimately a self-conscious celebration of the person who created it: One leaves the theater wondering what Cameron will do next.

This isn't to denigrate the director or his "Titanic," a surprise hit. It's only to suggest that, like "Gone With the Wind," this movie benefits from mirroring the tenor of its times. Both works are ostensibly about U.S. history. But, in the end, the reason both struck a chord is that each was essentially about the era that embraced it.

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