Terry-Chandler, F. (2000) 'Vanished Circumstance: Titanic, heritage, and film', in International Journal of Heritage Studies, Vol 6, 1: 67 - 76.
The film Titanic was a huge success at box office and video. The latest computer-generated special effects combined with 'the offer of recovering a lost past' (68). The film can be analysed using much of the argument of Wollen (in Corner and Harvey) on the heritage film.
'Heritage could be defined as the representation of the past for popular contemporary consumption' (68). There have been many films of the past in general, and heritage films in particular, including films of the Raj, The Elephant Man, and Little Doritt. All featured much concern over historical detail and authenticity, although 'the story remained paramount'.
However, Titanic is the most explicit example of the central focus on heritage. The film was inspired by 'the idea of the "time capsule" and ... the cult of authenticity' (68). The notion of a time capsule is common to much heritage thought, and is sometimes applied to recently excavated sites -- the history they represent is seen as particularly authentic because it is unspoiled. The director of Titanic (Cameron) took particular interest in authenticity as a production value, drawing upon video footage of the real wreck, engaging in considerable historical research and preparation, and intending to represent the facts accurately. As an example, a detailed timeline was constructed of the tragedy and that was adhered to in the making of the film. The film opens with a reconstruction of the Titanic boarding at Southampton, involving the audience in a 'desire to return to the past', a return that will encounter an authentic moment. The reconstruction includes the central character reminiscing about the smell of new paint, and careful research on social etiquette of the time. The director's aim was to make people feel, with all their emotions, that they had travelled back in time. The character Rose gains authenticity as an eyewitness offering personal testimony .
Of course, complete authenticity is impossible, for both commercial and philosophical reasons:
(a) '[T]he film's cult of youth is significant', manifested especially in the desire of the young lovers to meet and survive. The soundtrack obviously helps.
(b) The 'female themes are clear... there are strong female characters' (70). Male characters are depicted as wholly admirable, self sacrificing, and celebrating their physical strength and engineering skill.
(c) Social class is depicted too crudely, with no second class passengers, and with a fictionalised notion of steerage passengers being deliberately locked below.
(d) Empathy is used to humanise the event, which means an inevitable relevance to a modern audience -- 'Titanic minimises some of the barriers between the contemporary mindset and that of the Edwardian era' (73). It is doubtful that modern teenage girls could empathise with Edwardian women, and 'most of the passengers and crew in 1912 would have had some religious faith' (73). There is 'little sense of family' (74)
(e) The characters are not put in the context 'of the major events of the 20th century... the Depression, and World War' (74).
(f) The past is filtered through 'a particular heritage aesthetic' (74), defined (by Brett, page 74) as a combination of the sublime and the picturesque. The ship iteself is sublime in its size and majesty, and the picturesque is apparent: 'Even the steerage passengers wear appealing tweeds, corduroys and cottons' (75). Inevitably, the film 'admits the ambiguities, paradoxes and conflicts of history... chaos, through careful organizing of structure, pace and momentum,... [become]... a very ordered narrative' (75 - 76). And [as in classic realism] 'contradictory accounts of the disaster are resolved into one definitive version' (76). Cameron seems to have used the official documents of the inquiry to simplify matters in this way, but film also has its own effect.
(g) The events are filtered through contemporary conceptions, for example of the Edwardian period as opulent, but also as a time of optimism and folly.
These aspects are necessary for the audience to be involved, as indeed they are, 'And that is exactly what makes heritage such a potent cultural force today' (76).
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