New York’s Streetwise Adolescents Drowning in Their Titanic Tears

Not since the rise to stardom of Frank Sinatra or the arrival of the Beatles have New York City teenagers found themselves so willing to surrender themselves en masse to a pop cultural sensation. Once again, the parents don’t quite know what to make of their children’s new passion. But this time, the subject of hot adolescent devotion is not a sexually liberating singer, but a decorous movie- Titanic , that gaudy romantic blockbuster-and the boys are expected to shed tears right along with the girls.

Nick Kopple, a 16-year-old sophomore at the Dalton School, has seen Titanic seven times. “It’s sort of like you can release your emotions,” he said. “Like, say you have a lot of little things building up, you can just wash them all away. The first time I saw it, I started crying when she jumped off the lifeboat, and the second time, I started in the opening credits.” Mr. Kopple has a tip for getting the maximum emotional bang out of Titanic “It’s better if you wait a while in between,” he said. “I’m going to save it for a day when I need to cry.”

Titanic is grand, and at over three hours, it takes its time. The sets are so sumptuous and convincing that nothing can shake the kids of their conviction that they have escaped into some mythical 1912-not even when the society-girl heroine, played by Kate Winslet, flips the bird; not even when the movie’s artist hero, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, stands on the bow going “Woooooooooo!”

Stephanie Bauman, a 15-year-old freshman at the Nightingale-Bamford School, has gone through the Titanic experience 11 1/2 times. “I start crying at the part when you see the old people on the bed and the mom putting her kids to bed,” said Miss Bauman, “and then I cry to the end. With this particular movie it’s probably because you know the ship is going to sink, but you still don’t want it to, so throughout the whole movie you can’t stop crying . And it’s so much better to cry because it makes the movie so much more enjoyable.”

The movie has captured teenagers, but it wasn’t really intended for them. It’s not hip and has none of the MTV-style quick cuts supposedly dear to those born after 1970. Ancient virtues and vices-love, honor, pride, courage, cowardice, greed-are all up there on the screen, writ large with the help of the record-setting $235 million budget. For kids who have grown up in a broken-down, whacked-out metropolis and who have been educated in a climate where parents and teachers and therapists tell them there are no real answers, this is something incredibly new.

So in Titanic , supposedly jaded city kids have found something they can really throw themselves into, body and soul, the same way some of their parents might have given themselves over to acid. They enter the theater knowing they’re going to witness a doomed love story (complete with a villainous cuckold straight out of a silent movie) and the horrible deaths of 1,550 passengers, and that’s why they go see Titanic again and again- so that they can feel something, so that they can weep. Given James Cameron’s God’s-eye-view directing style, the movie is tidy and in control despite the harrowing events it chronicles, which is profoundly satisfying for the repeat viewers. It’s a safe thrill.

“You feel like you’re really there when the ship starts to sink,” said Miss Bauman. “The first time I went, I went to HMV afterward to get the soundtrack, and I ran into a friend and she was like, ‘Oh my God, what’s wrong?’ and I was like hysterical for like two hours . I’ve started bringing tissues and wearing no eye makeup. I usually wear a lot, but now I’m always prepared. I think I’ll see it as many times as I can. Usually, it puts me in a very depressed mood because of Leo DiCaprio, so I usually just go home and feel sorry for myself and think I’m going to meet him at a club downtown over the weekend. I know he goes to Life Cafe and Time Cafe and Life, the club on Bleecker, because my friends have seen him out. He’s gorgeous. I’ve actually had dreams about it. It’s usually like I’m on the ship but I never get Leo, like never.”

Miss Bauman’s advanced state of Titanic itis has caused her to act out scenes from the movie with her friends. “We do like a two-person show, like when she’s like falling off and when he’s in the suit and he kisses her hand and he looks up and half-smiles and says, ‘I saw that in a nickelodeon and I’ve always wanted to do it.’ One day we did it for like literally a half an hour. The part when he’s drawing her is my favorite part because there’s funny lines. She says, ‘I believe you are blushing, Mr. Big Artiste. I believe Monsieur Monet never blushed,’ and he says, ‘He drew landscapes .'”

Titanic may be wholesome, National Academy of Arts and Sciences-approved entertainment, but the act of seeing the picture over and over, and sobbing along with it each time, is something that might not sit well with parents. Jamie Beilin, a 17-year-old junior at the Spence School who said she’s only applying to colleges with film schools, is a seven-timer. “The first time I went and saw it was on a Monday and I came home and my parents weren’t home and I was just crying so much and I couldn’t stop crying and my parents came home and they were like, ‘What’s wrong? This isn’t right-you’ve seen lots of movies,'” she said, all in one breath. “The second time I saw it because my parents made me go see The Apostle , which I hated, so I went into it and I cried even more when I was alone. I was so embarrassed. I was hysterical. Guys like it because it’s like sinking for 45 minutes. That’s what they like-they don’t get the love part, they like the sinking part. I don’t think guys really like her [Kate Winslet] that much; they think that she’s fat and just not pretty enough, but I think she’s great.”

Since it opened Dec. 19, Titanic hasn’t dropped from the No. 1 position in box office grosses, and it has become the third-highest-grossing movie ever. Sixty-three percent of those who have seen it twice or more are under 25 years old, 23 percent are female (outnumbering males 2 to 1), and 20 percent of the audience is under 17.

There was Jeff McLeod, a New York University undergraduate, in the lobby of the Sony Village 7 on the night of Valentine’s Day. “The first time I saw it, I didn’t start crying till the end,” he said. “But the second time I saw it, I was weeping like a baby, almost from the start, from the haunting images and the old film footage. After that, it didn’t happen till, like, the ship started sinking and I started bawling. My shirt was all wet right here around the neck.” Then Mr. McLeod went into the theater, alone.

On the night of Feb. 16, Erica Riccardi, 15, and her boyfriend, Manuel Candal, 15, told their parents something vague about going out with “about 10 friends.” Actually, they hopped the subway and rode to Manhattan. Their destination: the immense Sony Imax screen-80 feet tall, 100 feet wide-on Broadway and 68th Street for the 10 P.M. showing of Titanic

It was the fourth time for Ms. Riccardi, a sophomore at the Fontbonne Hall Academy in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and the eighth time for Mr. Candal, a sophomore at the Xaveria High School in Bay Ridge. Riding the up escalator, Ms. Riccardi said she has never seen a movie more than once before Titanic “except maybe Home Alone 2 on video when I was a little kid.” With her wearing Blue Asphalt bell-bottoms, white Adidas down jacket and purple contact lenses, and him in his wide-leg Aeropostale jeans, Nautica fleece shirt and plaid Tommy Hilfiger jacket, they were the very picture of New York teenagers, 1998.

“I love it here,” said Mr. Candal. “I’ve been to this theater before, and it was so damn big I was, like, I have to see it here.”

The theater swallowed their conversation before the movie started.

“I wish it was the first time again,” said Mr. Candal.

“Yeah,” said Miss Riccardi, “I wish it was the first time again.”

“The first time was like the bomb ,” said Mr. Candal. “I cried like every other scene. I cried the whole damn movie. She usually cries after me. Whenever I start, she follows. We’re like the same person-we’re inseparable.”

Mr. Candal has never been so passionate about any other movie. “I never once had the desire to go see a movie twice in a movie theater,” he said. “But after I saw it the first time, I was like, ‘I’ll be here again tomorrow.'” He continued to chronicle the facts of his unlikely commitment to this movie as if it was as confusing to him as it might be to other people. “There’s a book downstairs in the lobby called James Cameron’s Titanic -I have that, that was 20 bucks! I read A Night to Remember , that book. I actually got the novel and read it in two days, and that’s a good novel. It’s a long one, too, and I read it. It’s the first time I ever read a book on my own. Then I read a biography of Leonardo DiCaprio. Don’t think I’m gay or anything. I just think he’s cool. I wanna be him. I’m not attracted to him. I just think he’s hot and I would like to be him.”

Like James Dean?

“I don’t know who that is,” he said.

Miss Riccardi did. “He’s on my refrigerator magnet,” she said.

The couple didn’t speak once during the 192 minutes of Titanic . They just held hands and stared straight ahead and every once in a while wiped away tears. Afterward, they seemed down. “You know when she’s coming down on the boat and he’s looking down on her and he starts to cry?” said Mr. Candal. “That’s when I started.” Erica said she started crying when they were dancing at the party in steerage.

It was 1:30 in the morning, and the theater manager said he wanted to lock up.

“It’s definitely the best movie I’ve ever seen, definitely,” said Mr. Candal.

“Everything’s so interesting,” said Miss Riccardi. “There’s no boring parts.”

“Then you have the bastards who are like ‘Uh, they shouldn’t have this love crap,’ and that’s bullshit ,” said Mr. Candal.

“My brother said that,” said Miss Riccardi.

That’s the thing about true love. The others never understand.