James Cameron Is King for the New Dark Ages

It had to happen. Los Angeles, which has usurped New York’s hegemony in any number of cultural and social spheres, has finally produced a jerk arrogant enough to bid fair comparison with our own admired and beloved Donald J. Trump: James Cameron, director of Titanic .

Trump vs. Cameron. The Prince of Swine vs. the King of the World (KoW). Wow! Throw in Don King as producer, and you’re talking a low-rent bonanza.

I saw Titanic . I’m not like a number of people I know who seem to be making a protest by not going. Did I like the picture? Not much. I didn’t dislike it, either. It wasn’t intellectually offensive like The English Patient , just kind of dumb, noisy, uninvolving and historically dubious. That it copped all those Oscars isn’t surprising: The Academy is basically a trade association whose members use the awards to legitimate styles of filmmaking–in this case the $240 million blockbuster–that may reasonably be expected to fatten their own future pay packets.

Mr. Cameron, however, seems to consider himself a combination of Sergei Eisenstein, Luchino Visconti and Cecil B. De Mille. He has taken offense at the Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan’s daring to pan the picture. I think a lot of critics–including, I gather, The New York Times ‘Janet Maslin, whom I seldom bother to read–chickened out on this picture, feeling that to give Titanic the reviews it deserved strictly as a piece of all-around filmmaking might render them complicitous in the destruction of Hollywood if the picture tanked. No one would want that, least of all a critic. If there were no movies, there would be no movie critics, hence no private screenings, no junkets, no Peggy Siegal.

Anyway, Mr. Turan didn’t like the picture, said what he thought (in Mr. Cameron’s hometown paper, no less!) and Mr. Cameron wants his head.

Anyone wishing to appraise Mr. Cameron’s directorial achievement should rent a copy of A Night to Remember , made from Walter Lord’s 1955 best seller of the same title. The picture stars Kenneth More; it was made at London’s Pinewood Studios in 1958. It is in black-and-white; the special effects were done in a swimming pool with scale models; it probably cost, in today’s money, less than $10 million.

The people with whom I have watched it, from Francis, now 11, to a decent sampling of his (much) elders, share my view that any 10 frames of A Night contain more drama, human feeling, sense of occasion, emotional, physical and scenographic elegance and so on than the entire length of Titanic , which they had all also seen. The special effects have every bit of the punch and effectiveness of Mr. Cameron’s $100 million gadgetry, and prove, once again, that in most things, ingenuity and talent can be at least the equal of expenditure. Of course, the older film had the advantage of having been made in an era that still believed this to be the case. What you don’t believe in, you aren’t likely to carry off. The casting throughout the earlier picture is equal to, or more true to type and situation, than its Godzillan younger sibling. This may result from the fact that A Night was made by people who had actually been on an ocean liner and who may actually have seen real gentlepersons in the flesh.

A Night also contains several key, emotionally charged moments that Mr. Cameron has knocked off pretty much line for line, as it were: the scene in which Thomas Andrews, the liner’s builder-designer, shows Captain Smith why the liner will founder; Andrews’ last moments in the first-class saloon; the moment at which the band starts to disperse, then its leader Hartley begins to play “Nearer My God” and his group reassembles and picks up the tune. I say these have been “knocked off” by Mr. Cameron because none of these, as depicted, is in Walter Lord’s book (I checked it out). They are not in the book because there were no firsthand survivors’ accounts to corroborate them. They are not–in other words–”public domain” facts.

All, however, are in the 1958 British film. They must therefore have been the imaginative inspiration of A Night director Roy Baker and his Pinewood team. Inspiration that the self-proclaimed great “auteur” and “KoW” has “borrowed” without acknowledgment of anything but his own vainglory. Plagiarism is as plagiarism does, I suppose. No wonder his next project will be a retrofit of Planet of the Apes .

This is to take nothing away from the “DiCaprio syndrome,” that appeal to the barely postpubescent libido that seems to be Hollywood’s answer to mad cow (or “KoW”) disease and which has swelled Titanic ‘s record grosses. Since none of the pre-release hype focused on this point, we can only assume it to be an unintended consequence, a windfall that was no part of the producers’ expectations. Ah well, luck is the residue of design, is it not? The bottom line, I suspect, is that Mr. Cameron’s recent deportment has made him new enemies and cost him old friends, and that his follow-up endeavor had better be another foolproof story like Titanic . Preferably one in which he can use another earlier director’s imagination and claim it for his own. How about that evergreen to which Cloud-Cuckoo-Land returns every decade or so, a story so tough and perdurable it could even withstand the ministrations of Barbra Streisand?

You know the story. A new version could be retitled A Jerk Is Born , not only to be directed by Mr. Cameron–but to star him as well.

Titanic , by any measure an absolute mass-market triumph, brings other reflections in its wake.

Here’s a recently read quote I found thought-provoking: “Cleansing the White House of Clinton–the lamest duck in the history of the Presidential aviary–is less important than expunging the two anodyne assumptions held by many Americans; that there can be merely trivial public consequences from Presidential corruption, particularly if they pertain to behavior that the public chooses to call private; and that the duty of the President to obey the law varies inversely with the Dow Jones average.”

The author? Of all people, George Will. Unless I am mistaken, something strange, wonderful and encouraging seems to be taking place in the starboard quarter of Punditland. For the longest time, the right-”conservative” side has seemed dumb while the left was, at worst, shrill. Now the positions seem reversed. The best column stuff these days–by which I mean commonsensical and clear-eyed and with a trace of genuine social conscience–is being written by the likes of Pat Buchanan and Arianna Huffington. Indeed, when it comes to the “global economy,” Mr. Buchanan and Jim Hightower, unlikely allies if ever there were, are making the same noises. Mr. Buchanan has a new book out, The Great Betrayal (Little, Brown & Company), and if it is read widely, the repercussions could be interesting. With the confidence of knowing one has the moral and ethical high ground rather than merely saying so, I have a hunch–I may write a book about this myself–that civilization stands at the turning point of a great Toynbeean historical juncture. Might it not be that the triumph of today’s all-conquering religion of the Market (Mr. Buchanan’s subtitle refers to “The Gods of the Global Economy”) will in the long run prove analogous to the triumph of Christianity in the sixth century?

The latter created boom times in Europe (any high-culture types should rush out and get a copy of Richard Fletcher’s The Barbarian Conversion ), but also precipitated the Dark Ages of feudalism and popery. Centuries during which blind faith, impervious to reason and freighted with symbolism, drove classical, humanistic learning and values into the monasteries until the 12th century–at which time, in Paris, these again stirred and began the long slouch toward Florence to be reborn.

Today’s market worshippers are as fierce and merciless in their convictions as any Marxist or Maoist or Savonarolist. “From the unconnected what they have, to the access-blessed however much they can get,” is the war cry of free-market radicals. In hoc Disney vinces .

One consequence–perhaps a necessary condition–has been the reduction-revaluation of all life and art into mass-market entertainment, a point made better than I by James Sterngold in his account of the joys of visiting the new Getty Museum in The New York Times of Thursday, April 2, and by David Denby’s take on film criticism in the April 6 New Yorker . I suppose you could say that entertainment is postmodernism’s “opiate of the masses.” What goes round comes round. By the first millennium, Christianity had substituted itself for the ancients’ bread and circuses; by the second, it appears the latter will have taken back the low ground.

We might also look with alarm upon the disenfranchisement of Platonist “elites” or wise persons (cf Denby supra ) as well as the submission of all morality to populist values, exactly as Tocqueville feared, not least of which is that erasure of the line between what is public and what is private which Soren Kierkegaard deplored: This public “is on the lookout for distraction and soon abandons itself to the idea that everything that anyone does is done in order to give it, the public, something to gossip about” (source unknown; I owe the citation to an article by Martin Woollacott in Guardian Weekly of March 15).

So-called conservatives are having to reconsider the Faustian bargain they made 20 years ago with the free-market types. The right radicalized, the left lost its energy and then its guts and sold out to a preoccupation with keeping its cushy jobs at any cost. No wonder the center could not hold; suddenly it was empty. The traditional values that (neo)conservatives claimed to be “conserving” have been swept aside by the very Market Men and Institutions on whom they pinned their hopes and for whom they flacked. The last best hope of the “liberals,” Bill Clinton (largely thanks to his Torquemada at the Fed) has proved to be the best friend the media-finance complex (successor to Ike’s industrial-military gang) could have hoped for. As the Murdochian shadow spreads across the land, one has to wonder: Will the Internet be to high culture what the monasteries were as the first millennium approached? Refuge and preserver? Very possibly, it seems to me. Odd–considering how the Net was feared–but when it comes to spreading ruin, no technology on earth comes near to nature–of which the most lethal form is that which we call “human.”