Titanic Rides on a Full Crest

James Cameron’s Titanic is, well, titanic. I suppose one can see on the screen much of the $200 million the film reportedly cost. The sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic in the early hours of April 15, 1912, has been the subject of several movies and much research and scholarship. Titanic may not be the last cinematic statement on the catastrophe, and, in fact, very little detailed information is provided in more than three hours and 20 minutes of running time. Yet, if anything, the sheer length of the movie is more impressive than the cost. Where did the time go?

Only a handful of characters are involved in the romantic melodrama that constitutes the narrative core of the film. How is it, then, that I sat through the whole film and was never bored, though not entirely enchanted, either, and found myself deeply moved ultimately not by what happened, but by what was remembered by Rose, a 101-year-old woman survivor of the Titanic’ s ill-fated maiden voyage. Rose is played with old-age makeup by an 87-year-old actress named Gloria Stuart, herself a forgotten 30’s Hollywood blonde. This magical character and the marvelous flashback mechanisms employed to lend spiritual depth to the artifacts recovered from the briny deep transform Titanic from an action movie to a meditation on memory.

A drawing of a nude girl is identified by Rose as her own, and this talisman of hope and desire becomes a reverse Rosebud, a Proustian madeleine, a tantalizing Cameronian promise to produce the model of the drawing in the delectable flesh of Kate Winslet’s Rose Dewitt Bukater as it is unveiled for Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack Dawson, Rose’s vagabond artist-lover. But there is a second talisman, a priceless blue diamond, called prophetically “Heart of the Ocean.” And its final disposition redeems the vast negation of life with an affirmation of everlasting love. It is all a matter of moments in a narrative of more than three hours, and yet these moments make all the difference in a saga of time lost and time recaptured.

The rest of the movie is adequately acted and expertly directed. Mr. DiCaprio and Ms. Winslet make an attractive pair of class-crossing lovers, and it was astute of Mr. Cameron to turn Jack Dawson into a more romantic figure than his third-class ticket would usually suggest. Billy Zane makes Cal Hockley, Rose’s upper-crust fiancé, dashing and despicable and, most important, dangerous. David Warner is amusingly overqualified for the menial role of Hockley’s menacing valet.

At the periphery of the intrigue are such solid performers as Victor Garber, as Thomas Andrews, the heroically unflappable architect of the “unsinkable” Titanic ; Bernard Hill as Captain E.J. Smith, perhaps not treated as harshly as he deserved in the foolishly temporizing decisions he made concerning the safety of the passengers and crew; and Frances Fisher as Rose’s mercenary and nearly penniless mother, Ruth DeWitt Bukater, who sternly disapproves of Dawson’s attentions to Rose and the risk he poses to a rich marriage. Jonathan Hyde’s J. Bruce Ismay is memorably wormy as the ship’s owner, who not only bears partial responsibility for the disaster, but caps his villainy by leaping like a coward into a lifeboat reserved for women and children.

That these women and children were exclusively from first class only added another layer of irony to the hypocrisy of a class society. Kathy Bates provides some comedy relief and expository ballast as the truly “unsinkable” Molly Brown, a brash outsider with more money than manners, but, in the crunch, more mercy and compassion as well. Bill Paxton as Brock Lovett, the present-day prospector for the Titanic ‘s treasures, and Suzy Amis as old Rose’s granddaughter, Lizzy Calvert, lend their charismatic presences to roles that would be less than routine in other hands.

In short, everything in the project is just right, and not too much. Mr. Cameron stays on the side of the angels in the matter of true love, but he never gets on a soapbox or a pulpit to underline the social injustices harshly outlined by the dawn’s ugly light on that fateful morning in April 1912. Yet, if the climactic disaster itself were less massively realized, there would not have been enough emotional energy in the aftermath to produce the sweet music of devotion and redemption. Titanic runs well enough in the backstretch of intrigue and contrivance to cross the finish line well ahead of all but a few of the screen’s superspectacles in this century.

The Man Who Loves Women Suffers a Procession of Bitches

Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry surges on to the screen during the opening credits with a series of jump cuts between repeated shots of an angry brunette (Judy Davis) storming out of a cab on a nasty night, slamming the door behind her and getting only part of the way into the courtyard of an apartment building before the next shot yanks her back to the cab. Hence, the action never moves forward in this montage of stylistically aggressive futility. The abrasive song accompanying the credits is one of the most excruciating pieces of music I have ever heard on an Allen soundtrack. Fasten your seat belts, Woody fanciers, we’re in for a bumpy ride. No more valentines to New York or Paris or Venice or anywhere. This is payback time for Mr. Allen, and he has come loaded for bear. Indeed, what follows the credits are some of the coarsest and sourest scenes of badgerings and betrayals since the lacerating cruelties of Stardust Memories (1980).

Mr. Allen plays a writer named Harry Block, though he cuts back and forth between Harry in “real life,” played by Mr. Allen, and in his re-enacted fictions, played by a graying Richard Benjamin, who, curiously, has served as Philip Roth’s alter ego in the movie versions of Goodbye, Columbus (1969) and Portnoy’s Complaint (1972). I say curiously, because Allen-Roth-watchers report that Mr. Roth is keeping company with Mia Farrow.

Of course, Mr. Allen will insist that Harry Block is not an autobiographical creation, just as Mr. Roth has always maintained that he was not Portnoy by any stretch of the imagination. No, of course not. It is Harry, and not Mr. Allen, who is being deconstructed. Harry’s a writer; Mr. Allen’s a filmmaker. Mr. Allen has had his differences with film critics; Harry once tried to run over a book critic.

For all of Mr. Allen’s inventions and improvisations, Deconstructing Harry is only fitfully funny and almost never witty. From force of habit, I kept waiting for punch lines that never came. Instead, I heard more F-words than I can remember from all his previous 31 screenplays put together. This is either a sign of creative desperation, or a calculated maneuver to pick up a new audience of younger moviegoers who have not grown old with him, as have his peers, and who have consequently not felt betrayed by his lurid offscreen publicity.

Though I have encountered him socially only two or three times, I have been following his career vicariously from even before he did a very funny stand-up routine in the old Americana Hotel. Having seen just about everything he has ever done on the screen as a director, writer and actor, and having reviewed most of it favorably, I hesitate to conclude that he is finally running on empty. He has bounced back too many times for such a definitive judgment to be made. Still, I do think that he should consider removing himself from the histrionic center of his scenarios. There is something embarrassing in the spectacle of his wooing Elisabeth Shue with the same self-absorbed frenzy with which he pursued Mariel Hemingway when he and she were almost 20 years younger in Manhattan (1979).

Ms. Hemingway resurfaces in Deconstructing Harry as one of the monstrously middle-aged harridans who torment Mr. Allen’s Harry Block for one alleged transgression or another. Apart from Ms. Davis, Ms. Shue, Ms. Hemingway and Mr. Benjamin, Mr. Allen has cast his movie with more names and near-names than there are parts to play. People begin doubling up in different combinations, as if the characters they play are mere archetypes in a recurring nightmare. For Mr. Allen’s middle-aged women, particularly Harry’s wives, Jewish rhymes with shrewish. Since Mr. Allen has written all the parts and all the dialogue, he functions as a puppet master with two basic characters: harried Harry and a procession of witchlike bitches banging his head with broom handles. Who else but a puppet master would leave three of the funniest performers in the business-Eric Bogosian, Billy Crystal and Robin Williams-without a laugh among them.

Mr. Bogosian’s Burt, a rabidly Orthodox Jew, accuses Harry of creating caricatures of Jews that might have appeared in the Nazi publication Der Sturm , and thus invokes the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Mr. Allen’s flippant response in sports parlance, “Records are meant to be broken,” produced some gasps in the screening I attended. Then when Burt denied that he was what Harry thought he was, namely a paranoid Jew, Harry insulted Burt laboriously with the observation that Burt was the opposite of paranoid in having the delusion that everybody liked him.

All in all, Harry is one of Mr. Allen’s most parochial creations, obsessed with blow jobs, happy minority hookers, circumcision, sleeping semi-incestuously with the sisters of wives in a cruder version of Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), and sleeping opportunistically with the patients of his psychiatrist wife. There are obligatory bows to Ingmar Bergman with a road company Grim Reaper, and to Federico Fellini in a dream sequence in which the cast members applaud Harry for having brought them to life.

At a time when mainstream Hollywood directors are broadening their horizons with ambitious confrontations of social issues, when low-budget British films like Mark Herman’s Brassed Off and Peter Cattaneo’s The Full Monty are roaring like lions at the evils of Thatcherism, Mr. Allen seems to be sinking into the quicksand of a querulous narcissism.

Titanic Rides on a Full Crest