Pence’s Guide to Cinema

"There are icebergs ahead and we know it," Pence wrote on his odd blog in the '90s, after watching Titanic. We couldn't agree with him more.

LAST weekend, the movie Titanic became the top domestic money earner in the history of the motion picture industry. With sales projected to total more than $465 million, this epic has officially eclipsed the previous domestic sales record of $461 million for Star Wars, and it took George Lucas five re-releases to achieve that. Accomplishing this feat is remarkable in itself, but doing so without the assistance of extraterrestrial, dinosaurs and mindless violence is next to astonishing.

So what is going on here? Why are so many million Americans going to this movie again and again?

Some credit the story telling talent of writer/director James Cameron who, upon viewing the Imax special filmed at the wreck in 1991 conceived of an undersea epic shot with the same luster as his previous work, The Abyss. While the cinematography is breathtaking, it is no more compelling than other films made at the site since its 1985 discovery and cannot account for its enormous appeal.

Some credit the story itself and, to be sure, the tragedy which claimed the lives of some 1500 souls on the night of April 14, 1912 is powerful. The evident lack of humility among the proprietors and crew of the “unsinkable” ship stands as an example of proverb writ large. Namely, the adage “pride goes before a fall and a haughty spirit before destruction” finds it’s modern illustration in the hurried voyage of the RMS Titanic. The power of the story, though, could hardly explain its raw commercial appeal.

No, something else is going on here. It is said that “Deep calls to deep.” Mr. Cameron’s film has a message for a generation of Americans as enthralled with out own success and invulnerability as were the varied passengers of the RMS Titanic. Perhaps what draws us to this film is an undeniable sense that we are seeing America of the late 20th century in metaphor before our eyes.

Think about it. On the occasion of her launch, May 31, 1911, Titanic was promoted as “practically unsinkable” because of a complex construction in the hull design. Do we not have the same attitude about the American economy today? Because we cannot conceive of the most powerful economy in the world ever giving away, we gladly push harder and harder on the throttle of government taxation and regulation as those in the economists’ “crow’s nest” grow less and less certain of what lies ahead.

As in America of the 1990s, the Titanic was principally about comfort. At 882 feet, she was one of the three nearly identical ships built by the White Star Line but with Titanic the emphasis was luxury. It has been written that more detail was lavished on Titanic’s interiors than on any vessel before or since. Is not America of the 1990s principally about luxury and comfort? Have not the harder earned virtues been replaced by the mantra of the baby boomer generation, “if it feels good, do it”?

Is it possible that Americans are going, in the record numbers, to see Mr. Cameron’s epic because it touches something deep in our hearts? Deeper than our concern for a historic tragedy? Deeper than our affinity for a good romance? To the place where we know the truth when we see it?

Just as the Royal Mail Steamship Titanic left Southampton, England on her maiden voyage with deckloads of proud and waving passengers, do we not see ourselves steaming away from the safe harbor of our best moral and religious traditions? Do we not see ourselves full of the same unfounded confidence in our own ability to steer our own course without regard for those antiquated restraints?

We stand on the decks of our own modern sophistication and wave goodbye to the old fashioned virtues of faith in God, marital fidelity and the sanctity of life, even though our very prosperity was built upon them. Like the passengers of the Titanic who gave no thought to the strength of the Irishmen who built their vessel at the Harland & Wolf shipyards in Belfast, so do we give no thought to the virtues of those who built our ship of state. And we, like they, do so at our peril.

We love this movie because we still love truth. The truth of 1912 and the truth about our own time. There are icebergs ahead and we know it.