Saturday, April 14, 2012

Dredging up the Past: Titanic and the Body of Memory

I just saw Titanic in 3D. I hadn't thought much about going to see it, and had even laughed at this rerelease as an easy money-making endeavor. Yet when some friends asked me to join, I went. I hadn't seen the film since it was in theaters the last time, before it won too many awards and became a parody of itself (i.e. "I'm king of the wooorld!"). I saw it on my first real date, cliche as that may be, and watched it with a mixed response. For the teenaged me, it was sad and awkward and romantic and manipulatively emotional. Then, as now, I loved the costumes. Even then, though I enjoyed the movie, I felt inklings of things I noticed this evening. I could talk, for instance, about the probably well-meaning but not very subtle way in which the film attempts to engage with issues of class or gender. The way that the rollicking party below decks lets us know that people with less money are more authentic, or at least more fun. The way that Rose's mother declares that women's choices are never easy just as she pulls Rose's corset strings tight. Yet something else caught my attention tonight, something I'd missed completely before. Seeing it after all these years, I still remembered the main Rose and Jack plot quite clearly, but the frame narrative hadn't stuck with me as well. Yet tonight I was fascinated by that frame.

The film opens with images of the submerged ship. Mundane objects are strewn about the ocean floor, the only testament to the lived experience of that drowned and broken metal hull. Eyeglasses, a baby-doll, a pair of boots exist in ghostly perpetuity, everyday items made strange by their decontextualization. The ocean, these objects seem to say, is not the natural realm for humans. It swallows us up. Unlike the topography on land, which can be marked by people, the contours of the sea shift continuously, and we can either float to shore or sink to the sandy depths. One must delve deep, quite literally, in order to find any traces of human existence in the ocean. The crew that opens the film, seeking history, fame, and fortune in the wreck, can reconstruct the sinking via computer, but they can't really understand it. They only see material value when they look at the submerged debris. As their inability to interpret the underwater landscape becomes apparent, a drawing of a young woman slowly emerges. They're not sure what to make of that either, except that the woman in the drawing is wearing the costly diamond they want to find.

It is at this point that a sweet elderly woman enters the picture, as if the re-emerged drawing had conjured her from the depths. She joins the crew and tells them all about her memories of the night the Titanic went down. Their fancy equipment can't help them to really understand, but this ancient lady appears just in time to interpret the objects and events for them. All of our images of the original ship and crew and passengers are through this elderly Rose's memory. The primary narrative is therefore invoked by her verbal recollections. For someone who has never spoken of the events before, who never even told her family about Jack, this lady sure can tell her story without a stutter. The men, who've only looked at the wreck for the fortune it could bring them, sit transfixed. They finally see the Titanic.

All of this reminds me of the Middle English poem Saint Erkenwald, which tells the story of an excavation that unearths an ancient tomb. As builders erect a cathedral atop the ruins of a pagan temple, they find a mysterious sarcophagus marked with ancient script. I think it's no accident that this image of palimpsestic architecture unearths such a living relic. While trying to build over history, the workers dig it back up in the form of this strange tomb. All of the most learned men attempt to read the mysterious writing on the tomb and to interpret its meaning. They look at the garments of the body inside the tomb and make conjectures about who he was, perplexed that none of their chronicles mention such a person. None of them can figure it out. As they begin to give into their frustration, they call in Bishop Erkenwald. He prays for guidance, and the long-dead judge buried inside the tomb arises and tells his story from the grave, explaining to them who he was and when he lived. And they finally understand. Erkenwald's understanding and empathy for the dead pagan man get represented physically in the tear he sheds upon learning that the good judge has been in hell all these years, and that tear serves as a kind of baptism that allows the judge's body to dissolve and his soul to rise to heaven. I never understood how the judge can speak English (or some language that the people recognize) when the writing on his tomb is in a language so foreign as to be completely unknown. But that is, I guess, beside the point. The material object from the past is illegible, even the writing from the past is unreadable, so the past needs to be literally revived in order to tell its own story. The resuscitated body of the past can help the people understand in a way that objects and letters never could. Or perhaps the revived body is representative of our attempts to get at that past via the objects and narratives we have. As Christine Chism argues in Alliterative Revivals, "death grants ghosts an interrogative force, imbuing the impossible, unceasing communication between the dead and the living, the past and the present with fearful intimacy" (1). The past is zombie-like in such texts; it rises from the grave and speaks aloud in order that we may hear it.

Though this film is quite different from that Middle English poem, it nonetheless features a past that becomes accessible through a figure emerging and speaking for it. The shot of young Rose's eye morphing into old Rose's eye (again, the film is not trying to be subtle) depicts the direct and physical link between the experience of the sinking ship and the story being narrated today. Though all is mediated via Rose's perspective and memory of long-past events, I suppose we are meant to trust her. If we have any doubts, the fact that she appears at the end with the diamond indicates that she's been conveying the events accurately. She's someone interested in tangible recollections, someone who carries all of her photographs with her when she travels. Yet she admits that she has no photograph of Jack, that there's no record of Jack. He lives on only in her memory. Jack has sunk deep into the sea, not to be brought back to the surface except through Rose's words. For the duration of her tale, the living, breathing, steaming love story can resurface. The captain and Mr Andrews and all the people above and below decks can breathe and speak and live and die as they did so many years ago.

The film could have simply told the story without the frame. It could have begun with Rose and Jack getting on the ship and ended with Jack's death or Rose's survival. It could have even been made from Rose's current perspective, but only in private recollection or more vaguely to us the viewers. Instead, the frame is of people today explicitly seeking something in the wreck and finding it in the person of an old women who once walked the decks of the ship they search. The past emerges bodily and memory is conveyed in color and sound and state-of-the-art special effects. Rose even opens with a description of the smell of fresh paint aboard the ship, a sensory contrast to the rusted and peeling metal we see today. When elderly Rose is finished with her tale, she can finally return to Titanic and to Jack, in dreams or perhaps in death. The narrative has not only brought those around to the ship, but it has returned her to it as well. She rose from the wreckage to tell the story, and then returned to it, along with her heart-shaped necklace.

The past, like the ocean, is never fully accessible to us. We can try to see what lies beneath the waves and we can pull a few things up to the surface, but it is never completely in reach. As a medieval scholar, I understand the frustrations of trying to access the past. And there is no one alive from the 14th century to tell me about it. The image of a body from the past emerging to speak to us is a tantalizing fantasy, as even people's narrations of the past can't actually take us there. Yet it's a fantasy that speaks to our continued longing to plumb those depths, to understand what lies beneath and beyond our own existence as we pass over the same land and through the same waters as people of long ago.

As I sit watching the same film as I did 15 years ago, I see the impossibility of fully understanding or reliving the past, even when that past is my own. On a superficial level, the film is now rendered 3-dimensional, but time has wrought its changes on me as a viewer as well. I notice different things and respond in different ways. My colleagues and I discussed the ways in which films and viewers have changed more broadly. My friend Amanda noted that this movie is situated in its time and place. Post-9-11, its disaster narrative would have meant something very different than it did to us all in 1997. Now we picture the twin towers or think about the socioeconomic realities that allowed some to escape Hurricane Katrina while others could not. I look at pictures of flood and remember the horrifying images from Japan after the recent earthquakes there. The film, already a heavily mediated image of history, is now filtered through all the disasters we've witnessed on the evening news in the past decade and a half. All of these connections make the film and the history it attempts to depict both more and less immediate. And yet it remains as an artifact and we engage with it and with both Roses and with our past selves as we sit in the theater. And we narrate the memories of our previous experiences with the film even as the film gives memory a tangible existence in the person of an elderly lady with a story to tell.

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