sexta-feira, 20 de julho de 2012

The Commercial Aesthetic of Titanic by Richard Maltbay

The Utopian resolution of Titanic (1997) sees the abolition of class distinction and the marriage of commerce and aesthetics. Produced by James Cameron and Jon Landau; distributed by Twentieth Century-Fox, Paramount Pictures; directed by James Cameron.

The desires of Hollywood’s audiences have not greatly changed. Titanic (1997), the first movie to gross more than $1 billion, delivered all the emotions Marion enumerates, principally by focusing its spectacular disaster story through a romance, since according to director James Cameron, “only by telling it as a love story can you appreciate the loss of separation and the loss caused by death.” 11
As its production ran massively behind schedule and over budget, Titanic was frequently compared to Heaven’s Gate, but its release showed that unlike Cimino, Cameron was a “fiscally responsible auteur” whose personal vision had resulted in a commercially immensely successful product, justifying its budgetary excesses by its unprecedented profits. What Justin Wyatt and Katherine Vlesmas have called Titanic´s “drama of recoupment” was supplied with its “obligatory happy ending” through the movie’s astonishing commercial success.12

Titanic’s commercial and aesthetic success depended on its ability to provoke a range of emotions in a wide variety of audience groups. Only because it had what one reviewer called “enough different moves, moods, and ideas to keep everyone happy at least part of the time” could it succeed on the scale that it did.13 That commercial success relied not on the movie’s underlying aesthetic unity or coherence, but rather on the sheer diversity of its various elements, which allowed its different audiences to turn it into the experience they wished to have.
Titanic was, at the same time, a teenage love story, a heritage movie, a special effects spec­tacular, a costume drama, a “chick flick,” a disaster movie, a cross-class romance, an intimate historical epic, and the most expensive movie ever made. Different audiences could view it as a celebration of selflessness and self-sacrifice, a subver­sive commentary on class relations, a sumptuously nostalgic display of bygone opu­lence, a denunciation of capitalist greed, a brilliant exercise in state-of-the-art special effects, a demonstration of the transcendent triumph of love over death, a feminist action-adventure movie, or an extended opportunity to gaze at Leonardo DiCaprio.
Its commercial success, indeed, relied on its appealing across the usual audience categories, to both sexes and all ages. The movie’s appeal to its most devoted fans, women under 25 - “costless liberation brought to you by a devoted, selfless, charming, funny, incredibly handsome lover [who] points you toward a long, richly eventful future and dies, beautifully, poetically and tragically” before he can disappoint you - was not necessarily the same quality that persuaded older men to see it.14

Titanic’s commercial success relied to a great extent on repeat viewings. According to a Newsweek survey two months after the movie’s release, 60 percent of Titanic’s American audience were women, and 63 percent were under 25. Forty-five percent of women under 25 who had seen the movie had seen it twice, while 76 percent of all repeat viewers planned to see it again.15 The satisfaction these audiences found in the movie was clearly repeated on subsequent viewings, while the high number of repeat viewers (20 percent of the total audience, as against a norm of 2 percent) also meant that Titanic stayed longer in more theaters, giving other viewers more opportunities to see it.

Titanic’s aesthetic success was dependent on its commercial success to the same extent as Heaven’s Gate’s aesthetic failure depended on its commercial failure. If it had not demonstrated its popularity at the box-office, Titanic would not have won eleven Academy Awards. Neither the Oscars nor Hollywood’s aesthetics are solely a matter of money, but both are inextricably bound to the industry’s existence as a commercial activity.
The title of part I of this book, “The Commercial Aesthetic,” deliberately confronts the contradiction between art and business by insisting on addressing the ways in which Hollywood’s aesthetic practices serve commercial pur­poses. In Hollywood, commerce and aesthetics are symbiotic, or in the industry’s current terminology, synergistically intertwined. Like Rose and Jack in the fantas­tic, Utopian happy ending of Titanic, in Hollywood’s most successful products commerce and aesthetics embrace each other for everyone’s delight.

Like most Hollywood movies, Titanic contains two distinct plots, a love story and, in this case, an account of the disaster. These two plots are as connected to each other as any individual viewer requires. Chronologically, they are almost com­pletely separate.
The love story reaches its climax and resolution 100 minutes into the movie’s 194-minute running time, when Rose (Kate Winslet) tells Jack (DiCaprio) that she intends to leave the ship with him. Immediately afterwards, the ship hits the iceberg and the spectacular action movie begins. This coincidence allows viewers to connect the two sequences of events if they choose to do so: Rose, who has described the Titanic as “a slave ship, taldng me back to America in chains,” rejects the luxurious repression the ship represents, and by her act of free will dooms the ship. For those viewers who choose such an interpretation,
the story “moves from Rose’s sexual objectification and her suicidal frame of mind (in which she turns her anger against herself) to her sexual liberation and the externalization of her aggressive impulses in the spectacle of the ship’s destruction.”16

In his book on Titanic, David Lubin suggests that the simultaneity of the kiss and the crash “adhere to the governing rule of historical fiction, which is that public and historically significant events are best understood by taking measure of the private and personal struggles of fictitious characters put forth as ordinary people whose lives happen to be directly affected by those events.”17 We witness the disaster from the perspective of Rose, Jack, and the other characters we have met in following their love story. In the end, the spectacle of the sinking takes on its meaning through Rose’s telling of her story. Other viewers may pay less atten­tion to the love story and take their pleasure simply in sheer vertiginous amaze­ment at the movie’s spectacle. What film historian Tom Gunning has called the cinema’s “aesthetic of astonishment” has always been an integral element of Hollywood’s appeal to its audiences.18 In 1907, entertainment entrepreneur Frederick Thompson observed that his customers:

are not in a serious mood, and do not want to encounter seriousness. They have enough seriousness in their every-day lives, and the keynote of the thing they do demand is change. Everything must be different from ordinary experience. What is presented to them must have life, action, motion, sensation, surprise, shock, swift­ness or else comedy.

Thompson was not, in fact, describing cinema audiences but the clientele of his Luna Park amusement park on Coney Island. In Luna Park, which one journalist described as “an enchanted, storybook land of trellises, columns, domes, minarets, lagoons, and lofty aerial flights,” Thompson sought to create “a different world - a dream world, perhaps a nightmare world - where all is bizarre and fantastic” for his visitors, and invited them not simply to observe that world, but to become participants in its spectacular attractions.19

Gunning has described early cinema - before 1906 - as a “cinema of attrac­tions,” engaging its viewers’ attention through an exciting spectacle, in which the story, if there was one, simply provided “a frame upon which to string a demon­stration of the magical possibilities of the cinema”:
Display dominates over narrative absorption, emphasizing the direct stimulation of shock or surprise at the expense of unfolding a story or creating a diegetic universe. The cinema of attractions expends little energy creating characters with psychologi­cal motivations or individual personality.20
Gunning takes the term “attractions” from the Russian filmmaker and theorist Sergei Eisenstein, who developed a concept of cinema as a “montage of attractions,” a calculated assembly of “strong moments” of shock or surprise stimulat­ing the audience’s response.21 The purpose of Eisenstein’s didactic, political cinema was “the moulding of the audience in a desired direction,” to be achieved by sub­jecting them “to emotional or psychological influence, verified by experience and mathematically calculated to produce specific emotional shocks in the spectator.”22
Eisenstein himself took the term “attraction” from the fairground, possibly indeed from the roller-coaster in Petrograd’s Luna Park; he later described his term “montage of attractions” as being “half-industrial and half-music-hall.”23 In its earliest years, the cinema was most frequently exhibited as an attraction on a vaude­ville or variety bill. The appearance of dedicated motion-picture theaters after 1905 encouraged the integration of cinema’s spectacular attractions into longer sequences, held together by a story. But, as Gunning argues and as a viewing of Titanic's final 94 minutes demonstrates, the cinema of attractions remains an essential part of popular cinema, not necessarily contained or disguised within narrative.

As well as being a love story and a disaster movie, Titanic is an emotional roller­coaster ride for its audience.
Not all of the ride is made up of spectacular thrills; the first half of the movie provokes a quieter range of emotions. Its purpose is not necessarily to mold its audience’s ideological beliefs in the way Eisenstein intended, although the material for such a molding exists in the thematic relationships that can be identified between characters and class, for instance, and commentators in the Washington Post charged Cameron with “kindergarten Marxism.”24 Cameron himself summarized the movie’s more straightforward entertainment purpose: “I hope we make people feel like they’ve just had a good time ... Not a good time in the sense they’ve seen a Batman movie, but a good time in the sense that they’ve had their emotions kind of checked out.
The plumbing still works.”25

As Cameron’s remark suggests, audiences go to the movies to consume their own emotions. In order to consume their emotions, spectators have first to produce those emotions, in response to the movie’s stimulation. Through the inte­gration of attractions into their plots, moviemakers have to organize movies so that spectators will produce their emotions in a sequence and pattern that they find satisfying. Hollywood’s commercial aesthetic is grounded in this objective. Titanics division into love story and action-adventure movie provides what is .. in fact a very simple and schematic model of this process, but its exceptional commercial success demonstrates that its admixture of attractions provided its audiences with a range of aesthetic satisfactions.


11 Quoted in Peter Kramer, “Women First: Titanic (1997), Action-Adventure Films and Hollywood’s Female Audience,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 18:4 (1998), p. 116.
12 Justin Wyatt and Katherine Vlesmas, “The Drama of Recoupment: On the Mass Media Negotiation of Titanic,” in Titanic: Anatomy of a Blockbuster, eds Kevin S. Sandler and Gaylyn Studlar (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999), p. 42. 
14 Katha Pollitt, “Women and Children First,” Nation, 30 March 1998, p. 9.
13 David Sterritt, Christian Science Monitor, quoted in Matthew Bernstein, ‘“Floating Triumphantly’: The American Critics on Titanic,” in Sandler and Studlar, p. 15.  
15   Melanie Nash and Martti Lahti, “ ‘Almost Ashamed to Say I Am One of Those Girls’: Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio, and the Para­doxes of Girls’ Fandom,” in Sandler and Studlar, p. 64.
16     Krämer, p. 130 n.42.
17     David M. Lubin, Titanic (London: British Film Institute, 1999), p. 69.
18 Tom Gunning, “An Aesthetic of Astonish­ment: Early Film and the (In)credulous Spec­tator,” Art and Text 34 (Spring 1989), p. 31.
19     Quoted in John Kasson, Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978), pp. 63, 66.
20     Tom Gunning, “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, its Spectator and the Avant- Garde,” in Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Nar­rative, ed. Thomas Elsaesser (London: British Film Institute, 1990), pp. 58-9.
21     David Bordwell, The Cinema of Eisenstein (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 6.
22     Sergei Eisenstein, quoted in Bordwell, pp. 115-16.
23     Quoted in Peter Wollen, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (London: Seeker and Warburg, 1972), p. 32.
24     Quoted in Laurie Oullette, “Ship of Dreams: Cross-Class Romance and the Cultural Fantasy of Titanic,” in Sandler and Studlar, p. 169.
25     Quoted in Vivan Sobchack, “Bathos and Bathysphere: On Submersion, Longing and History in Titanic,''’ in Sandler and Studlar, p. 202.

In: Hollywood Cinema. Blackwell Publishing, Malden, 2003, pp. 12-15.

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