Like a lot of kids, my younger siblings and I liked to play office. We—that is, I—just took it a little more seriously than most. When I was in third grade, I got in trouble with my teacher for showing up at school with a briefcase and trying to distribute letters inviting my classmates to apply for positions with the Duluth Savings and Loan, the imaginary business my sisters (ages 5 and 2) and I ran out of our basement.
My mom is now getting ready to sell her house, and in cleaning out the basement we discovered that apparently, when I was almost 15 years old I was still at it. Not only was I still at it, I’d conducted an imaginary takeover of the imaginary Duluth Savings and Loan by the imaginary Gabler-Lutzka Entertainment Network, the multimedia production and distribution business that my friend Nathan and I pretended to run. I’d apparently given the Duluth Savings and Loan presidency—which had been mine from ages 7 to 14—to our family friend Kim Litwinczak, and I wrote a page-long single-spaced letter informing her how things were going to be from here on out. Presented here, with annotations, is the text of that letter.
[address redacted] Saint Paul, Minnesota 55104 March 8, 1990
Miss Kimberly Litwinczak President The Duluth Savings and Loan [same address, again redacted] Saint Paul, Minnesota 55104
Welcome to the new [imaginary] Duluth Savings and Loan! As you may or may not be aware of, the [imaginary] Gabler-Lutzka Entertainment Network recently purchased a majority of the [imaginary] stock in your [imaginary] company, and, as Co-President and holder of fifty percent of the [imaginary] G.L.E.N. stock, I am your new Chairman of the [imaginary] Board.
I think that you and your co-workers will find that being supported by a major [imaginary] company such as G.L.E.N. will greatly increase your [imaginary] company’s stability a great deal. I am anxious to work for you and with you.
You may have noticed a change in the look of your [actual] office. This is all on a scale with my grand plans for your [actual] office. My [actual] plan can perhaps be most easily described as having three steps:
1. Improve the office space’s look. I do not really want to change the look of your office so much as improve upon it. The new sign over the entrance to the office (which will be going up shortly) is a modification on the original sign, designed by award-winning [the award was probably imaginary] designer Jesse Osendorf [my actual cousin]. I intend to “spruce up” the walls with [actual] pictures and calendars depicting the city of Duluth, Minnesota, the mother city of your firm. I would also like to improve upon the desks and your personal decor. I will be doing this on a person-to-person basis. All modifications will be overseen by G.L.E.N.’s [imaginary] construction/remodeling division, which I am also the head of.
2. Extend the firm’s services. The major implement of this change will be the use of the adjacent space, which I have leased [in other words, my parents let me use sometimes], to contain the Superior Sports Arena [in other words, the place where we kept our ping-pong table], home of the Gabler Good Griefs table tennis team. The arena will be staffed and maintained by our [imaginary] sports division, which I am also the head of.
3. Increase the office’s efficiency. This will probably be the step that will be most felt by you and your co-workers. I intend to entirely re-organize the office’s inner mail system and position responsibilities. You will also feel dramatically the power of G.L.E.N.’s local 16-bit microprocessor [my TI-99/4A computer]. Particularly daunting tasks can be sent to our even-more-powerful Commodore 64 [belonging to Nathan’s parents] up in Duluth. I feel this is the step you will “get the most out of,” as it directly involves you and your personal productivity.
Of course, I will personally supervise all these steps. Please feel free to tell me about your feelings about this change. You may consult me freely when I am in the office, or you may call me at home at [phone number redacted]. My office number is [same phone number, again redacted].
Titanic isn’t my favorite movie, and I don’t think there’s much of a case for it being more profound than Citizen Kane or more thrilling than Vertigo. It’s certainly not as funny as the Marx Brothers at their best. Its special effects were groundbreaking, but it wasn’t the game-changer that Star Wars was; nor will it ever be as iconic as Casablanca. Answer this, though—and be honest. Is there any movie since The Wizard of Oz that’s been so…well, perfect?
Here’s the thing about James Cameron’s 1997 epic: it does absolutely everything it tries to do, exactly as well as it tries to do it. Specifically, it imagines a human story to illuminate one of the 20th century’s most compelling historical moments, and it succeeds beyond all reason.
Consider how many, many, many movies try to pull off historical drama and either fall flat on their faces (Gettysburg) or look great but bore the hell out of you (Barry Lyndon) or succeed, but age poorly (Braveheart). Even Dances With Wolves, wildly successful and acclaimed in its time, for most of Gen Y has degenerated to a series of gags (“Tatonka! Tatonka!”). Titanic, though, just looks better and better. It still makes you gasp, it still makes you cry, it’s still loved by swooning 12-year-olds and almost everyone who ever was one.
For various reasons, I’ve seen Titanic several times over the past couple of years, and every time, I’m more and more amazed by how I find myself glued to the screen—even though I’ve known since 1997 how it ends and we’ve all known since 1912 how it ends ends. As Cameron, who wrote the film himself, conducts his cast through their predictable but still charming and entertaining paces, he creates a spellbinding sense of weight as things are set up to go wrong, then actually go wrong, then get about as wrong as things can get.
The film’s pacing is precisely right, one shot folding into the next in just the right progression. Cameron doesn’t have the lifelong gift for character and emotion that Steven Spielberg has, but even Spielberg has never sustained Titanic‘s exquisite balance for such a long span of film. Cameron sympathetically sketches characters so quickly that we feel we’ve known them forever, and when their lives are endangered, we care—even if we’ve seen them die dozens of times already.
What makes Titanic such a pure example of moviemaking done right is the fact that Cameron’s approach is perfectly calibrated to his subject. Lots of filmmakers prolong their characters’ agonies, with varying degrees of success, but in Titanic, Cameron dramatizes a very real-life, very cinematic disaster that just happens to have unfolded over a span of time that was just about the length of a feature film. Cameron establishes the ship’s features and terrain through well-planned establishing scenes, then turns around and reaps the rewards of our familiarity when he shows us how all the best-laid plans ultimately backfired.
The wreck of the Titanic was full of unsubtle class inequities, and it’s just as well that Cameron doesn’t try to treat them subtly. The rich sneer at the poor, and the poor suffer nobly. In any other movie, that approach could easily have led to a boring obviousness, but when disaster strikes, we watch in horror as rich and poor play out their class struggle with lives on the line. Before (well, almost before) we have time to start yawning at Cameron’s hoary class and ethnic stereotypes,the characters are being ground against an inevitable tragedy.
Even the film’s riskiest gamble, the framing device with the old lady and the diamond, works—thanks to the invaluable Gloria Stuart and to Cameron’s skill at contrasting her horrific memories with the glibness of modern explorers who were born long after the ship had sank. Never mind how credible or incredible the scenario is, it lends the film substance by underlining the fact that Titanic tells a true story about actual people who died in an extremely picturesque and extremely sad event.
I haven’t said anything yet about Kate and Leo, because…what need be said? The casting was as exactly right as just about everything else regarding Titanic. Winslet and DiCaprio both somehow pull off the feat of feeling earthy while looking totally gorgeous, and they work so damn well together that a moment like the bow-point trust thrust became instantly iconic. It could have been ridiculous, but the music and the cinematography tell us it’s profound and thrilling, and Cameron has us so firmly in his grip that we helplessly surrender to the magic of this cheesy, heavy-handed, completely obvious and absolutely perfect movie.
Last night my girlfriend and I pulled Braveheart up as a kitschy couch-potato flick, and in that respect we were not disappointed. It didn’t seem like a film anyone would confuse with a good movie, and we attributed its Best Picture win to the Academy’s predictable taste for historical epics.
I was surprised, then, to later read the reviews and find that the film was immediately adored by critics—not just the famously unsnobbish Roger Ebert, but by the New York Times, whose writer Caryn James called it “one of the most spectacular entertainments in years.” Even The New Yorker‘s Anthony Lane, as fun to read as he is hard to please, gave the film a largely positive review that included complimentary comparisons to The Passion of Joan of Arc and Laurence Olivier’s Henry V.
Why has this film, acclaimed less than 20 years ago, aged so poorly?
1. It looks and sounds dated. There’s a certain fascination to watching historical epics from years past: despite attempts to evoke a distant era, they inevitably hint at the time of their creation. The best example of this in Braveheart is Mel Gibson’s hair, which seems to have been taken as authentically unruly (Lane, impressed: “Gibson has to speak with the right accent, wear a kilt, and scrupulously avoid anything than resembles a comb”) but now looks like a blow-out created by a celebrity stylist whose chair had been recently vacated by Michael Bolton. James Horner’s wheezy score also shows its age: there are the trembling flutes you’d find in any Scot-centric epic, but then there are also the Hearts of Space synths.
2. The gay subplot is offensive. With gay marriage becoming legal in states across the country, it’s hard to understand how policies like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage act could have been espoused by a Democratic president within the lifetime of today’s teens. In that sense, Braveheart is an illuminating time capsule. The prince of England is a simpering stereotype, incapable of leadership and impotent to impregnate his strategically-garnered French wife. For plot purposes he’s homosexual, but the tone of the film makes him asexual: a hapless eunuch. The offensive suggestion that being gay is akin to having no sexuality at all—no potency in any respect—earned Braveheart a statement of protest from the Gay Alliance, and yet passed notice by all three reviews I read. Ebert, in fact, seems to have missed that there even was a gay subplot, referring to the prince’s lover as “his best friend.”
3. Mel Gibson. In 1995, Braveheart was seen as evidence that Gibson’s flair for acting was matched by behind-the-lens savvy, a talent that had brilliantly matured. That didn’t last long. It took Gibson nine more years to direct another film, and that film was The Passion of the Christ. For anyone who’s seen—or even, really, just heard about—that latter movie, it’s impossible not to see Braveheart as an earlier, more palatable, product of a deeply disturbing set of fascinations. The masochistic martyr, the abuse of human bodies, the uncomplicated tie between ethnic origin and moral character. It’s understandable why Gibson, a man who likes to very explicitly remind us of the unspeakable agonies our forebears suffered for our sakes, would be interested in producing a Holocaust film—but given Gibson’s anti-Semitic inclinations (to put it charitably), it’s just as well that the director has kept his focus on the distant past.
1995 wasn’t all that long ago, but Braveheart makes the 20th century seem almost as distant as the 13th.
“Hidden tracks” after ten minutes of silence at the end of albums
Dial-up Internet, and the sound it made
Vice President Dan Quayle
When MTV only played music videos
Jay Leno being taken seriously
Having your little sister die from a Ring Pop mishap
Chicken Soup for the Soul (Book Club)
Alicia Silverstone movies that aren’t Clueless
“The very best thing of all” (the counter on this Skip-It ball)
People being obsessed with Andrew Lloyd Webber
The Microsoft Office paper clip
The mom on 7th Heaven
Well-meaning, poorly-informed sentiments about Tibet and the Balkans
Nancy Drew on Campus books
Holding Willy captive
Thinking Jakob Dylan was going to be the voice of a generation
Suddenly Susan being more popular than The Naked Truth
Getting Gak in your hair
The smell of old Gak on your hands
Land Before Time sequels
Brendan Fraser, leading man
Murphy, the dog from Mad About You
Bananas in Pajamas
Janet Reno blue
Defending Milli Vanilli
Being huddled over a crib at a goddamn kite store (Air Traffic) every Saturday morning looking for a specific Beanie Baby
People forgetting about O.J.’s superb acting career
Putting one strand of beads in your hair at camp
Feeling like you were going to hell for removing your W.W.J.D. bracelet when you went swimming
Jelly shoes comeback
Having to play with yo-yos, not iPads
Being haunted by images of Marshall Applewhite
The monster of a Cabbage Patch Kid doll that ate plastic food mechanically and had a backpack where the food went and then you’d take the food out of the backpack and put it right back in her mouth and you’d do that over and over until your hair would get stuck too, honestly a NIGHTMARE