Titanic and ideology

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A Chinese politburo member was recently quoted in Newsweek, imploring his fellow party members to go check out Titanic. "There is ideology in the West," he told them, referring to director Jim Cameron's portrayal of how the third-class passengers were locked into the steerage decks while the ship sank.

-- Dan Draghici (ddraghic@sprint.ca), April 10, 1998


The criticism of Cameron's 'Titanic' as a Marxist film or some other exercise in class-warfare is one that I've heard almost since the movie opened in December, and one that probably annoys me more than any other.

To some people, the mere depiction of differences in wealth and social station, which are not in themselves proof of any injustice, constitutes a theme of "class struggle" or "Marxism". The fact that Cameron's depictions were all ***factual*** is apparently irrelevant to these people. It doesn't help matters any that some pro-Marxists, such as the ones from China that Dan mentions or who write movie reviews for the New York Times, have encouraged this view by praising the film for its depiction of class warfare. I think anyone, pro- or anti-Marxist, who takes this view is approaching the film wearing ideological blinders: they see what they want to see.

You can't tell the story of the Titanic without at least noting the different classes on the ship or the fact that many third-class passengers faced discrimination in getting to the lifeboats. The angle of rich girl and poor boy has precedents in literature long before Marxism and similar ideologies. In the case of this movie, it's only a device for furthering the more important events and ideas in the plot, such as learning about independence and first-hand values, and how people behave in the face of death.

If Cameron had spent most of the movie showing the third-class passengers as unhappy, downtrodden people crushed by evil capitalist industrialists, and had Jack Dawson spout a lot of lines about the need for "social reform", and tell Rose as he was dying in the water, "carry on the fight for proletariat justice," then there might be a case for the charge of "Marxism". But nothing of the sort happens. Jack and most of the rest of the third-class passengers are happy and optimistic, like many people in that era, rich or poor. The main bad guy, Cal, isn't a bastard because he's rich, he's a bastard because he seems oblivious to Rose's happiness and treats her as an object rather than a person. There are ***good*** first-class passengers portrayed, such as Molly Brown and Thomas Anderws. No one from first class except Cal and Rose's mother treats Jack badly. In sum, the film really has very little to say one way or the other about the rich as such. If 'Titanic' is a Marxist propaganda film, then it is the most incompetent propaganda film ever made. I didn't read or hear such criticism until after I saw the film for the first time. I, who am about as anti-communist as they come, never for a moment felt I was getting Marxist ideology during that first viewing. I've checked myself on subsequent viewing, and I simply don't see it.

-- Thomas Shoebotham (cathytom@ix.netcom.com), April 10, 1998.

Thomas, I perfectly agree with your comments. It was not about classes or even as nuch about the disaster. It was a classical romance doomed on an ill-fated ship.

-- Dan Draghici (ddraghic@sprint.ca), April 10, 1998.

In case anyone wondered, I didn't mean to imply that Dan thought 'Titanic' was Marxist. He simply posted the quotation and left it open for comment; it just made me think of all the other times I've heard the "Marxist" charge leveled against the film over the last few months.

-- Thomas Shoebotham (cathytom@ix.netcom.com), April 11, 1998.

i completely disagree!

Titanic, represents the Marxist class struggle as the governing ideal within which the film is produced. Titanic, takes place in 1912 when America had emerged as a super power in a period of the industrial revolution, where Karl Marx drew his ideologies from, so they where still apparent in society at this time. It also characterises the last remnant of the Victorian class struggle underlying clear definition about class struggle and its critique of capitalism. The first part of the love story openly symbolises capitalism at is peak, where Cal Hockley (Bill Zane) Rose’s fiancée tells her of how much faster, stronger and luxurious the ship is than any other. Titanic is a symbol of capitalist greed to make a better ship for no other reason than to satisfy capitalist greed to make all other ships around seem insignificant.

‘a house may be large or small; as long as a surrounding houses are equally small, but let a place arise and the little house now shrinks from a house to a hut’ (Marx & Engels, 1977: 216)

The architect represents the builder of the ship Bruce Ismay (Jonathan Hyde) pretentious and pusillanimous in his ways when he quotes ‘Bruce had the vision of a ship so grand and luxurious in its design would be second to none’. Marx describes this type of character when he wrote: ‘Every person speculates on creating a new need in another so as to drive him to a fresh sacrifice, to place, him in a new dependence and to seduce him into a new mode gratification and therefore economic ruin’ (Marx and Engels, 1974: 61). This best portrays the creation of Titanic a new mode of gratification; however, it is quite poignant that Ismay’s thirst for gratification eventual was the downfall the ship. As in the film, he asks the captain to put all the engines on, as ‘it would be nice to be in tomorrows headlines’. The two characters of the romance Jack and Rose are figurehead for the Marxist class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Jack a poor artist and Rose fiancée to an heir to a steel baron. Although the film tries to make the audience forget about the class barrier, there always reference to remind us. For instance when the first class dogs are taken to go toilet on the third class deck Jack quotes ‘lets us know where we rank in the scheme of things’ and later in the film when he tells Rose’ he knows how the world works. Cameron uses this ploy to show what Marx was referring to in his writings ‘Proletariat are ranked and treated according to their status’ (Miller. R, 1991: 68) We can assume Cameron’s position of ideology immediately as in his portrayal of the characters. Cal is instantly dislikeable as being rude and arrogant. However, Jack is an instant heart warmer, good poker player (how he wins his ticket), smokes and drinks in unruly bars but is sensitive, constant smiles and laughter throughout the film. Cameron portrays Jack as the essence of what Marx considered an independent man: A being only considers himself independent when he stands on his own feet; and he only stands on his own feet when he owes his existence to himself. A man who lives by the grace of another regards himself as a dependent being. (Marx. K, 1974: 69) We are further enlightened on Cameron’s position on the class struggle, in the scene where Jack runs to the end of she ship and screams ‘I’m the king of the world’. This is ironic as it could not be further from the truth as Jack lacks wealthy possessions and power deemed by a king. However, Cameron believes in Marxist opinion when he feels a king is ‘independent’ and does not ‘live by the grace of another, and to be both of this things you need to be happy with your life which jack clearly is. Cal and Ruth, Roses oppressive mother whom are strict traditional capitalists would presume that they are royalty when Cal claims ‘We are royalty Rose’, could not be further from the truth in Cameron’s Marxist perception. Cal and Ruth are the two most discontented characters in the film. Moreover, because these two characters are so unhappy they cannot be, kings, which Cameron sees, Jack as because he is happy and ‘independent’. In addition, their shallow beliefs that money, power, and private property are essential to a happy life are direct consequences of their unhappiness. Cal’s, unhappiness stems from him not being able to win Roses heart no matter what he buys her. Even the heart of the ocean (diamond necklace) so rare and expensive cannot buy her love. And Ruth from believing that if Cal does not wed Rose she will lose her societal position thus being reduced to ‘working as a seamstress’ these two character are perfect examples of what Marx called ‘dependent beings’ for their happiness relies on their ability to maintain their position within the capitalist society. As Marx wrote, they live ‘by the grace of another’. An important part of the film is the dinner scene where Jack is invited after having saved Rose’s life. In this scene, Cameron portrays exactly what he believes of capitalist society, strongly affirming his ideals as a Marxist. Molly Brown known as ‘new money’ by the traditional capitalists transforms Jack. He then waits on the stairs for Rose when Cal walks by and says ‘my God you could almost pass for a gentlemen’, making reference to the fact that he may look the part but has no power or money so he is not quite the part. Cameron here portrays to be a true member of the upper class you have to how Marx put: ‘Immense accumulation of commodities’ (Marx, 1867: 35 151-2) Marx sated this as the first most distinctive surface feature, not the clothes but what you actually have. Then to give him a tip on how to act Molly quotes’ remember they love money so talk about that and you’ll be fine’, another Marxist degrading comment on upper class capitalists, which Cameron further uses to express his Marxist opinion that these people where shallow at the extreme. Other statements in the scene such ‘business and politics wouldn’t interest you jack,’ and ‘do you find this rootless existence appealing,’ a comment from Ruth to the man who just saved her daughters life and her chances of holding onto her societal position. Further, enlighten us on how Marx saw capitalism at this time and how Cameron views capitalism then and now. The next part of the film that is really revealing is the nude picture Jack draws of Rose. Firstly, it was scandalous amongst the Bourgeoisie, but by posing nude with just the heart of the ocean round her neck she strips herself of her class and her and jack are equals for the fist time. This is more than just a rich sensual scene but the part where Rose is willing to drop her class status and allow herself too love Jack. Now the diamond does not symbolise Cal’s capitalist wealth by symbolises love that is oblivious to class distinctions. Moreover, this remains, as at the end of the film she drops it in the Ocean to reaffirm the necklace was a symbol of love not monetary affluence. This battle for Rose’s affections is what Cameron portrays as Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto when it stated: ‘Heightened class antagonism will, generate a revolution and the inevitable defeat of the bourgeoisie.’ (Marx and Engel, 1848) This moral victory for the Proletariat is confirmed when after consummating her love with jack Rose she tells him ‘when the boat docks, I’m getting off with you.’ This shift from being a ‘dependent being’ capitalist to a revolutionary proletariat is best described by Marx as: ‘The transcendence of private property is therefore the complete emancipation of all human sense and attributes; but it is this emancipation precisely because these sense and attributes have become, subjectively and objectively, human.’ (Marx. K, 1974: 76-79) I do however believe the way in which Cameron’s portrayal of Jacks lifestyle made it easier for Rose to divert. He had been Paris, was very good looking and healthy, and could tap dance. If had shown traits of proletariat life which were bad the case may have been different. The ship then hits the iceberg and now Titanic becomes the actual object of the class struggle. Because the proletariat are physically held back best portrayed by the scene when they are locked on their level whilst the first class passengers’ board. In addition, Cameron depicts that there are only two classes a popular Marxist belief, further confirmed when the architect tells Rose half the people aboard the ship will die and Cal states ‘not the better half.’ Cameron further depicts Marxist notions that Bourgeoisie capitalists are ‘dependent beings’ by having the bourgeoisie not want overcrowding and having the lifeboats seated ‘according to class’. Amongst all the angst and fear, they are shallow enough to make this trivial request. However, how it is fitting that the ship built out of capitalist greed is what condemns it! Marx best put it when he wrote: ‘What the bourgeoisie produces, above all is its own grave diggers’. (Marx, 1974: 73-9) To conclude James Cameron’s Titanic depicts his strong Marxist belief of the battle of power between the capitalist bourgeoisie and the proletariat. His position is definitely on the side of the underclass and socially excluded. He portrays this view by making a strong Marxist perspective in the film through narratives, characters, thematic subtext, and tone. His proletariat characters (Jack) are upstanding, loyal, and strong whilst their foes (Cal) are characteristically cowardly members of capitalist bourgeoisie, his use of characters further represent his position as Marxist. Overall, I believe Titanic is a good depiction of what life was like aboard Titanic for both classes, and feel he has made a significant landmark in subconsciously showing people through the tale of a love story. I can say this as the first time I watched Titanic blind, and by this I mean I did not pay particular attention to the ongoing struggles aboard but when analysing I realised subconsciously I had.

-- Shane Harris (notoriousgenius@hotmail.com), October 26, 2003.

yea true dat

-- rose hillary (rosemag@hotmail.com), March 23, 2004.

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