History Blog: 1,517

That would the number of people who died in the Titanic disaster 98 years ago – at time far removed from today’s information-powered world.

Yet, even today, the disaster ripples through society.

It gives us all a moment a pause – whether outright or in our thoughts – on a scale that only few events in history can.

9/11.

J.F.K.

The World Wars.

The public at large remembers these, unlikely to ever forget entirely – forming an emotional resonance and attachment that is hard to equal in history.

People don’t really connect to the death of Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson the way they have to the epic tale of Titanic’s demise.

Why is that?

What is that secret ingredient that allows the world to mourn something forever?

It’s the common factor – how events effect the common person in society that matters in these instances.

The majority of the people who died aboard Titanic were of common stock – 3rd class citizens during the Edwardian era where the tragedy took place – who were the working poor, or those who could at least break even.

Sure, there were a small cadre of tycoons who met their doom – some by choice, other by the rules of a polite and enlightened society (women and children first).

But by and large, the dead were comprised of people who had nothing – who were traveling to the New World in hopes of a better life.

A better life that never came.

Dreams, wishes, and lives extinguished due to the hubris of a society who thought iron could do them no wrong.

So emboldened by technology that they flew in the face of fate – practically daring it to strike them down – and Fate was more than willing to engage them, sending the largest ship that had ever been built (at the time) to the bottom of the North Atlantic.

Of course, as with many human dramas, money was at the heart of this terrible misadventure.

Despite the sheer opulence of the floating palace that Titanic represented to it’s 1st and 2nd class passengers, Titanic was built for one purpose: transporting mass numbers of 3rd class passengers to North America.

Back then, the large ships were meant to make companies like White Star Lines and Cunard Lines money by fulfilling the dreams of the poor to start their lives over in the land of milk and honey – much in the same way cattle are moved around from place to place in today’s commodity markets.

In fact, the 3rd class passengers were referred to as ‘steerage’ in the common industry parlance of the day.

Moving these dreamers in bulk maximized profits for White Star, so the push was for bigger and bigger ships was good for business – without the foresight to see problems in the design work, or the will to spend extra money of safety measures beyond the headline-grabbing technologies.

Yes, Titanic had the revolutionary water-tight bulkheads that made the literature of the day declare her ‘practically unsinkable’ – which was a fantastic feature given the era – but it also had design failures that were either not foreseen by the same authors, or were purposely left out of the articles after insistence by White Star.

The biggest design failing that was incorporated into the Olympic-class ships was the pitifully small rudder when compared to the length of the ships – which meant the ships couldn’t corner worth a damn, and meant Titanic could not steer her way out of a collision with an iceberg on short notice.

Of course, this is knowledge determined over nearly a century of hindsight.

The painfully obvious – and hammered upon in James Cameron’s movie –  fact was White Star’s refusal to install the number of life rafts allotted for in Thomas Andrew’s designs due to the unseemly appearance of a crowded deck where the 1st and 2nd class passenger would stroll about.

I’m sure this wasn’t an explicit swipe at the 3rd class citizens – who were quite disposable in that era’s social hierarchy, despite them carrying the upper crust on their backs – but more in line with the hubris I mentioned earlier.

Like I said, Titanic and her sisters were built with catering to the 3rd class in mind – not to endanger or belittle them.

It’s a common fact that White Star’s accommodations for the 3rd class passengers were classier than the competition – almost worlds apart, in comparison.

The dining areas of Titanic’s steerage sections were staffed by friendly people and appointed quite well: tablecloths, porcelain dishes, good silverware, and a fairly robust menu given the social circumstances.

White Star depended on the 3rd class enjoying their experience on Titanic so much that the menu cards that those passengers ordered from were designed with postcards on the reverse side – so not only would the people write home to their relatives in the Old World about how happy they were with their treatment aboard ship, the postcard itself would be an advertisement of what a prospective 3rd class passenger could expect to dine on during their trip (a rather ingenious marketing ploy – even by today’s standards)

Even the 1st and 2nd class appointments of Titanic were secondary considerations to the development of better and faster ways to deliver 3rd class citizens to America’s shores – designed to give social sizzle to the endeavor so it would stir the public’s imagination.

A ploy to give even the poorest of people dreams of what it would be like to move to America and make their own fortunes – fortunes that would allow them to book a return trip one day in that very luxury that inspired them in the first place.

However, in the end, it was all for naught – at least for Titanic’s passengers.

The mountain of steel and iron was no match for an equally massive mountain of frozen water – especially at the speed that Titanic’s owner, whom was aboard the ship on it’s maiden voyage (Robert Ismay), had demanded she be going.

All 46,328 tons of the ship were heading to the bottom of the ocean as of 2:20 A.M. in the morning of April 15th, 1912.

Never to be seen again – at least, not until the wee hours of the morning on the 1st of September in 1985.

Since that date, Titanic’s wreck has become a popular destination for those who are curious and who have the technological know-how to dive the 2.33 miles to the bottom – risking their lives in the process.

For many of the people who have been to Titanic’s grave (or a seeking a way there), the rusting hulk represents the human failure to realize that we as a species do not rule the universe – but it also reminds us of the pettiness that our society is capable of… how easy it is for us to belittle those who don’t have the same advantages in life that we do.

Titanic’s wreck is also a time capsule – a time capsule that is slowly dissolving away in the frigid depths far from the eyes of the everyday people.

It’s a view backwards through time – even if it’s a rust-coloured view – towards a time where there were no computers, no internet, no cell phones, no video games… towards a time where mankind sought to fashion technological wonders out of the Earth’s raw materials with his bare hands and the strength of his biceps (there were no robots and complex hydraulic machines to assist in Titanic’s construction – each rivet in her hull was brutalized into shape my men swinging massive hammers).

It’s a time capsule that captures the immense hopefulness that existed in the world prior to World War One and the following Great Depression – what humankind hoped that the future would look like.

However, the wreck is also the tomb and grave marker for those 1,517 souls – and this lends the Titanic’s remains a complexity that interests people on a fundamental level… a paradox in attitudes.

The man who led the team who located Titanic’s wreck, Dr. Robert Ballard, is of the view that Titanic should be left alone as the grave that it is – instead of being poked and prodded (and plundered by some).

Others insist the wreckage be archaeologically cataloged before it completely collapses in on itself – which is entirely inevitable – and becomes nothing more than a rust stain on the bottom of the Atlantic.

It’s a moral battle suited to philosophers, but often boils down to money and the will to do something.

The money flows in two basic directions: RMS Titanic Inc. and the Russian Academy Of Sciences.

RMS Titanic Inc. is the legal owner of the wreck and has the right to salvage anything that it finds of interest from the wreck, sending the collection of over 5,000 artifacts (including a 17 ton section of the ship’s hull) around the world on tour – allowing people to visually connect with the history and tragedy of the Titanic for a modest fee.

The Russian Academy Of Sciences is the go-to agency for hiring submersibles able to dive to Titanic’s depths – of which there are few – and business is fairly brisk at the pace of up to five expeditions a year departing from St. John’s, Newfoundland in Canada (the closest major port to Titanic’s resting place).

There are other people and agencies that profit from Titanic – mainly media corporations that create documentaries for the masses, and of course, Paramount Pictures and 20th Century Fox who released the 2nd highest-grossing film in history based on the Titanic story.

So, again, Titanic boils down to money.

How tragic.

And yet… amusing when you consider the futility.

In the end, I’m asking that you ignore all my meandering in this blog, and for you to just set aside a moment and try to take your mind to a place that can truly appreciate the human tragedy of Titanic for a few moments since there’s not a single Titanic survivor left to do so.

As the old Native American saying goes, something exists only as long as the last person who remembers it.

Those 1,517 people existed because I remember them – and I hope you will remember them, too.

For more Titanic facts, please consult the following links:

http://www.titanic-online.com/

http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/

http://www.titanichistoricalsociety.org/

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Thoughts On The 2010 Golden Globes

First thing off the bat that I noticed was the directing SUCKED.

Camera people were consistently out of place, and the coordinators had almost no idea of where anyone was seated.

WTF? How do you screw that shit up?

But I digress…

Big winner of the night were the Na’vi – who walked away with Best Motion Picture and Best Director – which A) really primes the movie for Oscar glory, and B) was inevitable.

Robert Downey, Jr. got some love for SHERLOCK HOLMES – but I was really puzzled about the category: Comedy/Musical.

Me thinks I’ll have to check that flick out to properly gauge the jokes and musical numbers.

Hollywood’s most overlooked workhorse, Jeff Bridges, finally got an award for his country music flick CRAZY HEART – which I have yet to see (anyone want to send me a screener copy?).

One of the most dumbfounding moments of the night was Drew Barrymore getting some hardware for GRAY GARDENS – not because she won (she’s always charming) but the fact that she’s never won a Golden Globe before, especially since she’s been coming to the awards since she was 7 or 8 years old.

It was cool to see what Michael Giacchino actually looked like (musical score for UP) as I’d never laid eyes on him before – so now he goes into the mental gallery with Danny Elfman and John Williams.

It was fitting that the scene-chewing Jew Hunter from INGLORIOUS BASTERDS won a trophy as Cristoph Waltz is actually a pretty decent dude.

The TV awards were pretty lame as nobody from any worthwhile shows won awards – though MAD MEN picked up Best Show (obvious, no?).

…Which brings me to the show’s actual Golden Globes:

Mmmm... global

Oh… and Ricky Gervais’ shot at Mel Gibson? Priceless!

Movie Blog: Avatar

Holy OMG, Batman!

My mind is completely blown.

Like… it was there, and then Laura Roslin airlocked it.

Except… substitute the prez of The 12 Colonies with James Cameron.

Now, before you even think of saying it, I haven’t bought into the Cameron fanboy hyperbole – I’m really trying to be objective here in my summations.

I’ve just come home from a 7 p.m. 3D screening of AVATAR and these are – what I hope – my clearly understandable insights.

*Thoughts On The Story*

Okay, I’m not going to go into a play-by-play of the movie because I don’t want to spoil the experience for you, but I will give you my artistic observations.

As with all of his films (except for Piranha), Cameron has worked from his own story, which I think is always good when you’re going to blow $300,000,000 of somebody’s money: you need to be familiar with the narrative inside and out, forwards and backwards.

With this movie idea gestating in Jim’s brain since he was a teenager, I don’t think there is anyone else on the planet more equipped to tell the story of Jake Sully: Avatar Driver.

To boil AVATAR to its bare essence, it’s a movie about a boy and a girl – that standard and popcorn-bathed escapist standby that has been the root of most Hollywood blockbusters since God knows when.

Boy And A Girl movies appeal to just about everyone since it connects with the audience on a deep psycho-biologic level: everybody wants to meet that 1 somebody that transforms their life, and the story of AVATAR does that very, very well without being exploitative (a degree upwards from Cameron’s TITANIC – and I’m not hating on TITANIC either… just sayin’).

That’s not to say that the overall story arch of the movie isn’t exploiting anything… no no no.

This movie plays heavily on the guilt we feel about all the crazy, destructive shit we’re doing to Planet Earth – and it grabs that guilt by the spine and gives it a severe thrashing… maybe the most heavy-handed since AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH.

However, it does it in the way STAR TREK has always dealt with real-world situations: via metaphor.

A very connectable metaphor with characters that the audience can identify/identify with – which is kind of the hallmark of Cameron films: characters that represent easily recognizable human traits and foibles i.e. greed, heroism, tenacity, stubbornness, caring, etc.

Speaking of connections, I must say that I love how all the indigenous life on Pandora has built-in biologic USB ports (maybe a bit plot-specific, but it’s one thing that amused/entertained me greatly).

I think one of the best qualities of the story is that you get sucked in and completely forget that you’re looking at something that is A) 3D, and B) 90% CGI – which says a lot because people have been hammering the hard-sell for AVATAR based on those two things alone.

Which brings me to…

*Thoughts On The 3D/Cinematography*

First off, this new wave of 3D is probably here to stay – way beyond a passing gimmick.

Yes, AVATAR is the absolute best showcase for this new technology.

Yes, the story is really sold by the 3D.

Could the story have functioned without it?

Yes. The 3D scope of the movie doesn’t get ‘gimmicky’ at any point, so the footage would translate (and has) quite well – though I haven’t seen the 2D version, and probably won’t until it debuts on DVD in the spring.

What the 3D footage does accomplish is give us a functioning window into things that don’t exist.

Is the 3D perfect?

No.

The current technology probably tops out at 80% perfect – but that failing is purely on the display side of things as far as I can tell.

My most prevalent observation is that movement in the near foreground can’t be tracked properly from eye to eye through the polarization effect that your glasses provide – which results in a blurriness that you could compare to a really low resolution photograph, despite the fact that the image is ultra-crisp.

It can be distracting sometimes in AVATAR and was my only real gripe with my experience (other than having horrible movie watchers scattered around me in the theater).

If there’s moving vegetation in the immediate foreground of the shot, I could never see it clearly.

This could also be an artifact of the digital projection system employed to show the new 3D films – a sort of pixel aliasing maybe.

Or… it could be purely my own eye-to-eye visual acuity.

Feel free to comment below if you experience the same.

Another thing that’s great is Cameron created physical camera moves inside his virtual construct, complete with shaky-cam vibrations to create that visceral action feeling – which really enhanced the experience I think.

The major technical hurdle that Cameron and his Weta Workshop artists completely decimated was the physics problem CGI in movies has always suffered from: 3D versus 4D.

4D?

Reality as we perceive it has FOUR dimensions: length, width, height, and time – time being the measurable space between any two points.

Computer generated imagery in movies has never really captured that fourth dimension: things happen too fast or too slow when compared to a similar sequence that was filmed from real life, and the resulting plasticity of the image was always a bit jarring for me if that CGI footage was up close and personal on the big screen.

However, AVATAR displayed not a frame of this problem – and I think that’s a result of James Cameron’s relentless search for perfection.

None of the movement on screen seemed pre-planned – it all feels completely organic.

The action didn’t seem to be animated – which is something incredible considering the amount of animation done – and I’m not even taking into consideration the photo-realistic textures applied to the virtual models.

Yes, AVATAR is photo realistic – to the point where you forget that you’re watching CG.

The only times you remember that you’re watching CG is those moments where the scenes feature flora and fauna that is simply too fantastic to exist – at least to our puny, Earth-bound comprehensions.

You will believe in 9-foot tall blue aliens that run around virtually naked National Geographic-style.

*Thoughts On How AVATAR Fits Into Cinematic History*

Is AVATAR James Cameron’s best movie ever?

No.

So far, he’s topped out with TITANIC.

AVATAR is fantastic popcorn escapism, but it doesn’t really explore the human condition like TITANIC.

Is AVATAR the best movie of the year?

Probably not.

I’ve seen quite a few flicks this year, and there were at least 3 that had a more solid impact… DISTRICT 9 comes to mind immediately.

However, I can say that it can go toe-to-toe with this year’s other sci-fi darling: STAR TREK.

However, AVATAR is probably the flick that kept me on the edge of my seat for the longest – and that’s saying something as I’ve become a bit jaded and analytical when I sit in the theater as of late.

So where does AVATAR sit in the Hollywood pantheon of cinematic history?

Top 3D flick of all time, that’s for sure.

Best December wide-release in more than a decade.

Best movie that takes place in the future and features humans vs. aliens that wasn’t called ALIENS (coincidentally also directed by James Cameron).

Hands down the best flick featuring CGI – sorry, Pixar (but I still love you!).

For sure the best movie featuring new A-List phenomenon Sam Worthington (TERMINATOR SALVATION was tepid at best).

Overall, I think AVATAR is the best way to close out the ‘Mean Decade’ – and yes, I have yet to lay eyes on SHERLOCK HOLMES, but I highly doubt that it will approach AVATAR in enjoyability (even though I like Robert Downey, Jr. – it’s just Guy Ritchie’s style that discounts it even before I see it).

*Conclusions*

Go see this movie.

See it in 3D while you can for less than $2,500 (starting price for new, top of the line 3D HDTV sets).

You’ll leave the theater feeling good about life – which really is a tangible something.

AVATAR won’t change your life, but it’s definitely the best way to spend your movie bucks right now.

Oh… you’re really saving your dollars to see CHIPMUNKS: THE SQUEAKUEL?

Leave this blog and never come back! You’re banished for having horrendous taste in film.

And no… having kids is NOT a viable excuse, LOL.

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If you somehow have missed the trailers for AVATAR and have no idea what the movie looks like, please view the following:

Or view the QuickTime HD version here.

UPDATE: Interesting back-and-forth conversation between James Cameron and Peter Jackson can be found here.