Friday, April 06, 2012

Why Rose Dewitt Bukater Still Matters To Me


This is likely the most personal post I have written in 6+ years of film blogging but it's something I've wanted/needed to write for 15 years. As always, my advance and utmost apologies.

It’s difficult to describe how excited I was to see "Titanic" in late December of 1997. I had first glimpsed the trailer that summer and been overwhelmed, but this was more on account of pairing James Cameron with the most infamous ship sinking in recorded history. My expectations were sky high and one of my best friends said to me in our Iowa City version of "Seinfeld’s" Monk’s Diner a few hours after my last final exam and roughly 24 hours before I sat down to watch said film back home in Des Moines, “I see you leaving the theater and being……a little disappointed.” But I wasn’t disappointed. It transcended even my highest hopes, just not for the reasons I’d assumed.

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In 1997 I was a “burgeoning” English major at the University of Iowa. I was idealistic (read: idiotic) and naïve and the whole college rigmarole pissed me off. I had long been under some misguided notion that upon arrival at university I would be allowed to write for hours and hours and read profound books about writing and pontificate at length with other aspiring writers about writing. Instead I was taking slightly more advanced courses identical to courses I’d taken in high school. I was confused. No, that's not right. I was irritated. I’m bad at grasping a foreign language. I wish I knew why but that is a skill I wholly lack. I hardly paid attention in my theater class and got an A but despite willingly dragging my ass to Spanish class at 7:30 every single morning five days a week and listening and taking notes and studying I could still barely string together a complete sentence. The aforementioned last final exam was, as it had to be, for Spanish, and it remains among the most bewildering, terrifying moments of my life.

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The first time we see Rose Dewitt Bukater – well, the young Rose Dewitt Bukater – is her arrival at Southampton wherein she gazes up at the RMS Titanic, all 882 feet of it, and says “It doesn’t look any bigger than the Mauritania.” God, was that awesome. It was an aristocratic fuck you. She was 17, I was 19. She was from Philadelphia, I was from Des Moines (though she eventually settled in – ahem – Iowa). She was a socialite, I was an introvert. But she was idealistic (read: idiotic), she was naïve and she was pissed off. I loved her from the get-go.


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I had never seen Kate Winslet. Oh, I’d seen her, sure, in "Sense and Sensibility" but that was before I had officially entered Film Fandom and so I didn't see her. "Titanic" was the first time I saw her.

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“I know what you must be thinking – poor little rich girl. What does she know about misery?” That's what Rose says to Jack, and I dare say this is what a lot of people – particularly those who didn’t much care for "Titanic" – thought when they looked at Rose. “A bit of a tramp,” is how Jerry described her on "Seinfeld." My friend Daryl wanted to make "Titanic: HISstory", as told from the point-of-view of Billy Zane’s Cal Hockley in order to show him as a victim of a teenage ingenue's fabrications. Critic David Edelstein, much like my friend Rory, dismissed it as an “Edwardian soap opera.” I, however, sided with Jack, who answered Rose’s query by saying “No. That’s not what I was thinking.” I saw what Jack saw. “You’re a spoiled little brat.” She threatened to commit suicide by hurling herself off the back of the ship even though we all know she wouldn’t have done it. She was full of melodrama and angst. She was young and, in turn, she was sort of stupid. ("You're so stupid, Rose!") Like we all are at that age. She wanted something better. It's just that she didn’t know any better.

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I remember sitting in my second semester Spanish class, hopelessly depressed, and thinking "I hate this. I am utterly miserable. I don't want to be here. Why am I racking up student loan debt for this?" and then trudging back across campus to Hillcrest Hall knowing in the back of my mind that my days of trudging back across campus to Hillcrest Hall were quite likely numbered.


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After "Titanic" became the (then) most successful movie of all time Kate essentially had the whole cinematic world at her feet. She was offered the lead roles in "Shakespeare in Love" and "Anna and the King." Instead she chose to run off to Morocco to make "Hideous Kinky." At the time she said: "Neither my agent here nor in London got the script at all or why I wanted to do it. I ha(d) to say, 'You have to listen to me and this is what I want to do.'" Reading that was the exact moment I became a Winslet Devotee. She had to do what she had to do and she had to do it in her own way even if it was the wrong way because even if it was the wrong way, well, she knew that it was the right way.

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There are few sections of a film - any film - that I enjoy more than when Rose turns down entry into that first lifeboat to go below deck into the rising waters to find Jack to find an axe to bring break him free. Not simply because of how it's filmed, though it's filmed brilliantly, but because of what it represents. She is saying so long to security, to certainty, to convention, and to bullshit and there is no going back.


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I have written before that Rose Dewitt Bukater is the Scarlett O'Hara for my generation, and I will go to my grave unswerved of that notion. My mother is a person so taken with the character of Scarlett O'Hara a few years back she literally (read: legally) changed her middle name to Scarlett. And I think that's hugely relevant here.

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I don't mean to imply in any way that seeing "Titanic" is the reason I decided to say au revoir to higher learning. That would not simply be simplified but ridiculous. I probably knew deep down before I handed over my whopping four bucks and a quarter (yes, kids! really!) what my immediate future held. But it would also be ridiculous to say getting to "meet" Rose didn't give me comfort with my forthcoming decision and with those weird, confusing days (years) to follow.

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I had long loved movies. I had only a couple years earlier started authoring (mostly crummy) screenplays. I dreamt of making movies. But I never truly realized how little I understood movies. Being so affected by "Titanic" brought into focus not only how much the movies in general meant to me but how desperate I was to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of them. It made me tear into classic film for the first time and to read voraciously about film history. It was, in a way, in an inadequate yet still crucial way, my own little ragtag version of film school.

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There were, as you might suspect, a great number of moments in James Cameron's Oscar winning opus that wrecked me, but one that has remained with me the longest is that framed photo on Old Rose's night stand of Young Rose astride the horse in the surf at the Santa Monica Pier. I like to imagine Old Rose chilling around her house and looking at that picture and smiling and thinking, "Yup. Right decision."


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There are many days when I wonder whether or not I made the right decision. Actually, let's make that many, many days. I could have stuck it out. I could have talked to my academic advisor. I could have found a way to navigate around or through that Spanish boondoggle. I could have moved along to the writing courses and film studies classes I so desired. But......would I have missed out on the Epic Arizona Misadventure? Would I have moved to Chicago? Would I have the friends I have? Arizona was a near-catastrophe, but I don't regret it. And I love Chicago. And I love my friends. And I love who I turned into. There is no question in my mind that my life decisions in the winter of 1998 were heavily shaded by my naïve idealism and that, from one perspective, I didn't truly think it through and, in a way, will forever suffer from it. Yet, there is no question in my mind that I wouldn't be where I am and I wouldn't be who I am if it weren't for my life decisions in the winter of 1998. I had to do what I had to do and I had to do it in my own way even if it was the wrong way because even if it was the wrong way, well, I knew that it was the right way.

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To paraphrase Planet Earth Poet Laureate Bruce Springsteen, We all grow up and know "it's only a movie"......but it's not.

Of course, it's not. I have a severe quarrel with anyone who says it is.

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3D, no 3D, whichever, I can't wait to say hi to Rose again. She means the world to me and she always will.

8 comments:

Castor said...

Fantastic post Nick. Indeed personal but it's also why it might be your best piece. Maybe someday, you will let me republish it on AM ;)

Kate Winslet's character was also big for me, back in the days. But mostly because I developed a huge crush on her back then ahah ;)

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Aaaaaw, Nick. AAW, NICK.

Such a fantastic post, and as someone who's always looking deeper and I often gloss over the deeper intricacies of Rose's character (yes, intricacies because go to hell if you think Cameron created one dimensional fools with this one.)

Still, the Rose moment I often think of first (which is not a Winslet moment alone) is the scene where she watched the little girl folding the napkin and then old Rose narrates about how trapped she feels and Gloria nails the voiceover, Kate NAILS the sadness, Cameron nails the moment and it's such a fine encapsulation of what you're saying here.

Great post, great movie. Cheers.

Mette said...

YOU just wrote one of the most captivating posts I've read for a long time. So much love and honesty!

... When I first saw Titanic, I was fourteen, and the character of Rose immediately appealed to me. I could just so relate to her, because I was tired of everything, life in general, you know... And I think one of the most important messages she gave us was that you have to do what you want in the moment, you just have to say yes - and if it seems wrong some time, you have to know it'll seem right later.
Titanic - one of my favourite movies, and absolutely no one will ever talk me out of that.

Nick Prigge said...

Castor: Thank you, my friend. That means a lot. Truly. And I did originally plan on posting it on AM and I would still love for it to appear there in the future but I guess I just wanted this one to show up that first time on Cinema Romantico.

Andrew: Yes! That scene you speak of says SO much! Everyone remembers the scene on the bow of the ship but they forget that scene was the bridge to it. And it's those moments so many people forget in their misguided rush to just condemn the dialogue.

Mette: Thank you. I greatly appreciate that.

"...and if it seems wrong some time, you have to know it'll seem right later." Yes.

"Titanic - one of my favourite movies, and absolutely no one will ever talk me out of that." DOUBLE yes.

Vancetastic said...

So glad I read this on the morning of the day I'm seeing the movie again. I will think about the things you wrote as I watch it. (Didn't plan to watch it the day the boat set sail 100 years ago -- just turned out that way. $7 Tuesdays at the local theater. Though they'll charge a couple extra bucks for 3D.)

Also, love the insight into the Nick I don't know. Thanks for entrusting us with it.

Nick Prigge said...

Thank you very much for the kind words. Appreciated.

I would to love hear your thoughts on the 3D conversion because I think you are probably much, much more qualified to know than me to know if this conversion was worthwhile.

Vancetastic said...

Okay Nick, my thoughts are up on The Audient right now:

http://theaudient.blogspot.com/2012/04/thats-idiom-and-other-new-thoughts.html

Am I more qualified to know if the conversion was worthwhile because I see 3D movies and you don't? If you wrote an "I never see 3D movies" post on your blog, I may have missed it.

Cecelia said...

I wished that Jack could've lived. If you have a moment, feel free to stop by my site (it's under construction, but somewhat functional) and read my Titanic Fan Fiction. My fan fiction starts after the ship wrecks and Jack lives:
http://ceceliadowdy.com/titanic-fan-fiction/