The devil is in the detail

Titanic, the most expensive film ever made, is a visual extravaganza. But how much better, says Peter Hall, if the design details aimed for authenticity, not simply effect

I have to confess that by the last hour of James Cameron’s three and a half hour, 125m epic film Titanic, I was willing the ship to sink. And just when I thought it had finally plunged to its happy resting place in a deep crevasse at the bottom of the Atlantic, there, clinging to a piece of ornate panelling in the middle of the ocean, were Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, squeezing out their last goodbyes. As the film bobbed afloat for another 20 minutes,

I sensed that even the weeping throng around me in the dark cinema longed to be put out of its misery.

That said, Titanic is a visual extravaganza not to be missed. The most expensive film ever made taxed effects house Digital Domain to the max. A 90 per cent scale reproduction of the ship was built, carpets were the original pattern, water was constructed digitally and poured over the scenes in post-production using some canny algorithms.

James Cameron went, to coin an appropriate phrase, overboard. All for a plot resembling Huckleberry Finn meets Scarlett O’Hara aboard a ship of filmic clichés. A heroically grand production, bludgeoned into pulp by another formulaic Hollywood written-by-committee-and-focus-groups script.

Most intriguing is the obsessive desire that has taken hold of film production teams to achieve extreme levels of period accuracy, only to be foxed by anachronisms introduced in the name of character development. A “beading expert”, for example, was among the production team, responsible for fastidiously researching the period materials adorning a dress worn by Kate Winslet’s character, Rose. Yet we then see Rose walking aboard the Titanic with Picasso’s Desmoiselles d’Avignon – an attempt to convey to the audience that Rose had an independent streak and avant garde tastes? I can’t have been the only member of the audience who wondered when exactly the famous canvas was dredged up from the bottom of the Atlantic unscathed to become a cornerstone of the Modern Movement.

Hollywood films have become like the sky scrapers of Manhattan in the Twenties: the bigger, more lavish and more expensive the better. The designs are littered with period details, evoking grandeur and prestige, slapped on as meretricious extras rather than forming part of the integral design. They are, in a sense, perfect expressions of contemporary American culture, paying homage to vague audience notions of forgotten empires, lost times and a “sophisticated” old world, all thrown into a winning concoction of audience manipulation, like a Disneyland ride.

One distinctly less cumbersome and more original release in 1997 was the low-budget, 16mm film Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, by Errol Morris. In stark contrast to the aforementioned skyscraper, Fast, Cheap and Out of Control is a film driven by a tight integration of design aims with directorial goals. It is a bizarre documentary, based on interviews with four oddballs – a lion tamer, topiary gardener, robot designer and photographer of mole rats.

Both the cinematography and narrative are based on the idea that a film can be a kind of painted collage, weaving together apparently unrelated sub jects in a way that brings out their similarities. And, at its heart, is a techno logical innovation, albeit a low-budget, patched-together one: a device Morris refers to in interviews as the “interrotron”, effectively a two way video camera allowing direct eye contact between the interviewer and interviewee, and, consequently, a startling naturalism.

Such is the polarised state of the film business. At one end is all the money and at the other, all the ideas. Even the old boys behind the Academy Awards have begun to notice that elegance and originality are more likely to be found in an independent production than a

Hollywood blockbuster. Incidentally, US management guru Tom Peters cited independent film making in his book The Circle of Innovation as a good business model for the corporation of the future. Peters – the theorist behind the Eighties model of an ideal corporation, streamlined and focused -has now declared that the corporation is dead.

In its place, he says, should be a virtual production team: someone directs, someone gets financing, a team of actors and production crew is assembled, the product is made, distributed and the team disbanded. Implementing that idea in Hollywood would be akin to putting all the studio nay-sayers and bureaucrats in steerage on the Titanic. Where the number of lifeboats was reduced to 50 per cent capacity in the name of aesthetics.

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