Monday, February 13, 2023

The Movie that Changed My Life

It's hard to believe it was 25 years ago. I'd been one of those Titanic rivetheads since the age of 11, when I read A Night to Remember in the sixth grade. I remember reading the book multiple times, though I can't remember what made this story so interesting to a girl who was beginning to have crushes on boys, who'd just begun wearing a bra, and who was alas, the first in her class to sprout pimples. But it was. Perhaps that was the beginning of my social conscience.That was 1966.

Fast forward to 1997. I'd been waiting for Titanic to come out ever since I first heard that the guy who directed "Aliens" would be directing it, that Kate Winslet, who I already adored from "Sense and Sensibility" and Leonardo DiCaprio, who had already shown serious chops in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, This Boy's Life and The Basketball Diaries (all of which I'd seen) were going to star. Clearly this wasn't going to be just another throwaway treatment.

Like so many others, mostly women, I walked out of my first viewing a blubbering mess. I was 42 years old, I'd been married for a decade already, and I'd never been a starry-eyed romantic. So at first I didn't know what it was about this movie that touched me so much. I knew the background story, I had never believed in love at first sight, so what the hell was it?

In this quest to find out What It Was About This Movie, I became a writer.

The Aftermath, Part I: In Which I Become A Film Critic

When I need to work something out in my head, I start writing. And before I even knew what I was doing, I'd written my first movie review. I submitted that review of Titanic to a now-long-gone site called Virtual Urth that was looking for writers, and lo and behold -- I was brought on a film critic (unpaid, of course, as most internet writing STILL is). That one dashed-off review led to another, and then another, and then an invitation to join the Online Film Critics Society. Through the OFCS, I met a number of other online film critics,, many of whom are still toiling away decades later. I had started designing and building web sites for my REAL job, so I departed Virtual Urth and until 2005, wrote reviews at two of my own web sites, both of which no longer exist, thanks to rising hosting fees and the end of static web sites.  A bunch of us later went off and created the pretentiously-named Cinemarati: The Web Alliance for Film Commentary, which hosted a lively messageboard, held annual awards (which enabled us to get cool things like Academy Award screeners and press passes to film festivals) and showcased the best of our collective work.

I saw Titanic two more times in the theater, and by then I was a regular on all the movie messageboards. And reading what people who might not have read everything they could for the last 30 years about this particular sinking eventually made me realize what moved me so much: It was that photo montage at the end of the movie and what it symbolized. 

Over time, our Cinemarati web host was collapsing, our messageboard software and database proved to be not sufficiently robust, and we'd reached the end of my ability to manage it. So Cinemarati fell by the wayside, and in 2005, so did my nascent career as an unpaid film critic.

 But I digress.

The Aftermath, Part II: The Fictioning

I noticed something while I was reading the Titanic messageboards that bothered me, and it was the number of young women who both truly believed that Jack was Rose's One True Love and that she pined away for him forever. That this was missing the entire point of the movie, even the sledgehammer moment (in retrospect) of the "Madame Bijou" sketch, never occurred to them. Now I hadn't yet dealt with tragedy in my own life, but I was old enough to understand that life consists of a certain amount of Getting On With It. 

I'd always had a certain amount of contempt for fan fiction. I'd never been able to write fiction worth a damn myself. I had no idea how one came up with characters, never mind stories for them. Nevertheless, fan fiction, because of its pre-existing characterizations, seemed a kind of cheat -- something not really creative and a rip-off of someone else's work. I knew that fan fiction was a big thing in sci-fi circles, but in my literary snobbery (and lack of sci-fi fandom myself), I never would have considered writing any.


Titanic was a movie that spawned a thousand fan fictions, and they tended to fall into two categories: "Jack lived and they lived happily ever after" and "Rose never got over Jack and she was sad forever." I was 43 years old and I was long over being attracted to tragic love stories. Besides, this wasn't one of them. There is a short clip near the end of the movie where we see a montage of photos of Rose's life after Titanic. Of course we see her riding a horse with the Santa Monica pier in the background, but there's also a headshot, a photo of Rose in aviator gear next to an airplane, and numerous photos that indicate a life filled with travel. And THAT was the story I wanted to tell. I've always found tragic love stories to be more than a little toxic. There were always girls who had read Wuthering Heights a million times and were madly in love with Heathcliff. That wasn't me. There was a real woman, a real story in Rose and damn it, I was going to be the one to tell it. None of this pining away crap. Rose was going to Get On With It.

r/MovieDetails - In Titanic, Rose’s bedside photos are everything she was going to do with Jack. She ice fishes, learns to fly a plane, alluding to the “Come Josephine My Flying Machine” song, rides a horse like a man, and rides roller coasters until she throws up. There’s a roller coaster in the …

There was a skeleton of a story there already. For me it started in California, because I'd always been interested in the silent film era. So I did research. Lots of it. I wanted no anachronisms and I wanted to include some actual history and actual people. I found a site called Taylorology, which still exists and  that went into excruciating detail about the murder of director William Desmond Taylor and the entire scandal-ridden Hollywood of the 1920s. I bought books about Iowa. I included actual shops there that appeared in those books. I included popular songs with links to sound files. And as I wrote, suddenly I was creating characters: Rose's eventual husband was named Charlie and he looked kind of like a young John Cusack. Charlie was a young widower who lived with his much-older sister Margaret who I envisioned as being Sarah Plain and Tall-vintage Glenn Close. And there were more. I'd be out in the yard planting impatiens and suddenly there was a character. It was as if they were unincarnated souls to whom I had opened my mind and they were asking me to tell their stories. And then my mind would "cast the movie," and as soon as I had the actor's voice, I had the characterization.

There were others of us -- a small army of women in their 20s through 40s, all writing our own version of that "and then what happened?" story. And some of us were pretty good. I teamed up with a young woman I'll call Kate, who was also an American social history buff who had the same vision that I did. And we came up with an outline that evolved into plans for a multigenerational sweeping family epic. We took a few liberties with the source material, but what we envisioned was a ripping yarn indeed.She was great at place and setting, and I had a way with dialogue. We'd edit each other's work and it was a truly collaborative effort.

So much of any fan fiction is abysmal, but there were a few of us who had some ability to write. I still have what some of the others from our informal little collective wrote. Some of it is pretty good. And we put it all online. I was lucky that I had a writing partner in Kate who was far more versed in web site creation than I was, and set up a beautiful site for us that was up for a very long time. And people liked it. I would get emails from people who loved what we were doing, and in fact, there is one reader from Hong Kong who STILL emails me every now and then, mostly about politics, but that's staying power.. Alas, not even the Wayback Machine has it anymore. But I do, at least the parts that I wrote.

Of course we never finished it. Just like Rose, Kate got married and had two children, and I got a job where there was actual work to do, and I was being an aspiring film critic, and then a blogger. But there was one original character who came to me and all these years later she is still wanting me to tell her story. 

This character is a young widow, and from the minute she came to me, I knew her. I felt her in my bones. Her husband dies by suicide during the Great Depression, and I swear I felt her grief in my own chest. I KNEW her grief in a very profound and visceral way. And when Mr. Brilliant died nearly a decade after I created her, and I experienced that heaviness first hand from my own loss, it felt oddly familiar. And I will always wonder how. This character is spoiled and self-indulgent and she goes through hell before coming out the other side. There's a lot of me in her, but she's a before-getting-a-lot-of-good-therapy me. Her story isn't the same as mine, but she and I do have this common experience of being widowed. Perhaps we really ARE in a multiverse and I am the alphaverse me, who has been able to deal with what life has thrown at me. She is pre-multiverse Evelyn from Everything Everywhere All at Once, unhappy and stuck. I know her parents' story too. Again -- I have no idea how. I truly believe that I didn't create these people, but that they chose me to tell their story.

The Aftermath, Part III: 25 Years On

Kate and I probably stopped writing together around 2005. She had two children, I had actual work to do at my job, and with people having moved on from Titanic, the readership wasn't there to put the effort into the project. We've now been friends for 25 years, most of it online. We talk every now and then about reviving it, and we even made a short-lived attempt at bringing back the site at one point. .

And now it is 25 years later, and there's a new Titanic 3-D release that opened this week, and I'm having a kind of "returning to where it all began" sense that I should go see it on the biggest screen I can find. This is despite the fact that after all these years of premium cable, I can probably recite every line in the movie at this point as if it were the Rocky Horror Picture Show. But can you go back? Gloria Stuart is dead, David Warner is dead, Bill Paxton is dead, Billy Zane's career is dead (deservedly, after his performance in this film), Leonardo DiCaprio is now a middle-aged, fleshy creep dating teenagers, and what's left of the wreck of the Titanic, like the 9/11 memorial, is a crumbling tourist site. If there were ever a time to bring the site back, it would be now. But I'm guessing this re-release will be gone in a week, given the way the industry is today

The only movie I can think of now that has come close to being the cultural phenomenon that Titanic was in 1997-98 is Black Panther. Yes, James Cameron's Avatar and its sequel have grossed over $5 billion between the two of them, but they don't seem to have had the cultural impact that the first Black Panther had, or that Titanic had in the late 1990s.

Titanic enriched my life in so many ways. Without this movie, I never write movie reviews. I never meet the many other people who also wrote online movie reviews back in the day, some of whom are still at it and a few of whom were able to make a career of it. I never try my hand at fiction writing. I never meet Kate and watch her children grow up. And I probably never start the blog that in its own way led me to what I'm writing here today.

Fan fiction isn't limited to the sci-fi world anymore. Back in 1990s, many of those writing Titanic sequels labored under the delusion that their work could be published, only to find that as a derivative work, even self-publishing could lead to lawsuits. Then a woman named E.L. James parlayed her fan fiction about Bella and Edward from Twilight into a little book called 50 Shades of Grey. In 2017, The Daily Beast called fan fiction "the future of publishing."

When I spun off my original co-lead-character into her own story, Rose was still there, only her name became Ruth and I jettisoned the whole "society girl from Philadelphia" thing. But I left everything else about their interaction intact from its fan fiction roots. Kate and I used to talk about changing our original huge outline to remove Rose's connection to the movie and writing it as its own story. We'd given her a compelling story arc that stood on its own, and surrounded her with fleshed-out, vivid characters.

I'd love to think that young people today will be swept away by the sheer spectacle of this movie once again on the big screen. I'd love to think that an entirely new generation will sit down to write the way we did 25 years ago. After all, if seemingly everyone in Gen-Z can be reduced to tears at Bill and Frank's story in Episode 3 of The Last of Us on HBO, why not this?