Sunday, August 28, 2011

James Cameron, RMS Titanic and God

James Cameron (1954)

The spectacular film Titanic (1997) was written, co-produced, co-edited, and directed by James Cameron. We can therefore safely assume that it authentically reflects his personal world view and reflects his basic understanding of human existence, philosophy of life and about religion. His blockbuster movie lacks that particular "American religion" so prevalent in many Hollywood catastrophe films - probably because he is a Canadian! Instead, the storytelling, dialogues and selection of focused events and people tells about a strongly secular, humanistic and - at the end - very beautiful world view where God of Israel plays only marginal role.

Hard facts
Cameron tells about Titanic concentrating on the hard facts of real life and historical reconstructions of real people and their decisions. On the canvas of very well researched ship, history, technology and people he adds with the freedom of a writer the very romantic love story of Rose and Jack that makes the movie so unforgettable. Scientific and historical details explain how the largest passenger steamship of the world, RMS Titanic, hit an iceberg at 11:40 pm on 14 April 1912, and sank at 2:20 am the following morning. [ref]

The movie does not really give any theological or philosophical speculations why the maiden voyage of RMS Titanic from Southampton to New York city ended with the sudden death of 1,517 people in the icy waters. Story telling and dialogues concentrate on the facts of what went wrong, why Captain Edward J. Smith (1850 – 1912) took ignored six iceberg warnings for Newfoundland until he received the seventh one and why the collision was so destructive to such a safe, "unsinkable" steam-liner.
  Titanic's Sinking. Willy Stöwer (1864-1931)

After watching Titanic we have seen and know more about it than most of the passengers on board. The movie gives an amazingly realistic feeling about the people, their dresses, social manners and customs from  high class passengers in the luxurious ship they had boarded. We also get to see glimpses of lower class lodgings in lower decks that turned into a death trap when corridor gates were locked. Passengers were not permitted to the engine rooms with those enormous machines nor to the command desk or the storage areas where Rose and Jack found that carriage. 

Accordingly, we learn from this movie that James Cameron takes reality seriously and studies natural causes, consequences of human decisions, meaning of the strength of material structures.  The movie is a love story but it also examines behavior of different types of peoples facing sudden death.

Those religious people
In my opinion writer and director James Cameron depicts religion as one of the characteristics in some people in the crowd. There is no bigger purpose, divine being in charge of events.  This is particularly clear in the unforgettable part where the end section of the broken ship is rising; a preacher and his followers are praying God for help. This group of people happen to believe in God. There is nothing sympathetic about them although their depiction is in no way disrespectful. 

Religion is also missing from the touching moment where mother calms her two children as the ice cold water is soon going to kill them all or the dignified elderly couple finds comfort in the presence of each other. These are strongly humanistic but not theological moments in Titanic.

The story of the musicians is also indication, that religion has a limited and specific area in Cameron's world view rather than being something central and commanding. There is no particularly deep religious feeling but rather a skilfully told story among the 1,517 stories. The musicians change Orpheus Cancan and other secular music to the hymn to Nearer, My God, to Thee almost as an afterthought. The excellently played tune of the hymn lingers as background to the horrible events depicted but the message of its contents is not examined with cinematic tools.

We may thus conclude from these simple observations that God plays no great role in James Cameron's view of the events so masterfully depicted in the classic movie Titanic. He comes forward as a strong humanist. The reality is seen in heroes and villains. The love story between Rose (Kate Winslet) and Jack (Leonardo diCaprio)touched hearts all over the world and the self-sacrificing love crowns humanity. While Titanic is not strongly theological it is a hymn to the power of love.

My Heart Will Go On
James Cameron added surprisingly powerful and important message to the end of the movie that raises it above standard Hollywood catastrophe movies - the brilliantly luminous human being, Gloria Frances Stuart (1910 – 2010) acting elderly Rose throws the rare blue diamond to the depths of the ocean!

The broken wreck of RMS Titanic lies at the depth of almost four kilometers. By throwing the priceless enormous 56-carat La Coeur de la Mer to the sea Rose - and James Cameron through her - declares that there are other values in human life than earthly possessions.

The "browsing" part of Rose's meaningful later life after she was so valiantly saved by Jack's sacrifice and smart actions gives us an understanding of Cameron's definition of meaningful existence. While Rose did not marry she lived very active life, loved horse riding and had adventures in aviation, rare for women at those days. The short gallery of photos tells that she had lived full and satisfying life.

The depiction of the character and actions of greedy Caledon Nathan (Billy Zane) and his sad end told with such indifference by Rose enforces this central message.

It is said that Cameron did not want any songs to be sang in the movie and was thus against "My Heart Will Go On" because people would accuse him of commercialism. This is an important point and a theme underlying the movie Titanic.  So we are all glad that James Horner and Will Jennings nevertheless convinced him to let the song go on and the world got the heavenly sung by Céline Dion. Not a few couples have entered marriage accompanied by exactly this song.

The lyrics of My Heart Will Go On are very human and yet they radiate powerful echoes of eternal values.

The same is true of the movie Titanic.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Shark song

Human songs are not just about mating and only thus of evolutionary interest as related to survival and continuation of our species.

In the exceptionally beautiful BBC documentary series Planet Earth one episode examines humanity and oceans. The camera team followed a Polynesian man in his lonely boat when he was fishing sharks using traditional methods. He wanted to keep alive the ancient art of shark hunting that is rapidly disappearing. To entice the shark he was singing to it.

There is something definitely prehistoric about this song and indeed, it is possible that for ancient man and woman or for a community songs were centrally important in more than one way. We are all familiar with the Indian dance and their songs, some know the monotonous traditional singing of reindeer shepherds in cold tundra nights. These seem to me like something very ancient and SAN people of South Africa also sing (and dance). Archaeologists have discovered an Upper Palaeolithic flute in a cave in Germany somewhere there at the dawn of human civilization.

If I am right, our closest relative in the animal kingdom, Chimpanzee, does not sing.

So while we can appreciate the fact that music tells about the love of God towards His creation and is a wonderful gift to all of us - that is more or less the end of discussion. Let's do music, listen to music, appreciate those who sing to us love songs or encourage us on our marching to the frontier or sing healing our souls with Balm from Gilead!

However, Charles Darwin's point of view - how this fits the fight for survival, change of species, opens up interesting questions. Why we sing? And trying to answer such fundamental question about humanity some people push forward the frontiers of knowledge in scientific manner.

Divine Grace gives us music and we use it to praise Him.

Nature challenges us intellectually as we try to understand how it works and why we are what we are. Why we sing?

Good scientific theory does not necessarily explain everything. But it raises fruitful questions that advance our knowledge.  In such discussion, Darwin's famed theory of evolution is probably among the most influential theories ever presented.