Titanic, one of the the most successful films of all-time, was re-released in 3D earlier this month. The respectable box office receipts thus far are a testament to the enduring appeal of director James Cameron‘s passion project. A technical marvel that pushed the limits of special effects technology of its day, the film also catapulted star Leonardo DiCaprio into super-stardom and established Cameron as a filmmaker who could continue to create big budget blockbusters, while operating with relative autonomy. However, Titanic, like Cameron’s most recent film Avatar, succeeded despite a relatively clunky and cliche-ridden screenplay. Which begs the question, can we really consider a writer/director with a tin ear for dialogue a visionary filmmaker?
Cameron himself has admitted that writing is the aspect of the filmmaking process that he enjoys least. However, Cameron is such a control freak that he has been unable to relinquish the screenwriting duties completely. To his credit, Cameron paces his stories very well and this is the reason why a 3+ hour film like Titanic can remain so watchable to the fanatical fans who have re-watched the film repeatedly. He structures his stories very well and consistently demonstrates powerful storytelling abilities. Unfortunately, his screenplays also frequently give off hints that Cameron has no idea how real, breathing human beings actually speak.
46 INT. SUITE B-52-56 - DAY By contrast, the so-called "Millionaire Suite" is in the Empire style, and comprises two bedrooms, a bath, WC, wardrobe room, and a large sitting room. In addition there is a private 50 foot promenade deck outside. A room service waiter pours champagne into a tulip glass of orange juice and hands the Bucks Fizz to Rose. She is looking through her new paintings. There is a Monet of water lilies, a Degas of dancers, and a few abstract works. They are all unknown paintings... lost works. Cal is out on the covered deck, which has potted trees and vines on trellises, talking through the doorway to Rose in the sitting room. CAL Those mud puddles were certainly a waste of money. ROSE (looking at a cubist portrait) You're wrong. They're fascinating. Like in a dream... there's truth without logic. What's his name again... ? (reading off the canvas) Picasso. CAL (coming into the sitting room) He'll never amount to a thing, trust me. At least they were cheap.
This scene from Titanic sounds like something written by a person who can name only two or three artists from the early 20th Century. I guess Cameron was too busy tinkering with high end camera equipment to spend even 30 minutes doing the research necessary to avoid writing something as cringe-inducing as “They’re fascinating. Like in a dream…there’s truth without logic.” However, that line serves its purposes in depicting the pantomime villain, Cal, played by the appalling Billy Zane, as a buffoonish jerk. As laughable as this scene is, there is more …
103 INT. ROSE'S SUITE ... 1912. Like in a dream the beautiful woodwork and satin upholstery emerge from the rusted ruin. Jack is overwhelmed by the opulence of the room. He sets his sketchbook and drawing materials on the marble table. ROSE Will this light do? Don't artists need good light? JACK (bad French accent) Zat is true, I am not used to working in such 'orreeble conditions. (seeing the paintings) Hey... Monet! He crouches next to the paintings stacked against the wall. JACK Isn't he great... the use of color? I saw him once... through a hole in this garden fence in Giverny. She goes into the adjoining walk-in wardrobe closet. He sees her go to the safe and start working the combination. He's fascinated.
In this scene, Cameron treats us to another scene featuring a discussion about the other artist he has heard of. If Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) is really an artist, would he praise another artist by stating something as banal as a compliment on the usage of color? Usage of color? Really? The characters speak like this because they are nothing more than cardboard cutouts reciting wooden dialogue from the Cameron universe. They are archetypes that serve their roles so that Cameron can dazzle us with his 3D and CGI.
Yes, Jim Cameron writes terrible dialogue, but he still resides several levels above George “I have a bad feeling about this” Lucas as a screenwriter. Furthermore, Cameron, despite his faults as a writer, remains a master storyteller who paces his stories well enough to succeed, despite his substandard dialogue-writing. Hence, he writes just well enough to provide a platform to showcase his visionary skills as a filmmaker who pushes the technical limits of the motion picture medium.