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Archive for Sunday, March 22, 1998

S THE AMERICAN WAY.

March 22, 1998

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Make no mistake: The landslide of public affection surrounding James Cameron's ``Titanic'' will sling-shot the epic tragedy to a massive Oscar victory.

Best picture, director, song -- you name it. Count on it.

Cameron will once again be allowed to proclaim on stage that ``size does matter,'' as he did after his Golden Globe win. The film recently passed the unprecedented $1 billion mark worldwide. It has also surmounted ``Star Wars'' as the No. 1 all-time film in America (retro-fitted for inflation, ``Gone With the Wind'' is still tops).

But there is a byproduct from all these accolades. All this cash. All this intense devotion.

It's the Official Backlash, and it's building.

Do not mistake me for a member of the bitter set to surface in the wake of ``Titanic.'' Quite the opposite.

I was knocked over. Blown away. Enraptured. All the words the Official Backlashers now see as the vocabulary of brain-dead ``Titanic'' aficionados. This contingent looks at those who love the disaster pic as cud-munching cattle or as lemmings heading, unaware, into the ocean deep.

Maybe they just don't like following the herd. Maybe it smacks of communism, fascism, socialism or some other type of ``ism.'' Maybe they have legitimate complaints about what they believe are the movie's cinematic shortcomings.

Whatever it is, it has the same sort of feel as the backlash to the beloved ``Forrest Gump,'' a phenomenon that was nailed with satiric acumen in the legendary ``English Patient''/``Sack Lunch'' episode of Seinfeld.

This now-infamous list of media types who have gone public as ``Titanic'' detractors includes (nod to Sen. McCarthy) Knight-Ridder's Carrie Rickey, Entertainment Weekly's Jess Cagle and even Kansas City Star sports columnist Jason Whitlock. They seek solace in the comfort of fellow detractors. They complain of looks of scorn and hate e-mail. They feel outnumbered. Overwhelmed.

But I have a message for others, like me, who derived tremendous enjoyment from ``Titanic,'' despite its occasionally wooden dialogue and generally over-broad look at class warfare.

Don't hate these people. Don't even pity them.

Disagree with them, but treasure them. Because we live in America, great land of democracy and debate, where disagreements are central to our existence but where a majority, with notable exceptions, rules.

To paraphrase a wise man's words, a nation is only free when an individual is free to be unpopular. To be certain, these folks are unpopular in the truest sense of the word. But they should be encouraged to yell their views from the streets, the mountain tops. And the rest of you shouldn't cover your ears.

It is both comical and a testimony to the Hollywood-ization of our culture that neither politics nor religion can unite us as dramatically as a movie about a big, sinking boat.

For weeks, there have been tales of the inexplicable ability of Cameron's ``$200 million chick-flick,'' as he calls it, to attract viewers who hadn't left their homes in years. Teen-agers and baby boomers alike have returned to the big screen time after time after time, to pay their $7 and soak up 3 1/4 hours of the most astounding romance-disaster extravaganza in recent memory.

We see a movie once because of a slick marketing campaign or good word of mouth. Once, not 15 times.

We see a movie 15 times because there is something intangible, something luminous, even magical about it. It's the ultimate communal experience. The ultimate man-made tragedy. The ultimate mix of special effects and heart. The ultimate doomed romance.

``Titanic'' touches the soul. And when the credits roll, for every dry eye in the house there are a hundred filled with tears.

Perhaps it could be looked upon, to quote Marx out of context, as the ``opium of the people.'' But what's wrong with a little opium now and then (so to speak)?

Inevitably, after the initial hubbub calmed, the sober among us emerged.

They wondered: What's wrong with you people? Did we see the same movie?

Answers: Nothing. Yes.

Movies affect people differently. That makes criticizing them touchy business. After all, film is the marriage of every modern art form, from pen to performance, from symphony to photography. And what makes one person sneer lights another's fire.

In short, there is no way to ``accurately'' review a film. Nada. Zip. None. It's every critic's dirty little secret.

Look at ``Sling Blade'' and ``Boogie Nights,'' two movies heralded by critics that also managed to underwhelm and even turn off those not part of the critical elite.

On the flip side, the public routinely ignores criticism if buzz from the populace is good. Think ``My Best Friend's Wedding.''

Some of us are bothered by dark movies with jerky cinematography and rough, edgy dialogue. Others proclaim them ``enjoyably noir-ish.'' To one person, a performance is astounding. To another, it's garbage.

Siskel and Ebert gave two thumbs up to ``Speed 2,'' the most bland and pointless action movie in history. Two thumbs up, for goodness sakes! And my reviewing idol, Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly, was wowed by Kenneth Branagh's self-indulgent version of ``Hamlet.''

Nobody showed up for either one.

So in the end, scary as it is for the critical mass, we should listen and weigh the criticism but trust the opinion of the masses. This is, after all, not a monarchy.

Does that mean small movies are meaningless? Hardly. Does that mean all big-dollar blockbusters are top quality? Not a chance.

But ``Titanic'' is one of the greatest achievements in the history of film. Because we told you?

No. Because you -- the viewer -- told us.

-- Matt Gowen's phone message number is 832-7222. His e-mail address is gowen@ljworld.com.

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