There is a single shot, just seconds long, in James Cameron’s newly re-released movie, “Titanic,” that says it all with poignant eloquence.
Up to this point in the narrative, the director has emphasized the great ship’s size and grandeur. She sweeps over the waves like a building that has somehow learned to fly and you cannot help but gape at the mammoth scale of her, the largest moving object on Earth at more than 100 feet tall and four city blocks long.
Then comes her collision with that iceberg she saw too late. Her bow is slipping beneath the water and she is shooting off distress flares. Cameron stations his camera back, way back, placing the stricken ship amid a vastness of black water and an infinity of inky sky, the futile flare breaking pitifully above her. She is a tiny outpost of human anguish stranded in the ocean and you marvel that you ever thought her big.
It is 100 years ago today that the great ship went down. And the moral of her story, the great lesson of her death, has lost none of its pertinence or urgency in the 10 decades since 1,500 people died in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic.
It has been a predictable aspect of human nature since at least the Industrial Age that each generation regards itself as progress’ ultimate goal, history’s finished product, modernity’s final word. If you grew up in the 1960s or ‘70s, perhaps you remember embracing that belief like a birthright. Hair was long, music was loud, television was in color, and there were men on the moon. It was a new era of hipness and enlightenment, and the ‘50s were just something your parents talked about, something long ago and covered with dust.
What makes the memory amusing, of course, is that the ‘60s and ‘70s are now themselves long ago and covered with dust. Time, you see, does not stop its relentless march to watch your generation preen in self-satisfaction. This is a truth each generation learns in turn. The child who comes of age now will find it hard to imagine a someday world in which iPads, cloud computing and Lady Gaga are just some memory with which she bores her kids.
But it will happen, because progress knows no ultimate goal, history has no finished product, modernity speaks no final word.
Usually, this is wisdom one learns gently, with the passage of years. But sometimes, the lesson is abrupt. The night of April 14-15, 1912, was one of those times.
Titanic was born into an age of vibrant possibility. The motorcar and the airplane were in their infancy. The motion picture was yet a novelty. The great ship represented another wonder in an era rife with them, a marvel of technology and a model of humanity’s ability to master its own environment. She was the ultimate expression of the age, the ship they said God Himself could not sink.
How bitter those words must have tasted as they were swallowed, as humility was imposed upon humanity.
And it is easy to look back on the people who said that foolish thing, resplendent in their bowler hats and floor-length skirts, with their parasols and walking sticks and men’s hair slicked down and parted in the middle, going to their doom with blithe faith in their technological wizardry, and to feel a certain superiority. What blind hubris they had.
But to do that is to miss the lesson of what happened a century ago. Their hubris is our hubris, a human conceit as applicable to the Age of Information as it was to the Age of Industry, if not more so.
That shot in Cameron’s movie is a profound reminder of the epic scale of this stage upon which generations strut and preen. Titanic was the newest there was, but she died upon an ocean that was old when Vikings sailed, under a sky that saw the continents rise.
And she was the biggest there was, too — but it turns out she was smaller than we ever knew.