Premiere magazine had a lot of editorial capital invested in Titanic. During its production the publication treated it to more than one story, including a very long on-set feature by John H. Richardson, one of the mag's more stalwart and protean feature contributors at the time. Then there were multiple front-of-the-book updates, and our coverage culminated in a cover story featuring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. In that story much was made of the Jack and Rose romance and of course one had to ask (I forget who wrote this particular profile-cum-making-of-story) if any sparks flew between Leo and Kate and young Kate just laughed "he'll always be farty, smelly Leo to me," which pronouncement I parroted to her after a Q&A for Revolutionary Road, which also paired her and DiCaprio, and she laughed and said something implying (not unaffectionately, I must add) that their latest collaboration had given her little cause to revise her prior assessment.
In any event, in the runup to the movie actually opening, there was a lot of anticipatory schadenfreude about Cameron's folly combined with the anticipation that once the end result was revealed, things would be EVEN WORSE for the filmmaker. I don't recall if the screening a bunch of Premiere staffers attended was before or after Richard Corliss' inaugural pan was published in Time, but there was much roiling, although of course said roiling can't even begin to compare with the sort of thing that goes on nowadays with digitalsocmediagoddamnkids and all that sort of thing.
The colleagues I sat with were—as was I—all provisional Cameron believers who understood, or positioned themselves as understanding, the filmmaker as a contemporary manufacturer of DeMille-esque spectacle. We were gratified to see Michael Biehn turn up in the film's opening minutes, a little let down when we realized that he was only doing a cameo, and positively mortified at the prospect of having Danny Nucci's Fabrizio, who made Chico Marx look authentically native Italian by comparison, as Jack's second banana for the remaining hours. On the other hand, he was the first character we looked forward to seeing drown.
For the remainder of the film, we took the good (great visuals, spectacularly deft narrative momentum) with the bad. There's plenty bad, of course, from the phony class consciousness to the abominably on-the-nose dialogue, the know-somethingish name drops of Freud and company, the shameless "Bobby McGee" lift, and so much more. But again, as appalling as that stuff was, my crew and I accepted it with little overt showing of pain. Dialogue in a Cameron movie isn't MEANT to be sparkling on any level; while I doubt that even with a gun to his head Cameron could concoct anything that approaches the level of wit of, God, David Lee Roth, never mind Whit Stillman, I don't think that he ever actually wants to. Everything that's said in a Cameron picture is either subordinate to, or merely meant to bolster or accent, the big thing that's already in the frame. Like I said, spectacle.
Anyway, my colleagues and I kind of loved it. One of us allowed that it seemed to be EXACTLY the film Cameron had wanted to make, with the egregious exception of that dreadful Celine Dion song at the end, which was clearly his sole capitulation to a more venal manifestation of commercial consideration. We seemed to be alone in our enthusiasm. The other journalists in the relatively small Paramount screening room were kind of beside themselves in either embarassed silence or outright amused snarling. I remember particularly encountering the ever-egregious Jeff Giles in the men's room, practically cackling over how the thing wasn't going to make a DIME and that it would bankrupt Paramount AND Fox AND Cameron and blah blah blah blah. What a dink. So remember, kids: it's not just in political punditry that you can be spectacularly wrong whenever it actually counts and still keep your job, as long as your job still exists.
I saw Titanic a second time at New York's Leow's Astor Plaza with my then-girlfriend, poor thing, and her almost 90-year-old grandmother, a dear woman with a spine of steel and, I suspect, a reactionary streak a mile wide. Although I never really got to test that suspicion, as the woman, a native of Naples, didn't speak or really understand a single word of English despite having lived in Manhattan for some time. And it was really pretty amazing to watch it with her, as she was rapt for every second of the presentation, and an emotional wreck at the end. I attempted to comfort her, and when she was feeling better, I asked her, through her translator (my poor then-girlfriend, duh), if she had any valuable pieces of jewelry that she was hiding. Anyway. This experience kind of confirmed my feeling that, whatever else it may be, Titanic is, like Hitchcock's Psycho, a verifiable, primal demonstration of the power of pure film language.
In a recent dripping-with-even-more-hateful-condescension-than-usual piece in Slate, reviewing the recent 3D re-release of the film, Dana "I Was Writing My Dissertation" Stevens admits to "dismissing" the picture on its initial release, but now sees the light, or a light, and describes Titanic as "a triumph of popular art—of folk art, really." Really? I think her use of the term "folk art" is incorrect (and wonder what the fuck her dissertation was actually on, anyway), as there's nothing particularly indigenous about Canadian citizen Cameron's picture. I think Stevens really wanted to say "art that lots and lots and lots of stupid people like" but seized up just a little at coming right out with "stupid people." Have to keep up liberal-piety appearances, after all. I, on the other hand, have no such qualms. And I think that the fact that stupid people the world over really, really love Titanic, and can love it without even understanding what the people on screen are saying (which is not to say that my then-girlfriend's grandmother was a stupid person, mind you; no, not a chance, but that's another story) is actually one of the things that make the thing an extremely noteworthy piece of cinematic, ahem, art.