the past in pop culture

Category: Titanic

Titanica: A Night to Remember, and Remember, and Remember

The iceberg suspected of sinking the RMS Titan...

The iceberg suspected of sinking the RMS Titanic; a smudge of red paint much like the Titanic’s stripe was seen near the base. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 2016, the Titanic sails again. At least that’s the plan. Australian billionaire Clive Palmer recently signed a deal with a shipyard in Nanjing, China to begin construction on the recreation of the ill-fated ship that sank one hundred and one years ago. Right now Palmer is on the road with the Titanic II World Tour. Guests of the events enjoy an eleven course meal based on the menu served aboard ship on its last night and then they can tour Titanic the Exhibition. Palmer’s company, The Blue Star Line, is taking reservations for passage on the ship’s maiden voyage. The list is reportedly more than 40,000 names long already.

Rebuilding the lost liner raises some interesting questions. The re-built ship will feature the same exterior design and interior décor. Passengers will eat the same meals, be encouraged to dress in period costume, and even be obliged to respect the same divisions amongst first, second, and third class as on the original. On the other hand, the boat will not recreate the design features that made it vulnerable to sinking and, by contrast, will have a full complement of lifeboats and safety equipment. This Titanic, in other words, is intended to arrive to its destination with all its passengers still safely aboard. (And on a happy note from the ship’s perspective, though perhaps troubling in other senses, global warming means that the ship isn’t likely to encounter many large icebergs in the North Atlantic.) Being true to the past, in this case, won’t include a reenactment of the dramatic part of the Titanic story.

Titanic II will sail its maiden voyage along the original route, from Southampton to New York. It will have to navigate half the globe from China to Great Britain first, but the definition of “maiden voyage” doesn’t count the travel from shipyard to ship launch. Indeed, Palmer noted at a Titanic II event in Macau that the new ship will not sail in Chinese waters. Presumably this is a nod towards the recreation’s fidelity to the original, however geographically impossible this might be.

The Belfast Titanic Society is not amused. Representatives from the group had hoped that at least part of the ship’s construction would be done at the shipyards in the Irish city where the original Titanic was constructed. According to one member, they also hoped that the Titanic II would serve as a floating public history memorial to the ship that would feature educational programs about the people who built it and went down with it. Instead, they now fear that Titanic II will recreate not the experience of the 1912 luxury liner, but that of James Cameron’s 1997 eponymous movie.

The idea that some people know the Titanic only as the setting for the fictional story of Jack and Rose and their doomed love affair seems far-fetched at first. Few historical events have been better or more lovingly documented than the sinking of the Titanic. In the United States there are two major museums that re-create not only parts of the ship, but even the iceberg. The city of Belfast has created a Titanic Quarter that is anchored by a building known as the Titanic Belfast. These are complemented by Titanic themed tours and even a light show in an effort to use Belfast’s historical associations with the well-known story to promote tourism, investment, and urban renewal. The RMS Titanic, the company that owns the rights to salvage parts of the wreck, has been touring its Titanic artifacts exhibition around the world. This is not to mention dozens of smaller museum exhibits and hundreds of books published on the topic. Perhaps it’s impossible to ignore the historical reality of the sinking of the Titanic but it’s easy enough to see that it’s dwarfed by the media that represents it. In its time, the event made a profound impression on all who learned of it and the story has since become an allegory for the perils of hubris and excessive ambition and for the virtue of heroic self-sacrifice and the vice of cowardly self-preservation.

Despite its outsized reputation, the Titanic was not the world’s worst maritime disaster. In fact it ranks seventh in terms of lives lost on ships sunk in peacetime. The worst disaster was quite a bit more recent. In 1987, a Philippine ship known as Doña Paz went down after a collision with another ship and took more than 4,000 of its passengers with it. The ship was being used to ferry passengers around the archipelago. It was overloaded and the ship that rammed it, unlicensed and understaffed. The Doña Paz caught fire as it sank and the passengers who leapt into the water to escape it also faced the threat of sharks. Despite the magnitude of the tragedy, the event remains little known. A National Geographic documentary about it that has tried to correct this chose the title, Asia’s Titanic.

And so the Titanic continues to loom in our imagination. In these days of cruise ships gone wild (see Costa Concordia and Carnival Triumph), the luxury liner industry seems a little tawdry. It remains to be seen whether the Titanic II will be an extension of this trend, or a reversal. For now, the unsinkable ship that sank remains improbably afloat on a vast sea of remembrance, recreation, and reenactment. It doesn’t seem likely that it will be going down again any time soon.

Carnival is Over and Other Sinking Feelings

English: Pieter II Brueghel (the Younger) (156...

English: Pieter II Brueghel (the Younger) (1564-1638). The Fight Between Carnival and Lent. Copy of a painting by Pieter I Brueghel (the Elder). Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, Belgium. Detail (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday’s Fat Tuesday is today’s Ash Wednesday and a time for sober reflection. It’s been a rough week for ancient traditions. A pope stepped down for the first time since 1294. In Venice, where carnival has been celebrated since even before that time, revelers had to wade through high waters and melting snow in the sinking city. In Brazil, a carnival float caught fire and killed four too soon after that country’s deadly nightclub fire earlier this month. And somewhere on the Gulf of Mexico, a ship by the name of Carnival Triumph continues to drift after an engine room fire left it without power. Its four thousand plus passengers now face conditions remarkably like those of eighteenth and nineteenth century steerage class. The stench and filth below has driven some to sleep in tents on deck. Passengers report scarce food, long lines, and bad behavior. There are fears of disease and worries about the health of the elderly and handicapped. It’s no doubt a blessing for the cruise company that the lack of power has left people largely unable to use their cellphones and other such devices: so far, most of these reports are not accompanied by pictures. With luck, the beleaguered travelers will be towed to port in Alabama by today. They can, at least, be thankful they didn’t meet the fate of the passengers of the Costa Concordia—another ship belonging to the Carnival company. After running it aground, the captain decided to get off before his passengers had been rescued. What’s next? Women and children last? Yes, that too. Not even on our beloved Titanic where the captain did indeed go down with his ship were the male passengers quite as self-sacrificing as they have often been portrayed. While women and children mostly survived from first and second class, in steerage the rates were reversed. At least on the Titanic the captain gave the order to save women and children first. In most maritime disasters, survival rates were highest for the crew, followed by the captains (!), then women, and children dead last. Turns out that the real rule has been every man for himself. It seems unlikely that the Carnival line will re-name itself Lent any time soon, but it’s a thought.

1890s Redux: Portlandia, Steampunk and All Things Gilded

Elbert Hubbard

Elbert Hubbard (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What’s up with the new 1890s? Portlandia nailed it with the “Dream of the 1890s” sketch last year. Except the ‘90s are not just alive and well in Portland, but also Brooklyn and a hundred hipster enclaves in between. Keeping chickens in the backyard and wearing Bible beards has even bled into the ‘burbs, surely suggesting that their cool factor is approaching its sell by date. And in related news, trendwatchers tell us that steampunk—the late 19th century inspired mashup of retro, sci fi, and post-apocalyptic style—is about to go big. By big they mean mainstream: forget Etsy, try Target.

Pickling, knitting, cheese making, and beer brewing can all be explained as a search for authenticity. But alienation is not exactly new. “It’s a long way back and this modern world has gone off the track. But you can escape it all in Portland.” The clue here is when Carrie Brownstein shimmies into the “Dream of the 1890s” as a flapper and gets re-styled. This ain’t the 1920s. That was so 2006: remember, before the bubble burst? The 1890s were a little darker. The Homestead Strike, Coxey’s War, the Panic of 1893, the Pullman Strike, the McKinley assassination, the start of the first overseas counterinsurgency in the Philippines. And let’s not forget the one percent. It’s not for nothing that economists and political scientists keep reminding us that it really is the Gilded Age all over again. Corporations have their human rights back; the plutocracy is eclipsing the meritocracy.

It’s all very Elbert Hubbard. Who? The original 1890s rebel, that’s who. Hubbard was a boy from the country who became a traveling salesman and then a corporate wunderkind (Hubbard innovated direct mail advertising). But the stresses and strains of the Gilded Age troubled him and he sold out his shares of the Larkin Soap Company to set himself up as a writer. After that, he did the coolest thing ever by today’s standards: he went to and then dropped out of Harvard.  He finally found his way when he started a utopian craft community, the Roycroft. Hubbard affected a personal style that stood out in his day, with long flowing hair and a hat from an earlier decade. He wrote that, “to wear a hat just like everybody else is to acknowledge that your head thinks the same thoughts that all other heads think. To wear a hat long out of fashion…is to throw down the gauntlet to the bourgeoisie.” And so Hubbard and his followers wore their outdated fashions and lived as artisans making fine furniture and hand-printed books.

The funny thing is that Hubbard never did stop wanting to make it big. He’d been inspired by William Morris’s uncompromising principles about handcrafted quality, but made sure to sell his Roycroft products at accessible price points by cutting corners where necessary. He endlessly promoted himself as an outsider even as he went on tour as a lecturer for increasingly large fees. And if he skewered the pretensions of the cultural elites in his ‘zines (that is, self-published chapbooks and literary journals), as his career went on, he wrote ever more admiring hagiographies of the one percenters of his day. In 1912, he wrote the original paean to the wealthy men of the Titanic who gave their lives so that women and children might live. Some of that text turned out to be eerily prescient, as he and his wife would go down on the Lusitania in 1915. It is often said that the sinking of the Titanic marked the end of the Gilded Age, but maybe the dream of the 1890s ended with the death of conflicted hipster huckster Hubbard on that other boat, the one sunk not by an iceberg but by an explosion.

Downton Abbey: Titanic Class Divides

Titanic stern

Titanic stern (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Really, using the Titanic as the catalyst for the plot of Downton Abbey is brilliant. It’s shamelessly, fiendishly effective since everyone already knows that story so well. If anything, the Titanic backstory fades away too quickly. The brief, season two attempt to resurrect it through the cousin who survived the sinking—or did he?—seems to have foundered. Even for a show that’s a telenovela wolf dressed up as a Masterpiece Theater sheep, pulling out a disfigured amnesiac was a bit much. But who knows? Maybe he’ll come back as Lady Edith’s suitor yet, although only after benefitting from some kind of miraculous advance in plastic surgery. And why not, in a show that seems of be taking some scriptwriting tips from the book of books: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. (Matthew 11:5)

Perhaps this last point really drives the show’s Titanic theme. Julian Fellowes, while working on his other show, called out James Cameron for making First Officer William Murdoch into a villain in his Titanic. Fellowes makes sure we know that Cameron dishonored an officer and a gentleman. As a good D.A. watcher could tell you, there’s hardly any greater sin than this. The controversy, such as it is, could not be more telling. On Cameron’s Titanic, an upstairs / downstairs romance might drive the plot, and the sumptuous sets and costuming might feed our vicarious desires to see how the other half lives, but Leo DiCaprio’s steerage-class Irish immigrant is not just a heartthrob but a genuine populist hero. Downton Abbey’s Irish class rebel, Tom the chauffeur, can hardly compare. He might steal Lady Sybil but his revolutionary rabble rousing is just so much hot air and when push comes to shove, he dresses for dinner and sheds a tear for the aristocrats whose castle is burned down. Billy Zane’s Cal chasing after Leo with a gun through ballrooms filling with water might qualify as melodramatic fantasy but it’s clearly class war. We know whose side Cameron is on. Downton Abbey endlessly pantomimes keeping it real by playing the servants-as-people-who-deserve-to-be-treated-as-such card. Yet really this device is mostly employed to keep the aristocrats sympathetic characters. Thought experiment: what if Cameron were at the helm of the good ship Downton?

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