the past in pop culture

Tag: Titanic

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.

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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