If you manage to begin this movie without knowing it is about the sinking of the Titanic, the opening scenes will cue you—and then all shall be known.
The first time you watch it you will feel as though you are re-watching it, and each time you watch it thereafter it will seem fresher than before. Suspense does not drive this movie, nor does any sort of Character development as we would generally understand it. There is no central love story, no main character (although the acting is superb), and as we bid adieu to each person our attention does not slacken. Each is introduced as a well-known character, and leaves as a good friend (including the card shark and the coward), but still we realize this tragedy transcends the fate of the passengers. This is a strange film: it is a film about a boat, or rather, three boats—The Titanic, the Carpathia, and the Californian—and their ill-fated night in the Atlantic.
The Titanic is the technological pride of the people, and that pride is taken beyond anything we see today, except perhaps the Apple-fanatic’s attachment to his operating system. A perceived slur against the ship prompts patriotic correction by nearby strangers, and we note the satisfaction of the principals aboard and the reverence shown them by the first-class passengers. If the Titanic is the tragic hero, then perhaps human pride is the flaw, and yet within the context of this larger tragedy, a more subtle conflict is developing.
One of the tactics of the film immediately noted is the jarring juxtaposition of silence and noise throughout the film. While whistles screech and rockets whistle, while water thunders over bulkheads and the third class passengers mob stairways and eventually the deck, the ships officers, engineer, and wealthy passengers remain composed and calm. Bookending the chaos between itself and those magnificent men and women, as though the chaos were the battlefield and humanity the soon-to-be-extinguished foe, is a sea strangely, silently swallowing the Titanic, a sea so strangely silent in its malice that the ‘plop plop’ of life boats striking the water is eerily carried across the waves.
Across these waters in the final moments of the Titanic, though, comes another sound: the sound of a hymn sung by a solitary bass. And perhaps music is a fitting expression for the final victory of humanity against fear and chaos as the ultimate expression of passion controlled by form.
The abyss, the chaos, loses both its fascination and its power before the presence of the one who orders. It is strange that we now believe that those things which are ordered, or repetitious, are not alive, or not powerful. Sameness once hinted at the presence of the divine: the stars and planets were Gods because they were unchanging. Now the discovery of patterns in our brains is leading us toward an acceptance of the belief that life itself is neither meaningful nor existent, as though order were contrary to life. Leave these considerations for those who doubt the existence of the soul and eternal life, you say, and rightly so, but be careful lest a similar error deprive you of that life.
Form is the backbone of the life of prayer, and of our prayer life: The Mass depends almost entirely upon the words said, the emotions of the priest matter not a bit, unless they influence his will; monks live a life known for its structure; The Church recommends the Daily Office to all Catholics, extolling it above private prayer. Even the prayers recommended for private devotion are structured: what is the rosary but the repetition of the same few prayers again and again in a set order, and yet it is the favored prayer of the Mediatrix of all Grace. I have found in my spiritual life unformed prayer (parading as an unmitigated and exclusive good under the name ‘prayer from the heart’) has always lapsed into nothing if unsupported by a structure—through its inability to withstand the emotions. The very desire to regulate this prayer is a recognition of the need to give it form: when I say I will spend 10 minutes a day in unformed prayer I have subjected it to repetition, and then isn’t a repetition requested by Christ (the Our Father; He doesn’t say ‘the first time you pray, pray Our Father…’), our Lady (the Rosary) or even our Spiritual Fathers (‘read scripture daily’) better? Well-informed form is in the end the subjection of ourselves in our emotions and our will to the Truth…and the Truth will set you free.
Approach this thought from another angle, which returns to A Night to Remember: that of the good of social form. It is easy enough to no longer say thank you every time you are expected to, rightly believing that often it does not come from the heart; it is simple to forego handshakes and smiles, platitudes and apologies, in the hope of living a more honest life. Beware; isolation, pride, and hate lurk in the background. With few exceptions, the rejection of social norms stems from pride parading as honesty, and in the subjection of the polite to your judgment there is the danger of placing your opinion of your intelligence above your love for others.
I recently watched A Night to Remember with a group of friends and at the end the only criticism voiced was that the characters were unnaturally composed while facing nearly certain death. But this film closely follows eyewitness accounts, it in fact underplays the formality, giving each tendency to a single character (just one gentleman dresses formally to face death), which perhaps permits its attribution to eccentricity instead of to culture and custom. To counter our current fascination with individualism, which leads to isolation, perhaps as we watch A Night to Remember we might bear in mind that culture is the democracy of the deceased, that there seems to have been some consensus that fate is not the arbitrator of our faith, and that our human dignity is well defended by our adherence to tradition.