A look back at Cameron's juggernaut, Spielberg's fascinating misfire, and Marty's 'Kundun.'
The fall of 1997 was, simply put, one of the most remarkable movie-going seasons of our time: Boogie Nights. Jackie Brown. The Sweet Hereafter. Wag The Dog. Eve's Bayou. Good Will Hunting. The Ice Storm. Amistad. As Good as It Gets. Gattaca. And so many more, culminating with what became the highest-grossing movie of all time: the long-delayed, oft-trashed, yet eventually unstoppable Titanic . Each week yielded another remarkable motion picture—sometimes two or more, taking bold risks, telling powerful stories, introducing formidable new talents, and reaffirming the gifts of master filmmakers. This series looks back at those movies, examining not only the particular merits of each, but what they told us about where movies were that fall 20 years ago, and about where movies were going.
In his recently published book of old diary entries, Theft By Finding, David Sedaris wrote about his October 5, 1997, viewing of the Morgan Freeman/Ashley Judd vehicle Kiss the Girls, one of the bigger hits of the fall. “I sat beside a stranger, and twenty minutes into it we were nudging one another and rolling our eyes,” he writes. “Making it worse, I had to sit through another endless preview for Titanic. Who do they think is going to see that movie?”
It’s very Sedaris-esque to share a boneheaded prediction like that, but he was far from alone. Titanic’s smashing success and cultural ubiquity overshadowed the fact that, in the months leading up to its release, it had all the earmarks of a flop: It was a contentious production that ran over schedule and budget, forcing a rescheduled release (it was originally slated for July 2, but more time was needed to complete the effects). Steaming into the fall, it seemed unlikely that the film would recoup its massive $200 million budget. If you were betting sight unseen on that year’s Oscars, it would’ve been much safer to wager on Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese’s chances than those of the director of Aliens and Terminator 2.
And indeed, it opens like a James Cameron movie, initially setting up a treasure-hunt adventure on the sunken ship complete with an Aliens-style crew. But early on, as Cap’n Bill Paxton waxes rhapsodic about the vessel, an underling replies, “You are so fulla shit, boss”—a line that gets at the push-pull at the film's heart, in which tough-stuff action comes up against unabashed romanticism and folds upon contact.
The roughnecks are mere place setting, designed to get the aged Rose (Gloria Stewart) in their midst to tell them the story of the sinking of the Titanic. But first, they tell her, via a computer-animated demonstration of the nuts and bolts of the disaster—a marvelous bit of story-telling efficiency, allowing the audience to know exactly what’s happening during the sinking sequences later on (and, more important, what’s coming).
But first, romance: Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack and his buddy with the Chico Marx accent make their way onto the ship via a lucky hand of cards, and it's a genuine lifeline; his “king of the world” moment at the ship’s bow was subsequently and justifiably ridiculed, but there’s something genuine in that moment, a sense of escape, of limitless possibilities as far as the eye can see. (It’s the same notion that gives Good Will Hunting so much of its resonance.) He meets Kate Winslet’s Rose in a carefully written meet-cute, and from the beginning, their chemistry is electrifying—arguably, the movie itself would have sunk were it not for the heat of their (PG-13!) nude modeling scene, or the literal steaminess of their motorcar hookup.
Yet theirs is a love that cannot be, not only because Rose is betrothed (to ol’ cartoon villain-y Billy Zane), but because they're of different worlds. Titanic doesn’t exactly finesse its class politics, which are present not only in the way the wealthy dining room passengers treat Jack (“Tell us of the accommodations in steerage, Mr. Dawson”), but in “new money” Molly Brown (played by Kathy Bates, who blows into the movie like tornado). Cameron delights in intercutting the dull fancy folks in the dining room with the earthy fun of the lower-class passengers downstairs; the sequence is a little patronizing, but it lands.
And then, at the 98-minute mark, there it is: “Iceberg, right ahead!” Suddenly, it’s a James Cameron movie again: kinetic, taut, and visceral. He plays out the sinking of the ship in, basically, real time, with pauses for moments of calm during the storm (after the impact, but before it sinks), and check-ins with the musicians (“Nice and cheery, as if there’s no panic”). The back half is, by most definitions, an action film—but at this point, Cameron clearly feels empowered to lean in on the emotional stuff, to be “fulla shit.” So he gives us scenes of heartbreaking separation at the lifeboats, and the single image that’s stuck longest for me: of that elderly couple, side by side in bed, clutching each other for dear life as water rushes beneath them.
The effects of the sinking itself are chillingly believable, as is the stunt work, with passengers leaping from the ship and drop like flies from its tipping railing. But what sticks in that sequence is the priest’s voice leading the prayer of the soon-to-be-dead, and Rose pleading “come back” to the rescue boat—as well as to her lost love.
In the years since its release, it's become uncool to enjoy Titanic—and, to be fair, it’s hard to claim much of anything is cool when it has this much proximity to a Celine Dion hit. And sure, Titanic may be corny, clumsy, and obvious—but the sincerity of its emotions and the power of its spectacle endure, particularly when both elements come together in the majestic closing images: a dream vision in which the ship is brought back from its watery grave not just to its former glory, but as a better version of itself. Where all of its passengers gather in the dining room, and Jack can greet his Rose with a warm kiss that’s no longer their secret.
It was 1993 that was perhaps the year of Steven Spielberg’s greatest triumph, in which he delivered one of the biggest summer blockbusters of his career (or anyone else’s) with Jurassic Park, following it up six months later with a prestige picture, Schindler’s List, that finally won him the Oscar for Best Director. In 1997, there was an attempt to replicate that formula, rather nakedly but not quite successfully: That summer’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park is one of his least successful movies, and its Serious Movie follow-up, Amistad, was received with some indifference. Indeed, Amistad has its problems—but it also has two of the most vivid sequences in his entire filmography.
The first sequence opens the film: an impossibly tight close-up of the eyes of Cinque (Djimon Hounsou), as the sounds of his shallow breathing fill the soundtrack. His fingers dig a spike attached to his chains out of the wet wood below him, and once he frees himself he leads a slave rebellion aboard his ship, its images of uprising captured mostly in the cracks of lightning above them. It’s a bold way to open a movie, violent and visceral—and Spielberg tops it about an hour later with a reenactment of the Middle Passage that brought African slaves to America. It's a portrait of sheer barbarism, terrifying chaos, and unimaginable horror.
Spielberg hadn’t really shot violence like this before, with this kind of unrelenting intensity and overwhelming dread, but he would again—a mere six months after this film, in Saving Private Ryan. The other two-plus hours of Amistad can’t measure up to those sequences, and (perhaps thankfully) Spielberg doesn't try to. The film is ultimately a courtroom drama in which various parties battle over the fate of “these goods,” i.e. Cinque and his fellow slaves.
For Amistad, Spielberg assembled a murderer’s row of great character actors, including Morgan Freeman, Stellan Skarsgård, Nigel Hawthorne, Dave Paymer, Pete Postlethwaite, Paul Guilfoyle, Jeremy Northam, Chiwitel Ejiofor (in his first film), and Anthony Hopkins as a rather dotty John Quincy Adams. He also miscasts Matthew McConaughey, who's too distractingly contemporary as the opportunistic lawyer Baldwin.
David Franzoni’s script tells a lot of stories: Cinque’s struggle, Baldwin’s actualization, Adams’ last hurrah (and his reckoning with his father’s legacy). Ther's perhaps too many stories, especially about white heroes. But Hounsou is magnificent, his stirring speech to Adams (“I will call to my ancestors… for at this moment I am the whole reason they have existed at all”) inspiring the ex-President to deliver a soaring bit of oratory in the closing passages.
“The natural state of mankind,” he insists, “is freedom… and the proof is the length to which a man, woman, or child will go to regain it, once taken. He will break loose his chains. He will decimate his enemies. He will try and try and try against all odds, against all prejudices, to get home.” Amistad may not have been the spiritual sequel to Schindler’s List that he was aiming for, and it may not be the first, or fifth, or tenth film people talk about when his name comes up. But it has more moments that will put your hair on end than other filmmakers’ best works, and that says something.
The key concept articulated in that John Quincy Adams speech—of the lengths to which one will go to find their way home—similarly resonates in the closing passages of Martin Scorsese’s Kundun, which finds the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong) gazing longingly through a telescope at the homeland he’s just left as a title card declares that he hopes one day to return. When Bob Dylan explains the “Like a Rolling Stone” lyric that gives the Scorsese-directed documentary No Direction Home its title—that his entire life has been a search for a home that wasn’t there—he’s providing a key that unlocks not only his own work, but his cinematic biographer’s as well. “Home” is an elusive prospect, and in many cases, an all but unobtainable one.
Kundun seems about as far removed as you can get from a “Martin Scorsese Picture,” but it carries on key thematic and philosophical concerns from his entire filmography: the importance of ritual (the thread that ties “typical” Scorsese movies like Mean Streets and Taxi Driver to outliers like Age of Innocence), the notion of religious leaders as both fully divine and fully human, seeing such leaders not only as figureheads but as reflections (“like the moon on water; when you see me, and I try to be a good man, you see yourself”). And as with his other explicitly religious works, The Last Temptation of Christ and last year’s Silence, he looks in admiration at those who can place themselves into the hands of fate, and rely on that fate (and faith) to steer them.
“What can I do?” asks the Dalai Lama. “I am only a boy.” But he must know what to do, he is told, because he is not a boy but a reincarnated soul. The belief at the heart of Buddhism, that each successful Lama is the new incarnation of this human manifestation of the Buddha, allows screenwriter Melissa Mathison the marvelous narrative trick of a main character who discovers his history alongside the audience.
But the lack of skepticism surrounding that notion in Kundun is one of its finer qualities. Mathison and Scorsese are, if not believers, then artists who tell their story like believers, and the film may have suffered commercially because the two of them, though outsiders, chose to tell this story from the inside; there's no surrogate for the white audience—no Brad Pitt to use as an entry point, as Jean-Jacques Annaud did with Seven Years in Tibet earlier that fall.
Thus, Kundun was one of the director’s least-seen works, but it’s worth seeking out. It’s a challenging picture—episodic in telling, somewhat aloof emotionally, resisting at every turn the urge to become a conventional narrative (they could’ve leaned into the big, bombastic good vs. evil battle with China’s Chairman Mao, say, or done a Great Escape-style ending for the Lama’s exile to India). Instead, Scorsese tells his story in concert with Roger Deakins’ gorgeous imagery and Philip Glass’ stirring score, a combination of sound and vision that gives the film a feeling of non-narrative artiness, a la Koyaanisqatsi. In other words, it’s not exactly Goodfellas. But it’s not every filmmaker who can create works as divergent as Goodfellas and Kundun, either.