TIP OF THE ICEBERG
Madonna, eat your heart out. Nautical blockbuster Titanic is the newest showbiz sensation to attract the attention of the cultural studies crowd. University of Michigan film and video studies professor Gaylyn Studlar and lecturer Kevin Sandler are in the process of editing what may be the first academic equivalent of the quickie pop-culture best sellerthe thinking persons alternative to the Leonardo DiCaprio bios and heart of the ocean pendants now flying out of stores.
Each essay in their forthcoming volume, Sandler explains, will use a different methodology to try to explain "why the movie made so much money." Some chapters deconstruct Leo-besotted fan Web sites; others trace the use of special effects, the musical cross-marketing, or "the blue diamond necklace as a signifier of desire and its role in delivering the films ideological message as related to extravagance and grossness."
The anthology itself will steam toward shelves in record-breaking time. "As far as I know, nothing like this has been applied to a current film in such a short turnaround time," muses Sandler. "We gave contributors two and a half weeks for the abstract, two months to write the article. It would be perfect if it could come out immediately." (In fact, Rutgers University Press is likely to bring it out in the spring of 1999, a bit past the curveunless, as is rumored, director James Cameron rereleases the film with extra footage.)
Neither the editors nor most of the contributors are big fans of the movie. Indeed, the book is intended to throw a wave of icy water across the bow of Titanics success. "I just wondered, how in the world can this be so popular?" says Studlar with a laugh. "Its so bad. Obviously thats why Im a scholar and not a movie person." Alexandra Keller, a recent graduate of NYUs film studies program, explains, "To me, the film is basically repugnant. It makes very reassuring statements about class." The elderly Rose, she argues, has lived a "luxurious life of adventure...I dont see her holding up a union sign in any of those pictures!" As for Sandler (who found the film "boring"), he envisions the book as a cake with a file baked into it: Titaniacs will buy it for the title, only to gain the analytical tools to deconstruct their own fandom. (There are exceptions. Contributor Julian Stringer, a doctoral candidate at Indiana University, notes cheerfully, "Ive seen it three or four times and I havent yet got sick of it.")
Is the books market-savvy swiftness a tad hypocritical, given these critiques? Not really, says Vivian Sobchack, a professor of critical studies at UCLAs School of Theater, Film and Television, who will contribute an article titled "Bathos and the Bathysphere: Submersion, Longing, and History in Titanic." "Its neither horribly exploitative nor all that subversive. And presumably, Rutgers wants to make some money. I mean, were not exempt from our culture!"
"If you want to call it cashing in, you can," adds Matthew Bernstein, associate professor of film studies at Emory. "But why vilify academics for writing something that has large appeal?"