It all started quite innocently.
The twentieth century was coming to an end. James Cameron’s insanely expensive 1997 romance/disaster film Titanic was the biggest thing ever, dazzling housewives and teenage girls everywhere and out-grossing every other perfectly respectable highest-grossing-movie-ever by a comfortable margin.
It was the first film ever to earn more than a billion dollars at the box office. It won eleven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, and scores of other awards. Celine Dion had a worldwide #1 megahit (and a Grammy, of course) with that wretched song, and the (mostly orchestral) soundtrack album sold over eleven million copies in the U.S. alone. The TV ads were relentless. People wouldn’t shut up about it. The film was #1 for fifteen consecutive weeks in the U.S. (still a record) and stayed in theaters for the better part of a year. It held the record for highest worldwide box office for twelve years — until Cameron’s own Avatar beat it in 2010.
I didn’t see it.
At first, that wasn’t so unusual. I don’t always get out to a theater for every “must see” Hollywood sensation. Even when I’m really excited to see a movie, I often wait until it’s released on video, to avoid the high cinema expense and the inevitable annoyances from less discreet audience members. But something about Titanic made it exceptional. A pop culture phenomenon of that size exerts its own influence, its own pressure. Pressure to participate. Societal expectations. Everybody saw Titanic. After a while, it became a genuine curiosity that I hadn’t. It even seemed to bother some people.
And the more Cameron’s behemoth saturated popular culture, the more I resisted. My petulant, rebellious inner youth wasn’t about to let $1.8 billion in box office make entertainment decisions for me. As the pressure increased, I resisted more. (This wasn’t difficult, I admit; despite near-universal acclaim, the film never looked very interesting to me.) I rejected the hype; I defied the pressure to take part in the phenomenon. Finally, I made the ultimate vow of resistance: I would never see Titanic. Not seeing it was such a rare distinction that it became a point of pride, my invisible badge of honor. I wear it still.
I’ve seen bits of the film, of course. The trailers and TV ads were inescapable back then, and in the years since I’ve caught the occasional glimpse of it while flipping through channels. Period costumes. CGI water. Billy Zane.
I’ve been assured on many occasions that it’s really a very good movie, and that I don’t know what I’m missing — both points I cheerfully concede. I have no reason to doubt that it’s an entertaining film, probably rather moving, perhaps even inspiring. But I won’t see it. Titanic has taken up a special place in my life — the one film I will absolutely never ever see. It’s a very specific kind of non-participation into which I’ve invested well over a decade, and it means something to me.
Now, here’s something interesting: Upon learning about my special relationship with Titanic, a common response from people is to begin devising a scheme to force me to watch it, or to somehow trick me into seeing it (as if I wouldn’t notice until the end credits). Where this impulse comes from — why even dear friends would have this desire to destroy my special relationship with Titanic — has never been fully explained. Is it envy? Jealousy? The cascading social pressure of the ubiquitous mega-blockbuster? Some people seem truly uncomfortable with the idea that someone in their midst hasn’t seen Titanic. And that makes my petulant, rebellious inner youth giddy with delight.
It works for me, you see. In fact, I think everybody should have a Titanic: one special, exceptionally popular movie you’ll absolutely never see. It’s easy: Two hours, more or less, that you simply don’t invest in that particular title. Choose one and claim it. Stake out your permanent exclusion from that one little piece of pop culture. It takes commitment, and discipline — you cannot un-see a film once you’ve seen it, of course. There will be pressure from others to cave in, and your friends may attempt to subject you to a Clockwork Orange-style forced viewing. But if you successfully defend your non-participation, you’ll have earned something that few others can enjoy. And the longer you defend it, the sweeter it gets.
Who knows? In our media-soaked existence, with practically unlimited entertainment available on demand, we may find ourselves better defined by what we haven’t seen than by what we have. As human culture becomes ever more homogenized, the distinction of personal inexperience might only become more valuable. As of this writing, I haven’t committed any other films to Titanic status, but really, there’s no inherent reason to limit one’s Titanic List to a single title.
I still haven’t seen Avatar…
[EDIT: As of November 18, 2011, I have officially added all Twilight films (current and future installments) to the Titanic list.]