Last weekend, I celebrated Valentine’s Day by going to see the 25th-anniversary theatrical release of Titanic in 3D. Reader, I had a blast. And that movie stuck to me. I keep thinking about it this week.
Among other things, I was impressed with the brilliance of the storytelling on a structural level. Yes, the framing story is absurd and the love story is juvenile; the moral is cheesy; the dialogue is quotably corny, and this damages some of the actors’ performances; and the runtime is well over three hours. But the narrative is tight, propulsive, and genuinely heartbreaking.
Consider what a remarkable thing that is.
The audience knows almost exactly how the ship will sink. The framing narrative reveals the fate of at least one protagonist before anything happens. Even some of the dialogue has been heard almost verbatim in previous movies because it comes from historical accounts.
From the start, this is a story in which almost no surprises are possible. Titanic’s success looks like a psychological impossibility.
And that’s why historical storytellers, including history teachers, should study it. We can benefit from understanding why this movie works as we tell other familiar true stories.
Here are some of the lessons I’ve come up with so far.
If you’ve spent much time thinking about narrative, or about truth-telling in general, you have probably encountered the word Rashōmon.
The 1950 film by that name, directed by Kurosawa Akira, made a deep impression on American storytellers and critics. Not only has it been credited with “effectively opening the world of Japanese cinema to the West,” in the words of Roger Ebert. Its title also has given us an irreplaceable metaphor in English: the “Rashōmon effect.”
Unfortunately, most Americans’ impression of this film is wrong. It contradicts both the details and the argument of Kurosawa’s movie. (Yes, I appreciate the irony.)
The movie definitely has an argument. The director said so. And the film itself isn’t exactly subtle about it. Of course, viewers should form their own opinions about any work of art, and anyone who tries to tell true stories—including a history teacher—may benefit from watching Kurosawa’s classic film for themselves. But if you do that, I recommend trying to experience it without the preconceptions that American popular culture has grafted onto it.
You may find, as I did, that this great work of art speaks to you in ways we have not been led to expect.
Every hero needs both an inner and an outer problem. In developing fairy tales for Disney Feature Animation, we often found that writers, in the early drafts, would give the heroes a good outer problem: Can the princess manage to break an enchantment on her father who has been turned to stone? Can the hero get to the top of a glass mountain and win a princess’s hand in marriage? Can Gretel rescue Hansel from the Witch? But sometimes writers neglected to give the characters a compelling inner problem to solve as well.
Characters without inner challenges seem flat and uninvolving, however heroically they may act. They need an inner problem, a personality flaw or a moral dilemma to work out. They need to learn something in the course of the story: how to get along with others, how to trust themselves, how to see beyond outward appearances. Audiences love to see characters learning, growing, and dealing with the inner and outer challenges of life.
An interesting new study conducted at Harvard University and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that undergraduates in introductory physics courses learn more in classrooms that employ active-learning instruction methods (specifically, problem-solving in small groups) than students taking notes on “passive” lectures—but think they learn less. The researchers propose that this discrepancy between actual and perceived learning happens because active learning requires more effort on students’ part; it feels frustrating or inefficient. They also warns that this means that relying on student evaluations of teaching could lead instructors to use “inferior (passive) pedagogical methods” in their quest to achieve the popularity of “superstar lecturers.”
The study (full version in PDF format here) seems excellent in design and careful in its conclusions. Unfortunately, Harvard has publicized it with a news article that draws a tiresome false dichotomy between lectures and active learning, going so far as to quote the peer-instruction proponent Eric Mazur—who helped with the study—this way:
‘This work unambiguously debunks the illusion of learning from lectures,’ he said. ‘It also explains why instructors and students cling to the belief that listening to lectures constitutes learning.’
Of course, the study does no such thing as Mazur’s first claim.