When it became clear, sometime in December, that Titanic was going to be an enormous success, critical opinion of the movie and of producer, director, and writer James Cameron underwent a curious mass conversion. Having spent weeks deriding Cameron for blowing an unprecedented amount of money on the production, the nation’s tastemakers turned on their heels and stampeded to hail his genius. Clever aphorisms comparing doomed ship to doomed film quickly gave way to reverent declarations of What This Says About Us. Why do the American people, in their inscrutable majesty, like this so much? What hidden facet of the American soul does Titanic throw into brilliant illumination?

It’s since been generally agreed that, apart from the movie’s near mechanical stimulation of teenage tastes, it has succeeded because it is such a profoundly moving statement on class in America. RMS Titanic was, of course, a luxury vessel that also carried poor folks; most of the film’s characters are either people of fantastic wealth traveling first-class or hearty proletarians singing and dancing their way across the Atlantic in steerage. While earlier accounts of the unhappy voyage have emphasized classical themes of the mighty laid low and gallantry in the face of death, this one features a cast of arrogant and bullying aristocrats high-hatting their social inferiors. Naturally, it is thought to be a more realistic portrayal of the event; naturally, it is hailed as an extended and enlightening metaphor for American society.

But in the rush to celebrate Cameron’s bold clinch with class, American critics have largely overlooked the fact that the class story Titanic tells is not really the class story of the period it purports to depict. To be sure, the years just before World War I were dramatic for workers and robber barons alike, the air filled with the battle cries of the IWW and the bayonets of the various state militias that were called out to keep the social order intact. Industrial conflict, however, is not the subject of Titanic. In fact, the only glimpses of labor the film gives us are brief scenes inside the ship’s boiler room, where jolly stokers tend gleaming engines and all is teamwork and common purpose.

No, for Cameron the problem with the rich has nothing to do with the brutal system over which they preside. The problem with the rich is that they’re boring. The overordered life of formal dinners, the empty pleasures of the country club, the dry choreography of the cotillion are all well-known horrors to free-spirited Rose, the film’s 16-year-old heroine, who finds the prospect of a lifetime of “the same narrow people, the same mindless chatter” so alarming that she decides to throw herself overboard, decolletage be damned. On one side Rose is beset by her fiance, Cal, the scion of some vast Pittsburgh interests and a boor so overdrawn as to rival Babbitt, always scoffing ignorantly at Rose’s penchant for Picasso or ordering the servants about or smashing the breakfast things in a fit of patriarchal pique. On the other side is Rose’s mom, a regular drill sergeant of snobbery who is training our heroine to obey the commands of American society circa 1912–yanking her corset strings both metaphorically and literally.

In other words, Titanic’s first-class decks are not only doomed; they are a floating pesthouse of anomie, a boatful of sufferers from the suburban curse. Fortunately, the masses are standing by to offer counseling and therapy. While the WASPs chew their white bread, the ship’s steerage is a riot of glorious multiculturalism, as Slavs, Celts, and even the stoic Scandinavians whoop it up with pints of strong beer. Out of this zesty social bouillabaisse comes proto-rocker Jack Dawson, a hot-blooded consumer of life destined to restore color to the pallid cheeks of the wilted Rose. Uninhibited Jack instructs Rose in the frontier arcana of expectorating and shipwreck surviving, wows a table of effete aristocrats with a statement of principles that might be a slogan for soda pop–“Take life as it comes at you. Make each day count”–and is even privy to the mysteries of impressionism, which is enough to persuade Rose to dispense with the restrictions of clothing altogether.

Before long Rose has become a full-fledged class traitor, flipping off a flunky, spitting in Cal’s face, jigging with the proles. And at the end of the film we learn that Rose’s break from proper society was a lasting one. Photos of her climbing into an airplane and standing in front of a big fish let us know that she took the lessons of the great shipwreck to heart and transformed herself into a “tumbleweed blowin’ in the wind,” that she, too, decided to “make each day count.”

We’ve heard all this many times before, of course. From D.H. Lawrence to Hollywood potboilers like Valley Girl to the rise of Levi’s jeans we routinely understand the social order as a hierarchy of authenticity. We transform class from a contest over social goods to a question of earthiness versus affectation, of honest enjoyment versus overcivilization, and we leap from product to product, from style to style–from Budweiser to microbrews, and presumably now from microbrews back to more populist “macrobrews”–in a race to recapture the vitality that for some reason we associate with blue-collar workers.

What distinguishes Titanic is the odd combination of grand ambition and pounding banality with which it makes this traditional American gesture. Adults may cringe at the blunt, unnuanced language in which it presents the classic tale of bourgeois self-doubt and bourgeois self-discovery–like It Happened One Night rewritten by a team of junior sentiment manufacturers from Hallmark. But by projecting his drama 80-odd years into the past, Cameron has produced a sort of foundational class myth–not for the notion of class that had the Soviets parading their missiles through Red Square every May Day, mind you, but for that which has sent so many young suburbanites off following the Dead or backpacking around Europe.

In reciting this myth for us, in populating it with winning young men and spunky heroines, Cameron’s film reassures us of the wisdom of our own social order. Take the two management teams whose exploits give the film its framework: The British sailors who guide the vessel to disaster are, like the society folk they are ferrying across the Atlantic, excessively rule bound. They inhabit a slavish hierarchy that has no place for innovation or flexibility, even in the midst of catastrophe. Modern audiences laugh at the formality of their abandon-ship announcement, gasp at their disorganization in loading the lifeboats, and expostulate angrily at their insistence on keeping third-class passengers separate from first even as the ship sinks. The sailors’ corporate master, who schemes perfidiously throughout the film and at one point betrays a damning innocence of the works of Freud, is a vain, cowardly blowhard. Sailors who boast a preternatural ability to detect icebergs are unable to deliver. The captain’s taciturnity masks simple incompetence. These people are as obsolete as the salad fork, and they get what they deserve.

Then there’s the film’s present-day management team–the sailors who are salvaging treasure from the vessel with bathysphere and submarine robot. They might well be descendants of the freewheeling Jack Dawson, so contemptuous are they of rules, etiquette, and hierarchy. The hard-nosed leader, addressed familiarly as “boss,” works by intuition, able to “smell” precious bits of wreckage from behind the cold hard data. His sidekick, a can-do nerd of the increasingly stock variety, speaks of the salvage caper as though it were a hacking operation or a panty raid (“We’re in, baby!”) and viciously deflates the airy pretensions of those around him. And they are ready multiculturalists, employing a gang of Russians–quickly assuming their new Hollywood role as the enthusiastic foot soldiers of rule-free global acquisition–to ferry them about the north Atlantic on their search. So you don’t miss the Jack connection, Cameron throws in an otherwise pointless concluding scene in which the boss, who sports the same blond haircut as Jack, begins to put the moves on Rose’s granddaughter.

What Titanic’s vision of progress conceals is that the really crucial questions of social class haven’t changed all that much since 1912. Etiquette and ironclad social rank may have gone the way of the dirigible, and today’s capitalists may wear jeans to work and believe that what they’re really doing in this age of the empowered worker and the soulful corporation is just making each day count, but still the world insists on dividing us up into rich and poor as energetically as ever. You don’t like it? says the man who spent millions lavishly recreating the Titanic’s interior, right down to the silverware. Learn how to spit.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Dorothy Perry.