Surprise Ending


When I saw Titanic last winter, I went because my mom sent a letter and made a little joke. In the letter she wrote, “Tyler, Titanic is a great date movie, and it won’t be in theaters much longer. Don’t miss the boat.” Last Valentine’s Day she sent me $20 and wrote, “Treat yourself and a date to a ‘hearty’ meal.” I wanted to buy a new flashlight with the money, but I bought the meal. I’m a sucker for my mom’s little jokes.

She first started talking about Titanic during the Academy Awards. Like a lot of people, my mom called Titanic the greatest movie ever made. Like a lot of teenage girls, my dad was smitten with Leonardo DiCaprio. He was upset that Leo didn’t show up at the awards and talked about it until I accused him of having a crush. He got mad, but my mom laughed. Later I made her mad when I took the dog for a walk during Celine Dion’s performance of “My Heart Will Go On.” My mom said, “You’re going to miss the good one.” I said it was on the radio a lot.

I took my dog around the block and returned in time to see James Cameron win the Oscar for best picture. I liked his moment of silence but wished he’d asked for one earlier, just in case Titanic hadn’t also won best picture. He’d had a chance during his best-director acceptance speech, but instead he’d hooted, “I’m the king of the world!” He hooted a lot during the Academy Awards. He even ended the moment of silence by hooting. While everyone still had their heads bowed he whooped, “Now, let’s party!”

After the Academy Awards my mom called about once a week to ask if I’d finally seen Titanic. When week after week I didn’t take her advice, she finally became insulted and started yelling. “Didn’t I drag you to see Star Wars and E.T. when you were scared of Martians?” she asked. “And didn’t those become your favorite movies?”

I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to tell her that college had turned me into a smarty-pants and that I no longer liked those movies. I didn’t want to tell her that my film professor had called Star Wars and E.T. stupid and insultingly simple. She finally cried, “But Tyler, didn’t I buy you the toys?”

She was right about that too. She’d bought me lots of Star Wars toys and an E.T. doll, but my professor had also said that any movie character reducible to a plastic toy lacked the complexity to produce a compelling film. In class I’d even raised my hand and agreed, adding that as a child I’d stored my Star Wars figures in separate “good guy” and “bad guy” boxes. I wanted the professor to like me, so I didn’t mention the complexity on display when Princess Leia sneaked out of her box to pay Darth Vader a late-night visit.

I didn’t mention that to my mom either. I did, however, try to explain to her what my professor had said about movie toys. She said, “There’re no toys in Titanic.” That ended the conversation.

Sometime later my mom phoned and tried again. This time she called Titanic the world’s greatest love story and said I might learn something about romance by watching it. I was skeptical. I told her that in 1994 Cameron had made another blockbuster called True Lies, and in that love story Jamie Lee Curtis wins back her hunky, deadbeat husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger, by changing her hair, ripping her dress, and posing as a prostitute. That’s after he’s kidnapped her, locked her in a concrete room, and made her cry. But my mom hadn’t seen it.

My mom didn’t mention Titanic again until she sent the letter. Her little joke about missing the boat persuaded me. The next day I took the bus downtown and saw it.

I liked it. I liked it so much that I stood up, stomped my feet, and cheered at the end. I doubt my college professor would have approved of my reaction. Titanic was pretty simple. In fact, I’ve seen Popeye cartoons with fuzzier demarcations between good and evil, and to be honest, Bluto probably had a greater chance of bedding Olive Oyl than Billy Zane’s fop ever had of marrying Rose. Still, I liked it, and I decided that there’s nothing wrong with liking simple things. Simplicity is why the macarena became the dance craze that the electric slide never was. If my mom likes something because it’s simple, then you can bet that a whole lot of other people do too. Include me on that list. My mom and I can dance the macarena like gangbusters.

After seeing the movie, I called my mom. She was happy. Then I asked her why exactly she’d liked it. She said she just liked to imagine me as Jack, drawing pictures and saving children. She also liked to imagine her boss as Billy Zane’s rich fop and me stealing his fiancee. “He’s just the type of guy who would use a child to get on a lifeboat,” she said.

I guess a lot of people know the type. I guess a lot of people enjoy the simplicity of classifying the people in their lives as good or bad.

It worked for James Cameron. Titanic just keeps sailing.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film (?) still.