by Emalie Soderback
When I was growing up, there were two movies I’d watch over and over again on my tiny cube television set with a built in VCR. Two movies, four VHS tapes—James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) and Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001). These incredible big-budget dramas with their ground-breaking special effects, and casts of young, dashing leading men like Leonardo DiCaprio and Josh Hartnett—not to mention the female leads of equally astounding beauty Kate Winslet and Kate Beckinsale—set against the backdrop of earth-shattering historical tragedies seemed to match up perfectly to my end-of-the-world, overdramatic, tween emotions.
Titanic was the first all-out, large-scale film epic I had ever experienced. Was I entranced by Bill Paxton’s boyish sense of adventure and rugged determination to find the Heart of the Ocean? No. Sorry Bill, and RIP. Was I blown away by the accuracy in which Cameron recreated the doomed ship’s sinking? Well yeah, but not until much later because I was a kid and wasn’t necessarily concerned with the facts. But when that James Horner score swells and Rose (Winslet) looks out, unimpressed at the gargantuan ocean liner in front of her—much more concerned with how deeply bored and trapped she felt—I was hooked. A seemingly perfect girl from a seemingly perfect family, pressured by her mother and the promise of regained wealth to marry an absolute asshole, Cal “Something Picasso? He won’t amount to a thing!” Hockley (Billy Zane), and all the while bursting at the seams of her own skin, desperate for a way out, for something different—this was my tragedy!
These were not my problems of course. I was a suburban tween who hung out at the mall, went to private school, and really liked the band Weezer. But the juxtaposition of a young girl’s depression and middle-school ennui against one of the most infamous tragedies known to man—it somehow worked. Figuring out the space between childhood and adulthood, sorting through the barrage of emotions, the excess angst, and all of the over-the-top sensitivities can feel like the end of the world to a 12-year-old girl. Especially to a 12-year-old girl. And finding someone who “gets” you is a miracle in itself. Am I saying that pre-teen troubles actually comparable to 1500 people dying in a disaster, little frozen babies, an elderly couple holding hands while below-freezing water rushes over them in their cabin? Well, no. Not at all. But these are big feelings all the same, and James Cameron’s 3 hour and 15-minute masterpiece with its breathtaking scenes of catastrophe, its emotional score, and desperately fighting heroine quickly became one of my favorite movies of all time.
Similarly, Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor had me shuffling those Part 1/Part 2 video cassettes week in and week out. You can still catch me and my best friend quoting one particular scene where a young Rafe (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett) get into a scuffle with Danny’s abusive father (the quote? “You’re my best friend,” obviously). Bay’s extravagant melodrama set against the backdrop of the days leading up to and following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor included some scenes that stuck with me and will forever be cherished in my heart of hearts. For instance, Rafe breaking his nose with a champagne cork in an attempt to flirt with wartime nurse Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale). Or the steamy lovemaking session that takes place in a parachute hanger. Two best friends, one girl. One fake death, one pregnancy. Oh, and the shockingly violent and completely unprecedented attack on a U.S. naval base; the date that will live in infamy. All of this and all I could think about was how incredibly stressed out Evelyn must be. “Yes, there’s all this death stuff happening, and on top of all that I’m pregnant by the best friend of my boyfriend who I thought was killed but turns out is still alive? And I am basically running this hospital that is dangerously understaffed and in desperate need of supplies?!” In a response to critics consistently bashing his films, Michael Bay was once quoted saying “I make movies for teenage boys. Oh, dear, what a crime.” But what he may not have known at the time, was that teenage boys weren’t his only audience—at least not this time.
I guess what I’m saying is I can see why these two big budget, action-dramas were so appealing to a younger me (don’t get me wrong they still are, I just watched Armageddon for the first time this last summer). The emotions and drama of a tween girl can feel overwhelming and downright paralyzing. Is there a better way to compartmentalize these over-the-top feelings about growing up than to explore and feel them in the context of a high-budget, high-drama action film? With explosions, CGI, steamy car sex, and violent deaths?
All you know is that things are hard, hormones are raging, and you want to both fight and embrace the inevitable hurtle towards independence. That tug of war so perfectly illustrated by these two blockbuster melodramas that I held so dear as a pre-teen girl. Fighting and embracing like best friends Rafe and Danny during that Tiki bar brawl after Rafe returns from the dead. Or fighting your strict upbringing by posing naked for your new artist boyfriend, while embracing the very symbol of what you hate strung around your neck.
Emalie Soderback is a Scarecrow Video employee and seasonal SIFF editor. She’s a lover of all film and television dealing with feminine identity, horror (especially together and aesthetically), teen dramas, and true crime. Check out her Letterboxd page for more.