The Life & Times of an Auteur.

Commentary on Pop Culture, and maybe creating some of my own.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Titus


I've spoken about this film before, in my list of "Top Twenty Favorite Films" and "Top Twenty-Five Movie Villains." But since this is very high on my list of favorites, I decided upon an expanded review. Why? A lot of reasons, really. First and foremost, it's a favorite of mine. Second, I am sick and tired of people giving Julie Taymor shit because of "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark." Say what one will of that musical, but Taymor directed this film, and as such will forever be on my genius list.

I've told this story before, but allow me to reiterate myself. I first became aware of the play in 1999, when I saw a production of it at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. It sucked me in and has never spit me out. I was captivated by this horrific story, this examination of the escalating nature of human cruelty and where it inevitably leads. I remember seeing it with a close friend, and his parents. Halfway through the play, his mother walked out while the three of us finished it and loved it. The following year, I rented Taymor's film, a couple of years later I bought the DVD, and now I await a Blu-ray release.

Anthony Hopkins plays Titus Andronicus, a Roman general who just defeated the Goths in war and brings back their queen, Tamora; three of her sons, and Aaron the Moor back as prisoners to parade in Rome. On the way, to avenge the loss over over twenty of his sons in the war, he sacrifices Tamora's eldest son to the gods. He then is awarded the position of emperor of Rome, but turns it down in favor of Saturninus, played by Alan Cumming.

Tamora has been my favorite Shakespearean character since I saw her on stage, and Jessica Lange captured the character to a tee. We feel for her when she begs for her eldest son's life, and understand her grief when she is later pardoned by Emperor Saturninus who then marries her, elevating her to Emperess of Rome, and she vows to massacre Titus' entire family. Lange was perfect. She was the right age; she brought the sexuality they needed for the character of Tamora; she has great chemistry with the other actors, especially with Alan Cumming, where she seemed to be almost motherly to him as well as a sexual bride.

There are no clear-cut villains or heroes. Every character has a dark, evil, passionate and sensitive side. These multi-layered characters are the real strength of the story because we are not asked to pick sides, rather we are asked to assess the actions and motivations of these characters. There are times when we are on Tamora's side just as often as there are times we are on Titus' side.

There is a scene in the story where Tamora is carrying on her affair with Aaron the Moor behind Saturninus' back during a royal hunt in the woods, when Titus' daughter, Lavinia and her betrothed, Bassianus (Saturninus' brother) come upon them. Lavinia behaves almost like a cat who caught a mouse and is playing with it, before tragedy strikes, and Tamora's sons murder Bassianus and are prepared to rape her... in which point Lavinia begs for a fast death, but as the play was written and film performed, it's almost as if Lavinia helped bring part of Tamora's wrath upon herself when she decides to let her sons do with Lavinia what they will... which then brings about the hardest scene to watch in the movie where Lavinia is raped, her tongue cut out, and her hands cut off.... and twigs shoved into her bloody stumps. Of course, or sympathy returns to Lavinia, and this is just the beginning of the blood feud between Tamora and Titus (assuming the initial sacrifice wasn't where it all started).

I still find it amazing how someone who can write something as beautiful as those sonnets and "Much Ado About Nothing" can create such brutality. It's as if he is saying "Hey, with all beauty there is darkness just as plain." As Colm Feore says in the commentary of Taymor's movie, you have all these movies about blowing things up and murder and crime, but you rape one girl, you manipulate one family to a tragic end, and do it in the language that Shakespeare did it, and no one can stomach it." It's not what they do to Lavina that is so shocking, its how they taunt her, how they ridicule the one virtue she hung her very life on that shakes us to the core. Its worth it in that respect. The beauty of the language is somewhat of a cushion against the agony the play puts you through.

As for the people who seem to really dislike the movie. To me the weirdest part is that many people who can't stomach stylization also don't have the fortitude to watch gritty realism. What it most probably boils down to is the wish for films to be mindless entertainment, and if a film demands attention, thought, engagement, there will always be legions of people ready to attack it for whatever handy excuse they can find to conceal the real reason for their dislike: they are lazy.

With this film: the acting was superb, the story is wonderful (of course, it's Shakespeare), and the effects and costuming and period-mixing and all the surrealist/impressionist stuff was sheer genius. Some might call it ridiculous, but to be honest, the play is a bit ridiculous. A person dies in almost every scene (and usually more.) It is over the top and surreal. I thought Taymor's approach worked extremely well, she showed the presence of violence in every culture, as well as the absurdity of it. Shakespeare could have well approved of innovative adaptations to the twenty-first century of his classics, like "Richard III," because Shakespeare was an innovator himself who went beyond the theater conventions of his day and who meant his works to be timeless.

This is an A+ movie. Everyone over seventeen, or with a strong stomach should see it.

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