film: Taymore: Titus (1999)

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Granted, I have been suffering from chronic nausea for two months, and a film by WC Fields, a few weeks ago, had the same effect on me—but this is the first time that violence and gore has made me shiver nervously, nauseated me intensely. However, of all the film, that aspect was the least over-the-top, I mean, the violence and gore; and that’s saying quite a lot, given the possibilities. I like to attribute this to the director, Julie Taymore, having also directed The Lion King on Broadway.

The impression I get is that Taymore was given an immense budget and she determined to use every cent. The film is nearly three hours long. It has a cast of big names. The film is set sometimes in ancient Rome, sometimes the present, sometimes in a Peter Greenaway film, sometimes in a 1980’s sequel that takes place in New York, sometimes in a Fascist jazz-age bit. All the performers (except Anthony Hopkins, though that doesn’t excuse him) act as if they’re in a high school musical, the men are all excessively flamboyant, there are short scenes like interludes that perhaps are officially meant to give us perspective, but actually are there to show us more of the costume and prop department’s skills, and a bunch of nipples. I don’t know if the film is more like a three-ring circus or an informercial—but it’s near enough both.

Now, let’s see what the Amazon reviews say, whose critics give an average four stars:

“The play Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare’s first tragedy, and it shows. Though the dialog is top-notch, he hasn’t got a handle on the mechanisms of tragedy yet.”

People write as if Shakespeare sat down one day and decided to become Shakespeare. Was he not an apprentice once? And is there not a popular opinion that this was co-written with…who was it, Greene? Simply because this play is included in the canon today doesn’t mean it was or ever has been entirely agreed to have its place there. I disagree: if this play contains the elements of a “revenge drama,” the stalling revenge, the feigned madness, and the tragic revenge, Shakespeare writes an excessive revenge drama by necessitating all the characters needing revenge. All the characters need a good killing, they all need revenge.

“Shakespearean purists won’t like it.”

But isn’t it a bit funny that there’s such a dearth of films made for Shakespeare purists? I mean, aren’t they usually intended to guide the audience away from the verse, and towards the visuals? Aren’t I using the word “audience” loosely, thus?

“stylish, visually stunning, energetic”

–are euphemisms for what I call wasteful.

“If it is not enough, the movie has one of the greatest performances in Shakespeare’s tragedies I’ve seen and it is Harry J. Lennix as Aaron. Never have I seen an actor who was able to combine both, noble Othello and the embodiment of evil, Iago in one character so convincingly with such power.”

Were Aaron not black, I don’t know that this comparison would be made. But, if all Shakespeare’s black characters have an element of blackness to them, that must be brought out by the actors, well, then Lennix did an excellent job in acting black, I suppose, though I didn’t happen to notice. Why bring Othello into this? Iago, yes, is entirely evil. But Aaron? Just because he claims himself to be entirely evil, that in itself seems a bit questionable. First, he is a prudent lover of the empress; second, he loves his own child; third, there’s no evidence of his being evil, you know, digging up dead people and standing them at their friends doors, no evidence except that he claims it, but, what would one claim at the hands of death, after having been assured that one’s child will be granted life, and having nothing else to live for?

“And I love Shakespeare but, big, BUT, the verbage should be modernized”

—by which you mean to say, you don’t love Shakespeare at all, but you do love action-packed stories of murder and adventure. Julia Stiles in “O” proves that updating the “verbage” is a poor, poor idea.

“Yes, the play isn’t up to the literary standards of Hamlet, yes, it lacks the coherent picture of the characters’ motivations we find in King Lear, yes, there are loose ends and unexplained actions….There’s no indication of why the Goths would follow a renegade Roman in an attack against a city ruled by their own queen. Titus sends his grandson with a load of weapons to Chiron and Demetrius in Act IV, but there’s nothing more said about it. Queen Tamora visits Titus disguised as the goddess of Revenge for no apparent reason other than to hand over her two knuckleheaded sons to the Andronicii to be killed and baked into pies. When Titus appears dressed as Chef Boy-ar-dee at the start of the big knife fight in Act V, his costume is dismissed in two lines.”

And I don’t agree with any of these as being unexplained or loose ends, because:
1. The Goths follow Lucius apparently in the style of Coriolanus, as the play references.
2. Titus sends the weapons wrapped in verses to “wound beyond their feeling to the quick” as Aaron notes.
3. Tamora visits as part of a ploy to get all Her enemies in one room and enact revenge, or at least defuse the current military situation.
4. Titus appears dressed as a chef because the stage direction says so, which, if you feel is suspect since Shakespeare supposedly didn’t include stage direction himself, then also because Titus finishes the previous scene by saying “I’ll play the cook”–it seems quite appropriate to me.

You know what my problem with this whole thing is? Shakespeare is being used as a whore, dabbled over poor filmmaking as an excuse for legitimacy and artistic license. Where did all the money go?

6 April 07

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