Thursday, March 20, 2014

Titus


WHEN IN ROME

Norman seems to be recovering from his escapades of the other day. (I have double locked the cabinets containing the liquor and the household cleaning products just to make sure). He still smells somewhat of egg drop soup and I have to make sure he sits down wind when we’re enjoying brunch on the terrace, but all and all, things are improving. All has been quiet on the set of Fillies as well. We’ve been rehearsing Rob Lowe’s big nude scene. He’s being terribly modest about the whole thing, as if we all didn’t see that tacky little home movie a few years ago.

Helmut, the producer, has been a bit of a pest. He’s taken to hanging out on the set along with that nurse of his. She may be pneumatic and peroxided within an inch of baldness, but she has grave difficulty grasping the most basic of English and obviously hasn’t a clue how to sing or dance with any real ability. She joined us for one of our rehearsals, cellulite spilling out of her thong every which way, and couldn’t execute even a simple time step. Helmut seemed to like it though; he leered so badly his false teeth slipped out of his mouth and down her d├ęcolletage .

As things are finally quiet, I finally had time to finish studying the DVD of Julie Taymor's film, Titus which has been sitting in the home theater system for the last few days. The film is an adaptation of Shakespeare's early and lesser-known play, Titus Andronicus . I have always been a bit of a connoisseur of Shakespeare on film and have even been known to sit through such pap as Men of Honor that transposed Macbeth to mobster New Jersey just to see how they would incorporate the famous moments and lines.

Titus Andronicus is a play that has always been close to my heart; I played Tamora, Queen of Goths, in the musical version,  The King and Eye for an Eye , one of my greatest screen triumphs. It's a work not often done these days as few theater companies can get past the gruesome on stage deaths and dismemberments, which are integral to the plot. It's Shakespeare's earliest published work and his take on the revenge tragedy genre that was popular in the late 16th century. Shakespeare was sort of an Elizabethan Quentin Tarantino and Titus Andronicus is his Reservoir Dogs - a work so over the top that it caused everyone to sit up and take notice.

In terms of plot, Titus is the story of Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins), a gallant Roman general who returns to Rome with his surviving sons after years away, battling and defeating the Goths. He brings, as captive, Tamora the Queen of Goths (Jessica Lange) and her three sons. Also among the captives is Aaron, the Moor (Harry Lennix), the first Black role in the history of English speaking theater and the first of Shakespeare's great villains. Titus, as part of religious ritual, orders Tamora's eldest son, Alarbus, to be dismembered in ritual sacrifice to consummate the victory and thus begins a cycle of wrongdoing and revenge, which ends up with the ugly deaths of most of the principal characters.


Back in Rome, the old emperor has died leaving two rival claimants for the throne, Saturninus (Alan Cumming) and Bassianus (James Frain). Titus throws his support to Saturninus leading to his ascending the throne. Saturninus also tries to claim Titus's daughter Lavinia (Laura Fraser) but she is in love with Bassianus who steals her away. Saturninus, in a fit of pique, as he feels that Titus and his family have shamed him, marries Tamora instead. The once imprisoned Goths, especially Tamora and Aaron, her lover, now have power and position and waste no time working out vile ways to take out the Andronici until Titus, in a fit of seeming madness, ultimately outdoes them in the revenge game.

The plot, which has more decapitations, dismemberings, and cannibalism than most of the Friday the 13th movies, isn't that important (and much of it is silly and not very well thought out). The importance of the play, and this film version, are the themes that Shakespeare brings to light. As interpreted by Taymor, we see the work as a meditation on the nature, causes, and ultimate hopelessness of violence as a means of solving problems. There are also timely points made about racism, the nature of family or tribe versus outsider, and some rather startling insights, from a 16th century author, on nihilism and the emptiness of feeling which human nature places in the vacuum left after a loss by violent means.

Julie Taymor is best known for her work in the theater (and Titus is based on a stage production of hers from 1994). This is her first time behind a film camera as director and it’s a stunning debut. Taymor has chosen to make the film timeless by fusing different periods together. The soldiers have Roman type uniforms. Saturninus and his court have trappings out of deco fascism, like the aristocrats of Visconti's The Damned or Ian McKellan’s recent Richard III . The Goths, all peroxide blond, wear furs and later metallic jungle skin prints to emphasize their animalistic nature. Not all of Taymor's ideas work but they remain visually arresting. As an example, to emphasize the Grand Guignol theater of cruelty aspects, the film opens and closes in a Roman Coliseum. At the start, all are caked in blue mud to make them look alike and, as this is removed at the baths, we slowly have a chance to explore the anachronisms and realize how they are used to heighten emotion and character.

Taymor proves herself a master of using actors together with set or location to give a message. One especially well thought out scene shows Titus and the remains of his family at a literal crossroads and the placement of them in the landscape tells you all you need to know about them and their various emotional states. Like Peter Greenaway, she is painting on celluloid. Another bit of incredible imagery takes place in a swamp where dead snags are echoed in an act of cruelty perpetrated on Lavinia. The use of color, a very narrow palette of blacks, whites, grays, and metallics with the occasional red or blue accent is also amazing.

The performances are sensational. Hopkins was apparently having problems in his personal life during the filming and he seems to have channeled it into the later scenes when Titus has been destroyed as a man by the destruction of his family. Jessica Lange, not one who immediately springs to mind as a Shakespearean, is his match. She brings a ferocious intensity to Tamora, which takes the breath away. Alan Cumming seems to be doing a variation on his Emcee from the Cabaret revival as Saturninus but it works with the concept and the supporting cast all turn in some fine work, especially Harry Lennix as Aaron.

The movie was not a success on theatrical release. My guess is the violence was too intense for many. It's not easy to get through in some places because of the emotion behind it. The audience cannot distance itself into unreality as they can with the average slasher flick. The DVD, however, is the next best thing to the theater. The wide screen images and Eliot Goldenthal's score come through wonderfully well.

It's a double DVD set for the collector with lots of goodies. There are three commentary tracks. One of Taymor, one with Hopkins and Lennix, and one with composer Goldenthal. All add useful insights to the film and its themes such as making a film about internecine strife on location in Croatia. On the second disc are a half hour filmed interview with Taymor, an hour documentary on the making of, which is fabulous in its peek at the rehearsal process, set and costume sketches, trailers and more. It's worth the price.

Ultimately, this film will have a somewhat limited appeal. The Shakespearean crowd may find the subject matter and unique visual style off-putting while those who would be attracted to the story might have a hard time with the language (although the interpretation of the text is very clear).

Fascist pope mobile. Exploding kitchen. Lines of boots. Naked Alan Cumming. Naked Anthony Hopkins. Naked Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Naked Matthew Rhys. Wooden hands. Ribbons of blood. Gratuitous Geraldine McEwan. Wild tigers. Roman orgy. Gratuitous inflatable lady. Meat pies a la Lovett.

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