REVIEWS by SULLYDOG

a film by Julie Taymor

First Al Gore was winning. Then he was losing. Ugh. I started to feel nauseated. That's the price you pay for being a member of that minority of people who think it actually matters who gets elected.

Anyway, I decided to tune it all out and watch vids. The first was Fargo, a movie I've seen many times before and will watch many times again. It’s such a sublime depiction of banal human evil and matter-of-fact human goodness—very nearly a perfect movie, in my estimation. If you've never seen it, you should.

The next item on my Electoral College Denial Agenda was Titus, with Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange. Titus is based on Shakespeare’s tragedy Titus Andronicus. Now, you might think that a guy who switches from election coverage to Fargo to Shakespearean tragedy might be trying to psyche himself up for self-immolation. But on a night like 11-7-00, tradegy seemed to be in order. And besides, Sullydog's always been a bit partial to tragedy. There’s something so true about it. Sullydog's favorite film of all time is Kurosowa’s Ran, a breathtaking rendition of the tragedy King Lear, set in sixteenth century Japan. Ran is one of the most visually stunning movies ever made. But its real power lies in the story of Lear, a devastating tale of betrayal, vengeance, misplaced loyalty, spiritual desolation, and the high of cost of civil and moral disorder. When you’re done watching Lear (or Ran), you nod your head and say, “Yep. That’s the way we are.” Shakespeare presents the same despairing view of humanity in his earlier work Titus Andronicus—just not as artfully.

General Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins) returns from his triumph in Gaul bearing the corpses of his dead sons. He also brings the queen of Gaul, Tamora,  (Jessica Lange) and her sons as prisoners. In a ritual exercise of retribution, Titus puts Tamora’s eldest son to death. When the newly crowned emperor, Saturnine (Alan Cumming) spurns Titus’s daughter and chooses Tamora as his queen, the stage is set for a senseless, savage cycle of reprisal. Titus, a simple soldier unaccustomed to Imperial politics and paralyzed by a rigid code of duty and morality, is inexorably crushed by a series of degradations and tragic losses. We're unsettled to find that we can identify with this man who, while he is definitely the protagonist, is most certainly not a hero. When he finally snaps, we’re willing to follow him into bloodlust and vengeance—you might say that Titus Andronicus was the sixteenth-century predecessor of an Arnold Shwarzenegger revenge flick. (They cut out his duaghter’s tongue. Now they have to PAY!) But unlike an Arnie adventure, during which we cheer as the All-American muscles of morality crush the life out of villainy, we just can’t follow Titus all the way. As he bows before the gods of rapine and murder, we finally come to our senses, even if he doesn’t, and we can only stand back and watch in growing horror as he destroys himself along with his enemies.

Titus Andronicus was to the career of William Shakespeare as Carrie was to Stephen King's: an early effort, not without promise, not his best, more than a little lurid, and Unconditionally Weird. That’s why I’m including Titus in this column.  Although not sf, Titus depicts Imperial Rome—already an alien civilization as far as we’re concerned—from an almost psychedelic vantage. 20th century props, costumes and sets have the paradoxical effect of making everything other-worldly, while at the same time uncomfortably close to home. More to the point, Titus is most definitely horror. That doesn’t mean it’s scary. That means it’s a spot-on depiction of humanity at its worst—in other words, it’s horrifying. Taymor’s Titus somehow, miraculously, succeeds in re-telling Shakespeare’s tale of betrayal, madness, war, hate, murder, mutilation, infanticide, interracial adultery, rape, blood and culinary retribution, spinning a  hideous, mesmerizing tableau of human evil.

Taymor could have tried to make Titus more solemn, more respectable, more like most people’s preconceptions of Shakespeare—in other words, more lifeless and boring. But that would have done violence to the lurid, messy personality of this play, which simply does not have the restraint or refinement of Lear or Hamlet. Indeed, some scholars suspect that Shakespeare created Titus Andronicus with his tongue planted firmly in cheek, satirizing his literary contemporaries who were hacking out even nastier gunk (a la Oliver Stone with Natural Born Killers). Taymor has been harshly criticized for her over-the-top cinematography and outrageous visuals—but in my judgement they fit Titus Andronicus as surely as Kurosawa’s sixteenth-century Japanese settings fit King Lear. Given the very nature of the play, just deciding to make it into a film in the first place was.. ..well, ballsy. If you’re going to do it, you might as well go all the way and film it in a manner that befits the subject. Rather than serve up Titus as a lukewarm leftover from the back of Shakespeare’s theatrical fridge, Taymor starts fresh, stirring a little fire and blood into the dish, and dares us to take a bite.

Taymor’s Titus minimizes the weaknesses of the play while maximizing its strengths, offers hypnotic performances by Hopkins and Lange, and manages to make the story Even Weirder. Like the election coverage, it was a wrenching experience. But at least Titus was entertaining.

Willy the Shake meets Caligula. Sullydog approves.

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