A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 601 – Titus

Titus – October 21st, 2011

How better to follow up an enormous long slog of a movie than to watch a movie that’s only slightly shorter, right? Except where Jackson’s King Kong dragged on and on and made me doubt my will to live, I love this movie in all it’s horrifying, bloody, murderous, mixed-up-time-period, Julie Taymore glory. Oh, it’s not an easy one to watch, and some truly nasty things are done not just by the villains but by the heroes, but it is a beautiful movie and I would rather watch it ten times back to back than watch King Kong ever again.

Now, if you saw the name “Julie Taymore” and immediately thought of Spiderman, it’s okay. I understand. We all know about Turn Off the Dark, and I’m sure she’s very sorry. Having not seen her production of The Lion King, I can’t really say if this is any closer to that, but since that got good reviews and is known for being a hugely elaborate adaptation of the story, I’d say it’s a good bet that it is. My point is that Taymore has a somewhat mixed reputation, but I believe this falls on the “good” side of things. She’s also got a penchant for putting things on a grand scale and this certainly is grand. It is huge. It is lush. It is decadent. And that is absolutely perfect for the story being told. It is the story of an empire in decline and if you look up the word “decadent” you will see that its original meaning was a good deal more negative than its current meaning. It does share a root with “decay,” after all. And that right there is the point.

This is one of the few Shakespearean plays I never had to read academically. Having taken a fair deal of Shakespeare in both high school and college (with a few of his plays scattered throughout other classes not focused entirely on his work), I’ve read a lot by now. This isn’t one of them, however, which is a pity. I wish I had read this for a class. I wish I’d read it when I took my college Shakespeare class, which was the semester after I took a Victorian literature class in which we talked about the rotten core of decadence. I’d have written a far different final paper for the Shakespeare class and perhaps had a better time writing it. Ah well, no going back now. It’s just that this is the sort of story (and this version the sort of telling) that I absolutely love digging into. It’s full of horrible actions and questionable morals and unchecked vengeance and terrible consequences. Also, this version has Alan Cumming in a fabulous coat. What more could I ask for?

Okay, so I could ask for less racism. In modern writing I do ask for less racism. In Shakespeare I wish for less racism but I know better than to expect it. What I find fascinating about this story is that so many of the characters are villains. This isn’t really a story with a hero. This isn’t a story with good guys and bad guys. There are, instead, bad guys, badder guys and innocents. Let’s face it: Titus himself starts the story by killing Tamora’s son to make a point even as she pleads for mercy. That’s harsh. That’s not the way you set up an unambiguous hero. That Tamora ends up spending the rest of the movie working out a means to exact vengeance on Titus is fairly understandable at that point. That Titus then exacts revenge upon her for her acts of revenge? Again, understandable. That Aaron, a Moor living in the Emperor’s court, is one of the tools Tamora uses and that he is evil solely because of his race? Not understandable.

Fortunately for this movie, Aaron is played by the absolutely fantastic Harry Lennox. What he does with this part is nothing short of amazing. In this movie, I can begin to buy that Aaron’s motivations aren’t so cheaply explained as “Oh yeah, he’s a Moor, so of course he’s evil.” No. Here? I can believe that his race is involved, but it is because of decades upon decades of mistreatment that he acts as he acts. That he himself is exacting vengeance, not for his own life alone, but for his entire race. That to see an empire that treated his people so badly fall as this one does, is his aim. It is so much grander than the petty villainy of Don John in Much Ado About Nothing and Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. I would have to go back and read this play very close to see if I could tease all this out on my own, but without doing that I think I can rely on how this movie plays out to give it to me. And it is excellently done.

The idea of vengeance begetting vengeance begetting vengeance, until everything is in ruin, that is the story of the play. Titus, a Roman general, imprisons Tamora, queen of the Goths. He kills her eldest son and then goes home from war. Titus backs one son of the Emperor, but the other prevails and then weds Tamora, of all people. And it just goes downhill from there. Horrible things happen in this story and the movie doesn’t necessarily show it all on screen, but it certainly doesn’t shy away from showing the consequences. When Tamora’s remaining two sons brutally rape and mutilate Titus’ daughter? We don’t see it happen. But we do see Lavinia after, her hands gone, her tongue gone, clearly in horrible distress. We see her attempt to communicate to her father what has happened. And we know. We can’t help but know. Oh, there’s plenty of blood and gore in this movie, but it’s all stylized. It’s made obvious without this being a horror film.

Granted, the whole movie is stylized. Honestly, I think that’s for the best. Given how horrible some of the subject matter is, I think in order for the movie to have the depth that it has, that subject matter needed to be dealt with in a stylized manner. Otherwise this is just blood and guts and vengeance, not the meaning behind it all. In this, I really appreciate Julie Taymore’s flair for the dramatic. It’s made abundantly clear by the use of enormous sets and huge casts that Saturninus’ empire is dangerously over the top. I absolutely adore Alan Cumming as Saturninus, by the way. He’s not a likeable character, but he plays the horribly unlikeable Saturninus so well. Add that to Taymore’s choices of aesthetics, which blend time periods into bizarre yet effective visuals, and you have a truly beautiful movie to watch. But she’s also got an amazing cast, which makes it a fantastic movie to pay attention to as well. By the end, when nearly everyone is dead and Aaron gives his final speech, we’ve seen a movie full of people making terrible choices that they felt were justified. We’ve seen the effect those choices had not only on the people who made them but on their friends and enemies alike. It’s not a pleasant movie, no, but it is a good movie, and well worth the time spent watching it.

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October 22, 2011 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , ,

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