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.


October 22, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 224 – Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead – October 10th, 2010

After last night’s amazing marathon Hamlet, we discussed what to watch today. We’ve got another version of the play in our collection, and we’ve got the Reduced Shakespeare performance, and we’ve got this. We decided on this because well, we thought it would be fun. Connected to Hamlet but not Hamlet as traditionally known. Really, it’s got a rather generous helping of Hamlet in it. Just told from an odd point of view, and through the eyes of characters who never quite seem to know what’s going on. I’m a sucker for odd point of view stuff. And I love seeing stories told through different eyes.

I admit, I also have a personal connection to this play. When I was in high school I was in a production of it. It was my freshman year and the audition involved dying. We were given a script and some lines to read, then some lines to read with someone else, and then we had to die. On the spot. I ended up as one of the players, which you might think is odd, since the joke with Alfred is that there aren’t any women in the troupe. But with my hair pulled back and a shapeless tunic on who really cared, right? I didn’t have any lines, but I had a lot of stage time. It was an odd choice for the freshman class play, really. We all knew it once we’d had a chance to read the script. I remember there being a bit of resentment among the students who’d been cast as the characters from Hamlet, because when you see your name next to “Ophelia” or “Claudius” you think you’re going to get more than a handful of minutes on stage. And then no. Read throughs were often somewhat pointless, with all of us sitting around waiting to be told to cross out a line that was being cut while the three major roles read on and on and on. A few of us scratched out “acts” in the subtitle on our scripts and changed them so they read “A play in three parts” but really, I did enjoy the experience. After all, I met Andy and the Audio Visual crew (without whom I don’t think I’d have made it through school, let alone have the husband I have) for the first time at the cast party.

That wasn’t all just to blather on about myself, I swear. It’s just that it was my first exposure to this play and while watching tonight I found myself remembering the precise deliveries not of Tim Roth or Gary Oldman or Richard Dreyfuss, but of my classmates. I could remember the cues and props and stage directions. I remember barrels with false bottoms and I remember my costume and I remember it being so much fun, even if I didn’t entirely grasp it at the time. Which was probably because I didn’t know Hamlet yet. Sure, I knew what Hamlet was, but I hadn’t read it or seen any productions of it. And while you probably could watch this movie without ever having watched Hamlet, you’d probably be not quite lost, but indifferent (times being what they are). Without knowledge of Hamlet, this is just a couple of guys wandering around a decrepit castle, seeming to get in the middle of other peoples’ business without knowing what said business involves, or what it means, or even whether they should care. There’s the Player, but he’s even more enigmatic than the cast of Hamlet, who rush in and give us tidbits of lines only to leave again when their own stage directions tell them to without showing us the rest of their scenes. And then there are references to the play peppered throughout Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s conversations, but without knowing them it’s all a bit vague.

The vagueness is really intentional. After all, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can’t even remember which one of them is which some of the time – likely spurred by Claudius mixing them up in the original play – so it’s to be expected that the might be a bit confused. What is their purpose, after all? Why are they there? What are they supposed to do? Something with Hamlet! But they do so little really. And in this production they spend much of their time verbally sparring with each other, playing games like Questions and trying to practice what they’ll say to Hamlet when they see him. They flip coins and observe their surroundings, but in very specific and focused ways. Gary Oldman as Rosencrantz spends a lot of time noticing things like the water level in his tub rising and falling as he moves up and down, though the things he notices end up having no bearing on the matters at hand. It’s an excellent performance from Oldman. Rosencrantz could be argued to be a little slower on the uptake than Guildenstern is, but he’s also very curious and almost scientific.

As an aside, I do find it amusing that last night’s Rosencrantz was played by Timothy Spall and tonight’s is Gary Oldman, and both played closely associated characters in the Harry Potter movies. A fun little connection, even if it means absolutely nothing.

To be honest, the movie is full of little things that could mean something but probably mean nothing. It’s kind of how I think of the whole thing. Sure, if one spent a lot of time and all, one could draw a lot of meaning from the back and forth between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Mix this with an in-depth reading of Hamlet and toss in some dramatic and literary theory and you’ve got yourself a paper or two or three. But I don’t watch it to analyze it and try to make sense of it. Really, if I tried to make sense of it all I think I’d ruin it for myself. I don’t want to go ascribing meaning to every little thing the characters do. They do it because they have to do it. It’s not like the play’s trying to give the two leads a happy ending. They die at the end of Hamlet, so they die at the end here too. And in between their introduction and their deaths they’re woven into this tragic story of blood and love and rhetoric without knowing their eventual fates until it’s too late. They can’t change Hamlet. They’re two of the innocent lives lost thanks to Claudius and Hamlet being dicks and not quite caring who gets hurt so long as they get what they want. That they never quite catch onto what’s happening is essential when you get down to it. If they had, maybe they wouldn’t have died.

It’s not a movie to watch if you want a thoroughly coherent storyline, or plain talk laid out in easy to understand phrasing. It’s not a movie with a happy ending – being based on Hamlet, would you expect it to? But it does have funny moments. Dreyfuss as the Player really does a great job with his role, providing laughs and puzzles and snarky opinions. And then there’s Oldman as Rosencrantz, whose every facial expression is a joy to watch, and Tim Roth as Guildenstern, who often grows frustrated with his friend, but is determined to keep him up to speed regardless. The three of them are fantastic. What little we see of the main cast of Hamlet is fine as well, but they’re not the point here. They’re the backdrop. The point is a coin always coming up heads when tossed, and the inevitability of the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

October 10, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment