Titus Titus Directed by Julie Taymor August Strindberg …

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

August Strindberg
condensed Miss Julie’s sex-and-class contest to the "spectacle
of life…so brutal, so cynical, so heartless." Now another Miss Julie–Taymor,
celebrated for Broadway’s The Lion King–has directed Titus
as a similarly modern interpretation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.
Mike Figgis’ new film version of Miss Julie is a disaster, while
in Titus Taymor has rediscovered the excitement in old drama.

moral intelligence in Taymor’s adaptation. Titus transforms the
thrill of calamity and violence into a personal, political meditation. The film
begins as an androgynous child plays at toy-soldier violence, but, like David
O. Russell’s Three Kings, the notion isn’t Tarantino hip; it
stings. Taymor uses Shakespeare’s almost disreputable orgy of killing and
deviance with genuine seriousness, but also panache. It’s almost like watching
the entertaining 1973 Vincent Price movie Theater of Blood. In that film
Price played an aging thespian who wreaks vengeance on pedantic theater critics
by casting them in cutthroat stagings of Shakespeare’s nastiest homicides
(most from Titus Andronicus, of course). Although occasionally campy,
there’s nothing silly in Titus. Taymor wrings instructive value
from the many cruelties and grotesques.

Using postmodern
anachronisms, a deliberate mix of design motifs and multicultural casting, Titus
is a kind of Apocalypse Now. Extending the dystopic culture popularized
in Blade Runner to the presentation of a classical literary drama, Taymor
comments on modern anarchy. Though set in the past, after the Roman defeat of
the Goths, the film takes place in a fevered, emotional present. It’s a
dream of people going mad, the world turned purgatorial. Taymor takes one of
Shakespeare’s lines ("The goddess of justice has left the earth")
as key.

Titus himself
(Anthony Hopkins) is a figure of public hypocrisy, a warrior and political hero
whose personal interests–even his isolation and apathy–take precedence
over politics and the public good. As you watch, subconsciously expecting Titus
to display something of Lear’s gradual moral wisdom, it takes a while to
realize none of it is coming, and that the contentious world surrounding Titus
can never achieve balance. Today, this seems less a sign of the young Shakespeare’s
inexperience, or his jejune imitation of Christopher Marlowe’s bloody theatrics;
it feels convincing. In recent flawed, experimental Shakespeares (like
Oliver Parker’s trenchantly performed Othello and Richard Loncraine’s
vibrant if shrill Richard III), the sense of the story was secondary
to achieving a grand performance. Titus amazes mostly by getting the
paranoia and shock consistently, temperamentally right. It’s the difference
between Bard adaptations that are modern and one that is fresh. Where Loncraine
used 30s black-shirt regalia to suggest a fascist uprising, Taymor’s content
with using a choir on the soundtrack singing "Vivere" to hint at Italian
fascism; it’s one of many clues to historical upheaval and social disasters.
Besides, Shakespeare’s own are explicit enough.

Probably no
1999 movie image–not even the facile, apocalyptic plane crash in Fight
–is as devastating as the desecration of Titus’ daughter Lavinia
(Laura Fraser). It’s an infamous literary outrage; Taymor has been true
to its conventional staging and yet makes it newly horrifying. Seizing big-screen
advantage, she gives the scene an environmental expanse–a desolate field
with what looks like burnt tree limbs crawling out of sandy earth and in the
distance a parched horizon line suggesting no escape. Taymor has the dramatic
knack to build catastrophe even after that establishing shot. Her images are
worthy of Shakespeare’s imagery–as potent, as rude, as poetic. Lavinia’s
rape tableau seems to express the sorrow of all devastation. When she opens
her mouth in a blood-drenched cry, raising her butchered arms now hideously
stuffed with tree branches, Taymor’s visual precision justifies her audacity.
It puts to shame those putty-and-plastic wounds Edward Norton brandished in
Fight Club.

buttresses Taymor with a credible sense of emotional ruin–of youthful vanity
trumped, of cosmic unfairness–that Lavinia’s assault (resulting from
several characters’ selfish actions) only confirms. Titus substantiates
a moral view that Fight Club confuses with simplistic nihilism; it’s
not that culture extracts one’s humanity (or in the fashionable phrase,
"manhood") but that ambition and hostility can derange simple human
impulses. Taymor sees this aspect of Titus Andronicus as more than a
tale of war; she understands what great dramatists like Shakespeare and Strindberg
taught about deranged human nature.

Hopkins plays
Titus well, if abstractly; he’s the humane Roman warrior so crazed with
power and ego that he slaughters a vanquished queen’s son before her eyes,
and then his own as political protocol. It’s not necessary to think of
Hannibal Lecter; in this film (a world so mad, a concept so great) anything
goes. Its contemporary cues include Hopkins wearing a chef’s cap during
the play’s climactic cannibal banquet to convey ancient Titus’ insanity
in modern terms. But Taymor’s ingenuity shows best in the unexpected casting
of Jessica Lange as Tamora, queen of the defeated Goths, who goes from mourning
to vengeance–the same route as Titus but in triple-time corruption. Lange
has the sensual presence to take the play’s male-oriented character crises
into deeper dimensions. She innately sexualizes it (more than Alan Cumming’s
overly queenly Saturninus) but she also has a contemporary temperament–as
Janet Suzman brought to Antony and Cleopatra, as Glenda Jackson brought
to everything despite herself. Tamora displays her tattooed flesh, sometimes
in gold Amazonian breastplate, to both seduce and appall. Lange reads the lines
with her usual neurotic fervor, but her lewd saunter and lust-maddened eyes
make the words pierce. Taymor recognizes Tamora’s feminine power (look
at their names) but she isn’t a feminist propagandist like Jane Campion
out to justify any female pique, as in Holy Smoke. Lange is excitingly
daring as Tamora self-destructively tangles with her slave Aaron (Harry J. Lennix),
eventually getting a vengeful rise out of him–almost a raw sketch for Lady

If movie culture
is not lost altogether, Lennix’s performance will be analyzed for years
to come. Taymor has done an extraordinary thing in risking this potentially
scandalous characterization. Harry J. Lennix plays the devious black political
strategist who pits all sides against each other and becomes the movie’s
phoenix-out-of-ashes astonishment. It may be the darkest role any actor has
had all year, yet while Lennix unquestionably plays the modern racial aspect
of it–a rebuke of European culture’s inherent racism (and originally
in Shakespeare’s text)–he stays connected to the emotional core. Lennix’s
readings seem more fervent than rhythmic since the text itself has little poetry;
so it’s the right rhythm, giving Aaron’s menace a classic nobility.
As written ("Aaron will have his soul black like his face"), Aaron
is pure villain and pure black man.

A smaller intelligence
(say, Barry Levinson’s) would leave him at that, but Taymor goes Shakespeare’s
limit. Taymor lets Shakespeare’s characters account for themselves and
thereby validates the principle of nontraditional casting. When the actor’s
right–like Lennix or Lange–the role gains specificity even as its
universality becomes transcendent. Aaron’s scream for his progeny and his
reaction to the perfidy of the state, competing with its venality and treachery,
reveal rich, humanizing levels. Though bad music drowns out the "I am the
Sea" speech, his earlier "vengeance in my heart, death in my hands"
becomes a threatening, palpable vow. Lennix, spectacularly handsome with intriguing
scars decorating his cheeks, makes Aaron a remarkable figure. If you recall
Lennix from The Five Heartbeats, this proves that good actors, tragically
wasted in typical Hollywood junk, can be redeemed.

With its multiculti
circus of decadence from despotic upstarts to sybaritic followers, Titus
at first looks as conventionally gaudy as any post-Fellini spectacle, particularly
Baz Luhrmann’s atrocious Romeo + Juliet. The big orgy scene repeats
some of that hodgepodge extravagance. But the cumulative gallimaufry is more
imaginative–the gigantic indoor burial stones, the arena-like political
quad. These more or less realistic settings have an evocative effect; no place
seems new or permanent. It’s the Decline in time-shifting perpetuity. Taymor
may not be a cinematic visionary on the level of Boorman or Griffith or Bertolucci;
she doesn’t yet have their facility with cinematic tropes. She seems to
be borrowing effects as she learns them–sometimes from tv commercials,
music videos, older movies or even older, once-avant-garde theater schematics.
But most importantly, she chooses effects for their meaning. Not just as ways
of opening up and updating Shakespeare but with an eye toward mythological animal
totems, psychological Rorschach doublings. Above all, as a director she’s
not afraid of any space and almost never frames a shot in a stagelike manner.
This is a far more respectable and filmic debut than Sam Mendes made with American
(which was basically mise-en-scene by Conrad Hall) and even–despite
the ostentation–a more coherent visual conception than Kimberly Peirce’s
Boys Don’t Cry.

I’m hinting
that Taymor directs unexpectedly well–not like a pampered feminist or a
male theater brat. But like the legendary Max Reinhardt’s 1935 film of
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a respect for pageantry defines her esthetic.
Sometimes Taymor chooses infelicitous toys. Treating the climactic moment with
the 360-degree freeze-frame is unfortunately distracting; barely a year old,
it became a cliche before Titus ever opened (filmmaker David Leitner
has said "it’s become the zoom effect of the 90s"). And some
of the fast cuts interfere with an actor’s depiction of madness. Still,
Titus combines words and images that maintain the heart of theater, the
essence of dramatic storytelling that is always adrenaline at the movies.


Miss Julie
Directed by Mike Figgis

Blame movie
critics’ indulgence that we still have to contend with Mike Figgis. He
has just adapted Miss Julie, and its base in great dramatic literature
(Strindberg’s 1888 play) is all that separates it from Figgis’ other
lewd works. Back in the days of Stormy Monday and Internal Affairs,
it looked like Figgis had, like Strindberg, a new insight about psychology–primarily
a gift for sensuality. He turned performers like Sean Bean, Melanie Griffith,
Richard Gere and Andy Garcia into exceptionally erotic creatures. But since
then he’s jumped off the Lawrencian track and gone to Zalman King hell.
Glamorizing alcoholism and prostitution in Leaving Las Vegas (New York
Film Critics Circle Best Picture award); telling an interracial dirty joke in
One Night Stand; then concocting a masturbatory autobiography in The
Loss of Sexual Innocence
(lavishly praised by The New York Times),
Figgis proved to have no artistry; he was merely a softcore charlatan. He pornographizes
everything he touches, newly translating Strindberg with four-letter words,
simulated copulation and his usual Eurotrash casting.

The class battle
between upper-class Miss Julie (Saffron Burrows) and manservant Jean (Peter
Mullan) ought to be about more than sexual tension. Here, it’s just a test
of how far actors are willing to exploit their tumescence. Mullan shows the
same skill and bantam ferocity that distinguished My Name Is Joe, and
Burrows, like Milla Jovovich as Joan of Arc, is just a model doing her best.
Her high-cheekboned snootiness is embarrassingly in-sync with Figgis’ wannabe
Helmut Newton porno chic. Figgis’ instincts are so decayed he doesn’t
realize that he might have made this movie work in modern dress; instead his
impulse to tarnish seriousness (with Harmony Korine-type videography and flat-out
bad compositions) is only exposed by the pretense toward period fidelity. Maddeningly
unserious, this Miss Julie exemplifies the decadence Titus explains.