Titus, 2000. Directed by Julie Taymor. Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, Harry Lennix.

Every time I see the phrase, "an updating of William Shakespeare's play," I cringe. Oh, it's possible to get away with this sort of thing, as Kurosawa got away with it, but not always. Not often. There are two varieties of this sort of thing: the frivolous and the pretentious. The frivolous include last year's teen comedy Ten Things I Hate About You (based on The Taming of the Shrew), Moonlighting's "Atomic Shakespeare" episode (also based on The Taming of the Shrew), last year's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and (one presumes) Kenneth Branagh's upcoming version of The Merry Wives of Windsor (rendered as a thirties-style musical). The pretentious include Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho (based on Henry IV), Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books (based on The Tempest), and Richard III (which sets the play in a fascist state). Of course, William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, with Leonardo Decaprio and Claire Danes, manages to be both frivolous and pretentious at the same time. As does Titus.

When I read Titus Andronicus for an English class many years ago, I remember thinking that it would make a terrific slasher movie. It is as bloodthirsty as any Friday the 13th movie, with about as much social conscience and a lot more flair for bloodletting. I mean, the makers of slasher movies never, ever came up with a violent set-piece as baroque as the scene in Titus where Titus's daughter, raped earlier in the play then deprived of her hands and tongue, holds a bowl underneath her attackers as Titus cuts their throats. Titus Andronicus goes even further, too, as Titus then cooks his victims into a pie and feeds them to their mother (this scene is worthy of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Clearly, we aren't dealing with the complexity of Hamlet or Lear. Titus Andronicus is The Bard's most absurd play, one that is drunk on its own bloodlust and explodes in a frenzy of massacre. Julie Taymor's film doesn't shy away from this. Indeed, it revels in it. It lets the absurdity have free reign, spilling over into the rest of the production. The film is bizarrely appointed with fetish fashion and theatrical blocking. It has been removed from Shakespeare's version of Rome and placed in a weird, quasi-post-apocalypse that functions as an "otherwhere" and removes the play from the mainstream of history. It seems like fantasy or science fiction, actually. Many of the individual images are passing strange, like the shot of Livinia standing on a tree stump, with twigs where her hands used to be. Does all of this work?  Well, not really. Taymor comes from a backround in theater, and despite her attempts to make the film cinematic, she doesn't think in cinematic terms. Titus is stagey, and seems to be wedded to the sensibilities of performance art. I could probably put up with this, even enjoy it, at an hour and a half of running time. Titus runs three hours. Ack.

And yet, Titus is compulsively watchable. It doesn't monkey with the text of the play much, and places Shakespeare's words in the mouth of Anthony Hopkins. This alone is worth the price of admission. The story itself is fascinating, too, as it weaves its gory revenge tragedy through the film's pretentions--even Shakespeare on a bad day is worth every writer in Hollywood, it seems. It even has a pretty good bad guy in Harry Lennix's Arron, a character so in tune with badness that his final line is, "If ever a good deed I did in all my life I do repent it." One wonders what might have happened had a director who trusted the material assembled this movie, rather than one who seems contemptuous of it. As I was watching the final banquet scene in Titus, I began to wonder what Luis Bunuel might have done with it--it seems like exactly the sort of thing he was after in the banquet-oriented Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Exterminating Angel. Julie Taymor, on the other hand, gussies this scene up with one of those annoying computer generated freeze frames that rotates in three dimensions. I guess that even Shakespeare has joined the special effects revolution....


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