Part 5

Toy Story 2 to Titus (November - December 1999)

by PopMatters Staff

26 March 2009


Titus and more

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Director: Julie Taymor
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming, Colm Feore, James Frain, Laura Fraser, Harry J. Lennix, Angus MacFadyen, Matthew Rhys, Jonathan Rhys Meyers

(Fox Searchlight)
US theatrical: 26 Dec 1999 (General release)

Titus Director: Julie Taymor

The Imperial Rome of Julie Taymor’s flamboyant and delightfully innovative adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is a crazed mishmash of historical anachronisms, its Roman heads of state (and their families) warring amidst Weimar Republic architecture, 1920s swing music and 1970s glam-rock fashions. It is history as distilled into a pure, amorphous representation of The Past, reality now indistinguishable from the distorted carnival mirror images that pop culture—and cinema in particular—has rendered it through our eyes.

Opening with a chaotic view of a modern day child engaged in a violent war game with his toy soldiers, just before a live Roman warrior bursts through his walls and carries him off into the story proper, and concluding with the action in play’s Grand Guignol climax suddenly frozen to reveal its staging in front of a theatrical audience, Titus is less about the insane carnage of the story itself (based on what is often cited as Shakespeare’s bloodiest play, if also one of his least respected) than it is about the ways in which we have come to view both violence and history through the gratifyingly aestheticized prism of popular entertainment.

With well-established theatrical roots, having previously directed the beloved Lion King musical on the Broadway stage, Taymor drives Shakespeare’s narrative with a flurry of sound and imagery that is anything but stagy or prosaic. The story is the typically Shakespearian revenge fantasy amped up to eleven, with Roman general Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins) slaying the eldest son of Goth Queen Tamora (Jessica Lange) in a ritual triumphant sacrifice, setting off a mercilessly gory back and forth between the two families after the now-vengeful Tamora marries newly appointed Emperor Saturninus (Alan Cumming).

Rape, cannibalism, disembowelments and too many severed limbs to count—Titus is a horror show projected onto an ornate yet robust canvas; most memorable for a barrage of outlandishly indelible images: a haunting slo-mo reveal of Titus’ daughter, freshly deflowered and mutilated by her father’s enemies, tree branches substituting her hands and blood pouring from her mouth in place of her absent tongue; a pool house orgy interrupted by a deluge of enemy arrows descending through an open ceiling; the gleeful malice in Hopkins’ face as he serves his rival a bloody meat pie made out of the flesh of her own sons; Lange’s ice cold stare directly into the camera as she delivers her devious monologue.

Titus is meticulously crafted right down to its brilliant meta-casting, with Hopkins bookending the decade he began as the iconic Hannibal Lector with another character that descends into a palpably Lectorian bloodthirsty mania. Likewise, find Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, then fresh off of playing a Bowie prototype in Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine, here evoking the same seductively pan-sexual danger that has been his trademark ever since, and Alan Cumming a winking, effete caricature of his own hipster celebrity status.

Titus is a movie about archetypes and staffed with the same, a cheerful bloodbath about violence as a spectator sport culminating in the finally-hopeful image of an innocent child rescued by the viewers’ avatar within the film. Prescient in its anticipation of the current decade’s steady stream of films—from A Knight’s Tale to Shrek to Moulin Rouge to Marie Antoinette to Taymor’s own Across the Universe—that compress history into knowing pop representations of itself, Titus is far from reverent, but it is nevertheless the perfect cinematic Shakespeare adaptation for a generation saturated in its own media savvy. Jer Fairall

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Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.

Director: Errol Morris
Cast: Fred A. Leuchter, David Irving, Ernst Zündel

(Channel 4 Films)
US theatrical: 29 Dec 1999

Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. Director: Errol Morris

“The Holocaust is the central mystery of the 20th century. The mystery isn’t, ‘Did it happen?’ but ‘How could it possibly happen?’ And by looking at someone like Leuchter, maybe we can learn something about that.”- Errol Morris

Mr. Death courted controversy for its sympathetic portrayal of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., an execution specialist whose infamous Leuchter Report, used in the defense trial of German Neo-Nazi Ernst Zundel, set out to prove that the gas chambers at Auschwitz never existed. Yet, Morris’s film is less a defense of Leuchter’s ideology and methodology than an examination of his cultural psychology, how a man so inexorably linked with death could come to defy the world’s greatest atrocity narrative. 

Leuchter considers his credentials in the capital punishment industry to be of humanitarian intent, a tenuous assertion at best. However, he participates in some pretty incredible leaps of faith to arrive at his report’s conclusions.  His refusal to consider, or even consult, the historical record in his examination of Nazi atrocities seems to betray an inherent disbelief in empirical study in favor of his own personal expertise. 

Leuchter’s self-confidence arises from a lifelong career as the go-to-guy for reparation of state execution devices. After making a name for himself building the modern model for the electric chair, he soon found himself contracted for jobs in other areas of execution that he was admittedly not qualified for. “Simply because I’m capable of building an electric chair doesn’t mean I’m capable of building a lethal injection machine. They’re two completely different concepts,” Leuchter states at one point in Mr. Death, clearly unable to apply this same logic towards his qualifications for testing ruins and artifacts. 

Though he claims not to be an anti-Semite, Leuchter took amicable company with white supremacists, published himself proudly in hate journals, and presented a callously insensitive attitude towards the families affected by his “revelations”. His disavowal of the gas chambers has less to do the pernicious implications than the practical limitations of its transaction. “Why not just shoot them…or blow them up,” he asks at one point in the film.  “It’d be cheaper”.

Leuchter’s question illustrates how massively ignorant he is of the sociopolitical circumstances of the holocaust, which is crucial to understanding the culture of denial that grew out of it and how genocide can continue unrestricted in a post-holocaust world. The camps were themselves a denial, a privately fostered state secret that induced state subsidies (including contracts to American corporate partners like IBM) to simultaneously get rid of unwanted populations and modernize the technological economy of a thoroughly militarized state. Another reason often given (though not likely believed) for the expenditures was that the death camps were thought to be a more humane method of execution.

Thus, Mr. Death is not just about a marginal subculture, but about America’s own uncomfortable connections to the culture of denial and state killing. After all, the only reason Leuchter was called by Zundel’s defense was because the U.S. is the only industrial country left with functioning gas chambers (though they haven’t been used since 1999, the same year Mr. Death was released). The unspoken subtext of the film asks; can a government really take away any one’s life and retain that person’s dignity, as Leuchter claims? If we’ve relied on opportunistic bureaucrats like Fred Leuchter to design our instruments of death, can we be sure our humane methods of execution are reliable? And what’s the point of building elaborate devices to perform morally reprehensible acts on unwanted populations when we could just lock them up in jail? As Leuchter says, it’d be cheaper.

Late into the first decade of the 21st century, pseudoscience still reigns over the hearts and minds of both the right (in the form of creation science) and the left (in the form of the 9/11 truth conspiracists). Because of a distrust in all established or imagined orthodoxies, our relationship with history, particularly current and ongoing history, is amorphous and vague.  It allows us our own denials, of participation in atrocity, or complicity in crisis, for instance. Telejournalism’s pressures to be balanced allow for the creation of new truths to be birthed out of denials, making empirical data and the historical record largely irrelevant. Our construction of reality is regularly shaped by carefully-placed omissions, retractions, and qualifications, the corpses of the slaughtered often dragged out of their graves by a slide of the tongue against the teeth. 

Despite all this, it is exactly Leuchter’s defense of his and Zundel’s and Morris’s freedom to speak that remains at the moral core of Mr. Death. Leuchter argues in the film what shocked him at Auschwitz was not what he found, but what he didn’t find. Similarly, the free speech at issue in Mr. Death rests not only with the voices that we hear, but with those that we don’t hear—the dead, whose story deserves much more responsible narrators than Leuchter, but who were never given a chance to speak for themselves. And Morris’s film would be doing them a great disservice if it didn’t grant even a despicable old man like Leuchter a chance to do just that. Timothy Gabriele

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