Here’s how the world might end. Close-up of a boy’s eyes. Long shot of a kitchen table, cluttered with hot dogs, paper bags, toy soldiers, french fries, milk, and ketchup he’s using as play-blood. The kid plays with his soldiers, zooming and roaring. You see the milk carton. You see the radio. You see an explosion blow through the window. Glass flies, the kid ducks, and suddenly, he’s swooped up by a large man, who carries him into some basement otherworld that turns into the Coliseum. And then you see the troops, not-quite-ancient-Roman, their helmets, armor, and bare legs muddied, their marching weary but dead-on in synch. Like the boy, you watch with eyes wide.
Where the hell are you?
Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming, Colm Feore, James Frain, Laura Fraser, Harry J. Lennix, Angus MacFadyen, Matthew Rhys, Jonathan Rhys Meyers
US theatrical: 26 Dec 1999 (General release)
You are in the midst of the tumultuous first scenes of Titus, Julie Taymor’s meltdown film of Shakespeare’s most notoriously meltdown play, Titus Andronicus. The images in these first few minutes are brilliant and obnoxious, colliding fragments of bombastic history, hysterical mythology, and onerous mundanity. All these roiling excesses the precision marching, the war-zoney madness, the uncontainable passion are the best reasons to see Titus. Whatever else happens, and there’s lots, this bizarre initiation is worth the price of admission. But that isn’t to say that the movie won’t cost you.
Titus is based on one of the Bard’s early plays, which was, reportedly, a great success during his lifetime but dismissed by subsequent generations of scholars and critics, mostly for its extravagance, its lunatic acts of vengeance and violence (even aside from the basic battlefield stuff, the play features multiple throat-cuttings and dismemberments, and one lavishly orchestrated instance of cannibalism). The drama, in other words, doesn’t get much play in high school classrooms. And now comes Taymor, best known for her Big-Ideas Broadway production of The Lion King, embracing the very egregiousness that made previous readers cringe. And the result is a strange mix of daring, indulgence, and corny FX-ed apparitions.
As you might guess from the above description, Taymor’s movie (which is based on her own 1995 off-Broadway staging of Titus Andronicus) doesn’t hold much faith in traditional realism or temporal logic. The visuals make Shakespeare’s metaphors quite literal, and the plot turns are as nutty as you can imagine, swooping through time (from the kitchen scene to ancient Rome to the Elizabethan era). The film grants its characters room for all kinds of acting out: when Titus (Anthony Hopkins) is at a crossroads in his life, he’s actually at a crossroads, filmed from low and high angles while he throws himself on the ground in despair; and when Titus’s daughter Lavinia (Laura Fraser) is raped by her father’s enemies, she suffers several, very visible, fates worse than death, including having her tongue cut out and her hands chopped off and replaced by twigs.
In interviews, Taymor explains that her movie’s berserker imagery has a moral purpose, that she intends to evoke war as eternal and continuous horror, with particular references to Bosnia, Littleton, and Rwanda. For Taymor, children who learn such violence from the models before them each day are key to these references. Just so, the play-soldier-boy (Osheen Jones) you see at the beginning of the film ends up serving variously as a witness, victim, and participant: he’s eventually identified as the young Prince Lucius, heir to his father Lucius’ (Angus Macfayden) bloody revenge plot, which has in turn been bestowed on him by his dreadful father, the Emperor Titus himself. By showing all this vicious lineage, the film makes clear its abhorrence of the perpetual passing-on of hostility. But at the same time, it also can’t seem to get enough of the sensational drama that such endowments provide.
This is the movie’s abiding tension: it’s driven and enlivened by the very practices it means to invalidate. Titus‘s detailed depictions of tortures and murders are repulsive but also enthralling, in a macabre, America’s-Wildest-Car-chases way. The outrageous plot anticipates many of Shakespeare’s later plays, with royal dysfunctional families, longstanding cross-clan grudges, convenient but devastating marriages, and a host of grotesquely evil players who seem to be just born that way. The question may be, if such behaviors and ideas are beyond explanation (psychological or social or something else), then how might one wage a moral, uh, war against them? That Titus or his arch-enemy, the Queen of Goths Tamora (Jessica Lange), for all their ghastliness, are yet occasionally sympathetic or at least understandable (acting out of grief as much as ambition) says something about our capacity for forgiveness of identification. And in these cases, it’s hard to say which response is worse, or more unnerving.
As the film opens, Titus is just returned from battle, dead bodies and prisoners in tow. Raging, weary, and looking to teach lessons, he orders the execution of Tamora’s eldest son. This callous action infuriates her, of course, and sets in motion her subsequent drastic efforts to avenge the boy’s death. Aiding Tamora’s schemes are her remaining sons, Chiron (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, once again deliciously wicked) and Demetrius (Matthew Rhys), proto-punks in bleached hair and tight pants, who participate in orgies, play video games, and gyrate to walkman-blasted rock music. She also enlists the help of a weasel named Saturninus (Alan Cummings, like his Cabaret emcee, done up with Fuhrer-bangs and psycho eye shadow), who, as it turns out, chooses her as his bride just after Titus selects him as the new Roman Emperor. This marriage, you can be sure, makes Titus a bit nervous, as he must suddenly contend with a very powerful monster he’s helped to create.
It tells you something about Tamora’s capacity for “intimacy,” that her most intimate partner, in crime and everything else, is her lover-slave, a moor named Aaron (Harry Lennix). Interracial coupling is ferociously forbidden here, so Tamora and Aaron keep their alliance secret. When they’re caught coupling in the woods by Lavinia and her own new husband, Tamora sets Chiron and Demetrius on her while she and Aaron kill the husband. The boys rape and assault the girl off screen (this is when they cut out her tongue and cut off her hands), leaving her a shell of a person, her mouth a huge red gash as she stands, abandoned in a desolate swamp.
Lavinia’s ruin is the first of many brutalities, amputations, and self-mutilations, as all the characters seem hellbent on displaying their despair in the most visceral way possible. The royals are full of themselves, and the one forever-outsider, Aaron, makes the most of their reckless self-infatuation. He’s fiendish, wily, and proud of his many “notorious ills,” repeatedly wishing out loud that he might have the chance to commit more. He makes several compelling speeches indicting the racism that has shaped his perspective and his experience. Commenting on the blackness of the child resulting from his liaison with Tamora, Aaron anticipates and rather perversely celebrates what will become the U.S. culture’s invidious “one drop rule,” when he observes that “Coal-black is better than another hue; / In that it scorns to bear another hue”; though he envisions the end of whiteness as a triumph of blackness, he also, unknowingly lays the ground for the Bennetton aesthetic, when everyone’s beautifully “beige.”
Just before he thinks he’ll be executed, Aaron lays out the motivation for his misdeeds, hoping to exchange a confession of his many crimes for his infant son’s life. At this moment he becomes a prototypical “angry black man,” whose nefarious machinations are spurred by his desire to stick it the self-deluding white folks. But he also lays bare, in his briefly conceded interest in the next generation, a method to the film’s seeming madness. That is, with his railing against racism and its associated class and family privileges, Aaron points out his culture’s inevitable downfall, because of factions and infighting based on such artificial constructions.
As scary as Aaron is, Tamora and Titus are at least as maniacal and motivated. They’re certainly lost causes, the film’s primary examples of what not to do or want. By the time Tamora and sons show up in Titus’s backyard, absurdly costumed to play Revenge and her aides Rape and Murder (looking to persuade Titus to follow their advice, thus setting him up), events have spun out of earth’s orbit. Titus sees through the ruse, however, and uses it as his opportunity to wreak havoc on the Goths he despises so absolutely. For the rest of you, who’ve seen a movie image or two, this turn of events leads directly to the movie’s most horrific sight gag, wherein Titus serves a meal to Tamora and Saturninus and appears as nothing less than Hannibal Lecter dressed in chef’s attire, hat cocked and cutlery brandished.
Despite Taymor’s stated aim to sensitize viewers to today’s similar atrocities, the spectacle almost makes for an opposite effect: it’s surreal and distanced, more than immediate and frightening. And her addition to the finale, post-standard-Shakespearean-clean-up-speeches, may be the strangest moment of all, in a movie full of them. Titus‘s final wordless image shows two figures exiting the Coliseum, moving beyond the play’s pile-up of corpses, beyond the world Shakespeare portrayed. This may be how the world begins. After all it has showed you, this crazy film allows for hope.