Looking back on our Shakespeare series: Titus Ambivalence

I love Shakespeare. I am one of those people who would have happily endured a lifetime of chamber pot Elizabethan England just for a conversation with the Bard (or a touch of his nether lip). I also love the movies, so naturally I hope that these two passions are capable of some kind of exquisite union, like fried potatoes and chili. I’ve seen a few Shakespeare movies, and so far I’ve determined that as gourmet combinations go, Shakespeare on film definitely has more potential than hot fudge on a hamburger. I have yet to decide whether it can begin to approach chili fries.

The event of an international Shakespeare film series at Walter Reade is an obvious source of material for such a query; however, July 23’s screening of Titus and subsequent Q and A with director Julie Taymor provided me with little enlightenment. Taymor’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s early tragedy, Titus Andronicus, quickly found a niche in my mind shared by Barton Fink and every Kubrick flick ever: films for which I can say nothing with any certainty except, “It made me think a lot.”

After the movie, Taymor discussed how part of the challenge of putting Shakespeare on film is creating interesting and appropriate visuals that supplement the text rather than distract from it. She repeated more than once that if we “paid attention to the text”, we would see that the more fanciful visuals in the film find their root there. Titus’s observation “that Rome is but a wilderness of tigers” translates to literal celluloid visions if tigers in the wilderness. These beasts are beautiful, striking, violent… perhaps they serve the text. On the other hand, I wonder if they would not have been most faithfully left as literary metaphors rather than literal visuals.

The film as a whole is beyond ballsy, beyond epic, beyond different in its interpretation of what critics have for the most part considered one of Shakespeare’s lesser works. The costumes and set are rife with bold anachronisms of the sort more typical to the theater, where Taymor’s career was born. Wordless sequences that step out of the scope of literal events in the text include a Broadway caliber metallic dance sequence performed by gladiators still decked out in their armor, and a massive orgy at an indoor fountain filled with gilded prostitutes. These reiterations of glamorous violence and violent lust don’t really alter the pitch of a text whose plot hinges on adultery, murder, and brutal rape; however the film’s near three-hour runtime does call into question their necessity.

In length and approach, the movie is excessive and indulgent, but I am sure that I will never regret the hours I spent watching it. Even if the movie itself is not genius, even if it seeps past the container of Shakespeare’s words, it does make evident some of the more brilliant elements of one of Shakespeare’s less brilliant plays. When Tamora curses “cruel irreligious piety,” I find the oxymoron astute. When I hear Aaron’s admonition, as he ascends the gallows, that “oft have I digg’d up dead men from their graves,/And set them upright at their dear friends’ doors,” I think the description of the prank is the most brilliant two lines of ultra-dark comedy I’ve ever heard.

-Morgan H. Green

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