Monday, April 23, 2007

The William Shakespeare Blog-a-thon: Titus

This is my contribution to The William Shakespeare Blog-a-thon.

I wasted a long time preparing for this Blog-a-thon trying to prepare something on Macbeth. Not idly, mind you. Prior to the release of Scotland, PA, I spent a lot of time working on trashy version of the Scottish tragedy, called "Hot Coffee, Warm Donuts, Cold Blood", and did a remarkable amount of research on the play.

But when it comes down to it, what I find most compelling now is Titus Andronicus.

I remember when Julie Taymor was in pre-production on Titus, there was a preview of sort, I believe in Entertainment Weekly, in which she compares the play to Quentin Tarantino. It's certainly a valid comparison.

Current cycles in movies have shown how difficult it can be to effectively move back and forth between dark comedy and genuine pathos. Too often it comes across as either crass or sloppy. When done properly, however, it's absolutely sublime.

And when it comes to swinging back and forth between emotions, Shakespeare is the master. No surprise, mind you, as he is indeed the master at many literary skills. You should hardly need little ol' me to explain that to you.

"Titus Andronicus" is a story of such never ceasing horror that it's impossible to deal with without a bit of a wink to the audience. Mind you, the horrors of Shakespeare's time theatrically and in life made this material less outlandish to an audience of the time, so it's difficult to know exactly how much of the humor was intended as merely the simple comic relief found in all of Shakespeare's tragedies and how much was intended as a nearly straight comic take on the material itself.

I saw Pulp Fiction on the first day it came out. Not so much because of Reservoir Dogs or True Romance, although I had seen and enjoyed both, but because nearly every review I saw that morning contained a reference to Once Upon a Time in the West. The remarkable thing I remember from watching it fresh, with only a hint of buzz, is how striking the blend of tragedy and comedy was... the more it's discussed and the more times I've seen it and the more times I've seen it, the more it becomes, to my disappointment, merely a straight comedy.

Likewise, I saw Titus on the first day of its release, at the Cinerama here in Seattle. The poster they gave away at the door still hangs on my wall. It's stunning imagery gets the most notice, and was a brilliant idea for staging such difficult material.

What stood out for me, however, was the way the actors were able to build that line. The polar opposites of Anthony Hopkins' decency and Alan Cumming's decadence, met in the middle by Harry Lennix riding the edge of a parody of madness, his reading of Aaron's non-defense of his actions both chilling and wickedly comic. This all worked for me, despite a more than passing familiarity with the material prior to seeing the film, and it continues to work no matter how many times I see it.

I find new lessons in drama each time I take in a version of this play, merely re-reading it or viewing it. It's not alone in the Bard's canon in this, but this film is nearly alone, Throne of Blood joins it, in being a filmed adaptation that inspires anew every time, as a work of its own.


Damian said...

I looooove Julie Taymor's Titus. In fact, I list it among my favorite Shakespeare films in my own contribution to the "Shakespeare Blog-a-thon." I think it is probably the greatest possible adaptation that any director could ever do from that play (which I've always found to be mediocre at best).

I also find the Tarantino comparison to be a very apt one. As I've said before I am not a terribly big fan of Tarantino (though I've enjoyed his films), but just as Tarantino has a lot of maturing left to do as an artist, so did Shakespeare at the time he wrote Titus Andronicus (one of his earliest plays). In it he managed to capture the "form" of a tragedy but not the "function." His truly great tragedies (Lear, Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth) were still ahead of him... just as I believe Tarantino, an admittedly talented fellow, has incredible potential as a filmmaker and I think his best work is still to come.

Great post, Neil. Makes me want to go back and watch the film again. :)

Neil said...

Thanks. I obviously rank the play higher than you do, and, if I had planned better, I'd have written a more vigorous defense of it.

But the movie is indeed wonderful. I'm a huge fan.

cinebeats said...

Titus is a really great movie! It ranks up there with Prospero's Books (1991) and Richard III (1995) as one of my favorite modern Shakepeare adaptations. Great review Neil! By the way, have you seen Julie Taymor's first short film The Tempest? I've been curious about it since I first saw Titus but I've never seen it myself.

Neil said...

Thanks for the kind words.

I completely agree regarding Richard III and Prospero's Books, which I've actually specifically been planning to revisit, as I think I'm ready for a bit of a Greenaway kick at this moment. I don't promise anything, because sometimes I like the idea of obssessing over someone for a bit and then it doesn't really bear fruit.

I've not seen that short film, but now, of course, I want to.

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