16 December 2004 | bkdement
Missing the Point
"The ideas that Julie has might to some executives seem very radical, and the play itself might be indigestible, when in the same moment they can do Armageddon 2, 3, 4 and 5 and blow all kinds of stuff up, and kill countless numbers of people! Yet chop off one hand, you rape one girl in a poetically powerful way where it actually hits - oh, no, sorry we don't do that kind of stuff. And we're certainly not going to you millions of dollars to do it." -Colm Feore, Marcus Andronicus, "Titus"
Shakespeare's tragedy Titus Andronicus is basically a formula for violence, in order for Shakespeare to gain popularity over his contemporaries. It also uses the overflow of violence to draw some pointed conclusions about the elegance and civilized society of ancient Rome. But never mind that, it's just needlessly violent...right? Of course it's violent - and "Titus" became perhaps his most popular play. But to criticize this film for being nothing but violent is to miss the point, and run the risk of hypocrisy. Feore was right in his little diatribe which I included above.
How many people were killed in Independence Day? Armageddon, anyone? Kill Bill? Kill Bill VOLUME TWO? Pulp Fiction? Batman? Hero? Spiderman? Catwoman? Just about any other Tarantino film? Gladiator? Die Hard? Terminator? Jurassic Park? Just about any big-budget film made since Gone With the Wind? There is needless violence in just about EVERY MOVIE MADE these days. And forget about television. The American Medical Association recently published a report claiming that children in the United States, living in a home with cable television or a VCR, typically witness around 32,000 murders and 40,000 attempted murders by the time they reach the age of 18.
How many of those deaths actually made us feel the desperateness and terror that would actually result from a violent death, of either someone we love or someone we just met moments before? How many of those films had a message that could not have been achieved without all the blood? For all the above films, the deaths involved were there to invigorate us because we've grown accustomed to watching violence, and our version of the Coloseum is now the "action" film genre. We think seeing someone torn in half by two dinosaurs (which were cloned from age-old DNA in order for all of to enjoy the violence as if there weren't enough instruments of violence still living) is really fun. We don't want to be repulsed by murder, which of course we ought to be, but we find it entertaining nonetheless. That's a little sick if you ask me, and THAT is the point of Julie Taymor's film version of "Titus."
"Titus" was directed by Julie Taymor, a brilliant stage director (and for whom this film is her first) worlds away from James Cameron, and about as far removed from Hollywood as you can get. Taymor is renowned for her stage direction, and based this film in part on her recent off-Broadway production of "Titus Andronicus. She also directed and designed the costumes for a musical you may have heard of, called "the Lion King," for which she she was awarded several Tony awards. So her unique and self-consciously absurd visual style, combining modern and ancient design elements in order to suggest that violence has been one of man's favorite past times throughout the ages, really shouldn't be that surprising.
But it is that style which points to the fact that this is not a typical Hollywood film. A typical Hollywood film would be a romantic comedy or a drama about drug abuse and sex. Producers have to take major risks on these films, because most people don't know that Shakespeare can be riveting, or even fun. It isn't better or more worthwhile than any other type of cinema, but it does happen to be one of the underdogs.
Taymor directed this picture with the obscenity of today's culture of violence firmly in mind. Why did the film begin with a deranged, yet oh-so-normal eight year old boy playing with menacing action figures, watching television and killing and destroying everything in sight? Seems out of place, right? Except his appetite for violence creates ratings for television producers which perpetuate the whole phenomenon. So in an abstract way, he conjured up the violence - which then becomes "Titus," and he's made an active participant for the remainder of the story. Perhaps if someone had taken Arnold Schwarzenegger into the Roman colloseum after he finished making "T2" he would've felt a little differently about his actions, too.
In other words, it's all fun and games until somebody gets hurt.
As for the ridiculous notion that Shakespeare "reads better than it sounds," any ounce of credibility left in the angry critique of "Titus" which inspired this message was pretty much wholly obliterated by that comment. I suppose we have been force-fed infantile dialogue with more expletives than adjectives for too long, and have now decided to hate and reject screenplays that appear to be smarter than we are. Or smarter than we have been led to think we are...shouldn't we welcome the challenge of deciphering more mature language?