294. TITUS (1999)

“Why makest thou it so strange?”–Demetrius, “Titus Andronicus,” II, 1.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Alan Cumming, Laura Fraser, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Matthew RhysAngus Macfadyen, Osheen Jones

PLOT: Titus Andronicus, a Roman general, returns from conquering the Goths; he imprisons the queen Tamora and her three sons, killing the eldest boy as a sacrifice to the gods. Back in Rome, the emperor is dead and the popular Titus averts a civil war by supporting Saturninus for emperor against the rival claim of his brother; once on the throne, Saturninus surprises Titus by taking Tamora as his queen. Tamora and her secret lover, the Moor Aaron, then set about plotting revenge against Titus and his entire family.

Still from Titus (1999)

BACKGROUND:

  • Written in the style of the Jacobean revenge tragedy, “Titus Andronicus” is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, and perhaps his most disliked by critics; some even went so far as to speculate that the play must be misattributed to him, as Shakespeare could not have written such trash. Harold Bloom scathingly called it “a howler” and “an exploitative parody” and suggested Mel Brooks would be the director most suited to the material.
  • Julie Taymor adapted this film version from her off-Broadway stage production. Titus was her debut film, although she had achieved fame, and won a Tony award, for her 1994 Broadway stage production of “The Lion King.”
  • Taymor chose production designer Dante Ferretti because he had worked on one of her inspirations for Titus‘ look: Fellini Satyricon.
  • An orgy scene had to be edited (reportedly, to excise male genitalia) to earn the film an “R” rating.
  • Reputed auto-fellator Steve Bannon served as one of the executive producers.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: For this adaptation, Taymor fashioned four short, digitized dream sequences that she calls “penny arcade nightmares.” We selected the one where Lavinia remembers her own rape, imagining herself as a doe (with a deer’s head and hooves) menaced by ravishing tigers. Trip Shakespeare, for sure.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Paper bag brat; those are twigs that were her hands; Shakespearean video games

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Julie Taymor gives Shakespeare’s least-respected, bloodiest play an anachronistic avant-garde treatment, with fascist emperors riding in convertibles, Roman orgies, “penny arcade nightmares,” and all of the rape, dismemberment, and people-eating that we associate with the Bard’s work.


Original trailer for Titus

COMMENTS: “Shakespeare was a drive-in kind of guy.” I don’t think my personal hero, drive-in movie critic and exploitation film historian Joe Bob Briggs ever said this, but if he’d seen Titus, he would have. William Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” is basically the I Spit on Your Grave of the 16th century. It was Willie’s big “B-play” before he “went Hollywood” (er, “went London”) on his fans and forgot his roots. It’s one of those “Jacobean revenge plays” (you know, a “roughie”) that was made for the real, six-pack-of-ale-drinking Elizabethan theater fans, who showed up to watch them from the comfort of their own personal hay carts. There was probably some in 1593 producing paint-the-theater-red plays about guys in powdered wigs shishkebobbing their enemies with those little sissy fencing swords and pretending to make it with little boys wearing dresses, and he hired ol’ Stratford-Upon-Avon Bill to make “Titus Andronicus” for about five pounds, and kept all the receipts for himself. Then Bill wised up and figured out he could rent out the Globe and put on “Hamlet” for the wine-and-cheese crowd and keep the gate and the concessions, and that was the end of a promising drive-in play career. So, in honor of Shakespeare’s exploitation roots, our review of Titus, the bloody movie version of the Bard’s most cannibal-friendly play, written in the vintage style of Joe Bob Briggs:

Speaking of stuff that’s way past its expiration date, it’s about time we finally got around to reviewing Titus. The story here is that Julie Taymor put a puppet show version of “The Lion King” on Broadway for Walt Disney in the 90s and made about a bajillion dollars and won a Tony, then dropped and bunch of acid and read Shakespeare and decided she was tired of being a big success on Broadway, she was going to make Titus instead. So she hired Hannibal Lecter to play the no-bullstuff Roman general Titus and Miss fake-Fay Wray herself, Jessica Lange, to play Tamora, the foxy-at-fifty barbarian queen. She opens the flick the way all the greatest Shakespeare plays start, with a kid pouring ketchup all over his Star Wars figures until his kitchen blows up and a bald guy kidnaps him and takes him to the Coliseum to watch the Roman tanks roll in and to meet general Titus, who’s actually his grandpa. Titus just conquered the Goths and he’s on his way back to Rome for some R&R, but first his religion requires him to sacrifice the queen’s first-born son in front of her and her younger sons while she begs for his mercy, but what’s Titus supposed to do? Tell Jove to shove it? So he goes back to Rome with the queen and her surviving sons as his prisoners, but Caesar’s dead and the people want Titus to be the new ruler, but he doesn’t need the hassle so he decides to let the emperor’s wimp son take the throne instead. Big mistake, because the new Wimperor gets the hots for Goth mama Jessica Lange and makes her his queen, and she hasn’t exactly forgiven Titus for murdering her kid. Oh yeah, and Titus kills one of his sons, but he’s still got lots of spares at this point.

So Tamora’s also secretly been making the sign of the six-nippled she-wolf with Aaron, a bad mutha Moor with serious acne scars and some nasty ideas about revenge. He convinces Tamora’s teen sons to “make pillage of the chastity” of Titus’ daughter Lavinia (if you know what Shakespeare means and I think that you do), kill her husband, cut out her tongue, and cut off her hands and stick on some tree branches instead. Then Aaron and Tamora frame two of Titus’ other sons for the murder. Then  guest directs some scenes with angels flying around and a sheep with Titus’ dead son’s head on it. Then Aaron tells Titus—get this—the Wimperor will spare his imprisoned sons if Titus cuts off his own hand, but when Titus does it, instead Aaron sends out a couple of clowns to do a free show featuring a “greatest hits” parade of Andronicus family body parts.

By this time Titus is getting just a little p.o’ed, so he tells his last surviving son to go raise an army, and he sends his grandson with a bunch of swords to the pool hall where Aaron and the Goth kids hang out drinking Budweiser, but a nurse shows up with the Empress’ new baby and—whoops!—it’s black. Aaron gives a great “black is beautiful” speech that makes the honkies shiver (you’ve got to give it to Shakespeare, he gives all the coolest lines to the brothers). Then Titus breaks up the Wimperor’s orgy by having a bunch of goombas shoot some arrows through the skylight into the pool. Tamora is getting anxious by now, so she does what anyone would do in this situation: sticks some butcher knives into a shower cap, dresses her sons up like a tiger and a bird, and goes over to her archenemy’s house unarmed pretending to be the gods of Revenge, Rape and Murder. Somehow, Titus sees through this brilliant plot and figures out that the guy who looks exactly like his daughter’s rapist wearing a tiger suit actually is his daughter’s rapist dressed up in a tiger suit, and convinces the two kids to stay behind at his house, where he strips them naked, hangs them upside down on a meathook, takes out a knife and… OK, we can all see where this is going, especially once Titus invites the Wimperor and his queen over for some meat pies…

As you can see there’s way too much plot here getting in the way of the story, but look at these drive-in totals: 10 dead bodies. 7 pints of blood. Half-pint of ketchup. 10 breasts (not counting inflatable pool toys). One orgy. Shower scene (for the ladies). Entrails burning. Flaming limbs. Gang rape. Goth bottom. Three hands cut off. Two heads cut off. One tongue cut out. Severed hand in mouth. Fly stabbing. Pool cue through old lady.  Son killing. Daughter killing. Son eating. Butter knife to neck. Moor burying. Gratuitous ancient Roman jazz music. Gratuitous Bengal tigers. Gratuitous ancient Roman video games. Gratuitous iambic pentameter. Cleaver fu. Candelabra fu. Serving spoon fu. Monologue fu. Drive-in Academy Award nominations for Alan Cumming, as the emperor in Frank-N-Furter eye shadow; Jessica Lange, for wearing armor with nipples on it and encouraging her sons to rough up Lavinia by saying “the worse for her, the better loved of me”; Harry Lennix, who makes Freddy Kruger look well-adjusted, for inventing history’s first “yo mama” joke and bragging about digging up the bodies of dead guys and leaving them on their friends’ doorsteps; for Mr. Hannibal Lecter himself, Sir Anthony Hopkins, for inventing a famous meat pie recipe 19 centuries before Motel Hell; director Julie Taymor, for doing Shakespeare proud and making sure the Walt Disney Company lost her phone number; and for writer Billy Shakespeare, for doing it the drive-in way 350 years before they invented the drive-in.

3-and-a-half stars (on a four star scale). Because we think Joe Bob would, 366 Weird Movies says “check it out.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a brilliant and absurd film of ‘Titus Andronicus’ that goes over the top, doubles back and goes over the top again.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

“This splashy elaboration of Ms. Taymor’s 1994 Off Broadway production turns ‘Titus Andronicus’ into a fluid time-traveling fantasia on violence and revenge that has the look and feel of a sophisticated video game. One minute we are in ancient Rome, the next in Mussolini’s Italy, the next in an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ world of life-size toy soldiers, the next in a video-game arcade. As these environments collide and merge, we find ourselves in a surreal, time-collapsed dream world, a murderously supercharged virtual reality where the characters loom as recurrent historical archetypes.”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“It’s like a bad Fellini parody on steroids — and it’s two hours and 42 minutes long.”–Jack Garner, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle (contemporaneous)

IMDB LINK: Titus (1999)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Titus Andronicus– The online version of Shakespeare’s play

Julie Taymor – Charlie Rose – Video (and transcript) of Rose’s half-hour interview with Taymor, conducted just after Titus‘ release

The Penny Arcade Nightmare, courtesy Julie Taymor – A Shakespeare blog discusses the film’s surreal “penny arcade” scenes, with a clip included

Shakespeare and the Holocaust: Julie Taymor’s Titus Is Beautiful, or Shakesploi Meets (the) Camp – Richard Burt article for Colby Quarterly, March 2001

The Spectacle of Violence in Julie Taymor’s Titus: Ethics and Aesthetics – Excerpt from a scholarly essay by Anne-Kathrin Marquardt for a 2010 Shakespeare colloquium

A Tale of Two Tituses: Julie Taymor’s Vision on Stage and Screen – David McCandless compares Taymor’s play and movie for the Winter 2002 issue of “Shakespeare Quarterly” (readable with a JSTOR account)

DVD INFO: Titus was released by Twentieth Century Fox in 2000 in a two disc special edition (buy). It’s full of extras: a commentary by director Taymor, a sparser commentary track featuring actors Lennix and Hopkins (recorded separately), and a third commentary from composer Elliot Goldenthal of interest to musicians (along with the option to listen to the isolated soundtrack with no dialogue). A second disc of extra features includes trailers and TV spots, a 50-minute “making of” documentary (which spends its first half at the pre-shoot rehearsals, and the second half covering the actual shoot), a 30-minute Q&A with Taymor from a screening at Columbia University, a five-minute featurette on the making of the “Penny Arcade Nightmares” (with commentary by sequence designer Kyle Cooper), a costume gallery, and two print articles from “American Cinematographer,” along with a booklet.

The Twilight Time Blu-ray (buy) ports over almost all of the DVD’s special features, abandoning only the costume gallery and the print articles, and including a different insert booklet by Julie Kirgo.

3 thoughts on “294. TITUS (1999)”

  1. Like many people, I saw this movie in theatres when it came out. Like many in the audience, I was stricken with silence throughout almost the whole film. “Titus” has some of my favorite film moments, and certainly my favorite performance from Anthony Hopkins. His post-break down rantings and chuckles alone make the movie; it’s no wonder he suffered a break-down of sorts off camera, too.

    Well worthy of certification.

  2. I’m very glad this movie got certified weird as it’s one of my favourites. Few other Shakespeare adaptations have such a sense of drive and unique vision behind them (maybe Luhrman’s “Romeo and Juliet” or Polanski’s “Macbeth” would rival it).

    After a couple of centuries of received critical wisdom being that Titus Andronicus was Shakespeare’s worst play, it’s received a critical evaluation, and possibly due in part to this film. Subsequently there was a critically acclaimed and very popular version of Titus directed by Lucy Bailey at the Globe in 2006 that received a second run a couple of years ago.

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