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.
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.
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.
Critics and audiences were surprised by David Lynch‘s Elephant Man (1980), which in itself is surprising. Apparently after Eraserhead (1977) became a cult favorite, the assumption was that Lynch was unable to tell a linear narrative. It’s the very old either/or label that audiences are prone toward. (Lynch would delightfully prove his narrative skills again with 1999’s quirky, but linear,The Straight Story).
The only critic of note who was not surprised was Roger Ebert, in one of his most pedestrian essays. Hopelessly hindered by his belief in the bourgeois definition of “courage,” Ebert delivers a polemic, writing that the death of Joseph Merrick was, essentially, a suicide. Ebert further embarrasses himself in questioning the film’s point. We could just as easily question the point of virtually every film by Tod Browning or Charlie Chaplin. Likewise, we could ask the purpose of an outsider art gallery. With dignity, grace, and sensuality, Lynch’s The Elephant Man edifies the outsider and obstructs our tendency to judge. Throughout his body of work, Lynch sympathetically locates the pulse of the alien, foreigner, and refugee with authentic depth. (Perhaps we should put Lynch into office instead of Donald Trump). Comparatively, Tim Burton is entirely artifice.
Broken down, the narrative of The Elephant Man is quite orthodox, but Lynch imbues the film with such an imaginative touch that it never fails to feel like a revelation. Smartly, Lynch opens the film in a full-blown horror milieu with ecstatic black and white cinematography from Freddie Francis (a Hammer Studios regular), which paves the way to Lynch shattering all of our preconceived notions. He is aided considerably by Anthony Hopkins‘s nuanced portrayal of Dr. Treves, who serves as the point of entry into the traumatic life of the so-called Elephant Man. Matching Hopkins is John Hurt‘s sensitive, tour de force portrayal of Merrick. Together, the two actors locate Lynch’s rhythmic pulse.
Wendy Hiller as the nurse, Mrs. Mothershead, and John Gielgud as the hospital’s Governor Carr-Gomm are equally effective. The film is hampered, however, by the predictable hammy acting of Hammer Horror veteran Freddie Jones as Mr. Bytes and, surprisingly, by Anne Bancroft’s superficial performance as upper-class Shakespearean actress Madge Kendal.
Like the monster of James Whale‘s Frankenstein (1931), Merrick is the protagonist in Lynch’s film. Set in turn of the century London, Treves rescues Merrick from the cruel Mr. Bytes, who regularly beats his freak. To his astonishment, Treves discovers that Merrick is both cultured and genteel. After Carr-Gom’s eventual approval, both Treves and Mothershead care for Merrick until his death.
Lynch says quite a bit about class distinction and pulls no punches. The lower-class, uneducated masses are not spared simply because they are destitute. Indeed, Lynch depicts them as prone to barbarism. Nor does the film congratulate the aristocracy: as Mothershead points out, “we are exhibiting Merrick all over gain.”
In lesser hands, The Elephant Man could have easily been preachy, overtly sentimental (think late Chaplin) or caved into a melodramatic crescendo (Think Spielberg). Instead, Hurt’s performance breaks through Christopher Tucker’s ingenious makeup. Ultimately, it is that portrayal which we come away with. That Lynch never allows aesthetics to impede upon the soul of the film is a testament to his craftsmanship.
The real life Joseph Merrick was referred to as “John” Merrick in the play and film. [↩]
When it was first announced that Paramount had given Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) the green light to tell his version of the Noah story, many familiar with the director’s work wondered how he and frequent collaborator and scriptwriter Ari Handel were going to interpret it.
The mainstream audience began popping up their heads a few months ago, when all they had heard was that Hollywood had made a soon-to-be-released BIG movie about Noah in the Bible. Naturally, the Bible geeks were shivering with anticipation. The only surprise from the near hysteria which followed was that the pious made so much noise primarily after the premiere, rather than before. Naturally, true to form, there has been condemnation from some without even having seen the film, but not quite to the extent we have seen from evangelical audiences previously. Some have accused Paramount of duping Christians into seeing it with a misleading campaign. Perhaps, or perhaps the studio merely overestimated that faction of the American public.
The cries from a plethora of American Evangelical Christians that Noah is “blasphemous” is, in fact, offensive in itself, but not entirely unexpected. The Noah story does notexclusively belong to evangelical Christians, as it is not of Christian origin. Rather, that version of the universal flood is derived from ancient Jewish and rabbinic writings. Even the writers of Genesis took the Noah account from preexisting narratives, such as the “Epic of Gilgamesh.”
The art of Biblical storytelling is an oral tradition, which predates written scripture. Aronofsky continues in that spirit of oral tradition. Indeed, it is a theme which gives the film its strength and edge. Aronofsky, long obsessed with making Noah (2014), proves erudite, giving his film flourishes of a primordial world not far removed, time-wise, from Eden. It is a world with memories of its Paradise Lost hauntingly intact (i.e. a visual reference to the Edenic river). In the middle of all this is the startling protagonist Noah (Russell Crowe), whom Aronofsky gives flesh, flaws and drama, removing him from the plaster pedestal. That seems to be Aronofsky’s chief offense for the unimaginative, pious masses who wanted a film about a cardboard cutout, rosy-cheeked, bearded old white guy smiling sweetly as he loads happy sheep onto his velcro boat. The rainbow ending is, of course, up for grabs. Aronofsky’s approach is far too serious for that and he creatively reworks scripture and rabbinic writings into a challenging work of art that approaches world literature.
As with all great literature, it has elements of the reflective and the unexpected. The non-canonical “Book of Enoch” is another source he draws on. Aronofsky and Handel write in the spirit of ancient biblical writers, who had no issues mixing myth, parable, folklore, and poetry together with a sliver of historicity into one narrative. They were not bound by our ideas of hyper-realism or linear storytelling. The earliest Church fathers understood this, and did not take scripture as either exclusively literal or historical. They saw it as a collection of diverse literary forms, written by divergent, God-obsessed peoples trying to grasp divine concepts. The resulting efforts were often akin to infinite ideas described in inadequately finite language, which is why we sometimes have conflicting biblical views of God within the same paragraph. Advocates of biblical inerrancy will argue that the ancient writings are Spirit-inspired. Perhaps, but even then it had to be filtered through human hands and, therefore, the Bible is “fallible” in our contemporary understanding of the term.
Aronofsky is not a believer per se, but despite claims of those who are trying to demonize him, he does not take the “religion as the root of all evil” route. Indeed, Aronofsky, of Jewish heritage and education, clearly seeks to express an idea in an admirably classic way that is also overwhelming, confounding and vital for the viewer: God as both maternal and paternal Creator. That is an idea too sacred for the secular and too secular for the pious.
In one sense, it is refreshing that Noah is a challenging enough film to provoke and inspire debate. This makes Noah more than just a chalky Sunday School lesson. We do not have to worry about Aronofsky and Handel succumbing to the status quo (who seem forever intent on proving how little we have evolved in the past few millennium anyway).
Of course, the arrogant assumption that all Christians are evangelicals subscribing to sola scriptura is the foremost offensive reaction to the film by disgruntled audiences. This is actually more of the “either/or” mentality that far too many fundamentalists succumb to: one either approaches biblical stories as history, verbatim accounts that happened exactly as written, or one does not believe. Aronofsky’s Noah is further evidence of the evangelical reaction to anything which veers away from their expectations; reactions which are frighteningly similar to those we have seen from radical Muslims regarding certain films, art, etc. If Aronofsky proves anything, he proves that one can respond to or be inspired by scripture without subscribing to it as monotone historicity. Aronofsky’s God reaches out to the patriarchal line—from Anthony Hopkins as Methuselah to Crowe’s Noah—via visions. The “God” terminology is provocatively ambiguous, and lest we forget, we do not find God being referred to, in name, until much later in the Bible. The concept of God as YHWH (et. al.) was not yet developed at this time, and the context here would have us see this God simply as the Creator. Projecting any other names onto God would have been sloppy interpretive work on the part of Aronofsky.
Another theme is the fall of humanity and humanity’s subsequent relationship to the environment. Oddly, Aronofsky’s depiction of the Nephilim is one of those “blink and you will miss it” references found in the Hebrew Bible that the literalists actually prefer to be ignored. Perhaps its one of those references that reiterates a little too strongly fantasy elements inherent in the Bible.
Aronofsky’s film indeed is in line with much of Hebrew literature (at least where it matters) and contextually it may be one of the most bravely “accurate” film productions of the Bible to date. If unimaginative fundamentalists have hangups about it, it is, in the end, their hangup. Still, hearing some of the hackneyed protests against this film makes me wonder, what the hell is wrong with religion? Why is it so afraid of challenge and artistic interpretation?
“Even a Man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolf-bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright”.
The best thing about the 1941 film is the tone-setting poem above, which was repeated at least one too many times in the original, yet it is absent from the 2010 remake except in the title. The Wolf Man seemed ripe for a remake since, of the original “horror classics,” it really wasn’t that good to begin with (the same goes for Creature from the Black Lagoon).
The 1941 film has several strikes against it, the first and foremost of which is writer Curt Siodmak, who, frankly, was a hack. The second is director George Waggner, who wasn’t really a hack but merely a competent, unimaginative commission director with no personal vision. Finally, there is “star” Lon Chaney, Jr. The younger Chaney gets picked on a lot these days and always has. He deserves it. He was an idiotic, drunken bully who had an obsessive hang-up about outdoing his father. Since Lon Sr. probably ranks with Chaplin in the silent acting department, Lon Jr., the pale, watered-down copy, did not have a chance. It’s amazing that Jr. even thought he would be able to compete. That said, Lon Jr. did have a few good character roles in his career. Damn few out of literally hundreds of films. He was quite good as the arthritic sheriff in Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon, as Big Sam in Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones, as Spurge in Raoul Walsh’s Lion is in the Streets and Bruno in Jack Hill’s cult classic Spider Baby. Like Bela Lugosi, he was only good when he was actually being “directed.” Unlike Lugosi, however, Jr.’s signature horror role is not one of his best. That honor goes to his immortal Lenny in Lewis Milestone’s Of Mice and Men.
Even considering his success with Lenny, Larry Talbot is out of Lon’s range. Never once does Talbot’s amorous nature register. Evelyn Anker’s repeated flirtations with the hulking, rubbery Chaney only evoke numbing disbelief. If Jr. the romantic lead is ludicrous (that side seen at its mustached worst in the execrable Inner Sanctum series), then seeing Lon’s Talbot crying on the bed inspires cringe-inducing embarrassment. Chaney’s performance as Talbot was marginally Continue reading THE WOLF MAN (1941) & THE WOLFMAN (2010)→
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