December 27, 1999 [Titus]

The opening scene of Titus, in which the child (soon to be Titus' grandson, who delivers a bag of weapons like a Mob errand-boy bringing guns to some demented hoods) sits at his lunch and plays with both toys and food, and becomes more manic and destructive--until even he begins to look a bit dismayed--while explosions and sirens grow in the background, as though he were somehow in a Terry Gilliam movie, like the kid in Time Bandits swept away from a world more full of weeping than he can understand--to a world weeping even more: Titus' first words are to "hail, Rome, victorious in thy mourning weeds" while he "salutes his country with his tears"--this opening lets us know that, long before the movie began, others have cried havoc and let loose the dogs of war--whose jaws grin at us cheerfully as they chew out our guts.

I glanced into my old Pelican edition of Shakespeare and read the introduction to Titus Andronicus to remind myself that the play is--or was--generally dismissed, even scorned, as the misfire of a young playwright.  One Gustav Cross begins his introduction by asserting that it is "a ridiculous play," and goes on in withering tones to defend his thesis.

So why was I so moved?  Why did I compare it--idiotically, if Cross is to be believed--to King Lear? (And note to self: if Scorsese and De Niro ever decide to do one Shakespeare play, it should be Lear.)  Why was I not only horrified but tearful?  Is it because Titus did not choose wisely when he had to side with either his friend--worse yet, his son--or his country?  And so am I dismayed by a mere principle? Or is it the complete horror of most of the souls darting about on fire, Goths and Romans both, even torn-apart Lavinia using her tongue one more time to scorn her enemy?  Or do I see myself in here, hoping for something I can stand by, choosing badly--but then chained to the choice, like Titus maddened by the very facts of his life?  Anthony Hopkins makes us recall Hannibal the Cannibal--but with even more sick humor, the giggling mutters of a good soldier left to drop tears on the Appian Way, whose stones are already wet with how many others' mourning.

But what makes him laugh?  His lack of pity to Tamora (and what would such a role be without Jessica Lange, fiercer than her barbarian Queen could ever hope to be)?  The bludgeoning ironies of hands and tongues and virtues torn out by the roots--themselves replaced by roots and branches and stumps, poor utensils for the little cannibal holocaust Titus prepares, his chef hat jaunty as he serves up Satan's meatloaf?  Or is it simply the knowledge that someone like Julie Taymor (so good, I've heard, as the director of the stage version of The Lion King, a master puppeteer with eclectic tastes--true, I think, for so many puppeteers) could pull this play from the scholars' dunk-tank?

I don't know what the canonizers think of Titus these days, but as a movie it jumps out at me like that little Thing from Alien and latches on and goes deep--while that last long shot--young Lucius and the baby making their way toward the sunrise (corny if it weren't true, simple astronomy swallowing them up)--perhaps promises a Somewhere better than a country where duty trumps love and love conquers all like an invading army.


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