Recognizing Our Anxiety for What It Is


Film Project #7

Director: Julie Taymor
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming

Last year I had planned a project of re-watching great and favourite films with friends and then writing about them. I slacked off, but thought I'd start again with one of my favourite films from 1999.

As we entered the fall of 1999 it became clear that we were not in a normal film year. In fact, I, and other close friends, would late declare 1999 the greatest year in the history of filmmaking, supplanting previous title holder 1939 (Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Ninotchka, Wuthering Heights, etc.).

My 1999 "Top Ten" list would eventually include about 25 films (I think "Top Ten" is a concept more than a strict numerical list. One year I only had seven films in my "Top Ten."). It seemed like everytime I rented one of the acclaimed films from the year (few played in Shawnee) that I thought that one was better than the others. Though my list was constantly in flux, I did end up with five that remained consistently at the top: The Insider, The Straight Story, Titus, Being John Malkovich, and The Talented Mr. Ripley.

I remember, distinctly, how I felt when I finished watching Titus back in 2000. I was overwhelmed with emotions, mainly horror overcome by hope. Let me explain.

Julie Taymor had done the Lion King on Broadway, so it was intriguing when her first (and I believe so far only) film was an adaptation of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus. No one reads or performs this play, because it is Shakesepeare's most violent.

The film is a stunning adaptation, with incredible visuals. It's setting is a mixture of ancient and modern. The modern elements seem to be influenced by both Ian McKellen's brilliant Richard III and Frederico Fellini.

The performances are stunning, particularly Jessica Lange who makes your skin crawl with her precise, malicious line reads, e.g., "cruel, irreligious piety."

Watching the film, one is struck by its excellent filmmaking and the moral of this mostly unfamiliar story -- that we humans are brutal, violent people; that life is devoid of reason; that all is overwhelmed with tragedy. Pretty cynical, depressing stuff. I love great art that does this (like The Bicycle Thief). On the one hand the content overwhelms one with the negative aspects of humanity, yet the work of art conveying that message is itself an example of the great beauty of which we are capable -- that there is still hope for humanity.

But then something happens at the end of this film. Let me back up, though. Taymor opened the film with a contemporary, American boy playing with his action figures while eating breakfast. The kids playing becomes more and more mock-violent (squirting ketchup for blood). Even the kids house is being bombed; then he is carried into the theatre, where Titus begins. A strange device. Then the kid keeps reappearing in the film, eventually taking on one of the roles. My friend Jon, who watched the film with me the other night, kept asking "Who's the kid supposed to be?"

At the very end of the film where everything has suddenly sprialed into horrific, gory violence, we end up back in the theatre. The kid picks up a newborn infant (part of the story) and walks out of the theatre toward the horizon, where the sun is slowly rising. It is a long shot, about five minutes probably.

And in that moment six years ago, it hit me, what I think Taymor intended with the film. The movie was reminding us of the horribly violent, irredeemable century that was ending. The kid has born witness to this and so, at the end, turns his back on it, picks up the child (always a symbol of new life) and carries him into the dawning new century. Taymor clearly hopes that we will take advantage of a new opportunity to overcome our brutality.

In 2000 I cried at how beautiful that message was. In 2006 I cried because this century is already horribly violent and irredeemable.


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