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Home :: Archive :: 2000 :: February ::
Taymor on Titus
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.0280  Wednesday, 9 February 2000.

From:           Janet MacLellan <
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Date:           Wednesday, 9 Feb 2000 08:27:33 -0500
Subject:        Taymor on Titus

Dear List,

On Monday night, I attended a special screening of Titus at Innis
College, University of Toronto (Ontario, Canada). The screening
(presented by Fox Searchlight and the U of T Cinema Studies Students'
Union) was followed by a brief question and answer period with Julie
Taymor. I won't report everything she said, since some of the points she
made can be found on the official Titus websites (or at least on the Fox
Searchlight Titus website, which is the one I checked). Here are a few
highlights, however:

*Please stop reading now if you haven't seen the film and don't want to
learn about any directorial choices in advance.*

Taymor gave several examples of devices that she carried over, altered,
or improved upon from her 1994 stage version to the film version. The
use of Young Lucius's perspective as a framing device, for example, she
felt worked better in the film than it did in the theatre. The placing
of Lavinia on a "pedestal" after her ravishment came from the stage
version, in which it was not only an ironic literalization of the
initial general eulogizing of Lavinia, but also a practical response to
the difficulty of staging Marcus's notoriously long and lyrical speech
of discovery. In the film, it had to be rendered less abstract: hence,
the pedestal became a truncated stump in a swamp full of such stumps.
(Taymor commented on how truly disgusting and slimy a task it was to
film in that swamp!) The use of branches for Lavinia's missing hands (an
allusion to Daphne) was also a carryover from the stage version, except
that on stage the actress wore black gloves inside the branches, whereas
in the film special effects were used.

One big difference that Taymor and Harry J. Lennix (Aaron) found between
the stage play and the film version (Lennix was the only actor to appear
in both versions) was the impact that the use of a live baby had on all
the scenes in which Aaron's son appears. (I can testify to this: after
hearing the nurse call this adorable infant "as loathsome as a toad,"
one really can't summon up any regret when Aaron kills her. This was one
killing, Taymor said, in which she consciously went for humour, wanting
to show even Demetrius and Chiron shocked by Aaron's action.) Similarly,
in the scenes in the Goth camp, where Aaron is pleading for his son's
life, the presence of a live infant really upped the emotional ante.

Taymor was asked about the extraordinarily powerful and dignified
presentation of the villainous Aaron, and she responded that she
considered Titus a very anti-racist play, given that Aaron has such
strong and proud responses to the racial insults directed at him and his
son.

Taymor was also asked about the use of technology and special effects in
Shakespeare adaptations, the questioner taking the position that in
films where the text itself was so rich, too much use of effects (I'm
not sure whether he meant production design as well as special effects)
could lead to overkill. Taymor disagreed, arguing that Shakespeare's
heightened language has to be supported by a heightened presentation.

Speaking of overkill, the very first question asked of Taymor in the Q&A
session was about the violence in the film. (I imagine she's answered
this one quite often by now.) Her response was, first, that measured
against the average mainstream action movie, Titus doesn't contain much
violence at all; the difference is that in Titus we're encouraged to
think about the origins and consequences of each action, hence we find
the (fairly moderate) amount of violence in it more disturbing than
we're used to.  Second, she pointed out that the violence is inherent in
the play: you can't do Titus without presenting over a dozen murders, a
rape, and several mutilations. She commented that in the film, most of
the in-your-face violence comes right at the end, by which point it's
been "earned" by what the characters have undergone and the audience
witnessed.  She kept much of the earlier violence offscreen. As a rule,
she showed onscreen only the violence that the text indicates as
happening onstage (e.g. the cutting off of Titus's hand); events written
as occurring offstage (such as the rape and mutilation of Lavinia) she
didn't show onscreen.

With regard to the blending of costume and architectural styles in the
play, Taymor said that this also was carried over from the stage
production. She discussed it from a few angles: she cited Shakespeare's
own use of anachronism (she didn't actually mention the Peacham drawing,
but she did talk about 16th-century productions combining togas with
contemporary dress); she stressed the importance to the film's overall
design concept of the idea of a modern Rome built on the ruins of an
ancient Rome; she directed our attention to the way in which the opening
scene-Young Lucius playing with his toy soldiers, which come from every
era from ancient Rome to Star Wars-sets us up for a world in which
different eras are jumbled together (as those who have seen the film
have no doubt gathered from the stunning title sequence, Young Lucius in
a sense conjures up the world of the film in this opening scene: the
mud-encrusted soldiers who enter the Coliseum are at first almost
ciphers, like his toys; only as that mud is washed away in the bathing
scene do they become humans, individuals). Finally, Taymor stated that,
in order to impose some sort of unity on the anachronistic design
elements, she kept to a strict colour scheme: red, white, black, blue,
and metallics (she recounted that she was occasionally quite worried
about the green of the grass in the outdoor scenes, fearing that it
would throw off the whole scheme).

Taymor also had interesting things to say about the surreal
psychological inset scenes (which she refers to as "penny-arcade
nightmares") and the "mirror" relationship between Titus and Aaron, but
as she discusses these on the official website, I won't repeat her
remarks here. (I would be interested, however, to hear what list members
thought of the four "nightmare" sequences: I didn't think the first two
worked as well as the last two).

Taymor was very gracious, staying quite late to answer questions, and
responding amiably even to a couple of inane ones (e.g. "The whole
film's so confusing...I mean, who is Titus? What is he doing in the
play?") Monday's audience was very grateful to her, not only for her
attendance, but for her contribution of such a remarkable work to the
cinematic Shakespeare corpus.

Taymor does so many interesting things in this film that I'm surprised
it hasn't yet been discussed in depth on SHAKSPER. Is this out of
consideration to those SHAKSPER members who live outside of major city
centres, i.e. are we waiting for Titus to be released more widely before
we painstakingly dissect it in our usual fashion?

Regards,
Janet MacLellan

University of Toronto

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