Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Two films

In the last 48 hours I have mostly been watching...

Titus (1999, Dir Julie Taymor)

When I was 19, I was packed off to Stratford with my fellow Eng Lit undergrads for a week of Shakespeare and associated stuff. The key moment was Deborah Warner's production of Titus Andronicus, starring Brian Cox. I was in the front row of the Swan Theatre, and at one point I got so wrapped up in the action I realised I was half-way out of my seat, wanting to squeeze a zit on the back of Peter Polycarpou (playing Aaron the Moor). As we wondered out, dazed, one of the ushers said that it was a fairly quiet night, because nobody had vomited or had a nervous breakdown, although a couple of people had to be ushered out, sobbing softly. That was when I noticed there was (stage) blood all down the front of my trousers. I don't think I've ever really enjoyed a stage play since - nothing could come close.

And neither can Taymor's version, although it does have its moments. It's one of those consciously anachronistic jobs, with 1930s microphones and cars, 1940s Lugers, stag hunting with medieval crossbows, Roman orgies, modern plastic toys, all kinda zhooshed up together. This does serve to reinforce the contemporary relevance (the rival cliques of Saturninus and Bassianus are represented by the colours of Rome's two modern football teams, Roma and Lazio, but I don't know how many people Taymor expected to spot that) and the film does transcend the Elizabethan video nasty that Shakespeare originally wrote.

The key problem is Anthony Hopkins. No disrespect to the guy, but he can't stop playing Anthony Hopkins. He's got that speech [pause and turn head slightly] LOUD SPEECH [pause and turn head back] speech tic that can work sometimes, but isn't a substitute for acting. Reminds me rather of the quiet bit-LOUD BIT mode that Nirvana ripped off from the Pixies. There's no sense of a Lear-like collapse of a once-great leader... it feels as if one day he just decides all the abuse is two much, and dresses up as a chef for a giggle.

Alan Cumming is admirably reptilian as Saturninus, and Jessica Lange is good as Tamora, queen of the Goths, actually creating sympathy for this bitch from hell. Best performance however is Harry Lennix as Aaron. It's a problematic role, because, as written, he has no real motivation for his villainy. PC directors have attempted to link his wrongdoing to the racist abuse he suffers (cf Shylock) but Shakespeare simple saw him as black, in all senses of the word. And, very bravely, that's followed here, with Lennix offers a sort of understated existentialism. He neither rages against his own vile nature, nor relishes it. He just is, right?

Also on the agenda is...

Mikey and Nicky (1976, Dir Elaine May)

Checking out the DVD cover, I thought this was a Cassavetes-directed film, but JC only stars in it, with his buddy Peter Falk. May, best known for wry observational comedy, in a neo-Woody Allen vein, seems an odd choice to direct this pretty bleak story of gangland losers, betrayal and failure. But as the two characters, Nicky (Cassavetes, who's stolen money from the Mob and is now in paranoid meltdown mode) and Mikey (Falk, the best buddy who claims to be there to help) stumble through the grimy night, stumbling in and out of apartments, bars, cinemas, cemeteries, buses (check out M. Emmet Walsh as the driver!) the essential humour of the situation comes through. It's a nasty, bleak humour, that takes no prisoners: exemplified by the dialogue when Mikey and Nicky go into a black bar (soundtrack - 'Love Train' by the O'Jays).

PATRON: We ain't stupid, you know.

NICKY: Why are you black, then?

Ned Beatty is also at his sweaty, polyester best as the hitman brought in to rub Nicky out.

One thought... you really couldn't make a movie like this any more. For the purely practical reason that much of its plot is propelled by the need to make contact by phone - Beatty and Falk are constantly in phonebooths, leaving messages, losing touch. Mobiles have wiped out a great many plot devices.

It was only when I sat down to write this that I realised both these films were directed by women. I don't know how significant that is, as they are both about very specifically male worlds, and women for the most part are sexual chattels (there's a vicious rape in Titus, and something pretty close in M&N). But was does link them is that they are both about Things Going Horribly wrong. Tragedy, in the truest sense of the word.

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