Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Wilderness of Tigers: A Look at Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare

"When will this fearful slumber have an end?"
-Titus Andronicus III.I

Titus Andronicus is considered by many critics and scholars to be one of Shakespeare’s weakest offerings, if not his weakest. Printed in 1594, it may have been performed as early as 1589 when the playwright was only 25. It’s a sensational horror story, filled with so much violence and cruelty that some can’t bear the thought that Shakespeare wrote it. T.S. Eliot called it “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written, a play in which it is incredible that Shakespeare had any hand at all.” However, as encouraging as it is to believe that even Shakespeare was capable of having a bad day at the office, I found Titus Andronicus to be a thrilling, thoroughly engaging play.

Set in Ancient Rome, this tragedy tells the tale of Titus Andronicus, a tried and true Roman general, devoted to his city and empire before all else, including his family. At the play’s start, this blind devotion serves as his only moral compass and will prove to be his tragic flaw. Returning home victorious after a long war with the Goths, Titus brings home the Goth queen, Tamora and her three sons. He decides to sacrifice the eldest son as part of a Roman ritual, ignoring Tamora’s pleas for mercy and earning her hatred. This is his first mistake. His second comes when he refuses to succeed the late emperor, despite being the people’s choice, and maintains the old order by giving the crown to the emperor’s first born son, Saturninus. Saturninus, a sniveling hothead, wastes no time abusing his power to get what he wants and chooses Titus’s daughter, Lavinia to be his bride, even though she is in love with and engaged to another man (the emperor’s younger son, Bassianus). This proves to be the first in long chain of events that grows steadily more horrific as the play progresses and leads to rape, mutilation, murder and even cannibalism, all done in the name of revenge and despair. By the play’s end, there are bodies all over the floor, reflecting both the inevitability and futility of revenge.

Titus Andronicus is far from perfect. It has a wonky timeline, plenty of plot holes, and a hero whose madness comes and goes with the wind. As you can probably tell, the thing is a bitch even to summarize. But a blight on Shakespeare’s immortal reputation? Nope. Even his penny-dreadfuls pack a wild punch. I became so absorbed in Titus Andronicus and its “wilderness of tigers” that I read most of it in one sitting. It’s a dark play, reflecting the worst in human nature, but the story is poignant as well as cruel. It’s the story of a man gradually coming to understand the love he has for his children and that they, not Rome, deserve his complete devotion. Unfortunately, it’s something he can’t fully understand until they’ve become the victims of senseless violence. Ironically, Tamora understands this from the beginning and manipulates it in order to avenge her own murdered son, descending to the darkest realms of humanity in the process. Compared to Tamora, Lady Macbeth looks like Little Bunny Fufu.

Titus Andronicus did seem like the work of a beginner, especially a beginner trying really hard to get noticed, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s unpolished and often absurd, but incredibly fearless. Shakespeare at the start of his journey. I think that alone is worthy of admiration.

Because of its icky subject matter, Titus Andronicus isn’t very popular with moviemakers. One notable exception is Julie Taymor’s Titus. Released in 1999, it’s a brilliant movie and one of my favorite Shakespeare adaptations, if not my favorite. Not everybody agrees with me. It’s definitely a movie you love or hate, and I’m sure many a purist has cursed it after the very first scene. I thought it was wonderful. Like Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet, Titus plays around with time and setting, existing in an imaginary world that is half Ancient Rome and half fascist Italy, with video games and rock music thrown in for good measure. However, I think Titus does it much more successfully. Shakespeare’s Rome is very anachronistic and the story owes more to Greek myth than it does to Roman history. Also the play’s events are so dark, darkly funny, and absurd that only an over-the-top offering such as this could do them justice. The movie is part history, part horror and part fantasy (with a nod to fairy tales here and there), playing out in front of us like a nightmare.

The cast is uniformly excellent, featuring Anthony Hopkins (Titus), Jessica Lange (Tamora), Alan Cumming (Saturninus), and Laura Fraser (Lavinia), among many others. They all allow their characters to be fully fleshed individuals even as they get lost in darkness. Taymor’s screenplay highlights the play’s themes of racism and the hardship of being a woman among men, letting them shine (though credit goes to the actors too). She also takes a minor character in the play—Titus’s young grandson—and emphasizes his role, turning him into an example of how easily children learn hatred from the adults around them. The music, art direction, set design, and costumes are all fantastic as well. Definitely a film that benefits from multiple viewings.

It's also probably the only movie where you'll see Anthony Hopkins dry humping Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Not even Hannibal Lecter got to do that.

I heartily recommend both Titus Andronicus and Titus. Just don’t help yourself to a slice of pie while partaking. You have been warned.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Morbid Fascination: A Look at Changeling and Horror In General

Damn it. Just when I thought it was safe to leave my house. Just when I thought I had regained my self-control and defeated the hellish fears that keep me tossing and turning night after night. Just when I thought Halloween was behind me….Clint Eastwood came out of the shadows and brought me a present. One that pressed all the right buttons and shook open the self-destructive, masochistic part of me that likes to read Stephen King before bed and stays up until 3 AM watching the Criminal Minds mini-marathon every weekend. The part that is paranoid and agoraphobic and will watch or read anything that has to do with Leopold and Loeb. The part with a healthy (?) morbid fascination.

I didn’t even intend to watch a movie last night. I had plenty of work to do and plenty of good intentions, but after the first five minutes, I was hooked. I had actually wanted to see Changeling in theaters, but missed it due to procrastination and lack of an interested companion. Judging from the trailers, it looked like it had been made for me: a true crime story set during the 1920’s with a title that referenced folklore (a changeling being an otherworldly child—sometimes demonic or unruly—left in place of a human child stolen away by supernatural forces, usually fairies). Though it delivered on all those fronts, I was not prepared for just how disturbing it would be. Or how engrossing.

Changeling tells the true story of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie), a single mother living in 1928 Los Angeles. When her nine-year-old son Walter (Gattlin Griffith) disappears, Christine enlists the help of the corrupt LAPD to find him. After five months, she receives word that Walter is alive and well and on his way home. However, one look is all Christine needs to know the boy they’ve brought back isn’t her son. A harrowing struggle against the Powers That Be ensues as Christine sets out to discover what really happened to Walter. This alone would make for an unsettling movie, but halfway through, we get a shocking twist that opens the door to regions much darker than I expected.

Changeling has a lot going for it. Clint Eastwood, first of all. The movie evokes 1920’s L.A. perfectly with fantastic costumes, sets, and music. Angelina Jolie is excellent as Christine Collins, at once timid and fiercely strong as only a mother protecting her child can be. She’s not Superwoman; she just wants her son back and consequently, she becomes a believable hero. There isn’t a bad performance in the cast. To reveal the best two besides Jolie’s would be to give away important plot elements, but you will know them when you see them (unless you disagree with me, of course). I had no problems with the length (two hours and twenty minutes) but the movie did suffer from The Return of the King’s multiple ending disease, including a slightly manipulative five minute tack-on that didn’t do anything except depress me and create an unnecessary plot hole. Also it’s very much a white hat-black hat story and now and then, I felt like some of the characters could have used a few more shades of gray, especially the downright evil police captain (Jeffrey Donovan). Overall, however, the good far outweighed the bad.

From the arrival of the changeling on, the movie plays out like a cross between a Kafka story and the grimmest of Grimms’ fairy tales, all the while forcing you to remember that you’re watching a true story. I had to cover my ears and close my eyes more than once and more than once, I asked myself, “Why are you watching this? How could you possibly be enjoying this?” But I did enjoy it. After all, five minutes in, I couldn’t shut it off and barely moved for the next two and a half hours. But how? Why? I ask myself this same question every time I get caught in the middle of a particularly grisly Criminal Minds episode or watch Rope for the umpteenth time or sit down to a TV dinner with the folks and 48 Hour Mystery. I recently asked my mother why she and my dad were so permissive about what I watched as a kid when they were so overprotective about everything else. She said, “I guess we wanted you to be aware of the dark stuff.” Well, thanks Mom. As a result, I grew up to be the most paranoid person I know. But it’s not as if they sat me down and forced me to watch this stuff. Much of it I sought out. After all, I used to watch Law and Order and Investigative Reports when I was supposed to be asleep and still have a bad habit of exposing myself to scary things right before bed. Considering how easily scared I was growing up, it amazes me that I developed such a strong interest in the macabre so early on. But then again, maybe it’s not so surprising.

I’ve often seen the horror genre (including the truly scary thrillers and crime movies) as a kind of therapeutic tool. These movies allow us to step back and watch our fears played out at a distance. We get to examine them and in so doing, try to understand them. The best horror / thriller / crime movies have great, thought-provoking things to say about humanity. 28 Days Later, a movie where the human beings frightened me ever so much more than the zombies, comes to mind. Or Silence of the Lambs where the smartest, most enjoyable character in the movie is also a cannibal. This isn’t to say all horror movies make profound statements about human nature, but they do have that ability. Perhaps I latched onto the dark stuff as a kid because I was so easily scared and wanted to understand why. Also fear is thrilling and these movies allow us to experience that thrill in a safe setting where we have control.

One thing is certain. My mother will never see Changeling if I have anything to do with it. She still tells me not to talk to strangers when I leave the house; this movie would probably make her lock me in a tower. On top of that, it has made me pity my hypothetical children even more. Thanks to Changeling, I will probably call a baby-sitter before I leave to get the paper in the morning.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Dirty Sluts in Wolfskin Coats: A Look at Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes

"I guess you think you know this story. /You don't. The real one's much more gory. /The phoney one, the one you know, / Was cooked up years and years ago, /And made to sound all soft and sappy/ just to keep the children happy." -Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes, Cinderella

Simply put, this is one of my favorite books of all time, and undoubtedly, one of the most important I've ever read. I sometimes wonder what direction my life might have gone in had I not discovered it in the third grade. For it was this slim little volume that first introduced me to a beloved literary art form that became the cornerstone of my writing: the twisted fairy tale. Maybe without Revolting Rhymes, I would still have encountered Angela Carter, Maria Tatar, and the beauty of folkloric scholarship, but then again, who knows? With these six short rhymes, Dahl showed me a whole new world. In this world, the bedtime stories of my childhood could be transformed. They could have hidden meanings. They could be funny and frightening in a way I had never known. They could have life and breathe beyond themselves. And if fairy tales could, then all stories could! Hell, this book could be the reason I chose not just to love literature but to study it.

What's more, it's the book that began my love affair with the one and only Roald Dahl (not Ronald Dahl as I called him for much too long), author of wonderful works of fantasy, surrealism, and some of the scariest shit ever published. This is the man responsible for Willy Wonka, Miss Trunchbull, the Chokey, the Grand High Witch, the Landlady, Aunt Sponge, Aunt Spiker, the most treacherous carpet in the world, and those damn Oompa Loompas. All that out of one brain. Jesus Christ. But Revolting Rhymes is the book that, for me, started it all.

Last but not least, it's the book that taught me the word slut, though it took me a few years and Presidential scandals to learn the exact meaning. For that brief glimpse into the adult world, I've always held it close to my heart.

The setup is very simple. Dahl takes six well-known, beloved stories--Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Little Red Riding Hood, and The Three Little Pigs--and turns them all inside out. In rhyme. Basic and yet brilliant. "Faithfulness" is not an issue here. I always get slightly miffed when people complain about how a certain adaptation isn't faithful to the "original" fairy tale. When a story spends centuries being shaped and and twisted by generations of storytellers in the oral tradition (as all six of these stories were) before being printed in a book, there is no "original" version. There's the version you know best and/or the one you feel most defensive about.

Some of Dahl's poems differ wildly from the source material while others stay pretty close. He turns Snow White into the head of a gambling ring who uses her infamous good looks to get free rides and never ecounters an apple or a prince, though her story does include some of the more Sweeney Toddish elements of the Brothers Grimm version. Jack of beanstalk climbing fame is actually a halfway decent person whose mother is more of a monster than the giant. Dahl's Little Red Riding Hood is a joyous return to versions of old where the titular heroine was more than capable of outsmarting and escaping the Wolf, without the need for a Huntsman savior or a moralizing death (or both in the case of the Grimms' version). The Three Little Pigs makes a great Little Red sequel/crossover and features fantastic descriptions of how the Wolf eats the pigs. Goldilocks is a straight retelling with mostly everything the same except for the fact that the narrator clearly hates Goldie's guts and is much more honest about her antics than your average telling of the tale. I was never a huge fan of Goldilocks (the character) so this is without a doubt my favorite version of her story. Especially the last line.

Oh, and Cinderella's prince calls her a slut. Specifically, a dirty slut. Don't worry, it ends well.

Throughout, there are delightful references to cannibalism, executions, dog shit, illegal activity, obscene language, bowel movements (another happy phrase the book taught me), alcohol, underwear, and the ever reliable deus ex machina. There's even a sly sex joke quipped by Snow White's father during his search for a second wife that I didn't get until very recently. Of course, Roald Dahl makes it all funny as only he can. The illustations by Quentin Blake (who illustrated many of Dahl's books) are, like the poems, both childlike and grotesque. In Blake's pictures, Goldilocks looks like a small troll, one of Cinderella's stepsisters appears to have some kind of flesh-eating disease, Little Red's eyes never lose their knowing grin, and Snow White, inexplicably, is blond. It should be noted that this is not the only time an illustrator has made Snow White blond, but Blake is the only one who can get away with it, at least in my mind.

Fairy tales have fascinated me for as long as I can remember. They reflect something primal in the human spirit: the need to tell and hear stories. They helped shape the cultures that created them, their archetypal characters speak to the subconcious and their mix of magic and terror stirs the child in all of us. When I first heard the Revolting Rhymes, it was like Dahl had taken my hand and let me in on a wonderful secret: fairy tales are for adults too. It's a secret I stamped on my heart and have been spreading joyfully ever since.