A Wilderness of Tigers

Titus (1999)

illustration by Brianna Ashby
When I was 17, there was a TV channel that only showed movie trailers, and I sometimes pretended to be sick so I could stay home from school to watch it. The eve of the millennium brought to home video a slew of dark, atmospheric movies with engrossing, unapologetically enigmatic trailers. Eyes Wide ShutAmerican BeautyBeing John MalkovichMagnoliaThe Blair Witch ProjectThe Virgin SuicideseXiztenZ…1999 was an amazing year for film. After glutting myself on previews, I’d rush to one of the local video rental stores (there were five to choose from at the time) and pick out an armful of tapes. I’d wait until the rest of the house was asleep, then watch two or three in a night, the volume as low as it could possibly go, the room lit only by the flickering of the cathode ray tube. It was the beginning of my life as a night owl.

Provocative in its visuals—but nonsensical in its narrative—the trailer for Julie Taymor’s Titus features imagery of leaping tigers, dismembered women, and a black man posed like Jesus at the crucifixion, as a voiceover narration fumbles in its attempt to give some structure to the barrage of highly symbolic and referential clips. What was most enticing about Titus was the images, even without context. Take away the clumsy narration, and the trailer plays out with all the poignancy of a nightmare. A boy is held aloft by a clown in a deserted gladiatorial arena. Black bolts of cloth cascade from a rigid, polished architectural structure. A sedan with a snarling wolf’s head ornament prowls through narrow streets. The preview ends as Anthony Hopkins—the titular Titus—throws open a blood red curtain, starkly contrasting with his glimmering white chef’s uniform, and chuckles pleasantly, welcoming the viewer into the film. Come inside. See what happens.

I couldn’t resist the invitation. Searching the aisles of the video stores, past the newly installed section of “DVDs,” I eventually found the tape I sought. Sandwiched between David O. Russell’s Three Kings and multiple copies of Pixar’s Toy Story 2 were the sad, powerful eyes of Anthony Hopkins, vibrant blue clay caked on his face and Romanesque war helmet. The back cover featured Jessica Lange sinisterly tattooed, a dozen metal snakes in her hair and the faint lines of a golden mask painted on her face, floating above a summary list of credits in small, plain font. No mention of plot or characters to be found. Again, the images were doing all the heavy lifting. I paid the rental fee, raced home, and waited eagerly for night to fall before popping the tape in the VCR.

The film opens on a young boy in a decidedly modern kitchen as he plays violently with toy soldiers, dousing them in ketchup blood and lopping their heads off with a butter knife. The boy’s aggression grows unchecked as he drowns tiny regiments in his glass of milk and buries battalions beneath a piece of cake. All the while, a television flickers in the corner. The sounds of war increase and the boy, overwhelmed by the violence which has suddenly become very real, cowers under the table. An explosion sends glass and smoke flying into the room and the boy is picked up by a man in combat boots and an aviator’s helmet and carried to the deserted Coliseum, where soldiers encased in dried mud march their ranks mechanically forward. Infantrymen with swords and spears are followed by divisions of armored motorcycles, followed again by horse-drawn chariots, leading captured prisoners in cages of barbed wire. Within the first three minutes of the film, we have seen innocence destroyed by 2000 years of warfare and brutality. The boy, who appears here and there throughout the film (sometimes as an observer, sometimes as an active character), serves as a gateway for the viewer. In 1999, it was only too easy for a Western audience to distance itself from the intrusive terrors of war—to forget that a large part of the world has lived through battle and bloodshed in all of its conceivable forms: sword and shield, tank and machine gun. Here, the violence is mandatory viewing.

The back-and-forth anachronism is typical of the film, as director Julie Taymor strives to create a world in which this war is every war, and this empire is every empire. The Roman army is represented as an undeniable force—strictly choreographed—as systematically unyielding as the ticking of a well-made clock. The uniformity of the army’s movement and armour—with its clearly defined ranks and chain of command—is at odds with the captured Goths, who appear huddled in mangy furs, their hair matted, their skin tattooed ornamentally. Taymor gives the viewer images of desperate chaos crushed under the boot of dispassionate order as Titus leads a formal ritual sacrificing the eldest son of Tamora, the conquered Goth queen. The amalgam of military history suggests that such rituals have been ever thus; great and terrible deeds carried out at the expense of the less organized. It took 100,000 conquered slaves to build the Coliseum, after all.

Titus’s act of “irreligious piety” sets off the film’s central struggle, as unbending law and custom more often than not trample over basic human decency to sow the seeds of bitterness and rage. A single act of disobedience to the temperamental new Emperor finds Titus sitting despondent amongst broken statues, and Tamora clothed in imperial gold as Rome’s new Empress, poised to exact her vengeful instincts. As she pours honey in the Emperor’s ear, urging him to pardon Titus, Tamora turns to the camera and from blood-red lips whispers her terrifying true intentions to the audience. In this inescapable close-up, Taymor lays bare the schism between Tamora’s persona as a peacemaker and the pitiless venom of her true, vengeful self. The viewer looks into the eyes of cold, black hatred as Tamora becomes the physical manifestation of revenge.

Aided by her wild, unbalanced sons, the wronged Queen begins to bloodily dismantle the Andronicus family, ripping away from Titus what he holds most dear— his prized honour—and systematically robbing him of his family and his pride therein. Two of his sons are framed for murder and sentenced to death, the third exiled from Rome. But the most atrocious gesture has been reserved for Lavinia, Titus’s sole daughter. Taymor’s presentation of Tamora’s twisted vengeance is hair-raisingly macabre: Lavinia stands on the stump of a tree in a desolate marsh, as innocent from a distance as one of Edgar Degas’s ballerinas. As we draw closer, we see her dress torn, her hands cut off and replaced by crude branches. Her tongueless mouth gapes open, pouring out rivulets of blood, the sole testimony to the horror she has endured. This is the hideous chaos of Tamora’s revenge, a stark contrast to the order and ceremony of Titus’s Rome.

To this point, the violence done to the Andronicus family has been grounded in an easily identifiable form. Depraved and deplorable though it is, this vengeance can be traced backwards. Titus seeks to move forward on the path of vindictive deeds, declaring his intent to “plot some device of further misery” against those who have wronged him. Enter Aaron the Moor, Tamora’s mentor and chief architect in dark deeds, whose visionary evil is made disturbingly palatable by his charm and his constant asides to the camera. Aaron is too upsetting to be called an imp, but his atrocious mischief does house a wicked sense of humour. On the eve of execution, Aaron tells Titus that he can spare his sons’ heads if he chops off his own hand and sends it to the Emperor. The heads of his sons are indeed sent back—in glass jars, accompanied by that selfsame sacrificed hand, delivered by two madcap clowns who dance about to zany carnival music. Titus, at the depths of his woe, laughs, for he has not another tear to shed. It’s now up to the viewer to decide whether to go mad or become incredibly sane in the face of an insane world.

Titus—in a motion that he deems necessary to quiet his aching soul—vows revenge against Tamora, and Rome, and all those who have wronged him and his. He disinherits his tears so that he may better find the path to “Revenge’s cave.” The metaphor of a cave—with one entrance and no exit—is perhaps more apt than Titus recognizes. Vengeance stacked upon vengeance leads to the rotting of the soul, as Titus and Tamora and all the rest become caught in one of the most pervertedly creative acts of revenge in dramatic history. The wholesome image of a pie cooling on a windowsill becomes a cruel joke, and every action becomes precursor to some bloody act or another. At his most dismal, Titus laments, “If there were reasons for these miseries, then into limits could I bind my woes.” Indiscriminate cruelty creates bottomless despair, and while it may be possible to survive such despair, the end result is bitterness. Indiscriminate kindness, then, must have an equivalent effect. Be indiscriminately kind. Help one another. Forgive. Heal.

The music in the second half of the trailer for Titus is paradoxically triumphant—uplifting, even. For a story with this much death and cruelty, it’s difficult to reconcile the notion that hope can still be present. The film ends as it began—with the young boy. In a single shot that lasts three and a half minutes, the boy who started the film in a frantic state of desensitized violence walks slowly and purposefully towards the sunrise. He cradles a baby in his arms, the love-child of Aaron and Tamora, who would have been either killed to hide the empress’s affair, or brought up in Aaron’s footsteps to laugh at misery and repent good deeds. The boy—who is the audience—takes hold of the child and carries it away from the blood, the anger, the violence of the penultimate scene … even away from the judgment passed on the wrongdoers.

The scene is genuinely soothing, and turns the film into a cautionary tale. We were carried into the story when the violence of the “real world” became inescapable, but having seen what that violence can do, we have the choice to walk out of the story, and to take with us the potential that the baby represents. Knowing that violence and cruelty and madness and sorrow can have no depth, and that the same too must be true of kindness and joy and community, fragile as those notions might be. Shakespeare had very little to say about kindness and understanding—they being poor subjects for a dramatist—but he did put these words into Iago’s mouth:

Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners… To have it sterile with idleness, or manured with industry, why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills. (Othello, I.3)

What we have is potential. We may fall to ruin and despair, or we may climb to glory and grace, but whatever happens, the choice will be ours. While it may be easier to fall than to climb, it’s easiest to watch the sun rise from higher up.