Sunday, July 17, 2016

Titus: Brutal Shakespeare

This is my second Shakespeare adaptation of 1999, yet the two films couldn't be more different.  Not just because one is a comedy and this is a tragedy, but the approach to filming Shakespeare is different.  In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the whole of the film could be on a stage, and the focus in on performances.  In Titus, the idea is to take some of the strange notions of the film and to turn it into a surrealist cinematic revenge fantasy.

First, the text.  This might be the most brutal of Shakespeare's plays.  There is murderous justice, amputations,rape, false accusations, and so much more violence that is difficult to describe. It might be torture porn for the late 16th century.  It's intention is to shock, to stir in us a lust for revenge, to see the final actions of the play to be just.  In the end, however, it is just a opportunity to speak of the futility of revenge, and the horrible nature of those who take part in it.  Since this is an early Shakespeare play, we might not be surprised to find the characters two-dimensional and myopic but given the nature of revenge theatre, this is not a bad thing.  There is no Hamlet or Macbeth here, debating the nature of their actions and their consequences, no self-doubt.  Every actor is completely convinced in their paths, even if the full sum of their lives be evil.

The play was dismissed and rejected by critics for centuries, but this movie gives it a rightful place in entertainment history.  It is a surreal deconstruction of violence in any age-  whether personal or national.  Soldiers in a mass-dance celebrating their bloody victory; a world of blues and blacks and greys; a woman with sticks poking out of her arm stumps; fascists scream in ancient Rome, flags flying; a boy's fantasy of war with action figures and ketchup become real.  This is a real work of imagination, a Lynchian nightmare drenched in Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. 

This sounds like a horrible experience, but there is one release-- the gore takes place off screen.  This film doesn't revel in blood and guts.  The target of the horror is not the churning stomach, but the churning heart.  We wince at the actions not because they show too much violence, but because of the depth of evil and depravity that occur.  Anthony Hopkins turns from a noble Odin figure to Hannibal Lecture in this film.  Titus feigns insanity, but the insanity that truly captures his heart is one of bloody vengeance, and every horror unfolds to another more horrible.

Not for the faint of heart, yet it is a powerful adaptation of a lesser play by the Bard.

O.J.: Made in America

I'm just the opposite of a sports fan, but I'm starting to really dig the ESPN 30 for 30 docs.  I finished Fantastic Lies last month, and it showed how sports can be intimately intertwined with racial politics and the justice system.  Now, with O.J., we have the magnum opus of such docs.

I am a serious Black Lives Matter supporter.  Not so much that I go to protests (I limit my public activism), but I am a staunch defender of the movement and I have seen the stats that support most of what they say.  There is certainly racial injustice against African Americans.  Mind you, the same exists for Native Americans and Muslims and there is severe classism against the homeless.  But civil rights for African Americans is far from over.  The videos are just the dramatic moments.  The reality is a huge percentage of the black male population in prison.

Never have I seen a better cultural analysis of the very things BLM exposes, and the consequences of that exposure, than this O.J. documentary.  Part of its power is the leisure with which it could easily explain the huge context in which O.J.'s famous trial was placed, going back to the Los Angeles of the 40s.  By the time the doc was half over (about three hours) I was thinking, "Is all this really necessary?"  The short answer is: Yes.  Absolutely.  This story has to be told in this length, now, today, in 2016.  And it needs to be seen by everyone.

I am white, was raised white, accepted white religion, and never thought about my whiteness until I went to India, but still didn't take it very seriously until a few years ago, especially as my poor but white children went to schools that were predominately African American.  When the OJ trial occurred, I was one of most whites who were mystified at the verdict of the trial.  The answer seemed obvious.  But  this film explains that there is more than one answer, more than one verdict.  There is the verdict of this one man in this one circumstance.  There is the verdict of the black community who needed justification more than justice.  And there is the verdict of the jury who had been isolated for 2/3 of a year for a mostly unpaid job they never applied for.

But there is also the context of celebrity, the context of a people pleaser, who was just doing what he could to be loved, but who was self-centered enough to be unable to see when his superficial care wasn't enough for the people who loved him.  This film is seven and a half hours long, and it is almost as complex and insightful as The Human Condition at 9 hours.  Perhaps OJ's themes aren't as widespread, being a distinctly American story, but it is powerful.  It's problems are the limitations of documentary work-- having to deal with previous filmed footage, of mixed quality.  It may not look great, but it is better than any of Ken Burns' works, for you can't read this story in history books.  It is the story we are still living out.

Today a number of police officers were shot and three killed in Baltimore because a lone Marine felt that no one was listening to the plight of the African American community.  That the protests and videos simply aren't working.  And while he was horribly, evilly wrong to think that shooting officers solves the problems, this documentary shows that he was right about one thing-- no one ever listens.

 The oppression doesn't change.