Julie Taymor's Titus (1999): Framing Violence and Activating Responsibility

By Escoda Agusti, Clara | Atlantis, revista de la Asociación Española de Estudios Anglo-Norteamericanos, June 2006 | Go to article overview

Julie Taymor's Titus (1999): Framing Violence and Activating Responsibility


Escoda Agusti, Clara, Atlantis, revista de la Asociación Española de Estudios Anglo-Norteamericanos


This essay argues that Julie Taymor's film Titus (1999) offers a successful deconstruction of the violence in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus (1594), thus continuing the debate on the film's explicit violence. The essay begins by analyzing the added scenes that correspond to the visions and flashbacks of the protagonists, arguing that Taymor does not deconstruct violence by subverting its values and then pointing out alternative discourses or new patterns of interaction, but by reproducing it as a symptom of a larger, cultural reality. However, she also wants to actively implicate the audience in imagining alternative paths of conflict-resolution to the violence portrayed, and she does so by introducing the figure of the witness, with which the audience must identify. The witness characterizes itself by being able to empathize with difference, and this quality is visually represented by his androgynous look, as well as by his non-hierarchical mode of relating. Strategically, the witness's experiences are shown in a fragmented manner, thus, if the audience wants to provide closure, it must recreate the hidden story from these unconnected elements of repair. Finally, this exercise on the part of the audience acquires the same character of solitary responsibility as that of the witness with which it identifies.

Key words: identity, testimony, violence, media, intertextuality

We may begin this essay with a question: is Julie Taymor's film Titus (1999) a stylistic exercise which aims at deconstructing violence? David McCandless claims, for instance, that her off-Broadway stage production of Titus Andronicus (1994) was more successful in achieving a deconstruction of the violence in Shakespeare's text than the subsequent film: "the film, by contrast, uses violence as much as it interrogates it and grants the audience a significantly greater degree of control over contemporary anxieties" (2002: 490). He further states that "exceeding their function as post-traumatic visions, the three penny-arcade nightmares such as Lavinia's become merely extravagant exhibitions" (2002: 502). Taymor's off-Broadway production, indeed, used the device of a theatre-within-a-theatre to create a space where "strange, abstract tableaux depicted violated and transmogrified bodies ... de-familiarizing the use of violence as entertainment" (2002: 493). This article affirms, on the contrary, that Taymor both questions and deconstructs the discourses of our contemporary society which legitimate, or contribute to perpetuate, violence, and she does so through cinematic means. Indeed, Taymor portrays violence first naturalistically and then in a stylized manner, deliberately eliciting a "masochistic gaze" from the audience that identifies with the bodies maimed by violence, with the "form-altering physical trauma" of the protagonists (McCandless 2002: 488, 494). She does so particularly in a series of scenes which are not in Shakespeare's text, where she undercuts realism by means of flashbacks and visions of the experiences of violence the protagonists undergo. In these flashbacks, violence is portrayed in an hyperbolic, stylized manner, sometimes by making use of kitsch aesthetics, other times, as McCandless points out, by "overdressing and embellishing them" (2002: 490), and still other times by making use of the grotesque. In all instances, though, violence is de-familiarized and the audience's expectations are subverted as scenes of deep trauma are turned into what seems to be an apology of violence. As Elsie Walker has expressed in an article that comments on the film's naturalistic and stylized use of violence, "Titus prompts a more complicated response [than the one some critics have attributed to it], hovering between detachment and engagement" (2002: 197).

At moments such as these, where violence seems most out of control, Taymor freezes the frames, renders them in slow motion, and creates a tableau where violence is recognizable as a cultural phenomenon. …

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