Wargasm: Titus and the Aesthetics of Bloodlust

Talk presented on 21 November 2003.

Titus (Julie Taymor, 1999)

Nearly a century ago, the cinematic medium was decried as low culture, a vulgar form of mass entertainment that could not be taken seriously, much less considered art. We have since moved forward from such simplistic notions, recognizing the potentials of certain films to reach aesthetic heights. To use contemporary examples from animation, for every crass (but no less artistic) South Park: Bigger Longer Uncut, there is always a respectable Beauty and the Beast to match it.

What is important to consider, however, is that cultural valuation is always historically determined and therefore subject to change. Today, we refer to films like Casablanca and Hitchcock's Psycho as classics, but during the time of their respective releases, the former was considered a sappy and maudlin little melodrama and the latter a particularly cheap and lurid depiction of perversion.

Around fifty years ago, the cinema realized that it could take on the traits of so-called high culture if it adapted literary classics, which of course, as the very label suggests, already partook of a certain air of respectability. Indeed, when an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls was released in 1943, it did not have to struggle for respectability the way I Walked with a Zombie (never mind that this had elements of Jane Eyre) had to in the same year.

The film that we're watching today is an adaptation, of Shakespeare no less, one of the major cultural figures who is perhaps one of the foremost people who come to mind when we think of high culture. Instead of a recognized classic like Hamlet or A Midsummer Night's Dream, however, today's film is an adaptation of Titus Andronicus, the Bard's earliest attempt at tragic drama. Literary critics have often admitted that this tragedy is his first and his worst.

Titus Andronicus has long been seen as a viciously obscene little play, one that critics of our time have cited as proof that Shakespeare was perhaps the Quentin Tarantino of his time. Sex and violence, indeed, violent sexuality and sexualized violence, are major elements in this work. This conflation of sex and violence, the disturbing union of the seductive and the repulsive, is precisely the reason why I chose to screen this film for you today.

In 1991, the year of the first Gulf War, a French philosopher named Jean Baudrillard (whose name might be familiar to you from the appearance of one of his books in the first Matrix film) wrote a rather provocative essay entitled "The Gulf War Did Not Exist." A lot of people were outraged, especially those who had lost loved ones in the conflict, but Baudrillard was not simply writing in the spirit of heartless denial. What he was trying to say was that, for the majority of the world's population, the Gulf War was not a war per se, but a media spectacle, characterized not by death and destruction but by colorfully flashing lights on television, reminiscent of an entertaining video game.

Indeed, this is arguably a dominant characteristic of our world today. Reality is being supplanted by the image, by the representation, to create what Baudrillard referred to as a state of hyperreality. It becomes increasingly difficult to experience things as they are, because we are constantly besieged by things as they appear, especially on mass media. Witnessing the first Gulf War as a series of flashing lights on television detaches us from the harsh realities of armed conflict; it desensitizes us to such an extreme that we actually find ourselves impressed by the beauty of what we see, even as we realize that this beauty must be artificially prepared for our home entertainment.

This brings us to the key (and admittedly quite provocative) word in the title of this ACP lecture—"wargasm"—which I believe is a highly appropriate neologism to explore the so-called aesthetics of bloodlust. A less controversial term that we could use in place of wargasm would be what the left-wing social critic Walter Benjamin referred to as the fascist aesthetic. This was what he used to refer to the phenomenon where destruction is made beautiful and appealing. Indeed, Benjamin himself further specifies the fascist aesthetic as our own glorification of our own destruction, somewhat analogous to a society gleefully enjoying the final spasms brought about by some form of mass suicide.

In other words, and perhaps this is a good time to refer back to wargasms, we get off watching our once-precious values being eroded. Our pulse quickens and so does our breath, and we feel an unmistakable excitement as we watch scenes of carnage unfold before our very eyes, gleeful voyeur-participants of the spectacle of mass violence. Such experiences isolate us from the social consequences of these events, and I believe that the wargasm is less analogous to the union that results from sexual intercourse than it is to the self-absorbed practice of masturbation. We may be watching an orgy of violence, but we participate in it in isolated little circle jerks.

Titus is a film that revels in this bloodlust, and much of the depicted obscenities of both sex and violence in the film is in fact taken from the supposedly respectable William Shakespeare. What Julie Taymor does however, in her debut film right after her stint directing the stage adaptation of Disney's The Lion King and before her recently-released Frida, is to relish in these perversions, and I guess it's as good a time as any to warn you right now that the film you will watch is shocking and even offensive at several points, both in its depicted obscenities and the black humor which is drawn from them, as well as its flagrant violation of cinematic convention.

Set during the time of Ancient Rome, after a victory against a Germanic tribe of Gothic barbarians, the film begins with the implied detached violence of war in distant lands to a relentless dive into a disturbingly intimate violation of our homes, ensuring that our distanced perspective is shattered as the bloodshed sets itself uncomfortably close to where we are. You may find it rather odd that I use the pronoun "our" in this discussion, but the truth of the matter is that the film violates the expected unity of setting of traditional theatre and conventional cinema.

The film in fact begins in a generic suburban home such as can be found in this day and age, with a young boy indulging bloodthirsty fantasies via a messy little battle he stages with his toys on the dining table. This boy is our surrogate, our representative in the film, and this is the most fundamental way in which we are immersed into this cinematic world: by providing us with a point of identification within the narrative itself.

When the boy is taken to Ancient Rome, we realize that what the filmmaker actually conjured up in Titus is a strange combination of elements taken from various historical periods. Ancient Roman military garb can be seen with 1940s tanks, jazz music plays in the background as characters cavort in outfits reminiscent of 1970s glam rock, and actors speaking the archaic tongue of Shakespearean English populate 20th-century locations (including a video arcade and buildings originally designed for fascist leader Benito Mussolini). As you watch the film, you will recognize certain iconic images from cinema history, ranging from Marilyn Monroe to Hannibal Lecter.

This aesthetic principle of anarchic anachronism is of course similar to what Baz Luhrmann has done in Moulin Rouge and his own adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, but in Titus, Julie Taymor makes use of these elements not so much to make her film more accessible to the so-called MTV Generation but to make it serve as an assault on our jaded and media-saturated sensibilities. If, as I said earlier, the wargasm is all about masturbation, Taymor uses her film as a funhouse mirror, showing us the twisted reflections that reveal us for the grotesque little perverts that we are.

All this happens on the textual level, but in our world here, where we exist, presently seated in the Communication Studio of the Ateneo, Ancient Rome is not that distant. Like that long-gone civilization, we consider ourselves to be orderly and disciplined, more organized than previous generations. But our own bloodlust is quite unmistakable, and our addiction to the wargasm is equally undeniable.

The highly-disciplined and law-upholding Romans made use of panem et circenses to appease the citizenry—bread and circuses, a constant supply of food and other goods for comfortable living as well as providing for the spectacle of gladiator combat. So too are we caught in a parallel cycle of materialism and consumerism, voyeurism and onanism. All of these results in, at the very least, our passive acceptance of the erosion of our civilization by chaos and mayhem, and at most, our wanton glee as we bomb ourselves back to the Stone Age.

The power of a film such as Titus, a prime example of the cinema of excess, lies in how it successfully bombards us with these pictures of disturbing beauty. At some points in the film, you will be awestruck by the exquisitely dreamlike imagery. At other points, you will cringe with disgust at the perversions enacted onscreen. And in the best parts, you will find yourself experiencing both sensations simultaneously, a complex reaction to a complex film that serves to keep you aware of the dangers of desensitization to the seductive brutality of mediated violence.

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