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Death in the afternoon: Harry Lennix and Angus Macfadyen star in Titus.


A renowned wine expert matches wits--and wines--with 'Titus'

By David Templeton

Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a review; rather, it's a freewheeling discussion of life, alternative ideas, and popular culture.

"IF I HAD TO SELECT a wine to go with a human-head pie," muses Dennis Overstreet, "which wine would I choose?" An unusual problem, to be sure, and one that Overstreet, an expert at matching the perfect fine wine with a particular food and event, has never been asked to solve. Until now.

As the owner/proprietor of Beverly Hills' landmark 21-year-old store The Wine Merchant, Overstreet has won the nickname "wine consultant to the stars," with a clientele ranging from Johnny Carson to Mick Jagger. These names and others, along with wine tips galore, appear in Overstreet's hip and helpful book Overstreet's New Wine Guide: Celebrating the New Wave in Winemaking (Clarkson Potter, 1999).

In this sharp and witty book, the sly-humored author ably demonstrates his encyclopedic knowledge of all the world's wines.

With this in mind, Overstreet has agreed to a little experiment. Having just seen the awe-inspiring film Titus--in which the aforementioned human-head pie figures rather prominently--the master is now prepared to suggest the appropriate libation.

"I've considered this carefully," says Overstreet, a tall, Gary Cooperish fellow with a deep, authoritative baritone. "I've picked the wine that I think is the perfect metaphorical companion for this entire film. I'd suggest a Mouton Cadet."

A Mouton Cadet, for those unfamiliar with such things, is a light-bodied red wine from the Bordeaux region of France--and not an expensive wine at that.

In fact, there are those who would cringe at calling Mouton Cadet a wine at all, just as there are those literary purists who would cringe at linking Titus--a truly sensational film, starring Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange and adapted from William Shakespeare's ultra-obscure Titus Andronicus--to William Shakespeare.

True, Titus remains faithful to the story and text of the Bard's bloodiest play--packed to the sinews with murders, beheadings, amputations, orgies, rapes, mutilations, and cannibalism. But director Julie Taymor has tossed poor Titus Andronicus (Hopkins), general of the Roman army, into a phantasmagorical stew of shifting times and eras, with Hopkins wearing battle-scarred armor in the early scenes and a white chef's coat and hat for the climactic pie scene.

Lange (as the vengeful Queen of the Goths) appears in a cage on a horse-drawn cart, wearing heavy-metal S&M duds, while her paramour, the new emperor (Alan Cumming), has a thing for black lipstick, dresses, and classic cars. The film opens, inexplicably, with an agitated boy wearing a helmet made of a brown paper bag, trashing his kitchen as he plays with creepy action figures.

"Maybe if Titus Andronicus was adapted differently, I'd pick a different wine," says Overstreet, "but the way the movie was envisioned, that bit with the little boy wearing a brown paper bag on his head--to me it right away suggests Mouton Cadet. This is a wine that really belongs in a brown paper bag."

Ouch. "It's the perfect metaphor to go with that ending scene," he adds, laughing delightedly. "If you're more into tricks than treats, Mouton Cadet would be the defining wine." Another ouch. But there's more.

"Because it is a pie--it isn't something that is dished up alongside some interesting garnish--this is going to demand a very simple wine, a wine you'd want to just take a goblet full of, rather than swilling it around and sniffing at it," he adds. "Because it's a pie you're going to enjoy it with, you'll want to just grab that goblet and let yourself become a giraffe. You'll want to just swallow the wine and let it go down your throat, bypassing your stomach and cascading right down to your liver."

Which (come to think of it) is more or less what the film does.

"I really didn't know what to expect," says Overstreet. "I was left bewildered and sick, annoyed and amused, but somewhat deeply reflective. It's the kind of movie that makes you sit and go 'Wow!'"

Indeed. And those "wows" are not limited to the banquet scene; wows and gasps and squeals and jolts are equally distributed throughout the film. Take the eye-opening orgy scene, where the Goth queen and the emperor preside over a sprawling entanglement of writhing bodies, decadent food . . . and plenty of wine.

"This seems like more of a Burgundian event," Overstreet observes. "I do see a Burgundy for this orgy, something akin to a Corton or a Volnay. Something very fresh and full of pinot noir, just gobs and gobs of fruit. It should be a very young Burgundy, a Burgundy so youthful that even Roman Polanski wouldn't like it.

"Because a Burgundy is an orgy," he elaborates, "an orgy of delicious fruit. Imagine a million raspberries all dropped in your mouth at once. If you press your cheeks the fruit's going to explode in a wonderful, wonderful, delightful Burgundian orgy of flavors. Imagine it running down your wrists as you wipe it from your mouth.

"That," he says, "would be very appropriate for an orgy. At an event of this nature you could even flash the label."

Overstreet seems to be stuck on red wines at the moment. When that's pointed out to him, he agrees, saying, "It just seems like a red-wine movie to me. Or maybe I simply want to get Anthony Hopkins away from the Chianti and fava beans."

Overstreet, fully inspired, has one final suggestion.

"There should be a requirement that theaters be allowed to serve some sort of alcoholic beverage with this film, before, during, and after," he suggests. "In fact, alcohol should be required during the orgy scene and the banquet scene. Just to smell these wines and swallow these flavors at all those key moments--it would add so much to the magic."

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From the March 30-April 5, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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