Completed & Watched: Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing
William Shakespeare
1598-99, England

Much Ado About Nothing
2012 – US
Joss Whedon, Dir.

Much Ado About Nothing is perhaps my favorite Shakespearean play of those I’ve met so far. I’d previously seen it–at least the 1993 Kenneth Branagh version; I can’t recall if I’ve ever seen it live, although the lack of definite memory here suggests not–and so when I read that a new version was coming out, as well as the many positive early reviews, I knew I’d have to see it. And that perhaps it was time for a read (it’s on my  Classics Club list, after all). However, there was just one little problem–despite a general release in June, it wasn’t until the last week of August that the film made it into my neck of the woods.  Thank goodness for independent theaters!

I am very happy that I read the play over the two weeks prior to seeing the film. I don’t believe I’ve ever so close together read a Shakespeare play and then watched it. Such a method strikes me as perhaps one of the best ways to appreciate his work–although I’m not sure the order matters. (Or perhaps it should be read-watch-read or watch-read-watch?) Although I have been reading Shakespeare long enough–and the near-contemporaneous King James (Authorized) translation of the Bible–that Elizabethan language is no longer as difficult as it once was (sometimes I find I don’t need all the footnotes), there are still so many references which are now-obscure that even in the watching the meaning may be lost. Although, of course, the acting and directing may go a long way towards conveying meaning. So in this manner, the reading is helpful. But at the same time, Shakespeare is so sparse in his stage notes, and the action is at times so fast-paced, that to merely read the plays can feel like a short-change. At least for me. Perhaps others have better imaginations for such things.

Now, the play itself. Oddly (maybe not so oddly?), I find I have little to say, even after both reading and watching. Perhaps this is why we so rarely study the comedies in school; it is easier to find topics of conversation in the tragedies (or perhaps we have that much bloodlust, that the tragedies slake our thirst?) and more difficult to discuss that which is already entertaining–with or without thoughtful investigation.

The plot revolves primarily around two pairings: Hero and Claudio, the acknowledged couple, and Beatrice and Benedick, who spend a fair portion of the play in a “merry war” of words and wit. Were this all we could not have a play, so no, their friends must plot to bring Beatrice and Benedick together and their enemies to keep Hero and Claudio apart–viciously, in a means that could destroy Hero’s virtue, a truly devastating outcome in the Shakespearian era. (But don’t worry–this one’s a comedy!)

One thing I did find of note was how contemporary, in a way, this play feels. Human nature is much the same now as then, sentiments are much the same, even if Shakespeare uses fine, flowing words to convey them:

…for it so fall out
That what we have we prize not to the worth
Whiles we enjoy it, but being lacked and lost,
Why then we rack the value, then we find
The virtue that possession would not show us
Whiles it was ours.



… For, brother, men
Can counsel and speak comfort to that grief
Which they themselves not feel; but tasting it,
Their counsel turns to passions, which before
Would give preceptial medicine to rage,
Fetter strong madness in a silken thread,
Charm ache with air and agony with words.
No, no, ’tis all men’s office to speak patience
To those that wring under the load of sorrow,
But no man’s virtue nor sufficiency
To be so moral when he shall endure
The like himself. Therefore give me no counsel.
My griefs cry louder than advertisement.


(Interestingly, much of the play is in prose, but these passages from towards the end are in verse.)

Then also, while in much of Western culture female virginity is no longer such a prize as to the Elizabethans, cheating is still frowned upon and an acceptable reason for separation, whether a couple is dating or already married. And of course, it will be a never-ending truth of humanity that there will always be couples in love and those plotting to bring other couples together.

This timelessness of the play helped as I watched it–although at times the archaic language coming from people dressed in 21st century outfits and wielding smartphones seemed out-of-place, the story fit so well that at other times the language seemed perfectly natural. It was helped, too, I think, that the director offered the interpretation that for both sets of characters the relationships were pre-existing, taking away the rushed feeling of ‘love-at-first-sight-now-to-the-alter’ of so many of Shakespeare’s plays. (I’ve actually wondered if the plays are more apt to feel rushed when read as compared to watched–that the conventions of the stage make the time frames seem reasonable?)

There are two things I am curious about. The first is how obsessed the male characters seemed with the idea of wives being faithless–almost assumed as a given. Was adultery indeed so very common in the late 1500s? Was there some new societal upheaval that magnified men’s fears? Or is it merely a plot device, provided early to foreshadow the complication of the play? My second curiosity is that Benedick, of no connection to Hero or her father, but friend to Claudio’s mentor Leonato, is the first primary character (saving Beatrice) to readily believe in Hero’s innocence. Even her father believes the slander. Is this because of Benedick’s connection to Beatrice, that he feels the need to be loyal to her cause? Or does his distance from the romance of Claudio and Hero allow him, as with the priest, to see more clearly what is happening? (And more clearly the true nature of Don John.)

I feel somehow, again, a poor reader, that I cannot begin to form a definite opinion of what is going on. I can readily say that I like the play, and the film version, but I almost feel as if I need a better knowledge of Shakespeare’s world before I can better understand the motivations of the characters. Perhaps another topic for investigation…

On Film: Cría cuervos

Cría cuervos
1976 – Spain
Carlos Saura, writer & director

I’m going to be upfront and say that I didn’t enjoy watching Cría cuervos. Note the deliberate choice of verb there—I do not mean to say I think Cría cuervos is a bad film, on the contrary, I think it quite a good one, especially the more I think about it; it is just not a film that I take delight in.

My dissatisfaction in part I think is a measure of Saura’s success: he seeks to represent the tense family dynamics of a trio of sisters—most prominent the rebellious Ana, their aunt, and grandmother, largely confined behind the walls of their home and to strict societal expectations. The movie takes on a claustrophobic feel—everyone is trapped, there is no escape but death. It is bleak. There seems little hope. And so I couldn’t “enjoy” it, at least not in the traditional sense.

I will admit, I have almost no context for this film. I am almost completely unfamiliar with the history of 1970s Spain or with the cinema (European or otherwise) of the era. According to the accompanying DVD essay, Cría cuervos was filmed during the last days of the Franco regime. Did Saura mean for the sisters trapped by loss and rules to represent the Spanish people? Or is this a simple study of the relationships between family members made unhappy by circumstances beyond their control? Just as with literature, I suspect that good film has multiple layers and meaning that can be read depending on the viewer.

I watched Cría cuervos as part of the watchalong for Spanish Language Literature Month, hosted by Stu and Richard. Richard links to other opinions HERE.

On Film: The Artist

The Artist theatrical posterThe Artist
2011 – France
Michel Hazanavicius, director
Jean Dujardin

The Artist seems an appropriate starting point for my Cinematic Treasures project: a film that touches past and present, one that comes from another country while solidly set in Hollywood, a story of both nostalgia and hope for the future.

It’s been quite a few weeks now since I actually saw The Artist. I’d been waiting since January, at least, hoping that it would play at my local independent theater. I couldn’t bear the thought of seeing a black and white mostly silent film in an impersonal cineplex. No, I needed to see it in an old theater, a theater contemporaneous to the setting of the movie, a theater still with its organ, its seats, its decoration all original. The Artist couldn’t possibly be a “true” film of the silent era, its soundtrack must accompany it—I can’t imagine too many theaters are left that could support accompanying musicians. But my theater could if needed, the organ still plays—still played old tunes before this movie, will accompany The General (Buster Keaton, 1926) in an upcoming showing.

The Artist is a throwback to the silent era, black and white, largely “silent” (that is, without spoken word), the story told by expression and intertitles and music. I’ve read that last year was a year that celebrated the movies, with entries such as Hugo and The Artist. I’m guessing—I can’t say for sure as my knowledge of silent film is so limited—but I’m guessing that there are many references, little tips of hat to acknowledge The Artist‘s ancestors. The ratio of the screen (nearly square). The circular fade out. The exaggerated expressions. Even the opening scenes, which I loved—a movie premiere, the audience dressed to the nines, the orchestra playing below—seem to long for days gone by.

I liked The Artist very much. It was charming (that seems to be one of my favorite words this year, doesn’t it?); it was witty. I actually didn’t realize how funny it would be before I saw it. (This, incidentally, is an argument for seeing a movie like The Artist in a theater, or at least with a large group of people: humor in silent films seems to play better when there are many people to laugh with—it only takes one person to get the laughter started.) The story is not unusual: A film star, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), at the top of his career meets a fan, Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), just starting hers. As her star rises, his falls. And so it goes. Of course, in this film, there is a third star, Jack the dog (Uggie). Whether performing in one of the movies within a movie or as part of the overall story line, he could be counted on to steal the scene.

I don’t know enough about film yet to know if Noticing the Elements (Techniques?) means a good film or a bad film or simply a viewer who is thinking too much rather than just absorbing. Regardless, I noticed some things here. It is well paced, oh so very well paced. Perhaps I am simply too restless, but I can lose focus on a movie easily, especially a silent film, but (other than noting that a nearby audience member was snoring!) I didn’t lose focus here, it didn’t drag. The use of “sound”—music, effects, and (spoiler alert) a teeny bit of talking!—was deliberate, focused. It meant something. I don’t think you can completely understand the movie, if you don’t understand how sound is used in it. (But it is not difficult to understand this.)

Thinking about sound and how it is used here, how it is used in other movies, leads to other thoughts, but they are only half-formed speculations on how we watch movies, how we understand them. Do we, in a sense, “read” silent films?—I don’t mean the intertitles, rather the film itself, the action on screen, the expressions. And for that matter, given the highly visual nature of all film, silent or not, do we also read “talkies?” Film is such a multifaceted medium, that I don’t know if I can actually say that. For instance, even in silent films, the use of sound (by the house orchestra, or the on-DVD soundtrack) can be integral to how we relate to and understand the film, so perhaps saying I “read” a film suggests a visual bias. Or perhaps this leads to the definition of good film vs. bad film, that good film successfully integrates all aspects while bad film doesn’t? I think perhaps these are questions to carry through with me while I investigate films past and present.