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: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (spoiler free)

Hobbit1The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
2012 – New Zealand
Peter Jackson, director

Seeing as I just posted my thoughts on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and seeing as I had finally gotten around to rereading it based upon part 1 of the film adaptation opening yesterday, I thought it would be fitting to share some of my thoughts about the film itself. Or at least part one: what no one’s saying in the critique of director Peter Jackson’s and the studio’s decision to divvy the movie up into three parts is that the worst part is not the length; the worst is that the fans must wait until the summer of 2014 to see the whole thing!

That said, I will admit that I was a little leery going into this movie based upon that three-movie decision: I could see two films (after all, Tolkien’s descriptions of the battle scenes audiences seem to love are a little, shall we say, scant), but three seemed a bit overkill. Then the early reviews started to come in, calling it lengthy, bloated, boring. Well. One of three things must have happened: 1) the critics and I saw different films or 2) the critics could only imagine the decision for three films based upon dollar signs and so had already decided the movie must be bloated or 3) those of us who have read and love the book have an inbuilt appreciation for every single part of the book and so cannot find the bloat in including it all. This isn’t too say there weren’t a couple scenes I wouldn’t have cut or shortened (I thought the prologue was trying just a little too hard to make the connection to the The Fellowship of the Ring adaptation, and I think that a later part of the storyline involving back-story could have been condensed), but nothing that would have substantially shortened the length of the film. Leaving the theater, I couldn’t believe myself, but I thought that three parts made sense! And I certainly didn’t find it long or boring.

One of the challenges with book-to-movie adaptations is what to change, what to leave the same, what to leave out. Usually, someone is left unhappy: the fans are upset at a change or differing interpretation, or the professional critics think the film was too faithful to the source material, to its detriment. I can only speak as one fan, but I liked many of the changes. (My brother wasn’t happy with a change to one back-story, although he acknowledged that he could see the filmmakers’ reasoning for doing so. I couldn’t remember this particular back-story, which came from the appendices to The Lord of the Rings rather than from The Hobbit, so it didn’t bother me.) In my post on the book, I alluded to the fact that it was reading The Silmarillion that really gave me the appreciation for the reasons for the troubled relations between the dwarves and the elves—here, rather than relying on the audience to know this background, Jackson made sure to provide an explanation. (This, incidentally, could have been a bit of the film that some critics are calling “filler,” but I think the payoff is going to be in the second and third parts, where we will really see the importance of this knowledge.) Also, there was one part of the book that always felt a bit deus ex machina-ish to me, and here it was oh-so-slightly altered so as to avoid this. I really liked that change, small as it was.

There has been much discussion of the 48 fps vs. 24 fps, and as it happened I saw The Hobbit at the faster frame rate (in 3D). I’m…on the fence. The picture was beautifully clear, but at the same time it sometimes seemed distracting. It was almost as if there was a sharper contrast than ever between foreground and background, which I suppose is the hyper-reality some are talking about. But while at times this took me out of simply enjoying the movie, at other times it faded away, and so part of me wonders if the issue is some sort of combination of even the film makers getting used to adjusting lighting+3D+frame rate all to fit together. Or maybe Peter Jackson is right, it’s just something the audience needs to get used to. Given my experience with The Two Towers, which I had to watch twice before I liked it (I haven’t the faintest clue why I thought it was a good idea to pay to see a movie twice I didn’t like the first time—but it remains the only film I’ve seen twice in theaters), I think if I went to see The Hobbit at the higher frame rate a second time I might not even notice.

Martin Freeman is perfect as Bilbo. Of course, I knew he would be when I was rereading the book. I’ve seen Freeman in several films/TV series and I could picture him perfectly as Bilbo as I was rereading. The dwarves tend to blend together (not helped by the fact that my mental pronunciation of their names is different than the film’s), although Balin is just as I imagined. Many of the non-dwarvish characters were in the Lord of the Rings films also, so, interpretation as expected, but one made an appearance I hadn’t been expecting, even if hindsight tells me I should have. I unexpectedly liked the goblin king. Sure he’s a baddie. Go figure. But I think that relates to the slightly different tone between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. As a children’s book, The Hobbit is lighter than the later novel, which delves into darker territory—evil is more evil, danger is more real. The film chooses to straddle this divide, providing what I felt was the right balance in connecting to the tone and character of The Lord of the Rings films while still infusing a certain lightheartedness into the story.

Visually, the artists’ imagination yet again exceeds mine. The prologue scenes…wow. When I think back to Tolkien’s words, the artists’ interpretations make sense, but I’m afraid my little brain doesn’t picture such grandeur as I read. Or it didn’t… For that matter, I’m really happy the film-makers included two of Tolkien’s poems as songs, as my little brain could only ever hear them as sing-songy—which is fine for a children’s book, I suppose, but knowing the darker world that The Hobbit fits into (from the other books), I like to hear versions of the poems that sound like they actually could be sung by real, adult dwarves, and not nursery-tale buffoons. (OK, yes, saying “real dwarves” might place me on the edge of sanity. But they’re real, I tell ya! 😉 ) I also appreciated the way the music itself tied the new trilogy with the old, incorporating themes from The Lord of the Rings even while adding new motifs for The Hobbit. Listening to the opening strains over the film-studio logos, I was right back to ten years ago, watching the first trilogy in the theaters.

Is the film perfect? Well, no. If it were I wouldn’t have any quibbles. I don’t know that those who disliked The Lord of the Rings films would like this any better, but I don’t feel that it’s any worse, at least as far as enjoyment goes. And sometimes that’s all that matters. (How soon will it be available on DVD, please?)

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.

A New Project and Other Notes

It was a glorious spring day today—not too hot, not too cold, full sun shining, a warm breeze—the perfect out-of-doors sort of day, even for those of us who aren’t very out-of-doorsy. And so I went on a bike ride with my parents (or, an ice cream trip justified by a bike ride, take your pick) on a nearby path, enjoying the weather and the birds and the flowers. Which means, I believe, five days in a row now that I haven’t read a word of any of the four books I’m currently reading, nor am I likely to read any tonight as my eyelids are already drooping. I do hope to do better this coming week, if for no other reason than impending library due dates, but I seem to be so scattered in my approach to everything lately, that I won’t hold my breath. However, I’m enjoying all my books, so I have no good excuses. Do feel free to hold me accountable…

I haven’t felt very bloggish of late either, despite a backlog of possible posts. (Nor have I been good at keeping up with my feed reader.) But I thought I should just behave a little and finally introduce a new project I’ve been thinking about since January. (Yes, January. I really do depend upon deadlines.)

This isn’t bookish, not exactly, although The Invention of Hugo Cabret provides much of my inspiration. If you are unfamiliar with the book, movies—especially early silent films—play an important role in the story, as one of the main characters is Georges Méliès, an early French film maker credited with a number of developments in the history of cinema. At the end of the book author Brian Selznick lists a number of early films, by Méliès and others, which were either mentioned in the novel or inspirational to its development. A light bulb went off, and I found myself ordering all the various films from the library. A short time later, Richard of Caravana de recuerdos introduced his Foreign Film Festival, and I knew a project was in sight.

Cinematic Treasures: A Viewing Project

Inspired by Hugo and reminded by Richard’s “festival” of my enjoyment of foreign film, I wish to attempt to watch more of two categories of films: 1) Movies that are deemed “classic” or “important” in the history of film and 2) foreign films. For me, “foreign” means anything not (originally) in English; I suppose I could classify British movies as foreign to me, but I watch so many British dramas on PBS that I can’t think of them as foreign even though from another country than I. As for “classic” or “important,” well, we all know what a can of worms that is involving books, so I suppose I mean those movies that can be pointed at as specifically influential or that are the ones everyone mentions over and over again. Or for that matter, just those movies that I particularly want to see. I’m not fussy about definitions. (Although, if it’s from the last say, 15 years or so, I probably won’t be talking about it.)

I mean this as an informal project. I don’t have a list of movies to see that I intend to post, and I may not blog about all the movies that I watch. There are no deadlines, no set goals, just a written reminder that I really want to see more of these films.

I do wish to request recommendations, especially for classic foreign films. What are the can’t miss movies from outside of the US? I’m particularly interested in Spanish- and Italian-language films, but I’ll take recommendations from anywhere, so long as I can find the movie without too much difficulty or expense. (I have a pretty nifty library system, so I can find a lot through it.) Don’t worry about what you think I might or might not like, as I’m not too picky if I think something’s worth it.

The biggest challenge for this project will be learning how to talk about movies, at least beyond “I liked it/I didn’t like it.” But as I said, it’s informal and meant to be entirely fun. Now, to find all those extra hours I’ll be needing…

Memories…Days Gone By

The theater is dimly lit, just enough light to find a seat, all stiff-backed and scarlet cushioned, polished wood arm rests gleaming in a reflected glow. The seats fan out from a pair of aisles that reach from glass-paned entry doors to protruding stage where an ornately decorated proscenium arch reveals red drapes framing the screen. Although a balcony shields the rear rows, up front one may watch clouds float by overhead, concealing and revealing stars surrounded by the ornate trappings of a Spanish courtyard. As the audience gathers, the smell of popcorn wafts through the air and the theater’s pipe organ croons “How High the Moon.”

It somehow seems fitting that I should have watched Being Elmo, a film that took me back to childhood, in this setting. Nearly demolished in the late 1970s, but granted a reprieve a week before the wrecking ball descended, the restored Canton Palace Theatre is today typically the only local theater to show art or foreign films. Much to my surprise and excitement, the most recent offering was a showing of Being Elmo, a documentary about the life of Elmo’s puppeteer, Kevin Clash.

Now, I don’t really remember Elmo from my days of Sesame Street watching; the monsters I remember were Cookie Monster and Grover, the latter my favorite Sesame Street inhabitant. According to Wikipedia, Elmo as voiced by Clash first appeared in 1985, so I almost certainly saw the furry red monster when I was little, but he apparently didn’t have near the popularity he does today. But I didn’t need to have fallen in love with Elmo as a child to mange to sit through the documentary with a ridiculous grin on my face nearly the entire time (some sad moments aside).

The story in Being Elmo is almost ordinary: a boy with a dream who works hard and achieves his dream with the attendant ups and downs. But there is something compelling about his dream that pulls one back to childhood and the realm of a thousand possibilities. Watching the adoring smiles of children, completely believing in Elmo’s reality despite the man behind him, seeing the archival footage of a young Clash meeting his idols and learning the secrets to their craft, following the path of his career as he gets closer and closer to meeting Henson and then ultimately working for Henson’s studios, I cannot help but grin. Or perhaps I really am just five.