Much Adon’t Know About Nothing

I am not overly fond of modernized adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, but when it is for the right play, and for the right modern setting,  it can be done very well.  I once saw an adaptation of Macbeth at the Hippodrome theater in Gainesville, Florida, which the director set in a sort of post-apocalyptic landscape.  Aside from one incident (a large, cross dressing man wearing a boa strutted out onto stage during the middle of one scene, without reciting any lines, while dancing to stripper music), the effect was quite energizing, what with the players all dressed up in leather jackets, a la Mad Max.  I worked, of course, because the cultural distance between the ethos of 12th (or 16th) century Scottish lairds is not so far removed from that of modern biker or street gangs.  Thus, a modern audience has little problem recognizing the dramatic flashpoints in the story, since the world of the play is still close enough to that of our own moral imaginations.

I was thinking of that performance the other day while watching Joss Whedon’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. Shot over 12 days at Whedon’s mansion in California, and filmed in black and white, Whedon’s Much Ado has garnered much praise, much of it seconded by friends and writers I respect.  The cast consists mostly of actors who have worked with Whedon before, either in film or on one of his many television shows (Alexis Denisof & Amy Acker from Angel, Sean Maher & Nathan Filion from Firefly, among many others).  The film is quite impressive visually, and deserving of all the praise critics have heaped upon it.  But most importantly, the film basically lets Shakespeare’s words stand, without too much cutting for the purposes of time.  On the whole, it is a lovely production, and a credit to Whedon’s talents.

And yet…there is that whole matter of culture.  Again.  As two perceptive reviewers have noted, there is tension in the film throughout, caused primarily by the disconnect between the 21st century visual setting of the play, and its 16th century material.  To whit, for those uninitiated into the Bard’s repertoire, the main conflict of the play is between Don John and his brother Don Pedro; Don John accuses a young woman named Hero, whom Don Pedro has wooed for Claudio, a young protege of his, of being adulterous, in order to harm his honor.  Given alleged proof, Don Pedro and Claudio publicly renounce Hero, and her father Leonato threatens to kill her for dishonoring herself and the family.  (Don’t worry; it turns out all right in the end; eventually Don John is found out and the play ends with two marriages.)  The play, then, turns on three very important things in an aristocratic society, shaped by classical and Christian ideals:  honor, chastity and marriage.

Needless to say, there could not be a greater difference between the meanings associated with these three words than between the way Shakespeare and his contemporaries understood them and the way people in California, circa 2013, understand them.  And the effect is quite jarring, at least to me; I simply didn’t know what to think, when Hero was accused;  she faints, and ominous music plays,  but the first scene of the film is a shot of Benedick, played by Denisof, leaving Beatrice’s bed, fresh from having made love, as if it were no big deal.  So who cares if Hero gets some on the side.  Its 2013!  The contradiction between Shakespeare’s words and Whedon’s images is so stark, it must have been purposeful, but it left me scratching my head the whole time.  Was Whedon slyly mocking the whole idea of honor, chastity?  Or was he as oblivious to the contradiction as many reviewers seem to be?  The whole experience has left me perplexed about how to describe the film.  I’m sure I felt a great deal of pleasure, listening to the words, reacquainting myself with the story.  But film is a visual medium, and images tend to predominate in the mind afterwards, to move the story forward.  And good Lord, it was almost like watching two different stories being performed simultaneously; one, set in the 16th century, against another playing it out in the present, both of them completely contradictory to the other.

What is interesting is that both of the reviewers I cite above register their relative displeasure with the movie.  The first, James Bowman, has written a book on honor, and simply couldn’t get past the contradiction between the visuals and the words.  The second, Noah Millman, just thought the film kind of tame, and slowed down by Shakespeare’s language, a good point considering snappy dialogue is one of Whedon’s trademarks.

My reaction was different, in that I found myself pretty much riveted to the screen, but baffled as to what the ultimate message of the thing was. I guess that was basically Millman’s point too, but it seemed to ruin his enjoyment of it. Maybe being a literature major cum British historian means you can never be bored by any presentation of Shakespeare, no matter how culturally confused it may seem to you. But that’s where I agree with Bowman most: the story of Much Ado makes no sense outside of the cultural ideals that Shakespeare presumed, or at least ones very similar. Millman disagreed, which I find interesting; Bowman wrote a book on honor, but Millman is an economic conservative that supports same sex marriage. Makes me wonder how much ideology conditions our responses to these things. I normally express my befuddlement at the whole idea of “same sex marriage” with references to Charlie Brown’s mother: whenever I hear advocates talk about two men or women “marrying,” all I seem to hear is them saying “wah-wah wah wah” over and over again. But now, thanks to Joss Whedon, I have a much more visceral and immediate image to hand; I can just have them watch Much Ado About Nothing, and watch as people use words which are written for one purpose and have one set of meanings, being used in the mouths of people who are acting as if they had a totally different set of meanings. I would say this is an indication of severe cognitive dissonance, except that one has to be aware that words like “marriage” can have a completely different set of meanings than those preferred by the majority in a democratic society in order to experience such a thing. Which, alas, is something it seems is becoming harder and harder for people to recognize. Like Whedon’s film, their ideas of “marriage” seem to be both everything and nothing at the same time. Shakespeare’s title hinted at the word “nothing” as a slang word for female genitalia, while in Whedon’s hands it seems to be quite literal–the film really is about nothing at all, since its own images contradict the meaning of the play’s words. But I doubt I could get many of the film’s admirers to believe that–after all, everybody else says its just delightful, and what need we inquire further after such assurance?



Alypius Minor

~ by Alypius on August 4, 2013.

One Response to “Much Adon’t Know About Nothing”

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