After watching Joss Whedon’s screen adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, I went home and went on Twitter and wanted to send a tweet to Amy Acker and tell her how much I enjoyed her presentation of Beatrice. I wanted to say in less than 140 words that I’ve seen other women attempt this role from Emma Thompson to a fellow classmate back in college and I’ve lost count how many other ladies in between and though I’m far from an aficionado, Amy Acker’s portrayal is the best I’ve seen thus far. She really gets Beatrice on a level I didn’t think was even possible, and more importantly she can present that to an audience in a way that.. well words just fail me. And that’s my problem. I remember sitting there with that blank twitter field staring me back daring me to tweet Amy Acker anything that resembled English.
BEATRICE: Speak Count. Tis your cue.
CLAUDIO: Silence is the perfectest herald of joy!
And to Joss Whedon himself surely I could tweet something more than a snarky comment. Nope. Nuttin’. He did all that for his audience and the best compliment I have in return is the eight and a half bucks i spent at The Angelica.
This variant on Much Ado About Nothing is intimate, inviting, accessible, down to Earth yet whimsical, elegant, fun… go see it if you haven’t already and then come back cuz if you keep reading I might spoil it for you in these words. Granted, it’s a play written five hundred years ago. Chances are you already know how it ends. If you don’t, stop reading and then come back after you saw it… Go. Shoo…
Seen it? Awesome wasn’t it?
It’s a party. Joss Whedon has found in The Bard the absolute best party planner in the universe, and with Shakespeare’s assistance, Whedon has invited all of humanity over to his house for drinks, games, and a little conversation. In case you haven’t already read about this, this is literally his home. He filmed the entire movie on location on the same place where he raised his kids and hangs his hat. Or that’s the story he’s telling us and I could go into my spiel about not believing in Paris here but suffice to say if he’s lying, he’s gone out of his way to play that charade and I say let him. It’s likely his house, and that is significant. This alone is a powerful artistic statement. Most viewers may not realize this or take it to heart, but I feel this matters on multiple levels. Joss Whedon has personally invited his fans, and total strangers, into this home, where he’s putting on a little, shall we say, shindig?
In interviews, Whedon has dismissed this choice out of economic concerns. It was cheaper to film on his own property than it would have been to build sets from scratch, or do the location scout thing that most movies do. However, when we see Benedick, Claudio and Don Pedro walk into the room which has been allotted them to stay by their friend Leonato, it’s two kiddie beds and a room filled with stuffed animals. That’s both a brilliant genius of a visual gag (which i don’t recall seeing anyone else who has produced this play even think to do this) and it’s also a poignant statement. Are these stuffed animals actually his children’s toys or is he exaggerating a bit here for the visual gag? Again, it’s likely he is just using what was already there. He makes a point to include the plush toys several times throughout the film. This is intentional. He is using his own house to say something very intimate about Leonato and his family. So on one level, this is Joss Whedon being very intimate with us, his viewership. However, on another level, this is Joss Whedon communicating to us what Leonato’s intentions have been since before Don Pedro’s men arrived at fair Messina (where we lay our scene..)
The owner of this house (Leonato) has intentionally invited these three war heroes to his home with the express intention of wedding his daughters to them. We learn there’s a history here already. However, Benedic and Claudio did not put a ring on these girls fingers before they ran off to war. Now they have returned fresh from victory and their thoughts turn to love but it’s not without a gentle push here and there. Claudio doesn’t take much convincing. Benedic is a little more resistant. Make no mistake however; Leonato is intentionally giving Don Pedro’s most loyal men the physical location where his girls grew up, so that these men will understand intimately how much these girls mean to their papa/uncle.
This is what Claude and Ben fought for. It’s what they put their lives on the line to preserve and protect. Now they come home successful and reap what they have sowed. This is very archaic, but it’s also simple human behavior. Much Ado About Nothing is actually the end of one epic journey (battle) and the beginning of another (marriage). Most of the real action takes place off stage, before and after the play itself. This is where family of blood meets family of choice. These are actually themes and concepts that Joss Whedon has used elsewhere in his works, from Buffy to Avengers. Love and war and how it affects people. How people affect one another. How they manipulate for both good and ill. Whedon has learned from others too, but a great deal of his storytelling technique can be attributed to The Bard.
In this telling of the story, Clark Gregg’s character Leonato is essentially a surrogate for Joss Whedon himself. Leonato’s home is actually the director/producer’s home. We have been invited into his home as his esteemed guests. Joss Whedon is showing us his best self. Just as Leonato puts on his best suit and greets Don Pedro with open arms and shares his bounty with his best most favored heroes of Messina, so too does Whedon welcome us into his abode with glad tidings and spreads the full measure of his being and ability for our countenance to bear.
I’m about to put words in Whedon’s mouth. These are not his, but I can’t help myself. “This is me. This is how I see the world. This is what I love (and sometimes hate) about humanity. We can agree to disagree here and there, but for now, let’s put aside our petty differences for they truly are much ado about nothing. Let’s party. Have some wine. Come. My brother and my sister-in-law whom I cherish have put together some music for your ears. I helped a little. Me and some friends have rehearsed a little play just for you. We found some acrobats..” When I watch this film, this is a sense of the message I get from Joss Whedon. He means this movie.
Avengers was what he had to do to pay bills and accomplish goals and do business in Hollywood and live up to expectations, etc. Much Ado About Nothing is what he wants to do, and it’s what he wants movies to really be about. Sure, war is exciting and all that, but so is the human condition. Let’s explore what happens between the explosions.
LEONATO: A kind overflow of kindness: there are no faces truer than those that are so washed. How much better is it to weep at joy than to joy at weeping!
Now, far be it for me to look a gift horse in the mouth, but I have, and I find that not only does she have all her teeth, but there is a bite to her melodic braying. We live in troubled times. So did Shakespeare. Love. Revenge. Betrayal. Pride. War. Fidelity. Honor. Disgrace. Jealousy. Envy. Security. Wealth. Family of blood versus family of choice. These are timeless concepts, but how we address these concepts today is not always exactly how they were addressed five hundred years ago. Unless perhaps you reside in the Middle East. I read in the news all the time how women on the other side of the world are often beaten and raped and mutilated and suffer “honor killings” and even worse unspeakable things. Indeed, there are places closer to home where women are treated as less than human and barely more than pets or slaves. We like to imagine we are more civilized today than we were in Shakespeare’s time or even in Caesar’s time. However, evidence does not always confirm those beliefs.
When Claudio turns on Hero during their wedding with Don John’s accusations of infidelity and then Hero’s own father Leonato questions her purity, my mind’s eye viscerally flashed on all those reports of women in burquas half a world away being disfigured and stoned to death and exiled shamefully or imprisoned forcefully for similar accusations.
LEONATO: Myself would, on the rearward of reproaches, strike at thy life! Grieved I, I had but one? Chid I for that at frugal nature’s frame? O, one too much by thee! Why had I one? Why ever wast thou lovely in my eyes?
This is why that happens. These timeless concepts of the human condition, which were prevalent in Shakespeare’s time and in some parts of the world are just as prevalent today. Maybe this is not how I live. Maybe this is not how most people live in my home town or home state or home country, but there’s probably families just down the street from where I live who live by moral codes that are more like that of Leonato’s and Claudio’s than I think should be in civilized 21st century America. Still, this happens. And Much Ado About Nothing illustrates why and how this still happens. Human beings are frail and fragile and shallow and easily duped, and we don’t always learn. For all our pros we have just as many cons.
My brain connected those dots in that movie theater the other day with a searing brand, like a hot iron fresh out of the fire. I heard others in the theater gasp and weep. My blood ran cold. I think I just stopped breathing for a bit. When Hero fainted, I wanted to too. Shamed so I was of our human condition. Now, understand this is not out of surprise, per se. I’ve read this play once or twice in my lifetime. I’ve seen it performed many times both on stage and screen. The plot is familiar to me. Hero fainting is not what surprised me. Whether intentional or not, Whedon somehow helped me connect this time honored classic to today’s headlines. He drove this play home to me in a way no one else ever has before. The Bard is far more timely and accessible than we want to believe, and this may not be a good thing.
When Hero’s father threatens her life for shaming his family name, one can see how fathers from Afghanistan to Arkansas suffer similar shame. I read newspapers about domestic violence and can’t imagine how any person could wind themselves up so to unleash such fury and pain on their own loved ones, but if one’s buttons get pushed, perhaps anyone is capable of going too far and losing sight of what truly is important.
In real life (or at least in newspapers and what passes for news on TV nowadays) sometimes the accusations of infidelity or other shameful behavior are accurate. Sometimes they are baseless slander. That’s not the point. The point is when a father raises his hand in anger at his own flesh, that hand does not always lower with compassion and mercy. Sometimes the father’s community will even join him to aid in the chore of ridding this blight on his honor. In some societies alive today, a rich man’s honor is still more valuable than a young lady’s life.
This violent behavior on women is NEVER warranted, but that doesn’t stop it from happening, and it doesn’t stop people from rationalizing that it is warranted. It happened centuries ago which is why Shakespeare used this kind of behavior in his plays, and it still goes on today. Shakespeare named this play Much Ado About Nothing for a reason, and Joss Whedon left that title alone for a host of reasons. Fortunately, in Shakespeare’s Comedies, people usually never die. In reality, we know there’s often not a happy ending.
As a 21st century divorced male, I feel women should be allowed to express their sexuality on their own terms, without interference from their family or society. However, I’m not a father. I don’t have a room in my house filled with stuffed toys smelling of perfume and pink frilly stuff. If I were a father, I’d invest in chastity belts and double barreled shot guns. So maybe 1599 and Shakespeare are not that far removed from 2013 and you and me at all.
Mighty fine shindig, Mister Shiny. Thanks for the party.
Ms. Acker? You render me speechless, which isn’t my preferred demeanor. Excellent work.
Strike up the pipers!