Saturday, June 15, 2013

Thoughts on Much Ado about Nothing and The Great Gatsby

Thoughts on Much Ado about Nothing and The Great Gatsby

[I’m not planning on becoming a film critic, but I saw a few movies that inspired thought. During this busy work season, it is what I can muster.]

Joss Whedon took some time off last year between filming and editing the highest grossing film of all time, The Avengers. He gathered his friends and industry colleagues and filmed a production of Shakespeare’s Much ado about Nothing. The film has arrived in theaters.
The production reminds me of a story line in a book I’m rereading, Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger.  In the book the young adult children of wealthy early 18th century English merchants gather in the gardens of an estate to put on a production of The Tempest.  The film has the feeling of being a pastime, something to do in between real work. And for these film stars, this is what it was.
Don’t think that I’m poo pooing the production. The lightness of approach works for this play. The serious matters of war, marriage and career remain on the periphery of the goings on in the play/film. The real traumas are as the title tells us, Much Ado about Nothing. The lightness of playing emphasizes the effervescent nothingness of this war of words and self-made distress of courtship. Though the speaking of the text could be richer, the players often find moments true to being in love.
In so many ways, the production fits the play better than an over wrought serious and respectful approach to the play.  It feels more authentic than a bunch of Brits in period costumes making a masterpiece.
Contemporary dress and hand held cameras shooting in black and white with anachronistic elements of smart phones, ipods and limousines make the place the world, if not the world of the play, in the 21st century. It serves to makes Elizabethan values of dueling for honor and virginity as quaint relics of a time past. It reminded me how the world has moved on from a culture of conversation and accepted social mores.
Watching the film was a lovely Friday night diversion. Yet I knew, it was Much Ado about Nothing.

I eagerly attended Baz Luhrmann’s take on The Great Gatsby this week. As I suspected before going, it is best to approach it as his take on the great novel rather than expecting a definitive production.

I would call it decidedly post-Modern. Its excess and preference for style over substance are embraced with self consciousness. When facing a choice between a stripped down moment of honesty and an overblown flashy explosion of color and sound with a not-so- subtle wink at the audience, Baz and the film always pick the latter. Not that these are bad choices.  The film is fun and the excesses are in keeping with the opulence and exuberance of the Jazz Age.

Baz Luhrmann is our Busby Berkeley.

The style works to reveal a difference between the age of Fitzgerald and our own. Both eras embrace excess. The twenties seem na├»ve and careless. They seem unaware that they are dancing their way into the ruin of the Depression and the Second World War. The film seems to know that the excesses and recklessness of our own era are embraced with a full knowledge of our imminent destruction. While we might pacify ourselves with hope of a better tomorrow, we don’t really believe in our potential salvation. We know we are dancing off the cliff of our destruction. And, we don’t care.

(Spoiler alert: Haven’t you read Gatsby yet?)

Gatsby tells the story of an ambitious man who fell in love with an enchanting woman above his station. He remakes himself and earns the wealth he covets to become what he thinks he must be to deserve her. In the end, the differences in class remain. Their love can’t compete.

It is a funny story for America, an Anti-American Dream tale. No matter how much wealth you attain, you cannot shift your place in the social structure. (Is this not Don Draper’s story in Mad Men?) You can become successful, but you can’t change.

There is also a note in the film that speaks to the cancer of excess and ambition. Our American drive to attain infects us. At one moment I wonder if we are conscious of this impact and at another moment I know we know that what we are doing is destroying us and still don’t change.  We, like Gatsby, can’t change our fundamental core.

My desire for Gatsby or Much Ado to be more grounded or to face/deal with the truth of our time is contradictory to very nature of our time. While we dance to the apocalypse, we hold out a fraction of hope that some of us might evolve enough to keep us from destruction. Though, in our hearts, we know we are doomed.

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