Chapter 61: And The Moral Of The Story Is…

Hello Diary,

This is what I’m dealing with today… this is what I’m looking down the barrel of:

There would normally be a picture here

Summer, it seems, is finally a-comin’ in.  And I’ve just been to the moovees.

On a day this delightful, where better to be than in a dark room surrounded by strangers?

I’m going to the cinema about once a week at the moment.  This is mainly album-recording-based.

Oh yes, I’m working on an album.  Have I mentioned that?  ‘Joy & Jealousy’ : launch booked for 21st September in the Old Fire Station, Oxford.  And, for some unfathomable reason, this will be the first serious proper LP that I will be releasing under my own name.  (Having now only a couple of EPs under my belt, and the odd collaboration floating out there somewhere in cyberspace.)

I’ve been working on this album since March last year, and I’m currently on schedule to get it finished by the end of July (i.e. next month).  I’m trying to frontload as much of the remaining work as possible, so I really am working like a bastard.   And loving every second of it!   But it does mean I’m quite antisocial at the moment, and am getting studio-based cabin fever.   The perfect antidote to which, it seems, is cinema.

Lots more to say on the album later — hopefully when the frantic recording phase has settled down a little — but the subject of my dissertation today is not on the album, but on the film wot I just seen:

Much Ado About Nothing

Joss Whedon‘s take on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.

Really loved it.  Best film I’ve seen in ages.  (Once I got over my usual chippy "This is just a story about the super-rich, the Beautiful People" thing, which is just me being a dick.)  I got a bit teary when Beatrice and Benedict finally got together, and the scene in which Claudio denounces Hero as a whore at the altar is just brutal.

With this film and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog Whedon seems to be pioneering this style of super-low budget cinema with really high production values.  And, if I’m honest, I’ve always found myself a little disappointed with Whedon World.  He’s such a good writer, particularly of dialogue, but his stories usually feel a bit too ‘fanboy’ to me — by which I mean they’re full of the kind of things that can only happen in films, and not in real life.  But clearly, given some Shakespeare to sink his teeth into, he’s absolutely in his element, and this is the best Much Ado I’ve ever seen by a comfortable margin.

I’m not going to bore you with a film review.  (I was actually going to bore Daily Info with one, but seeing as the film is finishing its run there probably isn’t much point.)

But I thought I’d add a few of things for the record.

Shakespeare belongs to everybody

As the film started, I wondered whether Whedon had what it takes to do Shakespeare.  But actually, having thought about it a bit, I imagine that of all the writers to adapt Shakespeare is one of the easiest, because he gives you so much to work with.  Although if you suck as director then that will become apparent very quickly, because most people in the audience will have other performances in their memories to compare directly to.

The first line of dialogue jarred a little.  The opening scene perhaps seemed a bit weird and out of place, seeing as it was all set in modern day California.  But I quickly forgot that, and… basically, it all just came together and worked beautifully.

And after the film was over and I was on my way home I remembered the broo-ha about Kenneth Branagh’s film of it, with Denzil and Keanu et al.  And also about a radio version (American) of Julius Caesar with Richard Dreyfuss in it.  I remember hearing British critics basically laughing at both versions, because the actors spoke with American accents.  "It’s almost as if they don’t even know they’re speaking poetry!"

The rules of performing Shakespeare are actually quite a good barometer of how up itself a culture is, I reckon.  And so I think it’s kind of encouraging now that the guy who gave us Buffy The Vampire Slayer can be (rightly) acclaimed for producing a brilliant, and brilliantly American Much Ado.  (Although he maybe owes Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet a drink or two for laying the groundwork.)

But that said…

I always thought of Shakespeare as being English.  The essence of Englishness.  I heard someone saying a while ago that Shakespeare is not an English literary icon, but an international one.  I probably heard it in passing while doing something else, because I remember thinking "He probably wouldn’t have agreed with you on that one!  This sceptred isle, this other eden…"

Trying to figure out the strange enigma wrapped in a mystery wrapped in tweed that is Englishness has become a bit of a thing for me, professionally and personally, and I’m always on the lookout for interesting people (present and historical) who can help explain it.  So being English is one of the first things I tend to think about when describing old Bill Shakers.

But seeing this film really brought it home to me that his nationality is of no more importance to his work than his hair colour.  In fact, Shakespeare doesn’t actually say a huge amount about England and Englishness, other than that he likes the place.  His stories really can be set anywhere.  (As opposed to, say, E. M. Forster or John Betjemen, who explicitly explore what it means to be English.)

I realised that for a small bunch of artists who I think really could be called geniuses, no one culture can claim them as their own, no matter how much that culture shaped that artist.  The best really do belong to everyone.

A culture of affection

else that really stuck me when watching the film is the culture of affection that people show to their friends in Shakespeare’s plays.  In fact, in pretty much all English literature up to the Battle of Waterloo (and the rise of Duke of Wellington inspired stiff-upper-lipness).

When people meet friends and family, they spend a lot of time saying how wonderful they are, how much they miss them, and how happy they are to be in their company.  Just as standard.  Totally, like, unprovoked.  Without really thinking much about it.

And I think you can find this not just in literary fiction, but in famous historical diaries, in popular songs, in culture generally.  I have to be honest, I don’t know whether this was just an English thing (I strongly suspect it wasn’t), but bollocks to the idea of the English being emotionally repressed.  At least, up to Waterloo — after that things did go a bit weird.

Those famous dying words of Nelson (while we’re on a military theme): "Kiss me, Hardy."  I was told at school that this was actually misheard, and it was "Kismet, Hardy."  In other words: "Hey ho, c’est la vie, Hardy!"  But no, apparently that was wrong.  He did want Hardy to kiss him, and Hardy did.

It seems a bit alien now, this idea that of assuming everyone should be almost aggressively nice to each other.  Perhaps it would all feel a bit superficial after a while.  Then again, I don’t think that this was a culture in which you were expected to show affection to everybody.  Only to the people you really liked.

I think that would be rather wonderful.  I’d like to live in a world like that.  Where everyone is basically Sam Taplin.  And I think that’s one of the things that makes historical fiction so enjoyable.  Because when they all have a party at the end (this is in the 50% of the stories where that affection doesn’t turn into wild murderous rage and litters the climax with corpses) you can believe it would be a seriously fucking great party!  Because they all know each other really well.  And actually like each other.

So bring it back, I say.  And the lash, bring back the lash too.  Both together.  Then it’s an even better party.

And the moral is: BE A CUNNING BASTARD

But the main thing that I thought was interesting, and worth sharing, was about the morality of the story.  And the morality of Shakespeare’s plays in general.

Shakespeare sets up some quite standard predicaments for his characters; some impossible situations that require impossible solutions to impossible dilemmas.

And in my recent bout of cinema-going I’ve seen quite a lot of superhero films.  Whenever one of these dilemmas would happen in a superhero film then the hero would almost certainly get insanely angry, something would explode, someone would get killed, and someone would shout "NOOOOOOO!".

But what’s rather unusual about Shakespeare is that when the characters do manage resolve these situations it’s NOT by ‘doing the right thing’.

It’s nearly always from doing the cunning thing.

In fact, could it even be argued that the difference between the Tragedies and the Comedies / Late Plays is that the heroes in the Comedies / Late Plays are just a bit more cunning?

You may root for the characters as they pretend to be dead, or deceive their lovers by cross-dressing*, but these Shakespearean plans nearly always involve deception of some kind.  Often reverse psychology too.  They’re really pretty manipulative.

But then again, you can (usually) believe they would work.

And I just wonder, is that the lesson that Shakespeare is trying to teach us?  That the tricksters, not the good or the meek, shall inherit the earth?  That the way you get through life is not by trying to be moral, but by trying to be charmingly manipulative?

I mean, not that it matters too much to me, because I’ve been doing that for decades.  I just wonder if now I can say I have Shakespeare backing me up on it.

* There’s a song I’m working on for the new album that I think must have been written just after or about the same time as Shakespeare was writing, and it also has a slightly suspicious ‘trixter’ type figure appearing and offering to solve an affair of the heart first with cross-dressing, and then with faking death.  So there was obviously a lot of it about then.  Come to think of it, I think I’m going to bring both of these back too.

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