—My expression after enjoying 95% of the new Much Ado About Nothing, even if the parts I really liked were pretty reminiscent of the Kenneth Branagh-Emma Thompson version, and the parts that were jarring in a modern setting made me nostalgic for the BBC Damian Lewis-Sarah Parish version, which ditched some of the more dated plot points (because turning your modern Beatrice and Benedick into bitter former lovers totally makes sense! But you can’t really do that while retaining Shakespeare’s emphasis on Hero’s literal virginity, or lack thereof, as crucial to the plot and something that’s expected of a woman in the same world where it’s totally fine for Beatrice to have drunken one-night stands).
Still, all of that I was handwaving, and I was really enjoying the movie, though the occasional extra would wander past the camera and make me wonder if Whedon would give any lines to any people of color — an omission all the more jarring because Branagh, a couple of decades earlier and in a more Ye Olden Italia setting, still managed to give Denzel Washington a decent supporting character role, while Whedon decided to depict an unusually, almost ludicrously white version of modern Los Angeles. And then Whedon went for the post-racial visual gag, bringing an unnamed, silent black woman momentarily into his frame just to have her (silently) react to Claudio’s declaration that he’d marry another mystery woman even “were she an Ethiope.” Cue audience laughter — aren’t we so much more enlightened from the days when Shakespeare used “Ethiope” as synonym for “hideous”? — and my facepalming.
Sigh. Siiiiiigh. This is what gets me about Whedon, even as I enjoy his work and admit that the man has a way with a quip or a meta visual gag - he doesn’t always earn them. He especially doesn’t earn them when it comes to gender and racial commentary. There probably is a way to make that joke, but it would involve having non-white actors on screen for longer than five seconds, or even giving them lines, or maybe even casting them in a main role or two. (Modern Los Angeles!) You don’t get to make that post-modern, look-at-us-aren’t-we-clever-and-post-racial joke if you’re not actually, you know, post-racial. It’s Firefly and its Asian appropriation all over again.
Sigh. But yes, Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry is delightful.
So this was irritating. Last night I saw The Pretty One, Jenée LaMarque’s California version of Amélie (sweet, funny, a feature-length Anthropologie commercial; not the irritating part). The screening, at the Tribeca Film Festival, was followed by a Q&A (also not the irritating part), with the (pregnant) writer-director, the star (Zoe Kazan), many of the other cast members, a handful of producers and other crew members, including the costume designer. Kazan, in heels and a Heidi coronet-braid, ran the microphone back and forth down the conga line of cast and crew to make sure everyone could answer audience questions.
Also not the irritating part: Of the impressive dozen-person lineup on stage, about half of them, including the main creative types and at least some of the money types, were women. The film was about a woman, trying to figure out this whole life/family/romance/career/friendship thing. (Note where “romance” came in that list - central but not exclusive or even primary.) The Tribeca employee moderating the event and asking the bulk of the questions was a woman.
This was the irritating part: When the Tribeca moderator eventually asked a question about the romance in the film, she felt the need to excuse it, or excuse her asking of it, or something: “It’s something for the ladies,” she added. Right. The romance. Something for us ladies, because the rest of the film about figuring out how to be a sister and a daughter and a friend and a twin who may or may not be “the pretty one” obviously wasn’t “for the ladies.” The lady writer-director, lady star playing a lady main character, lady producer and lady costume designer weren’t there for the ladies and hadn’t said anything up to that point that could be “for the ladies.”
I’m being harsh. I’m sure it was just filler talk, one of those things you say when you’re on stage with a number of semi-famous and/or accomplished people and nervous about sounding smart with them. But it was still pretty depressing. Romance is only the province of “the ladies,” really? And apparently you can make an entire movie about what it actually means to be a lady, with ladies in front of and behind the camera, but unless it has a romantic subplot, none of it is actually going to be for, about or by us.
In junior high school, I competed in a fantastic, super-nerdy event called National History Day. It involved a months-long research project that culminated, my first year, in a sad diorama depicting the Silk Road.
But then I discovered the “performance” category. For the next two years, I researched, wrote and performed ten-minute one-woman plays about my chosen historical topics: people dying horribly in gunfire. In seventh grade, I played Anastasia Romanov; in eighth grade, not content with dying once on stage, I took on the Kent State Four. I listened to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young on repeat for inspiration, which must have worked; I made it all the way to the national finals with my performance, which involved throwing myself onto the ground and sobbing like I’d both been shot and was watching my friends die around me. It was the most fun I had the entire year I was 13.
It’s not fair to the professionals, but my History Day performances have colored pretty much every one-person play I’ve seen since. I’m not generally a huge fan; they involve way too much breaking of the fourth wall, and stirring background music, and endless exposition. And even the good ones are usually way too long. That was my major complaint tonight when I saw Ann, Holland Taylor’s one-woman ode to former Texas Governor Ann Richards. Taylor is fantastic, and the scene that bridges the play’s two acts — Richards in her governor’s office on a whirlwind of an afternoon, wrangling staff and children and grandchildren and President Bill Clinton and protestors and the pope as she decides whether to grant a stay of execution — is worth the price of the (discounted nosebleed) Broadway ticket.
I suppose that for the price of those tickets, no Broadway play is going to confine itself to one act. But I wish Ann had. There’s a good twenty minutes of lead-in exposition at the play’s front end, and a bit of a whimpering return as Taylor recounts Richards’ funeral in 2006. Those were the parts that made me think of History Day, even if the rest of Ann doesn’t deserve to be compared to my teenage efforts to enact poor Anastasia’s basement execution.
Having a good day.