Produced and Directed by Frederick Wiseman
Released by Zipporah Films

Much Ado About Nothing
Produced by Kenneth Branagh, David Parfitt, and Stephen Evans
Direction and Screenplay by Kenneth Branagh
Released by The Samuel Goldwyn Company

Frederick Wiseman’s rigorous documentary style disdains the unctuous narrator’s voice-over explanations to the audience of what it ought to be able to see with its own eyes, and this technique has never been more eloquent and effective than in Zoo, the maestro’s 25th work, which was shown on PBS in June and is available for rental from Zipporah Films of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Zoo is a brooding, poignant, poetic consideration of nothing less than the human condition. The animals are gorgeous of course, odd and easy to like. The zookeepers of the Metro Zoo in Miami are attentive, caring, devoted to their charges, and altogether admirable. But their business with the beasts is grotesque, sometimes brutal, and a great strain on both sides. If the keepers and veterinarians were sadists and fools, there could have been an easy protest film, I suppose. What makes this complicated and rich and, ultimately, much more depressing, is that we see decent people, with the best possible motives, clubbing a bunny to death in order to feed a boa constrictor or castrating a wolf in order to make it more manageable and, very likely, to increase its life expectancy. There are cages, of course, as in Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane (of Wiseman’s first film, Titicut Follies) and there is even an incinerator for the corpses of animals that die, so that we see a quick allusion to Dachau and Buchenwald. And it is the institution, and the situation itself, that forces these kindly people to do these unappealing and callous things.

In other words, what we have is a long threnody on the text of Genesis: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him . . . “

Mostly, we are flattered by the implications here, but Fred Wiseman’s bold and rueful question is whether this burden may not be too much for us. Why should we have dominion over these beasts who are stronger, faster, prettier, and every bit as wonderful as we? What does it cost us, morally and emotionally, to have to discharge the duties that such mastery carries with it? We see the stillbirth of a rhino calf after a 20-monthlong pregnancy, and it is not happening out in that forest where trees fall in silence because there is no one to hear them, but in the zoo in front of a gaggle of observers with clipboards, each of whom is heartbroken. They try their best, pounding on the stillborn calf, and giving it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but that grand dominion we have turns out to be pitiably limited.

There are shots of the zoo’s patrons, playing with their cameras in the way that the chimps and the gorillas play with their shreds of cloth. We see the monorail looping around the park, and gradually it changes from a simple vehicle of transport to a metaphor of fate, necessity, destiny. This is the track we are on, and we can’t get off or change course. Above, in the spectacular sky, there is the moon, to which Wiseman cuts from time to time to suggest the passage of time. But as with most of his cover shots, it, too, takes on a larger significance and a burden of complicated meaning. This is Miami, after all, and so there has to be a moon, as in the song title. But the imperturbability of heavenly bodies is exactly what we are lacking. In our relations with each other—in Welfare, in High School, in Law and Order, and in Near Death—and in our relations with the beasts—in Meat, Primate, and Race Track—there is the same aspiration that is besmirched if not quite doomed by our sublunary imperfections. And the mute testimony of these films has about it the profound hurt of a child who is old enough and brave enough not to cry but whose silent tears are nonetheless welling up and spilling down.

One of the last sequences of the picture is a particularly unpleasant one, and what hurts most is that there is nowhere to point with accusations. It’s nobody’s fault. A pack of feral dogs has managed to dig its way under some fences and has attacked some of the deer and antelope, mauled them to death, and eaten parts of their corpses. This is horrible and we are offended, although that is what carnivores do, after all. The zookeepers go out into the palmetto scrub with rifles and walkie-talkies to hunt down the predators, and they manage to find the largest of the dogs and shoot it. They drag its corpse along in the dirt, throw it into the truck bed, haul it back to the crematorium, and fling it into the incinerator. It is the reasonable and even the correct thing to do, but is it right? Is it what we volunteered for?

In a particularly obtuse review in the New York Times, Walter Goodman complained that much of this film was not appropriate for little children. The truth of the matter is that zoos are tough and demanding places, as is the world itself. The text on which Wiseman preaches is as difficult as any in the Bible, and it gets even darker a few verses later. “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” One gets that sense, too, from the brightly colored shots of the ostriches, the giraffes, the tapirs, the birds-of-paradise. The awe and wonder and the gratitude we all feel is up there on the screen, but it is humbling, because, as Rabbi Wiseman shows us, we are not adequate to be keepers, no matter how hard we may try or how fervently we may pray for help and guidance.

There is another film about the human condition or, more specifically, the limitations of mortals when they presume to meddle in one another’s business. Much Ado About Nothing is, on its surface, a comedy, but it is a stern, even disagreeable piece that the verse and the glitzy Plautine repartee of Beatrice and Benedick make palatable. The play is about eavesdropping—the “nothing” in the title having been pronounced in such a way as to be a homonym of “noting,” which meant overhearing. Kenneth Branagh’s first and most basic decision—to shoot this all out of doors in a dreamland Italian villa’s gardens—was simply wrong. The action is urban, shadowy, and the piece wants a film noir look, even black and white, with lots of gloom and shadows. Even on the level of narrative reasonableness, Dogberry and his watch make no sense in the setting into which Branagh has dumped them.

The play is a curious work in several ways. For one, it seems to have been a rewrite, a rescue of a failed or discarded piece. The earlier part, about Hero and Claudio, is largely in verse, which is what the young Shakespeare used to do, while the Beatrice and Benedick pieces, mostly in smart-ass prose, may have been added later. The two stories, one of mischievous and the other of positively malevolent manipulation by Don Pedro and his bastard brother, Don John, combine elegantly and allow for deferred payoffs, echoes, grace notes, and all kinds of intricate intellectual business. But the mood of the piece is gloomy indeed— Don John is a proto-Iago; Don Pedro is a small-time version of Measure for Measure’s Duke Vincentio. Branagh is all sunshine, light, décolletage, tight pants, picnics, music, and dancing.

The dark part of the play, its flirtings with death and disaster and its assumptions of vanity and venality, Branagh has either ignored or failed to understand. And this is all the more regrettable because these dark aspects would have better served the stylish energy of his own fine performance as Benedick and Emma Thompson’s as Beatrice. He has reason to be a little nasty, and she certainly does, but it’s hard to remember this in the distracting dazzle of this candy-box mise en scène.

For these two performances, and one or two other competently played bit parts, the film is worth seeing, but one ought not have elevated expectations. Branagh’s announced operating principle is warning enough. As he said in several interviews, “Much Ado means that a grateful teacher will be able to say to the kids, ‘Here are girls with cleavages and boys with tight trousers.

You will now shut up for an hour and pay attention.'” You will also be assigned to read the play and see how much is omitted. As, for instance, in the following passage, from Act V, Scene 1. All the missing material is in brackets:


Antonio: If you go on thus, you will kill yourself;

[And ’tis not wisdom thus to second grief Against yourself.]

Leonato: [I pray thee, cease thy counsel,

Which falls into mine ears as profitless

As water in a sieve: give not me counsel;

Nor let no comforter delight mine ear

But such a one whose wrongs do suit with mine.]

Bring me a father that so loved his child,

Whose joy of her is overwhelm’d like mine.

And bid him speak of patience;

[Measure his woe the length and breadth of mine,

And let it answer every strain for strain.

As thus for thus, and such a grief for such.

In every lineament, branch, shape, and form.

If such a one will smile and stroke his beard.

Bid sorrow wag, cry “hem!” when he should groan,

Patch grief with proverbs, make misfortune drunk

With candlewasters, bring him yet to me.

And I of him will gather patience.]

But there is no such man: for, brother, men

Can counsel and speak comfort to that grief

Which they themselves not feel; but, tasting it.

Their counsel turns to passion, [which before

Would give preceptial medicine to rage.

Fetter strong madness in a silken thread.

Charm ache with air, and agony with words. . . . ]

This elaborately produced Cliffs Notes of Much Ado is supposed to be high art. What it reminds me of is Tom Stoppard’s Fifteen Minute Hamlet, which was meant as an irreverent joke.

There are other, smaller problems, too. Keanu Reeve’s Don John is a cartoon villain, which he does less well than Mandy Patinkin did Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride. Denzel Washington—as Reeve’s half-brother!—is handsome enough but a disaster whenever he opens his mouth. His vowels and rhythms are all pitiably off. Michael Keaton’s energetic-enough performance as Dogberry is that of a lunatic out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but it is likely that the fault is more Branagh’s than his own.

Where was I going with all this? I had some abstract notions about meddling, the perils of the human condition, and the risks of pride and vanity . . . but let it go. It’s obvious and not worth doing.