Saturday, February 04, 2017
Best of 2016, #10: Fences
So there’s that.
Now let’s talk about this year’s movies. The bad news is that my negativity has spilled out in that direction as well. I thought pretty much all of the most prestigious movies of the year were overrated. Even when I went to write about my 10 favorites, I found I had more complaints about them than compliments. So in keeping with my sour mood, I’m going to have to split these in four parts each. A first part where I complain, a second where I meddle, a third part where I compliment some element of the movie, and then a storyteller’s rule that can be gleaned from the movie.
Problems: Fences was actually adapted by Tony Kushner, but he took off his name so the screenplay is merely credited to the dead original playwright August Wilson. Ostensibly, this was done out of deference, but one must suspect that this was also out of embarrassment over the fact that he just hadn’t cracked it (or Washington wouldn’t let him). The original play was set in a back yard, but almost none of those scenes have to be set in that back yard, and there’s no excuse for failing to open up the play more. At least range more around the house!
The Meddler: Once in the movie, there’s a montage between two of Wilson’s acts, and it goes a long way. We need more of those. This is a movie: We don’t need dialogue like “Where’s Cory?” “He had to go out to football practice.” Show us him leaving early and going to football practice, and have Troy see him go! Then show Cory at practice! One problem with this movie is that we never really believe it’s 1957 because the production design is so generic in this one back yard. Let us see this world! Convince us that it’s 1957.
For that matter, much of the text involves Troy being haunted by his traumatic past, which takes the form of certain powerful moments that he can’t shake. Intercut the movie with those images, which can tell a silent story. Show us mysterious and painful images and then let him explain them later.
Ironically, one of the only times Washington does add an image to foreshadow something, it hurts the movie. Before Cory’s big confrontation with his dad, Washington shows him checking out a Marine recruiting station. Now we can already guess how the confrontation will be resolved, which makes it less tense (we aren’t wondering “What will he do if he’s kicked out?”), and it ruins the shock of seeing him in his Marine outfit later.
Finally, the movie could have been shorter. It’s 140 minutes, but those extra 20 minutes would shave off easily. The movie doesn’t really kick into gear until Troy admits to his affair almost an hour in. The scenes before that act to set him up as an imperious moralist, which sets him up to be exposed as a hypocrite, but each of those opening scenes could be chopped down. The scenes with his older son add the least to the movie, so they’d be target #1.
So why do I love this movie? Because it works wonderfully as a PBS “Great Performances”-style filmed version of one of the great plays of our time, acted by two of our finest actors. Washington get truly jaw-dropping performances out of himself and Davis. I can certainly understand why Washington was so loathe to alter a word of the text, but even without changing a word, there were ways to make this less stagey.
Storyteller’s Rulebook: One way to give shapeless stories some shape is to have characters make a bet, and then pay off that bet ironically. Here, Troy and Bono make a bet as to whether Troy will finish his fence before Bono finally buys a refrigerator. As it turns out, their friendship is pretty much over by the time they both accomplish their goals, so they don’t bother to ask the other who got there first, but the bet has added just a shade of stakes and urgency to the lackadaisical task of building the fence.