Thoughts On: Fences
Homely episodes centred on a working class father who once had dreams of being a professional baseball player.
I can say little more than this is a flawless film with pristine writing, direction and, of course, acting. One of the best examples of cinematic theatre, or a play adaptation, Fences certainly ranks way up there with Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire and Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf in my books. And these are certainly my favourite kind of play adaptations. Whilst I love Kurosawa’s Throne Of Blood, am a sucker for Forbidden Planet and enjoy West Side Story (all of which are adaptations of Shakespeare), the play adaptations that I find to be most effective are ones that do not try to abandon their roots. Fences, like Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf and A Streetcar Named Desire, is a stage play put to film. The camera is there to enhance performance and story with cinematic language, not redesign it – as you may find with many other adaptations of plays. What Fences then demonstrates so perfectly is the significance of a stage performance within cinema to a modern audience. As current films make obvious, cinema does not think of itself as anything like a play. This wasn’t the case during the birth of cinema, however. If we look to the likes of Méliès, we can understand that the general philosophy of, or approach to, early cinema was very similar to theatre.
Films would essentially be recorded performances. Méliès pioneered numerous editing techniques to transform a stage performance into a magic show, but, many of his films, like The Vanishing Lady, The Haunted Castle, The Man With The Rubber Head and One Man Band, were, very evidently, stage performances. Silent cinema quickly evolved when we move into the 20s, however, with German Expressionism, French Impressionism and Soviet Constructivism seen through films such as The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, Napoleon, Coeur Fidele, Man With A Movie Camera and Battleship Potemkin. These films and movements resoundingly solidified cinema as a true and weighted art form – not just a gimmick or trend. And in doing this, these films encompassed an idea of pure cinematics – of, in the simplest terms, telling a story just through images. This is certainly what we see with the mise en scène (the blocking; the composition of a shot) in German Expressionism, the subjectivity and projection of perspective through cinematic language in French Impressionism and the montage of Soviet Constructivist films. However, this evolution of cinema through its golden silent era in the 20s was cut short by…
The Jazz Singer and the introduction of sound. We then see in the 30s a rise of theatrics in cinema again; a growing prominence of a script and acting over direction and pure cinematic philosophy. This isn’t to say that silent films preceding this age were all like those by Epstein, Eisenstein or Murnau. I only mean to suggest that a more theatrical approach became a lot more influential with the movement into the early talkie period for the simple fact that there was now a screenplay and performance to be made that wasn’t muted and so restricted to gestures. It’s looking to romances like It Happened One Night, gangster films like The Public Enemy, comedies like Duck Soup and horrors such as Frankenstein, that we see the influence of the theatre on films – largely on performances and direction. We then see a concentration on script with the camera not so much the pivotal means of communicating a story. It’s the Classical Hollywood approach to cinema that then acts as a staple of mediation. Films weren’t 1 reel shorts with Méliès performing a magic trick. They also weren’t anything like the avant-garde and highly experimental Man With A Movie Camera, Coeur Fidele or Napoleon. In short, Classical Hollywood films were quite formulaic and their formula was informed by production. This meant studio sets, artificial lighting, make-up, no conception of auteur theory (the director as an author of a film – and so a key figure), instead, stars, scripts and studio bureaucracy. This was all dictated, largely, by technology. Studios and the advent of sound allowed cinema, as an industry, to flourish because of control, because new kinds of cinematic spaces could be constructed. That meant that Universal, RKO or MGM could confidently produce and sell programmes of films in an industrialised and somewhat mechanical manner. A huge part of this, as alluded to, was formula, was the studio, was artifice. This is why we can see the stage play so prominently in Hollywood Golden Age films. It’s all about artifice, the script and performance.
Over time, especially when we move away from the 40s and towards the rise of the European Art Film and then The French New Wave in the 50s and 60s, we see a return to pure cinematics, to experimentation, being put into the spotlight. It was no longer true that a more Classical Hollywood approach to cinema was the dominant inspiration of the form – one that brought with it influences from the theatre. Cinema was influenced by all that made it unique; all that couldn’t be performed in a theatre, read in a book or heard in a song. This then spirals towards modern day and the films in our cinemas. And in this jump, we see a reliance on aesthetic, direction, the auteur and the blockbuster. These features largely define what an audience comes to expect from modern cinema. We want to see the next Fincher film, the next Nolan film, the next installment from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And with this we expect many things, like a focus on aesthetics, camera movement, plotting, editing, etc. But, what we don’t usually expect as we enter a cinema is Fences. We rarely see a call back to the influences of theatre in cinema, just like we rarely see calls back to the musical. This leaves last year as a pretty interesting one with both La La Land and Fences being significant hits. And whilst La La Land showed many people that musicals weren’t terrible things we should avoid like the plague, Fences should be teaching a similar thing in respect to cinematic theatre.
All Fences is made up of is a conglomeration of conversations and meetings between family members. To any young teen brainwashed (yes, this is gratuitously stereotypical) by Marvel, Star Wars and DC films, this may sound like an inconceivable notion. But, the sit down and talk films are certainly viable movies and, with Fences as evidence, works that can be just as stimulating and investing as anything with a billion explosions and an abundance of fantastical characters. It’s the influence of the theatre on cinema, in the manner demonstrated by Fences, that heralds the everyday person and the uncontrived, non-melodramatic, projection of their lives as interesting, investing subjects for stories. The reason why Fences then works is that it means to speak to its audience, human-to-human. And this is what I also love about A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf. In just expressing characters, in just showing a few key moments of largely mundane lives, films can be immensely powerful, they can teach life lessons, can speak of the human condition with eloquence and in a way we are best suited to understand – through seeing life play out. Fences then captures the true conflicts of fatherhood, of family life and growing up. This film speaks to anyone who has had to grow up, who has had to learn from parents, peers, friends, family, who has had to battle in the social atmosphere of a family home to become their own person. And this is the aspect of Fences that certainly has the ability to flaw.
There is then a very human, very personal, element to cinematic theatre – to Fences. This form of cinema is a form of realism that cannot be described beyond calling it theatrical. Whilst there are elements to this film that are contrived, that aren’t as realistic as something such as Kes (which we recently covered), Fences is imbued with actuality, with a matter-of-fact approach to life that resonates into anyone’s reality. This is something you cannot achieve, a mediation between realism and constructed storytelling, without making character and performance the singular focus of a film (as in theatric films). Very rarely does Washington’s direction draw your eye away from the atmosphere between characters, and never does it really draw attention to itself. This is the core difference between a film such as Moonlight or Manchester By The Sea and Fences. Despite being highly dramatic and character-centric, like Fences, Moonlight and Manchester By The Sea mean to capture highly cinematic stories – stories best told on screen. And in such, they adhere to modern conventions that utilise hand-held camera, flashback, montage, that embellish digital camera work, that very blatantly project an authorial stamp of a director. Fences on the other hand is a classical film and so is very much like the post-Hollywood Golden Age play adaptations of the 50s and 60s – as mentioned, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf. These films build upon traditional cinematic form, as seen in the films of the early 30s, by taking influence from the theatre; by confining cinematic spaces, focusing on character and putting centre-stage a (what was) new and more realistic approach to acting. This all produces a stage play that benefits from cinematic language, that captures the raw (hopefully without sounding pretentious) ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ of a play whilst overlaying a cinematic freedom where what the audience sees can be manipulated in a director’s favour.
Washington, as director, demonstrates a great understanding of how cinematic theatre works by perfectly balancing his camera work with the script and performances. This achieves a profoundly impactful and astoundingly immersive filmic experience. This is then certainly a film that should be held up as a significant picture in this modern era as it represents a counterbalance to the blockbusters, the sequels, the remakes, the bland, the formulaic and even the indie auteur’s film. Fences then ultimately demonstrates that the theatric influence cinema was built from is still alive and still capable of producing great art like that seen in the 50s, 40s and 30s.
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