Fences – Cinematic Theatre

Thoughts On: Fences

Homely episodes centred on a working class father who once had dreams of being a professional baseball player.

Fences

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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Split – Waiting…

Thoughts On: Split

A man with 23 personas kidnaps 3 girls.

Split

Without any annoying puns referencing the title or concept of the film, Split is a movie that distinctly does some great things with its narrative as well as some disappointing things. Everything great about this movie’s narrative is centred on the characters Kevin (as played impeccably by McAvoy) and Casey – our protagonist whom Kevin kidnaps. Every scene where Casey has to interact with many of Kevin’s personas is imbued with tension, with humour, with a highly immersive atmosphere, with a perfect blend of character, subtext and plot that truly keeps you riveted to the screen. Moreover, the manner in which Casey and Kevin slot into this narrative is the essence of this film and certainly the best aspect of it – something we’ll return to. However, whilst there are no terrible elements of this movie, there is a huge bulk of this narrative that is nowhere near as good as the sequences and scenes focused on Kevin alone or with Casey. This comes down to the insertion of the 2 other girls Casey is kidnapped with as well as Kevin’s doctor/psychiatrist/psychologist. To start with the two other girls, they literally do nothing but beef up the run-time. Without delving into spoilers, there’s no real reason why these characters should be apart of this story. The same goes for Dr. Fletcher. All she does is explain the psychological ideas as well as the plot to the audience. This is then a poorly written character. Like the two other girls, she only serves plot, and in such she just takes up narrative space. I then think this would be a significantly better film if it had a much greater focus on just Casey and Kevin. Beyond this, Split is an intriguing film that is worth the watch. When you go into the film, just know that the marketing is bullshit. It’s not a disappointing aspect of the movie, but Kevin only really has about 5 personas that you see. There is no ground-breaking performance where McAvoy projects 23 different characters in the same movie and there is no astounding script work that dares to try and manage almost 2 dozen characters in one body. Having said that, I can only say that I recommend this film to those who haven’t yet seen it. To those who have, let’s dive deeper into the film with…

**SPOILERS**

Split is a film that is trying to do two things. The first is tell a complex, highly subtextual story about abuse and its effects on the lives of victims. The second is sell a classically ‘Shyamalan’ movie where the plot is the focus. And with the second side of Split comes all that is poor about it. As mentioned, there are many characters that should have been cut from the script. The reason they weren’t is that this is trying to be a highly commercially viable movie that is essentially a simple, entertaining psychological thriller/mystery. In being this, Split is far too plot-centric. This results in a lot of exposition, a dumb, rather empty and meaningless B and C plot concerning characters that deserve no place in this narrative, that should have been replaced by more of a minimalist approach – something we’ll return to. The end results of this side of the movie is a horrible final scene where we find out that Shyamalan is trying to establish a series linked to Unbreakable. A woman sees the news that reports on Kevin’s powers and asks about the guy in the wheel chair that was arrested a few years ago. Bruce Willis is then revealed saying that the guy was Mr. Glass… DUN-DUN-DUN. This is a seriously cheap and “fuck you, pay me”…

… way of revealing a series of films. It’s even worse than the Sam Jackson Marvel end-scenes. At least there was ambiguity, at least you had to wait until the credits had rolled, with the Marvel end-scenes. What this implies to me is that M. Night Shyamalan is still very capable, very capable, of making shit films. And I don’t mean to imply that just because the ending of Split was poor that you can infer that the films to follow will be terrible. You can always feel Shyamalan on the precipice of dog-shit in this movie because of the plot-centric design of the narrative, the constant-exposition and shaky script work masked by great to ok performances. These are all tropes of Shyamalan’s worst films – and you can even see them in his better ones (Signs, The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable). For this, we should continue to be very wary going into his films–of which there seems to be quite a lot to come. Nonetheless, the superhero series that is being set up is incredibly intriguing to me. I will certainly be catching the next film and be eagerly awaiting to see what Shyamalan is going to do with its premise. This is because I believe that this series could be a very important one. If Shyamalan can continue to produce superhero films that are as good as Unbreakable and Split, we will hopefully see an example made to the throw-away movies Marvel and DC pumps out.

To explain why I’m so intrigued by, and so hopeful for, this series of films, we’ll have to take a deeper look into Split. As said this is a film about abuse. Casey is a character that was abused by her uncle as a little girl. She attempted to confront him, to possibly kill him, but couldn’t. This resulted in her silence, in her uncle continually abusing her and even becoming her primary carer after her dad dies. What’s most tragic and painful to learn, which we do in the end of the movie, is that Casey still lives with this monster. However, she has a decision ahead of her. With optimistic inference, we can assume that the investigation into Casey’s kidnap will expose her uncle, that she will tell the police, put him in prison and free herself from him. Further subtext is imbued into this with Kevin. He too was abused by his mother as a boy. This is why he developed so many personalities. However, because he is a superhero of sorts – just like Dunn and Price are in Unbreakable – this mental rupture manifests itself in the form of powers. The Beast, the 24th personality that comes from Kevin, is the height of this projection. The Beast, subtextually, represents the devastating phenomena of abused children growing up to be abusers themselves. If this is not so and you believe that this analysis is weak, then I find it undeniable that The Beast represents consequence – the consequence of being abused as a child. If this is not Kevin becoming an abuser himself, then these consequences certainly are him lashing out at the world. This explains why he kidnaps the 2 girls. They are normal kids that have probably lived perfectly comfortable lives. He kidnapped them to ruin their lives, to project his suffering onto the world. He cannot do this to Casey, however. She knows much greater suffering than he. This is why she overcomes him and why he stops trying to hurt her. The brighter note to the ending that sees Kevin liable to continue spreading his own suffering is that Casey has the opportunity to imprison her uncle and put an end to her own abuse. What the hidden meaning of Split then comes down to is the abuse victim and the power of their voice. This is a film all about reversing and overcoming a terrible childhood, about Kevin’s personas and The Beast as representations of a torn mind. This leaves him an antagonist that immediately imbues a film with a lot of meaning that, if managed right, can be very profound.

As is obvious, Shyamalan takes on a daring subject with Split. And this is exactly why I support this film and the series it is spawning. Not only is the content original and highly intriguing, but it has depth. Having said that, I hold fast to the idea that this film needed to be focus on Kevin and Casey alone. This film could have been something like The Fly merging with Ex Machina…

  

… where we see a secluded, concentrated plot meeting a character arc of metamorphism – all doused in subtext. If the film then just had Casey and Kevin in a room for its vast majority without a concentration on the other 2 girls and without the psychologist, I believe that Split would be something near a masterpiece. The hidden meaning would have been much more intricate and the viewing experience much more immersive. Unfortunately, there is just so much of Shyamalan and his iffy directorial/writing style that is ingrained into this film. For this, I am apprehensive about the films to come from him in this series. Whilst Split and Unbreakable are pretty good films, they aren’t perfect and could easily be The Happening or The Last Airbender. After all, won’t we be seeing more action in the next film if Kevin is to continue growing in strength and face off against Bruce Willis’ Dunn? Shyamalan, with the Last Air Bender, has resoundingly demonstrated that he can’t do franchises and can’t do action/fantasy. What Shyamalan is great at is realism and simplicity. This is why Unbreakable and Split work so well as superhero films made by him – you don’t know they’re superhero films and that the main characters have special powers until it’s all over. If Shyamalan was to bring these two characters together… I really don’t know. At best, I could see him creating something like Chronicle…

… but, at worst, I see another Airbender film. With pessimism in my bones, Chronicle is the best I can see Shyamalan doing. I wholeheartedly hope that he proves me everyone else wrong and continues to make better films, but, I just don’t see it happening.

So, all in all, Split is a really good film. It has its faults and I think Shyamalan did an ok job writing it, but that script really should have been re-thought and given quite a bit more respect. All of this leaves me eager to see what Shyamalan has planned next, but, with quite a bit of apprehension. What did you think though? Did you like the design of Split and are you excited to see what will follow?

 

 

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