Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Fences

Fences
seen @ Cinemart Fiveplex, Forest Hills, Queens NY

I've spent the past three years struggling to write a novel about baseball. It really has been a struggle, too. Some days I think it's brilliant, other days I think it's a complete waste of time. I can write the stuff with pitching and batting and home runs and strikeouts, but tying it all to real, believable people, who laugh and cry and are virtuous and vicious, that's another story. I've written for much of my life, in one form or another, yet I feel like I don't know a thing about storytelling: the ability to create a narrative and sustain it, to find the ups and downs of human behavior and to end someplace different than where I began. Maybe I don't.

I chose baseball because I grew up with it, because I have strong feelings about it still, all these years later, even when I think I've outgrown it and it doesn't speak to me anymore. I chose it because I still stop and watch kids playing with aluminum bats on a neighborhood field, or softball teams from rival midtown businesses going at it in Central Park. I can't help but watch. It's my hope I can convey my feelings for the game, good and bad, within my novel. My writing group seems to think I'm on the right track, at the very least.

Then I see a movie like Fences and I'm ready to burn my manuscript. To call it a sports movie isn't really accurate; for all the talk of baseball (and football), the closest we come to it are passing shots of kids playing stickball in the street that have nothing to do with the story directly. 





Mostly, baseball is used as a metaphor to express the life and worldview of Denzel Washington's character Troy, a former Negro League player who never had the chance to cross over into Major League Baseball. Troy is a larger-than-life figure; a hard man, set in his ways, one who loves openly and freely, yet at the heart of him is a secret. Its revelation, as you might imagine, changes everything.

August Wilson's award-winning play is one part A Raisin in the Sun, one part Death of a Salesman. Like my novel, there's a family with issues, but seeing this story makes me believe I could push my characters' conflicts harder. A lot harder. See, as a writer, if you spend enough time with your characters, you start to like them. You want to protect them from harm. 



Like Troy says to his younger son, though, there's no law saying I have to like them. I do, however, have to be truthful to them, even if it means taking them places I don't want them to go. This movie reminded me of that. There are uncomfortable moments and harsh moments and WTF moments, but they all make for a better story, a more truthful story. That's something I've gotta try to remember with my novel.

One review I read thought Denzel might have given the best self-directed performance in film history. That got me thinking about which others could fall into that category: Chaplin in Modern Times; Welles in Kane; Olivier in Hamlet; Woody in Annie Hall; Costner in Dances with Wolves and Gibson in Braveheart. I think you'll agree those are all pretty monumental.





I can't imagine how hard it must be to not only direct yourself in a movie, but to do it in one where you're on the screen most, if not all, of the time. Directing requires a hyper-awareness of so many things at once: the film's tone; how little or how much you're getting out of the actors; the light, especially if you're outdoors; any potential distractions; scene continuity; the list goes on. Now throw your own performance, your interaction with the rest of the cast and whether you yourself are up to snuff, on top of all that. Is it any wonder Hitchcock stuck to cameos?

This is Denzel's third time in the director's chair, and in each of his films, he has played the starring role. Seeing actors direct themselves is no longer a novelty, but I think we've taken for granted how difficult it has got to be. 

In Fences, Denzel made it look easy. Yes, he performed the play on Broadway (and won the Tony for it), so he knows Troy inside out by now. Knowing how big this film had the potential to become, though, and is, he raised his game to another level - as if it wasn't high enough to begin with! 





Working once again with Viola Davis (someone get her a box of Kleenex already! She's always running her nose in movies), who appeared in the play with Denzel (and also won the Tony), must have been a big help. The rest of the cast is great, and if the film's stage origins are obvious, that's hardly a hindrance. This may be one for the ages.

I saw Fences on Monday, the 26th, the "observance" of Christmas Day, so it was like a holiday. The late afternoon show I had planned to attend at the Cinemart was sold out! Hadda get the next one. Again, though, it means the neighborhood supports this place. Given that the Cinemart has been on the comeback trail for the past couple of years, it's really good to see. On the down side, though, Assassin's Creed was playing next door and it was LOUD.

The audience, from what I briefly saw of it, was a mixture of black and white, but the black folks made their presence known, if you follow me. There were more than a few oh-my-gods and is-he-seriouses, and some you-go-girl-type applause in a key scene with Davis.

I just had to laugh. It had been awhile since I had seen a movie with a vocal audience of any kind, black or white. I admit, sometimes I miss it. Then again, several cell phones went off during the movie, so maybe I don't miss it that much!

4 comments:

  1. When I am awed by really fine writing I feel there is no place for me, but then again - why not? Should I stop striving to get somewhere simply because others have already made it, or should I be inspired?

    Fences is the one movie Garry and I agreed we want to see this year. What brought us together was a love of theatre and of baseball. We're also Denzel fans. Garry once described him as "this generation's Spencer Tracy".

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  2. It just so happens I was looking through some of your earlier posts from the first few years of your blog. I was pleased to see your gift for wit and subtlety was something you've possessed for a long time. As for me, if I didn't make it clear, FENCES absolutely inspires me as a writer. I suspect once I'm ready to revise my novel, I may make some large changes because of it. For now, I just gotta keep barreling through.

    Denzel as the new Tracy. I like that a lot.

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    1. Thank you. You know just the right thing to say.

      Doubts come all too easily sometimes. The great artists inspire us just by being themselves. I feel in my heart that you are on the right track.

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  3. Thank you right back. I think if I get this one thing done, the novel, regardless of whether it gets published or not, I'll have learned something about myself. Whatever that may be.

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