Saturday, January 14, 2017

"I Learned to Tell the Sh*t from the Alfalfa" - Fences

I meant to write this two weeks ago, couldn't tell you why it's taken me so long. I've heard a lot of people say that this film is boring, too slow, has too much dialogue. But I suspect that at the root of their disappointment is their own missed opportunity to sufficiently prepare themselves. If you go into Fences with the mindset that you're about to witness a play on screen rather than a "movie" made solely as a titilating piece of entertainment, then you're already set up to have more reasonable expectations. I have another theory as to why viewers felt restless during the film, but I'll get to that in a second.

Seen Friday, December 30th, 2016: Fences

Go see the play, read the play, read my review of the play, or just look it up. Please take advantage of the myriad of resources that are already at your disposal to tell you what this film and its source material are about. 

What I really like about this film: Set design and props! In the play, all action visible to the audience takes place in the Maxsons' backyard where the titular fence is being built, whereas the film takes us not only to the back yard, but inside the house and around all sides of it, as well as to the Maxson's neighborhood, Troy's workplace, and a handful of other places. Rebecca Brown and the set department basically had to tell stories through many locations and objects that are basically figments of imagination in the play, and for some reason I can't get over the home that they crafted inside the Maxson house. The 1950s-era photos, furniture, foodstuffs, and various trinkets in that Pittsburgh house took me back to my elders' abodes: Jessie's house and Roger's basement in Louisville, Bertha's (now Gladys') hallway and living room in Henderson, Odessa's home in Rochester. The Maxson house was clearly lived-in, and it almost felt like home by proxy.

Of course nearly everyone's been raving about Viola Davis and Denzel Washington's performances, but that's kind of a given. Really, there are no poor acting performances in this film. But Mykelti Williamson is the one who truly blew me away. Perhaps best know for playing Bubba Blue in Forrest Gump, Williamson showed up as Troy's mentally handicapped veteran brother Gabriel and he. showed. out!  I don't know if it's an indicator of my ignorance or how seldomly represented they usually are in major films, but for someone reason I'm always deeply affected when an actor plays a disabled character with the heart and dignity they deserve. And Williamson as Gabriel is simply magnificent.

What I don't like about this film: Now back to what I was saying about restlessness. In addition to not sufficiently preparing themselves, I think the second major explanation for people being underwhelmed by this film has to do with attention span. But I wouldn't say this is completely their fault! I listened to a podcast episode recently in which an actor/comedian argued that Hollywood habitually substitutes plot for character development, and I think that's obviously affected the way many of us view film. We as average moviegoers are used to having dialogue broken up by action. When we sit down to watch a film, and everything about a scene or scenes is designed for us to focus on the character in front of us and what they're saying, with no convenient distraction for our eyes or ears, it will likely make us fidgety. We're not accustomed to being expected to listen to what characters say for more than a couple minutes at a time. Any longer than that and we wonder what to do with ourselves, zone out, lose track of what's going on. Perhaps that's what happened with a lot of audience members in this instance. Having read the play I was actively listening for lines that I remembered or being reminded of lines that I'd forgotten. But if I'd been attracted to Fences by, say, the lead actors rather than the source material, I can imagine how confused and dissatisfied I might be.

Would I recommend it?: Without a doubt. Fences is certainly a feast for literature and theatre buffs or students, but I'd like to hope that everyone can glean something from the bare bones of the story, which are a middle-aged black man in a precarious situation, and the family he drags along with him.

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