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[personal profile] aralias asked me if I could do a commentary on Change of Engagement, my By the Sword roadtrip fic. Here it is! There's a lot of it - less commentary than fic, which is good, but still a lot. And mostly it is babbling about fencing and By the Sword, rather than much insight to my writing process, haha.

This fic is kind of weird for me because on the one hand - I think there are a lot of technical/stylistic flaws with the writing and the pacing feels awkward and there are parts where I'm not sure what the point of that scene was?? BUT I also started writing the fic with the goal of getting all my feelings about By the Sword out there, and I'm really surprised at how well that went. Also there are a lot of images that still make me snicker as I reread the fic, so that seems like a success.

I've seen By the Sword five times now, and I've introduced upwards of fifty people to it (reactions have been... mixed). It's got a lot more staying power than most movies with me, and I think it's because I can actually see three movies going on. There's the movie they wanted to make, the movie I wanted to see, and the movie they actually made. Like, you get the feeling that this is supposed to be a tight, suspenseful movie, all about Villard and Suba reaching some sort of equilibrium after decades of shockwaves from the death of Villard's father. But the way they made the movie - with the comedy segments and the (choppily inserted) romances - turns it into the story of plucky underdog and good guy Suba challenging the callous Villard over... coaching style differences, I guess? And then there's the movie I desperately want to see, which is all about Villard sinking deeper into competitive fencing and trying to make himself and his students perfect and invulnerable, and how that all crashes around his ears when the man who murdered his father walks into his club. AND maybe there's a fourth movie, because Eric Roberts and F. Murray Abraham seem to be making a completely different movie than the rest of the actors, haha. Roger Ebert put it really well in his review - "Roberts and Abraham ...create characters much more interesting and dimensional than this thin screenplay really requires." Yep. Yeah. My investment in BtS is much more about Villard and Suba than the actual fencing plot.

ANYWAY, that is why I'm so fascinated by this movie and why I've watched it so many times. (My normal rewatch rate for a movie I like is... once every two years or so.) And why, when aralias suggested that maybe I would want to write BtS roadtrip fic for my idfic bingo, I jumped on the idea and wrote 8k in about a week. Finally, I could realize my vision of a dark, suspenseful BtS, with all the extraneous characters cut out!

Except I actually wrote a weird half-comedy where Suba and Rachel have off-screen sex in a hotel room and Trebor and Clavelli (romantic subplot characters) have way more POV-time than anyone else. Maybe there's some kind of mystic black hole of BtS plots and this is what happened to the screenwriters too?

Okay, starting the commentary on the text now. The title! I like this title a lot. Titles are a struggle for me, and I see that the .txt and word docs were just called 'roadtrip'. I think I just scavenged through a wiki list of fencing terms when I needed a proper name? Wikipedia searches and song lyrics account for almost all of my fic titles, haha. A 'Change of Engagement' is an epee and foil technique, where you're basically jockeying for position. You're close enough that your blades are touching, and you try to control that engagement so that you're at an advantage and your opponent is in a weaker position. In the movie, it feels like Suba is in control of the engagement basically the entire time, and Villard only regains a little ground at the end of the movie by playing into that engagement and accepting Suba's framing of them as rival coaches and equals. Suba has the power there, because he's a good fencer and Villard's a good fencer and because Villard has spent years imagining and aspiring to Suba's fencing as the man who dueled his father and won. That frame is more or less dominant for the first part of this fic, until we get the confrontation between Suba and Villard and Villard changes the engagement to one between a man who's served time for a crime and a victim of that crime. Villard has the advantage there, because he's the one who can give or withhold forgiveness.

So this title is very deep.

The plot for this fic was basically set as soon as I started talking to aralias about it:
I SHOULD write some By the Sword fic. I should write roadtrip BtS fic where the maestro and whatsisface ex-con guy have split into rival clubs and they both go to The Nationals to coach their students and inevitably fight with each other and both of them get black carded and have to sit outside the gym and coach via messengers and/or cell phones. I should do that.
But then I also got very invested in FENCING ROADTRIPS and all of my emotions about those, which I think is why Clavelli and Trebor get so much screentime here. I hate riding in cars (esp long drives) and also sleeping in hotels/sharing beds with people and also getting up super early and also competing. But somehow fencing trips (which combine ALL of these things) are amazing?? I think it's because of the bonding, haha. I was talking to some of my teammates about this on Friday, and everyone had great stories about fencing trips and all of them had to do with this person or that person or the other - you learn a lot about each other when you're stuck in a car for 8 hours, or in the same hotel room for two nights, or when you're sleep-deprived and incredibly invested in your teammate winning this next bout. And that's not really something I experienced before college - I didn't go to high school or do a lot of team/group activities - so I think that feeling of togetherness had an especially big impact on me? And I wanted to get some of that in here.

I also wrote this fic very linearly, which is weird for me? Normally I get an idea and some funny lines and write everything out of order and then go back and fill in the gaps. But iirc I wrote all of the scenes in proper order and didn't edit that much afterward. I can't tell if it shows or not.

I WAS GOING TO TALK ABOUT THE TEXT, sorry. This commentary is going to be so long.

In the year after Suba had confronted Villard at his salle, most things hadn't changed much.
I can't decide if this is totally reasonable or totally absurd. On the one hand - Suba is definitely violating his parole or SOMETHING, and I can't imagine that he would be able to have his own fencing club. On the other hand - Villard would definitely try to keep this whole thing as quiet as possible. I can't imagine him filling out a police report. ALSO it is really funny to me to have the contrast between Villard's big dedicated fencing studio and Suba's club that he shares with a bunch of other activities. About four months after writing this I found out that an old coach of mine had a fight with the owners of his club and split off to coach out of a church basement, so this is a pretty normal result of fencing drama.

In general, I fudge a lot more stuff in this first scene than later on. Clavelli, Tanos and Johnson are WAY higher rated than they should be, but this was important because I wanted them to be fencing in the same competitions as Trebor, Tatiana and Hobbs. Otherwise they could both be at the NAC but fencing on completely different days which would be useless for drama. So I guess they all got incredibly better in a year and fenced in lots of competitions? Who knows.

"The Virginia NAC is in a month," [Villard] announced. "You are all, of course, encouraged to go."
Haha, this is totally a jab at the movie. The whole drama about only one fencer from the club going to The Nationals is completely manufactured - first off, Summer Nationals does have a limit to how many people can go, but eligibility is determined at state-wide competitions (I actually refereed at the last one in my current state). Second, each state can send three people from each age/gender/rating-division combination, so it was weird to have Trebor and Clavelli competing against each other (although it made for cool tension). So here we have Villard telling everyone they CAN go, but then imposing a limit on how many people he'll give attention to, which seems way more reasonable to me.

Also this scene sets up the first of a billion comparisons between Villard and Suba's coaching style. I think this is where the movie I wanted to see and the movie the screenwriters wanted differ the most? Because in the movie it is made pretty clear that Villard is too harsh and coaches people to be too aggressive, while Suba is all about BELIEVE IN YOURSELF. But as someone who has had a lot of coaches I just see two completely valid but very different coaching styles, and I wanted to see if I could set up the contrast without making one seem way better than the other. So - Suba runs his club more like a group of friends, and Villard runs his club more like a business/a group of competitors. You see both variations a lot in fencing, and they turn out two groups of very distinct fencers who can still be equally skilled.

I wrote this fic after living in my current city for a year, and Villard vs Suba's club is unapologetically modeled on a club rivalry here, haha. BUT I also wrote this a couple months before taking on my current (and first) coaching job, so it's interesting how my perspective on this has changed. I think my coaching style is somewhere between Suba and Villard - I'm way easier-going than Villard (thank god), but when I watch BtS I tend to agree with Villard's coaching advice a lot more than Suba's.

"Hi," said the woman in the driver's seat. "I'm Rachel, and you must be Erin. Great to meet you."
Why is Rachel in this fic? It is partly because I like Rachel and partly because I needed an assistant coach stand-in to match Gallagher and party to make dumb jokes. Like:

"ABBA?" Johnson muttered, not loud enough to be heard up front. "What about my Boyz II Men mixtape?"
This cracks me up. So much! I had to do a LOT of research about the 90s, because I assumed BtS was set when it came out and that put the fic in 1992. I was born in 1991. So I looked up stuff about fencing and rule changes in the 90s and also A LOT about pop culture in the 90s. Which then turned into silly music jokes. I tend to process time through music (THIS is what I was listening to in early 2011, THAT is what I was listening to at the beginning of grad school), so music references are an easy way to date a story - especially one that takes place in the recent past.

Trebor stood with Hobbs and Tatiana - he didn't like them much, but they were better than the foilists and the sabreurs. At least they fenced the right weapon.
This is the most FENCING line I have ever written. All fencers jokingly despise the weapons they don't fence.

Also - note that the foil and sabre fencers exist now, because they're never heard from again. It was very painful to me to write a fic all about epee because a) I do not understand epee and had to work really hard to write the fencing, and b) I fence sabre and despise epee. (I AM SO BAD AT EPEE.) But the only named fencers in the movie are all epee, so I was trapped.

Also also, more important contrasts between Villard and Suba's clubs. Clavelli et al are friends who tease each other, while Trebor et al nearly get into a fistfight on the sidewalk. I see this with more friendly vs more competitive clubs a lot and again I don't think it's a strictly bad or good thing? It's all about temperament. Some people need more support from a friendly club and don't want to be constantly needled by their teammates, and other people need more challenge and don't want to be coddled. I lean more into the friendly club side, but I also fence at 3 clubs currently and I get a lot out of the change in environment too.

Villard smiled like a snake - scaly and with the possibility that he was about to unhinge his jaw.
Haha, how obvious is it that I've spent a lot of time looking at Eric Roberts' face? IT'S SUCH AN INTERESTING FACE. And sometimes he smiles very awkwardly, like this. Sometimes Julia Roberts does it too (see here) and makes me wish she was cast as the villain in something so I could watch her smile awkwardly as she threw someone into a shark tank.

Uh. Anyway. Villard here is a mash-up of all the most intense drivers I know, including an elephant handler who will drive his rig from Florida to NY and only stop for gas the whole time, and my dad who ONLY listens to NPR (or sports radio) while driving or doing anything else, which was a source of immense frustration to me as a teenager. NPR repeats its programs! You can flip the channel for the third broadcast of Fresh Air!

"This is Fresh Air; I'm Terry Gross," said the radio. "My guest today is Gore Vidal-"
Witness my research skills! This is a 1992 interview, and the quote from Vidal is paraphrased from a transcript. This kind of detail-fixated accuracy is very important to me and no-one else.

"I don't know if I have any working bodycords," said Johnson. "I swear these were fine when we left."
I don't know why this happens, but it always does. Everything works until you get to the competition, and then everything breaks at once.

The whole scene with Suba and Rachel giggling and making out is based on two coaches I had who were married. They were NEVER inappropriate, but for April Fool's one year some of the fencers faked up a couple email addresses and sent some 'accidental' cyber-flirting emails to students-only fencing list that were just about as pg and completely uncomfortable as this scene. Except some people didn't realize it was a joke and got upset with the coaches over it and the whole team ended up in trouble and no one ever did anything like that for April Fool's again (probably for the best).

It was showing a really bizarre music video. A banana wobbled on the screen, followed by a pair of rotating lemons.
The Baby Got Back video is SO WEIRD. Compare Nicki Minaj's new Anaconda video, which has just as much butt, but not QUITE as much fruit. Although there is still some fruit. But the fruit is in context instead of just being fruit. I forgot what my point was.

"Just straighten your epee," said Erin. "It'll be over in a couple of minutes."
THIS IS SUCH GOOD INNUENDO and I can't decide if it's perfect as is or if it's dropped a little too flat.

Villard was sitting calmly on a plastic bench, carefully picking the fried breading off of his chicken before he ate it.
I love this image and also love that the Suba/Villard 'wow my coach is human' comparison is that Suba has sex with his girlfriend and Villard... eats food.

I'm really fond of the three scenes of the first Villard/Suba confrontation. From the build-up scene, the best part is:
"The Maestro thinks getting stabbed builds character." Erin slowed to a walk as they got close to the coaches. "Let's hope neither of them want to build character today, okay?"
I gave Clavelli a lot of my favorite lines, haha.

From the actual Villard/Suba confrontation, this is a magical place where I think I conveyed everything I wanted? Suba trying to play everything off as cool vs Villard freaking out and reminding him that their fight had physical consequences. Suba trying to frame the fight as a learning moment vs Villard framing the fight as a fight. Trebor flinching when Villard forces what must be an incredibly bad smile. Also:
Villard let go of Suba's jacket, Suba let go of his wrist, and the rest of the world started existing again.
I like this both because it gets across how wrapped up they are in this confrontation AND because this is how it feels when you finish an especially intense bout. Most of the more experienced fencers I talk to agree that when they're fencing, they can see their opponent and hear the referee and that's it. Ability to hear teammates/coaches vary, haha. But it's some serious tunnel vision.

The best part from the post-confrontation is that Trebor has been running around this whole time with only one sock on and no shoes.

Johnson popped his knuckles, stretching his hands. "I was talking about a buddy of mine who got busted for weed, and Suba was like, I was in prison once. And I was like, what for? And he said, I killed a man. Just like that."
There are two things going on with this last sentence.

A) the scene in the movie where Rachel asks Suba why he went to prison and he says 'I killed a man' is ALWAYS FUNNY, because his delivery is so weird and her reaction is so muted. Also because the fourth time I saw this was with a big group of fencers who hadn't seen it before, and when Rachel asked Suba why he went to prison somebody said 'I killed a man' in a gruff voice and then Suba ACTUALLY SAID IT and one person almost fell off the couch laughing. This is why I bring it up again later with Rachel herself.

B) Fencing coaches are wackjobs. Every single one. And the justification always is 'well, they're good fencers,' as we hear from both Clavelli and Trebor. I'm kind of torn about this because there are a lot of coaches I like both because and in spite of their eccentricities? But also there are people who I wish would get pushed out of the sport, because their wackjobness is seriously poisonous. But because they're 'good fencers' they stick around and people get warned away from their clubs by word-of-mouth and occasionally they get kicked out of tournaments and that's it.

The point being that while the thing with Villard and Suba is MESSED UP, this situation where they are at the same competition and fighting and their students just kind of roll with it is not actually implausible at all. This happens all the time, although usually no one has died.

Tatiana and Trebor both jumped as Villard's hands landed on their shoulders. "Never," he said, in a deafening whisper, "underestimate your opponent."
OH MAN, I love this image. I am lauding myself a lot because I have basically forgotten the process of writing this fic and am discovering most of it anew. I can see this so clearly.

I like the Villard/Suba comparison here of - Villard fixating on the Tatiana/Tanos bout and prepping for it while Tatiana is trying to focus on her next opponent vs Suba trying to get Tanos to focus on her next opponent while he's actually fixating on the Tatiana/Tanos bout. They're basically in the same headspace but reacting to it differently.

Also, I can't decide if it's good or weird that the big dramatic fencing bout is between two of the most minor characters from the movie? I remember that I wanted to focus on women's fencing in particular, and also that in real life this particular women's epee event happened the day before the men's epee event. I think maybe I wanted Erin to finish higher than Tanos, and also wanted Villard and Suba kicked out pretty early on? Or I didn't want to rehash the Clavelli/Trebor bout from the movie. Idk.

The bout itself was SO HARD to write, because I wanted it to be dramatic but also I don't understand epee but also I was worried about getting too technical and losing people but also part of the joke to me is that Suba and Villard end up physically fighting over some very technical aspects of the rules. Maybe it turned out okay?

The director rolled in - a man with a beard and a wheelchair.
Cameo by this guy, who at the time was my most recent favorite referee. Now that I'm more embedded in my local fencing scene I'm friends with a lot of people who know him so it is kind of weird that he shows up in my fanfic? This is why I will never write Fencing RPF.

The director making fun of the fancy salutes is ALL ME. I never saw fancy salutes on the east coast, but they're everywhere in the midwest? So weird. But Villard and Suba have NYC clubs so there is no excuse. Do normal person salutes.

"Touch right," said the director. "It's a grounded strip."
"Then it must have a bad spot," said Villard. "Can we test that?"

The whole thing with the grounded strip is INCREDIBLY TECHNICAL but actually matters a lot! The deal is that an epee will go off if it hits ANYTHING with sufficient force, except something grounded like another epee or a properly grounded strip. A partially-grounded strip with a couple of bad spots is the worst because it lulls referees into a false sense of security. When I wrote this I was thinking about it theoretically, but this year at Summer Nationals one of my friends fenced on a partially-grounded strip and the referee did nothing about it even after it was proved to have bad spots. My friend lost at least two bouts because of it. IT WAS SO SAD.

In reality the referee doesn't have to actually acknowledge the coaches at all, and we can see that he gets stricter about that later in the bout.

"Sugar saps your strength," said Villard.
This is something I was told right when I was beginning to fence and I believe it completely even though I am now aware that it is not true. Also it is definitely the kind of thing Villard will say.

In general, the coaching advice holds up pretty well, I think? Coming back to it after having coached for the first time, I don't think I would change much. Good job, past me. I like how Villard talks like an inspirational poster sometimes (a sort of mean inspirational poster).

[Suba:] "But you saw Tatiana crash into Tanos. Did that look right? He's teaching these kids to be killers."
Suba is and is not overreacting here. Corps-a-corps usually isn't that big a deal, although if people get knocked over etc it can be dangerous (that's what happens during the Trebor/Clavelli bout in the movie). Probably four-ish months before I wrote this, I gave a kid two red cards (1-point penalties) and almost black-carded him (excluded him from competition) because of repeated corps-a-corps. His team did not forget about this when I became their coach, haha. Corps-a-corps hasn't been a card in epee for a while (and now it's not a card in foil or sabre either, recent change), but I think it still was in the 90s? But jostling or the fencing with brutality card they talk about later would be a valid call too.

The rest of this scene is SO FULL of obscure fencing terminology. I am both sorry and very pleased. Like:
"I'll show you non-combativity," growled Suba.
"That makes no sense as a threat," said Villard.

This might be my favorite exchange in the whole thing, and it is so FENCING.

And then Suba and Villard get kicked out. It's actually a miracle it didn't happen earlier. And I like how Suba tries to argue the card while Villard just walks out - it's both a difference in temperament and a difference with how experienced they are with this level of fencing. You can't argue a card and Villard KNOWS you can't argue a card, but for a second Suba still thinks he has a chance.

Also Rachel imitating Suba by shouting the same things a lot - this is funnier now that I've coached because I do tend to repeat myself a lot (because people don't fix their problems the first time!) and sometimes kids imitate me in a really terribly high-pitched voice. So this is what I imagine Rachel doing except with a lower voice and probably not as much mockery.

"You want closure," said Villard. "You did something terrible when you were young, and you paid for it, and now you want me to understand. To forgive you."
"Yes," said Suba, gratefully. "That's exactly it."
"I'm not going to forgive you." Villard looked straight into Suba's eyes. "I'm not going to understand and I'm not going to learn anything from my experiences. You paid for my father's murder, fine. I'm not interested in payment."
Suba slumped against the wall. "So what do we do?"
Villard smiled again. "I was thinking about getting a restraining order."

The coooore of the story, at last. I think this summarizes what I wanted from BtS? I have a lot of sympathy for Suba but I empathize with Villard WAY more. They both lost something from Villard Senior and Suba's duel, but Suba is the only one who has any fault and I got very frustrated at how the movie tries to recast Suba as the one who is owed something. So, here it is. This is exactly what I wanted to say.

Except for the 'smiled again' part. Villard hasn't smiled in AGES, so that must be left over from an earlier draft? I'm going to fix that in the AO3 copy.

I also really like Gallagher coming to scold them. He's such a great token not-wackjob coach.

AND I am still a fan of Suba/believe he's basically a decent (but somewhat obsessive) guy, which is why he goes to get fish. Which is a weird not-resolution, but it is what I wanted. I'm actually not a big fan of resolutions in fiction? They so often feel forced. For instance, [SPOILERS] in the movie version of The Princess Bride, the story ends with everyone escaping and surviving and being happy. But in the book, the story actually ends in the middle of the escape, as injuries get worse and the horses start to falter and pursuit catches up. And as a child I LOVED that ending, and when I saw the movie I was SO MAD that they had left that out. Which is the opposite of how most people felt, haha. But I like how it leaves room to imagine. After this fic, do Villard and Suba eventually reach some sort of reconcilliation? Maybe just a cease-fire? Or does this all explode at Summer Nationals and the cops get called in? I don't know, and that's what makes it interesting to me. Although I do imply that they get booted for the whole season at the next NAC, because that's funny.

Suba made it through a whole morning of coaching without getting black carded again, even though he couldn't look the director from the day before in the face.
Meanwhile, Villard goes back to apologize. I can't decide if I got this Suba/Villard comparison right - in terms of who wants closure vs who is willing to let things go, it feels like Suba would go back and apologize while Villard would just nod very stiffly? But what I was thinking of was level of professionalism. Villard's been to enough of these competitions to be aware of the rumor mill and the need to defend his reputation, while Suba's a little more oblivious to how much this stuff follows you around. Maybe they would both apologize, and Suba would be emotional about it and Villard would be very smooth.

Okay, thinking about it now, a joint apology scene was a HUGE missed opportunity. That would be ridic.

Turning to the results, though, it's really funny to me that both Tatiana and Clavelli got knocked out in the semis and that the big finals confrontation didn't actually happen. And the Suba/Villard 'these are good results'/'I'm so disappointed' juxtaposition seems exactly right.

"This song is about me." Suba's eyes felt hot, and he had to blink. "It's about Villard, and-"
"-couldn't stand to be kept away," sang the radio, "just for the day, from your body-"
"Maybe not that part," said Suba.

Feelings demonstrated through a Chicago song! While Villard gets Nirvana, haha. This is my one nod to shipping Villard/Suba which I DON'T, but- a case could be made. A case based on the slap-fighting scene. That fricking scene.

"It's fencing," said Tanos. "There's always going to be drama."

Hobbs rolled his eyes. "Because I got stomped by James Carpenter."
"And why is that?"
"Because he's an asshole who just pushes you down the strip until you're almost off and panicking and then hits you in the shoulder," said Hobbs. "Like an asshole."

This is another thing that is hilarious ONLY TO ME. Both because this is how I feel when a coach asks me to analyze a bout I lost ('well, coach, I think my main problem is that I'm not perfect in every way') and because I took the time to see who would be a good epee fencer in 1992 and find video of how he fenced. Thank you, James Carpenter, for putting your Olympic highlights on youtube. I'm really glad that you're a popular enough fencer that this fic doesn't show up when googling you.

The whole thing with Villard listening to 'Come As You Are' is because I actually do want to make a fanvid to it for BtS. Like this:
Come as you are, as you were, as I want you to be
As a friend, as a friend, as an old enemy.

Is basically Villard's whole arc in relation to Suba. I mean not exactly, but. Some of the music stuff (esp Baby Got Back) feels very tacked on to me now, like I was just going 90s! wow!, but if that is the price I had to pay in order to discover the Nirvana-BtS connection, I am fine with that.

I think that is most of what I have to say about By the Sword/this fic. Which is a lot. So I'm glad I did this commentary! I should request it for Yuletide again, man, I crave so much BtS fic.
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