Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Cine Excess

Cine Excess is a cult film conference which is held in London every Spring. The conference includes screenings, panels and a Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony. Last year Dario Argento was the guest of honour. I was lucky enough to ask him a question and was given a long, seductive response in Italian. I was shaking, I thought I was going to pass out - what a fan! My fellow delegates will remember that I did pass out and was hospitalised later after an allergic reaction to a food colouring in the cocktails I had necked - I'm never going to touch an 'Open Wound' again.

I've been involved for the last three years and have given two papers on Nigerian Evangelist cinema. African Horror-Trash: Recycling and Transmogrification was my offering for Cine Excess II and Unearthing Nollywood Filmmaking Practice was my contribution last year. This paper is being developed into a chapter for Screening the Undead: Vampires and Zombies in Film and Television edited by my Brunel colleagues Milly Thompson, Leon Hunt and Sharon Lockyer. This book will published by I. B Tauris next year. Last year, for the Corporeal Excess: Cult Bodies conference in May 2010 I wrote on the function of dance in Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank.

Live Love and Give as Good as You Get, Body as Non Place in Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank.

In this paper I will look at the treatment of dance in Andrea Arnold’s film Fish Tank. I will argue that Fish Tank is far removed from other dance dramas that have a downtrodden teenager at the heart of them. These have been neatly placed in a subgenre ‘Dance Prole Dance’ mentioned in Owen Hatherley’s blog ‘Sit Down Man You’re a Bloody Tragedy’. He is referring to feel good films where dance functions as a means to redeem the working classes and lumpenproleteriat from their bleak existence, such as: Billy Elliot (dir Stephen Daldry 2000) The Full Monty (dir Peter Cattaneo 1997) and Flashdance (dir Adrina Lyn 1983). Specifically, they are liberated from the woes of unemployment due to the demise or instability of the material industries that previously supported them. Here ‘proles’, against all adversity, find a means for their self-expression that allows them a sense of worth usually reserved for the creative classes. In the Full Monty a group of men are disenfranchised as a result of closing steel works in Sheffield. In Flashdance, Alex, also a steel welder, seeks to ‘rise above’ her work as a physical labourer. Similarly, Billy Eliot is growing up in the middle of the 1984 Miner’s Strike and headed for unemployment if he stays in his fast changing area.

Winner of the Cannes Jury Prize 2009, Fish Tank tells the story of Mia (Katie Jarvis). She is fifteen and lives in an estate in Essex, near Tilbury. She lives with her younger sister (Rebecca Griffiths) and her Mum (Kierston Wareing). From the start, Mia is portrayed as a stropy and angry girl who thinks the world is against her. She is right; her best friend has dumped her and her Mum slaps her around. With only a move to a referral unit on the horizon, Mia takes solace in dance. She breaks into a flat on her estate with a bottle of Strongbow, her portable stereo and practices urban dance while looking out onto the bleak semi-rural landscape. Then Connor (Michael Fassbender) moves in, her Mum’s new boyfriend. He takes them all out into the countryside, shows interest in Mia’s dancing and encourages her to apply for a job as a dancer. He also lets her rehearse her dance moves in front of him. It seems that Connor will be the answer to all their troubles. He has a job, a car, and seems to care. The film ends with the family fragmenting. Arnold provides no happy ending. The exposition sets us up for another story about the poor dancer made good, but Mia’s fate turns out to be the opposite of Billy Elliot’s.

In Daldry’s film, Billy (Jamie Bell) is caught up in an argument between his father (Gary Lewis) and his middleclass dance tutor (Julie Walters). In one scene, Billy performs what has been called his ‘angry dance’ where Billy’s instinctual desire to dance erupts against his will, he’s just ‘gotta dance’. He dances along the tops of walls high on the brow of his street, claustrophobically lined with terraced houses. His manoeuvres are highly skilled, acrobatic and energised. Dance here is conveyed as something that can bring you closer to the gods. It is also a leveller, a means to express our ‘natural selves’. Billy enjoys a metaphysical union of body and music in a Dionysian ritual.

In Fish Tank, Arnold creates a detailed picture of how Mia reacts to her world. Dancing does not bring Mia closer to the gods or self-awareness. More, the film uses dancing to show just how far from this ideal she is. Mia’s awkward dancing is her outlet; she drinks, dances and lives out the Billy Elliot dream in her head. Mia watches videos of street dancers on You Tube in the internet cafĂ©, or studies R and B videos on a music channel on her television. She absorbs and then mirrors, her moves are an abstraction of gestures mimicked from the screen. At first the film seems to be setting the scene for a happy ending. Mia will get her dancing job, Connor will move in, the family unit and faith in humanity will be restored. But what is made clear is that although Mia does take her dancing seriously she is not a good dancer. She imagines she is dancing like the people in the videos but Arnold shows us that she actually isn’t. So in this way I would suggest that Mia is exposed as a simulacrum. Her dance steps are empty movements reduced to geometries. She expects her fate to be like Billy Elliot’s because she has seen that on the screen. But the narrative suggests her real world offers no hope, sentimentality is dispensed with in the events that ensue, Mia’s is a nihilistic landscape.

There is also another way Arnold treats physical experience in the film. Her cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s trademark is to use an extremely shallow depth of field. A thin sliver of focal depth will pick out surfaces for a brief moment. For example, when Mia breaks into a travellers’ yard she finds an old horse tied up. This is the horse which she later tries to free, obsessively returning despite warnings from the travellers and threats from their dog. We see just her hand in frame caressing the horse’s side, its skin shivers and focus is pulled to follow the movement. We see a similar treatment of sensual experiences throughout the film. When Mia falls asleep on her Mum’s bed, after being told to clear off while the adults party, Connor picks her up and takes her to her room. As he undresses her the action of the scene suggests he has an ambiguous motivation. Mia is on the edge of adulthood and his tender removal of her clothes is both fatherly and sexual. These motions are picked up in the shallow depth of field, while the rest of the image, subdued in colour, melts into a blur. Or when Connor asks her to smell his aftershave, the brief interaction unfolds in slow motion as she breaths in the fragrance on his neck. When he asks her what she thinks of it she brittles, and tells him it’s like ‘fox piss’. In these instances, Arnold is working with a visual language which suggests a burgeoning desire and the playing out of the rites of passage. But the narrative does not make for any romantic exploration of these themes. This trajectory begins but does not play out. More, the cinematographic language combined with the narrative content reinforces the opposite. Mia needs to touch to find the boundaries of herself by focusing on these sensual interactions. She explores with her fingers but just touches the surface. This touch is a fragment that soon passes. As if she has anterograde amnesia, Mia has physical experiences but these make no lasting impression. Portrayed as empty, she can only exist as surface. Arnold suggests that like the bleak landscape they live in these characters are shells, driven to move in a pattern of repetitive cycles - of touching, trusting for a moment and then going on the defensive, until they reach out to touch again.

This is reinforced by the pivotal scene when Mia shows Connor her dance routine she has made up for her audition. He shows her support, but his behaviour borders on flirting. Mia’s Mum is asleep upstairs and Mia and Connor sit in the curtainless living room; sodium yellow street light pouring in. Here, Mia’s dancing acts as a prop to explore the fascination Connor and Mia have for each other. It creates a reason for him to ask her to sit next to him and to subsequently initiate sex. As Mia shows him her routine the scene is loaded and amorality abounds. After this there is a sequence of physical exchanges. Connor leaves Mia’s Mum, Mia works out where Connor lives, she discovers that he lives with his daughter and wife; she abducts his child who nearly drowns due to Mia’s carelessness. After the child is returned, soaked to the skin, Connor hunts down Mia in his car, when he reaches her he slaps her. Here the characters are portrayed as animals acting out revenge and basic animal instincts. Again for no higher cause. Connor gets off and Mia is still a potential Jon Venables.

It could be argued that Arnold is just suggesting that there is a limited range of behaviours exhibited by the uncivilized working classes. But as I have suggested above, Arnold presents a more detailed shape in the character of Mia. More, the film is an unravelling of the ‘dance prole dance’ subgenre particularly the idea of the body as an ally. In the films I have mentioned before, the body assists the aspiring dancers on their road to success. Here, Mia’s body sometimes allows her to experience a glimmer of hope: the pleasure Connor offers her may have some substance, she feels like she is a good dancer, and maybe the people at her audition will think so too. But the classic ‘dance prole dance’ audition scene is turned on its head as the film draws to a close. We can see it coming, but Mia seemingly doesn’t. When she arrives at the try out, set in a seedy club, it is clear that the organisers are looking for ‘adult’ dancers. Mia finally recognizes that her dancing has a use value, but only as part of the sex trade. The hope promised by her hyperreal experience of dance videos shatters. In her past films, specifically Red Road, she provides an ending that undoes all the dark nihilism that precedes it. Thankfully this doesn’t happen in Fish Tank. However, at the end of the film Arnold provides an uncanny break with realism that while being unredemptive, conveys a certain warmth. When she is about to leave for Wales, Mia stands at the doorway of the living room and watches her Mum dancing to Nas’ ‘Life’s A Bitch And Then You Die.’ ‘Well fuck off then!’ her Mum offers. Mia goes up to her Mum and starts to dance with her, the younger sister joins in. For a moment they all dance to a routine, in time together. It is possible that Mia and her Mum may have danced together in the past and that this is an old routine, or one they both remember from a music video but appears to be unlikely. Hal Hartley films and Hollywood musicals come to mind during this dance sequence that is spontaneous but seems rehearsed at the same time. I would say here this scene hovers between realism and the symbolic. However, this scene intrigued me because while it is uplifting, it offers no sentimental confirmation of meaningfulness of existence. Mia’s fate remains the same. This little dance with her Mum does not undermine the depressing reality that preceded it. I would suggest that if we get any sense of redemption it is from this very break with realism. Here for a moment the family are transported to the reality of the musical - a place where dreams do come true. The family are for a moment let off the hook by a formal trick. Arnold doesn’t transport the family to dance heaven in the narrative (in that Mia doesn’t get a perfect dance career, she’s not a good dancer, and the family isn’t unified by her success), but she does transport them into an imaginary world for a moment with the form of the film (the world of Singing in the Rain or Flashdance). This does not come across as sentimental because the break creates an alienating distancing from realism. We are aware of the images as representation and construction and at the same time we are reminded of the vibrant illusion that cinema and television can create. With Fish Tank, Arnold seems to be joining in with a trend in the negative portrayal of the peripheries of cities, either in the exurbs or in the suburbs. She suggests that the people here live in a non place, a lifeless area with no jobs or anything to do, no ‘community’ or leisure centre. This place is a sprawl - edges are unclear, as dual-carriageway runs into estate blocks - runs into marshes -that turn into the Thames Estuary. Within this space her characters lose their own parameters of self and find themselves in cycles of trying to find their physical boundaries and then giving up hope again. It’s a bleak picture of their existence, but so perfectly executed that the bleak and the beautiful cross paths and repel and attract each other in equal measure.

No comments:

Post a Comment