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Edinburgh International Film Festival 2009: Moves ("Fish Tank," Arnold)

Andrea Arnold's follow-up to her acclaimed Red Road (2006).
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Andrea Arnold's follow-up to her acclaimed Red Road (2006), follows also in the footsteps of Alan Clarke, director of films and BBC plays, whose influence has spread out in strange ways since his untimely death in 1990.
The biggest clue in Fish Tank is the roving camera, following teen protagonist Mia (Katie Jarvis, a precocious and committed performance) through her council estate ghetto in relentless long takes. This style, honed by Clarke in late works such as the influential Elephant, a minimalistlitany of homicides(Gus Van Sant's namesake tragedy is one of the most interesting and intelligent responses to Clarke's work), is the perfect analogue for his insistently truthful, unsparing vision. Never sentimentalizing, and never backing down from the most awful confrontations, Clarke left a high bar for his eager followers to vault.
Filming in the old-fashioned TV ratio of 1:1.33, as Clarke often did, Arnold and her regular DP Robbie Ryan deprive us of most of our peripheral vision as they sweep along with their dynamic lead actress. It feels like any moment a truck might blast into frame and kill her, or us. Since social realism's characters are particularly vulnerable to the hammer-blows of an indifferent society, this possibility doesn't seem that unlikely, and it imparts a nervy edge to even the longest longueurs.
Unfortunately, the stylistic analogue for Arnold's story is her tendency to abandon her chosen aesthetic in moments of doubt, where she falls back on default patterns of filmmaking. Since the aggressive and neglected Mia has a secret dream to be a dancer, we see her rehearse her hip-hop moves several times in the film, and Arnold breaks the flow of the dance with unnecessary cuts to feet and face, rarely pulling back far enough for us to actually see what the girl is doing. An invasion of the MTV approach, mercifully watered down, but absolutely fatal to the stern observational style showcased elsewhere. And the fracturing of the scene certainly doesn't help the audience experience Mia's pleasure in movement: by obscuring the dance, Arnold robs us of that joy. (She has a considerable challenge to overcome by filming all the dances in the confined spaces of tower block flats, but a few all-too brief wide angles demonstrate the possibility of achieving sustained takes in head-to-toe long-shots, even in these boxy little interiors.)
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This backing away from a fully-developed style is mirrored in the story, which meanders towards tragedy and then ducks out at the last minute, serving up a Hollywood happy ending more redolent of the 1940s than anything in the New British Cinema of Richardson and Anderson, let alone Clarke's bleak vision. It's pleasing to see things work out for Mia, who is a lot more soft-centered than her introductory head-butt scene would suggest, but is this resolution credible?
Like Red RoadFish Tank becomes a tale of revenge, in which a betrayed Mia risks everything to get back at the man who has exploited her. There's genuine tension in the scenes of child endangerment, and the suspicion that Arnold will opt out of seeing her plot through to its logical conclusion (Red Road likewise takes the gentle way out) does not predominate: a real tragedy seems possible. But perhaps there's a feeling that audiences are tired of British naturalist cinema diving into despair? But how else can the genre (for it is a genre, with its own, particularly rigid conventions) signal a demand for social change without a downbeat ending to send the public out angry? Fish Tank is an honorable attempt to sugar the pill without diluting the medicine, but it fails. It's heart isn't in it. For all the realist shouting and swearing, it's almost as if there's a fear of conflict and negativity.
"It's a poor sort of art that doesn't seek to change the world," argued Lindsay Anderson. It's not quite clear if that's Fish Tank's goal. But the film doesn't have Clarke's unflinching determination to show the world.
I fear the criteria of stylistic consistency and cheerfulness of ending are less applicable when applied to a film whose subject is a post-pubsescent female’s psyche. It was one of my greatest pleasures at Cannes this year to watch Fish Tank, feeling quite strongly that Arnold had deft relationships with her camera and cutting— and in such lithe relationships she takes freedoms that may at times come across as inconsistencies. Specifically, I noted a traversal between tones and shooting styles— particularly between moments of closeness and closetedness from Mia. Said traversal moved me, however— in it, I saw myself as a teenage female far more clearly than before, perhaps as my mother saw me. At once impenetrably shut off, angry, unpredictable; and shortly after, elated, narcissistic, predictably in love with the world. Such a melding of style and purpose ultimately provide an even higher level of unpredictability on the part of Mia; and is it not so that the most delicious thing in cinema is a loose camera in the frame, as is evidenced with live animals and children? Mia as a character is much akin to Rosetta of the title film by the Dardenne brothers. We and the camera follow her as she produces chaos, closing doors in all around her physically and emotionally. While Rosetta takes a far more objective point of view, however, Fish Tank braves the interior of Mia’s being. This is perhaps showcased most greatly by her dancing. The fragmentation of her performance is not for lack of confidence in it— the performance is not the point. Most obviously is this the case in her dance for Connor— her vague sexuality, her gaze, her privileged teenage elation and temporary confidence. What distinctly matters less in Fish Tank is Mia’s actual performance as a dancer— she is quite poor at dancing, in fact. Rather, similar to James Gray’s ability to simultaneously show you just enough of a character’s physical form before swiftly bringing you delectably close to register his eyes, Arnold picks and chooses, nay, directs her camera with the tenderest of a disciplinarian’s hands.
Well, I admire everything you say. For me, by obscuring the dance, Arnold robs the scene of emotion, and her close views mostly don’t reveal any additional emotion. The dance for Connor is the exception because it’s all about their interplay. But the final dance felt like a terribly sentimental backing-away from serious drama. I do like inconsistencies of style, and I can see roughly how these ones worked for you. I didn’t experience any additional closeness from the close shots, though. I take it you mean “loose cannon in the frame”? It’s a tribute to Arnold’s work with Katie Jarvis that she seems as uncontrolled as an animal or small child, but her actions are largely choreographed and scripted – it’s a very convincing illusion of reality.
I find it strange that you think Fish Tank has ‘a Hollywood happy ending’. She’s leaving her family at the age of 15 and going it alone. Her education is incomplete and she has no job. She’s travelling with a older man, who, in the short amount of time she’s known him, seems decent enough. But that’s it. She’s never even expressed that much interest in him previously. How exactly can this be seen as a happy ever after?

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