All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.

([v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)





Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, U.K.)

[SPOILERS] There is a moment in Fish Tank which I suppose could be called its denouement, or its "reveal," although if the information withheld up to this point comes as any sort of surprise to the viewer he or she is sorely ill-equipped at reading genre cues even when presented in their biggest and most honking form. But I digress -- this moment comes when our feisty young protagonist, 15-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) surreptitiously follows her mom's boyfriend Connor (new British It Boy Michael Fassbender) after he abruptly moves out of their flat in the projects. (Mia is more than a little invested in Connor, since by this point his friendly-stepfather solicitousness has already crossed the line into underage seduction. Having tapped the Lolita trim, dude hightails it out of there.) Mia discovers that Connor (surprise!) has a nice ranch-style house out on Respectable Street -- wife, daughter, nice car, coffee table with framed holiday snaps, and one of these, which everybody with a kid seems to have, from The Pit in "The Wire" to Juniper Creek on "Big Love." Have you noticed that?


Anyhow, this is a turning point not just for Mia and Connor, but for Arnold and Fish Tank. Prior to this point, everything we've seen in the film has been pure miserablist cliché, periodically offset with daft, laughable metaphor. Mia, her mom (Kierston Wareing, doing what she can in a thankless one-note role) and younger sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths) are the modern low-class family. With mom skanking about, she and the kids hurling insults, Mia cutting school, all parties dodging responsibility, this sort of down-the-nose "realism" always writes itself; with a bit more outright baroque flair we'd be in the territory of a white trash Precious. Mia, the fitful ladette desperate for some appropriate target for her energies, gets into fights, works on her B-girl moves, and (it's true) keeps trying to free an abused white horse she finds chained up on a concrete slab (and almost gets raped for her troubles). Sing it, Sting! "There's a chained white foal in a vacant lot / That's my soul up there!"


So into this familiar admixture Arnold throws Connor, the mysterious outsider who will prey on Mia's awkward self-consciousness and sexual coming of age. But when we see that he is indeed a middle-class subject, I had a brief epiphany, that perhaps Arnold's braying overstatement of the bottomless vulgarity of the urban poor was actually intentional. Was I watching a comedy, or at the very least a sly piece of self-aware metacinema? After all, the relentless construction of "realism" and "the authentic," which more often than not inscribe themselves (as caricature) on the backs of the working class, has been the bugbear of British art cinema for decades. For every genuine poet of the common people -- Terence Davies and Lynne Ramsay in recent years, and Bill Douglas as a prime exemplar -- there are thirty fingerwagging pedants eager to show, yet again, just how hopeless and fucked up you are when you're drunk and have no money (and how very, very sad it is). This is art as cheap anthropological tourism, and Arnold's inexplicably praised 2003 short film Wasp is an apt example of this.


And so, when we follow Mia as she tracks Connor back from his short-time shag in the council houses, only to return to the 'burbs, as if getting home from a movie, I thought for a brief moment that Arnold had found it within herself to indict this entire rampant tendency within British cinema, to turn her own and our spectatorial tourism / poverty porn inside out. When Mia breaks into Connor's empty house, pops a squat and pees on the floor, this (admittedly comic) return to the usual values -- Mia the project girl as feral animal -- it started to become clear that subversion of tropes wasn't really on Arnold's mind. But then Mia, irrational anger-bomb that she is, momentarily kidnaps Connor's little girl, demonstrating that these poor women are so damaged that they will always strike out at other girls rather than the patriarchy, and what's more, they're just batshit insane. And so, based on the evidence here, I can't fathom why this filmmaker has garnered such attention this early in her career. Where is the artistry? Where are the ideas? Apart from the usual tsk-tsking of would-be moral uplift, Andrea Arnold has nothing to contribute to feminism, class politics, or the art of film.