Thursday, September 17, 2009

Captive States

Fish Tank (Dir: Andrea Arnold, 2009)
Afterschool (Dir: Antonio Campos, 2009)

Britain’s Andrea Arnold could be an amazingly resourceful woman, someone with impressive connections or just someone to whom very fortunate things happen. She’s certainly a promising talent, but not all talented people win Oscars for their first short films and get their first two features shown in competition at Cannes. Perhaps her earlier career as a presenter on those ITV Saturday morning shows that I do not remember fondly – No. 73 and Motormouth – did her less harm than one might expect. However she’s got to her current position as pre-eminent British auteur, she’s clearly in a league of her own.

Seeing her in conversation at the London Film Festival a couple of years ago for a special screening of her first feature ‘Red Road’, I was a little disappointed at how inarticulate she appeared. ‘Red Road’ had, it transpired, emerged from a collaborative project in which Lars Von Trier’s Zoetrope company had played a dominant role, and Arnold had been given a list of characters around which she would have to craft her film. She seemed to have little else to say about it and, perhaps understandably, seemed frustrated at some of the audience’s more banal questions.

Luckily, Von Trier’s trademark combination of provocation and pretention were nowhere to be found in Arnold’s finished product, which seemed like a murky, disorientating product of the real world. Arnold had elicited some tremendous performances from an unstarry cast and the cinematography and pacing of the film conspired to create a distinctive, claustrophobic atmosphere.

Nevertheless, I expressed some reservations about the film. I speculated as to whether some of the actions of Arnold’s central female character were completely convincing (although I would have to concede I’m not best placed to judge), perhaps enough to undermine the film's central dramatic conceit. I also felt slightly cheated that Arnold had set up the very engaging and timely CCTV scenario only to sidestep the entire issue in favour of a more conventional revenge thriller with an unsatisfactory denouement.

‘Fish Tank’ is perhaps less original but a good deal more assured. It takes Arnold’s natural feel for location and mood and applies them to something which could be described as a social realist genre piece. Arnold not only brilliantly establishes the tension and frustration of a life in enclosed space and with limited opportunity, but also contrasts this with some brilliantly composed images of the wilder, unforgiving Essex countryside.

In the manner of Ken Loach, Arnold again draws terrific performances from her cast, particularly from the established Michael Fassbender and from untrained newcomer Katie Jarvis. Jarvis, who got the role after being spotted mouthing off at a railway station, is certainly a bright spark and one hopes that she is guided to more acting opportunities in the future. Fassbender, who is clearly becoming more selective with his roles now, just goes from strength to strength.

The story focuses on Mia, a prickly, obtuse and naïve fifteen-year-old living in an Essex council estate with her drunken, disinterested mother and her audacious younger sister. Her appetite for confrontation and adventure places her in difficult situations – getting in trouble for breaking another girl's nose with a deft headbutt or ending up in danger when trying to rescue a captive horse. The latter situation is a none-too-subtle but nevertheless affecting metaphor for Mia’s own desire for freedom.

Her life begins to change irrevocably with the appearance of Conor (played by Fassbender) who begins a relationship with her mother. Conor pierces their world with an attractive casual insouciance which masks his secrets and motivations. The first thing he does is to praise Mia, claiming ‘you dance like a black…I mean it as a compliment’. It’s doubtful whether anyone has even noticed Mia’s passion for urban dance before, never mind encouraged it. It represents mysterious new territory for a young girl with little experience of warmth or love.

At first, Mia is confused about how to react and oscillates between reciprocating Conor’s affection (which seems sincere) and flatly rejecting him. There’s a brilliant scene in which Conor takes the whole family to some marshes and catches a fish. Mia’s mother and sister cower on the bank but Mia bravely follows Conor into the water. She cuts her foot in the process and Conor carries her back to the car, but the warm atmosphere quickly reverts to something unbearably tense.

Arnold establishes a sort of grim inevitability to her narrative arc. She’s not in the least bit subtle in establishing the erotic tension between Conor and Mia and it’s hardly a great plot spoiler to reveal that, after a night of heavy drinking, they end up having rather sordid sex. I’m a little agnostic as to whether this inevitability heightens the sense of claustrophobia or whether it actually undercuts the drama. Either way, I can’t help feeling the film suffers a little for occasionally resorting to arthouse cliche. The use of slow motion and heavy breathing on the soundtrack whenever Conor and Mia are in close proximity seems a little simplistic. It risks glamorising the transgression, of which Conor is painfully aware, but which Mia does not recognise until it is too late.

The relationship, of course, is actually a good deal more complicated than this crass eroticism suggests. Mia desperately needs a father figure, and ends up conflating this in her own mind with sexual attraction. Following their encounter, and Conor’s predictable abrupt departure, the film shifts gear as Mia delves for more information, uncovering some shocking truths and, in one brilliant moment at a ‘dance’ audition, finding a real sense of integrity and self belief. This, combined with the escape at the end of the film (whether temporary or permanent) demonstrates Arnold’s essential optimism, and provides a much needed glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak landscape.

At one point towards the end, it looks like the film might drift into ‘Red Road’ style revenge territory. Thankfully, Arnold holds back brilliantly, merely flirting with this theme in a manner which is entirely in keeping with Mia’s character. During this sequence, she ratchets up the tension and very quickly removes it – a sure sign that she has many more mature films to come.

‘Fish Tank’ is not, as some have suggested, a masterpiece. If we are rash in bestowing good films with such status, then we are doing a disservice both to audiences and to cinema. There are clear flaws – from the aforementioned stylistic stereotypes to some parts being a little underwritten. What it is though is an extremely promising and confident work, more controlled and communicative than its predecessor, which proves that there is still great space for expression in the field of social realism.

Young director Antonio Campos is arguably emerging as something of a Stateside counterpart to Arnold. He caused something of a stir with his short film ‘Buy It Now!’, about a teenage girl auctioning her virginity on ebay. With ‘Afterschool’, he has crafted one of the year’s more eye-catching and acclaimed features, albeit one that wears its influences proudly on its sleeve. With its preoccupation with video and high levels of tension, ‘Afterschool’ has been compared with Michael Haneke’s ‘Hidden’, although the ghostly school corridors of Gus Van Sant’s ‘Elephant’ may have exerted an even greater influence. Campos has at least had the grace to develop his own affectations – much of ‘Afterschool’ is framed in a very unconventional manner, leaving heads and faces curiously out of shot.

I often comment that school is the most political environment we experience in our lives – more so than any workplace or indeed any explicitly political institution. Campos goes much further than this in establishing it as a chilling, alienating place repressing expression and feeling. So completely dispiriting is this portrait that it seems more like a depiction of a prison. With its harsh lighting and creepy sound design, ‘Afterschool’ is distinctive chiefly for being the coldest, most austere film I have seen in some time. This at times makes it quite challenging to watch.

The film’s protagonist Rob, played appropriately listlessly by Ezra Miller, is compulsively addicted to some of the internet’s darker offerings, from violent pornography to confrontational clips on YouTube. He is interested, he says in slices of ‘things that seem real’. Rob is inarticulate, clumsy and unconfident, particularly in his relationships with girls, and appears to inhabit a world where drugs, both illegal and prescribed are commonplace. Actually, rather than bring him closer to the real world, his immersion in video serves to detach him further from reality.

Rob joins an after school video club to learn filming techniques and perhaps to get closer to a girl. Whilst working on a project, he inadvertently captures the school’s leading lights, glamorous and popular blonde twins, collapsing and dying after snorting cocaine that may have been cut with rat poison. His response to this traumatic experience is affectless and dulled, although it inevitably provokes the well-intentioned but naïve concern of all the adults around him.

Indeed, one of my major misgivings with ‘Afterschool’ is its treatment of the adult community of the school, from its patronising counsellor to its foolish headteacher. The latter shows extraordinary depths of idiocy by assigning Rob to make a video diary in memory of the girls and then being shocked by the unflinchingly honest product with which he is presented (Robert’s film eschews both diplomacy and production values). Predictably Rob’s mother, heard only in a terse telephone conversation in the school common room, is similarly witless and lacking in understanding. Whilst these portrayals don’t quite hit the levels of adult caricature favoured by Channel 4’s Skins, they do fail in the need to capture the complexity of relationships between teenagers and adults (something Andrea Arnold obviously confronts more explicitly in ‘Fish Tank’). Adults can of course seem distant or unhelpful at that age – but usually some are able to bridge the perceived divide and find some common ground. Perhaps these uncomplicated roles were simply necessary for Campos to establish his sense of alienation and confusion.

There are some convincing touches – from Rob’s fumbling and apparently unsatisfying first sexual encounter to his simmering resentment at his room-mate stealing his girlfriend. Campos also does an assured job in realising the real and significant impact such a tragic event would have on a school community. Rob actually captures this in his video, but the headteacher would, understandably, prefer to present the bereaved family with benign platitudes set to appropriate music.

The film’s brutal aesthetic is sustained throughout – an impressive achievement, although one which leaves critical judgment somewhat in the service of personal taste. There is a great deal to admire about ‘Afterschool’, perhaps a little less to like. The film poses intriguing and important questions about guilt and complicity and leaves them tantalisingly unresolved.

One final thought – if ‘Afterschool’ has been so admired on both sides of the Atlantic (in the UK, it received a feature review in Sight and Sound, and broadly positive assessments from Peter Bradshaw and Philip French, widely believed to be our most influential broadsheet critics) – why has it only been showing in one screen in London?!

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