Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Fish Tank

There was a moment during my viewing of Fish Tank where I thought that the film’s opening moments would be the only restful ones as the protagonist soon thereafter embarks on a bit of a rampage which involves a series of increasingly threatening conflicts, climaxing with a fairly ridiculous quest to free a horse from its chains so that it could gallop off… around the pavement surrounded by fences, and perhaps get hit by a car? The horse is a symbol, of course, and a blatant one, and its obviousness solidified in my mind the idea that the film, despite the implications of the cinematographic style that it would be an understated depiction of the world ‘as it really is’, might be something else. Not entirely, but by half, which is to say that it’s 50% totally crazy, all the time. There are many elements of the film which are fiercely unsubtle, from the protagonist’s bizarre obsession with the horse to the little sister’s ridiculous proclivity for foul language to the inevitable near-drowning of the little girl to the choice of Nas’ lyrics to close out the film: “Life’s a bitch and then you die!” I highlight the ridiculousness of these elements, especially in the film’s opening minutes, because they dictate a certain tone, a certain level of absurdity which distinguished the film immediately (and throughout) from the ‘kitchen-sink drama’ that the film otherwise resembles. The film may not strike people as a black comedy, but I think there are a number of elements which spring directly from the film’s approach which justify such an approach, and these elements certainly worked along the lines of other black comedies I love, and since such a designation derives solely from the audience response there is no better measure in my mind. I may as well note that this tone of overstated absurdity does not by any means cancel out the film’s dramatic implications, and I find the greatest moments to be the moments where both elements combine into simultaneously disconcertingly unsentimental collisions of characters, emotions, and tones.

 In the previous paragraph I detailed how the film’s opening informed my senses of the possibility of a black comedy, but I could just as easily argue from the film’s end. The final scene of the film involves the protagonist riding off in a car with a significantly older boy, certainly not any sort of pure Hollywood ending, but I also see no reason to view it as representative of an ultimate failure. From what I gather she is heading off on an adventure of indeterminate length, perhaps with a possibility of running away, but no real certainty either way. Surrounding this event there is the specter of a forced relocation to a boarding school of some sort, an event which I assume she was hoping to avoid by finding gainful employment as a dancer. A serious drama detailing the ills of a system's oppression of the poor would do well to contextualize the dashing of the protagonist’s hopes in the face of a salacious capitalist machine and her inevitable removal from her family as a great tragedy, but I saw nary an ounce of that in Fish Tank. Instead, the dance audition is portrayed as a comedic culture clash where the protagonist asserts her individuality and refuses to be crushed by the capitalist demands for her to sell her body for something other than the love of dance, and this act tellingly results in her abandoning the CD given to her by her ‘surrogate father’ who fostered what turned out to be false hopes. To touch on the implications of that father figure would probably require winding all the way back to the beginning, and I’m trying to talk about the end, so I’ll work back toward the end, toward her real family which never functions better than in the closing moments where they wordlessly dance in step with each other to Nas’ song for the love of the dance and nothing more. This dance comes right on the heels of the mother evincing the same lack of compassion as always, in that painfully comic manner that I had by this point grown to expect, and as she disavows her duties as a mother one last time they are able to finally share a moment as equals. This sequence solidifies the film’s final parting as bitterly joyful rather than the sweet sorrow one might expect from tragedy.

In the beginning there was the beginning, and then there was the end, and somewhere afterward the middle, a place known as here. I find the middle of this film to be the film’s strongest point, the part to which the beginning establishes the tone for and the end spirals off of. It is in this middle where the film’s layers overlap and intersect at their most detailed and where the uncertain shape of the film’s imminent climaxes are exposed to be wonderfully anti-climactic. The piece which strings all of the film’s various elements together is the film’s most disturbing and infamous scene, and while there’s nothing terribly humorous about the act it must be noted that the act is not weighed down with additional layers of intent and criminality. It is, by all appearances, a mistake born of drunkenness and hormones, a shameful slipup moreso than a calculated transgression, and this is an important point in judging the tone of later moments. When the protagonist goes to confront the man his behavior is defensive, not threatening. The film is not presenting a universal reality nor an instance of a helpless victim trodden upon by the compassionless forces of society, a question solved resolutely when the protagonist nearly drowns the man’s daughter, and instead portrays a highly fictional string of carefully arranged elements which confound simple audience acceptance. Once the man’s duplicity is exposed and his evasiveness overtakes his openness there is the imminent sensation that the man who once appeared so pure will turn into a pure villain, a death-knell for any serious portrayal of sensible human characters. The revelation of the man’s duplicitous nature colors even his past behavior, as his apparent acceptance of his mistress’ children belied his true unwillingness to abandon his real family. It is at this point when this all snowballs to the point where the protagonist becomes an angel by comparison – a status which simply doesn’t convey any of the complexities within which black comedy is so adept at exploring. As such, when the protagonist urinates on the man’s carpet it is a surprising but not unexpected turn of events for a black comedy, and the first counterbalance which begins the gradual shift back toward a tense tragicomic equilibrium. This act is not a serious offense, and were it immediately followed by the heavy-handed slap to come it would simply serve as another instance of the punishment outweighing the crime, or a punishment for no crime at all. Instead, the protagonist soon thereafter pulls another mean prank, and the prank gets meaner, and the implications snowball, and then at the point where the tension is greatest and the danger is most imminent – the protagonist willfully throws the little girl into the water. This, I tell you, is an indication of great black comic instincts. An accident achieves nothing within the film, as it would simply prove the naivety of the protagonist which ultimately traces back to the man’s provocations, and if the girl drowned the personal and sociological implications would loom so large as to dwarf any particular concerns. This film works entirely within the particular, however, and when she stupidly throws the girl in the water and quickly realizes the trouble she has put herself in there is no doubt that she has crossed a line, even if nothing happens in the end. With this willful transgression the slap to come takes on the implications not of a bad man using excessive force but of a conflicted man exercising a modicum of restraint while still failing to turn the other cheek. This slap is an anti-climactic moment, over in a flash and sealed without a word needing to be said, but the uneasy tension between her misdeeds and his misdeeds and the difficulty in figuring out whether this slap should be as enjoyable as her urination which seemed less conflicted a retaliation or whether he has again crossed a line solidifies the moment as a perfect instance of tragicomic tension delivered through anti-climax. The power of this moment is evinced not in the immediate feelings, which last but an instant, but in the reverberations of the implications which are subverted a second time: at first he seems a great guy, and a better parent than the protagonist’s mother ever was, and then this all becomes inverted as a mere means to an end, but his fury in this moment can only stem from a parental instinct, an instinct which he probably exercised easily and honestly earlier even while exhibiting an unfortunate lapse of character. That the protagonist’s character has gone through a cycle of contextual shifts is evidenced by the ambivalence in this slap, no less violent than the acts she has inflicted upon others but coming from a man who has wronged her personally, but a man whose family she endangered as well. This moment spills over into her anti-climactic audition where she finally sheds the last relic of his influence in the face of another disillusionment. So there you have it: the center of the film inverts and finally finds an ambivalent equilibrium between the film’s central characters which is characteristic of black comedy and pivots around a complex anti-climax, the most powerful tool in the black comic arsenal to subvert the great release of ‘pure’ drama and comedy by establishing an uneasy and unshakeable tension which calls into question all that comes before and after.

When I talk to people about Fish Tank or read reviews everyone seems to note that there are certain elements which are unsubtle and must be overlooked. I say – why? Why overlook that which you can come to appreciate? There are elements in the film which stick out like a sore thumb, which scream out to the audience that there is an artist’s hand at work marking out symbols and pushing the narrative toward a certain end. Instead of lamenting the mark of the creator’s hand I feel like this is a great way of breaking the realism of the film’s style in order to create a bit of distance between the viewer and the subject. The film is an odyssey of sorts, with the horse’s assortment of protectors representing a Cyclops and the surrogate father turning out to be a bit more of a siren than his physique would imply. There is a moment where the protagonist encounters an acquaintance who is standing in the middle of the road shouting at her, and she asks him directions, and he obliges, and she continues on down the road. At that moment I thought to myself – why is he standing in the middle of the road? Does he have any plans of leaving? Does he stand in the middle of the road waiting for people to walk by all day? But, then, I remembered that the horse is a blatant symbol and the girl headbutts people for no apparent reason and the need for explanations withered away: she needed to know where to go, he knew where to go, and thus they were fated to meet. There is a noticeable hand at work, and if the viewer doesn’t work against it in order to remain convinced that this is a tragic depiction of a girl saddled with social inequities and instead becomes aware that this story has mythic proportions then the apparent contradictions between tone and content disappear. I think the film is far more After Hours than The Bicycle Thief, for instance. This is a story about a girl, not a story about the social status of an entire housing project, and to conflate the two does one’s self no favors, I don’t think. In the Criterion booklet for the film an author notes that Arnold’s film doesn’t sit squarely in either established mode of 'realistically' depicting these portraits of the projects: the film fits neither into a story of disillusionment, a tragedy, or of redemption, a comedy (in the classical sense), but straddles both and, thus renders both irrelevant since the larger picture is hardly considered. Arnold’s film avoids a conclusion which presents the future as anything other than a mess of less than optimal options, the same as the film starts, and in this way doesn’t really comment on the larger social issues at all. What does change dramatically is the protagonist’s relationship to her environment, and the viewer follows her on her journey through all of the ups and downs. Arnold’s hand molds these ups and the downs so that the audience remains focused on the particulars but with a bit of distance, and because of the confluence of all of her sometimes noticeably deliberate and particular artistic choices the film’s closing moments reflect back on the rest of the film with equal parts detachment and identification, comedy and tragedy. As far as documenting the realities of a housing project goes, I think she did a terrible job, but that’s completely irrelevant.

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