Sunday, January 24, 2010

Fish Tank

While in Palm Springs, we attended three shows at the Palm Springs Film Festival. The best of the three was Fish Tank, directed by Andrea Arnold. It's her second film, and I was already a big fan of her first one, Red Road.  Both films do an extraordinary thing-- humanize a man who does something bad, and make you see the toxicity of modern urban environments on good people. Both are dark films, but very real and not at all gratuitous, redeemed by their basic sense of human goodness and the power of mercy. In fact, I think Red Road is one of the best films about mercy-- which must be extended by both the principal actors-- I've ever seen.

Both films take place in what in the United States would be called "projects" but in the UK are called "council estates." Red Road takes place in Scotland (by far the most challenging thing about the film is understanding the dialogue) and Fish Tank in England. Much has been made of the performance by Katie Jarvis, a newcomer that Arnold supposedly discovered on a train platform where Jarvis was having an argument with her boyfriend. I doubt she's a great acrtess, but she's perfectly cast in this role. She is fierce, fearless and out of control. At the same time, she is awkward and confused about love and sex as only a raging teenage girl in the projects can be. The actor in the lead, Michael Fassbender, was equally if not more amazing in his role. He was also the best thing (in my opinion) in Inglorious Basterds, as the language expert helping the Americans negotiate in a German bar (the best scene in that movie).

I don't want to give anything away, but this film covers my favorite all-time territory, one of my primary themes. It is the fact that the world is basically violent, and that the violence comes from ordinary, even good people-- from where you least expect it. The violence is often invisible to us on a day-to-day basis, but expectations of it and experience of it color everything we see and do. We either flat out deny it in a way that doesn't make it any less real, or we accommodate it so that it doesn't stop us from moving forward. I don't mean to overplay it, but sexual violence, the violence of war, the violence of car crashes, are all around us-- if not in our own home, then in our neighbor's homes. Mia, Katie Jarvis's character, is an embodiment of this everyday violence, as is basically everyone in the film. How are these violent people going to carve out roles and ways of being with each other that are sustaining and life-giving?

What Arnold does in her films is make us jump to conclusions, then undermine those assumptions, and continue to complicate those assumptions until we see life as it is, at least in these places where poverty and social fragmentation and toxic cultural elements like rap music permeate the lives of everyone.

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