Thursday, September 18, 2014

the Directors: Andrea Arnold

There is no contemporary filmmaker currently making better, more important films about women than Andrea Arnold. As far as my tastes go, Arnold’s films are simply unmatched. Her frank and necessary use of sexuality, her understanding of the lower class, her unyielding respect for women – all reasons why Arnold is one of cinema’s most unique voices.

Beyond the stories she chooses to tell, it’s the way Arnold chooses to tell them that is worth praising. Arnold’s last two feature films, Fish Tank and Wuthering Heights, were shot in the 4x3 (or 1.33:1) Academy ratio, which means that the films are essentially projected as a square, as opposed to a widescreen rectangle that we’re used to. This is a very deliberate and very bold way to display a modern film, especially if you’re not using it as a gimmick, as Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel did. According to Arnold, the 4x3 ratio gives the film a specific type of intimacy that widescreen lacks.

“I think why I like [4x3] is because my films are mostly about one person,” Arnold has said. “I’m following that one person and I’m keen on that one person. It’s a very respectful and beautiful frame for one person. It gives them a lot of space. You can frame one person in a 4x3, and it gives them a lot of humanity.”

But believe me, the way she visually presents her films is just one thing that helps Andrea Arnold stand out. If you haven’t seen her work, I highly recommend seeking her movies out immediately. If you’re familiar with Arnold’s films, give them all another watch anyway. I promise they only get better.

Short: Milk (1998)
Milk is one of the best short films I’ve ever seen. This movie literally changed me. I watched it a month before I went into production on my similarly-themed short film, Earrings, and it gave me the strength and confidence to move forward. At just 10 minutes long, I risk revealing any details about Milk. Essentially, after enduring a tragic event, a woman finds herself coping through destructive means. The film is quick but patient, painful but real. In all sincerity, Milk is as good as short films get. A+

Short: Dog (2001)
Dog is a perfect precursor to Arnold’s best film, Fish Tank. The short is set in the same rough and tumble East London council estates as Fish Tank, shot with a gritty, handheld urgency, and features a young woman desperately trying to figure life out as her angry mother breathes down her neck. Like Milk, Dog clocks in at a just a few seconds over 10 minutes, so it seems fruitless to reveal too many details. But, as is the case with all of Arnold’s films, Dog features a central lead performance by a young female (played here by Joanne Hill) that is simply astounding. Hill makes Dog worth it all on her own, but thankfully, there’s plenty more to appreciate. A-

Short: Wasp (2003)
Arnold won the 2004 Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film for the superb, 25-minute long Wasp. The film is a day in the life of a young mother desperately trying to care for her four children. Zoe (a perfect Natalie Press) loves her children but doesn’t have the financial means or sense of responsibility to tend to them. Much of the film is centered on Zoe visiting a bar with a former lover, while her kids (one of whom is still in a stroller) wait outside eating chips and soda for dinner. Tragedy threatens to strike, but, in typical Arnold fashion, the tragedy doesn’t become the story, it merely exists within the story. Like all great short films, Wasp presents just enough information to get us hooked, yet ends with us desperate for more. Note: Milk, Dog and Wasp are all available on Fish Tank’s Criterion disc. A

Red Road (2006)
We meet a woman. A quiet, nondescript woman named Jackie (Kate Dickie). Jackie mostly keeps to herself, punching in at a job that requires her to watch other people. As a CCTV operator, Jackie monitors the live footage streaming from dozens of cameras around Glasgow. If she witnesses a crime in progress (or something that looks to become a crime) it’s her job to inform the police. For the first 20 minutes of the film, this is who Jackie is. She sits, she watches, she waits. One day, by pure chance, a man comes across one of her monitors. A man Jackie never thought she’d see again. The very sight of this man upsets Jackie to no end, and she spends the remainder of the film thinking of ways to get close to him, while we try to figure out why.

Red Road is an ingenious thriller in which motivations are unknown, and the thrills are slow-brewing yet well earned. Kate Dickie is sensational in the lead role; the strength of the film depends entirely on Dickie’s performance, and she all but carries the film. From the moment we meet Jackie, we can tell she’s been through hell. But when this mysterious man comes back into her life, Dickie subtly transforms from victim to aggressor, giving Jackie one hell of a compelling character arc.

The film was shot in the Dogma 95 style (natural light, handheld cameras, no sets, etc.), making it Arnold’s most distinctly raw film. Red Road is a mystery film for people who are seemingly done with the mystery films. There isn’t a shred of cliché or artifice to be found here. Everything is new, and everything is real. The suspense is well earned, and the pain cuts damn deep. A

Fish Tank (2009)
Fish Tank is one of the best films ever made about the teenage condition. The confusion, the angst, the sexual chaos, the emotional upheaval – few films match Fish Tank’s authenticity and audacity in depicting teenage life. Mia (Katie Jarvis, delivering as fine a debut performance as I’ve ever seen) is tired and angry and continually pissed off. She’s 15 years old but has the aggression of someone who has lived a full and embittered life. Her mother, Joanne, is cruel, reckless, and rarely pretends to care about anyone but herself. Mia’s younger sister, Tyler, is nearly as volatile as Mia, though her angst is just for show, for now.

Mia’s life is relatively simple. She starts and ends fights with zero regard to their consequence, stands up to dangerous older men, battles with her mother constantly, and secretly practices a hip-hop dance routine in a vacant flat, an act that appears to be the sole thing that gives Mia joy. When Joanne’s handsome, kind and charismatic new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender) comes into the picture, Mia’s life finds new purpose. For the first time in a long time (if not ever), Mia is exposed to generosity and kindness. Connor listens to her; he encourages her dancing and includes her in fun activities. A sexual tension begins to form between Mia and Connor, but it isn’t acted upon or dealt with in a way you might expect.

There’s a scene late in the film in which Mia discovers something particularly troubling. She reacts by pacing back and forth, panting feverishly and then, like a rabid animal in disarray, squatting down and urinating in the middle of a living room. In this moment, Mia is literally an animal motivated by bodily instinct. It’s one of the best, most raw moments I can recall from contemporary cinema, and it’s just one of many reasons that Fish Tank is so accomplished. I know I’ve risked venturing into hyperbole in this post, but that’s for good reason. Genuinely, Fish Tank is as good as modern cinema gets. I cannot find a single fault in it. A+

Wuthering Heights (2011)
By far the most grim and ice-cold film adaptation of Emily Brontë’s novel yet, Arnold’s interpretation of Wuthering Heights is a stark and foreboding character study of unrequited love. Every single frame of this film is bathed in foggy dread and gray horror. And while Arnold’s take on the story is as far from William Wyler’s version as you can get, I dare say that Wuthering Heights has never been as interesting and provocative as it is through Arnold’s lens.

Like Fish Tank, Arnold’s Wuthering Heights is presented in the 4x3 aspect ratio, an interesting choice, given the vastness of the material. One might expect a filmmaker to visually open Wuthering Heights up as much as possible, and let all of those stark landscapes bleed through. But by narrowing the frame, Arnold’s film focuses on the intimacy of the romance, not just on how pretty the setting is (though it is gorgeous).

Of all of Arnold’s work, Wuthering Heights is arguably her least successful effort yet, but there’s an inherent respect I have for filmmakers who adapt such common material in such an extraordinary way. Arnold’s Wuthering Heights is so wildly unlike any other adaptation of the material yet, that I can’t imagine any future Wuthering Heights matching Arnold’s originality. B+

In Summation
Masterful
Milk
Red Road
Fish Tank

Great
Dog
Wasp
Wuthering Heights

Good
None

Eh
None

Just Plain Bad
None


44 comments:

  1. I haven't seen a single film by Andrea Arnold. But your write up makes me want to check her films out. Perhaps more significantly, Fish Tank.

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    1. Awesome man, love hearing that. Honestly, for me, she's as good as it gets. Really hope you're able to check her films out soon.

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    2. Watched Fish Tank. The 4 x 3 aspect ratio took some getting used to. The opening shot pulled me in. I read an Arnold quote about how she thinks of the opening shot and used that as a springboard for a story. A fine film.

      By the way, I just did an entry on Psycho on my blog. Wondering what you think. I know you're a big fan of the film.

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    3. Love that opening shot. And yeah, it can be tough to get into 4x3 ratio's on widescreen TVs. I remember when widescreen formats were becoming popular (when we all still had 4x3 TVs). You could barely see anything! Haha. Will give your post a read in a bit. LOVE Psycho.

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  2. It's a shame, but I haven't seen a single film by Andrea Arnold with the exception of "Fish Tank", which I LOVED. Really curious to watch "Milk" after your post.

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    1. Well hey man, at least you've seen Fish Tank. What an incredible film that is. Milk is very fine as well. I really think you'd appreciate it.

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  3. I have only seen 'Wuthering Heights' and though not all of it worked for me, like you I really respect filmmakers who do the classics differently, who don't go into 'costume drama' mode.
    Great write up of her films! Fish Tank sounds amazing.

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    1. Exactly, that is the perfect way to put it... her "Heights" didn't go into costume drama mode.

      Thanks so much for the comment, really appreciate you stopping by! Definitely see Fish Tank if you get a chance.

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  4. While I prefer Sofia Coppola and Lynne Ramsay, Arnold is currently one of my favorite filmmakers working today as I'm anxious for what she will do next. Fish Tank is my favorite film of hers so far as here is my list of her films ranked and not a bad one in sight.

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    1. Great stuff man. I'd give Sofia the edge over the other two, and Arnold probably slightly higher. Still, all great female filmmakers currently making great films. Love it.

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  5. Arnold is a genius.I've only seen Fish Tank, but she is still one of the most gifted directors of her age. I have to check out her other films immediately. Great post!

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    1. I forgot to add, but I'm really happy you chose to do a female director! You should do more, even though there aren't many very well known and talented ones from this age apart from Coppola, Arnold, Bigelow, Ramsay and a few others (but I still need to discover more films, so my point may be invalid).

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    2. I forgot another director, Ava DuVernay, she's great as well! Also, if my comment before this one sounded a bit sexist, I apologise, it wasn't my intention :3

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    3. No, no, it's not sexist at all. Sadly, it's the truth. There just aren't a lot of female film directors. Never have been, and that sucks. Ramsay is another filmmaker I'd love to cover here, as well as Bigelow. They've made some truly great work.

      I'm glad you like Fish Tank so much - it's one of my favorites.

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    4. I can't believe I forgot to mention the brilliant Jane Campion! What an amazing director, with a very unique and individual style that I absolutely adore. The Piano takes my breath away every time I see it. Absolutely wondrous.

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    5. Ohh yeah, I love Campion. She has such a unique voice. Really quite profound.

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  6. Stop me if you've heard this before, but I haven't seen a single film of hers. This post definitely has me intrigued. Great job.

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    1. Ha. Well, I'm glad you're intrigued. She's such a ferocious filmmaker. Highly recommend her work.

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  7. This post makes me really curious. After rewatching Fish Tank last year, I am in total agreement with what you wrote. I really liked it the first time too but I was super distracted by Fassy *obviously*.
    I haven't seen any of her other stuff. I own Wuthering Heights and I really wanted to finish the book before watching it but I don't think that that's going to happen this century so I will watch it asap.
    Red Road was already on my watchlist, gonna bump it up a little higher now :)

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    1. Good stuff! Wuthering Heights (the book) is not for me. I have trouble with classic literature, so, you know, bummer. But I have seen a great many of the film adaptations, and Arnold's is by far my favorite. And Red Road is terrific. Great and emotionally brutal. Would've been appropriate to discuss on our podcast :)

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  8. Finally a post of a director in which case I've seen half of the movies, minus the first two and I pretty much share the same opinion. The only difference is that I wouldn't rate her last one that high, I didn't like it almost at all... but Fish Tank, man, I love it A LOT!

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    1. That's fair enough. I had trouble with her Wuthering Heights initially. It failed to grab me as instantly as Red Road and Fish Tank. But I've given it a few rewatches (months or years apart), but I do appreciate it more everytime. Still, a damn tough film there.

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  9. I haven't seen any of her work, but I think I'll be checking out Fish Tank, sounds interesting!

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  10. I only saw Fish Tank, but I'm definitely adding Red Road to my watchlist, the story sounds fantastic and Dickie was fabulous on Game of Thrones.

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    1. Be really interested to hear your thoughts on Fish Tank, especially if you're a Dickie fan. She's a fucking killer in that film.

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  11. What a fabulous choices for your Directors series!

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  12. I have been meaning to watch her films for a while now and you've convinced me to watch them sooner. Also, I really like her reasoning for her use in 4x3.

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    1. You should definitely check them out when you have a chance. Her 4x3 justification is fascinating to me.

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  13. I've only seen Fish Tank, but it really impressed me. She had a way of dealing with intimacy and tricky themes that I loved, and hope that comes through in Wuthering Heights, too - which is what I'll be watching next from her.

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    1. Good stuff. It's a very, very moody film, but one I appreciate. Fish Tank is just perfect. One of my modern favorites. So glad you like it!

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  14. I absolutely love 'Fish Tank'. Michael Fassbender gives a great performance. The scene at the end where Mia, her mom and her little sister all dance to "Lifes A Bitch" has always struck a chord with me.

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    1. Ah, that scene kills me. Such a touching moment, and a perfect way to end that film. Thanks so much for the comment, glad to hear you're a fan.

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  15. Arnold is certainly a fine filmmaker! I don't think she gets enough notices actually, people might know about her films, but I can't recall her name actually coming up, which is a real shame for how talented she is. Fish Tank was the film where I first took notice of her and have been on board the train ever since then. I remember seeing Red Road for the first time (that scene with the condom is easily one of the most disgusting and disturbing scenes I've seen in a long, long time). I haven't seen the shorts yet though you certainly make them sound so appealing good sir - definitely going to have to make time to check those out!

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    1. That scene in Red Road is... holy shit. So powerful and intense. They are really going for it there. Honestly (and I mean this with the utmost appreciation and sincerity), only a female director could pull a scene like that off. It's why I love Arnold's work so much.

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  16. Wonderful post! I'm a big fan of Arnold's style. Red Road is incredible, dark and heartbreaking, and her take on Wuthering Heights is fascinating. Very interested to see what she brings us next!

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    1. Hey Natalie, thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. Love that you're a fan of Arnold's films. Red Road is one of the most heartbreaking films I've seen, and I absolutely love it. Thanks again for the comment!

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  17. So glad you included Arnold in this series! She's one of my favorite working directors. I love Fish Tank, which I give her a CinSpec for, and I really like Red Road and Wuthering Heights. I don't watch many shorts, but I completely agree on Milk. It's one of the best shorts I've seen. I still need to watch Wasp and Dog, though.

    If you still haven't seen The Selfish Giant, I'll plug it again, as it feels right at home with Arnold's work. ;)

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    1. On man, I forgot about The Selfish Giant. I really need to check that one out ASAP. Anything that feels like an Arnold film is enough of a selling point for me!

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  18. I know Wasp is a short but it's frustrating how it ends so quickly. You're gripped right from the beginning and immersed in the character's lives.

    I feel sorry for Zoe. You can tell she loves her kids, however resents them because they've gotten in the way of her fully enjoying her twenties. I like to think she marries the guy she made out with in the car and he helped her raise her kids.

    The thing I've always loved about Andrea is how real her films are. I feel like I'm watching a documentary than a film.

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    1. I actually think that's a good sign for a short, that it leaves you wanting more, you know? But still, I completely get what you're saying. And I love that you're a fan of Arnold's films. I agree, they really do feel like documentaries. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

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  19. Which one is better Milk or Fish Tank?

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