Deep End (1971)

4 02 2010

For the record, I actually watched this before Fish Tank. I only say that because while they are both very different films, they do have a lot in common. Again, we have a coming of age story and again, the protagonist is 15 years old. Aside from that, and the fact that these films are the first and second instances of such a film in which I can’t completely relate to the protagonist, they really couldn’t be more different. If anything, they are fascinating films to compare and contrast. Both reinforce the misconception that a coming of age story must be about a witty, smart, and extremely likable individual that is alienated by his surroundings. If anything, both of these films are likely to alienate the legions of idiots who buy anticipate everyone of these films being a vague adaptation of Catcher in the Rye. Nothing against Salinger (it’s one of my favorite books still, in all honesty) but Holden Caulfield has become synonymous with both rebellion and angst.

The protagonist here, Mike, is everything Caulfield isn’t. Mike isn’t clever, he’s not self-conscious, he’s not observant. Mostly, he’s just really clumsy and awkward, which are probably his only similarity with Salinger’s canonized hero. Mike gets his first job at a bathhouse. He is immediately smitten (to say the least) with his co-worker, Susan, an outgoing redhead who, on the surface, anticipates every “pixie girl” of these stories. She uses the job as a host, so to speak, to be a glorified prostitute. She anticipates Mike to do the same, but as he is ever so clumsy (really can’t reinforce this enough) he brushes off the advances of all the customers, no matter how strong they come on.

Meanwhile, when he’s not working, he’s busy strengthening his obsession with Susan by stalking her and her fiance. Perhaps the film’s closest thing to a fault is the fact that Mike seems almost calm and collected when he’s doing his urban sleuthing, but I’d say that’s still a bit of a stretch. His nerves are still visible. Take, for example, the film’s most comedic sequence, in which he waits outside a swinger’s club for Sue and her partner. While waiting he tries to keep his cool by repeatedly buying hot dogs from a local vendor. It sounds merely confusing in words, but it works out perfectly in film, almost to the point that it boasts a Mike Leigh-level of discomfort and awkwardness for both the characters and the audience.

As Mike dives deeper and deeper into Sue’s life, we begins to realize she isn’t all that innocent or charming. Mike resists the evidence, though, and is confident in his original perception of her. Ultimately, he gets what he wants – a physical experience with Sue, but it is short-lived and what follows is one of the most unforgettable finales in all of cinema. On the other hand, I’m not sure if I even like the conclusion, as it, perhaps “goes too far.” If Fish Tank was a film driven by l tragedies redeemed  by concluding in a way that was open-ended and inconsequential, then Deep End is the opposite. It’s built with awkward and personal sequences, which form into one of the loudest climaxes in all of cinema. It can’t really ruin the rest of the movie, since I’m not sure if it is a good or bad ending but I had to stamp an abrupt question mark on the end. It’s a wonderful film, which I can’t recommend highly enough, but I’m not exactly sure if I am willing to embrace it like I have many of my other favorites. For now, it’s like a weird, kitchen-sink forerunner to The Wayward Cloud and that’s definitely a good thing.

Fish Tank (2009)

4 02 2010

Perhaps my strong reaction to this has something to do with the fact that it so narrowly avoids some every looming melodrama. Even if it did lapse into some of the “ultra downbeat poetry of its thematic brethren like Lilya 4-Ever and The Life of Oharu it would still have its unique mixture of poetry and Alan Clarke-inspired social realism to hold it above such films. I can still accuse it of being a bit over the top in how bleak its outlook is, but doing so would disregard the story’s complete arc, as it is one that ultimately is inconsequential. Of course, I mean this in the best possible way.

On paper, the story seems like perfect material for a Lifetime movie of the week. 15 year old Mia is suffocated by her simultaneously controlling and neglectful mother, as well as her foul-mouthed sister. She has no one to talk to, and thus her hopes and dreams, which mostly consist of becoming a hip-hop dancer, fail to come out to the open. Sound tacky yet? Well, it should and admittedly, there are more than a few scenes that could make one cringe, but please bear with me and the film.

Mia finally finds someone worth caring about in her mother’s new boyfriend, Connor. He allows both Mia and her sister to join in on a road trip. For a very fleeting moment, Connor seems to have successfully pulled everyone in the household together into a family. Things are looking up, but Mia is still resistant. Out of nowhere, she becomes extremely irritated with Connor, explaining that he doesn’t “know us” a reference to their “lower” societal status. Still, he is always interested in Mia’s endeavors, and he continues to support her as if he were her father.

Mia’s fierce resistance and Connor’s undying and sincere kindness creates an inevitable tension, though. It’s a tension that is barely noticeable, in fact, I was clearly convinced that I just had my head in the gutter when I thought of a physical relationship between the two. It’s obvious, in retrospect, but their glimpses of happiness together seem like the mushy postcard for finding a father figure on first glance. We feel for Mia and hope that this budding relationship remains fatherly and thus, platonic. Alas, it does not.

Following the awkward manifestation of their feelings, Connor leaves Mia and the rest of the family. As he is the only important thing to Mia, she follows him and discovers that he has already established a functional family of his own. In one what is quite possibly the most difficult and frustrating sequence of the entire film, Mia manages to convince Connor’s daughter (adorned in a corny, symbolic potential dress) to follow her. She wanders around the unoccupied landscapes behind the family house, and does so with seemingly no idea of what to do with this little girl. It’s such a frustrating scene because it plays out like a balancing out that is littered with melodramatic pitfalls everywhere.

I’ll try to explain the specifics of what happens next, as I fear I’ve already gone on far too much about the “plot” but I will say that it dodges all of the obstacles that could have turned it into another self-conscious female martyr art film (see Lars Von Trier) which would completely disobey the strict Alan Clarke-inspired photography. In an unexpected decision, Andrea Arnold and cinematographer Robbie Ryan have chosen to go the route of the academic 1.37:1 ratio. At first, it is frustrating, since the camera, which like the one of Clarke’s work, follows around Mia from behind, seems to be missing beautiful peripheral details. It kind of destroys any sense of perspective, but it does that by building up a narrow field of vision. I don’t intend to attach unnecessary symbolism to the film, but perhaps the tight compositions are the visual embodiment of Mia’s chaotic and violent mindset on life.

Needless to say, the movie does look wonderful, even if one can’t help but feel something is missing from each side of every frame. Perhaps it has more in common with Gus Van Sant’s recent work (which also has a heavy Clarke influence) than Clarke. Sure, there’s the whole “social realism” viewpoint, but the sensuous  visuals brings to mind both Christopher Doyle’s revolutionary work in Paranoid Park and his earlier, more saturated photography in Wong Kar-Wai’s films. This is all just a way of saying that this looks beautiful, amazing, and unlike anyother film I’ve ever seen. Seriously, picking screen shots may have been one of the toughest decision(s) I’ve had to make in months. Anyway, everyone should just see this already. It easily gets my vote for best film of 2009.