February 27, 2013

"Dancing on My Own" by Carley Moore for Odera Okaneme

A girl’s gotta breathe.

The horse is white and snorting.  The fish is sunlit and gasping.  The girl is out of breath and running.  The mom is drunk and dancing.  The little sister is angry and smoking.  The mom’s boyfriend is shirtless and driving away.   

Andrea Arnold, director of the newest adaptation of Wuthering Heights (2012), Fish Tank (2009), and Red Road (2006) knows breathing—the heavy, desperate breath of desire, the pant of exhaustion, and the gasp of fear.  She structures Fish Tank around her protagonist Mia’s breath, and the effect is exhilarating and intimate.  We breathe with her, we catch her breath in our own chests, and we feel her suffocating and trying to break free.  In the title shot, we hear Mia breathing before we see her, and then Arnold cuts to Mia in an abandoned apartment in the British housing project where she lives with her mother, Joanne and her little sister, Tyler.  She’s been dancing alone, she’s panting and bent over, she stares out the window for a moment, and then leaves a message for her friend Keeley, who isn’t returning her calls.  Mia, is fifteen and troubled—she’s about to be kicked out of school, her mother is a drunk—and she never gets Keeley back.  We sense, even in this first scene that Mia’s a loner, a girl who is too mad to keep much of anything intact.  And yet, we also understand early on, that Mia is trapped, that most of her life is completely out of her control.  It’s only when her mother gets a new boyfriend, Connor (played by electric Michael Fassbender) that we think something might change.  He takes an interest in Mia, which is confusingly sexual and paternal.

Connor believes in Mia and encourages her to put together an audition tape for what Mia thinks is a dance troupe.  He loans her his camera, and he takes the girls and their mother for a drive to a lake.  The drive is exciting—we sense that this family never goes anywhere together—and Connor plays a cover of “California Dreaming” by Bobby Womak on the car stereo.  Connor is that dream, the possibility of escape.  He drives, and later, he’ll leave, but for now, he and Mia roll up their pants and wade in to catch a fish.  It’s Connor who catches it, and their exchange is fatherly, instructive.  He and Mia wade back to the shore—Mia cuts her foot getting out—while Tyler and the mother look on.  Arnold zooms in on the fish.  She is all gills, sucking in air and suffocating.  The fish is out of its element, and so is Mia, and we wonder if Mia can jump out of her own tiny pond, and into some other landscape.  Connor kills the fish by shoving a stick down its throat.  “That was harsh,” Tyler says.  Connor replies, “It’s better that way.”  The freedom of this outing—the sunny day, the music, and the lake—are all juxtaposed against Mia’s earlier interactions with her mother.  In their first scene together, filmed over Steel Pulse’s “Your House” Joanne slaps at Mia and shouts, “I won’t fucking let go of you, you little cunt!”  It’s life and death in this house, a struggle to breathe, to live, and we spend most of the movie wondering if Mia can get out.  Connor, it seems, is the only character, who thinks she has a chance.

Arnold is adept at filming landscapes that feel like cages, and Mia is often boxed in and/or breaking out.  She visits a white horse that is chained to a cinderblock in an abandoned lot and tries to set him free.  She fails both times, but makes a friend in one of the horses keepers, Billy.  When Mia wakes up, often hungover, she peers over the ledge of her sheet, into more boxes—her mother smoking in the frame of the doorway, her hamster burrowing into the chippings of his cage, her mother taking Connor’s white shirts off of the laundry line.  There are the recurring wide-angled shots of the cramped aquarium-like rooms of the projects with their banks of windows.  Arnold’s camera looks both in and out of these windows, and it’s not hard to get that everyone is on display, and that everybody’s watching everybody.  The movie’s full of noise too; stray conversations, shouting, and a steady backdrop of dub, rap, and soul music.  There’s no peace for Mia unless she retreats into her own headphones.  In this way, Arnold reminds me of American director Kelly Reichardt, who in movies like Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy uses the radio’s background chatter and news feed as a subtle political indictment.  Both Arnold and Reichardt excel at re-creating the din of cramped quarters and lost economies.

But in spite of or perhaps because of these small spaces, Mia continues to fight for air.  In a fatherly gesture, Connor carries Mia to her room after she falls asleep on her mother’s bed.  Mia’s breathing is labored and heavy as Connor lays her down and pulls off her sneakers and sweat pants.  She feigns sleep, watching as Connor undresses her under half-closed eyes.  Fassbender gets these moments of fatherly tenderness and sexual confusion just right.  We’re not sure if Connor knows what he’s doing, but the effect is charm more than menace.  Connor and Mia’s chemistry is at the center of this film, and we never know if Mia needs a father or a lover.  Connor is, in many ways, both.  In a similar scene, later in the movie, Connor asks Mia to show him her dance routine for the audition.  Her mother’s passed out up upstairs, and Mia knows that this is her chance.  She wants Connor, she’s been waiting up for him and sipping beers in her bedroom to give herself courage.  The room is dark, lit up only by the television.  Mia dances for Connor who watches from the couch.  She looks her age—pajamas and a t-shirt—and when the routine is over, she sits on Connor’s knee, rests her head on his shoulder.  “If it were up to me I’d give you the job,” Connor says.  They kiss.  Mia lays back and Connor pulls off her pants.  Their breathing becomes heavy, animal, and reminiscent of the fish gasping for air on the shore of the lake.  Arnold keeps the lights low, shoots lips, fingers and Connor talking, “Bet it doesn’t feel like this with that boy of yours.”  And later, “Is his cock this big?”

The next morning Connor breaks it off with Joanne and speeds off in his car.  Mia follows him, breaks into his house, and discovers he has a wife and a daughter.  In the most terrifying scene of the movie, Mia tricks Connor daughter Kiera into taking a walk with her. The two run off into the woods and towards the water, Mia chasing and yelling at the girl.  Kiera eventually falls into the water.  And here is the most important moment of the film for Mia.  Can she/will she save her?  We watch as Kiera’s tiny body bobs up and down in the teeming cold water.  Mia thrusts a stick into the water and Kiera grabs it.  She pulls her out and they hug.  She takes her home.  It’s over, but we sense that Mia passed a test.  Deciding to save Kiera was moment of choice and agency—moral to the core, and the turning point in Mia’s life.

Connor is gone, the horse dies, Mia leaves her audition when she realizes it’s for strippers, and Billy offers to take Mia to Whales.  There’s nothing and no one left to keep Mia from leaving, and so she packs a bag.  In the final scene of the movie, her mother stares out the living room window while listening to one of Mia’s songs, Nas’s “Life’s a Bitch.”  Joanne, dancing and smoking, braless and with red-rimmed eyes turns around and says to Mia, “Go on then.  Fuck off.  What you waiting for?”  And Mia, sensing something about her mother, loving her in spite of the terrible things she says, approaches and they start to dance, facing each other, doing the electric slide.  Tyler steps behind Mia, holding her by the waist and three of them slide, turn, and step until the song is over.  “Life’s a bitch and then you die, that’s why we get high.”  It’s their one moment of true connection, perhaps the only time where the three of them have ever been in synch. 

In a recent episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Ru instructs the drag queens to jump into a giant tank of water and pose for a sexy underwater picture. Absurd as it is, most of them nail it. I think of those Vegas showgirls who swam underwater in restaurants while the customers looked on, and I remember the Olympic synchronized swimmers who emerge from the depths with a rictus of joy on their painted faces. The tank, with its four glass walls becomes the perfectly confined space for a performance of femininity. The tank is all drama, all boredom, all the time. The tank is a T.V. and it’s the camera’s frame too. In a sense, every shot of a movie, is a kind of holding tank, the fish and actors on display.  We watch and sometimes we trace our fingers along the glittering, flitting outline of their fish bodies. 

I have probably watched Finding Nemo fifty times with my four-year old daughter. I know its plots twists and turns far better than I know Fish Tank’s, and I’ve memorized much of its dialogue. “Do you speak whale?” The message of Finding Nemo is a good one—eventually in order for your kids to thrive, you have to back off, and let them fail. And if you’re the kid, you’ve got to get out there and try stuff, even if you have a little busted fin! Like Fish Tank, Finding Nemo is a bildungsroman, a story we need to watch because it reminds us that the journey from childhood to adulthood is full of peril. You can get lost, you can die, someone or something might eat you, or you can get trapped in the tank. You can stay a pretty fish or girl who swims around and around in the same boring circle. You can go crazy doing that, and if you stay, you probably will. Or you can take a big, gasping breath, and you can leap out.  

Carley Moore's
poetry and essays have been published or are forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Aufgabe, Drunken Boat, Fence, and Swink. She teaches writing in the Liberal Studies Program at New York University and is a Book Review Editor for the website, Writing in Public. Her debut young adult novel, The Stalker Chronicles, was published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in 2012. You can find her blogging and see more of her work at: www.carleymoorewrites.com.

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