guest blog – written by chloe kennedy
in her essay below chloe talks about how andrea arnold explores the ideas of womanhood/coming-of-age, spectatorship and ‘creaturely cinema’ in her film FISH TANK (2009)~dunc.
we met chloe at our screenings in 2021, she is from st albans like us and she is pretty damn cool. check out her website where you can find out more about her and find links to her recently completed short film ROBYN (ooooohhh, i hear you say)
get in touch if you have something to say about film – essays, blogs or just plain opinions and rants, we’ll post it
dir. andrea arnold
The Creaturely Cinema of Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (2009) – by Chloe Kennedy
Drawing on Jacobs’ theory of “creaturely cinema” (p.160), this essay will argue that the motif of the fish, in Fish Tank (Dir. Andrea Arnold, 2009), represents a transformative embodiment of the animal and, therefore, the transformation of becoming a woman. The girls, particularly Mia, in this film are much like zoo animals: caught by both the elements in their film, as well as spectatorship. However, Arnold resists conventional voyeurism; self-consciously portraying spectatorship.
In order to explore notions of becoming and transformation, the theory of the “creaturely” is key. To contextualise, Jacobs describes “[t]he creaturely [as] the shared condition of embodiment, exposure, sentience, mortality and finitude that traverses all species” (p.162), this “embodiment” is something which not only the girls on screen experience; the viewer also encounters an embodied involvement and familiarity with the “creaturely”. “Creaturely cinema” (Jacobs, p.160), therefore co-exists with notions of phenomenological filmmaking. Primarily, “[p]henomenological film analysis has powerfully theorised particular cinematic techniques that produce an immersive, visceral, tactile and embodied viewing experience” (Jacobs, p.161), enabling an intensely embodied, physical connection with the bodies; transversing beyond the frame to the viewer. Further, Fish Tank displays girls in the vulnerable stage of transformation.
As Pick notes: “vulnerability [is]–the creatureliness–we share with other animals” (p.10); the girls’ bodies are thus, like animals, “[o]pen to attack or injury” (OED, 2b) physically or emotionally. Just as animals are threatened by being trapped or hunted (just as Connor skewers a fish), “the material body [is] susceptible to subjugation and precariousness in its material finitude” (Jacobs, p.163). As is emphasised by Pick, “[t]he creature, then, is first and foremost a living body–material, temporal, and vulnerable” (p.3). Through reading Fish Tank through this “creaturely” (Jacobs, p.160) theory, it reveals not only a metaphor for transformation but reveals embodiment through the most relatable, “material” (Jacobs, p.163) states. After all: “[b]eing human is grappling with what is inhuman in us” (Pick, p.6).
Aptly, then, when Connor takes the girls out to the lake in his car, he asks them: “If you could be any animal, what would you be? [Mia:] a white tiger”. Mia here choses a notorious predator, known also for its camouflage; reflecting Mia’s needs to fit-in to blend into the norm. The white tiger is an exotic animal which, on the surface, is not close to the body which Mia inhabits. Despite her choice being a predator, the white tiger is also endangered. Mia therefore embodies this “creaturely vulnerability” (Jacobs, p.174). She consciously knows that her body is prey and can recognise this in others. In fact, Connor responds to his own question with: “I’d come back as an eagle, wouldn’t you want to fly? [Mia:] Yeh, but then you’d get shot” – instead of seeing the freedom in being able to fly, Mia’s immediate thought is threat. The figure of the girl, then, is particularly significant in my reading of “creaturely cinema” (Jacobs, p.160). As a figure who is in a state of change (becoming a woman), Jacob and Pick’s notion of “vulnerability” in relation to “creaturely” (p.160) embodiment is crucial since girls’ bodies are under constant scrutiny and metamorphosis. As is evidenced by Connor’s response, girls are often presented, and feel like, prey. Henceforth, the motif of the fish (alongside other animals) in the film serves to portray girls’ bodies under metamorphosis through embodiment of the “creaturely” (Jacobs, p.160).
Fish Tank evidences Jacobs’ “creaturely cinema” (p.160) by presenting the teenage protagonist, Mia, as an embodied animal figure. As the title of the film suggests, Mia is repeatedly positioned as a fish, trapped in a tank; caught between girlhood and adulthood. Mia’s embodiment of the fish is thus reflective of this transformation. Unlike the white tiger, the fish is prey; and yet it is also at one with nature and the elements.
Arnold emphasises this in the scene where Connor lures Mia into the lake and catches a carp. Arnold harnesses a handheld camera in this scene, as she does throughout the film, keeping Mia in almost every frame, ensuring that the viewer is embodying Mia, and “always in a state of being-with” (Jacobs, p.161). In fact, the few shots that are without Mia are the CUs of the fish which, in many ways, is Mia. In this scene, Mia removes her well-worn Nike trainers and places her bare feet into the earth. Nothing but natural sounds can be heard for a moment as the camera follows in MCU as she steps down the bank into the water. The colours here become brighter, the green of the grass appears greener as Mia and the viewer are sensuously immersed in a natural environment that the viewer is not used to seeing Mia in; highlighted through the removal of material items (the Nike trainers), leaving nothing between the earth and her body. Up until this point, Mia has only been able to gaze from behind a window at the outside world. The light is soft and illuminates Mia’s legs through blades of grass as Mia can breathe again, just like a fish being reintroduced to the water. The sunlight bounces off the water in luminous energy as bird song soundtracks.
Unfortunately, this moment of sensuously connecting back with nature is fleeting. These images are disturbed by the humans around her yelling: “[Tyler:] your ugly feet will scare those fish away”. The most significant disturbance, though, is Connor, who lurks in the water (and interestingly is known as a “shark” by fan memes, because of his teeth-filled grin). There is an OTS shot as Connor brutally catches the fish, followed by a quick straight cut to Mia who gasps and fails her arms like a fish out of water, struggling for air. As Bolton notes: Connor’s “seduction of the carp echoes his coaxing of Mia into the water to help him, and prefigures the brutality of their relationship” (p.80). This scene is therefore brutal for Mia, particularly as he skewers the fish, reflecting Mia’s “creaturely” (Jacobs, p.160) vulnerability and Connor’s predatory status.
Despite this, the camera takes on a “maternal creaturely mode” (Jacobs, p.160), which through handheld camera movements and “in its close following of Mia, emits a sense of care” (p.173); sticking by Mia like a dog, unlike her actual mother, through the brutalities which she faces. Through this “maternal creaturely” (p.160) camerawork, the viewer also embodies Mia, avoiding pure voyeurism. Instead, the viewer is a “viscerally engaged experiential participant” (“Brutal Intimacy”, p.60); enabled by Arnold’s “creaturely camerawork” (p.162). Mia is thus a vulnerable subject, and yet through her embodiment of the “creaturely” (p.160), she also encounters these tactile moments of connection to nature which, in turn, produces sensuous energy that transverses to the viewer.
Additionally, Fish Tank demonstrates a “creaturely” (Jacobs, p.160) mode of cinema through presenting embodied girls who are under constant spectatorship. Key to this argument is the theory of “cinema as zoo” (McMahon, p.196). Like the animals in a zoo, the girls’ bodies are entrapped; the spectators (the viewer/characters) watch them as they perform (or refuse to).
Arnold self-consciously presents spectators as zoo visitors, who look upon “something that has been rendered absolutely marginal” (Berger, p.24). But these girls are not completely marginalised. Mia may be caught and vulnerable in terms of those who see her as prey (Connor), but her embodiment of the creaturely goes beyond pure marginality. She has agency over her own body, viscerally transferring to the screen. This can be felt through Mia’s dance scenes which often present her movements without music, suggesting that this is for Mia’s body to feel. Nonetheless, Mia is still restricted and “swims frustrated circles, like a shark in a tank” (Bolton, p.75). This is self-consciously highlighted through the use of Academy ratio which literally gives a boxed-in feel. The walls of the room Mia dances in are blue (mimicking water), the vertical lines down them mimicking the bars of a cage in a zoo. Mia also places her arms on her hips, echoing a fish’s fins, trapped swimming in circles in her small tank. Thus, Fish Tank – although presenting a visually restricted image through aspect ratio – in Mia’s embodiment and creatureliness, “offer[s] a glimpse of meaningful, perceptual life-worlds that extend beyond the anthropocentric” (McMahon, p.196); emitting energy.
Fish Tank thus demonstrates a “creaturely cinema” (Jacobs, p.160), that resists pure fetishistic voyeurism. Arnold uses the motif of the fish to present girls that embody animals, in a transformative expression of the girl becoming a woman. Of course, the girls are restricted by their zoo-like comparison but through the adaptation of the “creaturely” (p.160), the films harness phenomenological filmmaking, which enables the viewer to share in the girls’ freeing embodiment and feeling.
- Fish Tank. Directed by Andrea Arnold, Curzon Artificial Eye, 2009.
- Berger, J. “Why Look at Animals?” About Looking, London: Bloomsbury, 1980, pp. 3–28.
- Bolton, Lucy. “A Modern Girl for a Modern Britain? Mia in Fish Tank.” in Fiona Handyside and Kate Taylor-Jones (eds), International Cinema and the Girl. Palgrave, 2016.
- Jacobs, Amber. “On the Maternal ‘Creaturely’ Cinema of Andrea Arnold.” Journal of British Cinema and Television, Vol. 14 Iss. 1, 2016.
- McMahon, Laura. “Animal worlds: Denis Côté’s Bestiaire (2012).” Studies in French Cinema, 2014, Vol. 14, No. 3, 195-215.
- Pick, Anat. Creaturely Poetics: Animality and Vulnerability in Literature and Film. New York: Columbia UP, 2011.
- “vulnerable, adj.” OED Online, Oxford UP, December 2018, www.oed.com/view/Entry/224872. Accessed: 30 Dec 2018.