Monday, January 25, 2010

Talking Seduction with "Fish Tank" director Andrea Arnold

I can barely remember the first time I had sex. I mean, I remember the details of picking up a bar-back named Jeff at the Limelight nightclub in the early nineties and letting him take me back to his apartment for some straight-up screwing. What I don’t recall is any mind-blowing sensation – any “eureka!” moment of realization, of suddenly knowing that that’s what the big deal was. To me a one-night-stand seemed akin to just another night of sweaty clubbing.

Yet I do remember the first time I got mind-fucked. It left me in a state of ecstasy greater than any vanilla sex ever had. And I can recall those details vividly the same way a born again Christian recollects the moment of finding true religion. It was Thanksgiving weekend 1995 and I was in Boston visiting my friend Aimee who was attending Harvard at the time. It was at the goth club Man Ray that I met Arthur, tall with a mane of long black hair flowing down the back of his black leather jacket, a twinkle in his eye and a half-amused smile on his face that said he’d seen (and tamed) oh-so-cool types like me many times before. I wanted him more than I’d ever wanted a man mostly because he was so aloof, exuded the unattainable. Yet I did work my flirtatious skills enough to get him to accompany me back to Aimee’s Cambridge pad where I soon made a move to meet his lips as he gently stroked my leg while we sat on the couch. His arm shot out, hand grabbing my hair as he pulled me away then kissed me instead. As things got hotter and heavier and I straddled his lap fully clothed he deftly pinned my arms behind my back, held me still as if taking mental note of this unusual pose for future reference. Then he asked me what I was into. “Sex,” I answered confused. “Just sex?” he wondered in his Schwarzenegger-sounding accent. “Sure, why? What are you into?” I countered feeling my na├»ve age (nearly a decade his junior). “Bondage,” he replied firmly stating the sexiest word I’d ever heard. And then out of the blue Arthur announced he didn’t do one-night-stands, that he’d call and come visit me in NYC sometime soon. Despite my protests that bordered on shameless begging he stood up and sauntered out the door. Leaving me shocked and angry, and sexually frustrated and utterly thrilled all at the same time. That was the night I fell madly in love with BDSM.

Of course, this is just one of a million stories of sexual awakening in the naked city. (And yes, Arthur stayed true to his word.) More recently, I thought about this life altering experience and the myriad forms of seduction and loss of innocence while reviewing “Fish Tank,” Andrea Arnold’s stunning follow up to her equally visceral, Cannes-winning debut “Red Road.” In the film Michael Fassbender’s older man Connor has an extremely hot and unnerving encounter with Katie Jarvis’s teenage Mia, the rebellious daughter of his partying girlfriend. Arnold herself is less a feminist than part of an exciting tide of British directors, Shane Meadows included, who are redefining the kitchen sink realism of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh for a new post-punk generation. But when I sat down with the critically acclaimed director at the Soho Grand a few weeks back that gorgeously specific, coming-of-age scene in “Fish Tank” stood foremost in my mind. Fortunately, the very accessible Arnold was more than happy to shed light on the importance of detail, female insight and listening to imaginary horses.

LW: First off, one of the things that most impresses me is how concise and precise the images are in your films. You say everything you need to say within the least amount of frames. Obviously a lot of people are going to think of the kitchen sink realism of Loach and Leigh but there’s also a poetic, nearly Neorealist quality to your work. Can you talk a bit about your filmmaking influences?

AA: Ooh, I have quite a lot. Everyone from Terence Malick to the Dardenne brothers to David Lynch, Michael Haneke –

LW: “The White Ribbon.” Everyone hated it but me. (laughs)

AA: Yeah, I saw it at Telluride. I don’t know if I was just in a funny mood that day, but it was the first time during a Haneke film that I wanted to leave the cinema.

LW: That’s good!

AA: Yeah, I know. He wants me to feel that way.

LW: Well, you direct in a similar way. I mean, you don’t have a comfortable filmmaking style at all. That seduction scene between Connor and Mia, which is the centerpiece of “Fish Tank” – that’s damn hard to watch.

AA: Yeah, one of my friends described it as “everything I didn’t want and everything I wanted.”

LW: Let’s talk a little bit about that disturbing scene, because interestingly, I found myself smiling during it.

AA: (laughs surprised) Oh, really?

LW: Yes, but what made me smile was the realization that this is a director who actually “gets it” – how seduction can turn to coercion in the blink of an eye. I can’t remember when I’ve seen this rite-of-passage aspect even depicted onscreen and yet it’s something a lot of teenage girls go through. It was like a catharsis for me to see it. It’s also a situation few teenage boys ever experience, which is maybe why male filmmakers wouldn’t think to depict it. Can you talk a bit about its importance and how you developed it? It also happens to be the most visually stylized scene in the film.

AA: Well, I think a lot of it just starts with the writing. When I’m writing I try hard to imagine that situation and how it would really be. And a lot of the details, I think it goes back to what you were saying about being precise. I’m able to concentrate on details, to really think them through, to really imagine them. Quite often there will be some strange detail that I don’t even understand. There was an earlier short where I wanted a shot of a balloon floating across this wasteland. And I’m getting everyone to do the shot, and I don’t think they understood quite what I was getting at, but I somehow knew it was really important.

LW: David Lynch works that way.

AA: Oh really? Does he? (laughs flattered) Well, like with the horse in this film. When I was writing about the horse –

LW: Was that the first image that you had when you started writing?

AA: No, it wasn’t the first. But when I started writing at the beginning always there was that horse. I actually wrote two different beginnings, just trying to find my way into the story, to try to see this person, to ask, “What is she doing on this day?” Yet every time I started writing about her, every time I came at it a different way, the story still came from the horse. And the horse in the script was always an old, dirty brown horse. It wasn’t a white one. But she just kept meeting that horse so I thought, well, the horse is supposed to be there. I didn’t question it. A couple people said it was a metaphor – a heavy-handed metaphor – but I never meant for it to be a metaphor for her situation. The horse just wanted to be there.

LW: Sometimes a horse is just a horse.

AA: Maybe so.

“Fish Tank” is now playing at a theater near you. My review and interview with lead actor Michael Fassbender is now playing at Slant Magazine.

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