This piece is by our guest writer, Shaun Alexander.
As a part of the Criterion collection release of Andrea Arnold’s 2009 film, Fish Tank, you are treated to not only the Jury Prize winning film, but also three short films Arnold directed previously: Milk (1998), Dog (2001) and Wasp (2003). When you watch these shorts as a collective it is clear to see how they became stepping stones for Fish Tank and Arnold’s other future films, which tackle themes that can disturb viewers at times with intense depictions of sexuality, poverty and family relationships.
The reason for my own personal interest in Arnold’s work is due to the socio-economic setting. Set in and around East London / Essex, Fish Tank has a number of locations which are within walking distance from where I have lived the majority of my life. These are streets I have walked down, these are roads I have driven past and that level of familiarity is not just with the setting but with the characters we see. I am friends with, worked with and went to school with the people that Arnold often focuses on in her filmography – good-hearted people with the weight of the world on their shoulders. Having these personal investments in Arnold’s work has made it fascinating to rediscover these short films and the way in which their ideas are clear influences on her later work.
Milk (1998): The Choices We Make
In Andrea Arnold’s first short film, Milk, Arnold focuses on a couple who have lost their baby during childbirth and the way in which the mother and father react to this loss. For the mother, the grief is too much. We see her lying in the bathtub, breast milk dripping from her as she sits in the water, with the sound of her partner on the phone explaining the tragedy. Whilst he attends the funeral of his child, the mother chooses not to go, afraid to fully confront the loss she has experienced. Instead, she finds comfort in another man who gives her a cigarette and she spends the rest of the day with him, leading to them sleeping together in the car. The first moment of peace for the mother after the death of her baby is found in this stranger’s car, with this man suckling at her nipple, replacing the child she couldn’t feed herself.
In Milk, Arnold looks at the way in which trauma can affect people’s decisions and make us act irrationally. It’s a bold move by Arnold to show a mother in this way. The way that she reacts to her child’s death is not hysterical but is quiet and contemplative. Her internal struggle, and the desire for motherhood, becomes her quest to find someway to fill that void and she does so with the stranger she meets. While the image of seeing her nursing this stranger can be discomforting, there is also a sense of peacefulness displayed.
Dog (2001): The People We Meet
Dog shares the most similarity with Fish Tank on the surface as they both focus on a teenage girl and her dealings with family and relationships. We follow Leah as she deals with struggles of home life, financial constraints and an abusive relationship. After stealing money from her Mum, Leah meets up with a boyfriend who appears to show nothing but resent for her, using aggressive language and forcing himself on her on a discarded couch in the park. Up until this point she has taken his abusive behaviour as it comes but when his attacks become focused on a wild dog who interrupts them during sex, it all becomes too much for her to handle.
The way that Arnold explores abusive relationships between not only partners but between mother and daughter is powerful. At times when in a relationship with an abusive partner it is possible to not notice the ways that they treat you poorly. In Dog, the boyfriend’s actions show the control he has over Leah, but when those actions are displayed against the wild dog, it becomes all too clear to her the sort of man he is. As she leaves him in the park he shouts out “there’s plenty more where you come from darling,” showing how he only wanted sex from her. She returns home not to comfort, but to receive a beating from her mother.
Dog serves as a harsh reminder of the abuse women can face on a daily basis. Leah faces this at home and with her boyfriend. With nowhere for Leah to turn to we are left with one final haunting image of her, alone in her room with no way to escape from the struggles she faces. This mirrors the way that those in poverty are all too often not afforded the support they need to escape the troubles they face.
Wasp (2003): The Things We Hide
Wasp won Best Short Live Action at the 2005 Academy Awards and is perhaps Arnold’s darkest look at the working class and the ways that mothers struggle to support their children. Unable to feed her children properly, Zoë has to choose between a night of escapism with Dave, an old friend from her past, or to spend another night struggling with her three children. Zoë decides the former and she tries to spend the evening forgetting about the difficulties of raising kids with no money. She spends her evening drinking and dancing with Dave while her kids sit outside, hungry and without anyone to care for them. They even resort to eating food dropped by some drunken men who walk past.
The desperation these children feel as they attempt to feed themselves is painful to see and even more so when the youngest has a wasp crawl inside their mouth. Here, Zoë’s motherly instinct kicks in to protect her child. The bittersweet ending of Wasp is seeing Zoë with her children in Dave’s car, a bag of chips being shared between them all. While she tried to keep her children a secret from Dave from the beginning, it turns out that this helps them bond in the end. It’s a relief to us as an audience to see her with Dave and the children, and to realise that even though she is afraid to show her real life to him, he has accepted them.
With Wasp, Arnold is exploring the way in which we attempt to hide aspects of our own lives as a form of escape. We aren’t all blessed with perfect homes, lives or opportunities but just for a night we can pretend that we are our ideal self. And it’s alright to want that, to want to have no worries for a night and to act like your a teenager again. Zoë makes bad choices, but we all do at times in our lives. She has had her children young, and has had to grow up faster than most. Mistakes will happen and will have greater consequence, as it’s not only herself the decisions affect.
That is what Andrea Arnold’s filmography seems to be built on effectively – the way we as people make rash decisions and worry about consequences later. From the mother’s decision in Milk to not attend her child’s funeral, to Star (Sasha Lane) in American Honey who chooses to leave her life behind to travel selling magazines. These split second decisions can be inconsequential or life altering. Making impulsive choices is what makes us human, and Andrea Arnold has found a perfect niche to explore this element of humanity. Her work in social realism is unmatched as she explores every dark corner of society.