The Empty Blue Room
By Marc Saint-Cyr
A small, empty room with walls painted light blue, its shabby appearance telling us it has been abandoned for quite some time. In it, a body in motion: a girl of fifteen wearing gray sweatpants and a matching hoodie dancing to the hip-hop coming from the portable speakers perched on the room’s window ledge. Beyond it is a balcony where, afterwards, she leans on the railing, drinking from a green plastic bottle of cider while looking down at the suburban houses, streets, and apartment buildings far below her.
Over the course of British writer-director Andrea Arnold’s 2009 film Fish Tank, the girl (played by Katie Jarvis) will repeatedly re-visit the little room to practice her moves, eventually with the specific goal of preparing for a dance audition. Her name is Mia, and she lives with her mother (Kierston Wareing) and little sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths) in the Essex housing projects outside London. As suggested by the film’s title and noticeably square frame, this is a confining, at times stifling environment for Mia, trapping her in its realm of poverty. She doesn't attend school, fights with other girls her age, and has a difficult relationship with her mother, who is more preoccupied with drinking, smoking, partying, and finding new boyfriends than providing any guidance or support for her two daughters. Much of the film takes place within the walls of their small apartment, which is filled with a naturalistically arranged assortment of items that tell the story of their lives: empty beer cans, worn-out toys, animal stickers stuck to furniture, pastel-colored blankets and pillows. Everywhere we look in this place, the faded remnants of girlhood mingle with the sad, stale stains of squalor. These are confines of class – more than once, we tellingly see the girls watching on TV images of wealth and celebrity (rap videos, expensive makeovers, tours of lavishly decorated homes) that are far beyond the sphere of their current economic situation. Space is a crucial element of Fish Tank, further implied by the direct, tactile, observational approach Arnold employs. While a few key elements are poetically heightened by slow motion and out-of-focus cinematography, most of the film is shot in a noticeably handheld style and there is no music beyond what the characters themselves play or hear. We are right there alongside Mia, immersed in the same world she inhabits day in and day out, forced to feel her claustrophobia. When she and the rest of the family are taken on a day trip by her mother’s new boyfriend Connor (Michael Fassbender) out of the city to a green, grassy riverbank, the relief offered by the natural setting is palpable. But for the majority of the film, Mia is caught in the unhappy urban network of her impoverished teenage life, at the center of which is her mother and the apartment where they live: family space. Fortunately, Mia frequently sets out on her own to different places beyond the little flat, most crucial among them the empty apartment containing her dance room just a few floors above: private space.
This is Mia’s fortress of solitude; the key place in the film where she is the most comfortable, where she can let her shields down. It is also where she persistently practices her dance moves, which become of crucial focus and effort for her. Now, to be clear, this isn't to say that Fish Tank emulates the countless other films out there about characters whose passions and talents help them transcend their boundaries and move onward to success. Mia, though she possesses some skill, isn't terribly impressive as a dancer, and she has no clear goals for a possible career beyond the audition that she learns about from a flyer she spots in town. But she pursues dancing nonetheless, studying Youtube videos of London street crews pulling off sophisticated moves and trying out new music for her audition routine. Most important are those precious moments in the empty blue room where, away from everyone, she seems the most content. Beyond the threshold of that derelict apartment, she is dropped back in a maze of limitations, her options for a practical escape out of the projects frustratingly vague. But in that room, her troubles and anger dissolve away, the complicated, imperfect world around her replaced by a beautifully simplified one that consists of just the music and her concentration. Nothing but pure effort, the pure goals of application and improvement remain for Mia while Essex hovers in her view beyond the window, mercifully distant and abstract.
Fish Tank is an excellent film that touches on a number of themes by way of Mia’s experiences: alienation, personal growth, sexual tension, disillusionment, family. But the measures of escape, energy, and satisfaction Mia gains from her practice sessions stand out as being among my favorite elements of the film, simply because I very strongly relate to that sensation of devotion that comes from doing something you genuinely love. It is a sensation that I've heard described as involving a sort of obliteration of the self – a sense of focus so strong that the given task, exercise, or goal is the only thing that really exists or matters in the mind of the person engaging in it, everything else (identity, ego, distracting thoughts) fading into so much peripheral fuzz. Arnold beautifully visualizes that feeling in Mia’s scenes alone in the blue room, in which the interferences of her life are kept outside, out of view and stories below.
Writing is what gives me that feeling. While I am a very different person than Mia, I am often stricken by the same things she grapples with in Fish Tank: aimlessness, boredom, discontentment, extreme doubt about where I am and where I am going. But writing – specifically writing about film – grounds me, giving me a sure sense of control, purpose, and peace. And just as Mia is compelled to return again and again to her little blue room to rehearse her dance routines, I too am compelled to keep returning to writing, reviving dormant ideas or working on new ones. Taking too long a break from writing always, sooner or later, results in feelings of misery and emptiness. I always have to return to writing at some point to regain my spirits.
There are two other films I know and love that do an even better job than Fish Tank of illustrating the crucial role a central passion can play in a person’s life. One is Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table (1990), which chronicles the life of Janet Frame, one of the most important figures in New Zealand literature. Throughout the three-part film, she is challenged by social interaction on account of her extreme shyness and unconventional looks (wild, frizzy red hair, bad teeth), further alienated from others by her family’s extreme poverty, and, most harrowingly, is misdiagnosed with schizophrenia and kept in a mental institution for eight years, during which she receives two hundred brutal treatments of electroshock therapy. Through it all, all the years of distance and pain, she clings to writing as she would a lifeline. In fact, it quite literally saves her life when the attention she gains as an author prompts a re-evaluation of her health and saves her from further medical torture. The second film is Wings (1966) by the great Soviet director Larisa Shepitko. It is a powerful character study of a school principal (Maya Bulgakova) who is mired in bureaucratic duties and tasks – a far cry from her former life as a fighter pilot. At key moments, the film departs from her mundane reality into soaring, pulse-quickening shots of clouds and sky, only to disappointingly return to the face of our daydreaming heroine. She knows her right place is not behind a desk, but in the cockpit of a plane in flight.
It is telling that all three of these films I chose to write about are by talented female directors and about strong female characters, for, even though we like to think we keep moving forwards towards proper gender equality, the fact women too often have to face more obstacles in their paths than men still remains, making their triumphs that much more remarkable. But the messages at the cores of these three films are undeniably universal, the drive of their heroines endlessly inspiring. Anyone who has realized that one thing that gives their life true meaning will instantly recognize what those women tirelessly strive for. I certainly do when I think of writing. As with Janet Frame and her own writing, it serves as a constant source of satisfaction, even salvation at some points. And as with Bulgakova’s principal and her yearning to fly, it is something I could never do without for long.
Why did I decide to tell you about these films and characters? A lot of it simply has to do with the discouraging prospects I have run into while pursuing a writing career since my days at the University of Toronto. I am certainly not blind to the fact that it has always been a precarious path to tread, and these days it is more daunting than ever. The book and media industries are undergoing massive upheavals, and writing jobs are either scarce or pay little to nothing. Writing a book and getting it published is a considerable challenge that likewise yields little in the way of financial rewards. But despite all the warnings and impracticalities, writing is a goal I still continue to pursue because it’s the only one that really makes any sense to me. There is such a sense of rightness to it that for me to try to ignore it or head off into a different direction would be madness. How my writing is is something else entirely, totally dependent on the personal tastes of each reader. I merely try the best I can to get my thoughts across in a clear and interesting way based on the feelings and attention to things like grammar and technique that guide me as I write – regarding those feelings, you've got to be just as passionate about what you write about as the process of writing itself, if not more. For me, cinema and the other arts hit the spot and light the fires. But as for why I write, one need not look any further than Mia’s blue room or the writing sequences in An Angel at My Table or the flying sequences in Wings. It is how I access that special zone of contentment and purpose that so many strive to reach. Those who reach that zone should treasure the particular avenue that brought them there and do everything they can to keep returning to it for as long as possible.
Marc Saint-Cyr is a writer and film critic.
You can find him at Subtitle Literate