ANDREA ARNOLD SHORT FILMS
Three short films by director Andrea Arnold, better known now for helming a modern adaptation of Wuthering Heights and American Honey, stay true to the gritty realism of British lives on the periphery of social visibility. A commonality is that nothing is tidied up for cinematic effect and perhaps the format of short filmmaking is endowed with the liberty to show it as it is. Brevity is a particular trait that is hard to muster up anyway. Arnold masters that elusive quality in these examples.
First in the order of my viewing experience, DOG(2001) ended up becoming a powerful work which looks at the perverse foundations of human cruelty through the eyes of a teenage girl. Fed up with her life of poverty and rough surroundings, she goes out with a guy. The boy sees her as nothing but a ‘body’ to be exploited for his own pleasure. A dog who she smilingly catches sight of on the way is present at a crucial moment where the boy may cross the line with the girl. The girl laughs innocently on seeing the canine. The boy then unleashes his bestiality on the dog. Witnessing this brutal act alerts the girl to leave the spot, rush back home and later grunt like the very animal who she saw silenced. In a world of humans embodying every beastly attribute that we accord to other non-speaking creatures, she has that bark to resort to. As if both of their pains have combined to show them as the subalterns susceptible to evils of society.
Truly powerful, conveying the worst frustrations of living as a have-not and battling with multiple forms of emotional battery. Cruelty towards animals indeed is the last straw to end one’s association with a fellow human being who perpetrates or participates in the act. DOG hence is gripping.
Next I watched MILK(1998) where a young woman loses her new born barely moments after he/she is brought to the world. Refusing to attend the baby’s funeral, the titular element- in this a lactating mother’s milk meant to nourish the child- becomes central to her post-partum, post traumatic trigger. As when she is in the bath and notices that the nurturing element remains a part of her body while the mortal who was supposed to feed on it is no more. It’s a delicate, pithy moment so crucial to her journey. Only a female director could have captured it with such sensitivity.
The climax may be shocking on a conventional level to some but its impact is powerfully reminiscent of the part where Rose of Sharon feeds her mother’s milk to a dying, starving man as a last measure of humanity, in John Steinbeck’s novel GRAPES OF WRATH. Here, the moment is imbued with pain of a profound level. Grief and all its contours get their due here within ten minutes or so.
The final short was the Oscar winning WASP, a heartfelt, realistic 25 minute capsule about a single mother of four, a young woman who probably entered an unlikely phase of struggles brought on by poverty, living on meagre means and worrying about where the next meal or financial assistance will come from in her teenage. Or perhaps that’s the life she has known all along since she was born.
There are flaring tempers, uncouth words and actions but all that emanating from a socially and economically underdeveloped milieu (or just basic human nature under duress) has a counterpoint with the spunk of everyday survival. The bond of love among parent and four children still withstands this daily grind. It’s all in the conversations, the genuine warmth, so life-like and honed by Ms. Arnold from her own observations. It also reminded me very pleasantly of THE FLORIDA PROJECT as the mother is in the process of growing up herself and learning the meaning of familial responsibility, with no one to share it with her or give her credit for making it to another day for her children.
I also appreciate the pull towards reconnecting with her first love, a schooltime mate, and how hunger and its ramifications mean she has to snap back to reality for her kids. No real resolutions abound or even an answer to a lop-sided social structure. Kindness and a fragile sense of security close the frames here. The titular wasp then becomes a symbol of childhood, innocence, apprehension and hope. Even a recurring motif of the gritty surroundings.
Watch it to be absorbed by its empathy and no-nonsense lens of portraying adult lives bound with an incomplete trail of lost childhoods.
MEETING THE MAN: JAMES BALDWIN IN PARIS(1970)
The intellectual vigour of Mr. Baldwin, a consistent confronter of prejudice, is in steadfast form in this documentary short.
He’s explosive in his verbal articulations of historical mindsets that steep him and his peers in racist light even when he is away in the freer environments of Paris, his home for twenty two years at the time of the film’s taping. The questions posed to him are bluntly inelegant, ill-informed and cliched. Redundant, in short. Baldwin’s dignity and grace under fire hardly wavers because he had reconciled with the ugly truth years ago.
A historical perspective colours even moments of unbridled camaraderie with friends. What sets this short apart is the fact that director Terence Dixon lets his ignorance too pass on to posterity along with Baldwin’s immediate legacy caught on camera. In form, it is an extended interview. In agency, it’s a pure face of how things were on both sides of the camera lens.
Watching Baldwin in form and with implosive anger took me back to the spirit in works like ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI and MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM. I’m sure they all fit in powerfully with the man’s words of courage and truth.