Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Jessica Lenten: Phenomenology and the Films of Andrea Arnold

Phenomenology and the films of Andrea Arnold
by Jessica Lenten

Amongst the varied line-up at Looking In Looking Out festival, the event that excited me most was a talk by Sophie Mayer and Dr. Lucy Bolton on the phenomenological impact of Andrea Arnold’s films. As the programme put it, they sought to analyse “how the raw and intense interactions her films stage between human and animal, between human, landscape and weather, and between the viewers’ and characters’ sensory perceptions turn our experience of cinema inside out.” This talk appealed to me so much because my own discovery of a phenomenological approach to cinema has very much turned my relationship with film ‘inside out’. Phenomenology is a largely derived from the work of French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty and brought into contact with film by film theorists such as Vivian Sobchack and Laura U. Marks. Merleau-Ponty (Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception) theorised that perception is a whole body experience: “My body is the fabric into which all objects are woven, and it is, at least in relation to the perceived world, the general instrument of my comprehension.” Extending this concept to film, theorists like Sobchack and Marks argue that the relationship a viewer has to a piece of cinema is responsive and embodied. As Marks puts it: “film signifies through its materiality, through a contact between perceiver and perceived.”

Though Mayer and Bolton did not engage directly with the works of these theorists, their discussion was fascinating. Bolton asserted that phenomenology is the concept that our experiences of the world are bound to our bodies. She stressed that the physicality of ‘being in the world’ is crucial to our understanding of the world and is central to an experience of one of Andrea Arnold’s films. She opened by quoting Arnold’s comment to The Guardian in October last year: “My films don’t give you an easy ride. I can see that. The sense I get is that people have quite a physical experience with them. They feel afterwards that they’ve really been through something.” From here, Bolton and Mayer proceeded to analyse Arnold’s images and their affective impact.

Mayer delved into the structures of power that are created and depicted in Arnold’s films, the way binaries of class, race, gender, culture and nature are both utilised and problematized. Her feminist perspective and discussion of filmmaking ethics was refreshing and enlightening. But I want to focus specifically on the phenomenological film analysis offered by Lucy Bolton and then to also offer some of my own.

Bolton focused specifically on Arnold’s 2009 feature Fish Tank, talking persuasively about the visceral impact of the film, with a particular emphasis on the creation of the main character Mia (Katie Jarvis). Bolton presented the idea that for the duration of the film we are simply ‘spending time with Mia’. She elaborated:

This approach is really a phenomenological one, by this I mean that [the film is] attempting to articulate how Mia lives her life, or lives out her positioning in social, familial, societal structures and to look at the opportunities and the constraints that she faces. This phenomenological approach is the idea of physical bodies acting or experiencing specific social and cultural contexts; being bodies in situations. The term for this is the ‘lived body’.

Bolton analysed the opening scenes of the film, what they tell us about Mia and, most importantly, how a sense of her lived experience is created and presented to the viewer. As she walks with “determined aggressive footsteps” (Bolton) the camera creates her energy, shares her energy and lets the film viewer absorb that energy. Bolton argued that though we might not have a psychological or moral engagement with Mia, we are thrust into her embodied world, forced to share it. We do not just observe Mia’s life, to some extent we experience it.

Bolton was particularly interested in the relationship between Mia and Connor (Michael Fassbender) and used a clip of an ambiguously physical scene between them, when Connor carries Mia on his back. This moment struck me as particularly taciturn for the viewer; as Mia jumps onto Connor’s back the film slows ever so slightly, their physical proximity is emphasised by a tight framing and the sound of their breathing is exaggerated on the soundtrack. All of these formal choices draw the viewer closer to the image and into an almost physical engagement with the bodies on-screen. This scene also recalls some scenes in Wuthering Heights (2011), (or visa versa) which I will return to later. Many of the elements that Bolton observed about the structure and the form of Fish Tank are also evident in Wuthering Heights. For instance both films play frequent attention to small animals and other superfluous ‘natural’ elements in close up – from a hamster in Fish Tank to a bird skeleton in Wuthering Heights. These inserts texture the films with little bodies, less complicated lived experiences, and images of death which create a patchwork of the life around us in ordinary situations. Bolton’s analysis was extremely engaging, but I would have liked to hear more from her about the body of the viewer. After all, though Mia’s specific body was inhabited and performed by Jarvis and captured on film, in some senses it doesn’t exist. But my body – and those of the viewers who sat around me watching clips of Fish Tank at Conway Hall, and who sat around me in the cinema watching Wuthering Heights – very much exist. I am interested in what these films might have meant, or might have felt like, for those bodies. So following on from where Bolton left off at LiLo festival, I want to examine some of this sense of embodiment in Arnold’s Wuthering Heights.

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