For Those in Peril

I’m going to take a look at the ways in which ‘For Those In Peril’ contains familiar generic elements and makes an innovative contribution to art cinema. David Bordwell (2002) describes art film as ‘a film genre, with its own distinct conventions’ and, just as with other genres, audiences have developed a set of expectations of films that can be categorised as art house cinema. It’s important to consider what differentiates the art house genre from others. Art films cast themselves towards a niche market, rather than a mass audience. This means they tend not to acquire the same scale of financial backing as films produced within the dominant studio system. This imposes constraints upon the filmmakers, forcing them to think more creatively. In fact, art films go as far as explicitly contradicting the conventions of the classical narrative form. The financial constraints put upon art film directors often lead to the films edging more towards realism, typically not using well-known actors, limiting special effects and using ‘real’ locations. Along with art film’s social realist style, the genre encompasses the filmmaker’s personal artistic vision. Paul Wright’s ‘For Those In Peril’ is an art film which deals with national concerns in a self-conscious manner. Set in a remote fishing village in the North East of Scotland, the film follows Aaron, the lone survivor of an accident at sea which took the lives of his brother and four other men from the village. Aaron is struggling to come to terms with the loss of his brother, who was somewhat of a father figure whilst he grew up. The film explores his psychological complexities throughout.

figure 1Bert Cardullo (2006) notes that there are two main components that distinguish art cinema from other film genres. Cardullo argues that these distinctions are that ‘Firstly, art films are usually expressive of national concerns.’ ‘For Those In Peril’ deals with regional as well as national issues. The everyday life in the fishing village revolves around the sea and its produce. The women in the village work packing the fish and the men risk their lives on the boats. The film explores the theme of bereavement, a common issue in areas where jobs are dangerous. It also focuses on a tight-knit yet unsupportive community. They ostracised the film’s protagonist due to doubts about his mental health and speculated involvement in the accident. Also their own belief in folklore made then think that his presence will bring bad luck.  The village’s people saw Aaron as a constant reminder of the tragedy and didn’t want him around. Duncan Petrie (2000) , my university lecturer, highlights recurring themes found in Scottish cinema such as ‘the alienated or isolated subject.’ Subjectivity is expressed using visual techniques. Aaron is treated as a pariah in his village, the isolation felt by the protagonist is highlighted by the composition of shots such as Figure 1 (For those in Peril, 2013). In this shot he is dwarfed in the frame by the vastness of the water and the sky. The audience, for the most part of the film, sees the turmoil he experiences from his perspective. It encompasses the objectivity of a third person style narrative as well as the first person experience.

Bert Cardullo (2006) points out that ‘art films attempt to conform to canons of taste established in the existing ‘high’ arts…generally characterised by the use of self-consciously ‘artful’ techniques designed to differentiate them from ‘merely entertaining’.  The film has a self-conscious nature in that the editing draws attention to itself; the cuts are frequent and often unmotivated. This style contradicts the classical continuity editing which is popular in Hollywood. Flashbacks are used throughout the film as an artistic device to show the subjective reality of the complex lead protagonist. This temporal discontinuity is often a signifier of art cinema. However, in recent years the use of flashback is slowly creeping into mainstream narrative forms. Figure 2 shows the VHS style footage of the flashbacks makes it clear to audiences that we have stepped back from the storyline’s present day. The aesthetic imperfections of the home-video footage allude to a stark contrast between the crisp reality of the present and Aaron’s hazy memory and lack of clarity of what happened before and during the accident. Each flashback reveals more about Aaron’s emotional condition and it becomes clear that he was already psychologically disturbed before the tragedy. As well as showing the protagonist’s perspective, we see things from the point of view of his deceased brother.

figure 2

Psychologically complex characters are a key feature of art house films, examples of such characters are Dr. Isak Borg in Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Wild Strawberries’ and Ferdinand in Jean Luc Godard’s ‘Pierrot Le Fou’, so it is unsurprising that Aaron’s descent further into mental illness and his psychotic breakdown are explored. He is going to be sent to a mental institution but before this can happen, he goes on his final journey to the sea. The director manipulates a realist style to show the character’s view of the world and the film’s aesthetic is motivated by Aaron’s psychological state. The film attempts to examine the routes of the protagonist’s violent tendencies, something that would rarely be done in a classical narrative form.  There is a certain ambiguity to the mental state of the protagonist. The audiences are uncertain about whether the devil fish is in Aaron’s mind, or if there is some truth to his stories.

Although ‘For Those In Peril’ meets most of the criteria Bordwell used to define an art house cinema film, it is different in that its protagonist actually had a clear cut motivation throughout. Bordwell explains that the reason most art house films don’t have a character with a clear desire is because art films often attempt to make sense of mundane life and ‘had the characters a goal, life would no longer seem so meaningless.’   ‘For Those In Peril’ makes an innovative contribution to the genre of art house by going back to an element of classical cinema, giving Aaron an unequivocal drive. As a mechanism to cope with his grief, Aaron is adamant that his brother is not dead. His childhood memories of listening with his brother to his mother’s stories about the monster in the sea had a big impact on him and he believes that the monster has taken his brother. Aaron’s goal in the film is to retrieve his brother, Michael from the ‘dirty belly’ of the monster. Despite everyone disagreeing with him that his brother is alive, it is this insistence, this obsession that leads him on a journey back to the sea to face his internal demons, as well as the monster he believes is in the water’s depths. To balance this clear cut motivation, Aaron’s psychological inconsistencies are always in question, meaning audiences are unsure why he believes his brother is in the belly of a fish.

‘For Those In Peril’ is typical of an art house film in that it doesn’t use big name actors. This is mainly due to the film’s low budget. Instead the film utilises up-and-coming stars, as well as local extras. This is a clearly cheaper option but it also adds a layer of realism to the film in that the actors aren’t associated with many other projects. The film limited special effects by actually filming in the sea and by basing the film in a real village in Scotland. By using real locations as opposed to the more glamourous Hollywood sets, Paul Wright adds a sense of vérité to the film. The use of real location is a benchmark of the genre.

Ambiguity is, in essence, the meeting of realism and authorial expressivity making it an important convention of the art house genre. While being grounded in reality, the film is fuelled by the superstitions and folklore believed by those in the village and Aaron himself. The ambiguity allows for Aaron’s complex psychological state to be explored in the style of a folklore tale. The story of the devil of the sea is told throughout the film, but there are constant hints that the devil fish may in fact just be a metaphor for the film’s misunderstood protagonist. The film contains several indications of Aaron and the devil fish being one. It is explained at the start in a voiceover from one of the village people that the accident happened on a quiet and clear day, so the tragedy happened under mysterious circumstances.  It was revealed in the film that village people were suspicious of Aaron’s involvement in the incident. This is because he claims to remember nothing at all from that day and that when he was found he was covered in the blood of the other men. These accusations are explored but never truly resolved.

The parallels between Aaron and the fish are drawn in his relationship with his brother’s girlfriend Jane. They both struggle to come to terms with Michael’s demise. Jane turns to Aaron for comfort asking him to say things the same way his brother did, thinking Michael lives on in Aaron, whereas in Aaron’s mind his brother lives on in the belly of the monster. If you assume that they are both correct it means that Aaron is in fact the devil of the sea, who took the lives of the men. Another key indicator of the link between Aaron being the devil fish comes after he drags one of the local boys to sea with a hook trying to lure the creature. The local boy is rescued by the fishermen as they pull him onto the boat. Aaron tries to swim away from the boat like a fish desperate not to be caught. Figure 3 (shows that is ultimately caught in a net like a large fish.

figure 3

The ending of ‘For Those In Peril’ is open to interpretation, something which is synonymous with art house cinema. Audiences are left thinking about the film even after the credits have rolled; it is left to their imagination to decide if the devil fish was meant in a literal sense, if it was in fact Aaron or as a metaphor for the great forces of nature that can swallow a boatload of fisherman without trace.  The end sequence also highlights what David Bordwell describes as another key aspect of the art film genre, which is that ‘the art cinema is less concerned with action than reaction.’ Before the body of the devil fish is revealed to audiences, the shot shows the reaction on the boy’s mother’s face. Audiences are led to believe she sees her son’s body washed up on the shore rather than the huge body of the fish. As she approaches the fish, she showed signs of love not anger. Art film places an emphasis on active viewing, making the audience think about the unresolved ending.

‘For Those In Peril’ is an example of the difficult to define art house genre. The nature of the Art Film genre is to be innovative. ‘For Those In Peril’ is a psychological portrait of a young man dealing with his inner demons. The merging of authorial expressivity and realism allows the director to explore serious and ‘real’ topics such as bereavement and mental illness in relation to myth and folklore. It explores national and regional issues, but they are relevant to a global audience because they deal with universal, real life issues. The film has a dichotomy of reality and myth and the boundaries between the two are permeable due to the film’s ambiguity. The director used the budget constraints to his advantage. He had to think of creative ways to keep costs down, such as using footage from a VHS camera at times and using local extras in the small Scottish village he filmed in. As a genre Art Cinema is explicitly engaged with pushing the boundaries of cinema created by the studio system and doing something new. By giving Aaron a clear cut goal, something that is unusual in art house cinema, Paul Wright has contributed to the development of the genre. Just as flashbacks have made their way into mainstream cinema, an element of classical narrative has made the leap into art house work.

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