Little Fish, Big Bite: Clever Camerawork in LITTLE FISH
15 May 2011
The Australian drama Little Fish follows Tracy (Cate Blanchett), a recovering drug addict living in Little Saigon, just outside Sydney, Australia, as she deals with the day-to-day struggles of addiction recovery. Although Tracy has been clean for four years, she is still surrounded by people continuing to use, namely her ex-step-father, Lionel (Hugo Weaving), and brother, Ray (Martin Henderson). The film is most often acclaimed for its strong performances but criticized for being, at times, erratic. However, Little Fish is remarkable for its ability to communicate Tracy’s journey through clever cinematics, particularly the camera technique and movement. Yes, the film is erratic and complex at times, but that is how the film can best express this plot riddled with drug deals and addicts.
One of the richest examples of Little Fish’s noteworthy cinematics comes at the start of the film when Tracy expresses reluctance about attending her school reunion. A close friend shows up at the video store Tracy works in to persuade her to attend the event. Even Tracy’s co-worker also encourages her to go because “[Tracy] never goes anywhere.” Begrudgingly, Tracy agrees. At this point in the film, the audience knows nothing about Tracy or her past with drugs, yet it is clear she is struggling with emotions and the reunion is a source of tension.
As she enters the event, Tracy is able to let loose; she dances in the dark nightclub-like room, full of people with flashing lights and loud music. Yet, suddenly, something comes over her; she gets a panicked look on her face and leaves the room abruptly. Outside the room, she regains her composure. It is still unclear to the audience what Tracy’s back-story is and what caused her mood in the reunion to change so suddenly and dramatically.
The only clue to the change in Tracy comes from the scene’s camerawork. At the reunion, the action is often captured in close-ups through hand-held camerawork, a technique which, in part, eliminates some pretense in cinema. This is a camera technique Little Fish’s director, Rowan Woods, uses frequently. Although the audience does not know why Tracy’s mood changes so rapidly during the reunion, watching everyone dancing around Tracy via hand-held camera and repeated cuts to close-ups on her face highlight a likely explanation for her frantic actions.
On the dance floor, reality is completely distorted; music overwhelms all other sounds, darkness, punctuated by flashing colored lights, warps the ability to see, and there are several cuts in rapid succession, disrupting continuity. Letting loose and breaking from reality is alluring to Tracy, but suddenly there is a stark moment when she realizes she is no longer in control, which frightens her. Because of the hand-held camera the audience is experiencing this distorted reality on the dance floor just as Tracy is. And, compounding the choppy cuts on top of that, the audience, too, begins to feel unease about the environment, lending understanding to Tracy’s sudden change in mood without any further verbalized explanation necessary. Looking at the film retrospectively, after more of Tracy’s struggle with drugs in known, Tracy’s carefree release on the dance floor closely mirrored the sensation she experienced when high. Because the dancing simulated a drug experience for her, she panicked and immediately stopped.
This beginning scene in the film epitomizes the affect Little Fish pursues through its camera effects. Little Fish often uses hand-held camerawork to invite the audience into the film to share this particularly tumultuous time in Tracy’s life with her, as pressures to use again increase. Cinematically, the hand-held camera communicates a stronger sense of reality to the 21st century audience. The wobbly, imperfect shots are familiar, suggesting the audience is behind the camera, in the reunion, dancing with Tracy; the camera moves just like a person present in that moment would. Additionally, in this particular scene, the façade of cinema is lifted: no perfect lighting, flawless make-up, or pristine hair; Tracy appears as she would if she actually were dancing right in front of the audience. Seeing action through a hand-held camera is relatable, and it is both effective, emotive to introduce Tracy’s precarious lifestyle with precarious camerawork.
Moreover, this early scene in Little Fish is significant, as it serves as a metaphor for how fearful Tracy is of her environment, as well as her own vulnerability and fragility. This opening scene encapsulates almost everything drawn out in further detail in the rest of the film.
A film is not remarkable because of the story it tells; a film is remarkable for the way it tells the story. In Little Fish, the characters are largely untrustworthy and distrusting, vague and secretive, and emotional. Little Fish’s cinematic composition is a parallel to that. Sometimes the camera is hand-held, inviting the audience in. Then, without warning, it changes. In addition, sometimes the camera follows Tracy into intimate, private moments in her life, but, other times, gaps of time are omitted and information is withheld, never to be revealed to the audience. Basically, the camera is unreliable, just like so many things in Tracy’s life. This may seem erratic or complex, but everything in Little Fish is purposeful; the cinematics allows the audience to get closer to Tracy. Little Fish may initially seem rough around the edges and confusing, but for a film about drug dealing, recovery, and addiction that is exactly what it should be.