Review: It Felt Like Love (Eliza Hittman)

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Most coming-of-age stories grapple with achieving the right amount of cuming. Either sensationalized (Larry Clarke’s Kids, Catherine Hardwicke’s 13) or neutered (Ken Kwapis’s The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants), the nuanced area which both acknowledges and explores nascent desire is often missed. Eliza Hittman’s It Felt Like Love hits this sweet spot, and exposes it as having gone sour.

Part of the Hivros Tiger Competition at Rotterdam, Hittman’s debut cares deeply for its protagonist, the young Lila (Gina Piersanti), who is struggling to express her sexuality on the cusp of adulthood. Established early on as the “awkward girl”—her one-piece bathing suit and sun-screened face index insecurity instantaneously—to her developed friend, Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni), Lila is searching for summer loving. And not the romantic kind. Fixated on the idea of being sexual active, she observes and absorbs Chiara’s turns of phrase regarding cunniligus and professes she wants to be a porn star to impress the older boy she attaches her longings to, Sammy (Ronen Rubinstein). Never brow-beating, Hittman seamlessly communicates the double bind that young girls (or at least white, heterosexual ones—this was a Sundance film after all) face: accepting degradation as a means to empowerment.

Like Lila, It Felt Like Love is preoccupied with the sensual and the aesthetic, capturing lush moments which all but explode with sexual longing. Just as Lila is an adept observer, eyeing Sammy’s bronzed flesh as he dips into a river, Hittman’s camera does the same, loading all the bodies on screen with an excessive sexual charge. At a party, Lila drunkenly walks through a crush of bodies in slow motion. It is a short sequence, but its textures capture the sense of dislocated longing that marks so much of teenage hood—floating desires that can be easily pegged on anyone or anything. Because of this, like Catherine Breillat’s films (which Hittman acknowledges as an influence), the (traditionally) erotic has little place here.

Climaxing with a painful (yet still ambiguous) conclusion, Lila never figures out how to properly project or manage her sexuality. Rebuffed by Sammy and doubted by Chiara, even her father doesn’t believe her claims that she spent a night with a boy. Lila is constantly denied as a sexual being, which only pushes her further towards forcing herself to be one in the narrowest (and only) way she understands it: gratifying men. Ending with a nod to Georges Franju’s Eyes Without A Face, in a rapid cut Lila turns to face the camera wearing a blank white mask. Part of a costume for her dance recital, she begins gyrating on stage with a group of girls as the lyrics to a top 40 rap song profess: “Welcome to hell bitches.” Welcome? We’re already there.

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Recap of the “Raiders of the Lost Archive” Panel

As the transition from film to digital becomes increasingly popular (though not necessarily smooth), the question of archiving is becoming a dominant topic of discussion. In the future, how will we save movies, from features to home videos? On USB sticks? Hard drives? A cloud? Though thought of as a dusty procedure done by wiry-haired humans in dark basements, the archive has long been a site for avant-garde and experimental filmmakers to pillage something new from the old. Hosting six experts and filmmakers, the punny-titled “Raiders of the Lost Archive” panel delved into the questions of ethics, logistics and legalities when it comes to film archiving.

Moderated by Madeleine Molyneaux, the discussion began with the notion of democratizing the archive, a process which requires questioning not only what is deemed “important,” but also who is saying so. Filmmaker Kevin Jerome Everson explores this in his work, noting that as he began looking for archival footage of African American life prior to the civil rights movement very little existed. As he said: “People just didn’t point their cameras that way.” Bringing up questions of who is made invisible in society, Everson’s previous work has sought to recreate found footage from the ‘60s and ‘70s, retroactively addressing this historical—and literal—blind spot. 

Andrew Lampert spoke at length about similar issues, noting his own archive/collection focused on the disregarded and banal images which could be repurposed for new meaning. For instance, looking at 8mm footage of recordings of Larry Roemer’s Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer (1964) or the moon landing “boot-legged” off of televisions becomes particularly interesting in the age of torrents.

The role of cinemathques in canonizing and valorizing certain works also came up. Pornography, for instance, often poses a problem for archives. And while Everson pointed out Canadians are more open to it than Americans (there is a large collection of this genre at the film archive at the University of Toronto) its acceptance into the collection at the time was fraught. Issues of dominant morality are never far from the archive.

When considered to be both a visual and physical catalogue of memory, the archive is hardly the dry subject it is thought to be. But then, the panel’s namesake, Indiana Jones, always knew that.

Review: Sao karaoke (Visra Vichit Vadakan)

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Karaoke, the socially acceptable way in which to degrade yourself publicly, has much more complex meanings in Visra Vichit Vadakan’s debut feature, Sao karaoke. Set in Bangkok, Visra follows Sa Sittijun, a real-life escort (karaoke girl) working to support her family. Blending fiction and documentary, the film is structured around Sa’s return home to her poor village, while intercut with lyrical—at times all too predictable—interludes of her struggling romantic life.

As a project documenting women’s work, the film is impossible to not sympathize with. The main financial provider for her family, Sa lies and says she works in a factory, thus able to return home as a prodigal daughter, celebrated by her extended family. To Visra’s credit, the film never delves into misery porn or feels exploitative; the most graphic on screen sex is a cartoonish wooden sculpture, made in Sa’s home village for a parade, of a man penetrating a woman on all fours. Rather than beating a sense of despair into the audience, Visra captures Sa’s melancholic interiority, as well as her moments of happiness.

While the mix of fiction and documentary is meant to create a more nuanced portrait than that of the typical human-interest story, the structure of the film rapidly falls apart in the final chapter. Leaning too heavily on melodrama, despite a strong performance from Sa, because of this Sao karaoke undermines its boldest move: enacting Sa’s fantasy of being a pop singer. Asked what she would like to do, over a black screen Sa replies: “You mean if I dreamed?” Immediately cutting to a fictional lavish production in which Sa is the star, the moment both acknowledges Visra’s own position of power within the filming dynamic (she creates the story), but also feels like a genuine moment of play between Sa and the director. It is Sa’s true karaoke moment. A powerful point on which to end, much of this is lost in the decision to include further snippets from Sa’s village with voiceover and footage of her laughing on train, most likely engaging with Visra behind the camera. Gentle and kind, yes, but the force of this dream sequence, and its larger suggestive power regarding cinema, is sadly diluted.

Review: Krivina (Igor Drljaca)

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A feature which grew from a thesis film, Igor Drljaca’s debut is both astute and philosophical beyond its young director’s years. Screening in the Bright Future section, Krivina is set in Bosnia and Toronto, following Miro (Goran Slavkovic) who travels back to the former, his native land, trying to find a friend who is wanted for crimes committed during the Bosnian war. Like the title (which means a curve or bend in the road in Serbo-Croat) the journey is far from straight forward, eventually leading Miro back to where he began: himself.

Most easily categorized as a ghost story, Krivina is not about the supernatural, but the all too real haunting of trauma. Like Amos Gitai’s  Kedma (2002) or Milcho Manchevski’s Before the Rain (1994), Krivina rejects resolution, earning every ounce of its ambiguity. Less opaque than hazy, information is revealed a-temporally as flashbacks and the present seamlessly merge, creating a sense that time and place are lost to Miro, or perhaps he is to them. Surrealist in tone, the film’s formal elements echo of cinéma vérité’s handheld aesthetic, which are juxtaposed with static long takes of unflinching inquisitively. In both cases, however, answers are never clear. Time and again the camera finds itself tracking behind Miro, suggesting he is not only lost to himself, but also us.

The film’s true achievement is a subtle yet oppressive soundtrack, which hums with a constant anxiety like the ringing in one’s ears after a loud noise. Here, however, the explosive event never takes place on screen, remaining indefinable in scope. The result is the sense there is no clear beginning or end, only a constant lost present.

“Single Frame Snow”

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By and large, cinema is defined as moving images, while the visual arts are still. There are, of course, exceptions which bend this not-so-hard and fast rule. Some artists, however, seek to purposefully break it down. Michael Snow is one. Fittingly for works which aim to rupture categorization, the “Single Frame Snow” screening bridged two separate programmes, Sound Stages and Regained, with a triple bill of A Casing Shelved (1970), Slidelenght (1971) and Side Seat Paintings Slides Sound Film (1970).

The first short is perhaps the best known: 45 minutes of a single slide, an image of a blue shelf stacked with seemingly meaningless debris. Ostensibly still, Snow creates movement through narration (as opposed to camera work or editing), guiding the audiences’ focus and way of looking by describing the objects on the shelf. Imbuing what at first glance seem like innocuous objects with meaning (the plastic sheets were used in Wavelenghts, for instance), the image of the shelf never changes, but rapidly its meaning does. Like Snow’s own personality, there is a certain levity to the film—“that’s the only sphere, but there’s lots of cylinders,” he remarks of the shelf’s contents—as A Casing Shelved explores the limits and opacity of seeing.

Slidelenght builds on this theme as well, but felt more in tune with Sound Stages’ emphasis on “cinema as event,” as Snow himself worked the carousel. Slides of hands holding transparent coloured sheets or wood and blurred images of interiors are brought up on the screen (with no narration), drawing attention to the root of the cinematic medium being the play of light. Normally pre-timed for gallery installations, Snow chose how long to linger on each image—a choice which in a sense made him a member of the audience.

The last short, Side Seat Paintings Slides Sound Film, opens with a hand picking up a reel, turning it towards the camera to display the title scrawled in pen. The screen turns black as the reel is brought up to obscure the entire frame, where we then “enter” the film, which is composed of a series of slides of Snow’s work. Most make little sense visually (those in the Walking Women series stand out), as Snow’s narration guides the experience. Suddenly, however, he alters the audio track, stretching it and changing the pitch, therein destabilizing the piece’s anchor.

Again, the question of the digital arose in the screening’s Q&A, as Snow talked about the importance of shaping the experience of seeing his work. As this is lost with YouTube (or even some galleries), the semi-triptych overall created an experiment in control. Yet, for all this, during A Casing Shelved there was an error in the projection. Merely two small glitches, the blunders reinforced the very impossibility of complete control. But, more importantly, proves this fact to be the basis for any unique event. Cinematic or otherwise.

“Reverberations”

Reverberations,” a double bill of Reverberlin (2006) and Snow in Vienna (2012), perfectly captured two sides of Michael Snow—the artist and the performer. A rare feat for any creative being to embody both qualities, it is less surprising that Snow can navigate these realms seamlessly, given his ability to shift between mediums. Sculpture, painting, holographic art, music, film, he masters each in innovative ways, pushing boundaries and ways of perception.

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Reverberlin is Snow’s interpretation of a 2002 concert with his trio, co-founded in 1974 with John Oswald on alto sax and Paul Dutton’s “soundsinging.” With a background in jazz, Snow plays the piano, creating surrealist and exploratory compositions where sound ruptures lyricism. As only an audio track existed of the Berlin performance, Snow recreated the concert by adding footage from other performances, a method he described as being both “in synch and out of synch.” At times both startling and beautiful, in transposing images during duets or shifting focus to match prolonged or shortened notes Snow’s film attempts to visualize sound itself.

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By contrast, Canadian Laurie Kwasnik’s Snow in Vienna is a conventional concert film. What will eventually become a part of her larger documentary project on Snow’s legacy, Fields of Snow, this short captures a performance by Snow last year in Vienna. Opening with Snow’s response to being asked to perform—he worried not only about the short time to prepare, but also playing in the city that was home to Mozart and Beethoven—the camera trains on his face and hands, largely allowing the music to take precedence over the images.

While the first short emphasized Snow’s creative vision, an imagining of his own perception of sound and music, Kwasnik’s feels more archival in intention. The pairing, however, created a neat and fruitful juxtaposition, which paints a portrait of an artist still very much in the prime of creativity.

Michael Snow’s La Région centrale (1971)

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Focusing on “cinema as an event,” Signals: Sound Stages falls outside the normal parameters of a festival programme. Not organized around a particular genre or theme, the films don’t necessarily share an interest in the acoustic, but reverberate—pun intended—on the auditory level. Sound normally garners far less interest than the visual, often only brought to attention when it falters—an out of synch audio track, poor dubbing, when it fails to play at all. Much like our bodies which function without consciousness thought, sound is taken for granted, a natural function that is rarely marveled at. But, not to be too poetic, like breathing it is central to the life of cinema.

Michael Snow, the Canadian avant-garde artist whose career spans over half a century, has made sound central to his expression of film. In Wavelenght (1967) he stretched the audio track to match the film’s 40-minute plus zoom, a synergy of sound an image. Here at Rotterdam for a showcase of his work, he introduced a screening of perhaps his most seminal film, La Région centrale. Made over a period of three days in 1971, the film is a series of shots of a barren Quebec landscape, taken from a camera anchored to a robotic arm which gyrated and panned 360-degrees to sonic cues. Meant to capture what Snow perceived to be the movements of landscapes, nature, and space, La Région centrale eschews linear perspective, a cosmic carnival ride through a formless universe.

In so tightly connecting sound and image, any screening of Snow’s works cue the brain to amplify the auditory. The event of the screening then wasn’t merely anchored in Snow’s presence and introduction—at 83 he still speaks passionately about the piece—but the overall soundscape of the screening room. At the heart of this experience was the 16mm projector. The original format in which La Région centrale was shot, the quiet hum of the reel spinning was a reminder of our active suspension of disbelief in watching any film (nothing more than projected light).

The format also raised questions of the digital. As many of Snow’s works are available on YouTube, the question of watching his films in a theatre versus online is naturally prevalent. (Programmer Edwin Carels invoked this point during the Q&A.) Thus, that whirring of the projector gave a tactility to the screening, making the film’s inversion of perspective and evoking a universal lack of orientation all the more profound. A true event to get lost in.