The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

It Felt Like Love

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Like Daniel Patrick Carbone’s Hide Your Smiling Faces (2014), Eliza Hittman’s It Felt Like Love (2014) feels like a memory piece. Fourteen-year-old Lila (Gina Piersanti) lives with her dad (Kevin Anthony Ryan) in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn, but hangs out at Rockaway Beach over the course of a summer. In the opening shot, her body is framed from behind against the waves of the ocean. When she eventually turns around, her face is covered with a thick layer of suntan lotion so that she looks like a mime or a sad clown.

Lila’s friend, Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni), a member of her dance group, is both older and more mature. She’s already had sex and has a horny new boyfriend named Patrick (Jesse Cordasco), with whom she flaunts her sexuality. Lila, on the other hand, is like Frankie from Carson McCuller’s novel, The Member of the Wedding, someone who desperately wants to be included. When she spies a handsome hunk named Sammy (Ronen Rubinstein), whom Chiara describes as willing to have sex with anyone, Lila becomes obsessed with him. If this sounds like the plotline of Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), in some ways, it is. Solondz, however, creates ironic distance from his protagonist, Dawn Wienerdog, whereas Lila is so naked and vulnerable that it’s terribly painful to watch her misguided quest unfold.

Lila tries her best to mimic Chiara, whose sexual boasts she repeats as her own to her younger next door neighbor, Nate (Case Prime), with whom she would very much like to experiment. When she suggests they play a game of “Truth or Dare,” he becomes very nervous. She tells him, “Come on. Use your imagination.”  He responds, “It’s just not the kind of game you play with two people. It’s just more fun with a group, you know?” When she later sees him together with a girl his own age, Lila becomes jealous, especially when Nate confesses that they just made out. He nevertheless becomes her confidant, after she fabricates a relationship with Sammy and then doggedly pursues him.

When Lila turns up at the pool hall where he works, Sammy asks, “How do I know you again?” “The beach,” she tells him. “That’s right. You look different,” he responds. As she later meets him to retrieve her sunglasses, he flat out asks, “Can I ask you something? Do you want something from me?” Lila answers, “What would I want, anyways?” as she then leers at his muscular back after he wades into the water and removes his shirt. Sammy, who is in college, suspects what it is, but her attention only feeds his narcissism. Seeing him strut around arrogantly is enough to make most viewers hate guys in general.

Sammy’s friends are no better. As Lila hangs with them while they get high and watch porn, she offers naïve commentary. She suggests that she’s actually considering porn as a career option: “The hours are really good and so is the pay. And I like sex a lot. Like a lot a lot.” Her words are not lost on a mean guy named Devon (Nick Rosen). Meanwhile, Patrick refuses to commit to Chiara because she’s slept with more guys, and he needs to get even. At her sweet-sixteen party, Chiara introduces a new boyfriend and refuses to tell Lila what happened.

As Lila becomes more isolated, she becomes even more aggressive in her pursuit of Sammy. She convinces Chiara to accompany her to a party, where she drinks too much, vomits in the bathroom, and then makes her move when Sammy passes out after having sex with a woman in his bedroom. When Lila pretends to Chiara that she slept with Sammy, the older girl convinces her to go to the clinic (where we learn what happened to her mom). Undeterred, she shows up at Sammy’s house, as he sits around with his pals. They want to know why she’s back there, but Devon supplies the answer, which leads to a disturbing scene that rivals anything in Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992)

Hittman has created a powerful coming-of-age film about female sexual identity. She and her cinematographer, Sean Porter, use a fluid camera and narrow depth of field to isolate characters in the frame by placing one in sharp focus, while allowing the other to become more blurred. It’s an intriguing strategy for directing our attention and especially for creating Lila’s subjectivity. At the same time, Hittman and Porter frame their characters so tightly that they seem to be constantly eroticizing the young bodies that populate the film. Their strategy is an attempt to replicate the sexualized way that teenagers view each other and the world.

In an interview, the director explains: “I wanted to make a film that represented how people feel when pressured to function and behave as though they are satisfied, happy and romantic. When I was in high school girls actually pinpointed when they were going to lose their virginity and to whom. It was a very aggressive approach, sometimes degrading. Girls are eager to get ‘it’ out of the way and don’t often even know what ‘it’ is.”

In her debut feature, Hittman manages to get outstanding performances from her cast of non-professionals (mostly dancers and rappers), especially Piersanti. But it’s Hittman’s assured command of visual storytelling that makes It Felt Like Love such an impressive feat, even if, in depicting the dark side of a hyper-masculinized adolescent world to which young women easily fall prey, the result is clearly not a pretty picture.

It Felt Like Love screened at Sundance and numerous other major festivals and opened theatrically at the IFC Center in New York City in March. The film will have its Madison premiere at the UW Cinematheque on Friday, May 9 at 7 PM.

Posted 29 April, 2014

Hide Your Smiling Faces

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The specter of death casts a mysterious spell over Daniel Patrick Carbone’s mesmerizing debut feature, Hide Your Smiling Faces (2014). Set in rural northwestern New Jersey, the film deals with young kids trying to come to terms with the kinds of heavy issues for which they lack either the experience or vocabulary. In its emphasis on visual storytelling and focus on the natural world, critics have compared the film to the work of Terrence Malick. Yet Malick’s vision has a more epic and cosmic sweep, whereas Carbone’s episodic film is rooted in the mundane details of events that occur over the course of a single summer. In this respect, Carbone’s film shares a greater affinity with Clay Jeter’s Jess + Moss (2012), or Tim Sutton’s rapturous Pavilion (2013).

Hide Your Smiling Faces begins with a metaphor: an extended shot of a snake leisurely feasting on a fish. The film cuts to a shot of the film’s two protagonists – fourteen-year-old Eric (Nathan Varnson) and his nine-year-old brother, Tommy (Ryan Jones), framed by the inside of an abandoned building that overlooks a picturesque lake while it rains. Carbone creates an insular world of young kids – an all-male world, in which girls are decidedly absent. A female classmate is later heard as a disembodied voice. Two of the kids’ moms also appear, but they play only limited roles in the story. The boys go boating, swim in the lake, bike down empty roads, and explore nature. For these young boys, wrestling and other physical activities serve as forms of sublimation. A large group of them routinely stage wrestling matches, in which Eric is pitted against a longer-haired friend of the same age named Tristan (Thomas Cruz).

Early on, Tommy and his two friends find a dead crow to which they decide to improvise a song. One of them, Ian (Ivan Tomic), proves adept at creating sound effects. Godard said that “All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.” There aren’t any girls in Carbone’s world, but there is at least a gun. It is introduced by Ian, who brings out his father’s pistol and shows it to Tommy and another pal, Blake (Andrew M. Chamberlain). Ian’s father (Colm O’Leary) catches them with it and banishes Ian: “Get lost. Go cry in the woods,” he snarls, before harshly ordering the other two boys to “get the fuck out of here.” Sometime later, after Eric and Tristan steal hamburgers and then throw the trash from a massive stone train bridge, they spot Ian’s body sprawled down below.

Did Ian jump or did he accidentally fall to his death? The film is ambiguous on this note. And the reactions of the kids are equally confused about what has happened. A man at the wake (Clark Middleton) tries to give it a religious spin by insisting that “the Lord has a plan for Ian,” which leads to an awkward exchange with Eric. Eric and Tommy’s parents also try to get them to talk about their feelings, but the two brothers instead wind up grinning inappropriately (hence, the title of the film).

The boys are, in fact, deeply disturbed by Ian’s death, even if they don’t know how to express it properly. It comes out in other forms, some of which are self-destructive. While boating, Tristan raises the issue of death to Eric in dialogue that is spare and laconic:

TRISTAN: Do you ever think about dying?
ERIC: What?
TRISTAN: Like Dying. Someone killing you, or you killing yourself.
ERIC: No, not really.
TRISTAN (after a long pause): I do.
ERIC: Why?
TRISTAN: I don’t know. I just do.
ERIC: Are you sad?
TRISTAN: Yeah, I guess, a little.
ERIC: You want to die because you’re sad?

 Eric’s response is to use Tristan’s prone body as a springboard for a dive into the lake. Right after this, Eric and Tommy’s family dog, Daisy, makes a startling discovery – the carcasses of dead pets – hidden in the forest. This serves as one plot thread, especially when Daisy later disappears.

While cavorting in the woods, Tristan points a rifle at Eric’s head. He wonders, “Do you think you’ll die if I shoot you?” When Eric claims not to know, he responds, “What if I held it to your head?” Tristan later calls Eric on the phone with an even more overt threat, the subtext of which is all too apparent, except to them.

TRISTAN: I just don’t want to be here anymore, you know. No one likes me here.
ERIC: I do.
TRISTAN: What?
ERIC: I do.
TRISTAN: You do what?
ERIC: I like you. You’re my friend.
There is the sound of a gun click.
ERIC: What’s that?
Another sound of a gun click.
TRISTAN: What is what?
ERIC: That sound.
TRISTAN: Don’t you ever wish you were someplace else?
ERIC: I don’t know. I don’t think so. Tristan, this is so dumb. . .
TRISTAN: I hate it here.
ERIC: You’re my friend.
TRISTAN: I don’t know. I got to go, Eric. Bye, Eric.

Eric tries hard to express affection for Tristan, but the boys’ feelings for each other are too deeply repressed by the male adolescent culture they inhabit. Expressions of emotion can only be discussed cryptically and indirectly, as the above scene so clearly indicates. On a similar note, the younger kids, Tommy and Blake, experiment with kissing each other through a sheet of clear plastic. Later on, Eric and Tristan wrestle each other. Eric punches Tristan, who then deliberately hurts Eric’s already wounded hand. Eric chases him down and holds a gun to his friend’s head. With some irony, Tristan calls Eric a “psycho,” before running off.

Given the repressed feelings of these kids, their true reactions are often displaced. Eric, for instance, bullies Tommy physically, by tossing him into deep water to teach him how to swim or “jokingly” pretending to throw his younger brother off the bridge. The terror these situations cause Tommy gives Eric a charge, just as Tristan taunts Eric about suicide in order to elicit even the slightest hint of affection from him. At the dinner table one night, when Eric appears to have hurt his hand and his father questions him, Eric suddenly blurts out, “I hate it here. I do. You don’t care.” His parents’ expressions of concern lead to the exact opposite response. Hide Your Smiling Faces is richly observant in capturing these contradictions. It brilliantly manages to capture the utterly irrational dynamic of what it feels like to be a kid.

Hide Your Smiling Faces belongs to what appears to be a new genre of post-mumblecore films. These films – Pavilion, Jess + Moss, Putty Hill (2011), It Felt Like Love (2013),  and Stand Clear of the Closing Doors (2014), among others – use naturalism, but in a different way. They are primarily visual rather than verbal. They are not about post-collegiate angst and the interpersonal relationships of characters in their twenties, but explore the texture and experience of childhood and adolescence. The films deal with either death or some other traumatic event for which the characters struggle to make sense of something that’s beyond their comprehension. These new films don’t harken back to Cassavetes, Rogosin, and Mailer, but rather to Terrence Malick and early David Gordon Green, or perhaps to Morris Engel’s The Little Fugitive (1953).

Hide Your Smiling Faces was a surprise hit at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival. It opened at Cinema Village in New York City in late March and is currently screening theatrically in select cities. It’s also available on VOD from Amazon and iTunes. I first saw the film last year and welcomed a chance to revisit it now that it is more widely available. Beautifully shot by Nick Bentgen, Carbone’s film transports viewers back to that world of both confusion and wonder, that early period in our lives that somehow still manages to haunt our memories.

Posted 25 April, 2014