Steam Rises Knowingly | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Steam Rises Knowingly

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Of the films in the Onion City Film Festival that I was able to prescreen several are inventive and full of energy--Mark Nugent's visually dazzling near-surreal landscape film Dark River, Heyd Fontenot's humorously cartoonish Eggplantasia--but the one that really moved me is Steam Rises Knowingly by Holly L. Hey. On the sound track the sound of heavy, tortured breathing accompanies the voice of the filmmaker-narrator, who describes her breathing problems and a close relationship with a woman friend. Though the word "asthma" is never used, what she calls "the hours of struggle to breathe normally--without thinking" becomes a metaphor for an overall quest for an authenticity and spontaneity of being. Sensuous black-and-white images of surfaces--cloth, water, a woman's body--are interrupted by intertitles, one of which declares, "To be without touch is to move through a blurred, deadened world." The desire to breathe naturally is thus connected with a wish to recover the primal, tactile experiences of earliest childhood. A key image shows rising steam, presumably from the vaporizer that she describes using as a child. At one point cigarette smoke joins the steam in the frame while the narrator says, "As her mother inhaled her cigarette, she inhaled more steam." Despite this specifically ironic, perhaps a little bitter, autobiographical moment, the film's strength stems from what it does not show. By limiting our field of vision to a few often-repeated sensual images, the filmmaker movingly describes a character who, like a young child, understands things not in terms of theories and interpretations but through the interconnected seeing and touching of the key elements in her world. Randolph Street Gallery, 756 N. Milwaukee, Saturday, May 15, 9:15, and Sunday, May 16, 2:00 and 8:00, 666-7737.

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