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Su Friedrich

August 8, 2007

Sink or Swim, 1990

sink_swim.gifComposed of twenty-six distinctive chapters, each thematic, one word title representing a letter of the alphabet in reverse order, Sink or Swim is, in some ways, an autobiographical corollary to Su Friedrich's The Ties That Bind, a series of allusive, poetic, and insightful third person anecdotes that deconstruct the complicated relationship between a girl - now a young woman - and her estranged, emotionally distant father. Appropriately opening with the moment of creation in a chapter entitled Zygote, as archival laboratory film footage illustrating the fertilization of an ovum traces embryonic development (a scientific approach to physiological and biological phenomena that evoke the films of Jean Painlevé and Barbara Hammer), the image of growth and cultivation is replaced in the succeeding chapter, Y-Chromosome, by the seemingly abstract composition of disembodied hands setting free a dense clump of milkweed spores into the wind. In hindsight, this odd act of metaphoric emancipation serves as a reflection of the filmmaker's father, Paul Friedrich's disconnection and absence from her life as well - a double-edged gesture that represents, not a custodian placing faith in a child's journey towards maturity, independence, and sexual awakening, but a willful dissociation from the "ties that bind" a parent to his child.

By chronicling tell-tale incidents from their strained relationship through recurring, often complementary patterns that provide the abstract fragments of a candid and intensely honest autoportrait, Friedrich introduces the idea of human behavior as inherently hereditarian - a self-perpetuating cycle of trauma and dysfunction that has not only been instilled since birth, but also passed on from generation to generation through the emotional baggage of a tenacious collective consciousness (a persistence of long memory that is alluded in the early shot of a grazing elephant). Perhaps the most emblematic of this transference is the discovery of the father's commemorative poem that he had written on the occasion of the birth of his first-born daughter, a celebration of a new life that he would weigh against the loss of his younger sister from a childhood drowning - in essence, offering his newborn child at a figurative altar of memory to atone for his guilt over his sister's accidental death. (Note the father's self-absorption between lamentation and culpability that is also reflected in a subsequent poem that paradoxically expresses his grief in watching his daughter's growing distance from him, even as he single-handedly bears the responsibility for sending her packing for a premature return trip home during a Mexican vacation.) A similar duality of celebration and mourning is also revealed in the girl's eventual victory in a game of chess against her father - a triumph that would prove to be bittersweet when he decides to stop playing against her. Still another is suggested in the long-awaited introduction of a television set into the household after her parents' acrimonious divorce - an object that he had refused to purchase during their marriage (and who would, instead, send the children to a neighbor's house to watch such spectacles as Don Ameche's Flying Circus Show) - the images of intact, nuclear families represented by The Donna Reed Show and Father Knows Best serving as an ironic surrogate for their own rended family. But far from merely reflecting a child's rebellion over her absent father, the oppositional elements in Sink or Swim also reflect the institutionalization of this dichotomy within the complexities of a contemporary family structure (one that, in Friedrich's case, entails a succession of three wives and the addition of half-siblings) - a perpetuated conflict posed by the coexistence of bifurcated, unrealistic ideals that is mirrored in her father's kinship studies at the time of the divorce, as well as his research on Aphrodite (the goddess of love) and Demeter (the goddess of grain and fertility). Juxtaposed against alternating images of women as both mother and whore (as depicted through assorted ecclesiastic art and Ukiyo-e prints of the pleasure quarters), Friedrich exposes the inherent irreconcilability of these ideals - a mythologization that is reinforced in the film's final (and only multi-titled) chapter, Athena, Atalanta, Aphrodite - a reflection, not of god-like invincibility, but a father's inflicted destiny.

Posted by acquarello on Aug 08, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Su Friedrich

June 25, 2007

The Ties That Bind, 1985

ties_bind.gifIn an interview with Scott MacDonald for A Critical Cinema 2, Su Friedrich comments that the inspiration for her first feature film arose from the idea of her mother's seeming uprootedness despite having settled in the United States since after the war. This sentiment of an elusive home suffuses her mother, Lore Bucher Friedrich's candid, heartfelt, and thoughtful account on her early life in 1930s Germany as well - a traumatic experience that, in its fateful intersection with the collective shame of a terrible national history, could only be relegated to the silence of personal memory - as a young woman orphaned in part by the cumulative toll of persecution on her defiantly anti-Nazi family, as a civilian driven out of her late parents' house by insensitive American soldiers during the occupation, as a postwar immigrant starting over a new life in the United States, and as a wife and mother whose husband left the family after fifteen years of marriage:

"Before I made The Ties That Bind I had such bad feelings of being German; and my father is half-German too. I don't think I really trusted the material I had. When I was working on the film, I told myself to stop worrying, to stop thinking I shouldn't be doing it, to stop disbelieving her, to trust her. I figured if the film was a failure in the long run I wouldn't show it. At some point I just stopped carrying on about it. It was strange to suddenly be thinking of my mother in this respectful way, to really be admiring her for what she did, for surviving. I had never thought of her."

Introducing her mother through an idiosyncratic montage of arms, elbows, hands, and feet, the fragmented images serve as an oblique reflection of Friedrich's own process of re-framing her mother's life within the context of personal testimony rather than a representative collective history. As the youngest daughter of a German Catholic family in the town of Ulm whose family patriarch, from the onset, had distrusted the lofty promises of Adolf Hitler and refused to join the wave of popular support despite social (and financial) pressure, Lore recounts her ostracism from school as being only one of the three girls who was not a member of the BDM (League of German Girls branch of the Hitler Youth movement), her family's unexpected disinheritance from their father's will at the hands of a suspicious executor that prevented her from pursuing her university studies, her forced draft into a Dornstadt air facility at the age of 19 at a time when her mother was dying from incurable cancer (an involuntary service that she suspects was instigated by a former piano teacher's denunciation of her), her increasing awareness of resistance groups, such as the White Rose Group formed by siblings Sophie and Hans Scholl who were also from Ulm, her traumatic memory of the bombing of Stuttgart that killed 3/4 of the local population and left her shell-shocked and wandering aimlessly through the streets, her fateful encounter with American soldier Paul Friedrich who was working on the de-nazification program, and finally, her emigration and less than fairytale marriage that would end in divorce .

Eschewing the interview format by replacing oral questions and observations with scratch film, the prominence of her mother's lone voice ironically reflects Friedrich's own process of personalization, introducing a physical self-imprint - the figurative ties that bind - that connects her mother's life experience with the formation of her own identity. This imprinting of collective consciousness is suggested in an early intertitle commenting on her mother's odd aversion to fireworks that is subsequently reinforced, not only in Lore's recollection of the bombing of Stuttgart, but also the continuous bombardment that would mark the last day of the war. Juxtaposed against images of the filmmaker's own acts of protest and resistance against the military and nuclear proliferation, and in particular, the implementation of Ronald Reagan's capstone Star Wars program, Friedrich subverts the notion of a silenced history, and instead presents a multifaceted collage of a remarkable, humble life lived within the eternal recursions of an all too human history, where a return to the simple pleasures of swimming in the sea and playing the piano serve, not only as implicit acts of defiance, but also as a re-assertion of suppressed identity.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 25, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Su Friedrich