Composed 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.
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