Monday, November 17, 2008

Sink Or Swim: An Alphabetic Countdown in Images

[This is cross-posted with my blog Only The Cinema, where it is a part of my ongoing "Films I Love" series, which is intended to highlight my favorite films with a brief analysis and a selection of screenshots.]

Sink Or Swim, Su Friedrich's experimental short in which she attempts to express, through a wide variety of techniques, her ambivalent experiences with and feelings for her often-absent father, has a rigorous formal structure driving its autobiographical narrative. The film consists of 26 sections, each one titled with a single word, the first letters of which count down through the alphabet. The film opens with a segment titled "Zygote" and ends with a section that has three titles, all from Greek mythology: "Athena," "Atalanta," and "Aphrodite." There is one screen capture here from each of the film's 26 alphabetical sections, mimicking the film's structure and demonstrating the discrete feel and methodology of each separate part in the film's whole. The titles sometimes consist of deadpan jokes or puns (the "X Chromosome" section is simply a sustained shot of an elephant's trunk, for obvious reasons), but more often the titles relate obliquely to the images they introduce. There is, in addition to the stories provided by the film's voiceover, a secondary narrative running through the film that is sustained wholly by the titles and their relationships to the images. Friedrich's lesbianism is brought in almost exclusively in this way, particularly in the sections entitled "Temptation" (images of female bodybuilders) and "Kinship" (in which, at one point, an image of a lesbian couple embracing in a shower is slowed down and manipulated with video processing). These subtexts largely go unspoken, so that the film becomes a story about desire developing, placed in opposition to the filmmaker's antagonistic relationship with her father.


Fox said...

Hey Ed-

I haven't seen this film yet... but I have a few thoughts.

I like Friedrich's Z-A alphabet approach in trying to make sense of her relationship with her father. It's as if she's starting with the building blocks of our language.

Also, is any of that home footage in the film actual footage of Friedrich?

Lastly, the still you posted of the rollercoaster tracks climbing for it's first drop seemed - to me - like the vagina cavity. (I may just be an obsessed perv...)

Ed Howard said...

Hey Fox, Thanks for the comments. I'm not sure about the home movies - it may be her, or someone in her family, although so much of the film is comprised of stock and "found" footage that I'm inclined to say no. I know she does appear, as an adult, in a few of the later sequences, though, and she's not averse to appearing in her films in general; she does so in several.

The rollercoaster sequence plays out very differently in motion. It's accompanied by Friedrich's voiceover about being terrified by going to see the 1960 movie of H.G. Wells' Time Machine with her father. She tries to cover her eyes and says she wants to leave, but he pulls her hands away, forcing her to stay and watch. The images of the rollercoaster ride are frenzied, the camera whipping around in time with the ride's dips and spirals, everything blurred by speed and rapid pans. It's about confronting fear head-on. The still I captured is from immediately before this wild section: as the rollercoaster ascends, Friedrich keeps it framed in a small box within the film frame, then opens up to a full-screen effect when the ride starts for real. The effect, I think, is something like going from watching a movie (a small rectangle of light in the darkness) to experiencing the unmediated terror of real life.

That said, there are plenty of other places, here and throughout Friedrich's oeuvre, where she uses playful visual metaphors for sexual organs, so you may be right after all.

Anonymous said...

Hi all,
I'm very honored that you chose my film for your monthly film study thing! Thank you!!
And wanted to answer the query--the home movie footage of the kids playing ball in the country and then going to the pool is footage shot by my paternal grandfather (Carl J. Friedrich) of his kids. I found a big box of reels by chance while I was making the film and again by chance it included this footage--of the daughter who drowned (the next year) in the same pool one sees in the footage.
And at the end of the film, the shot of the girl waving on the beach is me, also shot by my grandfather.
And in an early part, of the little girl tottering towards the camera and the dad tossing her is my sister and my father.
So although we weren't a family that I thought of as constantly being recorded (my parents barely took photos), I discovered that my grandfather had been quite busy with his regular 8 camera years before.
Basically, aside from the obvious TV footage and the stuff by my grandfather, all the footage is mine--some people think other stuff is found footage, like the circus, but it's not.
As for the suggestion of a vagina in the rollercoaster...I didn't intend that and I think it's just a case of a photo giving an impression that wouldn't be there if one saw the moving image (though as Howard says, I do often play around with visual metaphors).
Best wishes,

Ed Howard said...

Wow, thanks so much for the substantive response, I really appreciate the clarification of where the various footage comes from. I'm surprised to find there's much less found footage than I'd thought.

Anyway, I love this film and your work in general, so thanks for weighing in and setting us straight on those details.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ed,
Glad to be of service and thanks again for your kind words and interesting observations about my film.
Best wishes,