Monday, December 1, 2008


Compared to some of Su Friedrich's work, Sink or Swim is a film that does not directly address lesbian identity. Of course, there's no obligation for a lesbian filmmaker to thematize and foreground her sexual identity. But Friedrich often does, and in an autobiographical film about the filmmaker's frought relationship with her father, coming out, stigma, or navigating straight kinship as an adult lesbian never enter into the film. This flows, in part, from the appropriation of structural filmmaking to intermediate between Friedrich and the film's autobiographical persona.

There is one segment, though, in which lesbian sexuality appears directly. Titled "Kinship" the sequence continues a motif on kinship that runs throughout the film (her father, an academic, has written on kinship structure while being seemingly unaware of how his abstraction of kinship gets in the way of connecting with his own family). Yet the father is absent from this segment. Instead of the child's voiceover (a few other segments, like "Ghosts," lack it), a German lament plays (the leider her mother would listen to?) over three types of shots: handheld camera recording plane, train, and car travel; contemplative shots of nature, seemingly in the rural West; and two women in a sauna who eventually embrace under the shower.

Part of the power of the sequence comes from the lack of voiceover or sync sound accompanying the images and from the black leader before the final embrace shot.

A complexity meanwhile emerges from its uncommunicativeness in narration: we as viewers are not sure what the relation between these three strands, nor between a given strand and kinship. Even the connotation of the shots is unclear: is the lone figure in the desert landscape a sign or isolation or a marker of home movie accident? Is one woman in the shower consoling her crying partner, or are they embracing in romantic or sexual joy? This uncommunicativeness, of course, is the hallmark of experimental work which by nature tends to avoid programmatic meanings in favor of ambiguous and evocative ones.

But the step back from communication is itself, structurally meaningful in the film. Sink or Swim has a number of sequences, each with a range of communicative possibilities. In some, the image and sound line up. The image may not be the literal recording of the event described by the girl's voiceover narration, but it is consonant with it: shots of a lake, or of the filmmaker in her home. In others, the apparent mismatch is a device of defamiliarization; we come to see the drama related in the voiceover in unrelated events, such as children ice skating, or a first communion. Finally, as in Kinship, the mismatch between images and exposition opens up an interpretive breach into the film: what is the relation?

To my eye, the meaning is second order. The point of the segment is that lesbian kinship is distinctive, with its own emotional bonds, yet it is also difficult to express. Without actually saying it, the film seems to suggest that the lesbian (or maybe just the filmmaker herself) is isolated from straight kinship culture while also creating something of her own.


Ed Howard said...

This is a great post, Chris - it's good to see that not everyone has abandoned this blog.

I'd say it's beyond doubt that the music playing during "Kinship" must be the same piece that's later mentioned in the letter during "Ghosts." This gives this section a new resonance in retrospect, since the choice of the music is later explained and deepened by its link to her mother.

I think the reason Friedrich doesn't engage more directly with her lesbian identity in this film is that she doesn't want to fall into the trap of positing simplistic cause/effect relationships between her childhood and her adult sexual identity. She doesn't want to suggest anything as psychosexual or Freudian as her distant, unloving father driving her to desire women rather than men. Instead, she leaves the development of her sexuality more amorphous and ambiguous -- there are hints of early stirrings of desire for female bodybuilders, but nothing too explicit.

Su Friedrich said...

Dear Chris and Ed,
All true what you say but I wanted to add that the reason I put in the footage was to do what I have always tried to do, which is to normalize lesbian relationships--to present them without making a big deal of them but just to show them in the same way that someone would make something about a straight relationship (which has resulted in me overhearing comments like the one passed between a straight couple after seeing Rules of the Road, when one of them said "Oh, I didn't know lesbians had relationships like that" (meaning I guess that we own cars, go on trips, etc...))
So I put in the footage of Marty and Katy as a passing way of saying that passionate love (and the potential for awful divorces!) is there no matter who the two people are.
And yes, the song during the desert is the same song referred to in the letter.
Best wishes,