Lesson Plan: Su Friedrich’s Sink or Swim

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Ian here—

Back on Halloween, I posted a fitting lesson plan. For Thanksgiving, I guess I’ll go with a perverse one.

I taught Sink or Swim (Su Friedrich, 1990) in a week in my course “Avant-Garde Film and Video Art” devoted to the use of biography as argumentative grounds in film criticism. Since this course served as a writing seminar, one of my learning objectives this week was to get students to consider how they could marshal biographical details of an artist’s life into an analysis, without falling prey to the intentional fallacy by assigning the artist’s views and experiences too much weight. To this end, we watched some Joyce Wieland films, and I had students read Lauren Rabinovitz’s chapter on Wieland in Points of Resistance: Women, Power, and Politics in the New York Avant-garde Cinema, 1943–71. My plan here was threefold: 1) I wanted students to enunciate the specific sorts of arguments we could make about the films when we drew upon knowledge of Wieland’s status as a Canadian artist living and working in the US, her political commitments, and her status as a woman artist too often playing second-fiddle to her more-famous husband. 2) I wanted the students to acknowledge the scope and limits of what we can learn from these things, and to understand that a work of art’s meanings are not entirely determined by the artist’s biography. 3) I wanted students to recognize the difference between acknowledging biography when dealing with a filmmaker like Wieland, versus acknowledging biography when dealing with a filmmaker like Friedrich, whose work tilts further into the genres of personal essay film and diary film. While one could imagine an analysis of Wieland’s Patriotism (1964) that doesn’t dwell on issues of Wieland’s biography, it is impossible to imagine and analysis of Sink or Swim that doesn’t acknowledge Friedrich’s biography. It belongs to a genre in which acknowledgement of the filmmaker’s lived experience is absolutely essential.

Address

Sink or Swim is a chronicle of Friedrich’s parents’ divorce, with a special focus on her father, the behavior of whom wavers between emotional aloofness and outright abuse over the course of the events described. This, however, is not immeidately evident to first-time viewers. This is something I had actually forgotten about the film’s construction until watching it again for the course, and I decided to probe my students about it.

Except for one short sequence, Sink or Swim is not synch-sound. Instead, it presents the viewer with a sequence of images, as the voice of a young girl concurrently recounts a series of stories on the soundtrack. Each of these stories is housed under a title, presented to the viewer on a simple white-on-black title card. The stories come to us in rough chronological order (with some exceptions), and the titles given to each sequence proceed in reverse alphabetical order, from “Zygote” to “Athena/Atalanta/Aphrodite.”

These stories are told to us in the third-person, and their main character is usually referred to as simply “the girl.” The stories’ other characters are named only in relation to this anonymous central character: “the girl’s father,” “the girl’s mother.”

This creates some ambiguity. Several of my students reported not understanding the film as an autobiography at the outset, and some said that they didn’t even understand the construct of “the girl” to be one, single character until about halfway through the film. It does take a while for the film to tip its hand here.

Where, exactly, any given viewer will understand the film’s stories to be autobiographical will of course vary, but there are two moments where the film shifts decisively towards being more transparent in its aims. The first occurs with the 18th of the film’s 26 sections (occurring at about the half hour mark of a 45-minute film), entitled “Ghosts.” The only synch-sound sequence in the film, it consists entirely of a fixed-frame close-up of a sheet of paper moving through a typewriter, in negative exposure, as Friedrich composes a letter to her father. Whereas before the film was linguistically stuck in the register of the third person, talking only about “the girl” and her family, here Friedrich adopts the standard second-person address of a letter. Between the dropping out of the girl’s voice (here replaced by the clacks of Friedrich’s typewriter), and the sudden appearance of “you” (rendered, of course, as text, rather than spoken, as the previous stories had been), our understanding of these stories shifts. Friedrich’s direct address to her father implicates her much more as the author of this piece (and as the holder of these memories). It also, in a way, oddly implicates the viewer: after all, as we read, we are forced to linguistically adopt the position of her father. The tone of the film abruptly shifts from something removed and fairy-tale like to personal and emotionally charged.

The second moment occurs during “Bigamy,” which, as you may be able to guess from the title, is the film’s second-to-last segment. The voice-over narration for this segment begins with the line, “Ever since the girl became a woman….” From here on in, “the girl” is referred to as “the woman”—a move that coincides with Friedrich putting her own body in the frame more prominently and consistently on the film’s image track. (We even see her typing up the script for the film as we’re hearing it.) If there was any danger of viewers still understanding “the girl” to be a fairy-tale construct, this acknowledgement of Friedrich’s life since childhood seems designed to correct it, at the last minute, before the film ends.

Image-sound relationships

I’ve described the stories that make up the film’s soundtrack. What, then is the film’s image track doing?

Students had trouble with this question, and some of this came from them struggling to grasp where, exactly, the footage from the film comes from. Several students thought it was a purely found footage film. It is not. It does contain some found footage, though, and the boundary between footage Friedrich shot herself and footage she found isn’t always easy to discern.

The clearest instances of found footage are the home movies in the sections “Witness” and “Memory,” and the footage filmed off of a television screen in the section “Homework”(of the opening credits of Make Room for Daddy, The Donna Reed Show, and Father Knows Best, along with multiple cigarette commercials). I’m also willing to bet that Friedrich didn’t shoot the footage of sperm, eggs, and zygotes in the opening “Zygote” section.

The status of some other footage is hazier. The scratched and grainy quality of footage of women in a locker room in the “Kinship” section, for instance, makes it seem as if it’s re-printed from another source, perhaps something that was originally an 8mm format. But it’s hard to say for certain, without asking Friedrich herself.

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The majority of the film, though, is not found footage. The film consists, in large part, of people filmed surreptitiously. Especially important here are children: children on the street, children playing on an adjacent rooftop patio, children during recess at a Catholic school.

When I asked students, first in an online discussion board prompt and later in-class, why Friedrich eschews first-person address in favor of using a young girl’s voice, telling stories about an unnamed “girl,” students were fairly uniform in their responses: this way of referring to her own experience affords her a type of detachment and distance from the proceedings. Some students guessed that this detachment was for therapeutic effect; others proposed that the film’s narrational style was meant to analogize her father’s own chilly and disconnected relationship. Friedrich herself says in interview that she thinks this tactic “lets viewers identify more with the material, because they don’t have to be constantly thinking of me while listening to the stories.”[i] (Actually, I didn’t let students read this interview, because I wanted the autobiographical details of the film to come through on their own, without having them verified by secondary critical resources.)

We see this same mixture of distanciation and universalization on the image track. As we hear these stories and see these children, it is impossible not to make a connection between them, to be lulled—however mistakenly, and however momentarily—into the sense that we’re actually seeing images from the childhood related on the soundtrack. (My student’s comment that the initially understand “the girl” to be one singular person rings true here, as in some ways “the girl” becomes all girls, or at least all girls who live through their parent’s divorce, or begin to hold their father in lesser esteem once they grow up and better understand his flaws.)

Even the footage that isn’t directly of people tends to operate in this way: to become such a perfect “accompaniment for” the soundtrack that we stop questioning its relationship to the film’s audio. (In fact, this film would be a great example to teach for film sound, as it proved to be one of the few works I showed in class in which student’s memories of its images were much hazier than their memories of its soundtrack.) For instance, take a look at this moment from the section “Flesh,” which recounts Friedrich’s father’s cruel banishment of her from their Mexican vacation. Through some fairly simple associative work, these images of palm trees “become” Mexico for us, and some rather unremarkable footage taken out of the back window of a car “becomes” Friedrich’s departure from Mexico, stained will all of the teenaged rage at parental injustice the scene musters:

Distanciation, beyond the soundtrack

There’s one last bit of the film I like to specifically turn to, after students have already brought up the subject of “detachment” and “distanciation.” The visual for the section entitled “Discovery” consist of a rather elaborately animated graph of what is labeled “The American Kinship System, ca. 1950–1989.”

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Here, I ask students: Why is this graph labeled “The American Kinship System”? There are several answers to this question, and I try to direct students to the interplay between them.

One answer is that it is labled this way because her father was a scholar of anthropology, and the labelling of this family tree is a nod to his work on kinship. During the time we see this on the image track in “Discovery,” the film’s narrator recounts a time when “the girl” looked up her father in the card catalogue of a library, trying to find the academic articles he wrote while he was going through his divorce from her mother. She doesn’t have the necessary vocabulary to understand these articles—which turn out to be on kinship—and gets frustrated.

Another other answer is that labeling it this way is another tactic of distanciation, one that resonates with the film’s use of a third-person voice-over narrator. Of course Friedrich isn’t going to just come out and label this family tree “my family tree.” She has thoroughly anonymized these stories, so of course she is going to label this tree something generic like “The American Kinship System.”

A third answer combines both of these things. As I already noted, some of my students hypothesized that the film’s third-person narration is itself an expression of the distanced relationship she feels with her father. We could say the same of this graph: the very tactic she’s using her to distance herself from her own life experiences is drawn from the work of her father, whose aloof and unempathetic manner seems to be deeply intertwined with his academic pursuits.

From here, we’re well positioned to tackle the film’s ending. One question seems obvious to pose to students: Why, after using the voice of a young girl to serve as a third-person narrator for this film, does Friedrich decide to end the film with a recording of her own voice, singing the ABCs?

[i]. Macdonald, Scott. “Su Friedrich.” In A Critical Cinema 2: Interviews with Independent FIlmmakers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. Pg 309.

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