Bright Lights Film Journal

Close to Home: The Films of Su Friedrich on DVD

Autobiography sometimes trumps art in these uneven works

Su Friedrich is a disciplined and highly skilled filmmaker who teaches school (film and video production at Princeton, to be precise) and has a curriculum vitae of honors, awards, foundation grants, festival entries, one-person shows, and retrospective screenings at Modernist temples appropriate to an artist of her station.

On its face this may sound like a safe, neutral recitation of fact, one that could easily border on the sarcastic should ears be tuned to such alpine frequencies. But in truth it has more immediate bearing on a consideration of her art than may be apparent at first blush. For these are not just flat and soulless facts but emblems, trophies of accomplishment won in a realm one could choose to toil in only deliberately. In the course of almost three decades — a period ably represented by Outcast Films’ five-DVD collection The Films of Su Friedrich — Friedrich has managed to carve a formidable presence in the knotty, overcrowded, and corpse-strewn moonscape of America’s avant-garde cinema. And while she draws her work from what seems a narrow resource of human experience (in short: The Life and Times of Su Friedrich), she embroiders this relatively small frame of reference with an astonishing wealth of cinematic technique; a fully absorbed, veritable encyclopedia of long-ago invention that enables her to move from semi-documentary polemic to fractured narrative to structuralist rampage (often within the contours of a single work) without once lessening her focus upon whatever side of her life she chooses to explicate. It is an aesthetic that segments of the movie-reviewing community have, literally for decades, considered the summa of personal expression.

It must be said, however, that Friedrich’s formal commitment to the once blazing, now vanished glory of the avant-garde does at times bring with it a tendency to fall into the trap of its most hoary clichés. 1984’s The Ties That Bind, for example, is an often compelling remembrance by the filmmaker’s mother, speaking on the soundtrack of the myriad troubles she faced in her youth during the Nazi regime. As a vision of placid life sundered, as placid life generally is, by social forces beyond one’s immediate control, it covers perfectly honorable if not exactly underexplored terrain. But very early in the proceedings Friedrich hauls out, as the unmistakable brawn of her film’s symbolic labor, a plastic, snap-together Vollmer model farmhouse — its pieces detached and carefully laid out, one next to the other, with obsessive precision. It’s a small (if crucial) running symbol, but it subtly enervates everything that surrounds it. One need not, after all, possess a degree in film studies or have seen more than a handful of films by American avant-garde titans to sense immediately that the home will, by film’s end, be both lovingly assembled then stomped to smithereens.

In a sense, Friedrich can’t be blamed for trotting out this shopworn device; it was the sort of thing expected from so-called experimental filmmakers in those latter days. She began making movies in the late 1970s, a time when such tropes were still sovereign, and the most vigilant cheerleaders of America’s avant-garde cinema were hard put to pretend even the simulacrum of anything novel was happening within it. The New American Cinema — on which so many movie reviewers and schoolteachers in the 1960s placed so much of their hope for a new birth of cinematic freedom — was dead, having wasted away in the early ’70s from a combination of public neglect, institutional vanity, and the beginnings of a perception (mostly erroneous) that it had all turned horribly anemic and incestuous, that it had lost any connection it had with the outside world. In the main, this notion was given life by the woeful, paint-by-numbers literature it had spawned; the films and filmmakers, as is often the case when the most sordid critical voices begin to play a defining role, assumed secondary, even tertiary importance. Thus did the much vaunted school of American Cinema that had once seemed New begin to look very old indeed; and what had been an inspiring reservoir of expression in the most vital art the world has known devolved into a joyless playground for theoreticians and post-grad zombies who instinctively embraced an antiquated Modernist standard with no vision of the world larger than itself.

Friedrich, for good or ill, is immensely influenced by this tradition, but she isn’t always hobbled by it. The Ties That Bind makes a game leap toward such prickly matters as incipient Fascism in Reagan’s America and the numberless indignities endured by Womankind under the big-ass boot-heel of the Third Reich. It’s simply that the thrust of her work almost always blends, uneasily, the parochial and the worldly, to a point where the two conditions often cancel each other out. What measure of engagement she may have with this exterior issue or that one, then, can never help but appear less engaged than her attending preoccupation with subjects as close to home as humanly possible.

The balance of The Ties That Bind‘s pictorial weight — stark, black-and-white tableaux of children playing by the seashore, of Friedrich’s mom swimming, mom’s hometown of Ülm, of Friedrich herself flipping through a variety of New York tabloids and magazines and her own junk mail; even a few stray shots left over from her extraordinary 1979 film, Scar Tissue — is, as I say, borne upon the shoulders of a maternal rake-up of the past. Taken at her word, Friedrich’s mother indeed led an interesting life as one who resisted the Nazis in spirit (if not exactly in deed) and came to these shores the bride of an officer in the U.S. military’s Denazification program (she does, unfortunately, retail the old one about how nobody at the time knew what could possibly have been going on in all those camps Germany’s Jewish population had been carted off to). But in the midst of all the toy house destruction and fund-raising letters from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, there is a curious suggestion of far greater trauma inflicted upon this woman than any we actually hear of directly. Now, only hopelessly jaded ghouls out there could desire another litany of 20th-century horror. But the gulf between what is implied and what is revealed causes the film’s visual constituent (brilliantly constructed though it is) to act less in the manner of poetic underscoring or even counterpoint than as a kind of textual steroid, enhancing the viewer’s sense of bearing witness to a grim memoir in a way the memoir itself, shorn of this tactical support, cannot seem to manage on its own.

This is not without an attendant irony when one learns of the true anguish and psychic injury Friedrich’s mother endured many years later. But the film in which this position on the Friedrich life chart is disclosed, Sink or Swim(1990), does not principally concern itself with this development, dire as it was; nor, in truth, is it the searing examination of Life with Father it purports to be. Like much of her work, Sink or Swim is a film about Su Friedrich, constructed and narrated like a third-person apocrypha of American girlhood, spent in the shadow of a strange and remote man given to small, passive-aggressive acts — warning his daughter, falsely, about the presence of water moccasins in a New Hampshire lake; peevishly withdrawing from all further games after she beats him at chess; that sort of thing. One who, in the end, flew the coop and remarried, leaving a broken family in his wake.

Using another array of scattered imagery to bolster the spoken text — this time female bodybuilders, circus performers, home movies, parades, kids at play, and on and on — Friedrich embarks on a creative mission more vast and thoroughgoing than that of The Ties That Bind. The earlier film was a more or less straightforward recitation of past events, and its images putatively functioned as everything from direct illustration to poetic coloring. Sink or Swim, on the other hand, seems geared not toward the universality of one daughter’s ever-evolving relationship with her prick of a dad, but more toward pushing the whole idea beyond that condition and into the realm of myth. That Friedrich again wields a nimble technique in the service of a problematic, often doomed enterprise — for she is scarcely the first artist to sift through the remnants of a prosaic childhood in avain search for its mythic dimension — only makes the failure of these intentions all the more vivid.

Which is not to suggest that Su Friedrich’s entire body of work is set before a looking-glass positioned to give us, the viewers, the most comprehensive view of its maker. In the manner of a sermon, Damned If You Don’t (1987) takes as its text the not-so-buried sensuality of Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus — not to mention some dubious-sounding testimony from an ancient tribunal proceeding against a nun accused of “immoral acts” — to illuminate the sparest of narrative lines, wherein a Novice (Peggy Healey) wrestles with the sort of inchoate longings that novelists and playwrights 60 years ago used to construct their fictions around. Once more, Friedrich wrests considerable beauty from her manipulation of images and sound (few filmmakers use silence as strategically, or as well), but despite this considerable formal elegance, she reveals little about the unsleeping compulsions in your average convent that had not already been explored (and explored) in such nunsploitation epics of the 1970s as Love Letters of a Portugese Nun, Flavia, the Heretic, and Behind Convent Walls — though admittedly Friedrich recasts this phenomenon in a somewhat more restrained manner.

The closest thing to a flat-out narrative work in the Friedrich canon, Hide and Seek is also the most high-profile, reaching audiences (via television broadcasts) that other avant-garde film artists rarely approach. Apart from the odd burst of sublime lyricism, however — a killer schoolyard rendition of the Supremes’ “Stop! In the Name of Love,” for example — and the unusual richness of Jim Denault’s cinematography, Friedrich’s tale of a girl named Lou (Chels Holland) and her budding inclination toward other girls in the mid-1960s retains a kind of wooden predictability that otherwise makes the clips from vintage sex ed films used lavishly throughout seem more like replicas of the film embodying them than the ironic counterpoint they were intended to be. It would be impossible to impute any degree of sardonic acerbity to Friedrich’s vision of growing up lesbian in a studiously homophobic society; her film is far too affectionate a look back at that time and those impulses. And therein lies its most debilitating flaw. Like virtually all coming-of-age stories, Hide and Seek is painfully, oppressively sincere, meting out the carcass of a more or less common experience as something unique and momentous.

Friedrich’s great saving grace — her uncommon facility with the means of film expression — is generally deployed most effectively in her shorter works, which have little time to let sincerity or excessive self-reflection metastasize. With its succession of stolen, black-and-white shots of men and women, charging from here to there in the midst of Manhattan’s daytime whirl, the aforementioned Scar Tissue unleashes a small, concentrated bombardment of physicality on the viewer, transforming the clichéd hustle and bustle of city life into a bleak and menacing, chaotic battleground of the sexes where no one is safe and only defeat is conceivable. By way of contrast, Rules of the Road (1993) is positively ebullient. A lyrical essay about a past love and the 1983 Oldsmobile Station Wagon that bound them together, it may be the only film in history to convey a wondrous sense of the open road and all its fabled expanse while remaining entirely within the congested confines of New York City. 1991’s First Comes Love, virtually in the same vein, is an odd, songlike reflection on wedding ceremonies — that ritual by which notions of romantic love are formalized in the eyes of God, the state, or both. Set to a series of pop songs and laced with slightly embittered observations on what was then the absence of similar opportunities for lesbian and gay couples, Friedrich refuses to go the Diane Arbus route by avoiding any impulse to satirize the proceedings and make everyone look like a pack of overdressed bozos, substituting what instead seems a yearning for the social acceptance, even comforts, these unions imply.

Such a yen as this is somewhat anomalous in light of The Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire Too, Friedrich’s quaint 1994 video chronicle (co-directed with Janet Baus) of a year in the life of the titular activist group; one of approximately 40,000 such radical outfits to spring forth, fully formed and ready for action, in the Family Values ether of the early ’90s. It is unusually artless, however; less a documentary or an agitprop production number than a kind of celebratory infomercial — following the group from protest action to protest action; always emphasizing affirmative progress over grim, determined struggle — one more naturally suited to the dimensionless maw of Public Access Television than the backwater festival circuit works of this stripe often land in as they reach the summit of their public profile. I only mention Lesbian Avengers because it is not, to me, a coincidence that Friedrich’s lone departure from a more or less autobiographical approach to filmmaking also represents the nadir of her skill. But for the scarcity of rickety, sloppy camerawork so ubiquitous in documentaries of this kind, there’s no indication that Lesbian Avengers is in any formal sense the work of a film artist with her mastery of technique. She and her co-director do absolutely nothing with their material, as if turning away from the purely personal, however momentarily, ushered in a terrible paralysis of creative inspiration.

Fortunately this is the only film of Friedrich’s about which that dour conclusion can be reached. But it does, I think, give a sense of how inextricably bound her art is to her life; how necessary the element of self-reflection has been to her frequently brilliant work, regardless of how compelling the reflection may or may not be at this end of the screen (and no such reflection could possibly be more personal than Friedrich’s disquieting 2002 medical history, The Odds of Recovery, above). Of course, she is not the only artist to make from the errant strands of their personal experience the fabric of their art, nor is that a fundamentally debased approach to creation (the achievements of everyone from Eugene O’Neill to Sylvia Plath would be unimaginable had their authors been of a less insular cast). But cinema, despite everything that has been said and written lo these many decades, bears the kind of directly personal approach Su Friedrich specializes in only rarely, and not with any ease. It never has. What might, in one medium, be a window into your life or mine can easily resemble mainstream narcissism in a medium so everlastingly powerful as film. And narcissism, however well-crafted and celebrated, is neither entirely satisfying to contemplate nor easy to watch.

Note: Many thanks to Su Friedrich for permission to reproduce the images in this article.