On Su Friedrich

 by Brian Kiteley

E. L. Doctorow, in his novel City of God, compares fiction and Hollywood narrative film:

The literary experience extends impression into discourse. It flowers to thought with nouns, verbs, objects. It thinks. Film implodes discourse, it deliterates thought, it shrinks it to the compacted meaning of the preverbal impression or intuition or understanding. You receive what you see, you don't have to think it out.... Fiction goes everywhere, inside, outside, it stops, it goes, its action can be mental. Nor is it time-driven. Film is time-driven, it never ruminates, it shows the outside of life, it shows behavior. It tends to the simplest moral reasoning. Films out of Hollywood are linear. The narrative simplification of complex morally consequential reality is always the drift of a film.

Su Friedrich's films do all that Doctorow ascribes to fiction, plus they bend and wonderfully expand the borders of cinema. Su's films "flower to thought with nouns, verbs, objects," and more--found imagery, quirky visible structures, and emotional vibrations from autobiographical details. Her visual stories are philosophical essays embroidering a subject in ways we very rarely see done on the silver screen. In Sink or Swim, a young girl narrates a story of a family breaking down under the weight of a tyrannical, but emotionally absent, father. The story is told from the point of view of the oldest female child, and this girlish narrative voice makes sense in the early parts of the story, which concern the young childs experience with her father. But as the child matures, the voiceover does not, and we are left with an interesting conundrum, a purposeful variance from the narrative logic of the story. Su Friedrich's film effortlessly balances the child's voice and the adult experience in a way only movies can. Her films are all formally complex ruminations, to appropriate Doctorow's key words. They use readymade material--old film stock, family archives, television filmed outside the TV box, with the slowly descending bar across the image, and pop music. Su Friedrich plays with three basic layers: image, narration, and sound (usually music). She makes little attempt to integrate these levels, at least the way commercial or narrative movies usually do, but the afterimage is a seamless whole. These films are a highly personal narrative apprehension of the world, played out against dream-like imagery. In Hide and Seek, Friedrich blurs the boundaries between documentary and narrative fictional film. The story of a young teenager named Lou is interlaced with the voices and memories of the adult lesbians recalling their own childhood confusions and clarities of purpose. I began with a comparison to fiction. I believe Su Friedrich wants her audience to read these original and politically ambitious visual tone poems. The word read and that other old English word riddle come from the same root word. We uncover great riddles, as we actively watch Su Friedrich's lovely stories on the screen.

Su Friedrich began filmmaking in 1978 and has produced Cool Hands, Warm Heart (1979), Gently Down the Stream (1981), The Ties That Bind (1984), Damned If You Don't (1987), Sink or Swim (1990), First Comes Love (1991), Rules of the Road (1993), Hide and Seek (1996), Being Cecilia (1999), The Odds of Recovery (2002), The Head of a Pin (2004), Seeing Red (2005) and From the Ground Up (2008).

copyright Brian Kiteley