Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Odds of Recovery/The Head of a Pin/Ulysse

With The Odds of Recovery, experimental filmmaker Su Friedrich continues to explore various facets of her life through autobiographical films that deftly balance the personal and the objective. As always, Friedrich's greatest gift is for stepping back from deeply personal subjects with a formal distance that allows her to comment on her experiences without becoming sentimental or maudlin. This danger is especially real in this recent film, in which Friedrich traces the development of her own health over the years, recounting in a video diary the six operations she underwent, for various maladies, between the ages of 20 and 46. Her battle with a massive cyst on her spleen, several knee operations, problems with her breasts and hormone levels: all are explored with candor and directness. Characteristically, Friedrich illustrates scenes obliquely, relying on a dense and poetically structured combination of diary footage, voiceovers, and on-screen texts to communicate the essence of the story, while the visuals often detour into disconnected shots of nature scenes or domestic interiors, with the kitchen and the garden especially emphasized. Friedrich's long-suffering partner, who taught her how to both cook and garden, is absent from the film, spoken about but never seen. Nevertheless, her presence is strongly felt in these scenes, which are reminders of her influence and importance in Friedrich's life even as the medical struggles tend to push them apart into their own separate worries.

Friedrich is often inclined to express things in such indirect ways, a tendency that can also be seen in her use of text and voiceover. Throughout much of the film, the spoken word is used primarily to communicate objective or medical information, giving the film the veneer of a scientific documentary at times. The narration reads from medical textbooks, describing the function of various organs and the root of problems, or from Friedrich's own post-operative medical charts which describe her progress, or from various self-help and psychology books that she turned to in order to deal with her rocky relationship. The scientific thrust of the narration keeps the specificity of Friedrich's problems at a remove, at least for the first half of the film, and she increases this distance by filming her video diary from a static, low position that cuts off people's heads. The bulk of the film's frames are focused at around the mid-section, and also in close-up, so that people, both doctors and patients, tend to become abstracted arrangements of torsos and hands, sometimes engaged in conversation in hospital examining rooms, sometimes cooking or gardening at home.

If these elements contribute to the objective tone of the film, Friedrich often undermines this distance with her use of text, which she uses to express the more personal and emotional reactions which she mostly denies or suppresses in her narration. While her own voice is only rarely allowed to shake or express frustration or bemoan her fate, the texts, flashed up onto black screens periodically, have a more personal, introspective tone far removed from the medical jargon and objectivity of the voiceovers. These texts sometimes also take on the objective quality of the voiceovers — especially to present lists, like a numbered list of the precepts of t'ai-chi — but more often they're personal comments, relating Friedrich's timeline of diseases or her partner's reactions to her constant illnesses. The combination of the dispassionate narration with these written evocations of domestic distress and anxiety allows Friedrich to examine her emotions and her medical history in a way that's introspective without being self-indulgent.

It's only towards the end of the film that Friedrich begins addressing the camera more directly, allowing her face to enter the frame instead of just her scarred body, and speaking directly in her own words instead of limiting her speech to the recitation of medical texts. This switch to a more direct, diaristic approach isn't entirely successful, since it disrupts the film's formal flow and adopts a much more conventional stance in relation to autobiography. Friedrich's best films, such as Sink or Swim and Rules of the Road, have always channeled autobiographical detail into something larger, with the formal rigor of her editing and conceptual framework shaping the raw materials of her life into an aesthetic work. Odds of Recovery has the potential to do the same thing, as its subtle subversion of the medical documentary form comments on the health care system and the mysteries of medicine for the average person. By the end of the film, though, the film has become a much more straightforward autobiography, something Friedrich has usually been at pains to avoid in her work. It's still an interesting film, and a heartfelt examination of a lifetime's worth of illnesses and the long process of recovery.

The Head of a Pin is another very personal, idiosyncratic documentary from Su Friedrich, but of a very different type from The Odds of Recovery. This shorter film, less than half an hour long, documents a visit to a friend's country house, where Friedrich brings her camera along in order to chronicle the trip and photograph the beauty of nature. The result, though, is a very strange sort of nature document, which contrasts the typical sort of nature documentation — eagles flying, the weird hovering of hummingbirds, a multi-hued sunset peeking through clouds, a lake, abundant foliage everywhere — against the starkly photographed drama of a spider fighting with a large fly that is trapped in its web. This small-scale natural event takes place against an entirely white backdrop, the two insects showing up as near abstract forms in an empty space, and Friedrich keeps her camera in close to document this battle, as the spider and the fly continually bat at each other with their limbs, struggling together, suspended in the air by the spider's entrapping web. Friedrich films this struggle in eerie near-silence, with only occasional interjections from those watching, who speculate about what's going on and make uninformed guesses about nature and its workings. So this is a nature documentary, but not in the usual sense: the commentators are non-scientists with little knowledge of the natural world, and the images shown are largely not very spectacular or impressive.

And yet, despite this stark, minimalist construction, the film is oddly mesmerizing. Friedrich has located a primal struggle at a level usually below the threshold of human perception, the kind of natural micro-drama that occurs in millions of small ways every day without much notice. By highlighting this moment, and transforming it into an abstract dance of death, Friedrich focuses in on a natural truth far deeper than the surface beauties usually captured by nature photography. This rumination on the brutality of nature isn't exactly an original observation, but Friedrich infuses it with a sensibility that makes this simple natural tale into dark poetry. The film unfolds in a quiet and stillness that's very much of the country, a real change of pace for the city-dwelling Friedrich. Consequently, there is no trace here of her characteristic voiceover or her use of on-screen texts. The events and images here are presented largely without commentary, other than the hushed musings of those watching the spider and the fly.

In contrast to the imagery of the spider/fly struggle, the other images Friedrich chooses are much more conventionally beautiful, evoking the traditional wonders and mysteries of nature. Particularly dazzling is the moment when she frames a birdhouse with hummingbirds fluttering back and forth around it, hovering in midair in their uncanny way. Elsewhere, in between green vistas and beautiful shots of a shimmering lake, she again dives down to the microscopic world for a shot of mosquitos skimming across the water in a small alcove in a rock. There's a whole world beneath the surfaces in this film, as Friedrich makes clear with the film's majesterial final shot, which spends a very long time watching the spider, now victorious, finally descend on its slaughtered prey and carry it away up into the web. After the spider reaches the top of the web, Friedrich begins pulling back, leaving this drama behind, and panning upwards as she steps back, to reveal that the entirety of this drama was taking place under a kitchen table. The camera pauses on the table, which is laden with ripe-looking food, then pans away towards the window as the image fades away. Throughout the film, the shots of the spider and the fly had remained static, locked on their fatal combat, and the gesture of moving the camera towards the end of the film is one of dismissal, as though Friedrich is saying, "OK, I've seen that, time to move on." The camera leaves this insular underground world behind, but the fascination of the images captured from it remains.

Ulysse is Agnès Varda's film-essay, from 1982, on a photograph she took in 1954, of a man and a young boy, both naked, on a beach with the body of a dead goat. From this single image, arranged and composed by Varda with the two models after she was struck by seeing the goat's corpse on the beach, she spins an interrogation of memory, image-making, and the meaning(s) of art. The film represents Varda's grappling with this single image, forming various interpretations and angles of approach at the picture, experimenting in order to discover what might be thought and said about this photo from her own past. She begins this process of discovery by visiting with each of the photo's subjects thirty years later, in a series of playful interviews that don't really shed any light on the image other than to emphasize the vagaries of memory. The man from the photo, an Egyptian who Varda lost touch with shortly after it was taken, is now a magazine editor, and Varda films him in his office. Hilariously, she has him strip for her camera yet again, interviewing him in the nude, with a pile of books strategically positioned across his hips. He barely remembers the day the photo was taken, providing her with only sketchy memories.

This is more than the boy from the photo, Ulysses, can remember, since he says the day is a total blank for him, and that consequently seeing the boy on the beach is not like seeing himself at all. The relationship between photos, memory, and the conception of identity is one of this film's key themes, as Varda interrogates the relationship that what we see in an image — even one we don't remember being taken — has to who we are, or were at the time. The Egyptian man also says he doesn't remember who he was at the time the photo was taken; when he sees himself in other images Varda took back then, he remembers the clothes he's wearing in the photos, but not what he might've been thinking or what he was like. Varda concludes her study of the photo's subjects with a joke, by showing the image to a goat, as a representation of all goats confronted with an icon of its own mortality. The goat, of course, simply eats the picture, while Varda wonders what kinds of memory animals possess.

Her next angle of inquiry is to explore what else was happening in the world on the day this picture was taken, so she combs through newspaper and newsreel records, another kind of memory, this time a societal memory bank. But these fragments of world events don't enlighten her any more than revisiting the photo's subjects did, so her next recourse is to place the photo in the context of her own work from that time. To this end, she shows other photos that she developed at around the same time, and briefly discusses her work on her first film, La pointe courte, which she made despite the fact that she never went to the cinema or watched TV. Finally, having decided that all such efforts at contextualization result in something outside of the image itself, Varda turns to straight interpretation, disregarding everything she actually knows about the circumstances of the photo's creation and imagining stories and ideas to go with the image.

The results of this inquiry are also outside the image, of course, which is where Varda seemed to be aiming all along. The film is about the understanding that images — all works of art, really — once they are created, exist independently of the one who created them and apart from the circumstances in which they were created. The image of the man, the boy, and the goat is, thirty years later, not just a document of a particular place and time and the particular entities within the frame, but an aesthetic work with multiple potential meanings and associations. This multi-layered quality of artworks is Varda's subject here, and her film draws out a wealth of possible meanings and ideas from this one picture, ranging from the literal and historical to the fanciful and imaginative. In the process, she's also created a whole new work of art in a new medium, completing the cycle as the original image is expanded upon and further explored in this new context. It's a typically fun, witty, and intelligent short from Varda.

No comments: