A brightly colored columbine provides the film’s introduction to the garden.
Friedrich moving a large pot containing a dead plant. The brown plant in the foreground and the green plant behind Friedrich typify the garden’s conjunction of life and death.
The garden offers a rich variety of colors and textures.
Wilma the turtle who spent several years in the garden.
Friedrich relaxing in the doorway to the garden.
Friedrich reading in the garden.
The film’s principal alternative to the hospital’s bland, institutional tans, light greys and off-whites, its hard, sterile surfaces, its humming, whining machinery, its pale green computer screens, and its constricted spaces is the garden’s greenery and brightly colored flowers, its large pots and boxes filled with dark brown earth, its sturdy and wispy, branching and climbing plants, its rough, uneven floor and brick and concrete walls that enclose it but still allow glimpses of the sky, its ambient, hushed hum-of-the-city and occasional bird songs (inserted in the sound track during post-production—as, in fact, are all the sounds in the garden sequences), and its openness to sunshine, rain, snow, wind, and the changing light. And, as we shall see, the garden provides Friedrich with the opportunity to move between what Sontag would call “truthful” and “metaphorical” ways of dealing with issues of sickness and health.
In subtle—almost subliminal—ways, the contrast between hospital and garden also results from Friedrich’s use of video for the hospital footage and 16mm film for the garden footage. [open endnotes in new window] Friedrich has said that in comparison to film, video “simply doesn’t look good enough” For The Odds of Recovery, however, she had no choice but to use a small video camera for clandestine filming in hospitals and doctors’ offices, and, like the “weird framing” produced by the improvised set-ups for the video camera, the comparatively low resolution of the video image works to the film’s advantage—precisely because it does not “look good enough.” It cannot equal film’s rich, fully saturated color and clarity of minute details of shapes, contours, and textures. Taking advantage of this difference in the two media, Friedrich makes her garden footage look more pleasurable—one might even say more therapeutic—than her hospital footage. (Presumably this is why Friedrich also used a video camera to film herself in a mirror before and after the breast biopsy.)
Our first glimpse of the garden comes after a little more than five minutes of the film—and two operations—have passed. A pinkish-violet and light yellow columbine blossom trembles in the wind as a voice-over describes the structure and function of the pituitary gland, most notably, its production of prolactin. The voice-over continues during the following sequence of shots: an extreme close-up of Friedrich’s needle and thread embroidering the shape of a pituitary gland, a shot of Friedrich sitting on a sofa working on her embroidery under the warm light of a floor lamp, several extreme close-ups of her prolactin test report, and more close-ups of columbine blossoms swaying in the wind. Then, as we see Friedrich sitting on an examining table, visible only from shoulders to thighs, we hear her describing the history of her prolactin problem to her doctor, whose presence is signaled only by her minimal, off-screen responses: “yeah,” “um,” “uh-huh,” “uh-huh,” “right,” and “wow,” when she learns that Friedrich’s prolactin level in 1989 was 300. While their exchange continues on the sound track, Friedrich cuts to a hand-held shot moving over a leafy green plant with lavender-colored flowers and up to several columbine blossoms. She then cuts back to the shot of her meeting with her doctor before returning to the garden for one more close-up of the columbine.
From this point on, the garden plays an increasingly prominent role in the film’s complex montage of image, sound, and text. At different moments it may serve as visual counterpoint to the accompanying sound, or as a visual reference for narrative information provided by intertitles, or as a source of images that are visually expressive in their own right, or as all three at once. It is also a place where Friedrich can move freely at her own pace: tending to plants or simply relaxing to read, sip coffee, or smoke a cigarette. The garden figures, as well, in Friedrich’s efforts to come to terms with the difficulties in her relationship with her partner.
“We’d often have coffee under the honeysuckle,” she says in an intertitle between shots of flowers in the garden while birds sing on the soundtrack. “And sometimes we’d talk about ‘the sex thing,’” she continues in the next intertitle. Then, projecting her anxieties on the honeysuckle, she adds, “To distract myself from the panic, I’d stare at the plant, looking for dead tips to prune”—as if pruning them might eliminate the problems with “the sex thing.” Though it does not resolve the problems, it at least offers some solace. This is one of the ways the garden comes to represent a therapeutic space that counters the hospital’s institutional impersonality.
A different kind of therapy is suggested by the presence in the garden of two small sculptures: a Buddha in the iconic lotus position and a nude female torso. Though neither is alluded to in voice-over or inter-title, both bring to the garden autobiographical and more broadly cultural allusions.
The Buddha figure links with t’ai chi and Chinese herbal tea, both of which figure in the regimen to bring down Friedrich’s prolactin count. And more generally, the Buddha contributes to the garden a sense of serenity that is totally absent from the hospital environment and the narrative of Friedrich’s long succession of operations. The female torso, classical in form but clearly modern in execution, might be thought of as the Garden Goddess, protectress of plants and those who care for them in their rooftop garden in Brooklyn. But it also alludes to the film’s concerns with female sexuality and bonding–and, with quiet irony, to the unclassical, autobiographical body the filmmaker, who has allowed us to see her torso in varying degrees of unflattering reality. At the same time it signifies the possibility and promise of a healthy body.
While the garden offers a welcome alternative to the hospital, it is not totally isolated from the kingdom of the sick. At different times, it contains two souvenirs of Friedrich’s last operation: her mammograms, which Friedrich pins on the garden’s clothesline like a row of small hand towels hung out to dry, and a t-shirt stained from bleeding following the biopsy. It hangs on the clothesline from fall to the following spring. “I don’t know why I couldn’t take it down,” Friedrich says in an intertitle.
A subsequent sequence of images and intertitles hints at the reason for her reluctance to take it down:
The blood-stained t-shirt not only represents a metonymic link to the physical trauma of the biopsy, but also serves as a metaphoric expression of Friedrich’s investment in being sick in order to gain “love and attention.” Taking down the t-shirt can be seen as a gesture of emancipation from both the physical and psychological regimes of ill health. Significantly, the t-shirt comes down in the spring when the garden is returning to life, as indicated by shots of daffodil buds about to open and Friedrich re-potting a plant. By contrast, the shot of Friedrich hanging the t-shirt on the clothesline in the fall is followed by a shot of wilted and dead flowers signifying not only the end of the growing season but also Friedrich’s continued investment—at that point—in being sick.
Enhancing the sense of the garden as a site of life and death are mini-narratives about to animals, Willa the turtle and Alma the cat. Willa was found in the street and installed in the garden, where she lived among the plants during the summer and spent the winter in a plastic box. But after several years Friedrich and her partner decided to return Willa to her natural habitat. “She didn’t like those winters in a plastic box,” Friedrich explains in an intertitle. After Willa is released at the edge of a lake along with a male turtle, Friedrich bids her farewell with the intertitle, “Happy trails, Willa.” There is no happy ending, however, to Alma’s story, which is told in a compact vignette of intertitles and images:
Familiar to all gardeners, the practical task of cutting down dead plants not only provides a down-to-earth, unsentimental conclusion to Friedrich’s cinematic memorial—in images of white roses and white snow—for a white cat, but also serves her larger purpose of investing the garden imagery with both literal and metaphorical relevance to the film’s dialectics of sickness and health, life and death.
While gardening includes its own kinds of surgery, it also supplies metaphors for the surgical procedures inflicted on the body of the gardener. For example, in the sequences immediately following the vignette about Alma the cat, a voice-over description of the uterus accompanies shots of Friedrich working on her embroidered version of the uterus and shots of her pulling down vines in the garden. An intertitle announcing the discovery of her uterine polyps is followed by a powerfully suggestive montage: a shot of Friedrich cutting down a leafy vine with a loud schunk! as the cutter’s blades sever a heavy cord supporting the vine, an intertitle, “The polyps had to come out,” and a shot of the vine lying on the ground. Then, as we hear Friedrich reading the hospital’s report of the operation, we see her gathering up the remains of the vine.
Nevertheless, the overriding impression produced by the garden is one of growth, health, and vitality, the product of a balanced relationship between nature and nurture. One significant example of that relationship appears close to the end of the film, when Friedrich provides step-by-step instructions on how to plant a tomato plant seedling. Each step is described in an intertitle and illustrated by a shot of Friedrich carrying out the intertitle’s instruction. While seemingly simple and straight-forward, the sequence can also be read as a parable about laying the groundwork (so to speak) for a healthy body. “Start with good soil,” reads the first intertitle, followed by instructions to add vermiculite, peat moss, and manure to the soil, and mix them well. The instructions continue with advice to “choose the healthiest seedlings for transplanting,” and after planting them, water them well. “Then stand back and watch them grow.” But nature cannot do the whole job. Nurturing must continue. After a shot of some mature plants and flowers, Friedrich adds one more intertitle: “But don’t forget to keep feeding and watering them.” That is the film’s last intertitle, and it recalls three earlier intertitles listing essentials for “taking care of your health”: “Exercise!” “Diet!” “Vitamins and minerals!” Friedrich’s body requires as much nurturing as the garden’s plants, a lesson we watch her learning in the course of the film.
As she puts that lesson into practice, Friedrich reasserts the agency she surrendered to the medical establishment and her own investment in being sick. The garden provides her with a metaphor for exerting personal agency: the tenacious morning glory vines growing where and how they will. One memorable, and amusing, shot is of a morning glory vine that has wrapped itself around the handle of a nearby broom. In another shot, Friedrich is engaged in disentangling a vine from several neighboring plants.
The morning glory’s tenacity is also emphasized by several shots in which the camera tilts up to reveal vines growing high up a wall. In one shot, the camera follows a single vine up a long cord attached to a wall while in ironic synchronization, the electronic whine of the bone density scanner accompanies the camera’s movement.
With subtler irony Friedrich turns the history of her operations and prolactin problem into the embroidered vine that “grows” as that history unfolds on the screen. Her depiction of damaged or diseased parts of her body as metaphorical “flowers” (“they are not ‘flowers,’” Sontag would insist), is counter-balanced by our recognition that, in her embroidered image of flowering and growth, Friedrich implies a resolution to the conflict between the trauma of surgical operations and the reassuring continuity of recovery from those operations. The embroidered vine, like the film itself, translates the vicissitudes of Friedrich’s ill health and the disorderly growth of the garden’s vines into the orderly structures of art. Appropriately, the embroidered vine provides the imagery for a long credit sequence at the end of the film. As the camera moves “up” the vine from the first to the last operation and to one last flower and the tip of the vine, Friedrich intercuts the credits and brief moments of black accompanied by jaunty, slightly funky music and snippets of sound from earlier in the film. This final sequence serves as a reminder that the whole film can be thought of as a vine of images, voices, text, and sounds meticulously stitched together by the filmmaker, who was forced to surrender agency to the demands of an unhealthy body and the structures and practices of the medical establishment. She reasserts her agency by drawing upon half a lifetime of recurrent ill health to make a film that truthfully and metaphorically illustrates the dilemmas of dual citizenship in the adjacent kingdoms of the sick and the well.