2012, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 54, fall 2012
“Making it through”:
sickness and health in Su Friedrich’s
The Odds of Recovery
by William C. Wees
“Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship in the kingdom of the well and the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”
—Susan Sontag, Illness as a Metaphor
“If we lump all surgical procedures together your chances of making it through are considerably better than 95 out of 100. It could be said, however, that for the 5 out of the 100 who did not survive, the odds were pretty bad.”
—Edward L. Bradley III, M.D., A Patient’s Guide to Surgery
Before undertaking her critical analysis of the myths, metaphors and other literary conceits and mystifications surrounding the physical realities of tuberculosis and cancer, Susan Sontag insists that the point she wishes to make in Illness as Metaphor is that
“illness is not a metaphor, and that the most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill—is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphorical thinking.” [open endnotes in new window]
I suspect Su Friedrich would agree. Certainly her 65-minute film The Odds of Recovery (2002) presents her medical problems with prosaic, non-metaphorical, clinical clarity.  This is not to say, however, that “metaphorical thinking” has no role to play in Friedrich’s account of her many years of alternating illness and recovery. In fact, as we will see, the film’s organization and argument depend on Friedrich’s willingness to draw upon both “truthful” and “metaphorical” ways of engaging with the realities of sickness and health.
As a recurrent citizen of “the kingdom of the sick,” Friedrich appears in front of the camera for substantial portions of her film: checking in at hospitals, filling out forms, struggling with hospital gowns, meeting with doctors, undergoing examinations, displaying the scars of her various surgeries, submitting to the intimidating diagnostic machinery of modern medicine. Through intertitles, voice-over, and direct address to the camera, and with varying degrees of objectivity, bemusement, frustration, and anger, Friedrich recounts the history of her six operations and a ten-year effort to reduce her body’s over-production of the hormone prolactin. Woven into this narrative is an account of her diminished sex life and strained relationship with her partner due to the physiological and psychological consequences of multiple operations and too much prolactin in her system. Throughout the film, as Janet Cutler has written about Friedrich’s films in general,
“You can sense the filmmaker thinking through the possible ways to proceed, drawing parallels and making connections between otherwise unrelated images and sounds, encouraging the viewer to follow a line of thought to the point at which a new idea or a new understanding emerges.” 
Combining documentary and experimental techniques, Friedrich presents a candid and often unflattering portrait of the artist as victim of “a revolving-door relationship with the medical establishment” due to her body’s failure to remain consistently healthy.  But in a parallel “kingdom of the well,” the filmmaker goes about her everyday activities: shopping, cooking, reading, bathing, practicing t’ai chi movements, gardening, and embroidering. The last two make the most important contributions to the film’s imagery and meaning. The garden is on a roof adjoining a loft in Brooklyn that Friedrich shared with her partner and several roommates. The embroidery records her medical history in the form of a sinuous vine of colorful blossoms and equally colorful, but anatomically correct, representations of the parts of Friedrich’s body that have required surgery. The garden not only represents the antithesis of the sterile, uninviting, monochromatic, and slightly claustrophobic mise-en-scène of hospital hallways, doctors’ offices, examining rooms, and paraphernalia of medical technology, but it also provides the filmmaker with imagery of the changing seasons and the natural cycles of life, death and regeneration. The vine, which we see Friedrich embroidering as the film progresses, documents the medical traumas Friedrich’s body suffers at the same time that it becomes a visual metaphor for continuity and growth. (I will have more to say about the implications of the embroidered vine in my conclusion.)
At the outset, Friedrich faced three formidable problems in making The Odd of Recovery:
She solved the first problem by adapting the “here-we-go-again” saga of her operations to a repeated pattern of formal elements that, despite differences in detail, give the story of each operation a similar shape within the chronological structure of the film. The account of the first operation establishes a theme and subsequent accounts of the other operations offer variations on that theme. The theme-and-variation structure helps to hold the film together while, at the same time, allowing diverse—and even discordant—elements to fit within the film’s narrative as it moves from one operation to the next.
To address the risks of exhibitionism and sentimentality, Friedrich drew upon several strategies to establish a critical distance between herself as filmmaker and herself as autobiographical subject. These include constantly varying the tone or mood of the film by intercutting images from the kingdoms of the well and the sick, by making extensive use of intertitles to provide information as well as moments of humor and self-revelation, and by complementing her own on-camera comments with a medley of other voices on the soundtrack: the receptionists, nurses, technicians and doctors Friedrich must deal with during her numerous trips to hospitals, as well as a variety of anonymous male and female voices reading extracts from texts that range from A Patient’s Guide to Surgery to T’ai Chi Ch’uan Principles and Practices to Getting the Love You Want to The Science of Breath. The cumulative effect of these strategies is to undercut the impression of Friedrich as the film’s unique, unified subject and unmediated object of the camera’s gaze. As the film’s protagonist, she exists within a matrix of personal concerns and larger, social contexts that come with her role as reluctant citizen of “that other place” of ill-health.
The combination of techniques Friedrich deploys in her cinematic presentation of selfhood places her film among those Michael Renov identified as “the new autobiography in film and video.” The “new autobiographies” are works of “self-inscription” that are notable for their “construction of subjectivity as a site of instability,” where “the domain of the subject and that of the enveloping world are mutually constitutive.”. Along the same lines, Susanna Egan has argued that “film may enable autobiographers to define and represent subjectivity not as singular or solipsistic but as multiple and as revealed in relationship.”
And, in his book-length study of the autobiographical documentary, Jim Lane recognized that in the wake of poststructuralist theory,
“an emphasis on the weakening of the referent, coupled with the decentering of particularized social subjects, reflects a ‘constructed’ view of the autobiographical subject, a view that has played a central role in autobiographical criticism across literature, film, still photography, painting and other media.”
While the new forms of selfhood made possible by the autobiographical documentary “do not imply a universalist application,” Lane writes, “if they are rigorously conceived, they can argue a position on society and the culture at large.”  The autobiographical subject can bear broader, social significance if represented through means such as those adopted by Friedrich for The Odds of Recovery.  Those means are, I hope to show, “rigorously conceived” and effectively executed in her “single-person-produced filmic autobiography.” 
The film’s theme-and-variation structure involves comparable uses of sound, images and intertitles. Each account of an operation begins with a voice-over providing a textbook description of the part of the body requiring surgery. In chronological order of the operations, they are the spleen (a large cyst), the ovaries (an abscess), a ligament in one knee (damaged while skiing), cartilage in the other knee (general wear-and-tear: “Was it,” Friedrich asks in an intertitle, “the tennis or the African dance class?”), the uterus (polyps), and one breast (“something in my ducts,” Friedrich explains in an intertitle). The last operation receives considerably more attention that any of the previous ones, but thanks to photographs, medical records, and narrative details in intertitles, each operation is vividly and cinematically realized. In each case, as well, we see Friedrich working on her embroidered version of the spleen, ovaries, knee ligaments, and so on. Accompanied by a leaf indicating the year of the operation, each object of an operation appears in chronological order among the vine’s more conventional flowers and leaves.
In contrast to the embroidered vine’s floral chronology of the operations, purely factual, impersonal intertitles identify each operation as if they were labels on Friedrich’s medical files: “Operation number one: November 20, 1977, age 22,” “Operation number two: July 23, 1985, age 31,” etc., concluding with “Operation number six: October 15, 1999, age 44.” While we do not see the actual operations, we do see photographs or filmed images of the resulting scars.  “You’re a great healer, that scar really faded,” a doctor tells Friedrich. The same, however, cannot be said of the psychological scars. As Friedrich says in an intertitle following her third operation,
“A year passed. The scars healed. But I was a wreck.”
Along with images of the scars, Friedrich supplies closure for each operation’s mini-narrative by reading (in voice-over) from the official medical report on the surgery. After some detailed, technical information about specific surgical procedures, all the reports conclude with formulaic phrases that serve as increasingly ironic refrains:
Thus the medical establishment regularly welcomes “the patient” back to the kingdom of the well. Friedrich leaves us to reflect upon the gap between the pain and anxiety she undergoes with each operation and the dispassionate, impersonal, and self-assured resolution offered by the medical establishment.
When the trauma of surgery is not involved, Friedrich’s passage from sickness to health is slower but profoundly more satisfying. Following operation number three, a voice-over provides information about the pituitary gland, and a close-up shows Friedrich’s needle and thread creating her embroidered version of that gland. One of the hormones produced by the pituitary gland, we learn from the voice-over, is prolactin, which characteristically increases after women give birth and, consequently, is associated with lactation and a decrease in sexual desire. During an appointment with her doctor Friedrich says that a blood test in 1989 revealed her prolactin level to be 300; an intertitle informs us, “Normal prolactin levels range from 3 to 20.” In a later sequence of intertitles Friedrich declares,
“No wonder I cried for hours on end. No wonder I rarely wanted to have sex. I’d spent ten years in a post-partum condition.”
She takes various measures to bring down her prolactin count: acupuncture, Chinese herbal remedies, t’ai chi, a healthier diet, a prescribed medication. They gradually achieve their purpose. Subsequent intertitles chart her improvement: from 300 to 146, to 119, to 50, to 35, and finally, as she waits for still another meeting with a doctor, Friedrich looks into the camera and tells us that her “prolactin level [is] down to about 25” and adds, “I certainly feel better.” In contrast to the hospital’s formulaic reports on the “satisfactory condition” of “the patient,” Friedrich’s intertitle provides a more humane and fulfilling closure: “What a relief to have my body back.” And alluding to the near breakdown of her relationship with her partner, the next intertitle reads, “And a pleasure for both of us.”
This optimistic declaration comes after her sixth operation, a biopsy which shows that what her doctor idiomatically calls “junk” in the ducts of the breast is “totally benign.” Despite this encouraging outcome, the biopsy appears to have been the most traumatic of Friedrich’s six operations. It leads to her fullest exposure of the effects of an operation on her body and her emotions, and produces her fullest confession of vulnerability. Before the operation she already has misgivings. “I really, really, really, really don’t want to do this,” she says, before filming her reflection in a mirror. With a video camera held up to her eye she films her bare breasts, slowly zooming in on the one to be operated on. After the operation she again films herself in a mirror, removing her bra to reveal a bandage on her left breast as she talks about the operation’s after-effects of swelling and pain. After some intervening shots, including one of Friedrich hearing the doctor’s reassuring report on the negative results of the biopsy, Friedrich is again in front of the mirror, at which point she pulls off the bandage to reveal the partially healed incision on her breast. “Hideous” she exclaims. “I can’t imagine you want to look at this. But it has improved.” “Six days later,” as an intertitle announces, she films the breast again, now bandaged with a narrower strip of tape and showing a large, brownish bruise next to the bandage. In voice-over Friedrich says,
“You know, when I look at it, I alternate between thinking, ‘Poor thing,’ and thinking, ‘Uhh, you are so ugly.’ And it looked so much worse before, but I kinda can’t bear to look at it, and then I think I should look at it. I should think good thoughts about it and wish it to feel better. So, anyway I’m going to take this thing off and, uh, put another one on—maybe. I don’t know. Maybe I should keep this thing covered. It feels very exposed.”
Although she does not force us to watch as she pulls off the bandage this time, we cannot help but empathize with the physical suffering and unhappiness Friedrich’s body has, again, inflicted upon her.
That empathy is burdened, however, with conflicting affective and visceral responses–as Friedrich recognizes: “I can’t imagine you want to look at this.” And she shares our ambivalence: “I kinda can’t bear to look at it, and then I think I should look at it.” If she should look at it for therapeutic reasons, we should look at it as, on the one hand, a signifier of documentary authenticity literally incised on the filmmaker’s body, and on the other hand, as a metonymic summation of the physical and emotional traumas Friedrich has experienced as, again and again in the course of her film/life, she has gone through the rituals of examination, operation and recovery. The culminating image of the wounded breast drives home the point that both the autobiographical credibility and the social-political relevance of the film depend upon the presence of her body on screen.
This final image of her body’s vulnerability also serves as a visual introduction to a climactic monologue in which Friedrich releases the frustrations and anxieties that have built up over her many years of operations. In a medium close-up of her head and bare shoulders, Friedrich stares balefully into the camera and declares,
“I just don’t want to feel like this anymore. I don’t want to go the hospital anymore. I don’t want to have any more surgery. I don’t want to have any more scars. I don’t want to be black and blue. I don’t want to be in pain. I don’t want to take Tylenol with codeine. I don’t want to have my girlfriend worry about me. I don’t want to have her angry at me. I don’t want to ever have to ask her to take care of me when these things happen. I really don’t want this to ever happen again. And I said that the last time I had surgery, and I was sure it would be the last time, and now I’m saying it again, and I feel like having it happen the last time, now that I’m saying it again doesn’t mean anything either. And a year from now, I’m gonna be standing in this bathroom staring at yet another part of my body that has a scar on it. And I’m fucking sick and tired of it, and I just want to be healthy, and I want to be whole, and I don’t want to have, you know, scar, scar, scar, scar, scar, scar inside. I just don’t want any more of them.”
Although it will take time for the latest scar to heal completely, this outpouring of pent-up emotions marks a turning point in the film’s chronicle of operations. It signals Friedrich’s renunciation of citizenship in the kingdom of the sick—though one suspects the psychological scars will never disappear completely. Nor will concerns about her health simply vanish. She will still have to deal with some unexpected bleeding from the biopsy incision; she will have a mammogram that “raised some questions” but did not lead to further surgery; she will undergo bone density tests and start taking calcium pills to guard against osteoporosis; she will face the fact that menopause looms on the horizon. (“Oh, not menopause...” she superimposes on a shot of herself sitting on an examining table as her doctor broaches the subject.) All of this suggests that the border between health and ill-health is more permeable and ill-defined than Sontag’s dichotomous kingdoms of sickness and health would suggest. Seen from the perspective of disability studies, illness and wellness are relational, not antithetical. Nevertheless, in both the narrative structure and the discourse on health in The Odds of Recovery, Friedrich makes it clear that the appropriate closure to illness is recovery. With the succession of her operations at an end and her prolactin level nearly normal, Friedrich devotes the remainder of her film to a cautiously hopeful renewal of her citizenship in the kingdom of the well.
The Odds of Recovery opens with a dark screen and the clatter and hum of a busy office–announcing, before we realize it, the institutionalized, bureaucratic structure of the health-care system. The noise continues over an extreme close-up of papers on a clipboard. They move out of the frame, revealing a partial view of the blueish-white interior of the reception area of a hospital. A hand holding some papers crosses the frame. An extreme close-up of a hospital form gives way to softly focused, abstract blue-white shapes that fill the screen as the following exchange takes place between a hospital receptionist and the filmmaker:
“What I’m highlightin’, ma’am, is just to be filled out please, so we can get a chart going on you.”
“I don’t know where the health proxy chart is.”
“Right there. That’s the one in your hand.
“Well, it doesn’t—oh, okay—yeah.”
“Now, the one you have in your hand, that one’s gonna go in your chart.”
“Then there’s the other copy in the book.”
“Okay, Miss Friedrich—uh, married, single, widowed, divorced?”
"Okay, ma’am, when you’re finished you have to take everything from the top off only, including your bra.”
A cut to a neatly folded hospital gown on the seat of a chair accompanies the final instruction: “And you put that gown on.” A montage sequence of Friedrich dealing with various hospital gowns follows. She puts on a gown while commenting, “I hate these things”; puts on a different gown; unfolds and examines a crackling pink paper rectangle, muttering, “What the fuck is this? Oh, I thought it was a robe. It’s just a towel. Okay.” After a brief interlude with Friedrich sitting in a chair talking with a doctor, the montage sequence continues. Friedrich awkwardly tries to reach the ties of a hospital gown dangling behind her back. She tosses a gown on an examining table and puts on her bra as she irritably says to herself (and us):
“Get dressed. Get undressed. Get dressed. Get undressed. Eat your lunch. Wait. Get undressed again. Get dressed. I’ll talk to her. I’ll talk to you. She’ll talk to you. I’ll talk to her. We’ll talk to each other.”
The sequence ends as she picks up another crackling paper shape remarking, “Now it’s blue. Sometimes it’s pink. Sometimes it’s blue. She called it a jacket. It feels like—” She puts it on and leaning toward the camera says, “You see this? It has tape so you can make it stick together.” She closes the front with the tape, and with light mockery of both herself and the sterile institutional apparel she’s required to wear, she poses for the camera like a fashion model as she adds with feigned delight, “See? Jacket!”
From the opening of the film, Friedrich shows herself to be unhappily familiar with the role she has to play within the power structure of institutionalized health care. The physical manifestation of that power structure is the hospital, and with a High-8 video camera Friedrich surreptitiously captures the hospital’s spaces and sounds, its generic furniture and enigmatic equipment, its rituals of checking in, answering questionnaires, filling out forms, submitting to the indignities of hospital gowns and “jackets” (“just all planned humiliation” she complains after another struggle with a hospital gown), and meeting with doctors who may or may not provide the information and useful advice she needs.
Friedrich’s unorthodox and relatively low-tech method of recording sounds and images in hospitals produces a sense of intimacy and immediacy in her presentation of her many encounters with the structural and human components of the health-care system. It also contributes a distinct visual style to the hospital footage. As the film’s opening images indicate, Friedrich was able to bring her small video camera into the hospital and, holding it in her hand or setting it down on a counter or desk, film, in close-up detail, the charts and paperwork that go along with checking in at the hospital. (If asked, she simply pretended that the camera wasn’t turned on.) At the same time, she could record the ensuing conversations and the accompanying ambient sound. For examinations and consultations, she set up the camera before the doctor arrived. In most cases, the camera seems to have been placed about waist-high, so that the framing allows us to see Friedrich only from chest to knees as she sits on a chair or the edge of an examining table. Frequently the doctor is not visible at all, or appears only as a shoulder and arm or a back at the edge of the frame. This “weird framing,” as Friedrich has called it, contributes to the film’s representation of the hospital as an impersonal, alienating environment. Born of necessity, the framing has the effect of a conscious strategy to reduce the sense of Friedrich as a whole person and to de-personalize the doctors and eliminate face-to-face, human contact in the patient-doctor relationship. The cumulative effect is to make the hospital seem inhospitable, a public-private space designed to maintain the patient’s subservient role in the power structure of the medical establishment.
Nevertheless, thanks to the medical system, Friedrich survived six operations. Significantly, her critique of the system does not seem intended to expose its failures in order to argue for reforms (à la Michael Moore), but rather to make its workings visible through the lens of her own experience, to document one person’s exposure to the system and the toll it takes on her physical and psychological well-being. The entrenched, private health-care system is presented as a given with a set of variables over which the individual has little, if any, control. As filmmaker-patient, Friedrich offers her own point of view on how those variables affect her survival within the policies and practices of the health-care system, but it is impossible to ignore the implications for anyone else who must enter the kingdom of the sick.
If Friedrich is hard on the health-care system, she is also hard on herself. Her presentation of herself is not especially kind or ingratiating. She makes no effort to hide the fact that she can be impatient and even slightly paranoid when, for example, she has to deal with the standard hospital gown. As noted earlier, she blames “planned humiliation” for her difficulty in figuring out how to tie the gown’s strings properly: “They make it in such a way there’s no way to tie it so you’re not hanging out,” she asserts. But when she finally succeeds, she grimly states, “I’ll do it so well they won’t be able to get into it—get to me.” A long sigh follows, signifying her recognition of the futility of her little gesture of rebellion against the system, while at the same time eliciting the viewer’s empathetic recognition of the endless humiliations and frustrations of those who must submit to the prescribed routines of the health-care system.
Equally revealing is a short sequence in which Friedrich, wearing the ubiquitous hospital gown and visible only from waist to knees, paces back and forth in front of the camera as she berates herself for forgetting to set the camera on record when a nurse came in for a pre-screening before her biopsy. Friedrich says,
“What I wanted to do was to record what a bitch I was with her because I’m so angry about how they never keep the charts and never—you know—don’t even read them.”
At another point we see Friedrich getting off an examining table and pleading with an off-screen nurse, “Please don’t let this doctor make me wait longer. I just can’t bear it.” And a little later, as Friedrich walks down a hospital hallway, she looks down into the camera and declares, “I hate hospitals.” Does that say more about hospitals or about her? Certainly it is a self-revelatory moment, capsulizing her frustration with her enforced submission to the hospital’s implacable regime. And through the representation of herself within that regime, Friedrich most clearly illustrates the degree to which autobiographical subjectivity derives from the intersection of, as Renov puts it, “the domain of the subject and that of the enveloping world.”
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. 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:
intertitle: “One of our roommates had a white cat named Alma.”
image: close-up of white roses
intertitle: “At the age of 13, Alma died of cancer.”
image: white petals scattered beneath the rose bush
intertitle: “We planted a white rose in her memory.”
image: snow falling in the garden
image: close-up of snow on the stem of a rose plant
intertitle: “After a tough winter the rose died.”
image: close-up of gloved hands with clippers cutting off dead rose stems
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.
1. Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989), 3. [return to text]
2. The Odds of Recovery is available on 16mm film from Canyon Cinema (www.canyoncinema.com), and on DVD from Outcast Films (www.outcast-films.com).
3. Janet Cutler, “Su Friedrich: Breaking the Rules,” in Women’s Experimental Cinema: Critical Frameworks, ed. Robin Blaetz (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 312.
4. The quoted phrase is from a description of the film at www.outcastfilms.com/films/ su/volume5.html.
5. Michael Renov, “The Subject in History: The New Autobiography in Film and Video,” Afterimage 17.1 (1989): 5.
6. Susanna Egan,” Encounters in Camera: Autobiography as Interaction,” Modern Fiction Studies 40.3 (1994): 593.
7. Jim Lane, The Autobiographical Documentary in America (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002), 22.
8. For a discussion of Friedrich’s “third person autobiography” in her film Sink or Swim (1990) see William C. Wees, “No More Giants,” in Jean Petrolle and Virginia Wright Wexman, eds., Women and Experimental Filmmaking (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005), 32-38.
9. Nadja Gernalzick, “To Act or to Perform: Distinguishing Filmic Autobiography,” Biography 29.1 (2006): 3.
10. Friedrich may be referencing the early artist’s video by Lisa Steele, Birthday Suit with Scars and Defects (1974), but in Steele’s case the scars are not the result of surgery but of her clumsiness: “I have always been clumsy, tripping, dropping, falling with alarming regularity.” (www.steeleandtomczak.com/birthday suit with scars and defects.html)
11. Su Friedrich, personal communication.
12 Her only explicit acknowledgment of the system’s contribution to keeping her odds of recovery very good appears in the closing credits: “Many thanks to all the nurses, medical technicians, doctors, surgeons, therapists and alternative medicine practitioners who have treated me over the years.”
13. While Friedrich shot most of the garden footage, some images of Friedrich in the garden were shot by Joel Schlemowitz (Friedrich, personal communication).
14. Shari Kizirian, “Local Spotlight: Su Friedrich’s New Film Premieres at MadCat,” Release Print: The Magazine of Film Art Foundation (September 2002). Available at: www.sufriedrich.com/index.php.
15. The film begins in darkness with “hospital sounds” and ends in darkness with the chirping of a bird—one of Friedrich’s subtler formal devices for integrating structure and meaning.
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