Su Friedrich in Mid-Career

I have to start this post with a profound apology to Su Friedrich and to the Film Department of MoMA; I had every intention of writing and posting this interview before the mid-career retrospective of her work at MoMA. I had already written a shorter version of the interview, which can be read at Jewish Week here. And the program does have one more day to run, Saturday. Still, I was swamped by work, by preparations for Yom Kippur (and may those of you who are reading this and will be observing that day have an easy fast), and by sheer indolence.

Which is not merely unfortunate but genuinely rude of me, because Ms. Friedrich gave me three hours of her time, not your usual interview, and I had an absolute ball, because she is a gracious hostess and a smart and funny interview subject.

If you look at some of her recent films -- I'm thinking particularly of her dense, witty rumination on aging and health, "The Odds of Recovery," and her 17-minute essay on anger management, "Seeing Red" -- you would expect Friedrich to be a twitchy, flashily neurotic New Yorker, sort of a lesbian Woody Allen. In person, however, she is wonderfully calm, centered and focussed. Maybe that's because she can smoke at home. (She is the first person I've ever met who rolls her own filter cigarettes.)

Friedrich makes her home and office in a converted industrial building in Williamsburg, just on the cusp of the gentrifiers' nefarious work. The most depressing evidence of their encroachments is just around the corner from her building, a grotesque red brick and sandstone monstrosity that advertises itself as luxury apartments but looks like a cross between a 1950s public school and a minimum security prison. The neighborhood is one of those uniquely New York mixtures of boho and Old World, a strong Polish presence making itself felt in the bars, shops and, most of all, the food stores.

At 52, Friedrich is somewhat amused to find herself the subject of a retrospective although, as she points out, this isn't the first.

"At the risk of sounding like I'm bragging, I've had a bunch of retrospectives already. There was one at the Whitney in 1987. What I like about this one is they're calling it a 'mid-career' retrospective. That makes more sense to me."

She laughs, and adds, "Of course that means I have to keep doing this for another 30 years."

In a sense the timing of the MoMA program was fortuitous, because circumstances had put Friedrich into a retrospective frame of mind.

"It's connected to the way I've been feeling about the DVDs of my films," she explains. "I did all the tech work on the disks and it was really difficult because it entailed an microscopic look at all the films I'd ever done. It made feel as if things were over."

Outcast Films is distributing the DVDs, which include almost all of Friedrich's work. The transfers are excellent and the films are both thought-provoking and entertaining. (If you want to purchase them -- and I urge you to do so -- go here.)

"I don't think it's possible to have that much perspective on one's own life," she says, ruminating on the conjunction of DVD and retrospective. "I don't think in terms of career. I think day-to-day."

For a film critic, the inevitable tendency is the opposite, to look at a filmmaker's body of work and seek out the common threads that unite the disparate films. I suspect most critics -- myself included -- tend to agree with Jean Renoir's assessment of his films as merely being individual chapters in a lifelong work. Certainly, seen en masse in a concentrated period of time, it's not hard to find the links within Friedrich's first 28 years of work. And there are several formal devices common to most of her films that I find highly appealing -- her use of silence as a punctuation, her fascination with the written word on-screen, her attraction to music as counterpoint to her images.

Not surprisingly, these elements are intricately related to one another, a major part of the complex and rich tapestry of Friedrich's films. And when she talks about them, the are intertwined as well.

"When I started using words scratched onto the film itself, it was partly a practical choice, but it was also an attempt to creat a certain tone, a sort of child's voice. When I added audio, there was so much talking, I felt that I needed some breaks. With sound you start losing the visual element and I wasn't going to give that up. With texts -- well, I'm just a very verbal person. I grew up reading huge amounts of everything. And I like the written word as a graphic element in my films. I like showing an audience one word at a time -- there's a lot of engagement [when you do that]."

As her career has gone on, Friedrich has moved from a certain distance from her stories -- her voice is almost never heard in "The Ties That Bind" and she deliberately chose to write the narration of her autobiographical film "Sink or Swim" in the third person, to be read by a young girl -- to the direct address of later films, particularly "Rules of the Road" (a personal favorite of mine), "The Odds of Recovery" and "Seeing Red." Indeed, you couldn't get much more personal than "Recovery," a film that is filled with images of her body and her medical records. On some level, this trajectory is of a piece with the fascination with the written word and the limitations of the spoken word.

"I had a bit of fear in the past about speaking directly. With 'Sink' I started writing the script in the first person but it was too traumatic. When I got to "Rules of the Road" by the very nature of the film I had to do the narration in my own voice. It partly has to do with a greater maturity, but it's also a requirement of the subject matter."

It would be pretty hard to do her recent films with anyone else's voice but Friedrich's.

And it's a voice worth hearing, a vision worth sharing.