An Analysis of Found Footage Strategies in Su Friedrich’s The Ties that Bind. Part Two: Analysis

by Leah Hendriks Volume 7, Issue 9 / September 2003 16 minutes (3808 words)

Scott MacDonald argues that Friedrich’s work represents an interesting and important shift in experimental feminist filmmaking because her films reintroduce a level of sensuality and pleasure into the viewing experience where earlier feminist filmmakers eliminated many forms of visual sensuality and pleasure from their work.1 According to MacDonald, 1970s experimental feminist filmmakers often considered all forms of visual sensuality and pleasure as suspect and detrimental to the fight against male dominance over women, especially dominance associated with voyeuristic cinematic visual pleasure and desire.  These filmmakers associated visual sensuality and visual pleasure with patriarchal power structures of looking that privileged the male gaze as having dominance over female sexuality, sensuality, and desire as represented in the cinema (especially of the narrative variety).  From this perspective, all forms of visual sensuality and visual pleasure are suspect: female nudity and representations of female sexuality and desire are questioned, as are other forms of visual sensuality such as, in MacDonald’s words, "the sensuous rhythms, textures, and structures of personal and structural forms of avant-garde film" that "seemed too suspiciously self-indulgent (and in some cases, even phallocentric) to be sexually progressive."2

The visual sensuality that Friedrich employs in this film is one of the most fundamental ways in which she expresses the relationship she sees between the materiality and sensuality of the film medium and that of the human body.  The Ties that Bind is visually sensual in many ways, and this visual sensuality is to a large degree intertwined with the sensuous rhythms and textures that are achieved through Friedrich’s selection and integration of found footage and original footage, and the subtle and intricate interconnections she creates between imagery, sound, and text through her employment of various found footage strategies.  Friedrich’s editing, and the ways in which she weaves together disparate strands of imagery, sound, and text, evokes an almost hypnotic sense of fluidity and sensuality.  On the level of imagery, her selection of found footage and original footage conveys an extremely beautiful and sensual experience of visual texture as the fragments are woven together in such a way as to create the impression of visual rhythm and unity.  The footage she shot herself is often indistinguishable from the found footage and therefore works in conjunction with it to reinforce the visual aesthetic of "found footage," and to create the sense of visual synthesis that she achieves in the film as a whole.

The footage Friedrich shot while on her trip to Germany is stunning: it was originally shot on Super 8 and later blown up to 16mm,3 thereby creating an impressionistic sense of texture and light from the resultant graininess.  The framing of these images, along with the content of the imagery and Friedrich’s play with the camera aperture and film speed, augments the sense of rhythm and visual sensuality of this footage.  These formal qualities also emphasize her interest in exploring the materiality of the medium in an extremely personal way.  The travel footage documents Friedrich’s voyage to her mother’s hometown and thereby represents Friedrich’s desire to connect with her mother’s personal history by visiting sights and places that make up the narrative of her mother’s past, a narrative that is verbally expressed in Bucher’s voice-over commentary.  Moreover, by traveling to Germany and recording her travels on celluloid, Friedrich inscribes herself into her mother’s past experiences, personal history, and memories.  Since this voyage is an extremely personal one, the act of filming also becomes an act of transcribing the self onto the celluloid in an effort to trace and interlace disparate fragments of personal (both the filmmaker’s and her mother’s) and collective (German and American) history in a quest to understand the ways in which the past informs the present and the development of personal identity.  In this sense Friedrich’s travel footage is very much reminiscent of the personal filmmaking tradition of the 1960s American avant-garde.

Friedrich’s imagery is visually sensual in other ways as well.  For example, sensuality can be seen in the way in which she frames and photographs her mother as she swims, with extreme close-ups of various parts of her mother’s body covered with droplets of water.  The beauty and sensuality of these images are, in part, a function of Friedrich’s interest in exploring the materiality of the medium and using this materiality in an extremely personal, gestural way, such as in the personal, gestural avant-garde films of Brakhage and Mekas.4 The sensuality of these images is also associated with the subject matter itself: a woman’s nearly naked body.  Moreover, I would argue that the act of swimming carries strong socially and culturally inscribed connotations of sensuality, gracefulness, freedom, and strength, and these connotations are implicit within these images as part of the cultural meanings tied up with water and the ways in which the human (and in this case, specifically female) body moves while swimming.   

The fact that she primarily shoots footage of her mother’s body in fragments is another way in which this film is informed by an underlying logic of collage and montage.  This footage is interspersed throughout the film and the effect is one of visual fragmentation that the spectator must conceptually recombine to create a visual sense of Bucher’s body as a whole.  Friedrich’s decision to shoot her mother’s body in fragments that are interspersed throughout the film conveys a sense of the filmmaker’s effort to learn about her mother’s personal history and identity.  It seems surprising that Friedrich would have waited until she was an adult to ask her mother about these crucial years of her life, years that are all the more dramatic when one considers the gravity and horror of the Second World War and the myriad social, political, and cultural events that unfolded during this period.  Since she apparently waited until the time of the making of this film to learn about this period of her mother’s personal history, it is not surprising that she would feel a sense of unfamiliarity and uncertainty about her mother’s identity.  This lack of knowledge and desire to finally piece together the puzzle of her mother’s history and identity is in part expressed through Friedrich’s decision to shoot footage of her mother’s body in fragments.

The visual fragmentation and recombination of her mother’s body is just one example of the way in which Friedrich manipulates imagery to explore the materiality and sensuality of film and also to express abstract philosophical and emotional concepts and ideas in her work.  Through the use of found footage strategies, Friedrich seeks to form an understanding of her mother’s personal history and identity, and by extension she seeks to form an understanding of the way in which her own history and identity has been informed by her lineage.  The power evoked through the film’s narrative and imagery of history, memory, and identity is achieved through Friedrich’s skillful negotiation of disparate fragments of imagery, sound, and text, and by her adept consolidation of different cinematic genres and traditions.  This complex network of interconnections echoes the complexity of understanding one’s place in the world through history, memory, and the lived experience of being present in the material world.

As I mention in the introduction, Friedrich often seeks to expose and challenge many levels of Western culture, both past and present.  One of the central issues this film probes is the question of the ways in which both the individual and the collective are socially and culturally constructed beings.  Friedrich frames these questions within a narrative that foregrounds the processes of history and memory as fundamental to our understanding of personal identity.  One of the reasons Friedrich pursued this project was a desire to learn about her mother’s experience of living in Germany during the rise of the Third Reich and to discover what role her mother played in the war effort and how her life was altered and shaped by the war.  She wanted to discover whether her mother supported the Nazi party or if she was against this regime, and to learn about her experiences during this period so as to form a better understanding of her mother’s personal history and identity, both as a woman and as a human being.5 The film thus serves as an attempt to reconstruct Lore Bucher’s personal history and her memories of society as it was during this period.  By extension, the film serves as means to help Friedrich come to a better understanding of the social, cultural, and political dimensions of Nazi Germany and the War years, and to form a better understanding of her relationship to her mother and the way in which her own personal history and identity has been influenced by her lineage.  The film is thus both biographical and autobiographical, and is constructed out of fragments of memory and history.

The soundtrack consists primarily of voice-over narrative of Lore Bucher describing her experiences living in Germany from the early 1930s through to her immigration to the United States in the early 1950s. The soundtrack is never in synch with the image track and the use of asynchronous sound augments the sense of cutting, pasting, mixing, and layering that is conveyed by the subtle interconnections between imagery, sound, and text throughout the film.  As Bucher describes her life experiences, the image track illustrates her words through a wide variety of imagery.

In one particular section of the film, Bucher’s personal recollections of the day she lost her home to the bombings of December 17th illustrate some of the fundamental concepts Friedrich is working with in the film as a whole.  The following is Bucher’s description of her experience:

"They smashed just about everything you can possibly smash…. I would not even recall anymore how many hours I had been wandering through that city…I think…you have this feeling that you are losing your mind and you have lost your mind.  I mean, I had NO idea where I was going, and I didn’t care at all. I was just blindly going through this burning and this mass of – I don’t even know how to describe it; it was pure hell.  I mean ending up on a highway with hands stretched out; this is how they found me.  Somewhere a Red Cross car picked me up. They didn’t even know who I was.  I couldn’t tell them anything.  They did everything they could until I finally came somehow out of this shock and I could say: "I’m from Ulm."  That’s how they took me back." 

The state of memory loss and having no sense of time or place is one of the effects frequently generated through the use of found footage strategies.  Removing elements from their original contexts and recombining them often serves to displace any sense of history or referent in favour of a wash of surface through which one cannot look too deep.  Bucher’s mental state was partially an effect of the physical fragmentation of her surroundings having been bombed to pieces.  This echoing of the fragmentation of her external world within her psychological experience illustrates the union between humans and our environment; in turn, this union suggests a similar one between the processes of filmmaking and our mental processes.  The fragmentation of Bucher’s physical environment is transposed into the film through Friedrich’s use of found footage strategies; the fact that the very concept of fragmentation finds its way into the narrative of the film underscores Friedrich’s interest in unifying the subject matter of her film with personal experience and formal structure. This synthesis is ultimately illustrated through the recurring image of the model house first in pieces, then being built, then smashed and burning in pieces once more.  These images suggest both the processes of construction and deconstruction that make up the subject matter, aesthetic, and form of the film.

Another instance wherein Friedrich demonstrates her interest in unifying the elements of personal memory and history with her filmmaking practices is evident in the sequence where she goes in search of the building where her mother used to live in Ulm, Germany.  Beginning with a shot of a route on a map being traced by a flashlight, the filmmaker conveys a sense of trying to find her way through the darkness of obscured history.  We then see a shot of a house.  Just as the viewer might come to believe that this house is the one the filmmaker has been seeking, scratched text informs us that this is “the wrong house.”   

Finally, Friedrich shows us the apartment building she has been seeking, while stating that she was trying to find out which of the windows present was her mother’s.  The shot of the building presents a series of windows, each of which reflects the light so that neither Friedrich nor the spectator can see beyond the surface of the windowpanes.  The windows are a set of surfaces, the depths of which are obscured by light in much the same way that Friedrich’s desire to know which window was her mother’s is obscured by a lack of memory (where no memory can exist).  The windows can thus be seen as emblematic of found footage strategies that employ the creation and juxtaposition of surfaces without depth, but behind which depth can be uncovered given the proper knowledge.  It is often the case that material presented in found footage films is stripped of its historical context, a context that still exists for those who are aware of the origins of the footage.  Friedrich’s journey into her mother’s past is fraught with a lack of context that she seeks to capture through the piecing together of her mother’s recollections, archival footage, personal affects, and her own experience in Germany.  The question is always which window to look through to find the depth that is concealed by the surface. 

The sense of interiority expressed in the above mentioned recollections of Bucher’s experience and the filmmaker’s own journey permeates the film; the narrative is primarily informed by memory, emotions, thoughts, and questions that derive from both Lore Bucher’s and Su Friedrich’s subjectivity.  Friedrich’s hand scratched text punctuates Bucher’s monologue and the soundtrack and text are illustrated by symbolic and literal imagery that is constructed out of a combination of original and found footage.  Virtually all of the footage, both original and found, functions to illustrate fragments of memory that express both individual and collective history and identity.  Lore Bucher’s monologue describes her personal experience as an anti-Nazi German woman who came of age during the rise of the Third Reich and also describes the general state of world affairs during the period leading up to the Second World War, the war years, and the post-war German occupation.  As such, her monologue constructs a sense of her own personal history and identity as well as a sense of Nazi Germany, and does so via a narrative that is by and large constructed out of fragments of memory communicated orally, augmented by written text, and illustrated through symbolic and literal imagery. 

Bucher’s memories are informed by a combination of factors that intertwine to form her sense of personal history and identity.  These factors are, to a large degree, socially determined, and the monologue Friedrich extracts from her mother during the series of interviews that she edits together to form the voice-over narrative functions to reveal and expose some of the ways in which social roles and cultural codes inform our understanding of ourselves.  In The Ties that Bind, Friedrich critiques and exposes the socially constructed nature of our formation of personal identity and the ways in which these social roles and cultural codes determine, to a large extent, the path of a person’s life. 

One of the central ways in which Lore Bucher’s life path was determined due to social forces is directly linked to her status as a young heterosexual German woman.  Thus, her understanding of her gender and sexual identity and the social roles she was obligated or motivated to fulfill were to a large degree determined by the culture in which she lived and by the social and political forces that were dominant during that point in time.  To this end, Friedrich’s exploration of her mother’s personal history and life experiences also represents an effort to form an understanding of the relationship between her mother’s status as a woman and her own status as a woman, and what it means to be a woman living in Nazi Germany versus what it means to be a woman living in 1980s America.  Thus, the film explores the ways in which gender roles and gender stereotype is socially and culturally constructed, and examines ties and relationships between women living in different countries during very different times.  Additionally, the connections Friedrich makes between her mother’s personal history and her experiences as a woman also function as means through which she comes to a better understanding of her relationship to her mother as both a daughter and a woman. 

The theme of the relationship between social, political, and cultural dimensions of 1930-40s Nazi Germany and 1980s America is particularly important.  Friedrich makes direct links between the rise of the Third Reich in 1930s Germany and the staggering crimes against humanity and massive global warfare that unfolded during the Second World War, and the human cruelty, brutality, and general sense of social unrest and violence of contemporary America.  In order to illustrate this relationship, Friedrich juxtaposes and intercuts fragments of original footage with found footage and other found materials, such as photographs, home movies, letters, and newspapers.  Specifically, this footage consists of original material Friedrich shot while she participated in an anti-war demonstration that took place in the USA in the 1980s, material Friedrich shot of her trip to Germany, original footage of the construction and deconstruction of the model house (a house that resembles footage of her mother’s old house that is also represented in this compilation of imagery), archival newsreel footage of Nazi marches and bombed out cities and towns preceding and during the Second World War, old photographs, home movie footage of Friedrich’s mother and father when they were young, and a selection of newspapers and letters. 

Within this variety of visual sources, Friedrich emphasizes the dimensions of personal history, memory, and subjective, psychological experience by manipulating the materiality of the medium.  Since she is working largely within the frame of history and memory, her use of imagery, sound, and text functions to illustrate the workings of memory and subjective experience.  Thus, as she combines and juxtaposes this variety of imagery, she uses techniques such as light flares and flashes, rapid cutting between images, variations in the image grain, texture, and exposure, and extremely bleached, bright images achieved through playing with the camera aperture and adjusting the exposure settings.  She uses these techniques in an effort to mimic, via specifically cinematic means, the way in which the human mind perceives and processes sensorial, emotional, and psychological experience. 

For instance, there is a sequence where Bucher describes her experience of working for a Nazi organization during the war where she was enlisted as a secretary against her will when she was 19 years old.  She was unable to make regular visits home during this period, due to rigid rules and regulations, but when her mother fell ill, she was eventually permitted to travel home.  While she describes this episode and how she felt when she was finally granted the freedom to visit her mother, the corresponding imagery includes overexposed shots of various locations, streets, and places that appear surreal and strange.  The effect generated through this footage is one that conveys a sense of Bucher’s extreme internal angst and anxiety-induced emotional and psychological strain that she must have experienced during this episode of her life. 

A common practice in collage filmmaking is to call attention to the material nature and the construction of images presented through the altering of their appearance.  The sense of strangeness that these shots impart is largely due to her manipulation of their look to express a correlation between these images and her mother’s mental state.  Thus, once again, as in many other instances within this film, Friedrich uses found footage strategies to convey a sense of history, memory, and internal experience.  Moreover, by manipulating the film on the level of the materiality of the medium, she again reinforces her interest in exploring personal experiences and internal states via an extremely direct manipulation and experimentation with the materiality of film.

In its synthesis of original and found visual and auditory materials, The Ties that Bind provides a useful film to open into an analysis of the ways in which Su Friedrich combines disparate cinematic genres and traditions and uses found footage as a formal and conceptual strategy to represent and reconstruct individual and collective history, memory, and identity, and to investigate social, political, and cultural issues.  Through the integration of found footage and original material and the intricate editing of imagery, sound, and text, this film challenges and expands the notion of found footage by equating these processes with the processes of memory as it informs our understanding of who we are and the world in which we live.  In the end, The Ties that Bind is an exploration of Friedrich’s own existence within the world as she understands it through her ties with family, nation, and culture, all of which are bound by the materiality of the media that are used to express these elements.  In her use of the elements that she brings together, Friedrich presents one of the most thorough expressions of the totality of human experience that I have yet seen on the screen.  Hers is truly an art that seeks to transcend established notions of what that art is or ought to be; if art is to be understood as the expression of human experience then The Ties That Bind is art of the highest order.6

Read Part 1 Here.

Notes

  1. MacDonald, "From Zygote to Global Cinema via Su Friedrich’s Films" 24-35; Scott MacDonald, "Reappropriations" 41-43.
  2. MacDonald, "Reappropriations" 41.
  3. MacDonald, "Su Friedrich Interview" 298.
  4. MacDonald, "Su Friedrich Interview" 284.
  5. MacDonald, "Su Friedrich Interview" 293-295.
  6. Many thanks to Randolph Jordan for his patience in proofreading this paper and offering numerous helpful suggestions.

Volume 7, Issue 9 / September 2003 Essays avant-gardeexperimentalsu friedrich

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