Lesson Plan: Su Friedrich’s Sink or Swim


Ian here—

Back on Halloween, I posted a fitting lesson plan. For Thanksgiving, I guess I’ll go with a perverse one.

I taught Sink or Swim (Su Friedrich, 1990) in a week in my course “Avant-Garde Film and Video Art” devoted to the use of biography as argumentative grounds in film criticism. Since this course served as a writing seminar, one of my learning objectives this week was to get students to consider how they could marshal biographical details of an artist’s life into an analysis, without falling prey to the intentional fallacy by assigning the artist’s views and experiences too much weight. To this end, we watched some Joyce Wieland films, and I had students read Lauren Rabinovitz’s chapter on Wieland in Points of Resistance: Women, Power, and Politics in the New York Avant-garde Cinema, 1943–71. My plan here was threefold: 1) I wanted students to enunciate the specific sorts of arguments we could make about the films when we drew upon knowledge of Wieland’s status as a Canadian artist living and working in the US, her political commitments, and her status as a woman artist too often playing second-fiddle to her more-famous husband. 2) I wanted the students to acknowledge the scope and limits of what we can learn from these things, and to understand that a work of art’s meanings are not entirely determined by the artist’s biography. 3) I wanted students to recognize the difference between acknowledging biography when dealing with a filmmaker like Wieland, versus acknowledging biography when dealing with a filmmaker like Friedrich, whose work tilts further into the genres of personal essay film and diary film. While one could imagine an analysis of Wieland’s Patriotism (1964) that doesn’t dwell on issues of Wieland’s biography, it is impossible to imagine and analysis of Sink or Swim that doesn’t acknowledge Friedrich’s biography. It belongs to a genre in which acknowledgement of the filmmaker’s lived experience is absolutely essential.

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