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IN THE CINÉMA CLUB OF… SU FRIEDRICH

A queer cinema pioneer, Su Friedrich is known for her richly personal films about identity, family history, and lesbianism. Her films often blur the line between documentary and experimental filmmaking, as in her landmark portrait of a young girl and her father Sink or Swim (1990)—which was chosen by the Library of Congress to be included in the National Film Registry—and her most recent featurette Today (2022), a reflection on the pandemic, death, and flowers. Her work has been the subject of retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Rotterdam International Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, among other renowned institutions.

SYMBIOPSYCHOTAXIPLASM: TAKE ONE, William Greaves, 1968

When this film was re-released and shown at the Flaherty Film Seminar in 1991, the room exploded, and for good reason. Greaves had made many documentary films prior to this which were fairly standard in their structure while being often very radical in content, and then he made this masterpiece, which blew all notions of conventional form and content out the window. And all the while, he was calculating that he could infuriate his crew so much that they would finally revolt against him. Spoiler alert: he succeeded.

HIGH AND LOW, Akira Kurosawa, 1963

There are at least six other Kurosawa films I could have chosen, both those set in feudal Japan and in contemporary times, but this one made the list because it’s a flawless film. Not only for the emotional and intellectual complexity of the story, and of course Mifune’s performance, but for the cinematography and the blocking: Check out the shots when ten or twelve characters are in the same room and arranged in the most exquisite compositions.

THE GLEANERS AND I, Agnès Varda, 2000

Like the difficulty of choosing one Kurosawa film among many, I find it hard to single out one film by Varda, especially because she made great narrative films as well as documentaries. However, this documentary of hers has a special place in my heart. Varda takes on a single subject and then goes out into the world in so many directions to find out what gleaning means and how it impacts people, and the answers she finds are so varied, surprising, and sometimes quite moving. In the final analysis, she shows by her presence in the film what it is to be a human engaged with other humans.

MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON, Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid, 1943

As a beginning filmmaker who was just starting to learn about the world of experimental cinema, this film blew my mind more than any other. Forty-six years later, it still blows my mind.

THE LADY EVE, Preston Sturges, 1941

So many things about this film are a pure delight, and Stanwyck, Fonda and Colburn play their parts with perfection, but two scenes made an indelible impression on me the first time I saw it and have continued to do so every time I see it. The first, when Stanwyck does a running commentary as we watch through her pocket mirror as the other women in the dining room try to seduce Fonda, and the second when Stanwyck takes Fonda to her dressing room to change her shoes—a scene which is done almost entirely in one very long, exquisite, agonizing, hilarious take.

MÄDCHEN IN UNIFORM, Leontine Sagan, 1931

Seeing this film as a very new lesbian many decades ago was a transformative experience because it’s a deeply sympathetic portrait of the painful experiences of a young woman who is unable to cope with her environment—an environment that was familiar even if more oppressive (though not less sexy) than mine, at her age, in an all-girls Catholic girl’s school. But can we also talk about how great the acting is? How gorgeous the cinematography? And that it was not only written by a woman but also directed by a woman—in 1931?