My primary motivation in choosing this film for a close viewing was my feeling, immediately after watching, that I didn’t “get” it. It would be presumptuous and frankly incorrect to say I “get” it now, but I feel considerably more familiar with it.
The title of Friedrich’s film Gently Down the Stream immediately evokes, at least in my mind, the last line in that song, “life is but a dream.” In class and on Friedrich’s website it’s plainly stated that the filmmaker drew extensively on her dreams to construct this piece. Because of that, my urge to find and braid any potential narrative threads together into some kind of linear “story” would be misguided, so I tried to resist.
The silence was an aspect of the film that initially unnerved me; I guess I rely on the score of a film to cue my emotional engagement more often than not. The silence meant that, after a few viewings and as I became more comfortable letting my mind wander away from the poetry on the screen, I became hyper aware of the sounds in my environment as I watched. Compared to the stillness of the film, I was a mess of human noise, and I remember feeling that same self-consciousness when we watched the film in class. I feel this contributed to the viewing experience.
I’m not overly confident in my role as analyst so I approached this film in part like a collection of poems; I really wanted to have the words in front of me while I watched the film again and while wrote this essay, but the way Friedrich presents her words visually is at least as important as their content. I feel like scratching the words into the emulsion by hand is already a dramatic and poetic presentation, but the words often alternate from vibrating animation to still frames, drawing the viewer’s attention to the contrast and to particular words or clauses. For example: around 4:30, the line “the woman on the bed shivers” is literally shivering, but freezes when Friedrich’s dreamer “wake(s) her” and “she is angry;” this little vignette ends with the word NO flashing and moving again, creating the illusion of depth and movement.
There are also two short contrasting parts of the film in negative (I think), with the contrast of the bright white background to the film’s mostly dark aesthetic again reengaging the viewer. Dreams are notoriously abstract and personal, and Friedrich would be aware that the viewer might not necessarily relate directly to the words or visual motifs, so the visual interest of the film itself is a way for her audience to interact with and react to her work.
Incidentally, I found myself relating strongly to some of the motifs repeated in this film. The flickering images of Mary and her clasped hands during the first vignette, during which the text is still while the images flash, leads into the next dream about a church, where the text begins shaking and the images steady. This is the first of a few references to sexuality, and the guilt and questions that can surround sexual identity, especially in relation to religion. In one dream, she raises the question of whether an animal, locked in a cage in the church, ripped its own arm off to attempt an escape. Is the animal a guilty Catholic lesbian and the cage the church itself? Another of these dreams finds the dreamer creating another vagina next to her “first one,” possibly creating another sexual identity for herself, but she forgets which is the “original,” the question “which one” flashing on the screen two times. Which of those constructs is her original self? A shift to negative after one image collage of women swimming and an idyllic seascape through a window screams “IT’S LIKE BEING IN LOVE WITH A STRAIGHT WOMAN” in tall, capital letters. Is this sentence related to the dream before it? Is it its own encapsulated dream memory? Does it relate to the next dream, the dreamer giving birth to “herself” but having one of her fetus-selves crumble in her hands?
Repetition features in both image and text. Rowing machines and the women using them figure in prominently, both in wide shots and in close ups of shoulders, the folds in clothing, feet being strapped into the stirrups. The rowing machines also fit in well with the water imagery and reference in the text to water and the woman in the wetsuit, and of course the whole Gently Down the Stream title tie-in. Multiple shots of women wading into and out of pools of water evoke the weird immersive aspect of an artist inviting an outsider into their dreams. Maybe this is also a reference to the fluidity of sexuality or, as one critic said, a nod to the film’s tendency to slip through the viewer’s fingers like water. The picture in picture technique is used throughout the film, as well—the text is often scratched in the bottom-left of the frame, with another frame in the upper right playing a collage of images or sometimes (like in the case of the woman in the wetsuit) a blank white rectangle. When Friedrich gives us text without accompanying, concurrent images, she’s asking that we fill in the blanks.
Concluding an essay is my kryptonite. I’ll finish by saying this piece, despite my being put off by its avant garde execution and my brain’s subsequent quest for that evasive linear narrative and neatly answered questions, resonated strongly with me. Sociocultural pressures shape us and our ways of seeing and reacting to the world, and it’s refreshing to see familiar struggles through another artist’s eyes.