Breathing Under Water

(Susan Murphy Dermody, Australia, 1992)


1. This Most Difficult of Genres … (short talk for a Melbourne Film Festival panel)

Once upon a time, participating in yet another film festival or conference panel somewhere in the world, Peter Wollen – having grown tired of the usual, secure labels (radical film, feminist film, Hollywood genre film, classic narrative film) – coined his own, elusive label: the film without a passport. Certainly, one of the passport-less forms he was thinking of was the essay film. In attempting to place Breathing Under Water within the historical context of the essay film, it is important to remember that this is less a clear-cut genre than a damn slippery fish. Thomas Elsaesser calls it “this most difficult of genres”. (1)


Those of us who happened to have encountered the term may tend to think of it in the following way: as an obviously theoretical or intellectual film, with a very long, poetic, quasi-poetic, or poetic-theoretic voice-over track; and a range of imagery tumbling underneath the voice: staged images, documentary images, observational footage, perhaps clips from films, newspaper and book covers. Prime examples include Chris Marker’s Sunless (Sans soleil, 1983), and also some films by Alexander Kluge, Jean-Pierre Gorin, or Trin T. Minh-ha (Surname Viet Given Name Nam, 1989).


To broaden this notion of what the essay film is, I will make three points, taking in a range of examples from very different kinds of filmmaking.


A. The essay film is astride genres; it is a film without any clear or singular identity. Let me remind you of the meaning of the word essay – as in ‘to essay’, which means to test something out, try it out. In this context, it could mean the attempt to map something, to chase it, and mark the lines of your flight at the moment you are involved in that chase. The essay film has to be understood as the ever-sliding relation between two unstable entities. There’s the subject, the topic that the film is setting out to bag; and then there’s the film itself as an active, inquiring organism, its own form and identity, which is in a constant state of becoming. In the best essay films, neither of these entities – the subject or the film – comes entirely into focus; but, meanwhile, they both grow in an expansive way.


As a result, the essay film is of no one genre – and nor is it a mechanical, postmodern paste-up of several genres or modes. Wherever you start, you’re going to slide into some other zone – and the essay film allows you to go with that flow, and explore it. In the old Godardian aphorism: if you start with fiction, you’ll find yourself in documentary; if you start in documentary you’ll end in fiction – that’s the principle from his Vivre sa vie  (1962) right through to today.


The work of the essay film actively breaks down certain time-honoured, conservative, binary oppositions – by encompassing the extremes, and endlessly oscillating between them. Not just documentary and fiction, but – of particular importance here, in reference to Breathing Under Water – the minutely personal and the grandly historical. And the different conventional ways of narrating or relating both: intimate confession, objective chronicle, anecdote, allegory, fable. Think, for example, of Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March (1985), which comically intertwines one sad sack’s search for love with the whole political reality and mythology of a part of America.


Feminism, which has always set out to undermine the rigid dichotomy of personal and political, has a particularly urgent investment in the essay form; think of various examples in New German Cinema (such as Helma Sanders-Brahms’ Germany, Pale Mother [1980] or Jutta Brückner’s Hunger Years [1980] about anorexia), or Chantal Akerman’s Les Rendez-vous d’Anna  (1978).


B. The essay film is some manner of journey or adventure – an exploration. Here I would like to foreground the documentary element in the essay film. Indeed, I’ve heard a newer term for the form from the local filmmaker John Hughes – he calls it speculative documentary. And this is a good term because it has that double sense I’ve already sketched: the documentary speculates about something other than or beyond itself, but it also speculates about itself, about its nature as a documentary, about what it means for any film to be even called a documentary.


The essay film has marked the return of a radical documentary impulse (after several years of this form being severely bashed as très uncool) – a fix on an intransigent reality. This marks a complete re-orientation of the cinéma-vérité tradition in documentary. But the essay film contains not only a breathless plunge into reality, not only the ‘immediate experience’ – but also the reflection on that experience, that journey. (2)


What is retained from cinéma-vérité, however, is the sense of risk and adventure: the sense that the people making the film are getting involved in something that they cannot foresee the end of and that might, indeed, change them.


Let us note here, in passing, the centrality of Jean Rouch [1917-2004]. He posited the grand idea of the filmmaker as a “dancing Socrates” (3) – a person who gets into a trance, follows people into places, and then radically re-orients, re-forms, re-structures the material later. Moi, un noir (1958) is an extraordinary example of that from his career, and it was very influential on filmmakers including Godard.


Bound up with the essay film as adventure is a thrilling, delicious loss of mastery on the part of the filmmaker. Consider the rich cases of Robert Kramer’s Our Nazi (1984), with its complicit, uneasy identifications with the old SS man at its centre; or Gorin’s films Poto and Cabengo (1980) and Routine Pleasures (1986), where (in the former) he is unable to keep up with the kids he is filming; and (in the latter) the subjects who tend to an enormous train-set landscape decide to place the model of the filmmaker’s car in front of an oncoming train – which is the sign for him to get lost!


I don’t think it is any coincidence that the travel film – as well as autobiography – are becoming standard outposts of the essay film. Journeys: but often riddled with interruptions, interpolations, sidetracks … The subject of a person’s travel, or a person’s life, is like a splash in a pool with ever-widening ripples, circles that get bigger, and include fragments from all over: this is the very method of Sunless.


In a certain kind of art cinema – the highest kind (I don’t mean Howards End [1992] or Toto the Hero [1991]) – there is the notion of a film that explores its own cinematic materials. Michelangelo Antonioni, Andrei Tarkovsky, Jacques Rivette, Sergei Parajanov: they start from a pretext – a subject, a field, a pre-existing text – and then set something in play that is explored, refined, described, pursued in shooting. Victor Perkins put it well: “Actors, landscapes, settings, gestures, intonations, movements, qualities of light, faces, dress and props … might engage a director’s constructive interest and become [the] subjects of the film”. (4)). Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse  (1991) offers an excellent example of this process: he sets in play a loose ensemble or set of elements, and then documents what happens in the unfolding experiment that is also the end result.


C. The essay film is a mosaic: the turning around of a topic from different angles, or the shuffling of a number of points-of-view. These are notions of a layering, a palimpsest … and, above all, the principle of montage, and in that what Marie-Claire Ropars calls “the trace’s ceaseless work”, in which any one piece is both undone and redone by the pieces in the ensemble that surround it. (5) (In this context, cinéma-vérité has no longer been able to retain its old patina of raw, documentary innocence.) It’s also the idea of ‘surrounding’ a topic with everything to which it could possibly connect, however tangential or crazy. This is the method of Brian McKenzie’s People Who Still Use Milk Bottles (1990), for example: you start with that title and idea, then you find some people to whom the description corresponds, then you get interested in those people and what they do (write, gamble, wander, whatever), and ultimately you find the strange affinities or correspondences that allow them to be interwoven into a movie …


Personally, I also believe that certain seemingly conventional narrative films (and certain types or genres of film) can truly be essays – dramatic essays, essays in the form of narrative. In American B cinema, for instance, take the case of writer-director Larry Cohen: The Ambulance (1990) offers a full set of scenarios and positions relating to modern Western medicine (ambulances, hospitals, doctors …). Or his It’s Alive series (1974-1987), which gives us an endless string of hypotheses about what brings its monster-babies into being: sin, pollution, repressed neuroses … Here, the abstraction, the cartoon-like short-cuts of B cinema, can serve the essay form well.


But then there are those essay films that are not at all full-blooded fictional representations. Even more than Cohen’s films, they are sketch films, notional narratives (“symbolic indications of other actions and abstractions”, as Raymond Durgnat described early Godard), (6) with patently thin, not-fleshed-out narrative hooks, pretexts, situations. This is a kind of shorthand form that allows associative leaps from one kind of zone to another, one kind of material to another. Jon Jost’s Angel City (1977) is among the supreme examples of this type.



2. On Breathing Under Water as Essay Film

Down to cases – or, more acutely, this one case. Right now is a difficult, or at least delicate time in Australia to be discussing a non-mainstream, government-funded film such as Susan Murphy Dermody’s Breathing Under Water. The conservative reaction to arts funding in this country is more intense, pervasive and phobic than it has ever been. Magazine and newspaper columnists are on the warpath, bringing out their well-worn prejudices against elite art, welfare state art, any kind of politically or aesthetically radical art that can possibly be construed as a proverbial waste of the taxpayer’s money.


It is perhaps understandable when those who support government funding of the arts (as I most certainly do) close ranks, and act defensive about certain local films that stand to be dismissed or besieged in this prevailing context. But defensiveness is a problem, too. When faced with films that are at least bravely trying to do something different, some local critics are reluctant to be truly critical; they fudge making an honest evaluation, and avoid potentially damaging international comparisons.


The themes of Breathing Under Water are not modest. A woman with a Dantean name, Beatrice (Anne Louise Lambert from Picnic at Hanging Rock) takes her daughter, Maeve (the director’s daughter, who later grew up to be an actor), on a journey through an imaginary landscape, combining bits of reality (like Sydney buses) with more purely fantasticated spaces. The world of the film is frankly allegorical. Various zones, such as the Land of Unlikeness, offer sights and sounds that encapsulate the madness and obsessions of our age: nuclear weaponry, high technology, speed, mass media.


Also along for the ride is an enigmatic, taxi-driving guide (Kristoffer Greaves). His name of Herman makes him both the mythical Hermes who provides a passage into alien worlds and, more comically, a male cipher who is merely Her Man – just to make up for all those women in mainstream cinema who are merely His Woman. In Breathing Under Water, everything that’s important and intense happens between women (Journey Among Women [Tom Cowan, 1977] was an Australian movie that Dermody wrote ambivalently about in her years as a critic-teacher) – particularly in the mother-daughter relation, which Dermody discusses in a particularly moving fashion. Around these women flow the signs of a society on the brink of destruction – a catastrophe they symbolically keep at bay via their vigilance, insight and emotional sensitivity. The film is not a wet New Age tract – it is also about the need for people to perpetually confront the dark aspects of themselves and their world, to never ignore the animating human power of perversity, terror and the death-drive.


It’s hard to describe this film without making it sound like a grand melodrama. In fact, it is severely and deliberately de-dramatised. There’s something almost comic in the way the characters glimpse and shudder at all manner of global horrors, without the slightest danger ever seeming to threaten them. But although the themes are grand, their treatment is not, and this is its success. With quiet assurance, it is modestly pitched as a free-associative flow of images and sounds – including clips from classic movies, newsreel footage and animation segments in the style of children’s old picture books. Breathing Under Water well achieves a reflective, engaging style of serious, intellectual filmmaking.


Here comes the international comparison. I wonder whether, in 50 years time, researchers of Australian cinema will realise the crucial influence on a portion of it wielded by the aforementioned Sunless, which quietly but efficiently did the rounds of festivals, campuses, arts events, VHS and even SBS TV. When Sunless hit the independent Australian scene, it was, as they say, something else. It virtually inaugurated the form now widely known as the essay film: which, instead of full-bloodedly telling a story, arranges the various pieces of an argument or reverie. Typically, an essay film unfolds across the boundaries of genre, mixing documentary with fiction, fact with whimsy, world history with personal anecdote. Breathing Under Water gives the essay form an urgent feminist aspect, as it searches for those illuminating moments when global politics intersects with the minute, personal experiences of desire, memory and fantasy. The writing of German author Christa Wolf is another big influence on Dermody and her creative sneisibility; Ursula Le Guin, too.


Sunless is, however, a difficult model to emulate. It is completely carried by one, long, continuous voice-over narration. Chris Marker is perhaps the cinema’s single most distinguished exponent of voice-over commentary, and the narration of Sunless is among his most polished pieces of writing for film: lucid, dynamic, bringing the listener to understanding and epiphany through poetic rhyme and rhythm, as well as through anecdote, reminiscence and condensed, pithy statement.


In short, not everyone can write a voice track as well as Marker – and I think it’s to be expected that some reviewers and audiences find sections of the narration in Breathing Under Water thick and impenetrable, words piling up and up without that constantly achieved release into meaning and emotion. There are moments – particularly during the Paul Virilio-inspired reflections on time and pure war – when thinking seems reduced to intellectual buzzwords and slogans, however eloquently enounced.


I think there is much in Breathing Under Water that speaks to the spirit or the dream of the essay film form as it is currently dreamed. It conjures Walter Benjamin’s vision of a poetic politics  that could bridge the mundane everyday with the biggest collective questions of our time. However, on this level, I miss a sense of adventure and surprise. For a film that celebrates the unconscious, I find it perhaps a little too conscious, as if Dermody and her collaborators didn’t surprise themselves enough in the course of piecing together the film, didn’t let themselves ‘lose the plot’ enough in a free-associative way when it came to that actual material level of putting together the colours and edits and image-sound juxtapositions …


Having said that, there is still something both confident and mysterious about Breathing Under Water. It is, indeed, a film without a passport – especially in this country, where there is such severe constraint on the free circulation of film and film thought.


The legacy (and actuality) of surrealism is a topic that regularly arises in serious, committed discussion of cinema. Dermody is no stranger to that discussion. In the important work co-authored with Liz Jacka, The Screening of Australia (2 volumes, 1986-1987, with a companion publication The Imaginary Industry in 1988), she laments the lack of a certain energy in Australian cinema, a florid engagement with “the unconscious, rituals and dreams”. (7) My main doubt about Breathing Under Water is that, for a film devoted to the unconscious, it is finally a rather too conscious, over-intellectualised film. It lacks the intuitive, poetic sense that all genuine filmmakers of the unconscious possess. To risk a brazen generalisation, I’d suggest that such over-intellectualisation is common to many works made by critics/theorists who venture, with a certain tentativeness, into filmmaking (such as the British team of Laura Mulvey and the aforementioned Peter Wollen). Even though the spoken text of Breathing Under Water is often quite beautiful, I find it also a bit overpowering. It seems to hold down all the visual and other sound elements of the work a bit too tightly for my liking – the way only a film critic would want to hold and control things.


Then again, Dermody is not an entirely conventional critic. Her writing usually aspires more to poetic evocation than to standard-issue academic analysis. Her wonderful excursion into autobiographical writing in Drusilla Modjeska’s anthology Inner Cities makes for fascinating reading in the light of Breathing Under Water. (8) Ultimately, I suspect Dermody belongs to that spiritual family of critics who use criticism as a way of dreaming up the films they long to one day make. It is difficult now to look back through Dermody’s writing on Peter Watkins or Andrei Tarkovsky without seeing the outline of Breathing Under Water slowly come into view. Listen to these phrases from her superb discussion of Vincent Ward’s The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988): it is a “voyage of imagination across the face of the unconscious, which harbours within it a full embrace of death and darkness”; it shows “the moment by moment threat of planetary extinction in our time, which we secrete away in deep metallic darkness and ‘forget’”.


And surely something was cooking in Dermody’s mind when she mused about the little male hero (played by Hamish McFarlane) of The Navigator in the following terms: “Given the severe phallocentrism of the institutions of technology and geopolitics that plague our time, it is very clear to me that Griffin should have been a girl”. (9)




1. Thomas Elsaesser, European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005), p. 435. back


2. See my 1987 essay “Sixteen Ways to Pronounce Potato, or: The Adventure of Materials”, Photogénie, 23 November 2013. back


3. See John Hughes (1978), “Autodialogue”, reprinted in Rouge, no. 4 (2004). back


4. V.F. Perkins, “Authorship: The Premature Burial”, CineAction!, no. 21/22, Summer/Fall 1990, pp. 57-64. back


5. Marie-Claire Ropars, “Muriel as Text”, Film Reader, no. 3 (1978), p. 267. back


6. Raymond Durgnat, The Essential Raymond Durgnat (London: British Film Institute, 2014), p. 207. back


7. The Screening of Australia books were published by Currency Press (Sydney); The Imaginary Industry by Australian Film, Television and Radio School (Sydney). back


8. Drusilla Modjeska (ed.), Inner Cities: Australian Women’s Memory of Place (Melbourne: Penguin, 1989). back


9. Susan Dermody, “The Navigator”, Filmnews, 1989. back

© Adrian Martin May/June 1992

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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