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A chook enters the frame. A black cat evades the lens. An animated panther won’t be denied. In 2021, these are the figures that lurk on the outskirts of conscious thought in the days after I eject Ronin’s DVD of Breathing Under Water (Susan Murphy Dermody, 1991) from my laptop. 30 years have slipped by since I first viewed this film on a cinema screen with an audience of indie-filmgoers. The memory of being part of that audience — lulled by water and voices, darkness and whimsy, movement and pause — resonates with and is shadowed by the spectre of ‘last days’. In 1991 Dermody’s film evoked the destruction of life on earth by masculine technoculture, the eclipse of human time by the digital and a feminine quest (embodied by Beatrice, Maeve and Herman) to find another way. In 2021, despite the climate emergency, the digital eclipse of cinema and a global pandemic, what the film evokes most strongly, for this writer, is the passing of a milieu defined by an ethos of indie-filmmaking, film thinking, film activism. I take this special issue of Senses of Cinema, then, as a space in which to pause, remember and reflect on a moment of experiment in Australian feature filmmaking, and to revive interest in Breathing Under Water as a female quest, an essay film, an autofiction and a mode of self extraction. 

Flashback 1991

An audience of indie-filmgoers has been 20 years or more in the making. At festivals and ad hoc screenings in 1991-2, this audience encounters Breathing Under Water on 35mm. It will be years before we see it again, as if for the first time, on SBS-TV in 1997. These filmgoers (in Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, London) are privy to a short-lived experiment in Australian cinema: the funding of low-budget feature films that eschew narrative and naturalism, nationhood and box office. In Sydney, this initiative by the Australian Film Commission built on the repute of short films made by academics and critics in the 1980s, including Helen Grace’s Serious Undertakings (1983), Laleen Jayamanne’s A Song of Ceylon (1985) and Ross Gibson’s Camera Natura (1985). Such films helped to shape a cine-literate rather than avant-garde milieu where the lines had not yet been demarcated between those who produce, exhibit, critique, theorise and otherwise immerse themselves in cinema. 

In 1991, this milieu was called upon to attend, seriously and playfully, to Breathing Under Water, the debut feature film of Sydney-based academic and writer, Susan Dermody. What did we see on those big screens? A woman, Beatrice, and her young daughter, Maeve, set off on a journey into the dark of night, with a pencilled map, a red carrier bag and an antipodal guide, Herman, a ‘good Aussie bloke’ in overalls and a beanie. Together, the trio descend not into Dante’s inferno but Sydney’s sewers and wastelands to search for Pluto’s Republic, glimpse human nightmares and surface at Tom Tiddlers, a children’s playground. The trio’s amiable adventure, conducted with more wonder than horror, is interspersed with stunning animations (by Lee Whitmore), classic film footage from European auteurs essaying other journeys, and found-footage etching the horrors of technoculture into our visual memory. 

What did we hear in those cinemas? On the soundtrack, Elizabeth Drake’s resonant musical compositions counterpoint a murmured duet between narrator (Gillian Jones) and character, Beatrice (Anne Louise Lambert, best known for her ethereal performance of Miranda in Peter Weir’s 1975 period film, Picnic at Hanging Rock). Together, narrator and character ruminate on dreams, nightmares, the spectre of nuclear war, environmental destruction and the rise of digital subjectivity. They serve as uncanny avatars for writer/director, Susan Murphy Dermody, known in the 1980s for her teaching and scholarly publications (with Elizabeth Jacka) on the social imaginary of Australian cinema. At the time, the film’s paradoxical ruminations vexed a number of film critics. Their koan-like slipperiness foreshadowed Dermody’s transformation at the end of the 1990s into Roshi Susan Murphy, founder of Zen Open Circle and author of three books that resonate with the concerns and techniques of Breathing Under Water: Upside Down Zen (2006); Minding the Earth, Mending the World (2012); and Red Thread Zen (2016).1

Critical reception: 1992 and beyond

Before I attempt to reframe Breathing Under Water as an autofiction that speaks more to Ross Gibson’s concept of self extraction2 than to Claire Boyle’s work on cinematic techniques of self-fiction,3 I want to reprise the film’s initial reception by a cohort of reviewers whose love and knowledge of cinema is evident in their expansive, lucid and occasionally sceptical reviews. Given the film’s literary debt to ‘the quest’ as its underlying structure (with a direct reference to Dante’s Inferno in the opening sequence) and its cinematic debt to European metaphysical auteurs (including Dreyer, Rossellini, Tarkovsky) and cine-essayists (Godard, Rouch, Kluge and Marker), it was inevitable that Breathing Under Water would be widely reviewed in 1992 as a both an essay film and a female quest. Below, I quote from key reviews to give readers a sense of the indie-milieu that engaged with Breathing Under Water at the time of its release. I then turn to the female quest embodied by Beatrice and voiced by the narrator, paying attention to Dermody’s implication with Beatrice – Dante’s lost love and theological guide to the nine spheres of Paradiso in The Divine Comedy. In the final section, I return to the brief from Senses of Cinema to reframe Breathing Under Water as autofiction, proposing that Ross Gibson’s erudite essay on self extraction is nearer the mark in the case of Dermody’s film, than Claire Boyle’s lucid essay on Agnes Varda’s exemplary, cinematic techniques of the self. 

An essay film: critiquing the need to know

If we understand the essay film as a form of gleaning, what things did Dermody glean from the debris of the 20th century? Vikki Riley (Filmnews, July 1992) describes Beatrice/Dermody as salvaging small things from extinction” as a way of “reclaiming … a lost means of articulating the natural universe and its links to the spiritual world”. Riley notes: 

[…] the film makes great value of the need to “re-order”, list, name, and carry around as baggage, non-verbal language (gestures, games, small metaphorical details, animation, painting), remembered “mythologies” from childhood and adolescence where stories are told by mothers, teachers, books and songs.4

 In Cinema Papers (May-June 1992), Pauline Adamek notes that:

Beatrice articulates a list of that which has been relegated to the underworld: the feminine, the irrational, matter, things, the company of gods, myth as a form of knowledge – largely abstract concepts which, if reclaimed, may assist humankind to act against the drive towards destruction and probable extinction.

In Filmnews (July 1992), Barbara Luby refers to the Melbourne Film Festival forum on The Essay Film with Dermody and producer Megan McMurchy, chaired by Ross Gibson and introduced by Adrian Martin. Luby focuses on the red carrier bag as “a central visual metaphor” in the film and “a clue to the film’s concerns” with female “gathering” rather than male “hunting” for knowledge. Adrian Martin (in Australian Cinema, 1995) describes ways in which the film “unfolds across the boundaries of genre, mixing documentary with fiction, fact with whimsy, world history with personal anecdote”. He values most those “successful” moments when the film “achieves a dreamlike, ‘free associative’ flow of images and sounds (including clips from classic movies, newsreel footage and animation segments in the style of children’s picture books), mimicking the ‘deep logic’ of the unconscious.” 

For Jane Freebury (in Filmnews, May 1992) Breathing Under Water is “an imaginative essay” that “attacks the ‘curse’ of needing to know which has come to father the unthinkable science which has expelled a vehicle careening toward destruction.” For Freebury, the film proposes another kind of science, “the contemplative science of enquiry represented in the home movie footage of a family with its natural history collection, the play of theoretical physics aboard the old Sydney double-decker, the 333, on its way to The Beach (where else?)”. Dermody, in conversation with Freebury (in Filmnews, July 1992) confesses that despite “the monstrosities of Alamogordo and Nagasaki”, she shares “this “itch” to know” – but it is now “time to get the ‘heart mind’ working.” 

Breathing Under Water

A female quest: ‘to lace the depths’

Reviewers were quick to note that Dermody’s vehicle for discovering (or ‘birthing’) this ‘heart mind’ takes the form of a quest for feminine ways of knowing that might divert ‘mankind’ from self-destruction. This quest drives the journey undertaken in the film by Beatrice, Maeve (Dermody’s daughter) and their amiable companion-guide, Herman. As Dermody explains to Freebury: “you have to go into the belly of the beast, to learn how to live within it. It is about incorporating the danger … so that it becomes possible to think and act creatively and to lace the depths with a fully alive imagination.” As Freebury suggests, Beatrice’s departure from the family home under the cover of night “is fired by desire (‘surely the most beautiful of words’) to know and to understand things strange and sensuous, painful and forbidden.” Dermody replies (in Freebury, Filmnews 1992): “This yearning, this need to know, is a female knowing, something rhythmic and non-rational. An apprehension that is pre-verbal, it cannot be named”. 

In his astute appraisal of Breathing Under Water in 1995, Martin observes that Beatrice’s journey – and its “re-imagining of Dante’s Inferno via Andrei Tarkovsky” – is “severely, deliberately de-dramatised.” For many reviewers, however, the ‘de-dramatised’ expression of ‘female knowing’ through the voice-overs of the narrator and Beatrice – in their unceasing, murmuring, wordy ‘apprehension’ of the ‘pre-verbal’ – posed a problem. Adamek (Cinema Papers, 1992) put it this way: 

Dermody explains that the archival material is not strictly illustrative but used to trigger the spectator’s train of thought based on their own associations with the subject matter. This creates a tension between the text and the imagery, and frequently it is difficult to concentrate on both the voice-over and the archival footage as they seem to be at odds or distracting from each other.

In a trenchant review that praised and rebuked the film in equal measure, Vikki Riley (Filmnews, July 1992) expressed her misgivings about the perceived need to explain the film to Melbourne Film Festival audiences in a special forum: 

The movie and the atmosphere of the forum confirmed my fears of the older sister; wise with the experience of motherhood, sound academic familiarity with the classics, able to re-read the nuclear age as a male heresy and an almost phallic metaphorical empire of signs which must be exposed as juvenilia and life threatening curse.

Other critics addressed the gap between the horrors of masculine science and nuclear physics encountered in the main part of the quest, and questioned the beatific or unfazed responses of Beatrice, Maeve and Herman to these horrors. Tracy Sorensen (Green Left Weekly, May 20, 1992) found “something annoying about our three companions/guides on this journey” with mother and daughter “both perfectly beautiful, innocent, well behaved” and “too essentialist”. For Adamek, “The child remains untouched by visions of horror while delighted with amusing discoveries. The preservation of the future generation’s faith and innocence seems paramount.” 

More recently, Adrienne Parr revisited Breathing Under Water with commentary on three clips available on Australian Screen: An NFSA Website.5 Parr attends to the quest structure of the film and to Dermody’s reinterpretation of Beatrice as Dante’s guide. In her discussion of Clip 1: The journey begins, Parr notes: 

Breathing Under Water is something of a revenge for both Dante’s idealised Beatrice and Picnic’s ethereal Miranda [Anne Louise Lambert], virginally sacrificed to the Australian landscape. Breathing Under Water’s Beatrice knows a thing or two. She has a child of her own and she carries the burden of knowledge of ‘the malignancy of history’. Most importantly, she’s a female character who’s been handed a quest. 

On Clip 3: Tom Tiddler’s Ground, Parr notes Dermody’s preference for purgatory over heaven or hell: 

After leaving the underworld, Beatrice, Maeve and Herman climb a hill to Tom Tiddler’s Ground – Breathing Under Water’s version of Dante’s purgatory […] Murphy Dermody talked about Tom Tiddler’s Ground as ‘neither up nor down […] not being in heaven or hell, but in a wonderful poise between the two’ – in a secular sense, life itself lived fully. Charles Dickens, who despised the squandering of human life, named his Christmas Story of 1861 Tom Tiddler’s Ground, and in it expounded the virtues of the positive acceptance of life given, and of commitment to the here and now. 

Below, I argue that Dermody’s deep concern with “the squandering of human life” and her “acceptance of life given” are central to her transformation of The Divine Comedy’s Beatrice into an earthly avatar for Dermody’s own quest for feminine and non-verbal modes of apprehension. In Dante Alighieri’s medieval text, Beatrice uses what Peter Kalkavage calls her “intellectual vision” and “enlightened speech” to guide Dante’s ascent from purgatorio through the nine spheres of paradiso.6 In Dermody’s film, Beatrice and the narrator become our earthly guides through an imaginary underworld (an inferno) to arrive at a picnic ground (akin to purgatorio) and, eventually, the beach (an intimation of paradiso). Through the combined voices of Beatrice and the narrator, and through the eyes of Beatrice, we (the attentive viewers) become the recipients of Dermody’s own, carefully nurtured, capacity for “intellectual vision” and “enlightened speech”. 

On Dermody’s self-fiction and Dante’s Beatrice

In what follows, I take up the challenge from Senses of Cinema to reframe Breathing Under Water as self-fiction. This invitation marks the passing of time since the release of the film as well as the consolidation of ficto-critical modes of writing that have brought the authoring female self into the text.7 In Dermody’s transformation of Dante’s Beatrice from heavenly guide to earthly visionary, and in Breathing Under Water’s “anti-mimetic and non-naturalistic” riddles, paradoxes and koans, scripted by Dermody, it is possible to see what Claire Boyle values so highly in cinematic self-fiction: its “transformative” and “ameliorative” project.8 Dermody’s Beatrice has both qualities: her vision of hell-on-earth is driven by the urge to transform our vision, and to ameliorate the scientific, masculine mindset that has brought the world to the brink of destruction. 

To understand the beatific shine of Dermody’s self-fictional avatar, Beatrice, I draw on Kalkavage’s account of Dante’s Beatrice. Her main attributes, he claims, are “intellectual vision”’ and “enlightened speech”, evident in her role as Dante’s guide to Paradiso, the third canto of The Divine Comedy. I turn then to Ross Gibson’s concept of “self extraction”: a creative mode of remediation, exemplified in his own work, Acccident Music, as well as in the song writing of Bob Dylan, the ekphrastic writing of Dave Hickey on Chet Baker, and Alexander Kluge’s conception of silent cinema’s “authoring self”. I will argue that, like these remediators, Dermody (and her viewers) become authoring selves, drawing “lines of new understanding out of memory and tradition” (Gibson, 115). My final gesture in this essay will be to describe two sequences from Breathing Under Water that convey, not only the magnitude of Dermody’s vision and speech, but also the process of self extraction that occurs when the viewer finds herself inside the “tumult” (Gibson, 119) of remediated audio-visual texts, accompanied by the spoken word, that constitute Breathing Under Water

While most reviews of Breathing Under Water mention Dante’s Inferno as a template for the journey of Beatrice (with Maeve and Herman) into the underbelly of modern scientific knowledge, few comment on the ascendence of the trio to purgatorio, and fewer engage with Beatrice’s discovery of paradiso at the beach. If, however, we pay attention to all three stages of Dante’s journey in the three cantos of The Divine Comedy (completed in 1321, the year before the death of the author, Dante Alighieri) it becomes possible to view Breathing Under Water as a cinematic work of self-fiction wherein writer-director Susan Murphy Dermody transforms Dante’s heavenly guide, Beatrice, into her earthly avatar. It is fitting, then, that Dermody’s Beatrice is embodied on-screen by Anne Louise Lambert who brings her ethereal performance of Miranda in Picnic at Hanging Rock to the role. On the soundtrack, Dermody gives us not one voice but two, often blurring the distinction between on-screen character (Beatrice) and off-screen narrator. Somewhere in this blur we might hear Dermody’s double-voice as scholar-writer (Susan Dermody) and nascent Zen teacher-writer (Roshi Susan Murphy). I will return to Beatrice and the narrator below, but first I want to consider Dermody’s transformation of Beatrice from heavenly guide (directing Dante’s vison upward, towards the face of god) to earthly visionary, able to view the material evidence of human horror and desecration (arising from “the curse of needing to know”) with undaunted, illuminated eyes. 

Breathing Under Water

To elaborate the transformative and ameliorative trajectory of Dermody’s Beatrice, I turn to Kalkavage’s account of Dante’s spiritual and intellectual awakening in The Divine Comedy.9 

The Comedy is one of the greatest works on education. It is the story of Dante’s awakening to the highest and deepest things. The story begins in a dark wood and ends with a vision of God. Dante makes a journey to the three regions of the spiritual world: Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Each region is defined in terms of the intellect, the part of us that most reveals what it means to be made in God’s image. Hell is the place of those ‘who have lost the good of intellect’ (Inf. 3.18). They have distorted God’s image beyond repair. Purgatory is the mountain ‘where reason searches us’ (Purg. 3.3). It is the place where repentant souls—through purifying torment, reflection, and prayer—undo the distortions of sin. In Paradise souls rejoice in the intellectual vision of God. They see with their most God-like part the Original whose image they are. (Kalkavage)

In Kalkavage’s succinct description of the spiritual regions of hell, purgatory and heaven in relation to “intellectual vision”, we can see the structure of the allegorical journey undertaken by Beatrice, Maeve and Herman in Breathing Under Water. However, in Dermody’s film, Dante has gone missing and Beatrice, Maeve and Herman form a secular version of the Holy Family, embarking on an urgent journey under cover of darkness into a perilous underworld. Throughout the film, Dermody’s vision is carried by the on-screen character, Beatrice, and her speech is voiced by the film’s narrator, in dialogue with Beatrice. It is the film viewer, then, who takes the place of Dante, receiving a secular rather than spiritual education through Dermody’s “intellectual vision” and “enlightened speech”. 

Reviewers of Dermody’s film expressed reservations about Beatrice and her daughter as the idealised embodiment of feminine goodness, however, as Kalkavage reminds us, Dante’s Beatrice is “the beautiful appearance of the Good and the True, and the embodiment of God’s grace.” For Kalkavage, Beatrice is the central figure of The Divine Comedy: she was Dante’s “childhood beloved and personal angel, his link to god”. As a boy Dante fell in love with Beatrice “at first sight”, aroused by the light that shone in her person. By analogy, the light that shone through Miranda (Anne Louise Lambert) in Picnic at Hanging Rock shines through Beatrice in Breathing Under Water. Most importantly, this light shines through the eyes of Anne Louise Lambert in her role as Beatrice. For Kalkavage: “The eyes of Beatrice are an image of love as education”; they stand for “the intellect in its highest capacity”, representing the “apprehension of truth” and “intuitive knowledge”; in The Divine Comedy, Beatrice’s eyes direct Dante’s vision away from herself, towards heaven, “opening him up to the whole of things and to the good of that whole”. 

In Dermody’s film, it is her avatar, Beatrice, whose eyes direct our vision to things. Encouraged by Herman’s benign presence and Maeve’s playful curiosity, it is Beatrice who has the capacity, if we follow the direction of her look, to open our eyes “to the whole of things”. However, unlike Kalkavage’s Dante, what Dermody’s Beatrice questions is “the good of that whole”. Rather than direct our eyes from earth towards heaven, Dermody’s Beatrice takes us down beneath the surface of an imaginary Sydney, to encounter the circles of hell that have arisen from masculine desire for knowledge and dominion over nature, birth, time and death. 

Guided by Beatrice and Maeve (in the company of Herman), we use our sensory bodies to look, listen, touch and feel our way into the debris of our lethal “itch” to know. Our eyes are drawn to discarded things (from unexploded bombs to abandoned toys) that wash up everywhere in Beatrice’s journey – in storm drains and hidden museums, sewerage works and abandoned warehouses. Sydney’s shallow waterways and even the pristine beach (Beatrice’s final destination) have become resting places for the dead things of our technoculture. 

Towards the end of The Divine Comedy, Beatrice resumes her place in the heavenly hierarchy and Dante completes his ascent with new guides (St Bernard and Mary). In Kalkavage’s account, Dante sees the face of god in “’three circles of three colors,’ a geometric symbol of the Trinity […] Each circle, each divine Person, reflects the others, ‘as rainbow by rainbow’”.10 In contrast to Dante, at the end of her earthbound journey, Dermody’s Beatrice looks out to sea, rises from the sand and goes for a paddle with Maeve in the shallow waves. We (like Dante) are left to take in the film’s ultimate vision – not of god’s face, but of the sun setting on an arctic horizon as a lone whale surfaces, then disappears beneath the melting icecap. Dermody’s decision to end Beatrice’s earthly quest with the footage of the whale reminds us that we are the creatures who have been gifted with what Beatrice, in Kalkavage’s account, values most: human intelligence and free will. These gifts make a demand on us. What are we – as creatures of intellect and free will –prepared to do about the whales? 

In different ways, Dermody and Kalkavage direct our attention to vision and speech as vehicles for what Dermody calls “female knowing”. For Kalkavage, Dante “personifies the relentless human desire to know (ultimately to know the nature of god)” while Beatrice “embodies … the perfection of poetry and rhetoric (beautiful speech that moves the soul from darkness to light), theological wisdom … and intellectual perfection as the vision of God.” Kalkavage makes the point that Dante has “lost sight of” all that Beatrice embodies: his guides, from the deepest circle of hell to the highest sphere of heaven, serve as “vehicles of grace”, inspiring Dante to become a “vehicle for humanity” by returning to earth and writing The Divine Comedy. What then are the “vehicles of grace” that inspired Susan Murphy Dermody to create Breathing Under Water

Breathing Under Water

On self extraction and the authoring self

I turn here to Ross Gibson’s essay ‘Self Extraction’ in which he defines creativity as “the process of concentrating on some highly resonant influence or extant text or object so as to translate the old thing into a new, personal utterance” (109). Gibson asks of any artwork, “How much memory, how much imagination?” (109) and brings this question home: 

In Australia we get to pursue this question across a vast expanse, from the epic reach of Indigenous knowledge-systems through to the intimate scale of lyrics, lullabies and prayers drawn from myriad immigrant cultures. But no matter what the context, every writer transmits from a matrix of what-has-gone-before. (109) 

This transmission involves what T. S. Eliot describes as “a continual extinction of personality”: through immersion in tradition the creative mind becomes a “receptacle for storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new combination are present together” (Eliot in Gibson, 111-112). As Gibson points out, “Eliot’s theory seems to have returned and grown more compelling … amidst … the great, global bursts of poiesis … known as the aesthetics of remediation” (112). In a culture of remediation, Gibson writes, “all that is extant is ready to be re-fashioned […] the culture makes the new things from the old things, relationally, as much as the artist does” (112-113). Importantly, remediation involves “creative treason” or betrayal of the old things (113-115). Surprisingly, it also involves the spectator becoming an “authoring self”. 

Extracting an authoring self: an animated dream … chooks and eggs

In a discussion of Kluge (on silent film and intertitles), Gibson argues that the authoring self is “what occurs when you become a highly participant viewer or reader translating across media and drawing lines of new understanding out of memory and tradition” (119). What opens up here is the unexpected thought that the authoring self of Breathing Under Water might reside in the indie-filmgoer-critic as much as in Susan Murphy Dermody – gatherer, creator and remediator of the film’s myriad visual and audio sequences. As Gibson observes, it is “the viewer” who “has to extract an authoring self from the tumult” (119). 

As “a highly participant viewer” in search of “lines of new understanding”, I have settled on two sequences (out of many contenders) from Dermody’s film to bring this essay to a close.11 The first sequence concludes with an animation of a childhood dream (or nightmare) and the second ends with a time-lapse of chickens becoming chooks on a bus ride to the beach. These animated and time-lapse scenes offer moments of pause during which we might extract an “authoring self” from the “tumult” of Dermody’s richly layered remediations. It is also in such moments of pause that we stand the best chance of encountering the “heart mind” of “female knowing” which Dermody and her on-screen avatar, Beatrice, set out to discover in the wastelands of male science. 

My first sequence concludes with an animation wherein benign fathers in identical 1950s suits, shirts and ties, hand over their bonnie baby daughters to be fed into a ribbon machine. The sequence begins with Beatrice, Herman and Maeve in a museum (the first circle of hell). When Beatrice plucks the outermost planet, Pluto, from a toy model of our solar system, the narrator slates the origin of the atomic bomb back to Francis Bacon announcing, in 1657, “the birth of masculine time” – and to Descartes for whom nature was “a thorn in the flesh that he finally extracted”. A series of images align nature with the female body, eviscerated in the interests of science and captured in artworks, then transformed into a robotic machine in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The narrator comments: “All those mechanical brides of male science … there was always a man ready to throw the switch and see what happens.” The image-track cuts to sepia footage of a young girl carrying a baby on her back, walking away from a scene of total war: Nagasaki, after the dropping of the atomic bomb. The narrator continues with a long quote from William L. Laurence, the journalist who witnessed the Nagasaki mushroom cloud from the safety of a ship, 200 miles from the blast. The image-track cuts to a series of extreme close-ups, in soft focus, of what turn out to be parts of a woman’s body as she gives birth. As the baby’s head emerges from the mother’s birthing body, the narrator quotes from Laurence’s description of the atomic mushroom as “a living thing, a new species born right before our incredulous eyes […] a giant mountain of jumbled rainbows, and travail.” As the baby is placed in the mother’s arms, the narrator comments: “Much living substance had gone into those rainbows.” The image-track cuts to a drawing of a door that opens into the third of five animations (by Lee Whitmore) recalling (or remediating) the pastel colours of hand-drawn illustrations in children’s storybooks. Introducing the animation sequence, the narrator remarks: “The bomb tests that punctuated her childhood, and the death camps of Europe … who knows what children know of things? But she told me about a childhood dream that would always call her back – whenever she let it.” As the door opens onto a staircase, the voice of Anne Louise Lambert/Beatrice takes over from the narrator: we descend the stairs to discover a waiting room where five identical fathers sit – “on every knee a little girl” smiling and cooing like a bird. An older girl (the dreamer) looks on. Like Beatrice, her vision directs ours. We witness her father hand a baby girl over to the doctor, or scientist, who gently places her onto a conveyor belt and switches on a machine that converts baby girls into “long, long hair ribbons”. The older girl stands near the door with her father’s protective hand on her shoulder. In a medium shot, she covers her eyes, then opens her fingers to look. 

Beatrice continues the narration: “Somehow we all looked at the beautiful ribbons. Silently.” In close-up, two hands display a length of pink hair ribbon: drawings of birds, flowers and colourful stems appear on the ribbon, and the narrator concludes: “Much living substance had gone into those rainbows.”

Breathing Under Water

My second sequence occurs towards the end of the film, after Beatrice and Maeve farewell Herman and board Bus 333 to the beach. In the previous sequence, the trio emerged from their long journey through the underworld to picnic and play at Tom Tiddler’s Ground, the space between hell and heaven – or as Beatrice says in one of her more Zen-like statements, “the space between the two feet we’re born with, and the place between breathing in – and breathing out.” What catches my eye at Tom Tiddlers is not so much Maeve’s feet balancing on the see-saw but the eggs. At one point, Beatrice pulls a billowing white tablecloth from the red carrier bag and spreads it out on the ground with a loaf of bread, a Cornish milk jug, a honey pot, two green apples and three brown eggs. Herman stretches out on the ground and Beatrice balances an egg on his belly. A carton of eggs (each marked FRAGILE) appears in a circle of light and a woman’s hand tries to balance an egg on its end. On the soundtrack a riddle ends with the question, “What am I?” A boy brings a very large, speckled egg to the tablecloth, still warm, and the children look on as it begins to crack open. Silent for most of the sequence, the narrator comments: “They wonder if it can be saved.” 

Departing from Tom Tiddlers, from “a magical state of poise and happiness” into “the noisy, ordinary chaos of the world”, on Bus 333 the eyes of Beatrice and Maeve are drawn to an older girl and boy in school uniforms, each holding a punctured white box. Inside the boxes, eggs have hatched into chickens. As the narrator begins her final disquisition – on the new physics of waves and particles, quarks and unpredictable events – Maeve is handed a tiny chicken. As the narrator ruminates on mind and matter, the uncertainty principle, desire and reality, we are presented with a full-screen, time-lapse sequence of five shots in which tiny chickens chirp their way through the various stages of transformation into hens, growing wings and becoming chooks.

The time-lapse ends with a close-up of Maeve’s fingers stroking a black cat whose eyes capture then evade the camera. The narrator comments: “Just the present. Just presence.” As the bus arrives at the beach, we are warned there is only “a ghost of a chance” of avoiding “a dead world.” If the “heart mind” of “female knowing” (as antidote to male science) can be experienced in the presence of the birthing body and the hatching eggs, it might also be glimpsed in the eyes of two young girls, one leaving Nagasaki with a baby on her back, the other opening her eyes to the ribbon machine. 

The viewer’s authoring self

My intention in focusing on Kalkavage’s Beatrice in relation to Dermody’s, was to decipher from the flow of words and images Susan Murphy Dermody’s autofictional transformation from film scholar to Roshi Susan Murphy. My purpose in selecting the above sequences for closer description was to exemplify Dermody’s authoring self in the act of remediating old and potent texts into something new. There remains, however, the question of the viewer’s “authoring self”, best described by Gibson in his discussion of Kluge on pictorial sequences and intertitles in silent cinema: 

With silent cinema […] the contentious significance of the film – simultaneously intellectual and emotional – comes from each viewer’s speculative psychology contending in sceptical sociability with every other self in the cinema (including the filmmaker’s self, of course) as images and words roll around each other […]. On the screen and inside each viewer’s sensibility, moving images and words translate the represented experience back and forth across each other. In order to know what is being represented, each viewer has to extract an authoring self from this tumult (118-119).

I end then, not with the revelation of Dermody’s authoring self as the collector and transformer of “given things” (Gibson, 113), but rather with an intimation of my own authoring self. I find her in the two sequences I unwittingly chose to extract from “the tumult” of Dermody’s visual and aural montages. In a film about female knowing, it seems I have happened upon an authoring self, firstly, in the eyes of a young girl born after the bomb and after the death camps, a witness to the transformation of baby girls into hair ribbons with the consent of their loving fathers. In this authoring self I see my generation of feminists who leaned towards activism and the writing of books or the making of films rather than homes and babies.12 But what can be said about my second extraction? Why, from the multitude of wondrous and horrific things on offer in Dermody’s film, did I settle on eggs, cracking open and hatching into chickens? A memory, a scene, comes to mind: a lifetime ago, a young and curious farm-girl, playing in the dirt, cracks open an egg to reveal not “a golden apple” but a yolk streaked with blood. The perfection of the egg, transforms before her wide-open eyes into a mess of broken shell and embryonic chicken.13

Only now, during the final edit of this essay, do I clock my opening sentence written weeks ago: “A chook enters the frame.” But rather than go down a rabbit-hole of memory and rumination on curiosity and destruction, I prefer to give the last word on creativity and transformation to friend and fellow traveller, Ross Gibson, inspired scholar, writer and artist: “Think of yourself finessing anything that moves you and that makes itself available, through [memory and] tradition, for the good reason it needs or lures from you.” (123) 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Susan Murphy Dermody was my enlightened and visionary PhD supervisor in the early 1990s. She gave me permission to ignore the critic on my shoulder and to ignore her own eloquent voice so that I might find my own. Thank you to Susan and the many fellow-travellers who were part of the Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Melbourne indie-film milieu in the 1980s-90s. And thanks to Fiona Villella for Claire Boyle’s essay which got me thinking and sent me down a different track, and to Susannah Radstone for reading, commenting and picking up glitches, not all of which have been remedied.

The photographs reproduced in this essay are by photographer, Sandy Edwards, and were kindly supplied by Megan McMurchy, producer of Breathing Under Water.

Endnotes

  1. See http://zenopencircle.org.au/about/roshi-susan-murphy/
  2. Ross Gibson, “Self Extraction” in Memoryscopes: Remnants Forensics Aesthetics (Fremantle, WA: UWAP Scholarly, 2015), pp. 109-123. All other quotes from Gibson are cited in the text.
  3. Claire Boyle, “Self-Fictions and Film: Varda’s Transformative Technology of the Self in Les Plages d’Agnes,” Revue Critique de Fixxion Francaise Contemporaine /Critical Review of French Fiction, no. 4, 2012, pp. 60-71.
  4. All reviews of Breathing Under Water cited in the text were accessed on 5 March 2021 and 25 May 2021 via this very useful link.
  5. The three video clips and comments by Parr are available here, accessed 3 June 2021.
  6. Peter Kalkavage, ”In the Heaven of Knowing: Dante’s Paradiso,” The Imaginative Conservative (August 10, 2014) np. All other quotes from Kalkavage are cited in the text.
  7. On ficto-criticism and its lineage which finds its way back to the essays of Montaigne and forward to the online blog, I want to acknowledge here Lesley Stern’s death-defying contribution to the genre, Diary of a Detour (Durham and London: Duke University Press) 2020. My attentiveness to eggs and chooks, towards the end of this essay, is indebted to Lesley, and also to Warwick Thornton’s autofictional series, The Beach (2020).
  8. See Boyle, 2012, paragraph nos. 18-19: on self-fiction’s transformative and ameliorative techniques for ‘care of the self’, exemplified in the films of Agnes Varda: https://core.ac.uk/download/28969467.pdf
  9. It is worth noting that while Beatrice is of interest to Kalkavage, his main aim in “The Heaven of Knowing” is to offer an avowedly conservative account of the non-egalitarian, fixed hierarchy of souls in heaven – assigned for all eternity to a cosmic level that reflects their specific failings on earth. Piccarda, who occupies the lowest sphere of heaven, becomes Kalkavage’s guide to the meaning of Paradiso’s hierarchies.
  10. Dermody too, will have recourse to rainbows – in relation to the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, discussed below.
  11. In Breathing Under Water, it is hard to describe ‘a sequence’ without referring to what came before. This is the case with the animation and the time-lapse sequences (or scenes) I highlight here.
  12. I explored this proposition in my PhD thesis, Ties That Bind: The Psyche of Feminist Filmmaking, Sydney 1969-1989, University of Technology Sydney, 1995. See also the documentary film, Brazen Hussies (Catherine Dwyer, 2020) on the Women’s Liberation Movement in Australia, 1965-75.
  13. In the Tom Tiddler’s scene featuring the carton of eggs – one of which rolls off the table and falls to the ground – a riddle is posed: “(…) A golden apple does appear/No doors there are to this stronghold/Yet thieves break in and steal the gold/What am I?”