The Long And The Tall Of It.
Gerald Saul.
March, 2000

Just in time for Christmas, Troy Rhoades completed the working copy of a seductive little film he called backstroke. While primarily formal in nature, this is certainly Rhoades’ most personal film to date. To the uninformed viewer, this two minute and six second work seems to be simply a collection of film in which the surface has been chemically manipulated. However, a few points of information about Rhoades’ history quickly opens the film up to a greater range of interpretation.

Not all art is meant to be autobiographical. However, even without being forefronted, the life of a human being who call him or herself an artist is inherent in everything they make. To a formalist, the realization that content can never be completely removed from any work is difficult to overcome. Maturing formalist artists such as Rhoades find ways to hide content within clever intellectual puzzles. Accessibility is limited but not completely denied.

For eight years, Rhoades was a competitive swimmer. For hours every day he would immerse himself in pools filled with chemicals. In film school, he preoccupied himself with immersing film into chemicals. backstroke is the first time that he has attempted to bring these two preoccupations together. Inspired by the chemically manipulated films of Carl Brown, Rhoades decided to see what effect the swimming pool would have on his art. To speed the results, pure pool chemicals were substituted for the diluted aquatic centre variety. The result is a film which looks like it was caught in the drain for the duration of Rhoades’ swimming career, but rendered in only a matter of minutes. Rhoades’ body is the film base, seemingly untouched by years of chemical erosion which this sport has subjected him to. Rhoades’ mind is the film emulsion, reshaped by every drop of chlorine it comes in contact with. Memories bleed from him, leaving only silent ghosts. These shadowy figures emerge from a fog but are quickly lost again. They are the dream-like thoughts which carry the swimmer through this unreal chemical sea.

The running time, two minutes and six seconds, further perpetuates this film as autobiography. Removing the titles reduces running time to two minutes, 3.84 seconds. This is the length of time Rhoades took to swim the 200 metre backstroke and qualify for the Olympic Trials. Like swimming the backstroke, Rhoades moves continuously forward while looking back at the pinnacle of his swimming and his film student careers.

An image of a swimmer is seen at evenly spaced intervals, punctuating the film and dividing it into the pool laps. Between these moments of clarity, the world is seen through eyes soaked in chlorine. Suddenly, in a finale which lacks any similarity to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, the swimmer rises from the water and the film ends.

Rhoades’ decision to present the film without sound was based upon ideas posited by Stan Brakhage. Film as a pure art form is visual, and sound only distracts a spectator from the full experience of it. The strength of the rhythms created in backstroke are all the more evident through the film’s silence. The internal chaos of each image suffocates us. The rise and fall of the chemical stains are like the roar of the surf, crashing and foaming into the shore of celluloid. Sound would inevitably have been too leading and/or too misleading for Rhoades’ desire.

It was apt that Troy Rhoades first showed this film about his life in the swimming pool at Saskatchewan’s own FILMPOOL. As one of Saskatchewan’s most promising emerging filmmakers, Rhoades will certainly continue to engage and challenge us.

Gerald Saul 2005