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
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’
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.