Yvonne Rainer: Dancing in the U.S. Interstices of Experimental Film
Existing in that obscure space between the didactic, leftist cinema of Godard and the time-based cinema of Warhol, and often lost among better-known legends of the avant-garde stands Yvonne Rainer. To remedy this oversight, Anthology Film Archives highlights her lasting contribution to the art with a week long retrospective of her rarely screened films. A mainstay of American experimental cinema, Rainer came to film by way of dance and choreography, notably with the Judson Church Theater in the early 1960s and then as part of the influential collective Grand Union later that decade. Her minimalist aesthetics revolutionized how everyday actions and routines could be staged, stripped of accrued layers of artifice, and appreciated as dance in themselves. After abandoning the stage in the early ’70s, Rainer gravitated toward filmmaking when a whole generation of experimental female filmmakers was emerging.
Like Chantal Akerman—another innovative feminist who began her major film projects during this time—Rainer has always deconstructed conventions of narrative and performance, especially in regard to the representation of women. But unlike Akerman, Rainer creates what Ivone Margulies calls a "heterogeneous," or collage, approach to cinema that applies multiple, diverse styles and techniques including quotation, long takes, found footage, and foregrounded theatricality. While formally dense and thematically far-reaching, her seven feature-length films have in common the transcendence of syntactic limitations in cinema, all continually searching for a pluralistic, politically engaged aesthetic.
Lives of Performers (1972) initiates the experimentation that would come to distinguish Rainer’s oeuvre while taking up the classic theme of the love triangle for both anchorage and exploration. Creating effective as well as labyrinthine shifts in several cinematic registers—fiction/nonfiction (Grand Union dancers play themselves), rehearsal/performance, verbal intonation/written text, objective/subjective description, diegetic/extradiegetic sound—Lives directly interrogates the voyeuristic function of stylistic devices. Choreography dictates not only the dancing and tableaux vivants that bookend the film but also the non-naturalistic acting and line readings that render this "melodrama" a minimalist subversion of its Hollywood counterparts.
Film About a Woman Who (1974) expands on Lives with a more piercing critique of the neuroses and repressions that contaminate modern relationships. Exploring its characters’ emotions as well as the violence enacted on women through cinematic codes, Film About moves further away from the world of theater, mixing to a greater degree than Lives theatricality with filmic structuralism. Consider the tour de force section titled "An Emotional Accretion in 48 Steps": Rainer tests the various possibilities of relaying character interiority by shuffling, overlaying, and subtracting four elements of the film image: picture, sound, written text, and spoken language.
Rainer’s next film departs from Lives and Film About as her first in color and the first to make heavy use of jump cuts and long, complex montage sequences. Kristina Talking Pictures (1976) also moves outside gender and sexual struggles to address global issues like genocide and environmental negligence within a plot involving the relationship between a circus performer and her on again-off again lover (played by Rainer and her brother Ivan, respectively). The tone is unmistakably mournful, and as always with Rainer, the personal and the political are intimately linked: "Did you march on Washington and let a friend bully you to tears?" the narrator asks. Constantly digressing but never losing its way, the story regularly challenges the viewer by rendering palpable the difficult commitment to social justice on micro and macro levels.
Kristina Talking Pictures ends with the words "to go on." And Journeys From Berlin/1971 (1980) follows that edict, traveling along a similar path as its predecessor, questioning the effectiveness of political awareness and action through a meditation on the life and death of West German radical Ulrike Meinhof. Journeys, however, abandons story and character, relying instead even more heavily on long takes and didactic, spoken language from unnamed narrators. The film also begins Rainer’s investigations into the problematic constructs of psychoanalysis but arrives at ideas via weak academic parody and frustratingly arcane mise-en-scène.
Experimental melodrama and sharpness return in perhaps Rainer’s most fully realized film, The Man Who Envied Women (1985). A loose study of the title character brings in dynamics of modern romance and sex and dialectically collides with Rainer’s other concerns: the fate of New York City housing; extensive analysis of articles and ads from The New York Times Magazine; the U.S. role in Central America; and classroom lectures—shown in circular tracking shots reminiscent of One Plus One—on psychoanalysis and language. It is at once Rainer’s most profound film and her funniest, consistently hitting the mark with irreverent asides and stunning visual metaphors.
Every Rainer film offers ideas, considerations, performances, and oppositional texts that revolve a central premise. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in Privilege (1990), in which a feminist look at menopause becomes much more. Using straightforward interviews with menopausal women and containing by far the most cohesive narrative up to that point in Rainer’s filmmaking, Privilege marks the beginning of a phase in which the high-art dialogue and milieu of the previous films gives way to a greater accessibility. MURDER and murder (1996) continues this trend, in which Rainer comes fully to terms with narrative. Eclecticism replaces spectatorial deconstruction in a story about the flawed but loving relationship between odd couple Mildred and Doris, the latter of whom discovers she has breast cancer. A myriad of characters, including Doris’s dead mother and Mildred’s younger self, haunt the main story, and Rainer’s proclivity to inscribe herself into her films reaches a new level of courageousness: Revealing her mastectomy scar, Rainer directly addresses the viewer about her battle against cancer. The final shot is a long take that gently hovers around the two lovers as they eat dinner. It’s a brilliant reminder of how Rainer’s cinema can be as heartbreakingly observant of the quotidian as it is staunchly polemical.
ContributorMichael Joshua Rowin
MICHAEL JOSHUA ROWIN has written for Film Comment, among other publications.