The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2017

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SEPT 2017 Issue

What Erupts and What Matters: On Yvonne Rainer's Films

Last month, the Film Society of Lincoln Center hosted a comprehensive retrospective of Yvonne Rainer’s filmic work. Over the span of a week, Rainer’s films were screened chronologically alongside those made by others. The latter were situated as markers of various points of contemporaneity with Rainer’s work: as influences (like Maya Deren or Jean Renoir), as referents to a cultural context (like Andy Warhol, Laura Mulvey, or Hollis Frampton), and as collaborators and commentators (like Charles Atlas). Meanwhile, just across Lincoln Plaza, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts is hosting a show titled Radical Bodies: Anna Halprin, Simone Forti, and Yvonne Rainer in California and New York 1955–1972, which deals chiefly with these artists as essential forerunners of what we currently categorize as postmodern dance. Unlike Halprin and Forti, who have been dedicating their practice to the exploration of dance’s intersections with theater and drawing respectively, Rainer is known for having ‘retired’ from dance in order to pursue a life of filmmaking. Correspondingly, in the inaugural screening of Rainer’s first feature-length film Lives of Performers (1972), organizer Thomas Beard noted: “this series takes off where the exhibition ends.”

Film About a Woman Who... (1974). Still by Babette Mangolte.

Indeed, the institutional division (as consequence of the medium condition) of the presentation of Rainer’s work might give one the impression that 1972 was the end of her life as a dancer and choreographer (up until her recent “return,” which she has described as “coming back home.”1) And, however many times Rainer answers variations of the question, “why film?”—as, for example, in the Q&A of her conversation with Lynne Tillman, which Beard noted as “the cornerstone” of the series—the impulse to ask still lingers. It is answered at least once on film: during Charles Atlas’s Rainer Variations (2002). There, Rainer speaks about her frustration regarding her specific journey with dance, which didn’t allow much space for language, and therefore made it difficult to explicitly enter the realm of the political. On other occasions, she has joked about not being a talented drawer or sculptor, film being the only solution. But a close look at her work would suggest that this shift might have emerged from a deeper questioning of what really makes up what we mean by “the political.”

One can say that Lives of Performers tells the story of a love triangle, yet it also tells the story behind the telling of the story of a love triangle in which all story-tellers are involved. The information provided suggests that these characters are also involved in a series of “dance” productions. Yet, a chief characteristic of this film—one that remains throughout Rainer’s oeuvre—is that, since multiple people play the same character, no characters have specific limits, and as a consequence the “actual events” of the story are undifferentiated from the “dramatized” ones. The result is a somewhat anarchic presentation of the “real,” in which distinctions of personhood and group, fact and fiction, are obfuscated in favor of a film that offers a deconstruction of power relations embedded in social life. In attempting to present a version of the “real” in which there are no “individuals,” Rainer’s films can be said to successfully blur the difference between a “story” and a “narrative.” This successfully aligns Rainer with one of the bolder slogans of feminism: “the personal is political.” Along these lines, we can think of a story as operating on the side of the personal, and narrative as on the side of the public, so when a story is made public, it passes from being a personal fiction to a public one (not without distortion,) thus attaching itself to a larger historical consciousness of which this story is but a singular case, gaining then, the identity of narrative. If we regard our idea of the political as something close to an overlapping of ‘narratives’ with power structures, Rainer’s use of ‘plot’ acknowledges that all (private) anecdotes, once declared for/by a camera, immediately become (public) stories, and that all stories, qua public, present a political status.

Consider the instance in Lives of Performers when one of the leads (Valda Setterfield) reads a letter written to her by another woman (Shirley Soffer) with whom she shares a lover (Fernando Torm). In this letter, she writes to her as an ally, speaking well of him in his indecisiveness, stepping out of the love struggle, and wishing her the best with their journey as lovers. The reading-out-loud of the private letter functions, among other things, as a moment of paradoxical empowerment, not just for the female characters (as they untangle the hierarchies associated with a single man/two women love triangle) but also for all the female viewers in the room. Paradoxical because it doesn’t really change anything in the unfolding of the plot (as most events in Rainer’s stories can’t be said to be related in a cause-consequence manner), but rather points to an overall moment of reevaluation of values within and outside the framework of the film. It manifests itself as a striking moment of possibility, striking because of how unprecedented it is. This gesture of reclaiming the private letter recurs throughout Rainer’s work. Another striking instance is a scene from Film About a Woman Who…(1974) in which we get a close-up of Rainer’s face with cut-outs of—what we wouldn’t necessarily know how to recognize as—the press releases of Angela Davis’s intimate letters to George Jackson, written while he was in prison. Originally, these letters were released in order to implicate her in his case, yet the fragments Rainer chooses are mostly passionate declarations of love and conviction. Rainer’s gesture exposes the aboutness of the letters as love letters, a function that wasn’t present when originally exposed.

Such a gesture becomes more complicated when applied to political activist Ulrike Meinhof’s letters in Journeys From Berlin/1971 (1980). Throughout, the film manages to suspend the Meinhof paradox of personal distress and political violence without advocating for or against such actions. If there is any enemy in the film, it is the institution of psychoanalysis, with its often blind political alliance with authoritarian governments, its gesture of diagnosing and particularizing the source of misbehavior strictly in the interpersonal level, and its empowering of the pharmaceutical industry. In one scene, the camera is filming the street from a second or third floor window, while we hear a man (Vito Acconci) and a woman (Amy Taubin) discussing the case of an activist who committed murder as an act of political violence (which allegedly refers to Meinhof and her associates). While she brings up the fact that the activist’s partner had left him right before his act, the man believes that it is an insignificant fact for a jury in considering the activist’s intentions. Yet the woman insists that such motives are inextricable from each other, and that private life should weigh as heavily in court.

This conversation echoes Rainer’s own process of using decontextualized aspects of personal experience in her work, influenced by, among others, Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative in Cinema,” which Rainer feels “allowed” her to use her own personal experience in film. This essay, by employing psychoanalysis as a method of analyzing major tendencies in male-driven cinema, functions also as a critique of the “paradox of phallocentrism” in psychoanalysis itself. Rather than encouraging already-existing models of psychoanalytic theory, it is the psychoanalytic method that interests Mulvey as a point of exploration from which feminist cinema can depart. For Rainer, I believe, it is the practice of this method in dialogue that is of interest.

Specifically, the kind of storytelling that emerges out of a monologue directed to a specific individual listener. This is perhaps a locus for Rainer’s process of decontextualizing individual experience in order for it to form part of the film’s narrative. Such decontextualizations serve to extrapolate the centrality of subjectivity to the fact of experience, in order to explore the potential of personal experience as the anonymous data of experience itself. As she writes in her poem, “Waiting for Lives of Performers to end at Marymount College NYC,”

What erupts
is never what matters
What matters
is always out of reach.2

It is by the objectification of one’s own experience that experience itself gains the power of a public political claim. One can trace this impulse towards the de-individualization of personal experience all the way back to her critique of “expressiveness” in her dance work.

It is in the film Privilege (1990) that Rainer’s explorations of self-objectification present a riskier political edge. Even though Rainer has spoken of race in most of her films, this is the first one that takes it up as a central aspect. There’s a specific scene in which we’re reading from the script of the film itself, which Rainer reveals several times throughout, just as it was written on a document file on her computer. In the scene I’m referring to we’re shown a section of the script titled “Who is speaking?” in which various anecdotes of people’s personal experience are presented, confronting the structural parameters of gender, race, and class. These anecdotes come from Rainer herself, or from friends of hers such as Martha Rosler. In each anecdote, it becomes quite clear who is actually speaking (i.e. an upper middle class white woman, a black man, etc.). This show the specificity of any standpoint regarding such situations, and the pervasiveness of those moments when we draw conclusions from an inescapable subjectivity, a tendency that people tend to overlook. Rainer has often said of this film that she almost gave it up, precisely because of the challenge of speaking in the name of an experience she cannot claim to know. Analogously, she has spoken about her uneasiness with the film production process: while she enjoys the process of writing and editing, shooting is quite painful because of the necessary hierarchies and distribution of roles that allow it to unfold.

Rainer’s consistent discomfort with unequal distribution of power can be traced back all the way to her choreographic work, or even further to her upbringing in San Francisco. There, her parents circulated among radical leftist groups, and her older brother—who has a lead role in Kristina Talking Pictures (1976)—frequented an anarchist group of New Yorkers that included Audrey Goodfriend, whom Rainer later interviewed for Privilege. Goodfriend’s segment is particularly striking for the way in which she retrospectively refers to the irreducible utopianism of the struggle: “We didn’t expect change in our lifetimes.” And this note is perhaps analogous to Rainer’s recurring endurance of the tedious hierarchies in the shooting process—the acknowledgement that hierarchy is embedded in life itself. And it is the effect of the film, in the experience of “reading” it—as Lynne Tillman noted, it is perhaps a better qualification of the experience of “watching”—that such anarchical ambitions can finally be performed. Moreover, the medium of cinema allows such deconstructions of power to be re-performed, in the spirit of Mulvey, as re-appropriations of the phallocentric regime of language with the purpose of exposing its tools of oppression. As Yvonne Rainer stated in her last film MURDER and murder (1996): “Anything is possible in the homophobic, racist unconscious of heterosexual white parenthood.”


  1. Interview with Violet Lucca for the Film Comment podcast (August 2017).
  2. Rainer’s Poems was published by Badlands Unlimited in 2011.


Vered Engelhard

VERED ENGELHARD is an interdisciplinary practitioner with an Art History MA from Columbia University.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2017

All Issues