A decade after Yvonne Rainer established herself as a central figure in the avantgarde dance community of New York, the desire to explore the possibilities of narrative led her to the medium of film during the Seventies. Her work in film consists of five features: LIVES OF PERFORMERS (1972), FILM ABOUT A WOMAN WHO … (1974), KRISTINA TALKING PICTURES (1976), JOURNEYS FROM BERLIN/1971 (1980), and THE MAN WHO ENVIED WOMEN (1985). These films, although apparently narrative in structure, are more formally complex, rigorous, and intellectually demanding than even most independent films. They are concerned with such issues as: the often oppressive manipulation of an audience by a fiction; the problems of imaging women in film; and the limitations of narrative codes. […]
Mitchel Rosenbaum: Lately, some critics have been comparing your work to that of Woody Allen. How do you feel about that?
Yvonne Rainer: It’s not very accurate. Maybe superficially. THE MAN WHO ENVIED WOMEN is a very New York-based film with a lot of funny intellectual repartee which is of course Allen’s forte. But the rest of the film is so different from anything he would do that I’m kind of put off by that comparison. […] Jim Hoberman pointed out that the New York I show in this film with dilapidated lofts and slums is very different from Woody Allen’s sleek New York of HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, with its beautiful people and Upper West Side apartments. I have to admit I wanted a fancy apartment for the party sequence, but by the time I was shooting, that scene was consigned to just the hallway outside of a closed door through which you heard voices. If I had had more money, I might have used some kind of luxury space. But in a way I’m glad I didn’t because that really wasn’t the point. The constricted space of the corridor was a much richer metaphor. […]
Some people have a problem with the flatness of the acting in your films. For example, the narrators of your films are quite monotone and without affect. However, this can be seen as a very natural kind of acting because it’s the way people talk in ordinary conversation, or as nonacting.
Well, that’s a style I have cultivated.
Narrative film conventions offer a way to engage people or give them entry into this familiar realm of identification and recognition, but then, I don’t feel I have to be bound to it.
Of course some people take that for inexperienced or bad acting.
I have trouble with so-called “bad acting” where nothing in the film tells you that the artifice of the illusion is supposed to be revealed. That’s where bad acting interferes. In JOURNEYS FROM BERLIN, where the text is very non-naturalistic and it’s obviously a surreal kind of recitation, then Annette Michelson’s non-naturalistic performance is totally appropriate. The setting tells you this is not a realistic film so you are going for something other than totally credible, believable acting. Still, a character is built. That is the amazing thing about film. Just the framing and focus on a person speaking creates this bond with the spectator, and it’s that illusion that builds the character. I mean it’s a two-way thing: the audience in identifying is already constructing the character. It’s a much more immediate process than the stage, which always requires the suspension of disbelief. The suspension of disbelief is there a priori in the cinema, with the dark room. It’s this very atavistic kind of relationship to an image which some theorists liken to the earliest experience of the infant at the mother’s breast watching shadows on the surface of the mother’s skin. […]
In [THE MAN WHO ENVIED WOMEN] you seem to have confronted the problem facing political filmmakers: that is, you don’t so much preach to the converted, as scold them.
Nobody on the Left gets away without a jab. In particular, artists—a group you’re certainly counted among—take quite a beating.
Artists are seen as being in very compromised positions in the urban setting and yet, in other areas, are trying to work in a progressive way. Which I think is the true state of things with New York-based artists today. I had to approach this problem from many different angles: political activism, housing, and feminism.
I deliberately make the male character a feminist to show how a seemingly progressive position can be used for aggrandizement all over again.
So what about feminism at this point? In this last film you seem to both praise and lampoon the current state of feminism. This is exemplified by the Jackie Raynal character—a femme fatale whose dialogue consists of poststructuralist feminist text.
Well, there again it’s hard. You are expressing this question about what my position is on some of that material which is very multifaceted. Nothing is resolved. I follow the debates on sexual difference and Women Against Pornography. I am personally committed to the abortion rights movement. What is expressed in THE MAN WHO ENVIED WOMEN is exactly what Jackie recites, this Meaghan Morris essay which points out where feminism makes these confusions between right-to-life and abortion rights. It’s very complicated. I deliberately make the male character a feminist to show how a seemingly progressive position can be used for aggrandizement all over again. […]
Can you talk about the way in which you used footage from other filmmakers, including structuralist filmmakers like Michael Snow?
[…] Annette Michelson wrote an essay on WAVELENGTH many years ago that talked about the subtext of the film that is this abandoned piece of real estate that the film refers to and takes place in. So here I was talking about the change in use and exploitation by the real estate market and this classic piece of footage seemed eminently appropriate to use along with the other kinds of footage that I specifically shot to demonstrate this problem. So I’m interested in a certain kind of documentary that can incorporate previous treatments of the same material that originally had an aesthetically transgressive purpose. There’s one part of me that will always have my roots in this approach to artmaking. But it’s become one possibility among more important ones, such as social implications in terms of domination and mystification that attend an image. But I like very much the idea of combining in one shot different levels of meaning, and references that are both aesthetically and socially historical. So I was very excited to explore this use of the Snow material in a new context.
How do you respond to those critics of the New American Cinema who have pointed out that this new kind of narrative form, which turns to the filmmaker for its text, merely relocates many of the central aspects of traditional narrative filmmaking and its form of identification to a different plane?
Feminist theorists like Mulvey and Kaplan have pointed out that melodrama, even soap opera, is a place where women’s dilemmas are played out in a very visible way. So this offers the avantgarde filmmaker a formal arena in which to make the tensions and dilemmas of women living in a patriarchy accessible and visible. That’s the way I pretty much feel about these forms now. It’s not very productive to dismiss them outright. […]
This business of something being narrative or not very much depends on what angle of entry you’re coming from. For a Hollywood director I’m not making narrative. For me it doesn’t matter if it’s narrative or not. What matters is how you engage the audience and then lead them to participate in some other way than narrative melodrama usually demands of them, rather than making a narrative with a closure so people can have some sort of Aristotelian response of completeness and life goes on despite the murder and destruction and everything returns to order. I think narrative film conventions offer a way to engage people or give them entry into this familiar realm of identification and recognition, but then, I don’t feel I have to be bound to it. […]
The first scene in [THE MAN WHO ENVIED WOMEN] is the one where you follow a chronology of events. Most other scenes involved simply setting up a situation dominated by the camera or by extradiegetic material, or an “idea,” in locations that could be infused, at least initially, with fictive credibility, such as the “lecture hall,” the “therapist’s office,” the “coffee shop,” etc. As far as narrative goes, it’s very static. There’s one plot element and it’s not to develop or consummate a series of events, but to expose him and the audience to different kinds of arguments and information.
Can you talk about what you do with the gaze in this last film? You seem to have taken care of the problem of the male gaze in a twist on Buñuel’s dual actresses in THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE.
In the Buñuel, the female objects are interchangeable for the male protagonist. In THE MAN WHO ENVIED WOMEN, the male objects are interchangeable for the audience because there’s no internal female character visualized. This seemed to me taking quite literally the problematic of the image of the woman as the object of the controlling gaze. Here, I removed her physical presence totally and doubled the man as an object by having two men play the same role. But it then becomes unclear how the gaze operates. The strategy removes it from narrative convention and there’s something going on here that disproves a lot of this gaze stuff. The overheard heroine, because she is unseen, cannot be said to be the object of a controlling gaze internal to the film, but then neither is Jack Deller, though both of them are objects of identification for the audience. This is a case where the traditional axes of gaze, power, identification have been skewed somewhat, allowing the female spectator a less ambivalent access to the image through the voice of the heroine. The male protagonist is not, however, objectified through a simple reversal of codes. His “imaging” is constantly tempered by his powerful “discourses” and by his monitoring and mastering behavior, in the metaphor of the headphones, for instance. He becomes an emblem and agent of patriarchal abuse. His case, from a narrative standpoint, remains unsolved, unresolved. He is never brought “under control” as his cinematic “wild-woman” counterpart has traditionally been. That would be too utopian for my tastes. […]
I removed the physical presence of the woman totally and doubled the man as an object by having two men play the same role.
One of the most difficult sequences to read in THE MAN WHO ENVIED WOMEN is the lecture sequence. In part because of the sheer length of it and partly because the significance of the space in which the lecture takes place is unclear. […] It does elicit the most antagonistic responses from people.
Well, the trouble people have is they have so much trouble with that lecture that at that point they dismiss him [Jack Deller]. Later they dismiss him when he’s talking to his shrink about women, doing that self-pitying, imperial rap. After that they want to hit him around a little bit. So they don’t know how to take it when he starts speaking this Foucault stuff. Is this just some more bullshit? Is it being used for bullshit purposes, or what? I can justify that in terms of the complexity of the character. He’s not totally bad, not a total schmuck, and he has some intellectual progressive things that are quite clear. Like, I have voices respond to those images on the wall. He talks about the cigar and cheap labor in Central America. […]
Still, for people who see him as all schmuck, he is simply an agitprop character.
I think it is obvious that he is a pastiche and a construction. His speech is recitation from a collage of different things including real life. I think I make a calculating kind of film in which you can only go so far in identifying coherent positions either on my part or the characters’ before you pull back and say, “Hey, who is this person? How is he made? He’s full of conflicting information—what does that mean?” And then you have to deal with the information and not just with him. […]
Do you have any of the same ambivalence towards the Jackie Raynal character?
No, because Jackie is even more obviously a construction. She appears in only one scene and speaks, or recites, from a single source, “The Pirate’s Fiancée,” an essay by the Australian journalist, theorist, feminist, Foucaultian, Meaghan Morris. Jackie too is using language for seduction, cast in the guise of the femme fatale. Now the hitherto repressed female image returns with a masterful voice. That whole scene is so full of irony and excess and tension that it works: the constriction of the space; the way they can only move a couple of steps at a time; the problematizing of the feminist space for feminist intellectuals; the railing against Lacan which goes on; the dream in the middle of it with its eruption of mistaken identities and roles—son/husband exchange by the collapsed mother/daughter—the Oedipal circus turned on its head.
Reprinted, with permission, from Persistence of Vision, no. 6 (Summer 1988), pp. 101–108.