Words as a means of individual expression can be a potent form of seduction. But words strung together as interchangeable syntactic cues towards a coded, contemporary social language can also transform the intrinsic materiality of words into an irrelevant – and incoherent – empty abstraction. The identification of this threshold between langue (language) and parole (word) lies at the heart of avant-garde choreographer and performance artist turned filmmaker Yvonne Rainer’s thematically dense and iconoclastic, yet uncompromising, articulate, and fiercely intelligent film, The Man Who Envied Women. Ostensibly chronicling the end of the relationship between an unseen struggling artist, Trisha (Trisha Brown) and her lover, a university professor named Jack Deller as she confronts the (perhaps even greater) trauma of finding an affordable loft space during the wave of gentrification sweeping several subsidized housing communities throughout Manhattan during the 1980s real estate boom, the film exposes the lazy, rampant misuse of isms in contemporary society – and in particular, in literati circles – as a means of demonstrating erudition without the substance of independent thought. Structuring Jack’s everyday language as an indecipherable (and unresolved) stream of overused (if not clichéd), decontextualized, regurgitated en vogue philosophies that form the vernacular of pseudo-intellectualism, Rainer demystifies, not the art of the word, but rather, the art of intellectual obfuscation through words that ultimately serves, not to clarify the speaker’s thoughts, but to distract from its hollow (or non-existent) underlying argument.
At one point in the film, Jack attempts to seduce one of his students by feigning to understand her feeling of trepidation, deploying the appropriate impressive quote from his arsenal of ready-made buzzwords: Luis Buñuel’s comment that “It is possible to have the whole story of Oedipus playing in your head and still behave properly at the table.” The Buñuel reference seems especially suited to Rainer’s strategy of using two actors, William Raymond and Larry Loonin, interchangeably to play the role of wordsmith lothario, Jack Deller, reversing the gaze of The Obscure Object of Desire into a deconstruction of the equally inscrutable nature of masculine desire. Weaving through the streets of New York with a pair of headphones that seemingly serve as an antenna capable of decoding intimate conversations, Jack is an archetypal sensitive and attuned modern man (or a metrosexual in contemporary lexicon) complete with a cultivated interest in the arts and a home exercise gym. However, rather than possessing enlightenment into the female psyche, what emerges is a pattern of enabling excuses and carefully honed, sophisticated pick-up lines. By rationalizing that his devotion to his late wife had taught him to love all women, he projects the image, not of a grieving widower seeking to recapture the purity of a love lost, but rather, of an opportunist incapable of committing to a monogamous relationship and true intimacy, using language as a versatile tool for seduction.
Another manifestation occurs in the non-diegetic conversation between the filmmaker and a male friend over his discomfort during the screening of Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore, citing that Jean-Pierre Leaud’s character is always acting in order to mask the fear over his own lack of direction and ambivalent identity (a terror that is further reinforced by a looping sequence from Roman Polanski’s Repulsion projected in the background). Similarly, Jack’s perpetual state of (verbal) performance is also an existential mask that is projected to conceal an absence of identity, independent thought, and self-knowledge. Juxtaposing Jack’s confessional in front of a capacity-filled auditorium with film images depicting literal (such as the infamous eye-slitting scene of Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou) and figurative (such as Phyllis’ femme fatale confession to Walter in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity) acts of eye opening, the film illustrates the implicit dichotomy between knowledge acquired through cultivated study and the true illumination of self-knowledge.
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