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Yvonne Rainer


June 19, 2006

Journeys from Berlin, 1980

journeys_berlin.gifWhen Yvonne Rainer began developing her exposition on such seemingly disconnected themes as terrorism, alienation, division, and psychoanalysis in the early 1970s as a result of her first-hand experience as an expatriate - and in particular, an American - artist in (West) Berlin, the idea of domestic terrorism and the specter of 9/11 had not yet permeated the collective consciousness of American society. However, it is precisely within this contemporary culture of a pre-emptive war on terror, suicide civilian attacks, and increasing isolationism that her characteristically idiosyncratic and deeply personal film, Journeys from Berlin can be seen as a curiously prescient, incisive, unabashedly cerebral, and relevant film on the nature and psychology of violence, isolation, trauma, and repression. Opening to the sound of an urban couple's (Vitto Acconci and Amy Taubin) off-screen conversation about the woman's ongoing research on the infamous Baader-Meinhof gang juxtaposed against a scrolling text describing the political climate of 1960s Cold War era (West) Germany as the Federal Criminal Investigation Bureau sought to contain the influence of the opposition deemed a threat to government stability on the general public through active surveillance and aggressive prosecution of radicals and dissidents, even as the East German government (under the aegis of the Soviet Union) sought to politically insulate themselves as well from an equivalent threat with the construction of the Berlin Wall, the film, too, can be seen as a multi-layered reflection of seeming irresolvable, contradictory synchronicity - of dichotomous collisions between image and sound, words and sentiment, time and memory, ideology and action.

One layer of free associative collision occurs in the off-screen urban couple's heady deconstruction of the rise and fall (and legacy) of the domestic terrorist group, the Baader-Meinhof gang (Red Army Faction) amid the assorted sounds of performed household chores. In this offbeat, establishing sequence, the mental image of upended institutions and contraventions of power and social structures are subverted by the aurality of mundane domestic ritual in which the superimposition serves as an illustration of their implicit existential contradiction: the narcissism of empty intellectualism. This sense of disconnected, impotent intellectualism is further reinforced by repeated tracking shots of an eclectic (and occasionally modulated) arrangement of mantelpiece curios and estranged, refracted views from an apartment window looking down into the street - both intrinsically reflecting transient images of decontextualization (the presentation of sentimentally meaningless objects to the audience that may or may not allude to ideas brought up during non-diegetic conversations) and isolation (the metaphoric disconnection of the couple's implied self-defeating intellectualism from the reality of the grassroots site for social change: the streets). In each seemingly casual, alienated visual survey of everyday objects and performance of quotidian rituals, the viewer's instinctive sense of imbalance and anomaly reflects a broader notion of a world perturbated out of balance by artificially created social division, political suppression, self-righteousness, and moral inertia.

Another intersection occurs during an unseen young woman's recitation of passages from her diary (excerpted from Rainer's own journals in her youth) - in particular, her uncomfortability over the implicitly imposed power structure of a store clerk's subservience while shopping for a pair of shoes - against aerial views of Stonehenge and tracking shots of a Berlin street - the latter, a reinforcing image that is prefigured in the psychoanalyzed, suicidal patient's (Annette Michelson) fractured memory. Intrinsic in the free association of these seeming disparate psychological and geographic landscapes is the evocation of a monolithic structure (as symbolized by Stonehenge) that the Berlin Wall also embodies: an iconic representation of a division that is both physical and ideological, real and figurative. Placed not only within the broader context of implicit class and social structures, but more directly, within the context of the government's suppression of political dissidents and the Baader-Meinhof terrorist acts, the insurmountable monolith becomes an indirect representation of incollapsible, opposing, inhumane institutions that become innate (and recursive) reflections of each other: the strong-armed injustices of monopolistic governments against the coercive, violent acts of radical militants. In turn, these mirroring images of entrenched inequality, systematic persecution, and arbitrary violence serve to reinforce the film's recurring theme of suicide through its representation of the broader psychology of social self-destruction, where institutional acts of aggression and suppression become spiraling, self-feeding cycles of escalating violence and dehumanization. It is this corrupted ideology of perpetuated intolerance, social disparity, tyrannical injustice, and Hammurabian vengeance that inevitably defines the true nature of terrorism within the veneer of an enlightened, civilized society - a culturally ingrained, systematic social suicide borne of a myopic collision between intractable, monolithic walls of privilege and exclusion, idealism and realism, altruism and egoism.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 19, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Yvonne Rainer


October 30, 2005

The Man Who Envied Women, 1985

envied.gifWords 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.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 30, 2005 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2005, Yvonne Rainer


June 8, 2005

Film About a Woman Who..., 1974

An extended silent sequence of a picture-perfect family posing stiffly and formally before a stationary camera on an open field illustrates the deliberateness and artifice of the idealized image. It also underscores the act of performance in creating the illusion of happiness.

The first image is of dual alienation: people watching something (later revealed to be a film) off-screen juxtaposed against a seemingly incongruous voice-over narration. This distancing is repeated in a series of quick cut film chapters punctuated by the narration of non-diegetic sentence fragments dispassionately (and deliberatively) articulated by a female speaker (Yvonne Rainer) to represent the suppression of the female voice.

Truncated narrative trains of thought are visually completed through the use of overlaid typed text (a recurring motif in Rainer's work) to illustrate the innate disjunction between words and sentiment. On occasion, the narrative precedes or reinforces the action on screen, while other times, becomes jarringly disconnected from it.

An uncomfortably hyperextended sequence of a submissive woman being disrobed in full frontal view before a camera underscores the theme of objectification and the male gaze.

Abstract (and consequently, alienated) representation of autobiographical elements: depression, an attempted suicide, alternating fear of rejection and sexual assertiveness, emotional ambivalence over a failing relationship, domestic violence. The reference to domestic violence (in the context of an incident at childbirth) is juxtaposed against the image of an idyllic beach at sunset, recalling the earlier shot of the "perfect family" and a shot of two lovers kissing on the beach, essentially subverting the illusive image(s).

Performance art as the artificial creation of the ideal - the graceful, disconnected body - silhouettes with malleable form and without identity - anonymous, androgynous, and interchangeable.

Fragments of expression - happiness and liberation - intertwine in the intercutting images of a modern dance performance and a view of the rolling waves of a coastline. Life elevated, or reduced, to the hyperbolic artifice of hackneyed drama, to clichéd cinematic constructions.

"You could always have an ocean ending."

Posted by acquarello on Jun 08, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Yvonne Rainer