Journeys from Berlin/1971

(Yvonne Rainer, USA, 1980)


Journeys from Berlin/1971 – sometimes Working Title is added at one or other point of that scan – may be the most Freudian movie ever made, even in the already rather psychoanalytic realm of avant-garde cinema. Not only on the level of its content – a long, tortuous monologue from a patient (noted critic-scholar Annette Michelson) to a chameleon analyst (regularly changing age and size) occupies perhaps half the total running time of 125 minutes – but also in its entire formal conception and structuring.


It is like an extended, elaborate exercise in free association, founded primarily on the interrelationship of personal life and political struggle. One always leads to or sets off the other, without clear cause-and-effect hierarchy: Rainer clearly wants to shove Freud at the Marxists (and post-Marxists) and Marx at the Freudians (and post-Freudians). The individual is lost in a sea of historical determinations; yet, at the same time, it is the (abstract) individual’s anguish and impotence that the film registers so powerfully at pinpoint moments. The difficult topic and scary aura of modern terrorism is the central, attracting magnet holding this force-field of fragments together; all journeys start from the Berlin of our nervous reality, as well as the Berlin of our disturbed, fascinated, at-least-century-old dreams.


Journeys attempts to mimic the workings of the unconscious, with its non sequiturs and criss-crosses, its condensations and displacements. Or, to use the hipper, more modern parlance of that hoity-toity New Yorker magazine October when it champions this director, it is an art of shifters, all the structures of linguistic referencing (and every goddamn thing is considered a language these days, even the unconscious, thanks to Jacques Lacan) always sliding out of place. Rainer wants to replace conventional narrative economy, where every element has a precise and functional place, with the libidinal economy of which Jean-François Lyotard speaks (and dreams): objects (toys, photos), words, situations are distributed across the entire textual span of the work, attributed or belonging to no single character or time-space. Sometimes, Rainer appears to be harking back to Surrealism, with its (equally Freudian, but from another time and place) techniques of automatic writing – and all the humourous strangeness and incongruity that can result. It’s no wonder, for instance, that Patricia Patterson & Manny Farber have always valued Rainer’s art for its comedy element.


But for all the admiration I feel for Rainer’s bold, conceptual project, and the numerous insights it produces along the way, I do feel, ultimately, that Journeys is a failure precisely where her previous films such as Lives of Performers (1972) were so successfully radical and genuinely, thrillingly progressive. Too much of the historical raw material here – reported facts, written documents, newsreel footage – is taken unproblematically as direct presentations of reality (or so it seemed to me); all we need do, it appears, is discover the profound, obscured connections between these various fragments in political practice and in our psyches. Beyond the Fragments! – a fine modern slogan, courtesy of Sheila Rowbotham.


Naturally, Rainer does not presume to arrive at an explicit, concluding formulation such as this. However, the pieces arrayed here possess another, equally important and equally material history: the history of the language, rhetoric, conventions employed in order to speak and address us in a certain way. The film sometimes tries to ignore these layers, but they weigh, heavy and unanalysed (unproblematised, as the politicos say), right on top of the manifest intentions. Maybe not nearly enough shifters, after all.


I get the feeling that Yvonne Rainer went for broke in Journeys, attempting to produce her Great Artistic Statement. As she proceeds in her own, multiple “journeys from” whichever life/work origin (dance, performance, etc), she dallies longer, and in increasingly convoluted ways, with “theory” (capital T) and its critical demands on identity. That’s understandable – and why not? She does as she pleases, she’s earned that right. But her less pompous or pretentious works are, in fact, her more sophisticated, not to mention more pleasurable.

MORE Rainer: MURDER and Murder, Privilege

© Adrian Martin August 1981

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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