In Yvonne Rainer’s Privilege, many strange and
wonderful things happen to the standard talking-heads interview format. Real
interview subjects, chatting with seeming spontaneity, are suddenly replaced
mid-sentence by actors who have memorised their words and gestures.
Then – since the principal topic is menopause – Rainer
decides to dramatise the stories of interviewees in a “hot flashback” delivered
in true TV midday soap-opera style, right down to the shallow video photography
and tinny sound.
All Rainer’s films – uncompromising, quizzical,
independent features such as Film About A Woman Who… (1974) and The
Man Who Envied Women (1985) – are constructed like tremendous puzzles, with
no easy answer or wrap-up at the end. Moving between fiction and documentary,
film and video, literary quotations and deadpan humour, they start out on a
single, designated track, only to skip out and follow a dozen related issues.
In Privilege, Rainer’s exploration of the
menopausal condition – where women must grapple with the fact that society no
longer considers them young, beautiful and fertile – intersects with many other
social situations in which people suddenly find themselves on the other, down side
of a privilege they once took for granted.
In Rainer’s radical soapie, individuals are tangled up
in an incredible web of social determinations – class, gender, wealth, skin
colour. Pointedly weird transformations abound: Carlos (Rico Elias), a black
youth on the make, begins reciting the outrageously macho, pro-rape
pronouncements of 1960s militant Eldridge Cleaver; Digna (Gabriella Farrar), a
victimised Puerto Rican woman, suddenly sports a Carmen Miranda fruit-salad
Meanwhile, Rainer herself acts out a rousing
anti-nuclear speech by Australian activist Helen Caldicott, pausing only to
apply thick, dark-red lipstick.
Such witty and savage games with cultural cliché have
their origin in Rainer’s celebrated career as a dancer and choreographer in
‘60s New York. Working with Trisha Brown (1936-2017) and others in the Judson
Dance Theater, she at first stripped dance down to pure, minimal gestures,
unencumbered by character psychology or sentimental emotion. Then,
increasingly, her tableaux (similar to those of Pina Bausch) staged, in a
rigorous and droll fashion, the always shifting and sliding relations of male to
female, black to white, rich to poor, master to slave.
Rainer’s central concern since the start of the ‘70s
has been identity. It registers as a problem, precisely because there is no
self that has not been thoroughly contaminated, from the word go, by all the stereotyping
and conditioning of the social order. Yet there is so much in the realm of
personal experience that goes publicly unacknowledged: desires, intuitions,
anecdotes and hallucinations that at once reveal the horrible truth of our
world, while also suggesting ways of surviving and changing it. Rainer’s
struggle is to always find a position from which one can fight and be engaged –
without being pigeonholed into a fixed persona.
Thus, Rainer’s films have moved from investigating the
problems of the theatre (Lives of Performers, 1972) to
those of terrorism (Journeys from Berlin/1971,
1980) and urban gentrification (The Men Who Envied Women).
The consistent thread of feminist critique has become each time more incisive
and complex – linking up to, but also confounding, everything else in sight.
In an age of
debonair and often apolitical postmodern art, Rainer has remained that rarest
of creatures – a tough, critical, ever sceptical political artist.
MORE Rainer: MURDER and Murder
© Adrian Martin August 1990