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 hat.
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