Potholes and Potshots:
Yvonne Rainer


Ms. Rainer is a saturnine independent who makes jokey, unkempt, opinionated films.

Manny Farber & Patricia Patterson, 1975 (1)


Yvonne Rainer (born 1934) began her work as a dancer, performer and choreographer in the early 1960s in New York, and continued for a decade until the production of her first film, Lives of Performers (1972). She (alongside others including Trisha Brown) was a pre-eminent, highly influential figure in the area of minimal, non-expressive dance and gesture – a scene she dubbed the “Cunningham/Cage milieu”. B. Ruby Rich described that milieu in 1981.


Her work in dance was characterised by a hostility to artifice, an insistence upon granting the everyday movement of the ordinary body the status of dance, a concentration on pure movement unencumbered by metaphor, a will to make the body stand for nothing but itself. (2)


This idea of stripping down the body to its essential materiality, getting rid of its cultural loading of metaphor, is a formalist, somewhat purist notion of early ’60s minimalist art across all media. It has left an enduring legacy – the emphasis on the fact of the body (before or beyond character), the grain of the voice, the sheer intractability of the physical – which is an important premise in works as diverse as Pina Bausch’s choreography, the films of Chantal Akerman or Laleen Jayamanne, Lyndal Jones’ performance pieces, and Lesley Stern’s live performance video Delayed Reaction (1989).


This formalist credo of pure movement/gesture went hand in hand with an evacuation of everything we know as psychological characterisation in naturalistic theatre, film and literature – something Rainer has consistently and inventively avoided right through her subsequent decades of film and video making. However, by the end of the ’60s, Rainer was pushing minimal dance and performance into deliberately impure areas – dealing with socially loaded character (stereo)types, and with vestiges of narrative.


Even before she got into film, Rainer was already rebelling against the purism of minimal dance (“physical research” as she called it), working toward the culture-filled impurism that is explored by all of the above-mentioned artists. She “grew impatient with the limitations of the body’s expressivity”, as she remarked in 1986. “What the body can say without verbal language is limited”. (3) So her performance work of the late ’60s and early ’70s began to incorporate various, floating pieces of text – passages recited “off” or projected on slides – and, eventually, multi-media aspects including filmed components. Using the minimalist strategies of isolating and permutating elements, she set in motion experiments like this one from 1970, recalled 15 years later.


Two people at a time, from a group of ten or more, having hung large signs around their necks, come to the foreground of the performing area to strike ordinary sitting and standing poses with gazes directed toward or away from one another. The signs read variously “sister”, “brother”, “mother”, “other woman”, “lover”, “child”, “son”, “friend”, “husband”, etc. In sequential tableaux vivants “daughter” sits next to “lover” or “other woman” stands near “father”, etc., until all of the possible combinations of relationship and intrigue are exhausted. This primitive exercise in attribution can hardly be construed as having created “characters”, yet it remains for me an important point of reference, reminding me of how little it takes to indicate identity and relationship and point both in the direction of narrative. Introduce a prop or two and we have melodrama. Introduce language and it’s time to clear the decks again. (4)


It was precisely these impure complications of melodrama and language which Rainer’s films were to pursue most richly. Rainer’s move into a disjunctive form of narrative, which all her films adhere to, was provocative in the context of early ’70s American avant-garde film, dominated as it was by the abstract lyricism of Stan Brakhage or the extremely minimalist structuralism of Hollis Frampton – both styles involving an almost complete refusal of any complicity with narrative. (The Canadian Michael Snow offers a different, separate case.) Rainer pioneered an exploration that was later dubbed in the early ‘80s by October magazine as the New Talkie – a loose movement with which we associate the films of Peter Wollen and Laura Mulvey, Mark Rappaport, Sigmund Freud’s Dora (1979), Sally Potter’s Thriller (1979), and many related works of the period.


For her part, Rainer pushed onto the American avant-garde agenda not only narrative and the insistent presence of written/spoken language, but also the self-conscious appropriation of theory – elements that can still rankle residual experimental purists.


Although she once wondered aloud whether she was “a formalist on her way to being a realist” (5), Rainer’s art more truly partakes of that almost primal disjunction which Gilles Deleuze, in his books on cinema, locates at the origin of cinema’s modernism: the severing of the sensory-motor connection, the ways in which narrative events conventionally proceed from, seem to be generated out of, the motivated consciousnesses of characters. Rainer puts it succinctly: “words are uttered but not possessed by my performers as they operate within the filmic frame but do not propel a filmic plot”. (6) And once things start happening beyond and all around bodies, we enter the dizzy realm of what Deleuze calls op and son events, sudden flowerings and mutations of image and sound occurrences, unlocatable in any originating point-of-view.


Rainer’s films of the ’70s – Lives of Performers, Film About a Woman Who… (1974), and Kristina Talking Pictures (1976) – play extraordinary games with the attribution and locatability of effects of narrative sense. The great textual questions of the art and theory of the time – who speaks and is spoken? who moves and is moved? is the ground beneath you (as spectator) solid or shifting? – are put into intensive circulation. Rainer remarks that “character and plot are almost an afterthought as they slide behind devices that foreground not only the production of narrative but its frustration and cancellation as well”. (7) Brechtian or deconstructive strategies – printed intertitles, deadpan voice-overs, different actors playing the same character – mingle with more sinuous, sensuous shifts and slides.


Rainer’s cultural influences and sources are thus a diverse and mixed provenance: minimalism, formalism, Brecht, Jean-Luc Godard, classic Hollywood cinema, soap opera, Emma Goldman. As she proceeded through the ’70s, the twin influences of feminism and film theory became more marked. But her work has never corresponded to the dry caricature of the theoretical essay-film. For she weaves together a sober, distanced deconstruction with a subversive, irreverent style of neurotic humour – with theory itself often subjected to devastating parody or contradiction.


She did not simply refuse or leave behind the research lessons of minimal dance or Frampton-style structural film – rather, she utilised them as a support for a new kind of exploration. Nor did the scientific-rationalist leaning of ’70s materialist theory take her away from the intricate (and often hilarious) mining of irrationalist or mad-rationalist lapses, non-sequiturs and free associations that are so common in her work, and which often problematise Theory itself (“Well, you know, Shirley, I’ve always been a pushover for sweeping statements about society by deep thinkers”).


Furthermore, the sobriety, the slightly puritanical aspect of her work (particularly when it comes to Hollywood cinema and its emotive/sentimental pleasures) is juxtaposed with the discontinuous pursuit of a certain kind of attenuated emotional-expressive effect arising from all that sensory-motor disconnection. For all the undoubted coolness and irony of these strategies, the films also evoke a particular kind of involvement and expressivity. In 1976, Rainer wondered aloud:


Can specific states of mind and emotion or subtleties of social interaction be conveyed in film without being attached or by being only provisionally attached to particularities of place, time, person, and relationship?… Are faces such as belong to Katharine Hepburn and Liv Ullmann the only vehicles for grief and passion? (8)


Film About a Woman Who … and Kristina Talking Pictures work through the exploration of disjunctive narrative modes. Noël Carroll enumerates the devices she employs: “She will have the same character played by different performers in order to block empathy while also using printed statements or deadpan voice-over expressions of inner feelings to cool our engagement with the characters.” (9)


The narrative is never singular – there are pieces, suggestions of many stories – with a multiplicity of narrating or commenting voices creating ever-wider discrepancies between what we see and hear. There is never any stable truth to the text, no origin to the story – rather a labyrinth of inferences, cues, clues, subjective accounts, which endlessly subvert what we as spectators think we know, or can deduce about proceedings. The use of actors is similarly multiple and shifting. Rainer endlessly spins out disconcerting distinctions between the actor and the part he or she is playing – going so far in Lives of Performers as to make the supposed confessions of the real actors simply another treacherous fictional layer.


In Journeys from Berlin/1971 (1980) and The Man Who Envied Women (1985), Rainer’s concerns become more explicitly political, and her emphasis shifts from the play with narrative to an exploration of what we can justly call discourse. A discourse can be understood as a specific slice of social speech, a particular ideology or set of values. The figures or voices in her films come more and more to be the vessels for such discourses – posed not in a coherent sequence or argument, but in an overlapping, dialectical contest.


Journeys from Berlin explores the incommensurability of discourses: what has the personal (one’s dreams, loves, everyday habits) got to do with the political (global issues such as terrorism)? The Man Who Envied Women engages in a sophisticated way with feminist film theory (Rainer often publicly cites Teresa de  Lauretis and Laura Mulvey), creating a dense montage of the multiple voices of sex and gender discourse. She described her method in 1986.


Play off different, sometimes conflicting, authorial voices. And here I’m not talking about balance or both sides of a question like the nightly news, or about finding a “new language” for women. I’m talking about registers of complicity/protest/acquiescence within a single shot or scene that do not give a message of despair. (10)


Rainer’s political investments and involvements underwent an evident evolution. Her move into film coincided with an increasingly explicit use of feminism, following the path she describes thus: “From descriptions of individual feminine experience floating free of both social context and narrative hierarchy, to descriptions of individual feminine experience placed in radical juxtaposition against historical events, to explicitly feminist speculations about feminine experience”. (11)


While an acute sense of gender roles is already well in place in Lives of Performers, there is a clear leap from the quasi-existential games-people-play aspect of that film (validating momentarily the oft-made comparison between Rainer and Woody Allen), to the more cut-throat power relations between the sexes outlined in later works, relations which are particularly insidious and double-binding for women by the time of The Man Who Envied Women.


Although Rainer is sometimes offhandedly dismissed as a ’70s artist by those same people who cast out feminist film theory from their purview as the aberration of a long-ago Utopian era, the fact remains that her films have occasioned some of the most important feminist criticism of the ’80s (essays by Patricia Mellencamp, Bérénice Reynaud, Lucy Fischer, Teresa De Lauretis).


There is also a development, from the films of the ’70s to those of the ’80s, of an engagement with issues of Big P politics – terrorism in Journeys from Berlin housing and urban development in The Man Who Envied Women, amongst others. Whereas Journeys agonises, in the manner of advanced ’70s theory, as to whether the brute reality of the political can ever be adequately represented on screen, The Man Who Envied Women heralds a “new departure” for Rainer – the use of documentary footage, “recording the actual confrontation … rather than reporting it from a greater distance”. (12) Naturally, this is no capitulation to any simple kind of political realism – the footage is still fragmented, contextualised, problematised and contradicted in the same manner as all elements of the total montage. Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Surname Viet, Given Name Nam (1989) is another political documentary that works in this contemporary tradition.


Rainer has, in one sense or another, always been a montage artist. Her films of the ’70s stage the contest of different voices, spaces, positions, points-of-view – mainly within the sphere of sexual politics – but with a no-win indecidability redolent of the deconstructive and textual reveries of the time. As the political in her work extends its points of reference in the ’80s, Rainer becomes a montage artist more akin to what we have come to call the essay-film mode of Chris Marker, Ross Gibson or Jean-Pierre Gorin. Characters (or figures), grabs/samples of certain kinds of imagery or sound, still photographs, objects and architectural sites – all represent various, more or less concrete discourses.


Textual indecidability gets displaced and transformed into a newer problem of attribution – what are the political strategies involved in being, or refusing to be, a coherent identity (a subject) in certain places, times, situations? To take one prominent example from The Man Who Envied Women of the slip-sliding of political identity, American citizen Jackie Raynal stiffly reciting, in heavy French accent, the text of Australian Meaghan Morris on Michel Foucault represents for Rainer “the problematised voice of feminist theory itself”. (13)


The social situations Rainer describes are perhaps no-win – not easily resolvable, or still incommensurable, as she would say. Rainer is perhaps the greatest modern artist of incommensurability, the one who worries it most sharply, profoundly and consistently. In The Man Who Envied Women, a voice remarks: “I would feel I was being tricked into trying to deal with things that have become incommensurable, as though they weren’t incommensurable”. (14) The spaces and contradictions arising between personal and political, immediate and historical, theory and practice, pleasure and commitment – and many other binaries – gape like open wounds in her work.


At its extreme, this concern over the incommensurable leads Rainer to a kind of paranoid terrorism practiced on the minutiae of banal, everyday life – a resurfaced puritanical panic about each one of us being found out, yet again, as ideologically unsound (a politicised variant on Imposter Syndrome).


More broadly, her films accept as a premise the potential richness – as well as the potential abyss – of lived social contradictions. Later, Rainer’s political conscience led her, in the context of  prevalent discussions of postcolonialism and Third Cinema, to the concept of interrogating one’s position of privilege (the title of her 1990 film), whatever the position and whatever the privilege. “On a personal level I could describe my development as a gradual discovery of the subtleties of my own privilege, which I took for granted when I began as a dancer … This is an on-going process and I feel I have just begun to scratch the surface: not to try to escape my class or my sex, but to constantly confront the facts of them.” (15)


Relating montage form to political vision, Rainer gives the best indication of what makes her work so vital and fascinating.


I’m talking about bad guys making progressive political sense and good girls shooting off their big toe or mouth. I’m talking about uneven development and fit in the departments of consciousness, activism, articulation, and behavior that must be constantly reassessed by the spectator. I’m talking about incongruous juxtapositions of modes of address: recitation, reading, “real” or spontaneous speech, printed texts, quoted texts, et al., all in the same film. I’m talking about representations of divine couplings and (un)holy triads being rescreened only to be used for target practice. I’m talking about not pretending that a life lived in potholes taking potshots will be easy and without cost, on screen or off. (16)

MORE Rainer: MURDER and Murder


1. Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson, “New York Film Festival Review: Breaking Rules at the Roulette Table”, Film Comment (November-December 1975), pp. 32-34, 57 (see p. 32); reprinted as “New York Film Festival: 1975” in Robert Polito (ed.), Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber (New York: Library of America, 2009). back


2. B. Ruby Rich, “Yvonne Rainer: An Introduction”, in Yvonne Rainer (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1981); reprinted in Rich et al., The Films of Yvonne Rainer (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989), pp. 1-23; see p. 1. back


3. Laleen Jayamanne with Geeta Kapur and Yvonne Rainer, “Discussion: Modernity, ‘Third World’, and The Man Who Envied Women”, Art & Text, no. 23 (March-May 1987), pp. 41-51; see p. 51. back


4. Rainer, “More Kicking and Screaming from the Narrative Front/Backwater”, Wide Angle, Vol. 7 No.1-2 (Spring 1985); reprinted in Rainer, A Woman Who … : Essays, Interviews, Scripts (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), pp. 207-213; see p. 211. back


5. Ibid., p. 210. back


6. Ibid., p. 208. back


7. Ibid. back


8. Rainer, “A Likely Story”, Idiolects, no. 6 (June 1978); reprinted in A Woman Who … , pp. 137-140; see p. 139. back


9. Noël Carroll, “Film”, in Stanley Trachtenberg (ed.), The Postmodern Moment (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1985); reprinted as “Film in the Age of Postmodernism”, in Carroll, Interpreting the Moving Image (Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 300-332; see p. 321. back


10. Rainer, “More Kicking and Screaming”, p. 208. back


11. Ibid. back


12. Jayamanne et al., “Discussion”, p. 48. back


13. Ibid., p. 44. back


14. Rainer, “The Man Who Envied Women”, in The Films of Yvonne Rainer, p. 216. back


15. Jayamanne et al., “Discussion”, p. 51. back


16. Rainer, “Some Ruminations Around Cinematic Antidotes to the Oedipal Net(tles) While Playing With de Lauraedipus Mulvey, or, He May Be Off-Screen, but …”, The Independent , Vol. 9 No. 3 (April 1986); reprinted in A Woman Who … , pp. 214-223; see pp. 220-221. Also reprinted in E. Ann Kaplan (ed.), Psychoanalysis & Cinema (New York and London: Routledge, 1990), pp. 188-197. back



© Adrian Martin June 1990

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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