Avant-Garde Old Guard: Modernist Confessions of a Dangerous Mind


“An underlying theory that I will probably continue to pursue,” Yvonne Rainer told art critic Lucy Lippard in 1975, is “that the most scabrous confessional soap-opera kind of verbiage or experience can be transmitted through highly rigorous formal means and have a fresh impact.” But as one of the American avant-garde’s most intellectually ambitious figures, Rainer reaches beyond mere genre tinkering.

Particularly in her earliest features, Lives of Performers (1972) and Film About a Woman Who . . . (1974), stark black-and-whiters about the mental intricacies of male-female relationships, Rainer rejects cinema’s immersive pleasures. Drawing from her background in dance, she deploys actors as mute puppet-bodies. Sporadically drenched in opera and pop, her films fracture into audiovisual essays of silent tableaux, monotone voice-over, and typed title-cards. Autobiographical bits are abstracted into crypto-fictional settings to defuse artistic narcissism.

With few cinematic precedents (save the films of fellow dancer Maya Deren), Rainer’s work resembles video art’s late-modernist minimalism. Her nearest movie-house relative is Godard, though at times her hyper-erudite dialogues spark slow-bubbling wit like a ‘tussined-up Woody Allen, as when loft-living lefties exchange fragmented, Sontag-esque banter in Kristina Talking Pictures (1976). Here Rainer shifts from personal histories to global ones, later expanding upon same in Journeys From Berlin/1971 (1980), her epic meditation on psychoanalysis, the Baader-Meinhof, feminism, and pre-revolutionary Russia. Berlin finds its unlikely star in plummy-voiced academic Annette Michelson, whose stream-of-consciousness shrink sessions unearth eggheady gems. “My cunt is not a castrated cock,” Michelson protests. “If anything, it’s a heartless asshole.”

In recent years, Rainer has softened into relatively populist identity politics for the menopause-centered Privilege (1990) and lesbian late-life love dissection MURDER and murder (1996), without sacrificing anti-didactic auto-analysis. The former ends with a title underscoring why Rainer continues to strive even as the ideals of the 20th-century avant-garde grow increasingly retro. “Utopia: the more impossible it seems, the more necessary it becomes.”