Yvonne Rainer, Anti-Drama Queen

In the heady, inventive cinema of Yvonne Rainer, melodrama isn’t just mined but stripped bare


Yvonne Rainer stands as one of the most influential choreographers of the past fifty-plus years. In 1962 she co-founded the Judson Dance Theater, that exalted wellspring of experimental movement; a decade later, she would emerge as a similarly innovative filmmaker. Her seven feature-length works, made between 1972 and 1996, are key entries in avant-garde, post-structuralist, and feminist cinema. Another, less discussed illustration of her genius: She comes up with great titles.

Feelings Are Facts: A Life is the felicitous name of Rainer’s 2006 memoir, the title a repurposing of a maxim uttered by her former psychotherapist. In a way, the dictum also serves as an oblique organizing principle for her movies, all of which will screen during the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s week-long tribute “Talking Pictures: The Cinema of Yvonne Rainer,” commencing Friday. “Initially, I saw an opening between avant-garde film and Hollywood ‘women’s weepies,’ ” Rainer told critic and scholar Douglas Crimp in Interview in 2012. Though they became more overtly political over the years, each of her features is to some extent a radical intervention into melodrama, in which the surfeit of emotion associated with that genre is presented austerely and disjunctively. Simply put, Rainer’s films estrange and beguile in equal measure. (Organized by Thomas Beard, “Talking Pictures” — Rainer’s first retrospective in the city since 2004 — also includes, among other works, her shorts, and movies that inspired her; the artist, now 82, will take part in a conversation about her filmmaking with writer Lynne Tillman on July 24.)

Discussing her transition from dance to film in Feelings Are Facts, Rainer notes, “By 1972 my own Sturm und Drang had catapulted me into a new terrain of representation. Having survived my various physical and psychic traumas” — including a suicide attempt in 1971 — “and emboldened by the women’s movement, I felt entitled to struggle with an entirely new lexicon.” The most potent word in Rainer’s vocabulary as a dancer was no: As the author of 1965’s “No Manifesto” — a list of thirteen proclamations that begins “No to spectacle” — she called for the demystifying of dance, breaking down movement to simpler, more neutral gestures.

Anti-illusionism is also crucial to her first full-length movie, ’72’s Lives of Performers (which Crimp will introduce on Friday), though the pull of extreme emotional states can be felt too; the film, which I’ve written about before for another publication, plays as a spartan soap opera. Tellingly, Lives of Performers is labeled in parentheses as “a melodrama” by an opening title card. The movie, about a man “who can’t make up his mind,” revolves around a love triangle, a fixture of the idiom. These romantic entanglements are delineated only after a prologue of sorts, featuring Rainer conducting a rehearsal of Walk, She Said, a dance that includes the four main “protagonists” in the film: John Erdman, Valda Setterfield, Shirley Soffer, and Fernando Torm.

Over this footage, we hear Rainer’s instructions: “Foot open, gaze goes to the window, gaze goes to the closet.” These directives, like most of the audio in Lives of Performers, take place offscreen. Although the performers, like Rainer, deliver their lines without inflection, their voices, a euphonious mix of international accents, are always distinct. (Heard but never seen is Babette Mangolte, one of the greatest cinematographers of this era and milieu, who would collaborate with Rainer on two more films and also began working with Chantal Akerman around this time.) We hear the pages of a script being turned, further alienating us from this ascetic love story, though the distancing device never breaks the spell cast by the intensely private moments, sourced from dreams and maybe letters or diaries, elliptically enacted onscreen. Two segments in Lives of Performers, both inspired by silent films, could be thought of as minimalist extravaganzas: The first features a dramatically spotlit Setterfield; the second consists of a series of tableaux vivants that recapitulate the Louise Brooks–starring Pandora’s Box. Above all, the film immerses us in the pleasures of a pared-down pageant — in Rainer’s words, in “the spectacle of a group of people intensely involved in a kind of work, in the task of performing.”

More deeply deconstructing — or detonating — the conventions of soap opera, Film About a Woman Who… (1974), Rainer’s follow-up to Lives of Performers, throbs with more fury than its predecessor. A heady, protean, text-heavy disquisition on sex, jealousy, and betrayal, Rainer’s second film, unlike her first, isn’t limited to the confines of Lower Manhattan apartments or performance spaces; some of the more evocative passages take place on a beach, where a woman and a man (sometimes joined by a child) assume different spatial and psychic configurations. Of course, no locale is more emotionally fraught than a bed, which here dominates an otherwise bare loft and assumes the grandeur of a stage.

“My films can be described as autobiographical fictions, untrue confessions, undermined narratives, mined documentaries, unscholarly dissertations, dialogic entertainments,” Rainer wrote in a 1990 statement included in Feelings Are Facts. That eloquent inventory might be the best (and maybe the only) way to describe Journeys from Berlin/1971, her fourth film, from 1980. Braiding four different detail-dizzying elements — including passages from a diary Rainer kept when she was sixteen, and an offscreen Socratic dialogue on the Baader-Meinhof Gang and Emma Goldman between former Voice film critic Amy Taubin and performance artist Vito Acconci — Journeys features an unlikely star turn. Annette Michelson, avant-gardiste nonpareil and high priestess of cinema studies, appears throughout as an especially voluble analysand, her elocution seemingly the product of an MGM speech coach circa 1935.

Rainer’s final two features, Privilege (1990) and MURDER and murder (1996), are more nakedly personal yet still evince rigorous political and intellectual engagement and a bold hybrid structure. (During Rainer’s filmmaking years she had retired from dance, but she returned to it in 2000, creating, at Mikhail Baryshnikov’s invitation, After Many a Summer Dies the Swan. Dance remains her chief métier today.) Privilege concerns not only menopause and the indignities of middle-aged womanhood but also the ills perpetuated by racism and other forms of unchecked power. A delightfully recherché romantic comedy, MURDER and murder is informed by two major events in Rainer’s life from the early 1990s: a breast cancer diagnosis and falling in love — and setting up house — with a woman. M and m contains surely the raunchiest line in the Rainer filmography: “Never in my wildest dreams did I ever come close to imagining that I would one day be able to say, with the utmost conviction, ‘I love eating pussy,’ ” Doris (Joanna Merlin), the director’s analogue, declares in the beginning. Twenty-one years too late, I’d like to suggest this as the tagline for Rainer’s cinema swan song: The Yes Manifesto.

‘Talking Pictures: The Cinema of Yvonne Rainer’
Film Society of Lincoln Center, July 21–27