Introducing Yvonne Rainer's Films - T. Kaori Kitao - 28/29.IX.87

1. Film About a Woman Who. . ., 1974

I have been asked to introduce the film; by that I take it to mean, though I have not been so instructed, that 1) I do not get into any critical discourse, 2) I do not describe the film and give it away, and 3) I say something enlighting about the film so that you will stay glued in your seat to the end of the film and don't walk out because this is not an easy film to watch, though it is by no means the most difficult film ever (and I have seen more difficult ones, e.g., Straub).

The difficulty of Rainer's film is said to be threefold: fragmentation, self-reflexivity, and intertexuality.

By fragmentation, we mean that there seems to be no narrative continuity. By self-reflexivity, we mean that the film constantly calls attention to the medium itself, stating how it states what it states as it states it. By intertexuality, we mean that several different media coexist and interact each other, one medium taking the characteristics of another, and vice versa, in this instance, dance, theater, photography, film, prose and poetry.

To explicate these terms and notions further will take too long, and that I shall not try. But I want to address the issue of intertexuality by showing some slides that might illuminate it, for example by showing this, which is a Chinese character that signifies nothing -- wú/mu -- by which I may be dispensed from saying anything more.
SLIDE: Japanese Calligraphy - "Mu/Wú"

But, in fact, this is a heavily impregnated nothing, like the single word uttered by Elisabet in Bergman's Persona, ingenting, which also signifies nothing.

In the Far East, where I come from, we use these characters, ideograms, for writing, for composing text. They are not pictograms, as sometimes erroneously thought; a small percentage of characters derive from pictograms but most are not pictorial.
But such a character or a set of characters may also be hung on the wall to be gazed at, as though they were pictures; and connoisseurs may even engage in a critical discourse over it. It's called calligraphy.
This peculiar phenomenon is, however, much misunderstood in the West. What eludes the uninitiated is the complexity that it is not one thing but at least five things all at once.

First, it is writing. Yes and no. It consists of writing,
SLIDE: Text "Finnegan's Wake"
and it is read as any text; but as it is gazed at, what is read merges nevertheless inseparably with what is seen. It is, therefore, examined and analyzed for its own sake, though the meaning communicated by the character or characters, often poetic or philosophical, is never forfeited, only suspended there.

Second, it is a picture, too, however. Yes and no. Even though ideograms are not iconic signs, as are simple drawings and sketches:
SLIDE: Picasso, Embrace (charcoal),
they are literary and may evoke images. Then, while Mu/Wú does not represent "nothing" pictorially, it does signify such a notion." The meaning of a character does not reside in the form of that character. It is nevertheless there, as though suspended, never forfeited but ever present as though in absentia.

Third, it is design, and concerns visual form. Yes and no. Shape, spacing, and proportions do matter and are commented on. But calligraphy is a misnomer. Etymologically, it is beautiful writing; and as known in Western and Islamic cultures, it is essentially graphic design.
SLIDE: Western Calligraphy
SLIDE: Islamic Calligraphy
Permutations of a given character like this, shin (clear), are not really for working out a particular form of stylization.
SLIDE: Character, shin, permutations
They are more for expression than for good form.

Fourth, it is therefore also performance. Yes and no. Characters are drawn with verve and flourish, and the form of the finished work is seen as a track left by the brush in motion like the swirl of a choreographic movement.
SLIDE: Japanese Calligraphy, Ikkyu
SLIDE: Serpentine Dancer (Loïs Fuller), 1894, Bradley
And so abstract expressionists were drawn to it.
SLIDE: Franz Kline, Merce, c. 1961
But the calligrapher's individual personality, as projected in the character, so central in abstract expressionism, is nevertheless secondary to the meaning in the characters, suspended, present in absentia.

Fifth, it is also history. This is because precedents provide the ultimate meaning as the characters in one master's calligraphy are gazed upon and studied in relation to the whole series of works of the past masters who came before him, the works which are, again, present in absentia. It is the history, the tradition, the multifaceted biography, of which the work gazed upon is a part, that is an essential concern.

Calligraphy China and Japan thus deals with several things that it can be simultaneously, literary, pictorial, calligraphic, choreographic, and historical or biographical. But, more precisely, its special interest lies not in its multiplicity but in its duplicity, that it deals with a set of things that its one aspect appears to oust from the scene, that it deals with that which is there suspended, not forfeited -- ponderously present though absent from the scene.

This is exactly how Yvonne Rainer's film is; and this is a bit more complex than intertexuality. According to Julia Kristeva (La Révolution du langage poétique), intertexuality is "the transposition of one or more systems of signs into another, accompaniedby a new articulation of the enunciative and denotative position."

Intertextuality between words and images are familiar in modern life; our daily life is, in fact, enundated with it -- in magazines, advertising, and public signs of all sorts, no less than in film.
SLIDES: Advertising, Winston, 1961
Advertising, Continental Bank
Words and images are often intermingled in ensemble toward the unfied message; but, sometimes, they also exchange their roles
SLIDES: Another Advertising, Boudoir Luxe
so that, we read the images and look at the text, because the text is a familiar material, announcing familiar names and products, so that we don't have to read it, while the picture emits richer connotations and so requires perusing.
Sometimes, as in certain logo designs, image and words are interwoven into each other, like ideograms, coexisting inseparably.
SLIDE: Sun Oil, logo
rather like the chinese character in this respect but without partaking in its other elements.

Now, reading images, as opposed to merely seeing it, is something everyone does when she or he goes to a gallery and inspects photographs on exhibit -- something one is not likely to do normally, like when looking at photographs while flipping the pages of a magazine.
SLIDE: Photograph, Richard Clar
The context forces that, just as museum pictures are thought to be images that were expressly made to be read. And written text, normally read than seen, also gets to be seen like a painting, that is, perused as an image, when framed and exhibited -- as manuscript pages and music scores are.

So, a picture or piece of writing, when exhibited and gazed upon, is, after all, a text in that it is at once seen and read, just like the characters in Chinese and Japanese calligraphy. We are talking, in short, of pantexuality, not intertextuality.

In Yvonne Rainer's Film about about a Woman Who. . ., the filmmaker presents us with a wide range of texts, images as well as writings, all presented as independent texts -- typewritten text, photographs, film images, film images that start out like a still photograph, subtitles as in foreign films, intertitles as in silent films, and dance performance on film, all to be gazed at and perused. Since in film there are five channels of communication, as Christian Metz explains, i.e., image, written text, voice, music and noise, there are also auditory texts as well -- dialogues, voice-over narrations, recitation, songs and operatic excerpts, as well as noise of all sorts on and off screen.

Moreover, these texts are at times fragmented, creating lacunae that the spectator is forced to fill; for example, in the sequence entitled "An Emotional Accretion in 48 Steps," some steps are images, others written texts, but it is understood that both go on except that one is at times hidden underneath another like the notices pinned one on top of another on a bulletin board. In another words, what at first appears to be fragments are really overlaps. So, sometimes, the typewritten text is read by the offscreen voice; sometimes it is left for the spectator to read; sometimes it repeats a dialogue, sometimes it is totally independent.

In short, elisions that create absences are meant to reinforce what has been temporarily hidden, suspended but not forfeited; the lacuna is that which is present in absentia.

The experience is akin to that of sitting in a commuter train in rush hour, listening to fragments of several conversations intermingled with the roar of the train and other miscellaneous noise, and gazing at the collage on the window on which appears, superimposed on your own reflection, the reflections of other passengers, weirdly fragmented and distorted, through which flickers the scene of the town in dusk as lights are beginning to light up together with its reflection on river, all of which is occasionally interrupted by the train that rushes by on the other track. It could all be chaos, but you manage to piece the fragments together, make some sense of some of the conversations, and keep a good sense of where the train is passing through, and actually have a rich experience; and that is because there is one single subject, my mind in this instance, which is single.

And so Rainer expects each spectator, you, to take all in, indiscriminately, fill the lacunae as best as you can, and try to piece the fragments together in your own way, and participate in the task of gazing and reading with her, and, in so doing, live through the biography of the woman, who may seem to be her, but may, in fact, be none other than yourself.
SLIDE: Image and Words: Late Arrival Title
SLIDE: Image and Words: Mokuan, Hotei
SLIDE: Ryokan, Heaven and Earth
And, as in this calligraphy, which says heaven and earth, her subject is everything under the sun, between heaven and earth.

2. The Man Who Envied Women. . ., 1985

Yvonne Rainer was born in San Francisco, and came to New York to study acting in 1957. She became interested in dance, instead, and became active in Judson Dance Company. From mid 1960's she was into choreogaphy. Her Film About a Woman Who. . . developed, in fact, out of a live performance, entitled This is the Story About a Woman Who, 1973; a year later, she made it into a film.

Rainer expressed her discontent with the dance as she found it in New York in 1960's as consisting of "narcissism, virtuosity and display," a subversive notion, given that performance is by definition exhibitionist in its mission. But what she wanted and strove for was to to make performance more into a task rather than an exhibition. When she started making films, then, she was as discontent with the long-standing tradition of illusionism and mimesis in narrative film, which was not only Hollywood but much of independent cinema as well.

In this anti-mimetic effort, Rainer did not aim for abstraction, however, which was one sure way in 1960's; she was, rather, drawn to mixed media and intertexuality. Superficially, this meant fragmentation and synthesis, as of collage. But in the process of working with layering, she seems to have discovered its special potential.

It is often said that Rainer manages to bring together the polar opposites, like movement and stasis, real and fictional, and personal and political; and she not only reconciles them but brings about something that is absent in either separately. The last pair, personal and political, is central in her film from 1985, The Man Who Envied Women. . .

How she accomplishes that is best illustrated in the frontal nudity sequence from the earlier film. It is an extended sequence of disrobing a woman, nominally an exhibitionist activity and often, in conventional cinema, titillating and even pornographic. But she makes the action of disrobing into an excruciatingly slow process so that the spectator's attention is shifted from the nude body to the action of disrobing, from the nude body as the object of exhibition (the way convention has developed it through the history of the cinema) to the task of disrobing, the task in which the spectator, because of its painstaking slowness, is forced to participate collectively. While disrobing, even though vicarious, is painfully personal in that it alludes to the artist's exposing her true self, Rainer has made it into a participatory and shared task so that the action has been made political without making it to cease to be personal.

The woman in Film About a Woman Who. . . is, therefore, at once personal and political, at once the artist herself and each of us in the audience. More precisely, while it is one it is always the other that is present in absentia. The use of two actors to play one role, a conceit from Buñuel's film, The Obscure Object of Desire, works in the same way, an overlay of two aspects of a single individual, playing hide and seek.

I believe the use of film clips in Rainer's films works in the same way. It provides, essentially, a certain emotional tenor, parallel with the event occuring in the film's foreground; but, beyond that, it is also a subtext that appears and disappears in dialectic overlays. In Film About A Woman Who. . ., the 45 second shower sequence from Psycho is an overlay as is a segment from the opera, Norma. And, in The Man Who Envied Woman, the eye-slitting sequence from Buñuel's Un chien andalou near the opening of the film functions in the same way as in Buñuel's film, i.e., to blind us and force us to start with an open gaze, a totally fresh naive vision. A host of Hollywood films, listed in the credit at the end of the film, follow; and they include Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944, with Barbara Stanwyck) and In a Lonely Place (Ray, 1950, with Humphrey Bogart).

Eleven years after Film About a Woman Who. . ., Yvonne Rainer proves herself in complete command of the medium as of the pantexuality of which she was a pioneer in cinema.


Ruby Rich in Chrysalis 2 (1977)
Interview and Essay on Y.R., Camera Obscura 1 (1976)
Mary Gentile, Film Feminisms, Greenwood Press, 1985


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