Talking Pictures: The Cinema of Yvonne Rainer

On Film / The Daily — Jul 19, 2017

“Yvonne Rainer stands as one of the most influential choreographers of the past fifty-plus years,” begins Melissa Anderson in the Village Voice. “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. . . . 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.”

The series opens on Friday and runs through July 27 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. What’s more, the exhibition Radical Bodies: Anna Halprin, Simone Forti, and Yvonne Rainer in California and New York, 1955 – 1972 is on view at the New York Public Library through September 16.

“When she returned to dance in the 1990s,” writes Apollinaire Scherr in the Financial Times, Rainer “took on the modernist lodestones Rite of Spring and Agon as well as her own decrepitude in typically layered, disjunctive and comic fashion. Despite this substantial body of work, Rainer’s renown mainly rests on a single five-minute dance. Since its premiere in 1966, Trio A has been performed almost continuously—as a solo and by a crowd; in silence and to wood slats clattering on to the stage from a balcony; in street clothes and with an American flag tied around the neck like a bib; and now as David Michalek’s video installation SlowDancing/TrioA in the unlit sanctuary of St Mark’s Church in New York.”

That show closed on July 1, but you’ll want to see Vered Engelhard’s piece for the Brooklyn Rail on this “celebration of Trio A’s legacy.” On Saturday, the FSLC will present a version produced in 1978 by Sally Banes paired with “with an inspired and idiosyncratic study by Charles Atlas.”

“Marking the beginning of her gradual transition from live dance to filmmaking, Yvonne Rainer directed the feature-length Lives of Performers in 1972 after a psychologically debilitating 1971,” writes Michael Eby at Screen Slate. “Various ‘intestinal demons’ struck Rainer throughout the second half of the 1960s, resulting in lengthy episodes of heavy medication and hospital stays. . . . Lives of Performers is also a portrait of a bygone era of young artists’ symbiotic SoHo loft-living; the opening scene sets us in one such loft where seven dancers rehearse the steps of Rainer’s Walk, She Said. . . . Douglas Crimp will introduce Lives, and Andy Warhol’s 1965 Paul Swan will follow, another work that exposes the fragility of the wall separating performance and nonperformance.”

Rainer’s Privilege (1990) “starts as an apparently straightforward documentary, in which Rainer interviews middle-aged women about their experience of menopause,” writes the New Yorker’s Richard Brody. “But Rainer soon gives herself an onscreen double, Yvonne Washington (played by Novella Nelson), and turns Privilege into a film-within-a-film made by her fictional counterpart. Rainer’s movie is on the front lines of intersectionality (a term coined in 1989 by the legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw) in its connection of the struggles for the rights of women, African-Americans, homosexuals, the aged, the disabled, and the poor. It’s also aesthetically intersectional in its fusion of cinematic styles.”

In its February 2017 issue, e-flux Journal ran the transcript of Adam Pendleton’s Just Back From Los Angeles: A Portrait of Yvonne Rainer and, in March, e-flux posted a conversation between Pendleton and Rainer moderated by the project’s curator, Adrienne Edwards.

The image at the top of this entry is from Journeys from Berlin/1971 (1980), screening on Sunday. The film Rainer, host Robert Gardner, and guest Deac Rossell discuss in the clip from Screening Room (March 1977) is Kristina Talking Pictures (1976), also slated for Sunday.

Updates, 7/21: “In the final section of Lives of Performers, Rainer stages thirty-five tableaux vivants,” writes Dana Reinoos for BOMB. “These dramatic scenarios—romantic, violent, ironic—feature dancers in a living still life, except that she keeps the performers' twitches, shifts in balance, and facial tics until they finally break their poses and move on to the next scene. This physical disruption from the expected reflects Rainer's own cinematic écriture féminin, the French feminist literary theory that stresses the ties between women's experience and their expression of language and form.”

“How are you defining yourself at the present?” Colleen Kelsey asks Rainer for Interview. “I'm a choreographer and ex-filmmaker, sometimes a writer. What else? Performer.” Kelsey also asks her about working with cinematographer and director Babette Mangolte (probably best known for her work with Chantal Akerman). Rainer: “She taught me everything about filmmaking. I owe a lot to Babette. . . . In fact, in Lives of Performers, the dance part of it, she filmed and edited. I didn't have much to do with that. But then we worked together on the editing. It wasn't until maybe my third film that I edited by myself. I learned a lot from her.”

Updates, 7/22: Steve Macfarlane introduces his interview for Hyperallergic: “Rainer’s movies collapse safe boundaries between maker, work, and audience, not just once or twice (for easy, cathartic effect) but consistently throughout, drawing you back to square one and insisting that you take a long, hard look at your own relationship to the screen—a relationship which, like so many others, Rainer does not let us forget is about power. ‘I must emphasize that it was language that filmmaking offered to me,’ Rainer said over the phone.”

For Willow Maclay, writing at the Film Stage, Film About a Woman Who… (1974) is “perhaps her best . . . Gone is the brisk, oftentimes humorous tone, in favor of something more blatantly furious and altogether feminist. Rainer was emboldened by the the second-wave feminists of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and was in step with the changing attitudes of the times. In the seventies, at least in independent or experimental features, women weren’t afraid to make bold, brash, indignant statements on the world they lived in and how masculinity and oppression were overbearing forces at work. The likes of Chantal Akerman, Barbara Loden, and occasional collaborator Babette Mangolte offered a taste of what the New American Cinema could look like in feminine hands. Here were filmmakers offering challenging, dense ideas of womanhood and the female psyche without being burdened by the needless sexualization and hard masculinity of New Hollywood.”

Update, 7/23: Journeys From Berlin/1971 “is a dense meditation on radicalism, morality, and the contradictions between public, political, and private life,” writes Ava Tews at Screen Slate. “The film weaves together four main narratives: the reading of excerpts from Rainer’s adolescent diary, scrolling text that provides a history of the repression of dissidents in postwar Germany, a dialogue between an intellectual New York couple as they discuss Ulrike Meinhof and other revolutionaries, and the psychoanalysis sessions of a woman, played by the film theorist, translator, and editor Annette Michelson. . . . The puzzle is the point.”

Updates, 8/1: Film Comment digital producer Violet Lucca interviews Rainer (32’19”).

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