Film Theory

Radical Juxtaposition: The Films of Yvonne Rainer by Shelley Green

After recently seeing Yvonne Rainer’s Film About a Woman Who… for a second time, I still found that all the words I could muster for this dense, overlapping, fractured, and impenetrable, but somehow idiosyncratically transfixing film was something of a stream of consciousness outline, jotting down passing observations with the idea that, by encapsulating them into discrete packets of information, I could continue to re-arrange them like puzzle pieces towards forming a more cohesive overarching picture. This intrinsic difficulty in trying to assign words to a particularly multilayered and experiential work that is also infused with impenetrably autobiographical elements is also evident in Shelley Green’s analysis for the film in Radical Juxtaposition: The Films of Yvonne Rainer. Composed of individual essays for each of Rainer feature length films, from Lives of Performers to Privilege (the book was published in 1994 and does not include MURDER and murder from 1996), the coherence of the essays similarly reflect the trajectory of Rainer’s films, as they evolved from more abstract, mixed media performance pieces towards a more central narrative-driven, multi-themed expositions. But perhaps the key to understanding Rainer’s work is that there isn’t always a key: an underlying modus operandi that pervades much of the avant-garde movement that is reflected in her comment, “Incongruity can transform the banal into the fantastic. Two images – familiar in ambience but incongruent in time – when juxtaposed, create a third reality”.

One aspect of Rainer’s filmmaking that does appear consistently within her films is to capture the nature of performance, from Lives of Performers which visually and thematically represents the filmmaker’s transition from dance to film, to her later, more expositional works. At the core of these performances is to present the intrinsic nature of social behavior, one that seeks to suppress human fears and desires in order to lead an socially idealized life of eternal performance. It is within this context that Jack’s interminable (and indecipherable) monologues throughout The Man Who Envied Women can be seen as a kind of social filibuster, an impenetrable wall of verbal performance – an assumed persona – that serves to distract from the underlying hollowness of the speaker.

It is interesting to note that Green also underscores the recurring theme of decapitation in The Man Who Envied Women, both literally, in a New York Times article of beheaded peasants in South America, and metaphorically, in Jack’s empty verbal prestidigitations. In the subsequent film Privilege, the author uses the term “unhooked” to describe the physiological and emotional changes that the retired dancer, Jenny experiences with menopause: the idea of liberation from body and from biological processes, as well as psychologically, from the social competition of desirability. However, these themes empirically define a similar phenomenon: the extension of Rainer’s central theme of performance (or conversely, one’s psychological, biological, intellectual, or emotional liberation from the act of performance). It is this integral theme that also characterizes the actions of the unnamed heroine in Film About a Woman Who…, a sentimental ambivalence and indecision towards her lover and social role that Rainer manifests through a fragmented deconstructive celluloid world that, similar to the heroine’s reality, is a reflective figment of her own imagination.

Acquarello, 2005 [reprinted]

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