From Lives of Performers (1972) (courtesy Zeitgeist Films)

The inimitable dancer, choreographer, and filmmaker Yvonne Rainer is having a retrospective of her films starting Friday, July 21 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. An instrumental force in avant-garde dance and key player in the inception of the art collective Judson Dance Theater, Rainer took to filmmaking in the 1970s, occupying a unique space that both straddled and rejected the modes of performance art, documentary, essay, and film. Her directorial debut Lives of Performers (1972) tells the story of a love triangle between members of a dance ensemble through lovingly captured rehearsals, scraps of text, and dissonant voiceover. Film About A Woman Who… (1974) probes the norms of romantic taboo by telling the story of an extramarital affair in hushed allusions and repressed memories, the characters known only as “he” and “she.” (In that film, Rainer briefly occupies the role of a lady lion tamer, who says “Martha Graham and Jean­-Luc Godard were as responsible for my leaving the circus as anybody”). Across the board, Rainer’s films are formally innovative and disinterested in the established strictures of narrative — which is to say, of cliché. 

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. She describes dance as more “limited” in this sense, but that ever since she recently starting choreographing again, she’s been incorporating text, from art criticism to news articles, that she avidly reads. “I put a microphone up and interrupt what the dancers are doing. I’m like this gadfly, roaming around the stage, trying to get messages out. And it’s all live.”

For an octogenarian art-world legend, Rainer wasn’t just approachable; she was self-effacing, unpretentious, and easy to talk to. Time and again, the artist shrugged off theoretical approaches in favor of bringing conversation back to her means of production and, above all else, the work itself.

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From Film About A Woman Who… (1974) (courtesy Zeitgeist Films)

Steve Macfarlane: To quote your own film, Journeys from Berlin: “let’s start somewhere.” In Kristina Talking Pictures (1976), a backdrop of environmental collapse is used to explore the dissolution of a relationship. Around that time you mentioned using the camera to fragment or zoom in on the things that had been unavailable to you as a choreographer.

Yvonne Rainer: Kristina was my third film. Having read this book about oil tankers and the dangers of their capsizing and spreading oil, the havoc they’d cause on the natural world, that was the main topic. My dancing was not narrative; it was abstract, athletic, it had references, perhaps, but to dance history. My M.O. was to deal with a broader range of social, political issues. Filmmaking, the New American Cinema — Hollis Frampton, Maya Deren, and others — it was a way to combine aesthetic concerns with specific social issues. Then there were my contemporaries, Laura Mulvey and Peter Woolen, who made “talking pictures” with a lot of dialogue and didacticism. I knew them; my work was on programs with theirs.

From Kristina Talking Pictures (courtesy Zeitgeist Films)

SM: Where were these screenings happening?

 YR: Anthology Film Archives. The same situation as today: small film showcases, universities… I’ve never been in the big theaters that show Hollywood films.

SM: So much of the work plays with annotation: newspaper clippings, unattributed quotes, performers almost possessed by dialogues or texts that “break the spell” of the filmmaking. 

YR: I must emphasize that it was language that filmmaking offered to me: I could play around with voice, I could interrupt someone speaking with a title or subtitle. Dance at that point seemed very limited to me in terms of my wider interests.

SM: Tell me about the decision to use that Rolling Stones song “No Expectations” in Lives of Performers.

YR: Oh… I just liked the song. It comes in halfway through a series of tableaux vivants — I probably just felt I had to liven up this staid, silent progression.

SM: So practical!

YR: A lot of choices had to do with duration. My feelings at that time were heavily prompted by John Cage: “if you can stand it for two minutes, try it for four.” In Film About A Woman Who…, there’s a long, slow tracking shot that seems interminable to me now. If I’m ever in an audience when it’s projected, I stay just to see when people will walk out! (Laughs) Sometimes the aesthetic adhered to more conventional standards, and then other times it was subject to disruption — the radical juxtaposition I mentioned earlier. If there’s any hard and fast rule, I guess it’s that one. Which I have continued to do throughout my film career.

From Kristina Talking Pictures (1976) (courtesy Zeitgeist Films)

SM: If that shot took an eternity in 1972, it can only be more radical now: everything’s faster, shorter, louder, more saturated.

YR: There’s a scene in Jean Vigo’s Zero For Conduct where a boy has to stay after school, alone, in the classroom as punishment. He’s there for quite a while — fiddling his feet or his hands — and we have to stay with him. It’s far longer than you would expect in a film, then or today — and for Lives I took that and ran with it, when Valda Setterfield is sitting on the couch. There’s a cat beside her. She’s facing the camera, her back is against the wall. I let her go long twitching her feet — that was fascinating to me. It’s almost like a photograph. So yeah, I was very interested in what one could get away with. I didn’t feel I was violating any traditional narrative rules. The point was: What minimum of movement could keep you, or me, interested, at that particular moment? The end tableaux all had an exact duration of 15 seconds, something like that, timed with a stopwatch. At the end of each shot, the movement comes and you cut to the still. Like a metronome. And “No Expectations” came in exactly two thirds of the way through.

SM: And before that sequence, you see them rehearsing together one last time. The room empties out and there’s one last intertitle: “Emotional relationships are relationships of desire, tainted by coercion and constraint. Something is expected of the other person and that makes him (and ourselves) unfree.”

YR: That’s Jung. I always felt other people could say things more accurately than I could (laughs). Now, since I’ve returned to dance, quotation is almost entirely what I utilize. It’s enabled me to come back to choreography; I no longer dance so much as I read. So there’s a continuity from the way I use language in film to the way I use it now, the kind of radical juxtaposition, to choreographic images. That itself is a quotation from Susan Sontag — films are full of radical juxtapositions — language, enactment, imagery.

From Mind Is a Muscle (1963)

SM: Is that something you’ve taken from filmmaking and put back into choreography?

YR: I made seven films, from 1972 to 1996, mainly through grants. Each doubled or tripled in cost, ranging from five to 10 thousand dollars in the early ’70s to $250,000 for MURDER and murder… I wasn’t about to make compromises in making more accessible kinds of work. I still wanted to make narrative films, and I could no longer raise the money.

And I was never very comfortable as a filmmaker; I loved the writing and editing, but the production, with the hierarchy, there was never enough money, and post-production… It was a nightmare to deal with laboratories where things were always going wrong and I didn’t have the money to reshoot. My work wasn’t very polished technically. I was, am, and will continue to be a techno-dummy! So I always knew there was a limited time I could do this. The economics of it create a preordained ending. I had my fill of the technical complications of filmmaking.

I remember arguments with Babette Mangolte, who taught me all about editing and was camerawoman on my first two-and-a-half films. She said, “You’ve done this twice, don’t do it again!” Sometimes I listened, sometimes I didn’t. Peter Wollen always used to say: “They let you make five.” Well, they, whoever they were, the powers that be, let me make seven. And I felt very lucky. But in a way I was very happy returning to dance. I never did my own camerawork, that’s part of my technical inaptitude.

I was always overly dependent on other people. As a choreographer I can relate to the dancers, I can feel more comfortable — to me it’s a much more direct situation in terms of creating something.

From Lives of Performers (1972) (courtesy Zeitgeist Films)

SM: Lives of Performers struck me as this quintessentially collaborative, 1960s effort. Then I looked at your book of screenplays, published in 1989, and realized how meticulously your work is written ahead of time.

YR: But Lives was different from all my other films. In the few places where it might seem to be in sync, the speech was dubbed. This process entailed making a rough cut without sound, letting the performers all look at it, and then recording their responses — laughing, commenting. I also assigned them various instructions in this kind of makeshift script: read this. Paraphrase this. So you’re hearing variations in the way they speak. And I was still dancing then. I had a performance at the Whitney: one side of the space I projected a rough cut without sound, while the performers sat in front and read their lines, while other live performers did the same things that you saw in the projected images. I never made anything like that again. The scripts were much more detailed and better adhered-to than that one. So now I am very fond of Lives — it has a kind of impromptu, ad hoc aspect I never tried to duplicate again.

SM: The first film of yours I saw was The Man Who Envied Women.

YR: Where the main character, Jack Deller — as in, “Jack, Tell Her” — is played by two different actors.

SM: Tell me about shooting the lecture scene, wherein Jack (or the two Jacks, as it were) are lecturing on Foucault and Lacan. The camera slowly wraps around the lectern, back to the audience, past the audience, into the other rooms of the apartment… Students are splaying light on them as they ask questions, the audio tracks are blending, the dynamics are all out of whack, untenable.

YR: Oh, the impossible lecture scene. That came verbatim from my friend, the philosopher Thomas Zummer, who had been a disciple of Foucault. I just put his lecture in the mouths of the two actors in front of this very bored classroom, and ran with it. A funny scene, but in hindsight I’m critical of it. Not for the lecture, but because it was in a huge, newly renovated loft I was borrowing from an artist, who hadn’t moved in yet. One of the themes of that film is artists buying abandoned tenements in the Lower East Side. We move from the lecture space to this empty, new kitchen area, and then this glass, brick wall, into the bathroom… I was exploring these icons of real estate development in lower Manhattan. But I don’t think that’s clear enough. If I were to do it again I would put a big banner on the wall: “MOVE UP TO DOWNTOWN.” I saw that banner traveling in Seattle — the real estate agents were encouraging people to buy these newly developed co-ops.

From The Man Who Envied Women (1985) (courtesy Zeitgeist Films)

SM: You use yet another framing device when Jack sits and talks about his sex life, and scenes from Hollywood movies from his generation’s childhood are playing behind him. There’s a lot of choreography in that, too.

YR: Well, these are film noirs — all films about women either putting themselves down or being put down, condescended to, by men. Even after Barbara Stanwyck finally shoots Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity, she’s apologizing for it! I was very influenced by my becoming conscious of the role women play in patriarchy. All those films behind Jack reflect that.

I was trying to deal with different power relations — the power of the community in the Lower East Side, to shoot down the city’s attempts at making money off of middle-class artists, selling them property, and then the other events going on at that time.

SM: The film also uses Jack’s milieu to interrogate artist communities during the Reagan Administration — there’s a through-line about death squads in Central America, and the ineffectiveness of artists, of “high culture” at large, in standing against something like that. Were you at a point of frustration?

YR: Oh. I never expected my work to change the world in any way. The best I can ask of anything I do is that it gives support and encouragement to like-minded people. Certainly I don’t rule out art’s possibility to intervene, especially in the situation we’re in now. We have to keep making moves against this appalling presidency — I’m signing six petitions a day! Artists have to stay awake, and not belittle small moves. You have to try, to join with other people and get resistance into your work, whatever way you can — even in dance (laughs). I still find that harder to do.

SM: What’s harder?

YR: I’m interested in movements and by moving people around, but it’s still restricted by the norms and history of choreography. Again: language is where I can still make inroads and make allusions to a larger world. I love to switch gears, to keep you guessing, pulling them in and then pushing them away — a Brechtian device. You so easily lose yourself in narrative conventions, the shot-reverse shot; even in the later films, I always try to break that up. And wake you up, so to speak.

SM: Your work is always self-aware in the sense that it shows how film images lie. 

YR: Language lies, but there’s a lot of irony to the language I use. Outright description, commentary, etcetera. When quotations are being juxtaposed to the dancers, it’s interrupting what happens on stage. If I were still making films I would probably present this Ghosh quote in a rolling title. I don’t know what the image would be around/before/after it, but you know — sometimes I would have someone read it, or…. But I would get this message out, somehow.

SM: It’s hard not to think of your “No Manifesto” (1965), which included: “No to the glamor and transcendency of the star image”; “No to seduction of the spectator by the wiles of the performer”; and “No to moving or being moved.” Your filmmaking was never about pretty pictures. To you, what is the value of beauty today?

From Film About A Woman Who… (1974) (courtesy Zeitgeist Films)

YR: I’m as susceptible to beauty as the next person. A little bit goes a long way, maybe? I just saw The Beguiled, with Kirsten Dunst and Nicole Kidman. The way Sofia Coppola cuts away to these southern, misty, cobwebby, moss-ridden landscapes over and and over again — well, I thought she overdid it a bit. But, it’s not my aesthetic. It is surprising though, how that male character who seems so seductive and sympathetic in the beginning, all of a sudden he becomes a monster — and I’m such a realist or a literalist, you know, I don’t believe Kidman’s character character would have the expertise to cut off his leg without him dying of sepsis. I found that very unlikely. But that’s what conventional films do: they condense what might be a much longer narrative and you have to go along with it. The devices do draw you in, but I like fewer and fewer movies being made today.

One film I saw recently which excited me was Streetscapes by the German filmmaker Heinz Emigholz. It was an ambitious and captivating survey of his obsessions and personal history with architecture and film. I’m still processing it.

Film noir was wonderful for me — on TV I would sit and binge every afternoon; around 3 o’clock, they were showing film noirs. And before that, in San Francisco, my father, who was trilingual, would take me to see French and Italian art movies. Those were the days! But when you’re younger you’re much more susceptible to those kinds of things — then you undergo a kind of stiffening that prevents you from enjoying what younger people enjoy. After all, I’m 82 years old — I can’t expect to enjoy what a 20-year-old is inspired by.

Talking Pictures: The Cinema of Yvonne Rainer is at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (70 Lincoln Center Plaza #7, Upper West Side, Manhattan) July 21–27.

Steve Macfarlane is a writer and filmmaker from Seattle, Washington. A programmer at Spectacle in Williamsburg, his writing has appeared in Cinema Scope, The White Review, Filmmaker Magazine, and the Brooklyn...