Repulsion’s Inversion of Psycho, or: The loss of narrative concern and the cracks in Polanski’s Code

By Daniel Spada

Just five short years after Alfred Hitchcock changed the discourse on the horror film with the release of Psycho (1960), Roman Polanski responded with a film containing more explicit sex and more explicit violence, not to forget an ending that was equally as disturbing but in a wholly different way. Repulsion (1965) was his first English language picture (as well as Catherine Deneuve’s), released by Compton Films, a small British film company specializing in soft-core pornography. At the time of its release, critics noted its surface similarities to Psycho, including Kenneth Tynan, writing for Life magazine, who said, “The difference between the two pictures is that Repulsion is Psycho, turned inside out. In Hitchcock’s film we see a double murder through the eyes of the victims–in Polanski’s our viewpoint is the killer’s” (22). There are parallels to be drawn between the oft-analyzed dinner and shower sequence in Psycho and the scene with the landlord near the end of Repulsion. Norman and Carol’s vulnerability is turned outward and manifest in explicit acts of violence. Polanski understands this eruption of violence as consequential of a prolonged withdrawal from society, from oneself – this is reflected in his homages to Hitchcock, expressed in his ideological underpinnings, thematic preoccupations, and film form.

The other similarities between Repulsion and Psycho are very clear: the opening shot of Deneuve’s eye matches up with the shot of Marion’s after she is murdered, they are both blonde (which brings to mind the image of the “Hitchcock blonde”), there are two murders that occur throughout the duration of each film (Colin and the landlord in Repulsion, Marion and Arbogast in Psycho), and they both end with a “secret” being revealed to a community of people (a secret which brings great discomfort to each community in different ways[1]). Their differences are also easily noticeable: while Psycho could, and has been read as a mystery-thriller (the killer’s identity kept a secret until the end), Repulsion cannot be read as such (or in a similar way). There is a certain lack of narrative concern in Polanski’s film that does not exist in the world of Psycho, not to mention Polanski’s refusal to lighten the affair and offer a baseline diagnosis of Carol’s illness.[2] In both films, physical space is important (both of the major set pieces act as a literal and metaphorical prison, containing the action and the characters): Carol and Helen’s apartment in Repulsion, the Bates Motel in Psycho.

Although Kenneth Tynan is accurate in his description of Repulsion as an inversion of Psycho, it is only at a very basic level of narrative detail. His assertion that Polanski, “simply presents it [his heroine’s behavior], and if we choose to identify with her fears and her irrational ferocity that is our business, not his” comes off as resoundingly false if we look at the particulars of Polanski’s film form, and how he posits Carol as, what Ivan Butler calls, “authentically tragic” and “herself the most pitiable victim of the evil she does” (78). It is almost as if Tynan has completely overlooked the shots that bookend the film: the first, starting from such a close-up on a human eye (Carol’s) as to be indistinguishable until the zoom out, and the final shot, an extended zoom-in on a family photograph, the light cutting the photo up and a parallelogram enclosing a small girl in the background, until it zooms in all the way on her face, and then the darkness in the corner of her eye overtakes the frame. Throughout the film, the audience experiences all of Carol’s hallucinations with her, thus creating empathy for her character, even if it is simply the illusion of empathy. It is impossible not to identify with Carol, and it is absolutely Polanski’s job to make this identification possible.

There is rich thematic and visual analysis to be gleaned from the bizarre dinner and shower sequence in Psycho and the scene at the end of Repulsion with the landlord; there is even richer analysis that can be read between the lines when comparing and contrasting the two. Rather than extending an invitation to enter Carol’s personal space (unlike Norman, who requests Marion to eat dinner with him, quickly bringing her to his lair filled with taxidermied animals), her landlord unlocks the door, forcefully moves her poorly constructed blockade (a single piece of wood), and begins to roam around the apartment, quickly happening upon Carol in a white dressing gown cowering in the doorway to her living room. Throughout the scene Carol does not say much, other than insisting her landlord to not open the window curtains, and in this way, it is dissimilar to the dinner and shower sequence in Psycho. Polanski’s restless camera is constantly following the landlord as he wanders around the apartment, unlike Hitchcock’s mostly stationary camera.

As for similarities between the two films, Marion’s comment about institutionalizing Mother parallels Helen’s boyfriend’s comment about Carol seeing a doctor, to which Helen responds “She’s just sensitive, that’s all.” There is a hint of understanding in her response to him (she even gets a little defensive), a hint that this might be the way Carol has always been. Norman’s response to Marion is much more defensive, before it devolves into him talking about how Mother needs him and how she just “goes a little mad sometimes.”

There is a moment of resistance in Psycho when Norman enters the house and stops at the stairs for a second, then goes into the kitchen and sits at the table, in deep contemplation. This is mirrored in Repulsion when Carol stays seated on the couch up until the landlord has attempted to sexually violate her. Then, when she sees his second attempt coming, she does strike him, many times, hunched over like an animal with a razor blade in her hand, slice after slice, blood everywhere. The music becomes intense, like that in Psycho’s shower sequence and the camera cuts back and forth between Helen and the landlord, like the camera cutting back and forth between Marion and Mother.

Seeing is essential to cinema; both Repulsion and Psycho utilize the gaze, which ends up creating distinct graphic matches between them. There are two prominent instances of this, the first being in Psycho with Lila’s tracking gaze up to the Bates estate and in Repulsion with Carol’s walks around London’s South Kensington area. The second pronounced illustration of this gaze match is when Norman looks through the peephole at Marion undressing and when the landlord comes to Carol’s apartment to collect the money. These scenes, looked at against each other, show Hitchcock’s influence on Polanski, and their shared preoccupation with seeing and the gaze.

Hitchcock and Polanski alike refuse to make a conclusive statement on their characters’ conditions. Unlike Hitchcock, Polanski does not offer any solace in explaining away Carol’s behavior, even though the ending of Psycho alludes to a gender instability more frightening than the one espoused by the psychiatrist.

Psycho and Repulsion deal with the idea of sexual repression, but in very different ways. While it is explained that Norman’s sexual repression is somehow indebted to Mother, Carol’s is never explicated upon, but only shown visually. Norman and Carol are both incredibly lonely characters, their loneliness reflected in their living spaces. Norman’s maintenance of the ever vacant Bates Motel passes the time, but also traps him. With Repulsion, Polanski frequently shoots Carol’s apartment in a way that shows what a big empty space it is. Carol’s apartment is both that which is eating her alive and that which she cannot escape: the sound of her sister making love, which assists the audience in understanding her sexual repression at a deeper level, and her hallucinations of hands emerging from the walls and a man attempting to attack her are ways for Polanski to show her gradual mental disintegration.

It could be argued that both Hitchcock and Polanski subscribe to the Foucauldian conception of madness as changing and historically situated.[3] When the psychiatrist makes his speech at the end of Psycho, it is almost as if Hitchcock is poking fun at the idea of madness being eliminated on the basis of a principle of explanation or reduction external to the psychological dimensions of madness. With the following scene of overlapping a highly feminine voice and Anthony Perkin’s calm veneer, Hitchcock is drawing attention to the absurdity of that idea. Normality, in relation to mental illness, is less reflective of psychiatry or psychology than philosophy. Polanski’s approach to Carol’s condition is less clear because he never offers an explanation of her behavior, thus making the ending and film as a whole disturbing in a completely different way than Psycho. This refusal to diagnose her and also the refusal to explain her past could be an indication of his agreement with Foucault’s conclusion that psychology can never master madness.

The subversion of audience expectation is a tactical maneuver employed by both Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski. With Psycho, it was killing off its star, Janet Leigh, within the first hour of the film and the refusal to restore order. With Repulsion, it was an aversion to the classic narrative structure, the lack of a character arc, and, like Psycho, the refusal to restore order (or even offer a baseline explanation of the chaos that ensues). Repulsion is clearly indebted to Psycho, however, it can be seen as bringing the horror film into a new direction: from the outside to the inside.

[1] In Psycho the community believes they understand Norman and his condition (as per the diagnosis by the psychiatrist), while in Repulsion there is no intervention by a doctor so there is an even greater discomfort within the community.

[2] Something I found particularly confounding when doing research for this essay was how more often than not critics and theorists alike did not understand the function of the psychiatrist’s explanation of Norman’s condition in Psycho, mis-characterizing it as “glib”, “hasty”, “tacked-on”, etc.

[3] How ironic that for my birthday this past October a friend got me Foucault’s Madness: The Invention of An Idea. Who could have known I would be using it for this comparative essay between Repulsion and Psycho, really?

Happy Valley (2014)

In this country, many can agree that rape, molestation, and using manipulation to do so is not only legally wrong, but also completely morally unacceptable. Society wonders where those with a preconceived idea that rape and molestation are okay, and one has to assume that such people who do pursue such outrageous acts are very, are actually very sick.

Jerry Sandusky raped and molested children and pursued this personal goal of his through manipulation. Amir Bar-Lev’s (Producer/Director/Writer) documentary film, Happy Valley, observes this and examines the people who chose to protect him, even if their eyes were cast down in an ignorant haze. Society wonders if those who condoned such acts were also manipulated themselves, and one must assume that they were. Regardless, is it somewhat acceptable to look down, away from the horrors of reality, if they are too opaque to notice at the moment, but once the truth is revealed…it is better to take action. Look straight ahead at the opposing force, and that blank stare it holds, and challenge it with every inch of reason, and more importantly, heart, that you might have. Happy Valley does just this.

Spread through newspaper clippings, on online press outlets, and social media posts, many readers and users of these sites have posted, “shared,” and expressed the blatant sexual assault that Jerry Sandusky subjected his victims to. How could such a respectable man do such horrible things to impressionable children? How could the men who worked around and supported him condone this? Amir Bar-Lev chose to examine this, to delve into the words of the people who surrounded him during this time, including one of his victims, his own adopted son. As the documentary presents it, Jerry Sandusky’s family didn’t seem to know what he was doing behind closed doors with the boys he had brought to games: as a reward, a gift that screams keep quiet, if you won’t tell, I won’t.

Clearly these children were manipulated. They were given perks in exchange for their innocence. As many rapists and molesters do, Jerry Sandusky manipulated these boys by giving them options that appealed to them most.

Under normal circumstances, a lot of boys want to go to football games. They are fun, entertaining, and it’s a part of childhood for many boys…to be a part of a team, or to watch a team succeed. But Sandusky exploited this. He took advantage, and this is where the lies he formulated really took their place among the saddest occurrences that have happened in college football. How could a sport that is so full of life, and fun, be turned into a sick game of manipulation? As the documentary shows, Sandusky performed these acts of manipulation so blatantly, and this is why he got away with it. It’s important to understand how such horrors occur, rather than why. The “why?” is something that one really doesn’t have to know, because only the perpetrator, in this case, Sandusky, really knows why exactly he chose to rape and molest children. The how will tell people the signs to look out for in the future, when all seems well.

Sandusky brought the children he abused out in public, to games and events. A great treat, I guess it seemed, when behind closed doors, he chose to rape and molest them. Happy Valley exhibits that this is why so many people didn’t realize that something was wrong. One expects that after a rape, the individual who performs the violent act of degradation will flee the scene, but it was very clear that Jerry Sandusky knew better than to run. Happy Valley shows that if he had left suddenly, without explanation, or cut off contact with these children, he would have been caught sooner. Here is where the sickness of the crimes he committed really took shape and revealed themselves as a formulated, premeditated plot to deceive the society he had worked so hard to impress. The documentary shows people, even those who were close to Jerry Sandusky, that society was deceived by this plot, these notions to cut off all ties of rescue for these children—these young, impressionable boys.

At one point in the documentary, tourists flock around a statue of Joe Paterno to take photos with it before it is torn down. Was taking this statue down rightful? You’ll have to decide based on the sufficient evidence that is revealed in Happy Valley. Paterno sent emails revealing that he knew of Sandusky’s abuses against the boys that he raped and molested. In one short line of an email thread, it is revealed that Paterno said that he would take care of these abuses. He eventually reported it, with a short time lapse in between his report. For the benefit of avoiding a scandal, it seems, that Paterno attempted to slip these abuses beneath the cover of a respectable institution.

Throughout the film, there are different scenes focused on a mural of individuals who have presumably shaped the positivity of Penn State University. Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno were both a part of this mural, their individual figures monuments for the university. The initial mural is first shown. After the documentary progresses to different scenes, the mural reappears. Throughout the course of the documentary, the mural’s artist decides to paint Jerry Sandusky out of his respectable cover. Another scene shows the artist painting a halo on Joe Paterno. Later in the documentary, the artist removes Paterno’s halo, when it is revealed that he might not have reported Sandusky the way he should have—with force and without resistance. Eventually, the artist painted a flower into Paterno’s hand, after he passed away. At one point, the mural’s artist mentions that deciding whether or not to remove Paterno’s halo was the hardest thing he’s ever done. Hyperbole does not work when you’re talking about something as serious as sexual crimes against children.

Regardless, Joe Paterno did not commit this crime, he only chose to condone it. Amir-Bar Lev said at the Hamptons International Film Festival Q & A: “Joe Paterno went from, overnight basically, went from being this sanctified paragon of virtue to a person who was reviled by most of America.” The real focus should be on Jerry Sandusky and how he was able to commit these crimes.

There is a scene in Happy Valley where, presumably, Penn State football fans are attempting to take photographs with the statue of Paterno that was to be taken down. The documentary shows that it was incredibly difficult for Paterno’s family to know that their husband and father’s credibility was now tainted and that such monuments that were established in his honor were going to be dismantled and discarded as trash. For his family, who hadn’t known of Jerry Sandusky’s sexual exploits, it was incredibly difficult, the documentary shows, transiently. For the children who were abused, one can only assume that it was and is still incredibly difficult to move past the fact that they were tricked by a man of power—similar to a witch who only acts upon his victims with a simplistic motive, driven by the impulsivity of carelessness— with candy and game tickets. An activist who was daringly standing in the photographs that these fans were trying to take before the statue was taken down, assured that the people he seemed to be bothering, or so they said, that he had the right to be standing there, as they complained. After calling one of the men, who wished to take a photograph with Joe Paterno’s statue, a “pedophile enabler,” the activist was verbally abused by this fan’s insults. Although Joe Paterno was not a pedophile, it is implied that because Paterno wasn’t as forceful about finding justice for these children as he thought, he directly became a condoner of these acts, and the people who wish to hold Joe Paterno on a pedestal, are pedophile enablers themselves.

During the Q & A after the screening of Happy Valley at Hamptons International Film Festival (2014), Director Amir Bar-Lev spoke of semantics, drawing upon symbols. How his previous films were focused on symbols of a “hero” and an “angel,” and how, in a way, Happy Valley was a film that partially touched upon fatherhood—it is not so much applied to Jerry Sandusky as a father, but to his adopted son who protects his own children from the abuse that his adoptive father subjected him to. Sadly, this happened, and initially, in the documentary, Sandusky’s adopted son denied that these acts of abuse happened to him, because he, like the other children Sandusky abused, did not realize what was happening to them at the time, because of the manipulation they were subjected to.

Jerry Sandusky’s adopted son, Matt Sandusky, is a father who builds for his children. To protect them, to keep them safe, and in this documentary, he has assured his children that the people who they knew as grandparents “are not good people.” Matt fills a wall in his basement for his children, and before anything else it is a labor of love.

On a larger scale, Happy Valley touches upon problems within our society that are happening every day, among people in power. If a person has the opportunity to direct a situation, he or she should remember that taking advantage of another human being, depending on the situation, is illegal, immoral, and disgusting, whether it is sexual, emotional, mental, and/or physical abuse you are subjecting that person to. People are not only traumatized by sexual abuse, but there are many situations when their lives are permanently ruined if they cannot handle the situation properly, through therapy or emotional support by non-abusive family members and friends.

It’s also important to remember that Penn State as a university should not be blamed for the actions of the few individuals, who either pursued or condoned such abuses. The team players, students, staff & faculty, and other members of the administration who had no idea what was happening should not be blamed. There were many people who were included in this film who assured, with honest demeanors, that they had no idea what was happening behind closed doors, or even, within open locker rooms. In contrast, there are a few individual administrators, who according to the documentary, were to be reprimanded for condoning these abuses for, simply, not reporting implications of these abuses. Amir Bar-Lev mentioned that it may happen in 2015 now, and that their trial had been pushed back since the making of this film.

Matt Sandusky fills a wall in his and his children’s basement, and it is love and protection that drives him. When so much wrong has been done to a person, the fact that he is able to continue to love and care for the people that he, noticeably, unconditionally loves is something that more people should learn to do. There’s a lot of negativity in this film; the general premise is very depressing. But it ends on a positive note…that someone, and people in general, who have suffered through so much can and will have a chance to make their lives better every day. The honesty within this film does not make up for the dishonesty that the manipulator ticket salesman extraordinaire practiced for much too long, but, perhaps, it brings to light questions that weren’t answered to those who read off the sides of days old newspaper clippings in the street. It fills in the blanks for the people who didn’t know what was truly happening, and more importantly, how the victim turned heroes really do prevail once they fill in the blanks, or really, the walls themselves.

Before you accept an offer, recognize the motive, the setting, the tone of voice. Happy Valley will teach you to do this, and in a world that hopefully progresses with such honest filmmaking…perhaps the world can become somewhat of a better place.

Amir Bar-Lev gave credit to Molly Thompson, a person who he told the audience “I do all my films with.”

Happy Valley screened at Hamptons International Film Festival this October (2014)

The Intersection of Theory and Practice in Yvonne Rainer’s “Privilege” (1990)

By Daniel Spada

Playing with the So-Called Truth Value of Documentary and the Authenticity of Identity[1]

The filmic image evokes an affective response that is pointedly different than one aroused by the reading of text on a page. As Jean-Paul Sartre said, in an introduction to Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, “Writing is an erotic device. The imaginary gaze of the gentle reader has no function other than to give the word a new and strange consistency. The reader is not an end; he is a means, an instrument that doubles the pleasure, in short a voyeur despite himself” (25). Likewise, the viewer of a film, be it a fiction or documentary production or a combination of the two, feels around the crevices of the composed images like a child discovering itself and its relational embodiment to the outside world, giving it meaning through an active participation that is both psychical, in the active linking up of image and sound, and physical, in the simple act of opening up to this specific, singular experience.

Film is demanding and special in the sense that it relies on that capacity to construct meaning out of the connection of image and sound; films that mark themselves or are marked by their makers as functioning within the documentary spectrum of film production require a criticality that is both more immediate and easily overlooked. Is what we are being presented with the (definitive) truth on a particular subject, or case? While most social issue documentaries encourage a participation that is embedded within dominant social structures that requires a special form of forgetting – a forgetting that entails a lack of acknowledging positionality and intersectionality in their complex realizations – others are constructed with a more holistic approach in mind and execution, one that takes to task not only the demonstration of ways in which theory and practice interact, but also integrating theory insofar as it enacts the process of constructing itself within which a functional analysis of relationality occurs.

An ongoing analysis of being in the world, creating, and being created in the image of others, Yvonne Rainer’s Privilege (1990) offers numerous ways to deconstruct and reconfigure the production of knowledge, truth claims, and the creation and perpetuation of social inequities by deploying structural techniques including: the film-within-a-film; reenactments and multiple direct addresses therein; the combination of archival footage, interviews, and scripted segments with professional actors; and the use of text on screen. Through the implementation of these varied stylistic methods, a narrative, however experimentally played out, emerges – a narrative that instigates a scrutiny of the power of myths, the reality of differing and intersecting levels of privilege, and the liberation to be wrought from the intersecting forces of theory and practice. A critical analysis of Rainer’s prior choreographic and dance work’s influence on her film trajectory is necessary, while a close look at the interviews within the film, as well as an inquiry into one instance of evidence blindness, the qualifications of an essay film, and attention to critical reception will lead to a fuller study of the film on all accounts.

Keep Me Running, You Keep Me Running[2]: Rainer’s Choreographic and Dance Work’s Influence on Her Film Trajectory

The aforementioned Sarte quote extends itself beyond a simple application to general film viewing when discussing Rainer’s work. Renowned in the avant-garde world for her choreographer work in the 1960s and 1970s, Rainer’s dance work explicitly influenced her film work during the 1970s all through the 1990s, both ideologically and, by extension, formally and structurally. In an overview of her work for Senses of Cinema’s 27th issue of Great Directors, Erin Brannigan cites Peggy Phelan and Jonathan Walley as two of a longer list of film writers who emphasize her questioning and criticality of “spectatorial positions within the film text and the corresponding functions of narrative” (par. 5) which can also be found in her choreographic work. Brannigan comments in a footnote on the influence of John Cage,[3] a composer and collaborator, accentuating a move away from habitual ‘hard-wired’ movement and toward a minimalism that discarded dramatic elements.[4] She makes clear in her composite analysis of Rainer’s move from dance to film that it was a “reaction against the minimalism and Cagean traditions that had informed her choreography” (par. 5). Previously indicating that “her influences were from outside the experimental film scene” of the work of such filmmakers as Maya Deren (whom she does reference later on in her career as an influence), Stan Brakhage, and Kenneth Anger, Rainer says she was primarily struck by Cage’s music ideas and 1960s art practices (par. 3).

Rainer’s critique of the performer/spectator relation and her conflict against the narcissistic/voyeuristic model of dance performance, reflected in her No Manifesto, redistributed attention and negated spectacle, realigning the positionality of the spectator through the structure of the dance performances. Walley is of the opinion, as Brannigans denotes, that this is a failure on Rainer’s part, thus impels her move towards narrative performance and film. Brannigan debates him on this point, finding her breaking trends within contemporary avant-garde film and exploring the structural problems inherent within art, on an ideological level, characterized by problems with mediated power and authority that were already present in her choreographic work. As Brannigan says, “The various combinations and contradictions of figural movement, image, spoken or printed text, sound and spatial perspective, and the relation of this on-screen material to audience expectation, is an area for constant interrogation in Rainer’s film” (par. 7). A case study of Privilege seems particularly apt as Rainer’s deconstruction and critique seem particularly pronounced in this film.

Privilege “by Yvonne Rainer and many others” vs. Privilege “by Yvonne Washington and many others”: Beginning Again[5]

The first few minutes of Rainer’s Privilege are misleading, and intentionally so, insofar as they set up audiences’ expectations and lead the viewer to believe that with the rest of the running time they will be presented a definitive statement on the experiences of women who have gone through menopause,[6] in the process divesting the power of authoritative knowledge from doctors in the creation of images and control of bodies. While the film does this, it also analyzes cultural constructions and self-embodiments of race, class, and sexuality, and the influence they have on one another and the construction and perpetuation of social inequities, always occurring simultaneously and resulting in differing effects relational to the subjugated subject and the diffuseness of power.

The following two parts of the film introduce the characters of Helen Caldicott, an actual person that is played by Rainer herself, and the black signer, both of whom are dropped thereafter. In an interview with Gabrielle Finnane for The Australian Journal of Media & Culture, Rainer states that the beginning is “deliberately confusing” and alludes to the inclusion of Caldicott as the introduction of a performance piece. She comments on the reversing of a center and margin, with the black signer filling up the frame and Caldicott minimized in an oval in the left right hand corner, and the establishment of the theme of race which will run throughout. In an interview for The San Francisco Cinematheque with Kurt Easterwood, Laura Poitras, and Susanne Fairfax, Rainer says that the Caldicott speech “introduces the sexuality motif with the lipstick” and the signer also gives Yvonne Washington, the black alter-ego interrogator of Rainer and fictional documentary maker of the film-within-a-film, “the opportunity to make a comparison of medical attitudes to deafness and menopause via their presumed status of ‘disease’” (235).

The way Rainer initially films herself as Caldicott, center frame and then applying the lipstick to an extent beyond that which it is intended while “My Funny Valentine” plays on the soundtrack, is the first example of representational subversion, in conjunction with the previous classic films clips that contradict the interviews with the women that have gone through menopause. Gwen Raaberg speaks to this aspect of the film in her essay “Views from ‘The Other Side’: Theorizing Age and Difference in Yvonne Rainer’s ‘Privilege’” for Women’s Studies Quarterly, saying, “The image effectively ruins expected cinematic representations of women and conventional modes of viewing,” going on to say that it “directly confronts a culture saturated with representations of women as unreal objects of sexual desire. This is no object amenable to the consumerism of the gaze.” She proceeds to declare that the image insists on expressivity, not effacement, and that it acts as an entryway for the audience into the “carnivalesque realm of the film, where the calculated chaos of Rainer’s experimentalism subverts hierarchies, questions cultural codes, and provides a space for presenting alternative perspectives and voices” (122). It is both ironic, in the soundtrack’s effect on the image, and foreshadows the way Rainer will conduct her discourse throughout the rest of the film.

Middles and Ends: Shifting Pronouns

Throughout the rest of Privilege, the viewer is presented with a fairly accessible fictionalized narrative of the past, told by a present day fictionalized version of Rainer herself, named Jenny (played by Alice Spivak), who is being interviewed and, moreover, cross-examined by friend and filmmaker Yvonne Washington (played by Novella Nelson)[7], also a stand in for Rainer, for a documentary on menopause. Included in this narratives are monologues, sometimes disguised as dialogue, delivered by the actors, in character, the original source of which Rainer then cites via text on a computer screen. Using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house,[8] Rainer invokes certain conventions, as she says in her interview with Finnane, “to better tear them apart,” while situating the action of the film around realistic characters encourages critical awareness and analysis on the audience’s part of the ways in which the theoretical and poetic addresses throughout the film play out in everyday life.

While Raaberg is of the opinion that “Rainer’s strategies effectively block the prevalent tendency of audiences to become engaged with the narrative or empathetic with a central character; by contrast, they enforce distance and enhance the viewer’s critical capacity” (122), Finnane finds there to be an “oscillation between identification and disengagement or detachment” and that that “was increased because of the initial fictional identification with the characters.” I find Rainer’s approach to align more with the latter interpretation. An identification with Jenny’s character, and the other characters in the films as well, is simply one way to engage with the film on a narrative (as well as subsequently analytical and theoretical) level. However, it is important to remain critical of that identification, paying close attention to both her blind spots in relation to her status as privileged in some senses (her race and class), while markedly unprivileged in others (her age and gender), and our own.

Rainer’s deployment of different structural documentary techniques is disruptive insofar as they lift the viewer out of the narrative and expose the social hierarchy that at once seemed foundational to all narrative structures. In the interview with Finnane, Rainer points to the theorizing done on the idea of the narrative structure as an analogue for social hierarchy, and sees her own disruption in this sense to point towards “possibilities for a more fluid and open organizing of social relations.”

The different techniques being placed alongside one another also contributes commentary and demands a more active participation on the part of the viewer. This includes the interviews with the women going through menopause and the archival medical footage of doctors delivering what is thought to be, although is clearly proven not, authoritative knowledge on the subject. The objective knowledge claims made about women’s bodies by doctoral (read: patriarchally defined) authority is juxtaposed next to these confessional interviews, and repetitively so, to make clear one of the arguments Rainer is making, and the way the processes of image (and subject) construction actually occur in this society and culture. This is not to say that the interviewees experiences are the be all end all truths, but, as Raaberg notes in her article, identity simultaneously constructs itself and is constructed socially (124).

The Interviews: True/False, Fake/Real[9]

One of the hallmarks of documentary or nonfiction filmmaking is the interview. The interview is a technique in which the director allows an outside party, or even her or himself (in Privilege Rainer surfaces via the fictionalized form of Jenny), to tell what is presumed to be the truth about a certain topic or event. With Privilege, Rainer plays around with the assigned truthfulness of interview in documentary film.

In a discussion with Susanne Fairfax on the subject, Rainer delineates the three kinds of experiences presented through interview. They are, “the traditional professional talking head (the doctors who represent authoritative kinds of speech); the so-called ‘real’ interview–with their ‘spontaneous’ speech–which have been highly selected from hours of material; and the ‘fake’ documentary in which Yvonne interviews Jenny” (235). She says that these all play on each other and that, although she makes distinctions between them, there is not a system of prioritization being consciously enacted.

Evidence Blindness, or: and a Self-Proclaimed Missed Opportunity

One problem within feminist methodology is evidence blindness.[10] Evidence blindness is the phenomena of not taking evidence into account. While this has been explained away by multiple competing viewpoints as a cognitive incapacity (as per Anthony Appiah) and cognitive immunity in relation to the conception of the sociology of knowledge (as per Karl Mannheim), evidence blindness still flourishes within diverse disciplines, skewing data and sometimes making it unusable.

While Rainer makes connections between relations of privilege according to race and gender in her film-within-a-film and her discourse at large, she does not asks the black interviewees about their race in relation to their aging and menopause. This is noted in her interviews with Finnane and Fairfax. Rainer states in the Fairfax interview that she was asked a question by a dark-skinned woman at a Melbourne screening that enacted a self-realization about her own assumptions about documentary that went unchecked during the making of the film. The woman asked why she “treated in documentary form women speaking about menopause whereas the material dealing with issues of race is only treated in this didactic fictional form” (235-6).

Rainer justifies this visible exclusion in two different ways. In the Fairfax interview she says that if she had asked about how race functioned in relation to their aging, menopause, and treatment by the medical establishment, she “would have gone at these interviews with some preconceived agenda that they would have had to fall into” (236). This explanation does not stand the test of scrutiny because, as her film-within-a-film shows, there was already a preconceived agenda present with the analysis of race and gender in relation to one another. Likewise, in her interview with Finnane she also justifies this exclusion on the grounds that “the fictional conceit is that it’s a documentary film about menopause,” but this does not adequately address the problem. While she reconfigures social hierarchies with her disruption of narrative cohesion, she also reinscribes this particular one with the absence of authentic speech voicing issues of race. An admittance of missed opportunity and the aforementioned justifications do nothing to absolve the invisibility of these essential voices.

Is Privilege An “Essay-Film”?

A question that naturally arises from a viewing and critical analysis of Privilege is of its classification in relation to cinematic genre: does it fall under the rubric of the “essay-film”?[11] Louise Spence and Vinicius Navarro’s discussion of the filmic essay in their book Crafting Truth: Documentary Form and Meaning is borne out of an analysis of the “meeting between nonfictional representation and experimental aesthetics” (149). They say, “the essay assumes a comparable dialogue between the subjectivity of the essayist and the themes discussed” (150), and Privilege surely qualifies in partaking in this type of exploration. They go on to comment, “the essay film contradicts, for example, the assumption that the world can be known in a definitive way. It shifts the focus from the end product of the investigative effort to the process by which knowledge is created” (151). If we are to go by this understanding of the qualities of an essay film, Privilege surely fits the bill in its obfuscation of epistemological expectations regarding the documentary film. The confounding beginning is understood better in relation to what Rainer discloses as her main preoccupations throughout the rest of the film.

However, other films critics, naturally, have different views on what marks a work as an “essay-film” – one of those critics, Phillip Lopate, is critical of Privilege‘s induction into this filmic categorization. In an article for The Threepenny Review entitled “In Search of the Centaur: The Essay-Film,” he rails against the status of the film, referring to it as a “collage film” in reference to its experimental deployment of various film techniques: the dramatized scenes, the found footage, the faked interview, the written texts, etc. In particular, he criticizes Jonathan Rosenbaum’s defense of the film as an essay. His issue with the film lies in its narrative incohesion (noted before as being an intentional deployment on Rainer’s part). He sees this, along with his own lack of understanding regarding Rainer’s argument, as negating its status as an essay film.

Privilege certainly has essayistic qualities. It tackles highly theoretical issues such as gender, race, class, sexuality, and age in and through different experimental forms. Its narrative configuration plays with the so-called truth value of documentary, and the authenticity of identity, thus making it incomprehensible to some – but to others, easily falling into the category of the essay film.

Locating an Audience

In his interview with Yvonne Rainer for Film Quarterly, Scott MacDonald asks about the response to the film elicited from African-Americans. He proclaims that in Utica the audience was only 20 percent African-American, and Rainer responds that she has had “very little response from nonwhites so far.” She cites a showing at the Frederick Douglass Institute of African American Studies at the University of Rochester where she expected at least a 50-50 balance of racial diversity in the audience, however finding that “it was an almost totally white crowd” (29).

Rainer’s remarks on the absolute need of hers to find the black audience is important, as is the actual act of the film being seen by black audiences. Like one of the interviewees mentions in a discussion about the lack of experiential knowledge regarding menopause within male doctors, a discussion with a black audience is crucial insofar as they have experiential knowledge regarding race, from the subjugated position (the “other side” of privilege, so to say), that white audiences simply do not.

Momentary Utopias

One aspect of the film that has been noted by several critics and interviewers is the inclusion of the wrap party at the end of the film that runs throughout the end credits. This comes back to the inclusion of the aforementioned “and many others” in the beginning credits which indicates the actuality of film as a collaborative effort and process. In the introduction to his interview with Rainer in which he later asks her about that inclusion, MacDonald expresses the belief that “we get a sense of the private world or at least the social milieu out of which the public event of the film has developed” (20). He asks her if the line “UTOPIA: the more impossible it seems, the more necessary it becomes” that we see during the end credits is a marking of the wrap party as “a kind of momentary Utopia” and if the process of making the film is her attempt “to model Utopian interaction,” to which she responds, “Yeah,” and, “why not document what was already going to happen” (31).

In her discussion with Rainer, Laura Poitras also asks about the quote at the end of the film and the function of the wrap party’s inclusion. Giving a more fleshed out response than with MacDonald, she says, “I liked the idea of showing all those people socializing with each other. So there is a utopian cast to it” (241). She responds to criticism of a conscious invoking of the American melting pot fantasy by saying she intentionally put the scene into context “as some kind of dream, or a utopian gesture, along the lines of all tensions and social conflicts momentarily forgotten or maybe at some time in the future, resolved, a coexistence with no racial conflicts” (242).

Regardless of whether it is considered a film essay or not, Privilege‘s capacity to make the viewer do work, and actively construct theory is a productive use and advancement of the documentary film form. Through the use of different stylistic approaches, Rainer exposes (and leaves open for discussion) connections between what would be thought of as disparate subjects. Bearing her one acknowledged missed opportunity, her call for a functional and intersectional engagement with such foundational ideologies surrounding and structuring the (self and socially) constructed categories of gender, race, age, etc. lays the essential groundwork for critical and perceptive dialogue on these topics to flourish.

[1] I take this phrasing from Yvonne Rainer’s interview with Scott MacDonald for Film Quarterly, where she states, “the film is very artificial. It continually plays with the so-called truth value of documentary and with the authenticity of identity. I’m split across any number of people in this film. You might say the whole films goes on in my own head” (29).

[2] I take this (repeated) lyric from British singer-songwriter Jessie Ware’s song “Running” (the debut single on her debut studio album Devotion, released in the UK in 2012 via PMR/Island Records and in 2013 in the US via Cherrytree Records, an imprint of Interscope).

[3] Although she is not the only to do so, as a lot of the writing I have come across on Rainer, even done by herself, points to these facts.

[4] We do see an inhabitation of drama with the reenactments, however minimal, that lie at the core of the film-within-a-film in Privilege.

[5] I take this phrasing from a comment by Rainer for The San Francisco Cinematheque. Laura Poitras asks her to explain why Rainer introduces the film twice in two different ways and Rainer responds, “I’ve always liked the idea of beginning again.”

[6] Which is also, ironically enough, is the conceit of the film-within-a-film being made by Yvonne Washington.

[7] In her interview with Scott MacDonald, Rainer states that Nelson had an input into the film – specifically pointing out instances in which she corrected Rainer’s grammar and in her response to Eldridge Cleaver (29).

[8] I take this phrasing from Audre Lorde’s famous essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.”

[9] I take these dichotomies from a song title by the American house group Hercules and Love Affair.

[10]  Mary Hawkesworth, professor of Women and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, devotes an entire chapter to it in her guide book to methodological issues within feminist scholarship, Feminist Inquiry (2006).

[11]  As it has been designated by numerous film critics (although a reductive New York Film Festival review of the film by the New York Times called it an art film as opposed to a documentary, as if a film couldn’t be both), including, but not limited to, Jonathan Rosenbaum, whose 1991 review for the Chicago Reader was taken to task by Phillip Lopate.

Eraserhead: In Heaven, everything is fine

By Jordan Danner

I have always been attracted to both the surreal and morbid in the arts. Watching strange and disturbing films became almost like a “chasing the dragon”, in which I would try to seek out something even more odd, until I reached the likes of directors such as Alejandro Jodorowsky, Shinya Tsukamoto, and David Lynch. One of the granddaddies of all of these midnight cult surreal films was Lynch’s feature-length debut film Eraserhead (1977), an incredibly difficult film to watch, but not one without merit. Partially funded by a fresh out of Carrie (1976) Sissy Spacek, The Library of Congress’ National Film Registry deemed it “culturally significant” and selected the film in 2004 for preservation. The Criterion Collection just reissued a beautifully restored print on DVD, along with another release of his short films, and Mel Brooks was such a fan that he helped produce Lynch’s next film The Elephant Man (1980), which went on to receive eight Oscar nominations, including best picture.

Shot in gritty black and white, Eraserhead is more about creating an uncomfortable atmosphere than relying on dialog to create its nightmarish feeling. Noteworthy is the fact that the film does not feature much dialog at all. A large portion of the beginning of the film is just establishing the setting of this industrial wasteland that Henry (Jack Nance) inhabits. Trademarks of Lynch began in this film with his often-used ominous flickering of lights and rumbling basses, which create an incredibly uneasy environment that one almost feels the tension that the character is. Such settings would be explored in later films such as Mulholland Drive (2001) and Inland Empire (2006).

Throughout the next hour of this film, we are introduced to Henry’s grim reality. We find that Henry and his girlfriend Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) have had a child together. We discover that this child is a hideous mutation, most likely the result of the industrial wasteland that they inhabit and the genetically modified food that they eat. Henry soon finds himself alone after Mary is driven away by the constant screams and cries by their child. Henry begins to find a sort of solace in the visions he begins to experience. After staring into his radiator, he begins to witness a stage inside where a girl proceeds to dance while sperm-like beings fall to the ground. Things start get even weirder (don’t ask me how he manages this!) with more visions, including Henry losing his own head.

Loosely based on his 1970 short The Grandmother, Lynch wanted to capture what he called his own version of The Philadelphia Story (1940). While Lynch is notorious for not revealing his methods or his meanings, there are still some hints that he has dropped over the last few years. At the time, Lynch was a student at the American Film Institute, which helped with production of the film. Anyone with knowledge of rust belt cities such as Cleveland, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh could inform you that the urban decay of these former manufacturing hubs were a huge influence on the grim setting of the film. Another aspect Lynch has mentioned with the film is that it does address the apprehensions he felt as a new father in a strange time to be alive in America. This period of time had seen events such as the Vietnam War and Watergate, which caused a huge loss of morale in the nation, along with many divisions between people. The “me” generation of the 1970s was seen as a stark contrast to the “peace and love” era of the late 1960s.

The many years I have spent watching this film (secluded and in the dark is the best way to experience it in my opinion), I have often found new things to discuss, whether it be in the aesthetics of the film itself, or the story behind it. Growing up in a time with similar turmoil has made me find appreciation in the environment that Henry is around in this film. The rust belt has only continued to increase and swallow more cities whole. As factories close, jobs are lost, people flee, and budgets shrink. One can only hope at least that the song in the film is correct when it says that “In Heaven, everything is fine.”