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.

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