Yvonne Rainer - Journeys from Berlin/1971 (1980)

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Rainer's fourth film, and some say her finest, an essay on radicalism and rehabilitation.

How are oppositional politics advanced by their partisans and neutralised by the State? Radicals are those who expose hidden repressive tendencies in a society. Their tactics are criminalized, politics psychologized and reforms bureacratized.

Rainer's film questions duplicitous rehabilitation (psychiatric care/control), the efficacy of radicalism, and conflicted political and personal motivations.

The collage essay technique of Journeys parallels the investigation of these conflicts on a formal level. She weaves the stories of 19th century Russian anarchists; the staging of identity as it occurs in therapeutic analysis, writing a diary or preparing a meal; and the fate of the Red Army Faction (Baader-Meinhof gang), which exposed the precarious and enforced nature of West German democratic freedoms in the 1970s.

Featuring Annette Michelson, Amy Taubin, Vito Acconci, Cynthia Beatt, Ilona Halberstadt, Vernon Gabor, Yvonne Rainer and many others.

Journeys From Berlin/1971 (1980), her epic meditation on psychoanalysis, the Baader-Meinhof, feminism, and pre-revolutionary Russia. Berlin finds its unlikely star in plummy-voiced academic Annette Michelson, whose stream-of-consciousness shrink sessions unearth eggheady gems. "My cunt is not a castrated cock," Michelson protests. "If anything, it's a heartless asshole."

When Yvonne Rainer made her first feature-length film in 1972, she had already influenced the world of dance and choreography for nearly a decade. From the beginning of her film career she inspired audiences to think about what they saw, interweaving the real and fictional, the personal and political, the concrete and abstract in imaginative, unpredictable ways. Her bold feminist sensibility and often controversial subject matter, leavened with a quirky humor, has made her, as the Village Voice dubbed her in 1986, “The most influential American avant-garde filmmaker of the past dozen years, with an impact as evident in London or Berlin as in New York.”

Rainer was born in San Francisco in 1934. She trained as a modern dancer in New York from 1957 and began to choreograph her own work in 1960. She was one of the founders of the Judson Dance Theater in 1962, the beginning of a movement that proved to be a vital force in modern dance in the following decades. Between 1962 and 1975 she presented her choreography throughout the United States and Europe, notably on Broadway in 1969, in Scandinavia, London, Germany, and Italy between 1964 and 1972, and at the Festival D’Automne in Paris in 1972. In 1968 she began to integrate short films into her live performances, and by 1975 she had made a complete transition to filmmaking.

In 1972 she completed a first feature-length film, LIVES OF PERFORMERS. In all she has completed seven features: FILM ABOUT A WOMAN WHO... (1974), KRISTINA TALKING PICTURES (1976), JOURNEYS FROM BERLIN/1971 (1980, co-produced by the British Film Institute and winner of the Special Achievement Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics’ Association), THE MAN WHO ENVIED WOMEN (1985), PRIVILEGE (1990, winner of the Filmmakers’ Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival, Park City. Utah, 1991, and the Geyer Werke Prize at the International Documentary Film Festival in Munich, 1991), and MURDER and murder (1996).

Rainer’s films have been shown extensively in the U.S. and throughout the world, in alternative film exhibition showcases and revival houses (such as the Bleecker St Cinema, Roxy-S.F., NuArt-L.A, Film Forum-NYC, et al), in museums and in universities. Her films have also been screened at festivals in Los Angeles (Filmex), London, Montreux, Toronto, Edinburgh, Mannheim, Berlin, Locarno, Rotterdam, Creteil, Deauville, Toulon, Montreal, Hamburg, Salsa Majori, Figueira da Foz, Munich, Vienna, Athens (Ohio), Sundance, Hong Kong, Yamagata, and Sydney.

Dancer, choreographer, performer, filmmaker and writer Yvonne Rainer, who began choreographing in 1961 and made her first film in 1967, is a key figure in the story of the New York avant-garde in terms of both her writing and practice. (2) Rainer provided a commentary on the influences that preceded her own aesthetic objectives and articulated her own project through practice and explicatory discourse, establishing her position as a key player within the New York avant-garde from the early 1960s through to the mid-1990s. During this period she produced twelve films, including silent short works for multimedia performances (which she calls “filmed choreographic exercises”) (3) as well as features. According to Rainer, her fascination with dance and film emerged simultaneously when she moved on from acting at 25 (p. 51). She is certainly a choreographer who had as many film reference points as choreographic, evidenced in the use of projection in her stage work and her erudite use of cinematic quotation in her film work. (4) What links Rainer's dance and film work is an intense critique of disciplinary conventions and a profound interrogation of the role of performance. Performance is central to all aspects of Rainer's work; she herself refers to performance as the subject matter in her films (p. 8) and Peggy Phelan describes her writings as “rhetorical performances”. (5)

Rainer's parents were migrants, her mother Polish-Jewish (“a potential stage mother”) and her father Italian (“an anarchist and a house painter”), who settled in San Francisco. Rainer describes herself as a shy child who liked to read and her childhood as “depressed”. (6) At around 15 she started attending socialist-anarchist meetings with her brother where she made friends with some visiting New Yorkers. At 20 Rainer “fell into” acting school at the Theater Arts Colony in San Francisco, but after some frustrations there she moved to New York with a painter, Al Held. There she became involved in the visual arts scene and continued acting classes, now at the Herbert Berghof school where she was told she was “too intellectual” (pp. 49–50). Rainer started full-time training at the Martha Graham School at 25 and danced full-time with the support of her parents, spending her spare time at the Museum of Modern Art watching film classics. She moved on to Merce Cunningham's classes and then became part of an informal collective meeting in the Cunningham studios who would work together and perform for each other.

Rainer became a central figure in the American postmodern dance movement, specifically the New York activity surrounding the venue, Judson Church. Following Merce Cunningham's lead, Judson Dance Theatre was inclusive of artists working in other disciplines. Filmmaking was particularly predominant at Judson Dance Theatre events and Sally Banes describes this area as a “key outgrowth” of the group. (7) A film work, by regular contributor Elaine Summers and others, opened the very first Judson performance and within the series there were other screenings including Brian De Palma's 1963 film, Wotan's Wake (which parodies Maya Deren among other things). (8) Peter Wollen and Vicky Allan have written that experimental filmmakers have always been “interested in analogies between dance and film as kinetic and time-based art forms”, (9) and in the case of the '60s and '70s, choreographic and film/video strategies can be discussed as concomitant with the two disciplines informing and elaborating on each other. Along with De Palma, other filmmakers such as Charles Atlas, Shirley Clarke, Amy Greenfield, Doris Chase and Hilary Harris worked with dance and dancers. (10) Rainer ultimately states, however, that her influences were from outside the experimental film scene; that she was familiar with the work of Maya Deren and filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage and Kenneth Anger, but “the ideas didn't really turn me on the way that [John] Cage's ideas in music and '60s art practices had.” (11)

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