Film About A Woman Who…

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In the very first scene of Film About A Woman Who… (1974) Yvonne Rainer confronts her viewer with the methodology of cinematic spectatorship and how she intends to manipulate those mechanics. The film first gives us images of two couples viewing slides just as we, the audience, view them in the film. A voice over narration reveals the internal thoughts of a woman, prompting the viewer to search for a concrete correlation between sound and image. Then, on the screen, a slide appears of text that continues the voice over which has abruptly stopped. Now the two couples and the film’s audience share a space and a task.

Image, sound, and text are the building blocks for the illusion of motion achieved by the manipulation of duration. When images move by quickly there is motion, when they move slowly there is the absence of that illusion which is supplanted by the cerebral motion of the spectator’s mind as they gaze or read text. Sound is the gloss that disguises the flaws in these illusions and suggests a depth or purpose that either opposes or collaborates with the images depending on the spectator’s subjective reading. As Rainer disassembles and reassembles these foundational elements and principles of Metz’s cinematographic langue she authors one of the great cinematic metaphors of the seventies.

If, for Yvonne Rainer, dance is the externalized physical expression of the human mind and spirit then the cinema is a method for directly recording the mind so that the mind itself can be broadcasted and seen. Like Maya Deren, Yvonne Rainer came to film through the world of dance and uses cinema’s reliance upon duration and time to create her complex statements on feminine identity. Film About A Woman Who… is a title as much as it is a thesis or summary of the film itself. Rainer’s film is about someone and no one in particular at the same time. Images are choreographed so stop, go, and speed up so as to represent abstract emotional responses to the content of the soundtrack. But this dance of pictures prefers that its central female character remain as anonymous and indefinite as the title suggests.

In dance no performance is ever identical to any previous or future performance. Dance is immediate, urgent, and physically intimate. In movies “you can send your mind away” and accept the film being watched as a temporary new mind. The cinema is a thing of psychic intimacy that never changes. We, the audience, change and see films differently as we revisit them as we age. Film About A Woman Who… can never change but its receivers can interpret it and remember it in any number of ways because the human mind is imperfect. However, the record of a mind or imagination never varies. Even the author or subject of a film will receive their imagination record differently over time, perceiving that some scenes are “too slow” and others “too fast”.

Images in a film are totally reliant upon the literal mechanical memory of whatever machine is utilized to view them. As an audience takes in the images of a film they form organic memories. Film About A Woman Who… is about remembrance and the rage that builds as things go unforgotten. Rainer’s dead pan delivery of the voice over removes the easy auditory emotional cues associated with narrative filmmaking. Instead the voice over lands like a witness’ testimony read back aloud by a courtroom stenographer. Rage, anger, isolation, and despair are communicated by spoken words, and text but mostly by the images of remembrance. Our society has codified slides, photos, and home movies with their awkward compositions and deteriorating materials as being the stuff of which memories are made of. These signifiers hold all the power in the structure of Film About A Woman Who….

In those scenes that deviate visually from the stratagems of codified technology as signifiers Rainer employs the inherent theatricality of a day-time soap opera. These soapy scenes of dinner parties and seductions are exactingly choreographed and executed with the most measured of movements. These images of physical human intimacy are stripped of their eroticism and agency as they unfold like some somnambulist ballet. The people that inhabit these intimate spaces locked against black backdrops appear just as mechanical as the sprocket holes on the film or the turntable of the slide projector. The body is, after all, the machine that carries the human spirit and mind; protecting the organic material of the psyche from the inorganic physical realm.

Dance, soap operas, and diaries were (at least in 1974) all associated with women. Rainer, by utilizing these disparate aesthetics, reclaims a productive ownership over them to craft one of the essential feminist texts of the seventies. Film About A Woman Who… is a grenade thrown into the face of a patriarchal society. Rainer’s influences range from the aforementioned Maya Deren to the eighteenth century novelist Jane Barker, honing in on an intellectual meditation on the power of the female spirit to endure trauma and survive as an even more incredible, indomitable force.