Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 5, No. 2, 1992
Film: Matters of Style
Edited by Adrian Martin

Discussing Privilege: an interview with Yvonne Rainer

Gabrielle Finnane

The following interview was conducted with Yvonne Rainer at the end of her visit to Australia in August 1990. Yvonne Rainer was invited as a guest of the Performance Space in Sydney to participate in their annual conference event. A retrospective of Rainer's feature film work was held preceding the premiere of her most recent film Privilege. Rainer also visited and gave lectures in Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. Privilege (1990, colour & black & white, 100 minutes) was exhibited for a season by the Australian Film Institute in 1991. The previous films of Yvonne Rainer's referred to in passing below are well known: Lives of Performers (1972); Film About A Woman Who... (1974); Kristina Talking Pictures (1976); Journeys From Berlin/1971 (1980); The Man Who Envied Women(1985).

Finnane: In Privilege what is your interest in creating more plausible fictional characters than in your previous films?

Rainer: You have to invoke certain conventions in order to better tear them apart and influenced as I was by the so-called avant garde New American Cinema tradition when I went into film - the work of Hollis Frampton and some of the stuff of Warhol where narrative was considered to be everywhere - any sequence of shots was narrative - it seemed just logical to get a more complicated formal thing going in relation to specific social issues which could then be worked out both as everyday life - a character within a recognisable situation - and worked out in various kinds of analytic address. I guess I've gone for a wider range of techniques, and narrative conventions with plausible characters are one part of that spectrum.

Finnane: It seemed to me that the oscillation between identification and disengagement or detachment was increased because of the initial fictional identification with the characters. It went through that many more turns. At the same time this isn't anything like a Brechtian relationship to acting where you might actually have a character step aside and comment on the role.

Rainer: I have the same character played by more than one performer in the past and to a small extent in Privilege - but I don't have the characters presenting themselves as performers.

Finnane: In your early films up to Kristina Talking Pictures, the performers are the characters more or less.

Rainer: Yes, it's left up to the spectator to read character into the performance. My theory has always been that it takes very little to identify. The apparatus and the viewing circumstances of film are such that the instant a person speaks and moves the identification process is in play and all you have to do is guide it. I was very aware of that from the very beginning of making films.

Finnane: With Journeys From Berlin/1971 and after, plausible fictional characters are constructed and yet there is a strange instability to these characters because of the many fictional contradictions and paradoxes you set in play, such as the use of different performers for the same characters and the mismatch of lip sync. Privilege is riddled with these unpredictable permutations, the most remarkable I found being the sudden insertion of a "documentary" interviewee into the fictional part of Jenny. Until then I had thought the documentary episodes to be entirely separate and, in an ordinary sense, contrasted to the fiction.

Rainer: They are discrete except for that one interviewee who crosses over into the fiction. She's the only one who's treated that way. The documentary often is juxtaposed either to the educational footage, the archival footage, or to my own texts so that they play on each other. There are these manipulative slippages you might say, for instance, in the sequence involving Gloria, the woman in the backyard. In that shot, right after the statistics on rape, you hear a woman's voice say "I don't believe that, Gloria" and Gloria says "What do you mean?" and the other voice says "You were your father's darling." That's taken totally out of context. I think I could have done more of that - taking pieces of so-called authentic speech out of their original context. I use the archival stuff that way too. Jenny's voice fades out and the doctor's voice is slotted over her image. But these are not only techniques of fiction. Traditional documentaries are always doing this kind of stuff, only they're not up-front about it. You might say that my approach is less deceitful. So all of this is about play with the signifiers that are usually put in this hierarchy of authenticity. I'm already getting questions about why the material dealing with race is in either a fictional or a didactic and recitational mode rather than "spontaneous." I didn't ask any questions about race of my interviewees, partly because the fictional conceit is that it's a documentary film about menopause. But I didn't feel it was necessary to balance out the modes of address according to this hierarchy, this value system of authenticity where documentary is usually considered more real than fiction, more credible than recitation. I'm interested in mixing up all these modes of address but it hadn't occurred to me to get more so-called authentic kinds of speech to voice the issues of race - which I see is going to cause some people problems.

Finnane: Rather than authentic versus inauthentic speech I was struck by a division in time - the past tense in which the story unfolds (the early 1960s) and in which the dialogues on race are spoken and the present tense of the fictional interview about menopause. There is another past implied by the archival footage which remains quite separate from the fictional reminiscence. How are we meant to understand the archival footage which carries statements that impress one as risibly antiquated?

Rainer: The archival footage looks even more antiquated because it's black and white. It originally was colour and probably made in the early 1970s but it was an aesthetic decision to separate it out as black and white. There's nothing in that material that isn't operative today. Jenny's menopausal story - and the stories of many women I interviewed - contains those same experiences with condescending doctors who view women as children or laboratory pets. The doctors in that found footage are not so anachronistic, if you think about it at all.

Finnane: What are the possible relations one can have to the variety of documentary modes in the film, some of which have an impersonal factuality - such as the statistics on the computer screen - and some of which are more anecdotal? Then there are also the authentic or candid interviews with older women on a range of subjects and the archival medical shorts.

Rainer: Statistics are statistics - I think we tend to trust statistics and there is great pressure to believe them. I don't examine this, I went with those numbers from my research. The print is also commentary - it functions as an overriding kind of voice even when you can't identify the referent of the pronoun. Also, the pronouns on the word processor are always changing - from I to you to we to she. Identification was not so important here as recognition on the part of the reader of his or her own stake - or lack of it - in whatever inequity is being described.

Finnane: The film opens with a documentary sequence, it passes to your performance of Helen Caldicott's farewell address, the black woman who does the sign language and eventually to the reminiscence, the fiction proper. This prologue is very rapid and includes several changes of scene, tone and genre.

Rainer: The beginning is deliberately confusing. I've always been interested in easing into something by pretending it is something other than what it is going to be in terms of genre or form so it starts out as a talking head documentary and then it becomes some kind of performance piece, an enactment of an actual person - Helen Caldicott - who's recognisable with her feminist and anti-nuke rap. Then the literal reversing of a centre and margin gets immediately into a prefiguring of the theme of race - the black signer is centred and the white speaker is on the side. Then the voice-over of the fictional African-American protagonist and the maker of the documentary comes in with her account of how in her previous career she was in some kind of advocacy work for American sign language. That all happens in a very condensed way, a shuffling of the cards you might say, in the same way the beginning of The Man Who Envied Women is like a ten minute table of contents of what's going to come.

Finnane: The film shuffles back and forth between documentary and fiction although, with the exception of this prologue which contains visual and performance material that does not recur in any way, the whole is placed inside the 'fiction' of the making of the documentary. Is your interest in documentary in your last two films a reflection on feminist film practice?

Rainer: My interest in documentary is partly a force of circumstance, like my involvement in that housing dispute which is seen in The Man Who Envied Women and since the circumstances of my own life always direct me to a large extent to what I'm going to do, the documentary mode presented itself so to speak on my doorstep. I was very aware of the challenge of using it in relation to fiction.

I always come into feminist film practice from an angle - there are certain things that hit me and which I find useful. I've never taken the writings on feminist film as blueprints for making films. Also with fifteen years as a choreographer I came into filmmaking from a pretty complex aesthetic practice, so feminist theory was a means of redirecting an already elaborate practice.

I've never been a purist. I've never devised an overriding scheme, a system, for making art. Maybe in my earliest minimal dances, but I think at its best minimalism offered a way into everyday life. You know - the way things are made, the way people move. And this is carried forward into the way people talk, different kinds of speech and relations to language and the use of language. I incorporated large pieces of found language and I continue to do so. I do not feel any obligation or compulsion to make work that embodies a given theory although you can identify parts of a work that reflect various theoretical positions but they may be contradictory. I really am interested in incongruity and contradiction - that may go back to John Cage.

Finnane: The framing seems to express the confrontational character of the dialogue. One is very aware of the physical presence of bodies, more so than in your previous films. This struck me as being like the heroic bodies of political art and, at the same time, like television.

Rainer: I was very conscious of getting in closer. There are many more close ups - not only head shots but upper body shots and the camera moves in and you're aware of bodies getting larger.

Finnane: In the narrative about Jenny and her affair with the lawyer, she appears in her reminiscence to have realised her naivety, but in the film the analysis of the affair is presented by the Puerto Rican woman. Why is this realization given to Digna to express if it is characteristic of a white middle-aged woman?

Rainer: I wanted it to come from Digna. It was a way out for her to be able to see the oppressor class in that way and what is implied is that she could get a handle on it by looking at, by seeing Jenny's lack of comprehension of her involvement with this upper class man. I know it's a funny thing to do but it goes with giving all the working class blacks language that they would never be in a position to use. But you're right ... it's different ... it's different for Carlos to speak Frantz Fanon which is about his own position than to have Digna speak about Jenny's position. Yes it does suggest a kind of alliance... but not entirely ... she's speaking about class differences and how not knowing where you are in that system is what gets you into trouble, suggesting a way of not only recognising one's own position but a way of speaking about 'the other' from a lower class position. Here middle class sociology has given way to lower class sociology.

Finnane: How do you see your filmmaking in relation to the New American Independents who work with expanded narrative form but still within the limits of the conventional one - people such as Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch?

Rainer: Their films cost a lot more money. The main difference is their reliance on dramatic action rather than monologue. The more shots a film has - and dramatic action requires many more shots per scene and more locations than the kind of static monologue and dialogic form I use - the more it costs.

Also, my films don't stay at one level of identification, I mean, the spectator's relation to the image is constantly shifting to adapt to shifting registers of meaning. Therefore, a 'mass' audience is automatically ruled out.

Finnane: You're very clear about the fact that Privilege is a different sort of film for you to make in terms of accessibility, communicability or something of the sort. Why not, some would say, move towards general release filmmaking?

Rainer: The cross-over, the so-called cross-over. Well, I wouldn't be able to have sync sound go off for long periods of time, you can't do that in the cross-over films - I wouldn't be able to play with the sound the way I do and I like that. I don't set out to make a film that's more accessible. I find that I'm writing and all of a sudden something requires the skills of an actor and as soon as you're into using the skills of an actor then you're into more accessibility because that's what people enjoy and relate to - identifying with these mirages of a personality, right? Then I found I was interviewing very engaging people, some of whom I've known all my life and whom I love, and so I find these very arresting moments in these interviews - so yes I was into a whole new ball game not because I planned it but because maybe the particular subject matter led me there. But this is something about the way I work, the play, the operation of accident which goes back to my very earliest days of making things. Not so much in the organised shoot because I don't have these instincts when I'm in actual production with an army of people around me and actors and make-up and all that - there's no way to be spontaneous in that situation - but at the editing table this opportunity for playfulness is essential.

Finnane: I was struck by a question asked at the premiere of the film: "Why do you always concern yourself with exposing the conditions of production of filmmaking and do you see yourself as progressing beyond it?"

Rainer: Right - "beyond it" as though it's a failing you have to overcome.

Finnane: And also the question suggests that you're doing it for simply antagonistic or contestational reasons.

Rainer: It's fun, I find it pleasureful. That's my new tack. (laughs) And I would hope that it's also fun to watch. But there is, of course, a more serious justification that has to do with the fluidity of signifiers and disruption of fixed social positions. If narrative structure is an analogue for social hierarchy - and there has been much theorizing about this - then the disruption of, or messing around with narrative coherence has a positive function in pointing toward possibilities for a more fluid and open organizing of social relations. This is, of course, an ongoing project; not at all subject to aesthetic fashion, not something you "get beyond", or "cross-over" from, or rise above. You find ways to keep up the good fight, because it is a good fight, and continues to be worthwhile.

Finnane: In many recent feminist films language is seen as opposed to emotion, because intellectual. In your films, however, there is a lot of text and it is tied up with emotion. How do you view the relationship between language and emotion?

Rainer: I am interested in what people say. Whether they're lying or not or whether we can believe them or not or whether they believe themselves or not. And language is one way of expressing emotion. Film About A Woman Who was experimenting with the expression of rage as print and leaving a title on for excessive duration was a way of emphasising a particular emotion. Like the intertitle "She grieves for herself" which stays on for a good 10 seconds. I suppose I was thinking along the lines of the spectator's ability to empathize through this disembodied language, or print, rather than through identification with a persona.

Finnane: What's your interest in melodrama and the use of TV soap opera as a kind of melodramatic style in Privilege?

Rainer: I had never thought of soap opera - it's a kind of method acting. It's not a declaimed acting. I went for more naturalistic performances because that's where these actors are skilled. In fact, Novella Nelson 1 does a lot of soaps.

Finnane: In Journeys From Berlin /1971 you have a therapeutic setting - the patient and the analyst - the situation with Yvonne Washington and Jenny seems like a transposition of the therapeutic setting.

Rainer: Yes, which was again replicated in The Man Who Envied Women - Jack Deller talking to his off screen shrink.

Finnane: In Privilege I was aware of the tone - it is a confessional mode, the type of exchange of intimate conversation, memory, etc.

Rainer: Well, they're similar - the documentary film format, the talking head format and the analytic session. There's a speaker and a witness so it's a theatre of a certain kind, a theatrical space that offers a credible situation in which people can talk. It was the same for Journeys From Berlin /1971 and The Man Who Envied Women - they are addressing someone in the frame or out of the frame, they don't address the camera - that was important - whereas Digna and Carlos address the camera, we are their respondents in a sense. That's a very different kind of address - you hear in a different way. In one you're a voyeur; in the other you're a correspondent.

As for the social implications: identity is formed by response. To be witnessed, which presupposes being heard, is essential to ongoing social life. In this so-called postcolonial era we whites are beginning to listen to voices from the margins, to voices which comprise identities formed under conditions of domination. Finding appropriate speech for those voices that did not form my experience as a white middle-class woman was one of the biggest challenges in writing the script for Privilege.

Finnane: Why the choice of black and white for the dream sequence and for the long section that deals with the rape, the Eldridge Cleaver text and so on?

Rainer: The black and white is another way of indicating a disparity in viewpoint. All of Jenny's scenes are in colour - her bedroom, her walking in the hallway - whereas from the beginning of the intrusion or alleged rape everything in Brenda's apartment is in black and white. So this divergence in the way we look at the flashback happens at that point.

Finnane: Why are rape and race and lesbian feminism concatenated at this point?

Rainer: That story is partly authentic. I lived over someone who was a lesbian and was intruded upon by a Puerto-Rican neighbour and that is what is at the core of the whole project - I mean how to tell that story and how to tell it in a non-clich­d, non-white-centred way. It's the occasion for different kinds of outrage - Brenda's against men, Carlos's against his social position, Digna's against an oppressive medical practice, at the kind of discrimination that sends her to Bellevue and not her violent partner, her husband.

Finnane: This sequence contains a wonderful series of repetitions as Carlos pushes Brenda across the room. Was that scripted? It reminded me of the fractured repetitions of the man and woman arguing in Hollis Frampton's Critical Mass.

Rainer: What Brenda says is in the script. The precise knitting of sound and image was worked out in the editing stage.

Finnane: And the appearance of the white man?

Rainer: This represents Jenny's effort to avoid negative stereotyping in her flashback. As she says, "I'm just trying to point out that rapists come in all colours." To which Yvonne Washington responds with a somewhat huffy "Thank you ma'am, thank you." She doesn't need to be reminded of something so obvious. But I as the writer felt it had to be stated. The flashback is constantly splintering into these different necessities and points of view.

Finnane: Are the stories and character types contained within the flashback meant to encapsulate a range of social issues spanning the last twenty or so years?

Rainer: It certainly isn't meant to be exhaustive. I go for explosive kinds of rhetoric that belong to the time.


1. Novella Nelson - a black actress who plays the role of Yvonne Washington, a documentary filmmaker and sometime alter ego for Yvonne Rainer in the film.

New: 27 November, 1995 | Now: 21 March, 2015