Rainer, Yvonne: Director Profile

Experimental Filmmakers

Beginning with Maya Deren and continuing with Shirley Clarke, a number of female directors have come from dance. In her work as a choreographer, Yvonne Rainer pioneered a minimalist style with limited movement and emotion, divesting dance of convention and artifice. Searching for new means of expression, she experimented with the incorporation of film into her dances. Gradually drawn to filmmaking for its own sake, Rainer made her first feature, Lives of Performers, in 1972.

Rainer's films are collages of reality and fiction, thought-provoking blends of images and sounds that shun narrative cinema. Audiences are invited to participate in Brechtian-style exercises that are responses to timely socio-political issues. It's an approach that channels divergent topics into one story, while experimenting with the strengths and limitations of the medium. Rainer gives the impression of deciding anew in each scene the priorities of imagery and sound.


In Privilege (1991), the issues are rape, racism and menopause, with voices ranging from disarmament advocate Helen Caldicott to militant writer Eldridge Cleaver. Though Privilege has a more mainstream feel than Rainer's earlier work, it retains the quality of a personal rumination about “life changes” from a distinctly female perspective–the movie came directly from the challenges Rainer faced at the time. As she explained, “I've been dealing with my own menopause off and on for a couple of years, and there is a point where you realize you're more at the end of your life than at the beginning, and a sense of mortality that inevitably comes. But there's also a way of looking at your life as a set of accretions and achievements and completions rather than an ending.”

Rainer's strategy is based on the violation of taboos: She eliminates sound, imposes voiceovers of stiffly-read script, and employs dialogue that runs counter to the images. Several actors play one character, and she lights them with a single spotlight, relays their images to a video monitor, or abandons them entirely, filling the frame with texture or moving the lens randomly around a room. The result is a deliberate disruption of Hollywood's glossy and unified surface.

Silence is an important component of Privilege, a film that addresses “the silence that emanated from friends and family regarding the details of my middle age. Now that I did not appear to be looking for a man, the state of my desires seemed of no interest to anyone.” In the film, Jenny is interviewed about the dreaded menopause, but she doesn't want to discuss it–“Keeping your dignity as you enter menopause is like fighting City Hall,” she says. Jenny describes a near-rape that occurred when she was a dancer.

Based on an incident in Rainer's life, the story underlines the links between gender, race and victimization. Warnings about the effects of therapy are intercut with educational films in which patronizing male doctors discuss menopause and women talk about their reactions to middle age. Then Eldridge Cleaver engages in an inflammatory monologue about black-on-white rape, which Rainer included despite warnings the material might fuel white paranoia.

Murder and Murder

As emotionally unsettling but not as challenging, Murder and Murder (1996), a logical follow-up to Privilege, was at once a soap opera, black comedy, love story, and political meditation. The movie contests popular misconceptions about lesbian sexuality, aging and medical biases about cancer, critiquing them as cultural constructions. Through slapstick humor, visual metaphors, and commentary, Rainer's formal discursive strategies are invoked and dismantled. Periodically, Rainer (who also underwent a mastectomy) herself punctures the narrative with inquiries into the politics of breast cancer.

Two white women, Mildred and Doris are juxtaposed. Mildred is of the upper-middle class, Doris hails from a poor family and raised her daughter alone. Mildred is a tenured professor, Doris didn't attend college and has never had a steady job. Mildred shops at Barney's, Doris plunders catalogues and thrift shops. Mildred has been a lesbian all her life; Doris is attracted to a woman for the first time. Told from Doris's perspective, the movie explores the pleasures, uncertainties and ambiguities of late-life lesbianism in a culture obsessed with youth and heterosexual romance.

If you want to know more about this issue, please read my book, Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film(NYU Press, hardcover 2000; paperback 2001).