In retrospect, Lives of Performers strikes one as an allegory of its time—of Yvonne Rainer’s (and the avant-garde film world’s) movement from minimalism to something else. The film begins with rehearsal footage of the dance Walk, She Said, which gives every appearance of being a minimalist exercise devoted to the exploration of movement as such. 1 Though a rehearsal (and, therefore, by definition, something that looks toward the future), this dance, oddly enough, points back to the past—to minimalism with its commitment to a modernist aesthetic of austerity. In a narrow sense, the dance rehearsal points backwards to Rainer’s own distinguished career as a choreographer—a career which she was, with Lives of Performers, preparing to exchange for a career in filmmaking. From another, wider, angle, one can also gloss the rehearsal material from Walk, She Said as a synecdoche for the aesthetic milieu of the time, where not only the dance world, but the worlds of fine arts and film, were all dominated by minimalism, the film world variant of which was structural film.
Sandwiched in between the shoots of the rehearsal is
the “real” content of the film. Sally Banes has called Lives of Performers
a backstage musical—that is, we get a view of the fictional lives of
the performers, ostensibly in between their rehearsals of the minimalist
Walk, She Said. Thus, what is excluded by minimalist mandate from
Walk, She Said—emotion and narrative—becomes the focus of the film
we see. What is backstage comes on stage, while what should be on stage,
by minimalist standards, is actually backstage, since it is only a rehearsal.
Walk, She Said is an eminently minimalist-sounding title. "Walk” signals the commitment to ordinary movement on the part of minimalist choreographers, especially those associated with Judson Church and now called “postmodern.” “Walk,” of course, could aptly describe a work like Steve Paxton’s Satisfyin’ Lover where forty-two performers pace across the stage at their everyday cadence. Minimalist works like this were committed to discovering the essential conditions of dance as well as the minimal conditions of dance perception. 3
Similarly, in the entire phrase—”Walk, She Said”—the
verb “walk” appears in the imperative mood, revealing the essential nature
of choreography as a matter of instruction, of the type that Rainer herself
exemplifies in the rehearsal footage in Lives. In this way, the
expression “Walk, She Said,” is nothing short of a score for the most
stripped-down, essential piece of minimalist choreography imaginable.
Thus, the rehearsal footage in Lives represents art at its most
abstract and pared down, setting up a contrast to what sits between its
appearances—the seemingly messy, complicated lives of the performers,
no longer depicted in their universal aspect as mere walkers—mere bodies
in movement, neatly and sharply deployed in space—but fictional lovers
with shifting psychological states, occupying an unstable inner space.
If Walk, She Said stands as a specimen for the type of choreography that obsessed ambitious dancers and choreographers of the early `70s, it also corresponds to the aesthetic inclinations of the filmmakers who dominated that moment in American avant-garde cinema called “structural film,” which was represented, perhaps most illustriously, by Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton, and Ernie Gehr. Structural filmmakers—like the minimalist postmodern choreographers—attempted to pare down whatever seemed extraneous in their work in order to discover the nature of film. They sought to shrink their repertoire of devices to just those that would foreground the essential elements of the medium. If a film like Wavelength —a zoom shot, sometimes interrupted, of a loft—contained anecdotal or narrative material, it was only there in order to be parodied and, ultimately, to be bypassed in favor of the real star of the show: cinema as personified by the play of pure cinematic devices, such as the zoom shot, which itself was predicated upon engaging the audience in a rarefied act of apperception regarding the conditions of the cinematic experience. 5
Moreover, if a structural film contained language, it was not there so much for what it said, but as another specimen for minimalist interrogation, dissection, and analysis. Just as the minimalist choreographer attempted to peel dance down to its core, so structuralist filmmakers used austere design to explore what made film film, narrative narrative, and language language. Thus, the placement of Walk, She Said, at the opening of Lives, symbolizes the kind of aesthetic venture, the kind of film that Rainer “should” have been making, given the taste of the time, thereby setting up a studied contrast to the film to come—not only literally the film to come in the next seventy minutes or so, but “the film-to-come” in the larger sense of the kind of avant-garde film that would eventually displace structural filmmaking from the center of attention to a position nearer the periphery.
If, as the Russian formalists argued, art history is an affair of shifting dominants, then the movement from Walk, She Said to the lives of performers in this film prophesizes a shift from the dominance of structural film, with its commitment to minimalist aesthetics, to a re-engagement with life—the Lives of Performers—which, perforce, involves a return to narrative and emotion, subjects excluded from the minimalist program in favor of pure artistic, formal, and perceptual research.
Nevertheless, though Lives of Performers returns to the very human and impure topic of the passions—returning to well-known scenarios of courtship, fear of rejection, jealousy, betrayal, insensitivity, anger, reconciliation, and ambivalence—the film does not take up these issues oblivious to the ambitions of modernism. 6 For while aspiring to tell stories about the loves of performers, Rainer also, at the same time, wants to comment analytically on the nature of narrative—or, at least, certain aspects thereof—in this film.
One way to appreciate this is to recall how generic
the narratives in the film are—or, rather, how they are made to appear generic.
For example, there is, for the viewer, the recurring question of who
the narrative is about, due to the frequent, uncertain, underdetermined
juxtaposition of word and image. Is the text about this person or that
person; this couple or that couple? Because of the ambiguity of the spoken
and written references in the film, these questions force themselves
on the viewer again and again. Moreover, the ambiguity of the spoken and
written references in the film—vis-a-vis the ongoing narrative—serves
to generalize the scenario: to suggest that this is the story of many people
or that stories themselves are (very often) generic. That is, we lay them
on the experiences of many different people—on many different characters—monotonously.
In this way, generic narratives might be thought of
as cliches, and, of course, we have been alerted to the importance of cliche
to Rainer’s conception of Lives by the opening quotation from
Leo Bersani: “Cliche is, in a sense, the purest art of intelligibility;
it tempts us with the possibility of enclosing life within beautifully
inalterable formulas, of obscuring the arbitrary nature of imagination
with an appearance of necessity.” Through Bersani’s quotation, that is,
Rainer heralds her sense of the nature, function, and appeal of the generic
narratives she is about to explore.
Here it is also interesting to consider the use of the psychoanalyst Carl Jung in Lives. In a number of her films, Rainer employs what might be thought of as psychoanalytic reference points. In Journeys from Berlin, Lacan plays this role; in MURDER and murder, Riviere. In Lives, the psychoanalytic reference point is Jung, whom Rainer mentions four times and quotes approvingly in the film, notably in the section in which still photographs of Grand Union Dreams are shown. But what is the relevance of Jung to Lives ? I think it is this: Jung believed in the psychic existence of archetypal or stereotypical characters and narratives, templates according to which we make sense of life.
For Jung, epic narratives of the gods, such as those
alluded to in the photographic montage of Grand Union Dreams in
the early portion of Lives, are archetypal narratives of this
sort. Thus, Rainer might be interpreted as using this “Jungian narrative”
to register the point that many (most?) narratives, such as those to follow,
have a stereotypical cast. That is, the voice-over narration of events
in the personal lives of the performers, when juxtaposed against the mythic
material from Grand Union Dreams, suggests that these personal tales
are instances of mythic narratives.
Though deployed to limn the experience of individuals, these myths are nevertheless generic. Thus, by sounding this refrain, Rainer remains enough of a committed modernist so that if she is going to tell stories, her modernist conscience also requires her to tell us something about the nature of such stories.
Perhaps the clearest example of generic narration in Lives is the trio among Shirley Soffer, John Erdman, and Valda Setterfield. Executed in a medium shot with the dancers facing the camera, it is accompanied by off-screen commentary, read by Setterfield, which begins:”You might describe it that way. It’s also a story about a man who loves a woman and can’t leave her when he falls in love with another woman.” As Setterfield recounts the various affective permutations circulating this virtually archetypal love triangle, the three dancers reorient themselves toward and away from one another—sometimes lying down, sometimes hugging, sometimes somersaulting, but mostly just changing facings. Each change of facing is unavoidably read as a shift in affection, given the commentary.
Ironically, without the voice-over commentary, this
dance would appear as a quintessential minimal dance, a piece of moving geometry,
bereft of emotional qualities. But the accompanying narrative overlays
a charge of passion. As the man turns away from one woman to the other,
in the context of the voice-over, it is natural to interpret this as signaling
an alienation of affection. However, the voice-over narrative makes it
difficult to correlate precisely the women in the dance with the women
in the text.
They are called No.1 and No.2, and if this isn’t abstract enough, it is hard to keep track of which one is which relative to the story. The spectator, especially on an initial viewing, cannot be sure that she’s consistently mapped the spoken narrative onto the visuals. Which one of the dancers is No. 1 and which one is No. 2 is tauntingly ambiguous for the normal viewer.10 Yet this, I submit, is not a mistake on Rainer’s part, but a way to manipulate the viewer’s experience of the dance in order to motivate the theme that this perennial tale of the love triangle is a generic narrative, one that might fit the plight of either of the women, and, by extension, others. It is, of course, a story that we have all told about ourselves or others—more than once—in our own lives.
One part of Rainer’s reflexive investigation in Lives , then, emphasizes, as I’ve already indicated, the generic aspect of narratives. Another phenomenon that Rainer takes up for examination is the paradoxical effect of narrative, and perhaps particularly visual narrative, to possess an aura of finality—the “appearance of necessity,” as Bersani says—despite the fact that narratives are made up of a contingent ensemble of events and reversible choices. Thus, in Lives of Performers , characters are often played by different actors, 11 and scenes are putatively rehearsed and played in alternative ways, though each instantiation of the written text appears absolutely authoritative visually. At one point, for instance, Setterfield seems to think aloud about how she should play a scene—one involving an entrance into a room already occupied by John Erdman and Shirley Soffer. 12 Then, what follows is nothing less than an elaborate inventory (including as many as ten variations) of how she might enter (or even not at all enter) the room.
This is an exercise in the subjunctive mood, an exploration of alternative, possible narrative worlds, pointedly reminding us that, though the modal status of narratives—perhaps particularly visual ones—feels like some kind of necessity, it is really, with respect to fictional constructs, nothing more than a matter of possibilities carefully staged and advanced from a repertoire of contingent choices.
Throughout Lives, we see emerging in Rainer’s film work a preoccupation with theory, which will become one of her signatures as a cineaste. But even in its earliest appearance, we note that she is not a doctrinaire theorist, but rather one who tries to motivate and to make available to audiences theoretical insights through their experience of the film. The insights she has to offer about the nature of narrative in Lives of Performers are not dictated at the audience as they might have been in so many New Talkies, but rather they emerge from one’s experience of the film. 13 For instance, Rainer’s insight into the generic nature of narratives, despite the appearance of particularity that dominates individual narratives, emerges from the simultaneous ambiguity and tempting applicability of the narratives with which the viewer is confronted while trying to match the spoken text with the visuals. And this, in conjunction with the allusions to Jung, should encourage the informed viewer, maieutically, to an appreciation of the putatively archetypal dimension of narrative structure.
Similarly, the play of necessity and possibility—of the indicative and the subjunctive—in the deep structure of the film is something that Rainer makes available to the audience through demonstration rather than protestation, committed as she has been not just to advancing theoretical points, but to making theorists—that is, to engendering the participation of audiences willing to reflect thoughtfully on the stories, images, and their reciprocal configuration as they encounter them in Lives . If Rainer succeeds in disclosing the apparent necessity of narratives as, in part, a function of their generic structures, she also deconstructs that appearance by underscoring that such narratives are really composed from a network of contingent possibilities, alternative artistic choices of the sort she exhibits.
With Rainer’s concern with narrative comes an interest in the emotions, since the emotions are the most common engine for the production of action in our fondest stories of human affairs. That is, the emotions are the springs that make action happen, which, in turn, becomes the stuff of stories.
As is well known, Rainer has said that she moved from dance to film in order to pursue her interests in the emotions. But though this is a cliche of Yvonniana, Sally Banes has asked the good question of why Rainer had to embrace film in order to approach the emotions, since the dance of her immediate predecessors—the moderns, including, most notably Martha Graham—made the emotions their privileged domain. 14 But as Banes points out, that sort of approach to the emotions—the modern-dance approach—was not available to Rainer, and not simply because of her avowed minimalism.
The modern dance approach involved exhibiting, expressing, or projecting emotion—making it visible on the surface of the body in a way often predicated upon arousing emotions in the audience. Modern dancers sought to provoke emotion as they showed it forth bodily. Emotion from one body was designed to infect other bodies, igniting feeling in spectators.
Yet this approach was antithetical to Rainer’s concern
with emotion, which, paralleling her interests in narrative, focussed
on reflecting on the nature and structure of the emotions—on their stereotypical
or archetypal scenarios—rather than on being caught up in their rhythms,
swamped by affect and, in the worst case, wallowing in it. This is why,
I hypothesize, Rainer moved from choreography to film, since film allowed
her the opportunity to reflect on the emotions dispassionately. Whereas existing
dance vocabularies tended to absorb audiences rather than to afford a space
for reflection—indeed, since the presence of any emotional body in dance
is apt to infect the audience affectively—Rainer moved from dance to film
in order to secure a space for reflection, to distantiate the audience from
emotive engulfment, setting emotion at a remove where spectators could observe
the emotional states of characters as if under a microscope.
It may sound strange to speak of film as a means for “anaesthetizing” emotions for the purpose of observation. So many genre films—from action and suspense films to horror and melodrama—are about activating emotions, not about scrutinizing them. But what Rainer saw as a filmic possibility was the option of dissecting emotional states, of dissolving them into their parts in a way that not only undercut their potential infectiousness, but dismantled them for one to view their parts dispassionately and contemplatively.
What Rainer realized was the possibility of separating
the parts of an emotion—of prying apart the inside and the outside—and
redistributing said parts across the various visual and linguistic channels
of cinematic articulation—intertitles, voice-over, and visual enactment,
both photographic and cinematic. We often speak of channeling our emotions.
In Lives, Rainer re-channels and redistributes the emotions of
her characters across several informational tracks, separating the behavioral
and the propositional dimensions of emotions so that one can reflect on
each dimension coolly, without being caught up in the holistic emotional
The characters are often literally frozen, or, at least, frequently deadpan, as we hear or read of their inner turmoil. Their demeanor is not only a sort of realistic acknowledgment of the suppression of affect amongst modern middle-class professionals, but also a device to keep the audience on the outside looking in—rather like anatomists of affect.
Just as Brechtian acting techniques, including the third person deliveries of lines, alienate the actors from their characters, so the disembodied verbal affect distantiates the viewer, so that one can chart the repetitions, stereotypes, and generic structures in the emotional lives of the characters, including romantic syndromes of approach and avoidance, patterns of reconciliation, envy, betrayal, and anger. 17 Moreover, additional distantiating devices, including the low-key acting style, the ever-so-discreet frontal medium shots, and the foreswearing of emotionally aggressive close-ups, 18 decouple affect from gesture, thereby short-circuiting the likelihood of the bodily emotional infectiousness that is the hallmark of much modern dance and most popular film.
Nevertheless, if most of the film brackets or de-emphasizes the bodily expression of emotion, concentrating on the mental or propositional content of the emotive states portrayed, the bodily realm is not forgotten. The film reinstates it, so to speak, in the coda, an enactment of a series of stills from the published scenario of G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box , which sequence is nothing so much as a catalogue of a range of stereotypical bodily manifestations of emotional states. By means of this protracted montage of photographic recreations (each pose is held for twenty seconds before it is relaxed), Rainer is able to set forth for reflection readily recognizable, recurring forms of emotive appearances, thereby continuing her meditation on the generic structure of the emotions at the same time that the film reunites emotive thinking with its natural habitat in the body.
Most of this coda is silent, and the stillness of the sequence—both in terms of movement and sound—along with the narrative decontextualization of the images invites the viewer to scrutinize these highly legible, in some cases conventionalized, expressions of emotion almost diagnostically. That is, appropriately defamiliarized, these poses become opportunities to contemplate the generic face of emotion.
At the same time, the relevance of this coda to the
rest of the film is reflective, reminding us of the emotive upheaval that
underlies the putative lives and loves of the performers who have engaged
us for most of the film so far. At one point, a snatch of the Rolling Stones
song “No Expectations” intervenes, about which B. Ruby Rich comments: “In
a stagy replica of the 1928 melodrama, the four characters get to exhibit
extremes of emotion never displayed in the preceding footage. Lest the viewer,
however, thereby assume that the emotions themselves were not in evidence
(albeit devoid of a matching acting style), Rainer slyly matches the last
three minutes of the ‘stills’ to the Rolling Stones song . . . of yet another
affair of the heart gone wrong.”19
However, even if in the “Lulu” section Rainer finally grants the emotions some measure of bodily visibility (and audibility), both the “heat” of the acting style and the music are buffered by the configuration of cinematic strategies, so that the audience, instead of being affectively inflamed, stays at a meditative distance, clinically taking note of the generic emotive forms of fright, abandon, passion, amusement, and derangement. Thus, it is as if in the coda, Rainer returns to the home territory of modern dance—to the topic of the embodiment of emotion—but with a difference. For by presenting the intense expression of emotion, as abstracted from a silent expressionist film, in the medium of effectively still images, she has arrested their contagious powers, calling forth contemplation rather than empathy, kinetic or otherwise. Thus, in turning to film, Rainer discovered a way to acknowledge and address the life of the emotions, without being overwhelmed by it. 20