Thursday night offered a rare chance to catch a public screening of Yvonne Rainer’s 1985 feature film The Man Who Envied Women at The Whitechapel Gallery in east London. The movie mixes fictional and documentary passages. The fictional sequences feature a character called Jack Dellar talking subjectively about the breakdown of his relationship with his second wife, while his ex’s speeches tend towards more general reflections on gender and related issues. The film begins with Dellar exercising in an apartment he’d shared with the woman, and from which she is collecting some of her possessions. From then on we mostly see Dellar, played by two different actors, in various situations – while the former wife is, with one vitally important exception, visually absent and represented only by a voice-over. The woman (dancer/choreographer Trisha Brown) is caught up in a reductive and essentialising feminist psychoanalytic discourse, while the man speaks from an equally trivial anti-essentialist viewpoint indebted to the likes of Foucault and Derrida. Although jargon heavy, the relentless spoken word passages are so theoretically lightweight that most viewers will not only be able to follow them with ease, but in all probability anticipate much of what is said. Given that The Man Who Envied Women is just over two hours long, this could make for a very boring movie were it not for Rainer’s deft juxtapositions and keen eye for human gesture.
The disjunction in places of image from the type of sound normally associated with it – for example, a scene where Jack Dellar and a French intellectual played by Jackie Raynal caress each other while exchanging ideological inanities – is reminiscent of letteriste cinema of the early 1950s, despite syncing on Rainer’s film. The fact that Raynal is intimately associated with the Zanzibar group will buttress this association for viewers familiar with the history of avant-garde cinema, since Zanzibar – far more than the overtly commercial ‘French new wave’ – was the real inheritor of the tradition of experimental film-making to be found in the lettriste films of Isou, Lemaître, Wolman, Debord and others. Nonetheless, The Man Who Envied Women looks more like the work of John Cassavetes than Zanzibar or the lettristes, due both to Rainer’s emphasis on body language and the simple narrative structure of its fictional sections. Visually the film is one day in the life of Jack Dellar, with the viewer being taken from early morning through his day time work as a college lecturer to a night time party; this is not, however, the intellectual structure of the movie, since a phone conversation alerts us to the fact that the action probably takes place over two days, and Dellar also speaks at some length about his two marriages and thus much of his adult life.
The visual narrative in the fictional sections is continuously interrupted by scenes in which Dellar sits on a stage with various films playing on a screen to his left, the viewer’s right, as he talks about both his relationships and his views on women. As these scenes accumulate, the camera pulls back to reveal a cinema audience watching the material playing beside Dellar. When a shift takes place from black and white Hollywood classics to the more contemporary (but still non-colour) Night of the Living Dead, the audience becomes restless and fights break out as a scene from Romero’s iconic zombie movie is repeated on a relatively short loop. In film theory zombies are often interpreted as representatives of the proletariat, but this is ignored in a voice-over that instead invokes Jean Eustache’s La maman et la putain AKA The Mother and the Whore (1973); a film whose structure Rainer simultaneously mirrors and inverts. In his three-and-a-half hour anti-epic with only a minimal narrative, Eustache explores a triangular relationship between a young man, his live-in girlfriend and a Polish nurse with whom he has an affair. By using two different actors to play the middle-aged Dellar, Rainer can be read as inverting the triangular arrangement of Eustache’s earlier film. Reversing this, when we focus on Dellar as a single character, and upon his insistence of his fidelity to his deceased first wife, and the implied claim that his second live-in relationship was little different to the casual affairs he carried on alongside it, Rainer can be viewed as preserving more-or-less intact the structure of The Mother and the Whore.
At one point as Dellar speaks from the stage, documentary footage of Trisha Brown performing her ‘real life’ solo dance piece Water Motor is screened. This was shot in Merce Cunningham’s New York dance studio by Babette Mangolte at the end of 1978. The original footage is used in its entirety and Brown’s performance is mesmerising. In The Man Who Envied Women, Brown plays Dellar’s estranged wife. Thus while we see much more of the male lead during the film, its most spectacular visual image is of Dellar’s female counterpart dancing, and inevitably this sequence will stay with most viewers far longer than anything else shown on screen; or indeed, the instantly forgettable verbal clap-trap on the soundtrack.
What Rainer seems to be telling us is to forget about ridiculously contrived psychoanalytic notions such as that of ‘male gaze’ and instead to focus on the body and the joys of the body. Her critique is not so much of feminism per se, but rather of those strands of feminism that draw heavily on psychoanalysis, a discourse rooted in the chauvinist fantasies of Sigmund Freud. Ultimately, Rainer’s film is more effective as an assault on psychoanalytically rooted film ‘theory’ than Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. While Clover’s text succeeds in exposing a number of obvious flaws in the notion of ‘male gaze’ as deployed by the over-privileged and Oxford ‘educated’ (i.e. brainwashed) husband-and-wife instant film ‘expert’ team of Laura Mulvey and Peter Woolen, it is unfortunately still mired in fatuous nonsense propagated by the likes of Freud and Lacan.
Rainer plays with theory and among other things shows that when it is removed from the world, in other words when it is not rooted in a materialist perspective, it becomes ridiculous. In Rainer’s fictional narrative Dellar’s ex is an artist, but the kind of art she produces is never specified; she may even be a dancer and choreographer like Brown. She is losing her studio because the landlord has hiked up the rent. This strand about gentrification in the fictional narrative is one of a number of themes that mesh with and become indistinguishable from its ‘documentary’ counter-cum-complimentary scenes. Documentary footage of a public meeting about the gentrification of downtown Manhattan is woven in and out of the entire film. The mood at this meeting is emotional and several of the artists shown testifying against gentrification come across as ineffectual in a ‘real life’ setting; easily the best public speaker at the event is a mixed-race working-class man who points out that no private landlord in his neighbourhood has rented a property to a black or Spanish speaking tenant in the past year.
There is another thread of documentary footage without sync sound, this shows a group of people gathered in what I assume is Leon Golub’s studio, since an assortment of his representational paintings adorn the walls. Golub’s work may have been chosen for use in this context because within it he explicitly addressed political questions raised by the issues of power and violence. That said, despite the fact there is no sound, this looks to me like a meeting of Artists Call Against U.S. Intervention in Central America, an action group founded in 1983 and in which Golub was a prominent activist. Like the overtly documentary footage highlighted in the previous paragraph, this sequence of scenes offers those with some knowledge of New York culture and politics the pleasures and pitfalls of attempting to identify the people caught-on-camera. Aside from Golub, other relatively well-known figures to be seen in the documentary segments of The Man Who Envied Women include artist Jon Hendricks, and critics Lucy Lippard and Robert Storr.
A third and perhaps final thread in the film straddles the divide between the fictional and the non-fictional, since within it several graphics are juxtaposed on the wall of Jack Dellar’s apartment. Prominent among them is Claes Oldenburg’s three-colour, single-sided, poster for Artists Call Against U.S. Intervention in Central America (1984). This print hovers indeterminately between art and the world of political activism; it was distributed in an unsigned and unnumbered edition of twenty-thousand copies. It features a list of artists protesting against US government policies in Central America, with a silhouette of some people using a rope to topple a giant banana adding visual impact. Pointedly, this poster is never discussed in the film, although other graphics ranged alongside it are interrogated at length by the off-screen voice of feminist artist Martha Rosler. The images ‘deconstructed’ by Rosler range from a photograph of peasants murdered by the Guatemalan army during the civil war in that country, a magazine cover featuring the face of a man ‘broken by the KGB’, and print adverts for cigars and pain relief products.
While the individual elements I’ve described are all relatively simple and easy to grasp, juxtaposed they constitute a complex whole. Nonetheless, The Man Who Envied Women remains very playful and entertaining, and I was therefore surprised that quite a few audience members walked out during the screening. This may have had more to do with the new removable seating in the Whitechapel cinema than Rainer’s movie. I made the mistake of sitting in the front row and if I sat upright in my chair my head obscured a good portion of the projection, and the same was true for people at least one and possibly more rows behind me. This meant that we had to slump uncomfortably in our chairs to avoid spoiling other people’s enjoyment of the screening. The poor set up in the cinema is yet another example of Whitechapel director Iwona Blazwick’s obsession with maximising revenue streams and not giving a shit about aesthetic issues; for more on this see my earlier post The great Whitechapel Gallery expansion disaster of 2009.
Before Rainer there was a screening of the 1979 short Sigmund Freud’s Dora: A Case of Mistaken Identity directed by Anthony McCall, Claire Pajaczkowska, Andrew Tyndall, Ivan Ward and Jane Weinstock. This not only utilises an extremely dull psychoanalytic text on the soundtrack, it deploys an incredibly ugly actor Joel Kovel to play the Viennese quack and a very pretty girl, Silvia Kolbowski, as Dora. The camera work is deliberately static and dull, the opening is simply a set of lips, provided by Suzanne Fletcher, reciting psychoanalytic nonsense, while on screen text is used to run through an apparently random sequence of events – Darwin dies, Nietzsche declares God is dead, Marx dies, the machine gun is invented, etc. Some viewers might find this funny, but anyone already familiar with, for example, the potted history of the cinema provided by Guy Debord in his 1952 film Screams In Favour of De Sade, is likely to view it as fifth-rate. And again, after lettriste cinema, one wonders why anyone would bother with the type of anti-visual aesthetic deployed in this film. The insertion of pornography and television adverts between scenes appears to be an attempt at humour, but all it really does is flag up how hopeless Sigmund Freud’s Dora is as a film. At the end there are more heavy-handed ‘laughs’ in the form of Dora’s mother, played by Anne Hegira, reading a series of postcards from her daughter – we can see that many of these missives feature pornographic images on one side, and thus couldn’t possibly have been sent through the post (unless, of course, they’d been placed in an envelope first).
The point of this exercise in ‘structuralist cinema’, if there is one, seems to be that while Freud concludes that Dora has asthma due to a repressed oral sex fixation, the real cause of her condition was being forced to hang-out with cigar chomping bourgeois scum and having her throat and lungs constantly irritated by passive smoking. I get the feeling from Sigmund Freud’s Dora that the directors suffer from all the usual hierarchical delusions popular among Leninist reactionaries and their fellow travellers in the sub-avant-garde of the 1970s. While the idealist fallacies of the structuralist ‘elite’ about raising their audience/cadre from the tomb of formalism were always laughable, that didn’t stop Anthony McCall and Andrew Tyndall from making even worse movies than this one; for example, the feature-length Argument (1978).
Subsequently, McCall compromised himself further by making his peace with the art establishment; and he has erased, as far as possible, his pseudo-radical past. If you really want to know about his youthful follies then check out Argument at Ubu web; but if you do, as even greater punishment, I’d suggest a viewing of Isaac Cronin and Terrel Seltzer’s Call It Sleep (1982). Yes, there are film-makers whose work is worse than McCall and Tyndall! That said, you’d do far better renting My Name Is Bruce or Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979) than watching McCall and Tyndall’s crap. The Warriors, which was theatrically released on 9 February 1979, also contains a lips speaking to screen oral sex invocation sequence – and this may have influenced the opening of Sigmund Freud’s Dora. Regardless, it was worth putting up with the full forty lousy minutes of McCall and company’s structuralist spew on Thursday night, simply to see The Man Who Envied Women afterwards.
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!