Tuesday Editor’s Pick: Kristina Talking Pictures (1976)

by on January 24, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Tue Jan 31 at 7:00 at Light Industry [Program & Tix]


Last week we announced the glorious reopening of Light Industry at their new Greenpoint location. Ladies and gents, they are officially in business… with a film that features lines such as:

“I was pretty happy doing the lion act for a while. But I’m afraid Emma Goldman and Virginia Woolf ruined me for the circus.”


Director Yvonne Rainer joins Robert Gardner for his “not conventional late-nite programming for television” Screening Room, to discuss the film and show clips:

Jonathan Rosenbaum for the Chicago Reader:

A 1976 experimental narrative feature by former dancer Yvonne Rainer, witty, word happy, and at her most Godardian (as well as abstruse) as she traces the relationship between a middle-class female artist and her lover through fragmented (and fragmentary) texts, postcard collages, various actors (including Rainer) playing the same roles, and vintage Rainer wisecracks.


More Rosenbaum on Rainer.

Time Out (London):

Rainer’s third feature is arguably the closest she has yet come to the Godard wing of ‘art cinema’. Like her other movies, it’s a shifting collage of narrations (some visual, mostly verbal), loosely anchored in the central relationship between Kristina and her lover Raoul. Except that Kristina, generally sketched as a middle-class NYC artist concerned about the environment, about relationships and such-like, is played by several different women…and given a personal history (archive flashbacks) as a former lion tamer in Europe who came to America to work as a choreographer. Dunno if this is ‘political art’, but it’s certainly lively, unpredictable, and in several senses challenging. Also, it prominently features a photo of James Cagney


San Francisco Cinematheque Program Notes (1987):

Kristina Talking Pictures is a narrative film inasmuch as it contains a series of events that can be synthesized into a story if one is disposed to do so. (For example, a European woman liontamer cames to America and takes up choreography. ) The film can also be viewed in terms of its discursions from a strict narrative line via reflections on art, love, and catastrophe sustained by the voices of Kristina, the heroine-narrator, and Raoul, her lover.
Within a form that allows for shifting correlations between word and image, persona and performer, enactment and illustration, speech and recitation, explanation and ambiguity, Kristina Talking Pictures circles in a narrowing spiral toward its primary concerns: the uncertain relation of public act to personal fate, the ever-present possibility for disparity between public-directed conscience and private will.


Ed Halter for the Village Voice:

“An underlying theory that I will probably continue to pursue,” Yvonne Rainer told art critic Lucy Lippard in 1975, is “that the most scabrous confessional soap-opera kind of verbiage or experience can be transmitted through highly rigorous formal means and have a fresh impact.” But as one of the American avant-garde’s most intellectually ambitious figures, Rainer reaches beyond mere genre tinkering.
With few cinematic precedents (save the films of fellow dancer Maya Deren), Rainer’s work resembles video art’s late-modernist minimalism. Her nearest movie-house relative is Godard, though at times her hyper-erudite dialogues spark slow-bubbling wit like a ‘tussined-up Woody Allen, as when loft-living lefties exchange fragmented, Sontag-esque banter in Kristina Talking Pictures (1976). Here Rainer shifts from personal histories to global ones, later expanding upon same in Journeys From Berlin/1971 (1980), her epic meditation on psychoanalysis, the Baader-Meinhof, feminism, and pre-revolutionary Russia. Berlin finds its unlikely star in plummy-voiced academic Annette Michelson, whose stream-of-consciousness shrink sessions unearth eggheady gems. “My cunt is not a castrated cock,” Michelson protests. “If anything, it’s a heartless asshole.”


Rainer in interview in 1978, recounted in the book Canyon Cinema by Scott MacDonald:

I was noticing how listless a lot of these narrative reading were the actors and acresses, and I was wondering if that was something you directed them to do or if it was something they chose to do, and if you directed them I was interested in hearing something about that.

In the longer passages we did pretty much as we were able to, especially the scenes in which I appear. They’re basically recitational, flat, not-emotive somewhat, yeah, monotonal recitations. I was interested in the language, and not getting into character. I thought of us, or all the people, as vehicles for the language, and not of course as actors engaged in creating some kind of verisimilitude of reality.


So much of what I got from the film was about language as a substitute for feelings. The one time when the image was touching, the image was absent and there would be a description of the image in its place. The conception being about no tmaking contact?

Some people take the particularly stylized enactment very literally, as being about alienation. That wasn’t on my mind at all…
But that there is a role of language…

Language replacing intimacy? But that’s sort of the same thing. I was interested in what they were saying and especially Raoul in the bed. At that point the story and his character and the reality of his person were all subsumed or subordinated to what he was saying… There were a few things, cutting for gesture, a certain kind of continuity of gesture, or discontinuity, like “the new ships are not built to last” and the camera comes upon his hand on her hand and removes it. There are little things like that that are almost, I know, invisible in the general density and clutter of the language.


Michael Rowin on Rainer for the Brooklyn Rail:

Existing in that obscure space between the didactic, leftist cinema of Godard and the time-based cinema of Warhol, and often lost among better-known legends of the avant-garde stands Yvonne Rainer. A mainstay of American experimental cinema, Rainer came to film by way of dance and choreography, notably with the Judson Church Theater in the early 1960s and then as part of the influential collective Grand Union later that decade. Her minimalist aesthetics revolutionized how everyday actions and routines could be staged, stripped of accrued layers of artifice, and appreciated as dance in themselves. After abandoning the stage in the early ’70s, Rainer gravitated toward filmmaking when a whole generation of experimental female filmmakers was emerging.

Like Chantal Akerman—another innovative feminist who began her major film projects during this time—Rainer has always deconstructed conventions of narrative and performance, especially in regard to the representation of women. But unlike Akerman, Rainer creates what Ivone Margulies calls a “heterogeneous,” or collage, approach to cinema that applies multiple, diverse styles and techniques including quotation, long takes, found footage, and foregrounded theatricality. While formally dense and thematically far-reaching, her seven feature-length films have in common the transcendence of syntactic limitations in cinema, all continually searching for a pluralistic, politically engaged aesthetic.
Rainer’s next film departs from Lives and Film About as her first in color and the first to make heavy use of jump cuts and long, complex montage sequences. Kristina Talking Pictures (1976) also moves outside gender and sexual struggles to address global issues like genocide and environmental negligence within a plot involving the relationship between a circus performer and her on again-off again lover (played by Rainer and her brother Ivan, respectively). The tone is unmistakably mournful, and as always with Rainer, the personal and the political are intimately linked: “Did you march on Washington and let a friend bully you to tears?” the narrator asks. Constantly digressing but never losing its way, the story regularly challenges the viewer by rendering palpable the difficult commitment to social justice on micro and macro levels.


B.Ruby Rich in Chick Flicks – Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement:

In Kristina Talking Pictures, it may be said, melodrama met elegy and was consumed. Yet the personal has not been forsaken. Elegy permits, indeed demands, a probing into one’s own life and feelings, easily suiting Rainer’s own penchant for including the details of her life in her fictions. When Kristina gripes, “I’m fucking around in more ways than one,” we can find her sentence in Rainer’s own journals. When the line of figures files hands-up through the SoHo streets, a precedent is visible in Rainer’s own performance in the same streets at the time of the invasion of Cambodia. Such references proliferate throughout the film. More than the previous works, however, this film insists on pushing past the circle of private lives and loves into the wider arena of public action, concentrating our gaze on the points of intersection between the two.
Kristina Talking Pictures, moreover, may be seen as elegy even at the fundamental level of form. The title itself harkens back to an antiquated moment in movie making, that era in which film “progressed” from the golden age of silent film to the much heralded future of synchronized sound. Rainer turns her back on any such notion of “progress” by ignoring even that future in her desynchronized sound-image combinations throughout the film. There has been much talk about just where the medium of film went “wrong” in its development since the days of so-called primitive cinema, and how avant-garde film practice might present a remedy to a misguidedly narrow path of technological orchestration, Rainer herself does not seem to be calling for any return to basics. Rather, by pursuing the logic of disjunctions and refusing to pander to our voyeurism, she has pushed the classic forms to the very point of disintegration, that is, death. In this film, in particular, she has made a frontal attack on the intelligibility of narrative, pushed dysfunction past the point of illustrations, defeated temporality with simultaneity of tense and ellipsis of action, and beat illusionism on its own ground.


Erin Brannigan for Senses of Cinema:

Ultimately there was an increasing shift toward dialogue in Rainer’s film work, what she called “the language-oriented strategies of my films”, giving the example of Kristina Talking Pictures (1976) where characters sit up in bed and literally “yap for forty minutes” (p. 78). By the time we get to Journey from Berlin/1971, Noel Carroll declares a revolution in the structurally obsessed American avant-garde film scene, stating that in this film “language is more important than image” (p. 170).
Rainer’s growing emphasis on language in her films is coupled with an increasing fascination with theory which is exposed in her films from Film About a Woman Who… (1974), which Rainer refers to as “pre-political”, on. In Film About a Woman Who…, Kristina Talking Pictures and Journey from Berlin/1971, the strategies complicating performer and character, fact and fiction, rehearsal and rehearsed, sound and image and the manipulation of cinematic movement orders outlined above in relation to Lives of Performers, are still operating and are intensified, developing Rainer’s critique of narrative film techniques and related spectatorial profiles. In 1982, Rainer describes the “spectator-of-my-dreams”, who “has given equal attention to the fictions and the production of these fictions” (pp. 211–12). There is also, across these films, a growing preoccupation with feminist and psychoanalytic theory which leaks into the script and images, providing yet another performative layer for the director to play with. In this sense Rainer shifts from pre-empting theory to developing alongside and in direct response to it, in a very ‘public’ fashion. (28) When we get to The Man Who Envied Women (1985) Rainer’s attitude regarding theory has crystallised, matching her general attitude which is characterised by Phelan as a “profound psychological ambivalence and intellectual scepticism”. (29) The amount of theory both quoted within, and informing the structure of, this film verges on the ridiculous; a sense of play never abandons Rainer.


Jonathan Walley also has a Senses of Cinema essay on Rainer’s transition from dance to filmmaking.


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