BY Andrew Durbin in Opinion | 17 JAN 19

How a Vexed Therapy Session in Yvonne Rainer’s ‘Journeys from Berlin/1971’ Tries to Make Sense of Revolution and History

At last, MoMA has restored the dancer, choreographer and filmmaker’s 1980s classic

BY Andrew Durbin in Opinion | 17 JAN 19

Annette Michelson, the art and film critic who died last year, sits in a boat. She is wearing glasses with large, plastic eyes loaded on springs. She is not at sea, but is in the midst of analysis, and her analyst has suddenly transformed from an adult man into a young, toe-headed boy whose face we never see. The child is confused by her. Michelson, with her blond, square head just visible above the lip of the boat’s edge, eyes him suspiciously as he answers the phone and an incongruous male voice whispers: ‘I never faced the music, much less the dawn; I stayed in bed. I never socked anything to anybody; why rock the boat? I never set out to get my man, even in the mirror; they all got me. I never smiled through my tears; I choked down my terror.’ The boy slams down the phone and transforms into a woman therapist. Michelson’s slinky eyes burst out.

She is not in analysis, she is in Yvonne Rainer’s fourth feature-length film, Journeys from Berlin/1971 (1980) – on set in the middle of London’s Whitechapel Gallery. Journeys stars Michelson as a mesmerizing, pyrotechnic analysand in the midst of several fraught reveries on terrorism and history: ‘By now it's quite clear that where proleptic capitalism is concerned, both self-discovery and speaking past each other are express stops on the way to carpeting the ceiling,’ she says in one typical monologue. These ‘ricochet like billiard balls’, as Rainer phrased it at the premiere of the film’s restoration, along with an array of other voices in the film. An unseen man and woman discuss the demise of the German left militant Red Army Faction while cooking dinner, the sound of pots and pans jangling in the background. A young woman reads from Rainer’s adolescent diaries to aerial footage of rural England and Stonehenge. Two women practice the flute. In most scenes, Michelson sits at her analyst’s desk; behind her, dancers move quietly in the darkened galleries of the Whitechapel. Something is troubling the patient. Something was troubling Rainer, too.

The idea for the film first began to percolate when Rainer was living in West Berlin in 1976, during the height of far-left terrorism in postwar Germany. (The ‘1971’ of the film’s title refers, cryptically, to the year the artist attempted suicide.) Rainer had been reading about Russian and American anarchists of the 1870s and ’90s, assembling notes from first-person accounts, including Rosa Luxemburg and Alexander Berkman, who attempted to assassinate the US industrialist Henry Clay Frick in 1892. They paired in her mind with the lives and writings of Red Army faction leaders Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, who had recently been arrested, along with most of their cohort, after years of bank robbings and bombings across West Germany, though their exact cinematic relationship had yet to find its form in Rainer’s imagination. Meinhof would be dead by the spring of that year, Baader by October the following year.

Peter Moore, Robert Rauschenberg, Joseph Schlichter, Sally Gross, Tony Holder, Deborah Hay, Yvonne Rainer, Alex Hay, Robert Morris, and Lucinda Childs performing Rainer’s We Shall Run, 1963. Performed at Two Evenings of Dances by Yvonne Rainer, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, March 7, 1965. © Barbara Moore/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy: Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

Upon her return to New York in 1977, Rainer began to write the script in earnest, adding to the anarchist material quotes from her adolescent diaries and dialogue for a fictional analytical session between an unseen analyst (s/he is played by several actors, including the young blond boy who appears outside the boat) and Michelson. The critic was a friend and important supporter of Rainer’s work, ‘a muse in my mind’s eye doubling for the super ego,’ she told the premiere’s audience. In the film, Michelson seethes with sex and life, delivering her lines with a precise tone that often prompted stunned laughter in the Museum’s T2 theatre. She rollicks through Rainer’s script, with its Beckettian verve: ‘Here we are, locked in this hermetic, sclerotic embrace, beholden to no one. So, what if we are the world? You owe me everything; I owe you nothing. Nothing but money.’ She continues:

Why won’t someone please get me off the cusp of this plague, this ellipsis, suspension, anticipation, this retraction, denial, digression, irony, this ravenousness for admiration, this contemptuousness of those who provide it. It’s probably true that this contagion started spreading in the 17th century when they brought in silvered mirrors, self-portraits, chairs instead of benches, the self-contemplative self, and the personal as a … slave? … the personal as a slave of autonomy and perfectibility.

It is difficult to imagine anyone but Michelson, whose own writing crackled with similarly sharp phrasing, in the film. She brings to bear on the role the weight of a critic’s inveterate – if uneasy – balance between the pleasure of thinking and thinking of pleasure.

The narrative use of the analytic session might have been fomented in Michelson’s own writing on Rainer. In a two-part essay on her film and dance in Artforum in 1974, Michelson notes that Rainer’s 1971 performance Grand Union Dreams ‘spelled out, in its irresolution, the symptoms of a variety of “culture shock”: the crisis produced in the secular consciousness of a modernist artist by the discovery of the continuity of belief and narrative.’ Rainer had recently introduced characters and narratives into her work; all elements, Michelson writes, that constitute an ‘autoanalytical’ art. Autobiography, or ‘one’s analytic culture[,] provides the point of departure for a series of formal variations upon disjunction (between sound and image, between present and past, between character and voice, between reading and speaking) that will render the fragmented Self which stands at the centre of that fiction.’ Rainer saw her work as a riposte to the film critic Pauline Kael, who Rainer quotes in her memoir, Feelings Are Facts (2006), as saying, ‘Only in the movies can you send your mind away.’ ‘My tactics,’ Rainer writes, ‘would do the opposite: restore and invigorate the spectator’s critical faculties!’

Yvonne Rainer, Journeys from Berlin/1971, 1980, film still. Courtesy: Zeitgeist Films

Towards its end, Journeys cuts to grainy footage of Rainer’s face. She could be anywhere – the image is blue-grey, the background unclear. Is it a room? A studio? Is she in New York, London or Berlin? Rainer addresses the camera: ‘Mama,’ she whispers. She says she is in West Berlin. Presumably the year is 1976, nearly a year after her mother died. While she speaks, her voice occasionally lowers in volume while one of the film’s unseen protagonists, still in mid-debate about the inner life and left politics, moves to the fore. Outside the flickering image, in the world surrounding her, full of its revolutionary fervour amid the anti-democratic legislation of the Federal Republic of Germany that sought to silence dissent, the bombings and killings of government officials and leftists alike, Ulrike Meinhof has died in Stammheim Prison. A moment has culminated.

‘What a shame our pleasures should begin and end with ourselves,’ Michelson bemoans in an earlier scene. These pleasures could be any of a kind, not only the satisfaction of sex, which is never very easy for her – ‘My cunt is not a castrated cock. If anything, it's a heartless asshole!’ she shouts – but perhaps history, too. History, huge and cumbersome, is evoked both in Michelson’s monologues and in the polyvocal reveries by other characters woven into them. These voices debate law and anarchy. They consider their personal lives amid the worsening political situation in Europe and the US. New York, London, Berlin. They desire a place, even while their absence from the screen suggests a placelessness. The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips might agree. He writes in his essay ‘Doing It Alone’ from Side Effects (2006), that ‘to desire is to remember the one thing we are always trying to forget, and that this lack, disclosed by our longing, sends a depth-charge into our histories. It is as though to desire someone is to be sent back into yourself’.

That one thing, of course, is our suspicion – and Michelson is full of this – that we can only ever satisfy ourselves, that pleasure starts and stops at the low horizon of our subjectivity. She deploys another metaphor for our experience of the world, earlier in the film: ‘thin ice on a bottomless lake of disbelief’. Disbelief, I would wager, that the world is not only defined by its incompleteness but subsists on such a condition; that it is full of inequities (‘Oh my god, there it is again … equality’) and injustice (‘days filled with nonevents’) – both the poisoned fruits of history. What to do? She seems to wonder. Michelson rubs her temples, sometimes dozes off, watches in wonder as her analyst continues to transform. They, like the people she speaks of within this vexed therapy session, never seem to be enough; the final analyst even laughs, prods her to accept the absurdities of a neurotic view of the world: that it, like the schismatic capital that serves as the film’s background, can never be whole again. There was never anything to do.

Yvonne Rainer’s Journeys from Berlin/1971 (1980) was screened at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, on 15 January 2019. 

Main image: Al Giese, Yvonne Rainer’s ‘Bach’ from Terrain, 1963. Performed at Judson Memorial Church, New York, April 28, 1963. © Estate of Al Giese/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Andrew Durbin is the editor-in-chief of frieze. His book The Wonderful World That Almost Was is forthcoming from FSG in 2025.