New York

Yvonne Rainer, The Man Who Envied Women

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

“I’ve never seduced a virgin or intruded upon a valid marriage,” declares a man who admits to the gentility of his social relations. “You can ask me about the peculiarities of my shit, just don’t ask me how much money I have in the bank,” confides a man whose discretion extends only to his finances. “It’s possible to have the whole story of Oedipus playing in your head and still behave properly at the dinner table,” suggests a man with more than a soupçon of analytic grace.

Who is this man who appropriates and dispenses wisdom with the aplomb of an encyclopedia salesman, who collapses upon the altar of learning like a Rosicrucian floored by the Enlightenment? He is Jack Deller, the focus of a new film by Yvonne Rainer and, as the title declares, The Man Who Envied Women, 1985. He is portrayed by not one actor but two (William Raymond and Larry Loonin), who embody this mass of doubled trouble with the self-betraying rigor he so rightfully deserves. But what’s his story? Well, according to Rainer, Deller’s an academic kind of guy whose class lectures zigzag between interminable rhetorical mimicry and desperate, anecdotal accountings of his brushes with greatness, his demiacquaintances with the authors whose words he mouths.

But what about those envied women? Where are they? Although women do appear on the screen they are mainly heard, not seen. They are represented by their voices, which encircle Jack and his musings with a daisy chain of acerbic commentary and tragicomic confessionals. One of the voices belongs to the woman who has just ended a five-year relationship with Jack, and it is her no-nonsense but nonsensical voiceover that holds court over much of the proceedings. Sharply ridiculing Jack’s womanizing, she suggests that his theorizing is just another weapon in his arsenal of conventional seductions. Jack, meanwhile, sits in front of a backdrop of old movies, or walks down crowded streets to overhear knowing women give him and his ilk the once-over with joking ease. While his own speech is a folding together of swipes from Michel Foucault and Raymond Chandler, and much in between, the entire film looks a bit like an elaborate marriage of Jean-Luc Godard and Paul Mazursky (honeymooning in TriBeCa). Thankfully, the nuptials are interrupted by Rainer, whose rendition of the self-adoring, intellectualizing, pussy-chasing, pontificating, self-pitying male kvetch puts everything into a wisecrackingly ridiculous perspective.

Jack and his detractors constitute only a portion of the film. The rest is divided into other slices of life, from the struggle for a chunk of Manhattan real estate to a scrutiny of America’s machinations in Latin America and a consideration of the power of photography, advertising, and journalism; from the issues of women and aging to a questioning of the effectiveness of theoretical writing. But this scrutiny of theory seems weird, and it’s a different kind of weirdness than Rainer’s usual mix of quirky irrepressibility and pleasurable ambiguity. Something else is at work here that allows Rainer, who usually skirts the traps of damnation and paranoia with aplomb, to indulge in a tensely poised reactive mechanism that can easily be appropriated by those whose relationship to theory is stalked by intimidation. Her suggestion (through the reenactment of texts by Foucault and Meaghan Morris) that theory is a discourse grounded in an oppressive, univocal mastery should definitely be considered. However, it should also be remembered that the master speaks in many tongues, one being that which fears theory and the commentary that arises when language turns back against itself—when it baffles, juggles, and outplays the constructions and declarations of power. Rainer’s scrutiny of theory is not a call for rampant anti-intellectualism, nor is it a witch-hunt that views ideas as unstaplers of one’s own power, whether that power is wielded in legislative committees, on the battlefield, or in the pages of art magazines.

The Man Who Envied Women, like most of Rainer’s films, is always “ostensibly” about something. In other words, it engages models of juxtaposition and selection that reveal what might be the film’s “real” engagement as opposed to what it proposes as “real.” Doubling and tripling characters, disheveling tableaux and pillaging stories, Rainer disperses the cinematic illusion of “reality” into a shower of possibilities and ostensibilities. Playing the game with the canniness of a card shark, she shuffles the deck, bilks a few suckers, and reminds us of the shifty base of “value,” whether it defines sexual relations, real estate, or human life. Rainer is not trying for some kind of well-mannered correctness or a masterly, fatherly notion of “transcendent intellectual clarity”; rather, she tends toward a type of tumbling process, an unbalancing of power, language, and the body. Avoiding goals, she cheats the conventions of realistic narrative and makes a mockery of masterly language. The Man Who Envied Women exudes a profusion of verbiage that is funny, brave, rude, and benevolent. The masters can make of this what they will, and some of us will continue to provide their lofty inabilities to grasp the goof with an accompaniment of knowing laughter.

Barbara Kruger