Raped and abandoned: Yoko Ono’s forgotten masterpiece
by James Hoberman
For Yoko Ono, an artist who has frequently worked with the notion of »notoriety,« fame has had the paradoxical effect of obscuring her actual achievements. Take Rape. The most powerful and disturbing of the various concept movies that she and John Lennon produced, it’s also a work that, up until now, has been all but written out of film history—unclaimed by the British, cinetheoretical, and feminist avant-gardes, the victim of an inverted snobbery complicated by cultural amnesia.
Like Ono and Lennon’s Fly, in which the Vasco da Gama of the insect world explored the Brobdingnagian terrain of the comatose nude woman for perhaps half an hour, Rape is a startlingly visceral experience—as blunt as its title. The premise for this 70-minute film comes from an Ono »film score,« published in 1968: »The cameraman will chase a girl on a street with a camera persistently until he corners her in an alley, and, if possible, until she is in a falling position.« The execution, which had its premiere over Austrian television 20 years ago this month, is one of the most violent and sexually charged movies ever made—even if flesh never touches flesh.
Angst-producing from the onset, Rape opens without titles: The camera zeroes in on an attractive, long-haired woman wandering through a picturesque London cemetery (suggestive of the park in Blow Up), meets her head-on, and then tags along behind. It soon becomes evident that its prey, identified in auxiliary material as a 21-year-old Austrian named Eva Majlath, doesn’t speak English. But she’s basically amiable and makes numerous attempts to establish contact with the filmmakers in German and Italian. They are, of course, totally non-communicative, ignoring even her request for a match, while shifting the camera to keep her always in frame.
The movie approximates real time. Whenever a roll of film runs out, the crew falls behind the subject, so that each new sequence begins with the exciting spectacle of their catching up to, and startling, her anew. After the third roll, Majlath’s composure gives way to annoyance. By the time the crew has followed her out of the park and into the street, she’s angry and frightened - so spooked that she walks into a post and, at one point, nearly steps out in front of an oncoming truck. (No one in the street appears to pay the slightest attention to her plight). When ultimately she hails a cab, the crew promptly climbs into its own vehicle, and the film’s first movement ends with the camera still dogging her tracks as she walks morosely by the Thames.
Even more frantic and oppressive, Rape’s second half has the crew invade the small apartment where Majlath is staying. She paced like a caged animal, the camera’s tight, hand-held close-ups mirroring her agitated movements as she compulsively combs her hair, babbles hysterically in German (tears of frustration streaking her elaborate eye makeup), and repeatedly attempts to open the apartment’s locked front door. All the more violent for its sunbursts and whiteouts, this section often becomes pure kinesis. Although Majlath hides her face or halfheartedly blocks the lens, the camera shows no restraint, swarming around her opportunistically coming in closer whenever she appears most vulnerable.
As the movie ends, she makes a phone call; the sounds of her distress continue over the credits. A brief coda has Ono and Lennon dourly distorted by an extreme wide-angle lens, singing something like »Everybody had a hard year.«
For a simple movie, Rape raises a multitude of questions. Although Ono’s score indicates that the film’s subject should be chosen at random, this hardly seems the case. The film is clearly some sort of setup, although it’s difficult to ascertain what kind. Majlath was obviously selected for her good looks, lack of English, and unfamiliarity with London; according to various accounts, the filmmakers obtained the key to her apartment from either her sister (whom she frequently invokes) or the building owner, then locked her in. Although Majlath never completely panics or appears to imagine herself in physical danger, she doesn’t seem complicit in her victimization—her anger and confusion are absolutely convincing. This, of course, is much of the fascination. In one sense, Rape is a particularly brutal dramatization of the Warholian discovery that the camera’s implacable stare disrupts "ordinary" behavior to enforce its own regime. In another, the film is a graphic metaphor for the ruthless surveillance that can theoretically attach itself to any citizen of the modern world.
Indeed, although Ono has denied that this was her intent, it is hard not to see Rape as a reaction to the media coverage that she and Lennon had alternately courted and been victimized by at various stages of their careers. (It was shot in late November 1968, following a period of maximum, mostly adverse publicity; John was busted for hash on October 18, his divorce proceedings began November 8, and Yoko entered the hospital November 21; a week later, the album Two Virgins, with ist scandalous nude cover, was released.) But Rape is more than just a hyperbolic representation of blanket media coverage; it radically challenges the viewer’s privileged position.
Basically, Rape presents a beautiful, extremely feminine woman in peril, her situation overtly sexualized by the very title. (The opening graveyard provides a suitably gothic location.) Although this scenario is a movie staple, arguably the movie staple, the absence of a narrative strongly invites the audience to identify with the camera’s (unmistakably male) look and recognize this controlling gaze as its own.
In its realization, Ono’s script becomes the purest illustration of Laura Mulvey’s celebrated essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, published eight years after Rape was made. Rape differs from Jonathan Kaplan’s The Accused, for example, in that its behaviorism cuts two ways. The sadistic aspect of "secretly" watching another person on the screen (and enjoying their powerlessness) here becomes a self-conscious and hence uncomfortable complicity. As Jonas Mekas observed when Rape was first shown in New York, »Two things are interesting to watch as the film progresses - one is the girl… and the other is the audience.«
James Hoberman, »Vulgar Modernism«, Temple University Press, Philadelphia 1991, pp. 185-187.