Rape , Yoko Ono's 1969 conceptual film piece collaboration with her husband, John Lennon is an interesting curiosity that synthesizes many recurring themes found in her various media works. Viewer participation (that is, the necessity of viewer involvement to "complete" the work), minimalism and feminism are wrapped up in a verite package that pushes the boundaries of audience endurance.
The film depicts the point of view of an unseen British film crew, identified only by the voiceof the "director" who utters barely audible commands. While shooting in a London cemetery, the crew stumble across a beautiful woman strolling through a path. The idea presented is that the crew has randomly selected this woman to pursue. The woman speaks a foreign language (which I believe is Italian) and cannot communicate with the crew in English. Her state of mind and emotions are presented through her tone of voice, mannerisms and body language. The action is shot in real time and the verite nature of the piece plays with the audience's mind. The viewer is never totally sure if the woman is in fact a stranger chosen at random or if she is an actress playing a part--the emotions she displays are that effective. As the essay for an Ono film retrospective states: "The woman's initial curiosity and openness turns to frustration and anger as the camera relentlessly pursues her".
The crew follows the woman through the cemetery and then through a park. They dog her through city streets and tail her by car and corner her at a friend's house who also can not speak English. The crew finally invade the woman's apartment. The camera is relentless as the woman's exasperations slowly reach a crescendo. The camera which has always been the viewer's point of view, becomes an extension of the viewer as it probes, violates and invades this cornered woman's boundaries. Gradually the framing of the shots become tighter and tighter which gives the audience an almost claustrophobic and smothering feeling. Eventually, we witness the violated woman collapse into a vulnerable shell.
There are two prevalent issues in the subtext of the piece. The first issue is obviously the issue of the Lennon's dealing with their celebrity. John Lennon of course was one of the most photo graphed, pursued and illuminated celebrates in history. Consistently in the media glare, his attention was both advantageous (the documentation and love affair with his success) as it was disadvantageous (the constant scrutinization, criticism, misinterpretation--as in the controversy over his "bigger than Jesus" remark). In the context of the time this film was shot, the Lennons were criticized by the conservative British media for their behavior and antics during the course of their very public and offbeat love affair as for their political and peace events. In this context, the" language barrier" between the woman and her pursuers symbolizes the media or establishment in general who failed to "understand" the messages the couple were trying to convey because they were not speaking a "language" they were familiar with.
The concurrent subtext is a more personal feminist statement for Yoko, again by having a male film crew symbolically use the camera as a "transgressor" of privacy. Although the woman seems initially flattered by the male attention she ultimately becomes horrified as the crew invades her boundaries and ignores her pleas to stop. The language barrier is intriguing because it is irrelevant in this context not because there is a communication barrier but because the crew chooses to ignore her emotional language and "rape" her anyway.
Does the piece succeed? Well, yes . . . and no. The concept is thought provoking but laborious and plodding in pacing and movement. An intelligent idea is flogged like a dead horse for 77 minutes! However the slow pacing of the piece is why it is successful as an emotional manipulation. By making the viewer an extension of the camera the viewer becomes as weary and uncomfortable as the victim because we are forced to participate in this emotional dismantling, particularly when the shots become composed in constricted frames. The viewer becomes uncomfortable because the violator is the voyeur.