Where to begin with Yoko Ono

Movies inspire a lot of passion, but the back catalogue of film history can be daunting. For every fan who’s obsessed with an actor, director or sub-genre, there’s another struggling to know where to start. Sometimes all it takes is the right recommendation to set you on your path from newbie to know-it-all…

Your next obsession: the taboo-breaking avant-garde films of Yoko Ono

David Parkinson

Yoko Ono on the album cover for Fly (1971)

Yoko Ono on the album cover for Fly (1971)

Why this might not seem so easy

During the course of a remarkable career, Yoko Ono has tried her hand at most things. Yet, while her attainments as an artist, author, musician and activist have been rightly lauded, her cinema is invariably overlooked. Notwithstanding the odd pop video or online snippet, Yoko hasn’t made a film since 1972, when she completed Imagine with her third husband, John Lennon. In interviews, she rarely mentions the 15 or so titles that she produced either under the Fluxus banner, alone or in conjunction with Lennon. While some of them are available online, they are rarely screened and have never been officially released in a home entertainment format.

Lennon once described Yoko as “the world’s most famous unknown artist: everybody knows her name, but nobody knows what she does”. She first appeared on the New York music scene in the early 1960s, when she rubbed shoulders with the likes of John Cage while producing highly distinctive pieces like ‘A Grapefruit in the World of Park’ and ‘A Piece for Strawberries and Violins’ (both 1961). However, the ever-restless Yoko was also part of Fluxus, the Dadaist art group inspired by Marcel Duchamp and led by George Maciunas that set out to challenge the conventions of fine art and the relationship between artworks and viewers.

Among the conceptual pieces that Yoko produced were ‘Painting to See the Room Through’ and ‘Painting to Hammer a Nail In’ (both 1961), and she gathered the ‘instructions’ for these and other works in Grapefruit (1964), a book of drawings and ideas that also contained several ‘film scripts’ that she’d originally sent to the underground filmmaker Jonas Mekas.

Despite composing the soundtrack for Takahiko Iimura’s Love (1963) and contributing the voiceover to Yoji Kuri’s Aos (1964), Yoko had not considered filmmaking, as it was too expensive. However, when Maciunas got hold of a high-speed camera in 1966, she was so intrigued by the process of making Fluxfilm No.9 Eyeblink and Fluxfilm No.14 One (Match) that she decided to experiment on her own with Fluxfilm No.16 Four. 

The best place to start – Film No. 4 (Bottoms)

Pleased with the result of filming 20-odd backsides in Four, Yoko decided to expand the concept to feature length in Film No.4 (Bottoms). Having placed an advert in a theatrical paper for models, she rigged up a treadmill at a friend’s London townhouse that allowed the subjects to walk at a steady pace for the camera to record their behinds in remorseless close-up.

Film No. 4 (Bottoms) (1967)

Film No. 4 (Bottoms) (1967)

There was much sniggering in the press, and Yoko’s avant-garde cronies accused her of selling out, even though her approach anticipated that of landmark items like Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967) and Hollis Frampton’s Zorns Lemma (1970). But what she describes on the soundtrack as “the most meaningful meaningless film” had stealthily radical aesthetic and political purposes that prompted Yoko to dub the 80-minute offering “an aimless petition signed by people with their anuses”.

In concentrating on the cleft between the buttocks and the crease between the cheeks and the thigh, Yoko divided the screen into four and left no room for anything but flesh. This focused the viewer’s attention on what she considered to be the most vulnerable part of the anatomy and, in the process, replaced the male gaze with a female one.

While the 10-15 second shots recalled the motion studies of Victorian pioneer Eadweard Muybridge, the soundtrack was much more contemporary, as Yoko created an asynchronous blend of her own media interviews, clips of TV reportage and the reflections of both participants in the project and those who opted out because they felt bashful or believed that the end result would be boring. Yoko would later thank those who consented to be filmed for showing “faith in the world”. She called them “saints of our time” for helping to show that the 1960s was “not only the age of achievements, but of laughter”.

Despite a closing caption announcing ‘To Be Continued’, Yoko refused an American producer’s suggestion to film 365 pairs of breasts and was disappointed by her follow-up, Up Your Legs Forever (1970), which used an elevator rig to allow the camera to scan stationary limbs.

What to watch next

Despite the controversy it aroused, there was nothing salacious about Rape (1969), Yoko’s collaboration with Lennon and cinematographer Nic Knowland that subjected unwitting model Eva Majlath to the relentless gaze of the camera, which pursues her from a London cemetery to her flat. Initially seen as a comment on Yoko’s treatment by the press for having dared to intrude upon the Beatle Dream, this potent critique of the depiction of women in mainstream cinema is more relevant than ever in the #MeToo era.

Rape (1969)

Rape (1969)

It’s made all the more harrowing by the fact that Majlath speaks in unsubtitled German and Italian, which serves to emphasise her isolation and helplessness and makes the uncomprehending audience all the more complicit in her plight. Writing in the Evening Standard, Willi Frischauer claimed: “This film does for the age of television what Franz Kafka’s The Trial did for the age of totalitarianism.” Chillingly, Majlath (a model who was also known as Eva Rhodes) was murdered in 2008 after having returned to her native Hungary to run an animal sanctuary.

Sharing a name with a Yoko double album, Fly (1970) was filmed during the course of a single night and involved flies crawling over the prostrate naked body of New York actress Virginia Lust. Inspired by a cartoon in which a man insists that he is looking at a fly when his wife catches him ogling a woman in a low-cut dress, the 25-minute short was more than a treatise on the male gaze: Yoko was also keen to examine the extent to which viewers deceive themselves while watching a cinema or TV screen.

Fly (1970)

Fly (1970)

Amusingly, Yoko and her crew had considerable trouble wrangling the insect cast and had to use carbon dioxide to slow them down after they failed to respond to the honey and sugar water coating Lust’s torso.

Where not to start

John and Yoko made a clutch of charming films together after Yoko reversed her own performance in Chieko Shiomi’s Disappearing Music for Face (1966) by recording a grinning Lennon at 333 frames per second for Film No.5 (Smile) (1968). They merged their faces and kissed in Two Virgins (1968), campaigned for peace in Bed-In (1969), floated through the clouds in Apotheosis (1970), contemplated a timepiece in Clock (1971) and promoted their music in Imagine (1972).

But, while there’s much to admire in these pieces, Self-Portrait (1969) is more taxing, as its sole focus throughout its 42-minute running time is Lennon’s penis. Ironically, this provocation passed through US customs without question, unlike Erection (1971), which was a harmless timelapse photographic study, made in cahoots with Iain Macmillan, of the construction of a hotel in North Kensington.

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