Electric Chair

In the opening scene of Yvonne Rainer's MURDER and murder, the camera zooms along the beach at Coney Island, landing on the attractively weathered face of a loosely dressed, middle-aged woman who's in mid-chat with a friend on the sand. The woman's short graying hair blows back in the wind as she looks her chum straight in the eye. "Never in my wildest dreams," she says, "did I think I would ever be able to say, with the utmost conviction...I love eating pussy."

Welcome to "Women in the Director's Chair," wherein aging lesbian sex shares screen time with pregnant mathematical geniuses, mastectomy scars, transracial adoption, the gilded cage of femininity in Victorian England, the precious monotony of two lovers cooking together, and the conflicting notions of work and identity, creation and procreation. If the old saying is true that a woman's work is never done, at least a lot of that work can be seen here.

Not all of the films in Walker Art Center's annual series might work as art or politics or entertainment, but the national features are worthy for the attempt--particularly Rainer's aforementioned artistic feast (screening Saturday at 8:30 p.m.) and Lynn Hershman Leeson's Conceiving Ada (Friday at 7 p.m.). Consider Rainer's image of a 63-year-old woman stroking her lover's deflated breast: a naughty, righteous picture that's worth a thousand fists in the air. Yes, women do have great sex after that Certain Age. And no, they don't all look like Jane Fonda.

Rainer, an avant-gardist who came to filmmaking after a career in dance, treats the conventions of mainstream moviedom as a list of rules to be messed with. In MURDER and murder, lovers Mildred (Kathleen Chalfant) and Doris (Joanna Merlin) talk directly to the camera whenever it suits them. Linear narrative is flushed down the toilet; characters from the past frolic invisibly around the bathroom as the partners brush their teeth. Speaking in a deadpan voice that wouldn't sound out of place on an educational wildlife video, Rainer even jumps into the frame to introduce herself and toss in a few non-sequiturs ("What's Stanley Kubrick been doing lately? He lives in England," she offers from her perch on the bathtub).

And here's where things begin to fall apart. Soon, Doris falls prey to the ugly beast of breast cancer and starts to pull away from Mildred. That distinct brand of arthouse movie silence fills more and more of their screen time, while the air between the pauses gets crammed with disjointed academic rhetoric. Faces appear and disappear, spouting drivel like "lesbians can't get AIDS" and "Pat Robertson opposes the ERA." Rainer pops in and out more frequently, now bearing the scar across her chest, to intone endless statistics about the rates of cancer and its causes. It contains all the excitement of a PSA.

While the haphazard construction of these barely related scenes smacks of '60s-era Goddard, Rainer's work doesn't wash over the viewer with anything near the visual or intellectual allure that the French New Wave was known for. It's hard not to feel a little ripped off when, after introducing the lovers with such affection, Rainer pulls a Brechtian bait-and-switch by shutting off the movie's emotions in mid-flight.

Conversely, Conceiving Ada forgoes MURDER's avant-garde academics in favor of science-fiction gobbledy-gook. Creating a pioneering work of cyber-filmmaking, Leeson, a multimedia artist, employs "virtual sets" in one of the film's two time periods, thereby saving scads of money and opening new doors for indie auteurs everywhere. Of course, the Victorian cyber-sets in Conceiving Ada are so convincing that they have very little impact on the final product; they're only evident in a few trippy, Myst-like scene changes wherein the walls seem effectively downloaded instead of simply well-lit.

Still, this story of a computer genius who communicates through cyberspace with a long-dead Victorian mathematician poses enough intriguing questions and dreamy technological solutions to hold its own. It's also helped in no small measure by Tilda Swinton's haunting performance as Ada, a woman who inherited her genius--as well as her affinity for sex, drugs, and gambling--from her father, Lord Byron.

Featuring Timothy Leary as a talking-head computer guru (Marshall "Heaven's Gate" Applewhite springs immediately to mind), Leeson's out-and-out techno fantasy demands a hearty suspension of disbelief from those who take their computer science literally. The simplistic method that a beautiful, work-obsessed codewriter (Francesca Faridany) devises to "find" and "save" scenes from Ada's life is tough to swallow, particularly when it's explained away with excited mumbo-jumbo like "I've imported a memory bank made from DNA molecules."

Sci-fi hurdles aside, the parallels of the women's lives--from an ambivalence about motherhood to their decidedly unfeminine ambition in a field as manly as math--make the case that we might have come a long way, baby. But then again, maybe our ultimate creative power still lies in the womb. In any case, the least one can say for Conceiving Ada is that it sets a clear path toward post-screening discussion--or debate.

Walker Art Center's "Women in the Director's Chair" series continues through Friday, March 27; call 375-7622 for tickets and information.

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