Yoko Ono’s own relationship and partnership with John Lennon have given her access and opportunities she might never have achieved on her own, but her status as a pop icon has largely obscured her own achievements as an artist. Now where is this more obvious than in the area of filmmaking. Between 1966 and 1971, Ono made substantial contribution to avant-garde cinema,
Most of which are now a vague memory, even for those generally cognizant of developments in this field. With few expectations, her films have been out of circulation for years, but fortunately this situation needs to be changing; in the spring of 1989 the Whitney Museum of American Art presented a film retrospective along with a small show of objects - eighties versions of conceptual objects Ono has exhibited in 1966 and 1967 – and the American Federation of Arts re-released Ono’s films in the spring of 1991.
Except as a film-goer, Ono was not involved with film until the 1960s, though by this time she began to make her own films, she was an established artist. At the end of the fifties, after studying poetry and music at Sarah Lawrence College, she became part of a circle of avant-garde musicians (including John Cage and Merce Cunningham): in fact the “Chambers Street Series.” An influential concert series organized by LaMonte Young, was held at Ono’s loft at 112 Chambers. Ono’s activities in music led to her first public concert, A Grapefruit in the World of Park (at the Village Gate, 1961) and later that same year to an evening of performance events in which Yvonne Rainer stood up and sat down before a table stacked with dishes for ten minutes, then smashed the dishes “accompanied by a rhythmic background of repeated syllables, a tape recording of moans and words spoken backwards, and by an aria of high-pitched wails sung by Ono” (Barbara Haskell’s description in Yoko Ono: Objects, Films, the catalogue for the 1989 Whitney Museum show).
In the early sixties Ono was part of what became known as Fluxus, an art movement with roots in Dada, in Marcel Duchamp and John Cage, and energised by George Maciunas. The Fluxus artists were dedicated to challenging conventional definitions in the fine arts, and conventional relationships between artwork and viewer. In the early sixties, Ono made such works as Painting to See the Room through (1961), a canvas with an almost invisible hole in the centre through which one peered to see the room, and Painting to Hammer the Nail in (1961), a white wood panel that “viewers” were instructed to hammer nails into with an attached hammer. Instructions for dozens of these early pieces, and for later ones, are reprinted in Ono’s Grapefruit, which has appeared several times in several different editions- most recently in a Simon and Schuster/ Touchstone paperback edition, reprinted in 1979.
By the mid sixties, Ono had become interested in film, as a writer of mini film scripts (sixteen are reprinted in the Fall 1989 Film Quarterly), and as a contributor of three films to the Fluxfilm Program coordinated by Maciunas in 1966: two one-shot films shot at 2000 frames per second, Eyeblink and Match, and No.4, a sequence of buttocks of walking males and females. Along with several other films in the Fluxfilm Program (and two 1966 films by Bruce Baillie), Eyeblink and No.4 are, so far as I know, the first instances of what was to become a mini-genre of avant-garde cinema: the single-shot film (films that are or appear to be precisely one shot long), No.4 (Bottoms) (1966).
For the eighty minutes of No.4 (Bottoms), all we see are human buttocks in the act of walking, filmed in black and white, in close-up, so that each buttocks fills the screen: the crack between the cheeks and the crease between hams and legs divide the frame into four approximately equal sectors: we cannot see around the edges of the walking bodies. Each buttocks is filmed for a few seconds (often for fifteen seconds or so; sometimes for less than ten seconds), and is then followed immediately by the next buttocks. The sound track consists of interviews with people whose buttocks we see and with other people considering whether to allow themselves to be filmed; they talk about the project in general, and they raise the issue of the film’s probable boredom, which becomes a comment on viewers’ actual experience of the film. The sound track also includes segments of television news coverage of the project (which had considerable visibility in London in 1966), including an interview with Ono, who discusses the conceptual design of the film.
No. 4 (Bottoms) is fascinating and entertaining, especially in its revelation of the human body. Because Ono’s structuring of the visuals is rigorously serial, No.4 (Bottoms) is reminiscent of Edward Muybridge’s motion studies, though in this instance the “grid” against which we measure the motion is temporal, as well as implicitly spatial: though there’s no literal grid behind the bottoms, each bottom is framed in precisely the same way. What we realize from seeing these bottoms, and inevitably comparing them with one another- and with our idea of “bottom”- is both obvious and startling. Not only are people’s bottoms remarkably varied in their shape, colouring, and texture, but no two bottoms move in the same way.
On a more formal level No.4 (Bottoms) is interesting both as an early instance of the serial structuring that was to become so common in avant-garde film by the end of the sixties (in Snow’s Wavelength and Ernie Gehr’s Serene Velocity, 1970; Hollis Frampton’s Zorns Lemma, 1970 and Robert Huot’s Rolls: 1971, 1972; J.J. Murphey’s Print Generation, 1974…) and because Ono’s editing makes the experience of No.4 (Bottoms) more complex than simple descriptions of the film seem to suggest. As the film develops, particular bottoms and comments on the sound track are sometimes repeated, often in new contexts; and a variety of subtle interconnections between image and sound occur.
Like No.4 (Bottoms), Ono’s next long film, Film No.5 (Smile) (1968, fifty-one minutes), was an extension of work included in the Fluxfilm Program. Like her Eyeblink and Match- and like Chieko Shiomi’s Disappearing Music for Face (in which Ono’s smile gradually “disappears”), also on the Fluxfilm Program- Film No.5 (Smile) was shot with a high-speed camera. Unlike these earlier films, all of which filmed simple actions in black and white, indoors, at 2000 frames per second, Film No.5 (Smile) reveals John Lennon’s face, recorded at 333 frames per second for an extended duration, outdoors, in colour, and accompanied by a sound track of outdoor sounds recorded at the same time the imagery was recorded. Film No.5 (Smile) divides roughly into two halves, one continuous shot each. During the first half, the film is a meditation on Lennon’s face, which is so still that on first viewing I wasn’t entirely sure for a while that the film was live action and not an optically printed photograph of Lennon smiling slightly. Though almost nothing happens in any conventional sense, the intersection of the high-speed filming and our extended gaze creates continuous, subtle transformations: it is as if we can see Lennon’s expression evolve in conjunction with the flow of his thoughts. Well into the first shot, Lennon forms his lips into an “O”- a kiss perhaps- and then slowly returns to the slight smile with which the shot opens. During the second shot of Film No.5 (Smile), which differs from the first in subtleties of colour and texture (both shots are lovely), Lennon’s face is more active; he blinks several times, sticks his tongue out, smiles broadly twice, and seems to say “Ah!” Of course, while the second shot is more active than the first, the amount of activity remains minimal by conventional standards (and unusually so even for avant-garde film.) It is as though those of us in the theatre and Lennon are meditating on each other from opposite sides of the cinematic apparatus, joined together by Ono in a lovely, hypnotic stasis.
The excitement Ono and Lennon were discovering living and working together fuelled Two Virgins (1968) and Bed-In (1969), both of which were collaborations. Two Virgins enacts two metaphors for the two artists’ interaction. First, we see a long passage of Ono’s and Lennon’s faces superimposed, often with a third layer of leaves, sky, and water; then we see an extended shot of Ono and Lennon looking at each other, then kissing. Bed-In is a relatively conventional record of the Montreal performance; it includes a number of remarkable moments, most noteworthy among them, perhaps, Al Capp’s blatantly mean-spirited, passive-aggressive visit, and the song “Give Peace a Chance.” Nearly all of Ono’s remaining films were collaborations with John Lennon.
When the Whitney Museum presented Ono’s films at its 1989 retrospective, Rape (1969) provoked the most extensive critical commentary. The relentless seventy-seven-minute feature elaborates the single action of a small filmmaking crew coming upon a woman in a London park and following her through the park, along streets, and into her apartment where she becomes increasingly isolated by her cinematic tormentors. (Her isolation is a theme from the beginning since the woman speaks German; because the film isn’t subtitled, even we don’t know what she’s saying in any detail.) The film was, according to Ono, a candid recording by cinematographer Nic Knowland of a woman who was not willingly a part of this project. When Rape was first released, it was widely seen as a comment on Ono’s experience on being in the media spotlight with Lennon. Two decades later, the films seems more a parable about the implicit victimization of women by the institution of cinema.
Fly (1970) has a number of historical precedents- Willard Maas’s Geography of the Body (1943), most obviously- but it remains powerful and fascinating. At first, a fly is seen, in extreme close-up, as it “explores” the body of a nude woman (she’s identified as “Virginia Lust” in the credits); later more and more flies are seen crawling on the body, which now looks more like a corpse; and at the end, the camera pans up and “flies” out the window of the room. The remarkable sound track is a combination of excerpts from Ono’s vocal piece, Fly, and music composed by Lennon.
Up Your Legs Forever (1970) is basically a remake of No.4 (Bottoms), using legs, rather than buttocks: the camera continually pans up from the feet to the upper thighs of hundreds of men and women, as we listen to the sound of the panning apparatus and a variety of conversations about the project. Though UP Your Legs Forever has some interesting moments, it doesn’t have the drama or the humour of No.4 (Bottoms).
Ono and Lennon also collaborated on two Lennon films (whether a film is a “Lennon film” or and “Ono film” depends on whose basic concept instigated the project). Apotheosis (1970) is one of the most ingenious single-shot films ever made. A camera pans up the cloaked bodies of Lennon and Ono, then on up into the sky above a village, higher and higher across snow-covered fields (the camera was mounted in a hot-air balloon, which we never see- though we hear the device that heats the air) and then up into the clouds; the screen remains completely white for several minutes, and finally, once many members of the audience have given up on the film, the camera rises out into the sunny skyscraper above the clouds. The film is a test and reward of viewer patience and serenity. For Erection, a camera was mounted so that we can watch the construction of a building, in time-lapse dissolves from one image to another, several hours or days later. The film is not so much about the action of constructing a building (as a pixellated film of such a subject might be), as it is about the subtle, sometimes magical changes that take place between the dissolves. Erection is more mystery than documentation.
Imagine (1971)- not to be confused with the recent Imagine: John Lennon (1988, directed by Andrew Solt)- was the final Ono/Lennon cinematic collaboration: it’s a series of sketches accompanied by their music. Since 1971 Ono has made no films, though she did make a seven minute video documenting the response to a conceptual event at the Museum of Modern Art: Museum of Modern Art Show (1971). She has also made several music videos that document her process of recovering from Lennon’s death- Walking on Thin Ice (1981), Woman (1981), Goodbye Sadness (1982)- as well as records and art objects.
Of course, she remains one of the world’s most visible public figures and the most widely known conceptual artist.
I spoke with Ono at her office at the Dakota in May 1989.
MacDonald: Were you a moviegoer as a child?
Ono: I was a movie buff, yes. In prep school in Tokyo you were supposed to go directly home after school. But most kids often went to the movies. We used to hide our school badges and sneak into the theatre.
MacDonald: Do you remember what you saw?
Ono: Yes, I mostly saw French films. There was a group of kids who like American films- Jimmy Stewart and Katharine Hepburn, Doris Day and Rock Hudson, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby- and there was another crowd of girls who thought they were intellectuals, and went to French films. I was in the French film group. We would go to see The Children of Paradise (1945), that sort of thing. It was a very exciting time. I loved those films.
MacDonald: Did you see some of the early French surrealist films from the twenties?
Ono: Those things I saw much later. We’re talking about when I was in high school in the late forties. I saw the surrealist films in the sixties in New York and Paris.
The films I saw in high school that were closest to surrealism wee the Cocteau films, Beauty and the Beast and Orpheus (1950). Those films really gave me some ideas.
MacDonald: The earliest I know of you in connection with film is the sound track you did for Taka Iimura’s Love in 1963 by hanging the microphone out the window. I know the later Fluxfilm reels that were made in 1966, but did the Fluxus group get involved with film before that?
Ono: No. I think that one of the reasons why we couldn’t make films or didn’t think of making films was that we felt that it was an enormously expensive venture. At that time, I didn’t even have the money to buy canvas. I’d go to army surplus shops and get that canvas that’s rolled up. During that period, I felt that getting a camera to do a film was unrealistic.
MacDonald: Grapefruit includes three tiny descriptions of conceptual film projects that are identified as excerpts from “Six Film Scripts by Yoko Ono.” Were there others, or was the indication that there were six scripts a conceptual joke?
Ono: No, there were six at first; then later there were others. At the time I wrote those scripts, I sent most of them to Jones Mekas, to document them. Actually, that’s why I have copies of them now.
MacDonald: There seems to be confusion about the names and numbers of the films on the Fluxfilm Program, and about who did them. I assume you made the two slow-motion films, Eyeblink and Match, and the first film about buttocks, No.4.
Ono: Those are mine, yes.
MacDonald: Did people collaborate in making those films, or did everybody work individually and then just put the films onto those two Fluxus reels?
Ono: One day George (Maciunas) called me and said he’s got the use of a high-speed camera and it’s a good opportunity, so just come over (to Peter Moore’s apartment on East 36th St) and make some films. So I went there, and the high-speed camera was set up and he said, “Give me some ideas!” Think of some ideas for films!” There weren’t many people around, at the beginning just George and…
MacDonald: Peter Moore is credited on a lot of the slow-motion films.
Ono: Yeah, Peter Moore was there, and Barbara Moore came too. And other people were coming in- I forget who they were- but not many. When I arrived, I was the only person there, outside of George. I don’t know how George managed to get the high-speed camera. I don’t think he paid for it. But it was the kind of opportunity that if you can get it, you grab it. So I’m there, and I got the idea of Match and Eyeblink and we shot these. Eyeblink didn’t come out too well. It was my eye, and I didn’t like my eye.
MacDonald: I like that film a lot. Framed the way it is, the eye becomes erotic; it’s suggestive of body parts normally considered more erotic.
Ono: The one of those high-speed films I liked best was one you didn’t mention: Smoking.
MacDonald: The one by Joe Jones.
Ono: Yes. I thought that one was amazing, so beautiful; it was like frozen smoke.
MacDonald: There’s a film on that reel called Disappearing Music for Face…
Ono: Chieko Shiomi’s film, yeah.
MacDonald: I understand you were involved in that one too.
Ono: Well, that was my smile. That was me. What happened was that Chieko Shiomi was in Japan at the time. She was coming here often; it wasn’t like she was stationed in Japan all the time, but at the time I think she had just left to go to Japan. Then this high-speed camera idea came up, and when George was saying, “Quick, quick, ideas,” I said, “Well, how about smile”; and he said, “NO, that you can’t do, think of something else.” “But,” I said, “Smile is a very important one, I really want to do it,” because I always had that idea, but George keeps saying, “No you can’t do that one.” Finally, he said, “Well, OK , actually I wanted to save that for Chieko Shiomi because she had the same idea. But I will let you perform.” So that’s me smiling. Later I found out that her concept was totally different from what I wanted to do. Chieko Shiomi’s idea is beautiful; she catches the disappearance of a smile. At the time I didn’t know what her title was.
MacDonald: I assume No.4 was shot at a different time.
Ono: Yes. At the time I was living at 1 West 100th Street. It was shot in my apartment. My then husband Tony Cox and Jeff Perkins helped.
MacDonald: The long version of the buttocks film, No.4 (Bottoms), is still amazing.
Ono: I think that film had a social impact at the time because of what was going on in the world and also because of what was going on in the film world. It’s a pretty interesting film really.
Do you know the statement I wrote about taking any film and burying it underground for fifty years [see Grapefruit (New York; Simon and Schuster/ Touchstone, 1971), Section 9, “On Film No.4,” paragraph 3, and “On Film No.5 and Two Virgins,” paragraph 2]? It’s like wine. Any film, any cheap film, if you put it underground for fifty years, becomes interesting [laughter]. You just take a shot of people walking, and that’s enough: the weight of history is so incredible.
MacDonald: When No.4 (Bottoms) was made, the idea of showing a lot of asses was completely outrageous. Bottoms were less-respected, less-revealed part of the anatomy. These days things have changed. Now bottoms are OK- certain bottoms. What I found exhilarating about watching the film (maybe because I’ve always been insecure about my bottom!) is that after you see hundreds of bottoms, you realize that during the whole time you watched the film, you never saw the “correct,” marketable jean-ad bottom. You realize that nobody’s bottom is the way bottoms are supposed to be: the droop, or there are pimples- something is “wrong.” I think the film has almost as much impact now as it did then- though in a different way.
Ono: Well, you see, it’s not just to do with bottoms. For me the film is less about bottoms than about a certain bear, a beat you didn’t see in films, even in avant-garde films, then.
This is something else, but I remember one beautiful film where the stationary camera just keeps zooming toward a wall…
MacDonald: Wavelength? Michael Snow’s film?
Ono: Right, Michael Snow. That’s an incredibly beautiful film. A revolution in itself really. Bottoms film was a different thing, but just as revolutionary I think. It was about a beat, about movement. The beat in bottoms film is comparable to a rock beat. Even in the music world there wasn’t that beat until rock came. It’s the closest thing to the heartbeat. I tried to capture that again with Up Your Legs Forever. But in No.4 (Bottoms) it worked much better. Maybe it was the bottoms. That film has a basic energy. I couldn’t capture it in Up Your Legs Forever.
MacDonald: No.4 (Bottoms) plays with perceptions and memory in different ways. For a while it seems like a simple, serial structure, one bottom after another. Then at a certain point you realize, Oh I’ve seen that bottom before… but was it with this sound? No, I don’t think so. Later you may see another bottom a second time, clearly with the same sound. A new kind of viewing experience develops. Did you record all the bottoms and the spoken material for the track, and then later, using that material, develop a structure? It seems almost scored.
Ono: Yes. I spent a lot of hours editing. It wasn’t just put together. The sequence was important. A sympathetic studio said that I could come at midnight or whenever no one was using the facilities, to do the editing. I got a lot of editing time free; that’s how I was able to finish it.
MacDonald: On the sound track some of the participants talk about the process of getting people to show up to have their bottoms recorded, but I’m not completely sure what the process was. You put an ad in a theatrical paper apparently.
Ono: Well, we had an ad, yes, but most of the people were friends of friends. It became a fantastic event. You have to understand, the minute the announcement was made, there was a new joke about it in the newspapers everyday, and everybody was into it. We filmed at Victor Musgrave’s place; he was a very good friend who was very generous in letting me use his townhouse.
MacDonald: Did you select bottoms or did you use everybody that was filmed? Were there really 365 bottoms involved?
Ono: I didn’t select bottoms. There was not enough for 365 anyway. And the impact of the film as a happening was already getting lost from filming for so long. And there was the rental of the camera and the practical aspect of the shooting schedule. At a certain point I said, “Oh well, the number’s conceptual anyway, so who cares. It’s enough!”
MacDonald: I assume that when you did the early Fluxus version of No.4, you just followed people walking across an apartment. For the long film you’d built a machine to do the filming, which allowed you to film in more controlled close-up; we can’t see around the sides of the bodies the way we can in the earlier film.
Ono: Well, in the first No.4 I was pretty close too. But, as you say, it wasn’t really perfect. In London we did it almost perfect. In London we did it almost perfectly. My idea both times was very visual. All my films had very visual concepts behind them in the beginning. I mean No.4 (Bottoms) has many levels of impact- one being political- but originally I simply wanted to cover the screen with one object, with something that was moving constantly. There’s always a background. The closest you get to what I mean s like some macho guy, a cowboy or something, standing with his back to the screen, but you always see a little background. The screen is never covered; so I thought, if you don’t leave a background it might be like the whole screen is moving. I just wanted to have that experience. As you say, it didn’t work in the early version, but it was the first idea I had for the film actually.
And also, the juxtaposition of the movement of the four sections of the bottoms was fascinating, I thought.
MacDonald: No.4 (Bottoms) reminds me of Edward Muybridge’s motion photographs.
Ono: Oh I see, yeah.
MacDonald: Was the finished film shown a lot?
Ono: Well, I finally got an OK from the censor and we showed it in Charing Cross Road. Then some American Hollywood producer came and said he wanted to buy it and take it to the United States. Also, he wanted me to make 365 breasts, and I said, if we’re going to do breasts, then I will do a sequence of one breast, you know, fill the screen with a single breast over and over, but I don’t think that was erotic enough for him. He was thinking eroticism; I was thinking about visual, graphic concepts- a totally different thing. I was too proud to make two breasts [laughter]. I think there was an attempt to take the bottoms film to the United States, but it was promptly confiscated by the censor.
MacDonald: At customs?
MacDonald: There’s a mention on the sound track that you were planning to do other versions of that film in other countries, and the film ends with the phrase, “To Be Continued.” Was that a concept for other films, or were there some specific plans for follow-ups?
Ono: Well you see, all my films do have a conceptual side. I have all these scripts, and I get excited just to show them to people because my hope is that maybe they will want to make some of them. That would be great. I mean most of my films are film instructions; they were never made actually. Just as film instructions, I think they are valid, but it wouldn’t be very good if somebody makes them. I don’t have to make them myself. And also, each film I made had a projection of future plans built into the idea. If somebody picks up on one of them, that’s great.
At the time I was making films, what I felt I was doing was similar to what The Rocky Horror Picture Show  did later. I wanted to involve the audience directly in new ways.
MacDonald: How did Film No.5 (Smile) come about?
Ono: When I went to London, I still kept thinking about the idea of smile, so when I had the chance, I decided to do my version. Of course, until John and I got together, I could never have rented a high-speed camera. Well, maybe if I’d looked into it, I could have. I don’t know, but I thought it would be too expensive.
MacDonald: Did you know Lennon well at the point when you did Film No.5 (Smile)?
MacDonald: Because I wondered whether you made the film because you wanted to capture a certain complexity in him, or whether the complexity that’s revealed in that seemingly simple image is a result of what the high-speed camera reveals, or creates, as it films,
Ono: Well, certainly I knew John was complex person. But the film wasn’t so much about his complexity as a person. I was trying to capture the complexity of a visual experience. What you see in that film is very similar to how you perceive somebody when you are on acid. We had done acid trips together, and that gave me the idea. I wondered how do you capture this?
MacDonald: It’s a beautiful film.
Ono: Well, of course, you know from the statements I made about Smile [see Ono, Grapefruit, “On Film No.5 & Two Virgins”] that my idea was really very different from the film I finally made. My idea was to do everybody’s smile. But when I met John, I thought, doing everybody’s smile is going to be impossible; and he can represent everybody’s smile.
MacDonald: What I find incredible about Smile is that as you watch John’s face, it’s almost as though you can see his mind working. I don’t know whether it’s an optical illusion, maybe it’s created by the way that the camera works. But it’s almost as though as you watch, the expression is changing every second.
Ono: I know. It’s incredible, isn’t it? Of course I didn’t know what exactly a high-speed camera would do. I knew in general, but I didn’t know what the exact effect would be. And, of course, I never would have known unless George Maciunas had rented a high-speed camera and called me up. George was a very interesting person. He had a very artistic mind. I never knew why he didn’t create his own art; he always wanted to take the role of helping create other people’s work. But that combination was very good; he not only executed what we wanted, he gave us the opportunity to look into the areas we would never have looked into. He had that kind of mind.
MacDonald: With Two Virgins you and John began collaborating on films and in the next few years there was a whole series of collaborations. Judging from the credits on the films, I assume that one or the other of you would get an idea and then both of you would work the idea out, and whoever had the original idea for a particular film- that film was theirs. Normally, the directorial credit is considered the most important one, but on these films there’s a more basic credit. It might be “Film by Yoko Ono,” then “Directed and produced by John and Yoko.” Am I correct: was it that whoever had the original concept for the film, that’s whose film it was?
MacDonald: I remember reading years ago in a collection of Rolling Stone interviews that when you and John got involved with politics and in particular with the Bed-In, It was partly because Peter Watkins had written you a letter. Is that how you remember it?
Ono: Well, yes, Peter Watkin’s letter was a confrontation to us, and at the time we had a conversation about what we felt we had been doing politically: “Well, I was doing this, Yes I was doing that.” As a Beatle, John was always asked, “What is your position about the Vietnam War,” or something else; and I think that their manager, Brian Epstein, was very concerned that they wouldn’t make any statements, and so they didn’t make any direct statements. But a covert statement was made through an album cover that was censored, as you know. And I was standing in Trafalgar Square, in a bag, for peace and all that. So separately we had that awareness, and we were expressing it in the ways that we could. I was doing it more freely because it was easier for me. So we were comparing notes after getting the letter, and then we were saying, “Well what about doing something together,” which was the Bed-In (and the film Bed-In), so Peter Watkin’s letter definitely did mean something to us.
MacDonald: How much control did you (or you and John) have over the way Bed-In looks? You credit a large crew on that film. What was your part in the final film, other than as performers?
Ono: We always maintained careful control over the finished films. I was generally in charge of editing, which I did for that film, and for others, frame by frame. I mean I would have a film editor working with me- I don’t know the technology- but I would be very specific about what I wanted. When Jonas [Mekas] did the John and Yoko screenings at Anthology [Anthology Film Archives], I had three editing machines and editors brought into our hotel room, and I edited Bed-In there because of the deadline.
I enjoy the editing part of filmmaking most of all; that’s where the films really get made.
MacDonald: Rape is often talked about as a parable of the media intruding into your lives, but when I saw it again the other week, it struck me as very similar to pieces in Grapefruit.
Ono: Well, they keep saying that. I’ll tell you what happened. By the time that I actually got to make the film, John and I were together, and the reporters were hounding us, but the Rape concept was something I thought of before John and I got together.
MacDonald: In Grapefruit there’s “Black Piece II,” a part of which is “Walk behind a person for four hours.”
Ono: It was that kind of thing, right. But it was also a film script
[“Film No.5 (Rape or Chase)”]
MacDonald: How candid is the Rape footage? It no longer looks candid to me.
Ono: It was completely candid- except for the effects we did later in the editing. The girl in the film did not know what was happening. Her sister was in on it, so when she calls her sister on the phone, her sister is just laughing at her and the girl doesn’t understand why. Nic Knowland did the actual shooting. I wasn’t there. Everything was candid, but I kept pushing him to bring back better material. The type of material he brought back at first was something like he would be standing on the street, and when a group of girls passed by, he would direct the camera to them. The girls would just giggle and run away, and he wouldn’t follow. I kept saying he could do better than that, be he actually had a personal problem doing the film because he was a Buddhist and a peacenik: he didn’t want to intrude on people’s privacy. I remember John saying later that no actress could have given a performance that real.
I’ve done tons of work, and I don’t have time to check it all out, but I wish I could check about this strange thing, which is that a lot of my works have been a projection of my future fate. It frightens me. It simply frightens me. I don’t want to see Rape now. I haven’t seen the Rape film in a long time, but just thinking about the concept of it frightens me because now I’m in that position, the position of the woman in the film.
MacDonald: In the video Walking on Thin Ice, we see a similar scene, but with you.
Ono: I know. And why did I think of that song? After I wrote that song all sorts of trouble started to happen, all of which was somehow related to the song, that feeling of walking on thin ice. Sometimes I intentionally try to write something positive. But in a situation like that, art comes first. I really thought “Walking on Thin Ice” was a good song when it came to me. I had no qualms about recording it. The artistic desire of expressing something supersedes the worry, I suppose, and you think, ah it’s nothing, it’s fine, it’s just a nice song or something; and then it turns out that it becomes my life and I don’t want that.
Just recently I was in this film where I performed as a bag lady [Homeless, by Yukihiko Tsutsumi, unreleased at time of interview]. I was a bit concerned what it might mean to enact a bag lady, in terms of future projections. But I reasoned that there are actors who die many times in films, but live long lives, so actually enacting death makes their real lives longer. Well, in the first scene it was a beautiful April day, one of those I’m-glad-to-be-in-New-York days, and I’m wearing these rags and I’m pushing an empty baby carriage in this beautiful green environment. And as I was doing it, I remembered the song “Greenfield Morning” and the line, “I pushed an empty baby carriage all over the city.” That was the first song we recorded for Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band, and I think it’s in Grapefruit, too- I mean the instruction “Push an empty baby carriage” [See “City Piece: Walk all over the city with an empty baby carriage” (Winter, 1961) near the end of the first section (Music) of Grapefruit]. So I’m pushing the baby carriage and I’m thinking I don’t want to know about this. That aspect of projection is interesting, isn’t it?
Ono: If you are somebody who makes films with a commercial concern or other concerns, other than just inspiration, maybe that sort of thing wouldn’t happen. I don’t know. But inspiration is very much connected with your life in past and future.
MacDonald: Apotheosis is a gorgeous film. It’s one of the collaborations that’s listed as John’s film, though the idea of stripping things away until you’ve got a white screen is very much like some of you work.
Ono: Well, I’ll tell you what happened. I think some of the instructions are already there in Grapefruit, or maybe not, maybe it’s one of the instructions that haven’t been published [Ono is referring to the second version of her film script, “Film No.1 (A Walk to the Taj Mahal)”]. There was a constant feeling of wanting to take an object that’s on the ground- not necessarily an object, could be a person- in fact the original idea was a drunken guy walking in a snowy field; you don’t see the drunken guy, but the camera suggests that he’s drunk because of the way it moves. So he walks and sways, and finally the camera goes up in the sky. When we did the cover for the “Two Virgins” album, where we were both naked, one of us said, “Why don’t we make a film where the camera moves from the ground up, shooting our naked bodies, and then just goes up in the air.” Later, John said, “Well, let’s make one where the camera goes up.” So the idea stemmed from that. What happened, of course, was that we didn’t expect the balloon film to be the way it was turned out. We went up in the balloon, and it happened to be a snowy day.
MacDonald: You were in the balloon with the camera?
Ono: Up to a certain point. The part where you go into the cloud, and then break out of the cloud, was taken later. The footage that came back from the lab was beautiful. It was just something that happened naturally, the dogs barking, everything that happened- it was an incredible experience. We didn’t expect it was going to be that beautiful. A lot of things just happen, you know.
MacDonald: If you allow them to, I guess.
MacDonald: Fly seems almost the opposite of Apotheosis in a way; it seems…
Ono: Very much intentionally calculated?
Ono: It’s true
MacDonald: You did the sound [for the vocal piece Fly] before you did the film. Had you had the idea in mind then?
Ono: I was always thinking about the idea of fly. Actually, I was always fascinated with the pun “fly and “fly” in English. There was also a conceptual event about flies and where they fly to.
MacDonald: The piece you did for the Museum of Modern Art?
Ono: Yes. Did you see that Museum of Modern Art catalogue? [A 112-page, one foot by one foot catalogue- the title seems to be Museum of Modern FArt (Ono is carrying a shopping bag with the letter “F” directly beneath the Museum of Modern Art marquee)- which details her concept at length; the catalogue was designed by Ono and produced by Michael Gross.] At the end of that, I talk about how to fly,
MacDonald: I know the video with the sandwich-board guy in front of the Museum of Modern Art who interviews people about the Yoko Ono show that “isn’t there” [The Museum of Modern Art Show]. In the text for that piece, you explain how some flies were exposed to your perfume and let loose and that people are following those flies around to see where they land.
Ono: The catalogue was made for that event; it had all sorts of interesting stuff in it, about how to fly and all that. All the pages are postcards that you could mail, so the catalogue and Fly piece could fly all over the place.
MacDonald: So MoMA had this on sale?
Ono: No, no, no, no! MoMA would not do it. MoMA was busy saying to people, “There’s no Yoko Ono show here.” People would come in and ask, is there a Yoko Ono show, and they would say no. They were very upset; they didn’t know what was going on. I couldn’t sell the book anywhere. Nobody bought it, so I have piles of it.
MacDonald: Earlier, in the mid sixties, you did a number of descriptions of environmental boxes that the viewer would go inside of and images would be projected on the outside. Eyeblink was involved in a number of those descriptions, and another was called “Fly”. I guess the idea was that a viewer would go inside the box and on all sides you would project images that would create the sensation that the viewer was flying.
Ono: How do you know about those boxes?
MacDonald: I found the descriptions in the Fluxus Codex, in the Yoko Ono section [See John Hendricks, Fluxus Codex (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1988), p.418 for the descriptions]. Was either piece ever built?
Ono: They were never built. I haven’t seen these ideas since I did them. Whenever I had an idea, I sent it to George Maciunas. He probably kept them. I don’t even have the originals for those. I’ll have to get this book. You know, I have this thing about reading about me. When something about me is in a book, I mostly don’t want to know about it.
MacDonald: One of the interesting things about watching the film Fly is that one’s sense of what the body we’re seeing is about, and what the film is about, is constantly changing.
Ono: A cartoon in a newspaper gave me the idea. There’s this woman with a low-cut dress, and a guy is looking at her, and the guy’s wife says, “What are you looking at!” and the guy says, “Oh, I’m looking at a fly on her.” I wanted the film to be an experience where you’re always wondering, am I following the movement of the fly or am I looking at the body? I think that life is full of that kind of thing. We’re always sort of deceiving ourselves about what we’re really seeing.
MacDonald: Do you know the Willard Maas film, Geography of the Body? It’s all close-ups of bodies, framed so that you can’t quite tell what body part you’re looking at- but they all look erotic. Eyeblink is a little like that, and Fly is full of the same effect. If you go close enough, every part of the body looks the same, and they’re all equally erotic.
Ono: Oh, there’s an incredible film instruction that has to do with that close-up idea. It’s a travelogue [“Film No.13 (Travelogue”]. You have a travelogue to Japan or somewhere, and you say, “Well, now I’m on Mount Fuji,” and there’s an incredible close-up of stones; and then, “We bathed in a mixed bath,” and you see just steam- you get it?- and then, “We ate noodles,” and you see an incredible close-up of noodles… so in effect you can make a travelogue of any country without going out of your apartment! “Then we saw geisha girls,” and you see an incredible close-up of hair [laughter]. I wanted to make that, but I just never got around it.
MacDonald: Freedom , the little one-minute film of you trying to take your bra off, was made the same year as Fly.
Ono: Yeah, isn’t that a great little film?
MacDonald: It’s so paradoxical. You show freedom as the ability to try to break free, which implies that you’re never really free.
Ono: Right, exactly.
MacDonald: You mentioned earlier that you didn’t think Up Your Legs Forever worked as well as No.4 (Bottoms). I thought it was interesting to see that people’s one leg is very different from their other leg.
Ono: The best thing about that film is the title, I think. My first vision for that film was like going up all the legs, up, up, up, to eternity. [“Film No. 12 (Esstacy)”- the misspelling of “ecstasy” is left as it was in the original film script, at Ono’s request]. But in making it, that vision got lost because of what was necessary to film the legs. I don’t know how you can do what I originally had in mind.
MacDonald: Jonas and Adolfas Mekas are thanked at the end of Up Your Legs Forever.
Ono: Because they did the editing. That was one of the few films I didn’t edit myself.
MacDonald: Somebody mentioned to me the other day, and I assume it’s not true, that Erection was originally a film about John’s penis. Was there a film like that?
Ono: Yes, there was. But it wasn’t called Erection. I think it was called Self Portrait, and it wasn’t an erection, it was just a long shot of his penis. That was his idea. The funny thing was that Self Portrait was never questioned by customs because of it’s title, and Erection, which was about the erection of a building , was questioned.
MacDonald: Is there a relation between the 1971 version of Imagine and the recent Imagine: John Lennon?
Ono: There’s no relationship. We wanted to make surrealistic film in the tradition of Luis Bunuel and Jean Cocteau. It was John’s idea to say just one or two words at the beginning, and make the reset of the film silent, like silent movie. I liked that idea and we did it. I think that now it’s more or less known as a forefather of MTV. Each scene came from some idea John or I had. It was really a collaboration between John and me.
MacDonald: Are you involved in film now? Are you planning to make films? You made several videos in the early eighties, but it’s been a while since you’ve made a film.
Ono: I don’t know; it might get to that. I’m one of those people who can’t do something unless I’m totally motivated. That’s one of the reasons I jump from one medium to another. I did the Whitney Museum show, and suddenly all the inspiration is sculptural; and then last night or the night before, I went to the studio to do some music. But I’m not getting that feeling like I gotta make a film- except for The Tea Party [the film script “Film No.7 (Tea Party)”]: for years I’ve been wanting to make that one, but because of the technical difficulties I don’t seem to be able to get it together. I think one of the reasons I’m not making more films is that I’ve done so many film scripts. I’d like to see one of them made by somebody else. Maybe one day out of the blue I’ll feel it so strongly that I’ll make a film myself again.
A Critical Cinema by Scott MacDonald: Yoko Ono