Revisit Yoko Ono and John Lennon’s controversial 1969 film ‘Rape’
“The more I see the less I know for sure.” – John Lennon
John Lennon became one of the biggest cultural icons in human history as the founder, co-lead vocalist, and rhythm guitarist of The Beatles but the prolific musician dabbled in filmmaking as well. He has directorial credits on several experimental short films which he made with his wife Yoko Ono. Some of these works are very avant-garde, like the 1971 film Up Your Legs Forever which consists of continuous panning shots up a series of 367 human legs.
In an interview with Dick Cavett, Lennon said, “Yoko was quite adept in filmmaking and she made quite a few films before I met her. I used to make 8mm films at home…but when I met Yoko she said, ‘Why don’t you do it seriously?’ So she sort of helped me develop in that area and I find it [to be] very similar to recording, just visual and it is beautiful to work with.”
Lennon and Yoko Ono made a 77-minute-long conceptual film in 1969 called Rape. Shot mainly in close-up with a hand-held camera, the film features the single action of a small film-making crew coming upon a woman in a London park and following her through the park, along streets and into her apartment. We are the voyeur and the violator in this symbolic form of video assault. The woman speaks a foreign language and cannot communicate with the crew in English, signifying the helplessness and isolation of the victim.
According to Ono, Rape was a candid recording by cinematographer Nic Knowlton of a woman who was not a voluntary participant of this project. The film was seen as a commentary on Ono’s experience with the press due to her high-profile relationship with Lennon, criticising the lack of privacy that celebrity fetishisation leads to. In later years, it has become a textbook example of the phenomenon of “the male gaze” and how the institution of cinema has mistreated women.
The ideas in the film are theoretically interesting and some of its execution is fascinating, Rape ultimately becomes an endurance test for the viewer because of the 77-minute runtime. However, this is exactly the purpose of such cinematic theses. Lennon and Ono manage to create an atmosphere of discomfort and distress where the audience feels like they are complicit in the terrible crime.