I was flicking through the news pages of one of the broadsheets last week when a photograph of a young woman caught my eye. It was in black and white, and seemed to have been taken some time in the 1960s. Slender, attractive, long flowing hair: she looked like a model or an aspiring singer on her way to a party down the King’s Road. She also looked strangely familiar. The caption said her name was Eva Rhodes, but that didn’t ring any bells.
The story accompanying the photograph was grisly and upsetting. Eva Rhodes, it turns out, was born in Hungary in 1943, becoming a refugee in 1956 after Stalin’s tanks rolled into Budapest. She moved to Austria, then later to London. She became a model, and married an architect, before relocating to East Anglia where she reinvented herself as an antiques dealer.
In the early 1990s she returned to Hungary, using her life savings to establish an animal sanctuary called Puss In Boots that by 2008 housed seventy dogs and fifty cats. There, probably in September last year, she was murdered by one of her employees who battered her to death, set fire to her, then carted away her remains in a wheelbarrow before burying them 200 metres from the sanctuary. They were only discovered last week.
The reporter mentioned in passing that, in the 1960s, Eva had appeared in a film entitled Rape and directed by Yoko Ono. That film, the memory of which I’ve been trying to get out of my head ever since I first saw it a couple of years ago, is one of the most disturbing pieces of conceptual art ever made.
In her minimalist outline, Ono described it as “Rape with camera”. Its entire story – though that word suggests a level of fictional artifice that its cine-verité form resists – goes like this: “A cameraman will chase a girl on a street with a camera persistently until he corners her in an alley, and, if possible, until she is in a falling position.”
It’s likely that many people, perhaps as a result of Imagine, associate Ono with pacifism. However, the art that initially made her name on the underground circuit, was anything but gentle. In Cut Piece, which she first performed in 1964 in Tokyo, she invited members of the audience to approach her on stage and cut away at her clothing with a pair of scissors so that, by the end of the piece, she was left covering her breasts.
The following year, she appeared in Satan’s Bed (1965), a film made by the husband-and-wife team Michael and Roberta Findlay who a decade later would find notoriety following the release of Snuff (1976). Satan’s Bed is an exploitation flick, a rather nasty one at that, in which Ono played a kimono-wearing immigrant who travels to New York to marry a guy involved in the drug trade. She can’t speak English and soon finds herself in a cheap hotel room where she is raped by a gangster in the concrete business.
Rape was shot in November 1968, at a time when Ono was recovering at Great Charlotte Street Hospital after a suffering a miscarriage. In it, cameraman Nick Knowland comes across a young woman (Eva Majlata, as she was then known, although she is not named in the film), walking through Highgate Cemetery in north London. He starts to tail her. She’s surprised, but initially stays calm. She tries to engage Knowland in conversation: “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” “Parla Italiano?” She seems not to speak English. If he understands her, he does not let on, and does not reply to her.
Gradually she gets tetchy. To her the camera resembles a weapon. She speeds up, tries to move away. He follows her, quietly and persistently. “I’ve really had enough,” she exclaims. “What are you going to do with this film?” she demands. “Why are you making this film? For whom?” Agitation and fear mount. At one point she nearly gets run over by oncoming traffic. She gets in a taxi, but the cameraman follows her.
The second half of the film is even more discomforting to watch. Eva appears to have been tracked down to her flat. She blurts and cries out. A telephone rings and she babbles desperately into it. Tears smudge her make-up and she hides her face. She implores the cameraman to go away. She has been caged, cornered. Then, suddenly, the film stops (though some prints include a coda in which Ono and Lennon are shown singing “Everybody had a hard year”).
Rape, in both its simplicity and substance, has its roots in ideas about control and about tracking that Ono was exploring long before she met Lennon. It bears some resemblance with ‘Black Piece II’, a set of instructions she published as part of her 1964 book Grapefruit, in which she orders: “Walk behind a person for four hours.”
Some critics saw the film as a critique of fame and the emergence of paparazzi culture. Certainly, at moments it recalls a famous image from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) in which David Hemmings’s photographer has a model (Vanessa Redgrave) splayed out before him on the floor of his studio: here is the violent collision of glamour, advertising, fashion and sexualized visual culture that was becoming commonplace during the 1960s.
Lennon proposed a more political interpretation of Rape. Speaking after the film’s broadcast on Austrian television, he argued: “We are showing how all of us are exposed and under pressure in our contemporary world. This isn’t just about the Beatles. What is happening to this girl on the screen is happening in Biafra, Vietnam, everywhere.”
Watching Rape today, it’s hard not to think of it as primarily a film about the aesthetics of surveillance, as well as about the relationship between technology and individual identity. One astute contemporary reviewer claimed that Rape “does for the age of television what Franz Kafka’s The Trial did for the age of totalitarianism.” It anticipates the explosion of interest among a wide range of artists today - Sophie Calle, Julia Scher, Chris Petit, Hasan Elahi - in exploring the dynamics of watching and being watched.
Equally, Rape can be seen as an extreme work of art, a companion piece to Michael Powell’s equally dark Peeping Tom (1960), that prefigures the rash of slasher and stalker films such as John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) that have since become staple multiplex fare. It also dramatizes the arguments about the voyeuristic and exploitative nature of the male gaze later articulated by Laura Mulvey in her famous essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1973).
I’ve met a number of people who have seen Rape and they all confess in perplexed fashion to deriving thrills and – yes – pleasure from it. The film maker Jonas Mekas once claimed: “Two things are interesting to watch as the film progresses: one is the girl – and the other is the audience.” Rape speaks to the present moment when reality television routinely manufactures narrative formats designed to stimulate and exploit our perverse desire to see cruelty inflicted on people we have never met.
One under-emphasised element of Rape has been its potential status as a film about migration. Viewers have sometimes been mystified as to why Eva doesn’t report the cameraman or phone the police. Her lack of English is one reason. But it’s also been suggested that as someone living in the country illegally she may, in her confusion and anxiety, have seen the film makers as representatives of the law or of state authority.
That’s speculation, of course. But a very suggestive speculation. Eva’s words are neither translated nor subtitled. She’s alone, in the dark even though it’s daytime. And so are we. Does that linguistic gulf create a space of indifference, a zone of amoral licence, that ‘frees’ us to watch her being tracked in this brutal fashion? Perhaps her vulnerability has as much to do with her being an unpapered refugee as it does with her gender. Ono, herself a migrant to Britain, experienced both misogyny and racial hostility as soon as she started going out with Lennon.
Rape, described by critic J. Hoberman as “one of the most violent and sexually charged movies ever made – even if flesh never touches flesh”, has mainly been shown in art galleries or at one-off screenings at special retrospectives of Ono’s work. It has never been released on video or DVD, and remains shrouded in mystery: some writers have wondered whether Eva knew that she was taking part in a film. Her fee was a signed album from John and Yoko and £25,000, although she only received the money many decades later. However, according to one contemporary reporter, her appearance led to her winning “a contract as a star model”.
Ono, speaking about the film to Scott McDonald in 1989, revealed: “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.”
As far as I can ascertain, no one ever interviewed Eva Majlath – or Eva Rhodes – about what she thought of the film. Now we’ll never know.