Saturday, October 4, 2008

Rivette's Out 1:

Much like my thoughts on Playtime from some weeks ago, this piece was originally intended to be finished and posted much earlier in the summer. As usual, personal obligations obliged me to put it on the backburner. So, for better or for worse, here it is now, only 5 months or so late. Also, this piece is dedicated to those who shared in the adventure – Jake, Sara, Miguel and Ignatius.

As the Summer season of Hollywood blockbusters limps to a close, it seems an adequate time to reflect on a truly momentous event, the likes of which trump any of the over hyped, over marketed and over discussed “product” of the last few months. It’s been a little over one year since a group of Chicago cinephilles gathered around a holy grail of cinema – Jacques Rivette’s nearly 13 hour masterpiece from 1970, Out 1 (this main title is often followed in print by “Noli me tangere”, a subtitle which never actually appears on screen during the film). Screened as part of a (incomplete) Rivette retrospective at the Film Center, Out 1 bears little resemblance to any other film ever made – this distinction is an intrinsic part of the film’s vitality and contrarian notion of what a film constitutes, in direct opposition to the kind of churned out factory dreck we’re constantly subjected to. Ironically, given the film’s fascination with dread, paranoia and the disintegration of communal relationships between friends and lovers, it was a resoundingly positive communal experience for the audience. Further irony: Rivette was arguably the key chronicler of a post May ‘68 cultural malaise in Parisian society, a culture transitioning from Godard’s playfully confused optimism of solidarity to a fractured, hostile climate of intellectuals self destructing in increasingly conspiratorial narratives (for his part, Godard largely abandoned France after ‘68, leading to a ghost period with the Dziga Vertov Group, which is largely ignored even now, much like Rivette’s work; two phantom oeuvres constituting a kind of alternate film history). Jonathan Rosenbaum has described the key motif linking all of Rivette’s work as “collectivity vs solitude”, which could readily be described as the aftermath of that failed revolution world wide. Rivette’s marginalized status even during the height of the New Wave’s popularity no doubt extended not only from his film’s lengths and improvised natures, but also a certain lack of fashion; that is, he wasn’t overtly political at a time when political filmmaking was all the rage (however briefly). His 1968 feature “L’amour fou” didn’t do much to help his reputation; it is as doom laden and unreasonably long as Rivette’s other early works (it’s also another marginalized masterpiece). It is then perhaps fitting that, in retrospect, this spectre of a filmmaker might wind up telling us more about that particular time and place than those presumed to be more “with it”. Appropriately, we’ve just recently marked the 40th anniversary of May ’68.

Like a lot of Chicago film buffs, I discovered Out 1, and Rivette in general, through Jonathan Rosenbaum’s unabashed cheerleading. In the summer of 1999, I tore through two Rosenbaum collections, Placing Movies and Movies as Politics. The two books each contained an essay on Rivette, respectively “Work and Play in the House of Fiction: on Jacques Rivette” and “Tih-Minh, Out 1: on the Non-Reception of Two French Serials”. Rosenbaum’s intro to the latter essay speaks for itself:

“What connections can be found between two French serials made almost half a century apart? Aside from the fact that both of them appear on my most recent "top ten" list, I'm equally concerned with the issue of why such pleasurable, evocative, enduring, multifaceted, and incontestably beautiful works should remain so resolutely marginal -- unseen, unavailable, and virtually written out of most film histories except for occasional guest appearances as the vaguest of reference points. The problem isn't simply an American or an academic one; although no print of either serial exists in the United States, it can't be said that either film has received much attention in France either -- or elsewhere, for that matter. Yet both are major testaments to the joys of spontaneous filmmaking and the complex adventures these entail, for their viewers as well as for their makers.”

I can look back now and see that the genesis of virtually every idea I hold about film connoisseurship and its relation to politics and society was contained in this brief opening salvo. That something could be pleasurable and unavailable made no sense to me at the time- it seemed not only counterintuitive but just plain stupid: why not release films that people might want to see? The vast web of interconnected causal factors that work to marginalize undesirable works or ideas would eventually come to light, at least for this once naïve, perhaps now to cynical, viewer. I might add (cynically) that many years after Rosenbaum’s essay neither work is any more available than it was back then (nor is the rest of Rivette’s output; not one of his first 9 features is available on DVD in the US, although I have a crummy vhs copy of Celine and Julie Go Boating, his 6th film). But (optimistically) while I bemoan Out 1’s still marginalized status, I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that even one screening of this mysterious film monument is a step in the right direction, and ample proof that criticism of Rosenbaum’s kind can and should perform a pedagogic function above and beyond the strictures of the Sunday leisure section.

Rivette’s first feature, “Paris Belongs to Us”, could be said to lay the template for Rivette’s early work – improvisatory, cobbled together, low budget and in black and white, with a rare feel for location shooting that defamiliarizes while retaining a semblance of realism, a network of characters that interact in sometimes recognizable, sometimes bizarre ways. I’ve never seen his second feature, The Nun, based on a Dideroit novel and which I understand was something of a bid for respectability, perhaps comparable to Welle’s “The Stranger”. Most Rivette enthusiasts don’t speak very highly of the film, but I would imagine that it’s worth a look. L’amour fou comes next, a searing account of a theatre director trying to stage an adaptation of Racine’s Andromaque while keeping his leading lady sane. Eventually, they both succumb to a kind of madness, culminating in an extended sequence of them hold up together in an apartment, destroying it and themselves in some kind of purging orgy of self laceration (a gossipy aside: apparently this scene was inspired by an actual event, Godard breaking down after a lovers quarrel). It should not be surprising that the scenes are played broadly, if not necessarily for laughs, and that Bulle Ogier’s Claire comes through with a new found clarity and purposefulness, while the director, Jean-Pierre Kalfon, descends further and further into madness. Such is Rivette’s vision of artistic creation and destruction: a dialectic of confused emotions. Rosenbaum writes:

“Rightly described by Dave Kehr as Jacques Rivette’s “breakthrough film, the first of his features to employ extreme length (252 minutes), a high degree of improvisation, and a formal contrast between film and theater,” this rarely screened 1968 masterpiece is one of the great French films of its era. It centers on rehearsals for a production of Racine’s Andromaque and the doomed yet passionate relationship between the director (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) and his actress wife (Bulle Ogier, in her finest performance), who leaves the production at the start of the film and then festers in paranoid isolation. The rehearsals, filmed by Rivette (in 35-millimeter) and TV documentarist Andre S. Labarthe (in 16), are real, and the relationship between Kalfon and Ogier is fictional, but this only begins to describe the powerful interfacing of life and art that takes place over the film’s hypnotic, epic unfolding; watching this is a life experience as much as a film experience.”

The last sentence of this brief review seems necessary to understanding the importance of Out 1, this notion of “life and art interfacing”, “epic unfolding” and a “life experience as much as a film experience”. Inevitably, when one speaks of Out 1, they are immediately questioned as to why one would subject themselves to such a “task”, the presumption being that spending that much time with a work of art is a waste of precious time. Critic Robin Wood equates this notion to a capitalistic determination of film-as-commerce, i.e., if time is money, then anything that takes up that time must prove itself worthy of our monetary expenditure. He also mentions that, pace the film’s avant garde aspirations, that such a length is not even justified by an epic narrative, ala The Deer Hunter, Gone With the Wind, The Godfather, etc. Wood writes: “the “unjustified” length of the film(s), then represents an act of cultural transgression. The question, “why this length?” should immediately provoke a reciprocal one: why the standard length?” His point is clear: the standard length of films is largely determined by business considerations, as well as an underlying assumption that films should be more “entertaining” than say, a novel, or anything that requires more than one sitting to consume. I should add that any of the time based mediums, theatre, opera, even dance recitals, are subject to this tyranny of assumption based thinking; the novel, under the assumption that few people will read one from cover to cover in a matter of hours, gets a little more leeway with regards to length, yet people still balk at the notion of a “long” novel, presumably something over 800 or 1000 pages. But part of Out 1’s significance is this notion of a life experience – spending so much time with a certain set of people, fictional or otherwise, creates a new kind of understanding and complicity that is impossible to create using shorthand. I’ll let Rosenbaum briefly describe the film’s structure:

Each of the serial’s eight episodes is titled as a relay between two characters, suggesting a chain of successive links: “From Lili to Thomas,” “From Thomas to Frederique,” “From Frederique to Sarah,” “From Sarah to Colin,” and so on. The explanation of who these people are is much of the story–and because their identities keep changing, we’re often confounded. Lili (Michele Moretti) and Thomas (Michel Lonsdale) are in separate theater groups, each preparing plays by Aeschylus, Seven Against Thebes and Prometheus Unbound. Thomas is the director of his state-run company; Lili’s is an independent, directorless collective. Frederique (Juliet Berto) is a solitary working-class flirt who cons people out of money. Sarah (Bernadette Lafont) is a novelist working in a country house near the ocean (and an old pal of Thomas). Colin (Jean-Pierre Leaud)–a deaf mute who communicates with a harmonica–begs for money in cafes until a member of Lili’s collective, for no stated reason, hands him a slip of paper with an enigmatic message, and Colin, alone in his furnished room, undertakes to decode it.”

Each of these sections take up about an hour or so a piece, using incredible long takes with a usually mobile, but sometimes static, camera set up. The film begins with two different rehearsal scenes, and my limited understanding of theatre history perhaps hampers any full understanding of the proceedings, but it is clear that narrative is not particularly relevant here. The actors writhe about, scream, and in the case of the Prometheus group, involve converging on a mannequin done up in a bizarre costume. These seem to be avant garde acting exercises, and Rivette’s connection to underground theatre has been well documented. Admittedly, these are the most difficult scenes in the film to sit through, and there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason behind their duration. In other words, if these scenes were arranged differently, or were shorter and/or longer, the film would still function in much the same way. Nevertheless, is it our position to chide the filmmaker for a perceived inconvenience, or is it an audience’s job to try, instead, to understand why the artist has placed a particular scene in a particular place?

Of the various story threads, several are quite interesting, even if the never eventually add up to an adequate resolution – resolution and closure being so important to our notion of narrative, and one more thing that Rivette is determined to undermine. The two theatre groups eventually abandon their rehearsals and become involved in a mystery involving someone who has stolen money from them. Michael Lonsdale, his large, bulky frame suggesting simultaneously a sedentary yet spry figure, will eventually be revealed as part of the conspiracy that plagues Jean Pierre Leaud’s Colin, and yet it is a conspiracy that means nothing to us: we don’t know the rules, the players, or the consequences. Juliet Berto has never been better than in Rivette films (see also Celine and Julie Go Boating); by contrast, I’ve never felt that Godard knew what to do with her and her particular brand of energy (specifically, he renders her quite bland in La Chinoise). Her interactions with her various marks are highly enjoyable, not in the least because she seems to be having so much fun herself. Eventually, Berto’s part of the narrative is interrupted by her character’s abrupt murder. Jean Pierre Leaud is typically charming. His early scenes, blowing a harmonica loudly into people’s faces until they give him their change, are hilarious. And it’s just another case of subterfuge when his deaf-mute character begins speaking quite clearly. His obvious romantic interest in Bulle Ogier’s café/bookstore/radical character leads to much conversation, but nothing else, and his increasingly dark obsession with unraveling a mystery cum riddle that might not even exist seems a reasonable counterpoint to the audience – sitting there in the dark, wondering what to make of all of this. Bulle Ogier and Lonsdale will eventually make their way to a sea side villa, where another mystery, involving a missing man and a locked room, come to light. Critic Jonathan Romney has put it quite succinctly: “Out 1 is magnificently uncontainable: too many characters to track, too many connections between them, too many blind alleys, and, above all, too much contradiction.”

What then, you might ask, is the point? Certainly, you wouldn’t suggest a film that doesn’t mean anything? A film that takes an entire day to watch? That is willfully, even perversely, anti-narrative, and that ends pretty much where it started? As critic Fred Camper mentioned after the screening to an incredulous fellow viewer, one who couldn’t believe what he had just sat through, “Out 1 is like all the great films – it is trying to make sense of the world we live in”.


A.A. Dowd said...

This makes me wish I had braved it. 13 hours is daunting indeed, and, if memory serves, I didn't have the weekend to devote to it when it screened. Still, feels like a bit of a missed opportunity on my part-- I'm not so much bummed that I couldn't share in the communal experience as I am that I might not get the chance to see this behemoth ever again.

Curious, though, that you don't say much about what it's actually like to experience the thing. Having read your informative and well-researched piece, I feel as though I can put Out I in context-- to Rivette's career, to the New Wave, to our film culture at large-- but I'm no closer to understanding how it must feel to actually, you know, WATCH this epic achievement. Maybe that's a tall order, impossible even; I myself have found it profoundly difficult to explain the beguiling experience that is Celine and Julie Go Boating to those who haven't seen it. But still: some sense of how Out 1 moves and shifts and churns through its 13+ hours would have been welcome.

With any luck, I'll get a shot at seeing it again. But will I be ready? I'll warm up with an easy double-feature, just a short back-to-back to cleanse my palette: Santango and Star-Spangled To Death. You down?

Daniel said...

I'm always down for a sweet double feature - lets throw in Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz just for good measure. With regards to the film itself, it is rather difficult to convey the physicality of an experience like this. I tried to describe both the uniqueness of the event as well as some of my minor trepidations - see my comments about the rehearsal scenes, interesting for a few minutes before descending into a real bore - it was a chore to sit through those scenes. But, it bears repeating, the film is so different as to (at least partially) suspend such criticisms. The film really moves, for the most part, and it's not until you realize that nothing is going to come together that some irritation sets in. But really, that seems to be at least part of the point. All in all, the film is much more palatable, and charming, than its running time and reputation might suggest.