Out 1 and Spectre.
Back in October, Tom Charity caught the North American premiere. Now, Benjamin Strong reports on a remarkably successful run in New York.
To call Jacques Rivette
's Out 1
an experience is not to fall back on a cliché, but merely to face facts: with its marathon 743-minute running time, the film asks you, once you've factored in multiple intermissions, to hand over somewhere in the neighborhood of 14 to 15 hours of your life. This isn't a movie you can simply watch; it's something around which you have to plan basic tasks - meals, ablutions, sleep.
Filmed in the spring of 1970, Out 1
- or Noli Me Tangere
as it is sometimes known - was rejected as an eight-episode serial the following year by the French television authorities who had commissioned it. It eventually aired in the 1990s on cable, but it was never released anywhere theatrically and, aside from its original one-time 1971 screening and rare alleged festival appearances (e.g., Rotterdam in 1989 with 40 minutes lost from the soundtrack in the sixth episode), there have been virtually no opportunities to see it. As a result, Out 1
has become a unique kind of cult classic, a movie a small group of people would absolutely love if they ever had a chance to see it.
Then, last year, new soft titles in English were made so that the print - there is only one - could be viewed in London, Vancouver and, two weeks ago, at the Museum of the Moving Image
in Queens, NY, where I caught it. The museum's marathon two-day showing, an event which constituted Out 1
's belated US premiere, inspired unusual rhetorical machismo among local critics: "the cinephile's holy grail" (Dennis Lim
), "a trophy of privileged pride" (Aaron Hillis
), "men from the boys, people" (Nathan Lee
). The screening also sold out, prompting the museum to schedule it again in March.
It is with good reason that any essay I've ever read about Out 1
inevitably begins - just as this one has - by addressing the issue of its scale. But at the very moment when this film might at last reach a devoted audience, I have to wonder if the focus on Out 1
's obscurity will give the impression that it is a little too precious for anybody but, you know, the real men. Along with his close friend Jean-Luc Godard
, Rivette has always been among the more avant-garde of the ex-Cahiers
critics who launched the nouvelle vague
. But Out 1
is actually a lot more accessible, and enjoyable, than its reputation implies. To an audience in 2006 - practiced at gorging themselves on entire seasons of their favorite television shows on DVD over the course of a weekend - the pleasures of Rivette's endurance contest ought to be more obvious and enticing than ever.
has an intricate plot
that, after one viewing I've only begun to grok, but the situation is fairly easy to describe. Two rival theater companies are rehearsing two different Aeschylus
plays, Seven Against Thebes
and Prometheus Unbound
. Meanwhile, going about their days in Paris are two apparently unrelated individuals: Colin, a deaf-mute panhandler and Frederique, a petty thief/short-con artist, played respectively by New Wave icons Jean-Pierre Léaud
and Juliet Berto
(the latter was a regular Rivette muse until her untimely death). Aside from occasional cuts to Léaud and to Berto, which provide well-needed comic relief, for the first four hours, most of what we see is nothing but documentary footage of the two rehearsals. It's putting things kindly to say that if these rehearsals are any indication, not even the cast's mothers are going to want to watch the public performance. In an early and notorious passage, one of the troupes writhes together moaning, their bodies entwined for what Rivette himself described as "three-quarters of an hour of hysteria." He added that this "can be done only under these conditions."
By "these conditions," Rivette was not referring to improvements in technology (as Jonathan Rosenbaum
has pointed out, the newly increased size of the 16mm film magazine permitted that sequence to be shot more or less in one long take). Instead, Rivette was talking about serialization, the conditions that make this movie an experience. "It is obvious that the first two hours of Out
," Rivette said, "are bearable only because one knows one has embarked on something that is going to last for twelve hours and forty minutes." Rivette, incidentally, puts his money where his mouth is. A prodigious moviegoer, he told an interviewer
in 1998 that a "film has to be incredibly bad to make me want to pack up and leave."
What this all means for the audience in the early hours of Out 1
is that before you can familiarize yourself with the principle characters as they are in their private lives, you must first see them - for the length of two standard feature movies - as actors playing people other than themselves. It is possible, as a result, that you may think you know these characters before you actually do know them, or can. On the other hand, it is equally plausible - you realize this much later - that you see these actors as their true selves only when they are performing - that is, as liars. Rivette pulls the same trick in L'Amour fou
(1969) and Les Bandes des quatre
(1988), but the extended length of Out 1
makes all the difference. Here, Rivette's career-long interest in the relation of play-acting to his recurrent themes of deceit, betrayal, and conspiracy, can really stretch its legs. Colin and Frederique each independently discover evidence of a secret left-wing cabal called "The Thirteen," which has been dormant since the failures of May 1968 and whose members include actors in the Aeschylus productions. Colin wants to join them; Frederique wants to blackmail them. The mystery thickens, and the potential layers of intra-subterfuge multiply. Everyone in Rivette's world is a double agent.
And in a sense, Out 1
itself has more than one identity. After the serial original was rejected, Rivette brought in a different editor, cut the movie down to four and half hours, and released it in 1973 as Out: Spectre
. (In 1991, the director did the same for La Belle noiseuse
, which he shrunk to a Divertimento
.) Both Out
s share the same footage, yet corresponding scenes in Spectre
are not only abbreviated or split up, they are also frequently rearranged to alter chronology. And whereas 1
wields the long take like Warhol
necessarily relies on montage.
What's most striking about the differences between 1
is the questions they raise about how to tell a story in cinema. For example, one reason Rivette could so easily change the order of events in Spectre
is that the characters mostly wear the same one or two outfits for the whole picture (presumably because the improvised six-week shoot was done on a limited budget). It may sound silly to talk about costume changes, but they are a theatrical convention by which we judge the passing of time and understand sequence as well as character in movies (just ask David Lynch
). The all but total lack of them in the Out
s matches Rivette's interest in disrupting the most fundamental vocabulary of film montage as it has existed since Griffith
. It is not possible to overstate the number of subtle ambiguities based on the manner in which the film is cut. Anyone who tells you they know exactly what is going on in Out 1
or in Spectre
is as dishonest as any of the characters.
Is it reductive or insulting to say that Rivette has constructed the most elaborate and politically engaged soap opera ever? For a serial, Out 1
is not particularly episodic, and it's telling that the length of the chapters vary (the shortest is 70 minutes and the longest 105). However proficient television has become in the last 35 years at sustaining a narrative arc, it remains committed to a structure of discrete and uniformly-shaped installments at the end of which things must be wrapped up for the sake of order, continuity and next week's episode. Rivette's masterpiece, delighting in spontaneity, indeterminacy and chaos, proves just how far the medium has yet to go. The odds that Out 1
will finally be distributed have to look better in the DVD era, but in the meantime, it is indeed a specter haunting our screens.
Photos: Photofest, courtesy of Museum of the Moving Image.
Posted by dwhudson at December 21, 2006 1:35 AM