Out 1, noli me tangere

I spent the past weekend experiencing Jacques Rivette’s magnificent, nearly 13-hour Out 1 (1971) at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, a film B. Kite recently described in Cinema Scope as having “joined that pantheon of broken and vanished objects ([The Magnificent] Ambersons, Greed, once and still to some extent Smile) in which, even against our better judgment, we place some unspecified hope of a definitive experience, maybe a bit too good for the world, as indicated by the fact that they live in a half-light, next door to oblivion.” It was the 1990 Rotterdam cut, a print of which has been making North American rounds (Vancouver, Toronto, New York, Chicago, Berkeley) and is apparently now on its way to Seoul.

I use the word “experiencing” rather than watching or viewing, because more than most films, Out 1 is a movie that makes its overall impression on a cumulative, experiential level, amassing an ambiguous narrative comprised of documentary elements, intertextual quotes and references, and figures that are often more striking as actors than characters. As Robert Koehler (who introduced the screening) put it, the film can be seen as the “missing link” between the madness of Rivette’s L’Amour Fou and the playfulness of Celine and Julie Go Boating; Rivette expert Jonathan Rosenbaum has placed the film between the freedom of Jean Renoir and the fate of Fritz Lang.

Ultimately, Out 1 simply doesn’t follow the same creative impulses as most movies, preferring to conjure a story by collating, improvising, suggesting, and speculating until it eventually–twelve hours and forty minutes later–reaches a resting point as good as any other. One could attempt to describe the plot (which its Wikipedia page competently does) but doing so necessitates a great deal of simplification akin to describing a towering mansion by the kind of glue used in its assembly; the shape and beauty of the film lies elsewhere. Suffice it to say that the story involves two acting troupes rehearsing plays by Aeschylus, and a couple of characters on the fringes of Parisian society with their own private agendas.

The well-attended screening was offered in eight-hour chunks over two days, which included five-minute pauses between the film’s eight episodes and two dinner breaks. Contrary to the Archive’s disastrous Open City screening earlier this year, the soft-subtitling (digitally keyed live, Power Point-style) worked beautifully. Rivette once compared the experience of watching the film to one of Henri Langlois’ all-night CinÈmathËque marathon screenings of a complete Louis Feuillade serial, an apt comparison not only given Feuillade’s influence on Rivette, but also because Out 1 is similarly engrossing for those willing to engage it on its own terms; among its many pleasures are the spontaneously creative rehearsals of acting troupes, the machinations of con-artists, eccentric antics by conspiracy theorists, and even a humorous cameo by Eric Rohmer. The film’s length only fosters greater immersion into what one of its characters describes as its “magical, mysterious world” pitched between illusion and reality.

No doubt because of this, the real world seemed to fully take on Rivettean nuances. I was joined at the screening by two online friends, Jonathan Takagi, who arrived from San Diego, and Fred Patton, who arrived from San Jose, and our reunion resembled the kind of fortuitous linkage of characters seen in the film, further enhanced by our puzzling through a movie populated with characters assembling clues to their own enigmas. Most evocatively, I happened to overhear strangers–but members of an online listserve of which I’m also a member–sitting behind me, discussing their pleasures and frustrations with the forum in reference to unnamed members also seated within our auditorium. Suddenly I felt lost in a Rivettean vortex of double identities, secret societies, and an eavesdropping network of characters. Though critics have suggested metaphorical readings of Rivette’s shadow worlds, the age of the Internet seems especially relevant to the parallel realities suggested by his films.

Out 1 has been accurately described as a “film-fleuve,” and though its current may be slow, its volume is massive; one could easily follow any one of its many tributaries to vast thematic territory: a documentary portrait of its era (so much of the film is shot in the open streets of Paris), individualism versus group dynamics, play and performances in and of the film, its use of mirrors as a dominant visual motif, its cinÈma vÈritÈ and handheld camera techniques borrowed from Jean Rouch, improvisational structures versus traditionally scripted execution, etc.

On first viewing, the film struck me as a deep meditation on the mythology, rehearsal, and excitement of groupmaking (acting troupes or political alliances) that envision changing the world but in the end find themselves abstracted and disorganized to the point of disintegration. It came as no surprise when Koehler compared the movie to Eustache’s equally absorbing The Mother and the Whore (1973) and other post-1968 films in which the dreams of political revolution are seen to fizzle and sputter into inactivity, personal tragedy, and even blithe denial. Out 1 is about the excitement of discovery and subversion, which is why it’s so well served by its formal system and mode of production. But as preparation, performance and seduction gradually drift into betrayal, lucidity and abandonment, its protagonists find themselves on the downward trough of a receding wave. “We laid out the principles but we never got further,” one conspirator confesses to another. “We committed without knowing our goal.” That the film wholly succeeds in being about–and an entrancing example of–that ebb and flow of unpredictable communal energy makes it an indelible cinematic adventure.

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