Wednesday, November 4, 2015
Inside "Out 1": A Revisitation, Of Sorts
largely-unseen 1972 film Out 1, described by many at the time as a kind of Holy Grail of moviegoing. It’s a challenging film, to be sure, and despite the extreme patience involved in sitting through such a long film I realized it also warranted multiple viewings. Beautiful, haunting, and uniquely engaging, this seminal phantom of world cinema was no less mysterious to me, having seen it, than it had been beforehand. That still didn’t stop me from writing about it for Nerve.com at the time.
The film is now making a two-week stand at BAM. I was hoping to revisit it beforehand to try and write about it again, but, well, 13 hours and all that. (It was hard enough to see back in 2006, when I didn't have a family, or a life, or a job, or two.) So I thought I would re-run, with some modifications, the Nerve piece -- which I also revisited several years ago, when Out 1 made an appearance on German DVD. Enjoy.
Though some dispute what his original intentions were, Jacques Rivette reportedly hoped that Out 1 would run as an eight episode serial for French television. After TV rejected it, the film never quite realized its destiny, screening only once before Rivette whittled it down to a four-hour version called Out 1: Spectre, which itself has also been rarely screened. (The full version is sometimes referred to as Out 1: Noli Me Tangere, which translates as “Don’t Touch Me” – apparently, this is what was written on the first workprint, and adopted by some as the title.)
Rivette shot Out 1 in a startlingly economical 6 weeks. (Unlike other directors’ lengthy films maudits – Bernardo Bertolucci’s 5-hour 1900, or Wim Wenders’s Until the End of the World, say – Out 1 doesn’t appear to have consumed too large a chunk of its creator’s career.) Filming without a script, allowing his actors to improvise at length, and deliberately abandoning traditional notions of perfection (the film is replete with boom mikes, camera shadows, bystanders on the street staring into the lens, etc.), Rivette was able to turn his film into a discourse on how narrative struggles to assert itself -- on what constitutes story, performance, and, ultimately, cinema.
If that sounds deadly, you might be surprised. For a work that intentionally goes on and on – with some scenes running for as long as 30 or 40 minutes – Out 1 is more than merely watchable. It’s endlessly alluring even with its will o’ the wisp of a plot.
The opening episode sets the stage as well as the pace. The story -- such as it is -- focuses on two theater groups, each preparing a performance of Aeschylus, one of Seven Against Thebes and the other of Prometheus Unbound. As it so happens, both appear to be Julian-Beck-Living-Theater-style avant garde troupes; that is to say, we won’t see too many scenes of actors trying to remember their lines, witnessing instead the groups’ dancerly, improvised exercises and preparations, the actual text of Aeschylus a scant memory.
In an early, quite distinct example of what distinguishes Out 1 even from the more experimental films of its time, one of these rehearsal scenes actually goes on for something like 45 minutes, right in the middle of Episode 1, in what appears to be a single take. The progression of this piece-within-a-piece, as the actors in rehearsal go from a state of droning, seemingly blissful ignorance, to making baby sounds, to confrontational, animalistic grunting, to rhythmic pounding and primitive singing, and finally to fumblingly articulated thought, and then easing into a relaxed, intellectualized discussion of what they just did, itself suggests a kind of capsule of human civilization. It’s amazing to watch, as breathtakingly kinetic as any car chase, only with an almost obscene rawness, all of it rendered hypnotic by the immediacy of Rivette’s shooting style.
There are two other initially unconnected story strands: One features a deaf-mute named Colin (Jean-Pierre Leaud, official poster boy of the Nouvelle Vague) who wanders Paris handing people notes telling them he brings a message from destiny, then irritating them with his harmonica, relenting only once they give him money. The final strand involves Frederique (Juliet Berto) a ravishing con artist who comes on to men in bars and restaurants, convinces them to give her money, then hastily flees.
Eventually, this free-form plot begins to gain some sense of shape, but only barely: We note, for example, that the two theater troupes subscribe to two different philosophies of preparation. One group prefers to be highly directed, coordinated, ruminating on every action they make with a kind of minute obsessiveness. The other group prefers to play out their improvisations, then calmly sit down and discuss what they just did, how it felt, and what it might mean. This divergence proves to be no mere coincidence: One group was formed by actors who left the other one, and their ongoing frustrations begin to fuel further drama, some of which begins to feel like a soap opera -- albeit a very understated and self-aware one.
Similarly, Colin the deaf-mute’s story takes a bizarre turn, when he, purveyor of cryptic messages, begins to receive cryptic messages himself, which point him towards a mysterious group called “The Thirteen,” evidently a reference to a series of stories by Honore de Balzac. (This leads to what may be the film’s best scene, wherein the director Eric Rohmer appears as a hilariously dry Balzac scholar to describe the author’s work to a befuddled Colin.) As Colin wanders Paris with surreal single-mindedness looking for The Thirteen, trying to uncover who they are, and even wondering if he himself might be a member, Frederique also stumbles onto something, when she steals some letters containing references to potentially shady dealings involving some individuals…who themselves might also be members of The Thirteen.
Rivette likes to hint at vague conspiracy theories in his work, but only in an amorphous, proto-Pynchonian way, as if to suggest that reality itself is one big, drawn out conspiracy. As Out 1 progresses, the exact nature of The Thirteen becomes more and more mysterious and unknowable. One might, for example, note that, with the members of the theater troupes and Colin and Frederique, there are thirteen protagonists in Out 1. Are they “The Thirteen”? As new characters join the story, others seem to drop out. Is the fundamental conspiracy at the heart of this work that of its creator, working to shape it even as he, God-like, allows his actors to improvise endlessly? (Tellingly, the only thing Rivette appears to have scripted are the mysterious notes given to Colin.) Indeed, among many other things, Out 1 begins to feel like a meditation on fate versus free will as much as anything else: Rivette springs several dei ex machina in the final episodes, yet they seem to be all but ignored by the characters.
Despite its seeming plotlessness, all four of the initial strands of Out 1 involve individuals and groups trying to impose their will, trying to get others to do something – the theater troupes in the pursuit of a kind of collective art, the two con artists in the pursuit of individual gain. And the many faces of influence – the ways in which we try to force, cajole, convince, trick others into doing what we want -- becomes a central, unifying theme in Rivette’s film. The correlation between this conception of influence and the job of a director presumably wasn’t lost on the filmmaker.
Similarly, Rivette seems keenly aware of the inherently chaotic nature of making a film, and how it contrasts sharply with the closed off, hermetically sealed environment of the theater, where all sorts of dreams and ideals can be played out in a controlled world. A film about the theater, Out 1 thus becomes a spiraling narrative about a Utopian milieu.
Jonathan Rosenbaum and others have described Out 1 as a rumination on the dashed ideals of the 60s, “a bohemian reflection on the aftermath of May 1968.” The theatrical troupes in Out 1 cling to a kind of idealized communitarian philosophy, and Rivette himself has said that he wanted to “make a film which, instead of being predicated on a central character presented as the conscience reflecting everything that happens in the action, would be a film about a collective, about a group.” In contrast, Colin and Frederique are out for themselves, duping and annoying strangers into giving them money. But as the film progresses, they seem to find themselves wanting to belong to something: Colin’s search for The Thirteen leads him to a small group of hippies who congregate in a small shop, and then to love. Frederique’s discovery of the conspiracy leads her to make connections that are more than fleeting, and finally to a desperate, doomed love affair of her own. All of these strands ultimately connect in furtive, passing ways, adhering to something resembling dream-logic, where slight associations and chance encounters grow into something larger, only to drift away again.
The surprising power of Out 1 – I say surprising because it so rarely seems to take itself seriously as a narrative – lies in the way that it plays off the human desire to connect with the similar human desire for selfish action. The theater troupes, we come to understand, have come to the end of their days, and for all of Colin and Frederique’s attempts to belong to something greater than themselves, their hopes will fade away. The potential re-emergence of The Thirteen, it is hinted, is due to an enigmatic member’s nostalgia for the glory days of the group. The whole film begins to take on a strangely elegiac tone. Our characters all exist in the dim twilight of an uncertain, impulsive communal awareness. (Could this twilight in some way also be Rivette’s acknowledgement that the Nouvelle Vague had, by the end of the 60s, become a mythical shell of itself?)
As such, it also makes sense that Out 1 moves from the theatrical to the cinematic: In sharp contrast to the loose early scenes of lengthy improvised rehearsals by the final episodes, as the theatrical troupes begin to fray, we see only glimpses of performances, and they’re fragmented, edited: The filmic artifice has asserted itself, imposing organization onto this previously loose, free-form world.
Something has happened here, Rivette is saying. Something existed here once. Somehow, the communal impulse has now given way to fracture, dissociation and alienation. It makes sense, therefore, that many of Out 1’s final scenes play out in a kind of nostalgic sunset, away from the city and away from the enclosed studios that framed so much of the first half. The floating nature of the early scenes is replaced by a highly edited, narrative style -- as people indulge in conspiracy theories, relationship crises, thievery, and duplicity. All this in turn gives way to a kind of melancholy, wistful solitude in the final episode.
Like all great works of art, one's relationship with Out 1 eventually takes on the contours of one's relationship with an actual person: There's always so much more to know about them, and the vaguely troubling sense that you may never get to know all of it. I feel like I've barely scratched the surface here. For now, maybe we should simply leave it at this: It’s an ambitious attempt by one of our greatest filmmakers to evoke the beauty, frustration, and mystery of existence, and all the forces that act upon it.