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December 8, 2006

Out 1 in a Million

Surviving (and enjoying) the first-ever American screening of Rivette's 12-hour-plus epic

One frame out of about 1,069,920 in Jacques Rivette's half-day-long Out 1

I t's difficult enough convincing Manhattanites to venture to an outer borough, let alone to see the narrative-defying and often very lengthy films of one of the French New Wave's most underappreciated auteurs. But those art-film lovers who have been making the Astoria, Queens, commute since Nov. 10 have been plenty rewarded, as the Museum of the Moving Image's The Complete Jacques Rivette retrospective continues to tender the ultra-rarest of treasures (L'Amour Fou, The Nun, Céline and Julie Go Boating and 19 others) from Rivette's vital oeuvre through Dec. 31. This weekend's schedule in particular marks the mother of all mythic movies: Rivette's 1971 magnum-with-a-capital-M opus, Out 1 -- a 743-minute (yes, that's 12-and-a-half hours) behemoth that has never been seen in its entirety in the United States.

"It's not like a set of new prints are being made, and these aren't going into circulation," said the museum's chief curator David Schwartz, who has wanted to do a Rivette series for around 20 years. "He's very cerebral and very demanding, and his films don't make a lot of money. I don't know if it will actually be a once-in-a-lifetime event, but it could be."

Out 1 is a film that separates the casual cinephiles from the hardcore -- an endurance contest split over two days with a trophy of privileged pride and intellectual jerky to keep you chewing. Thank God none of its eight feature-length episodes exceed a couple hours before a much-needed intermission, which gave me time to drink more coffee, expel the last cup, and structure my thoughts on the film before it even ended…

Ruminations on Episodes 1 and 2
The prints don't have subtitles and my French is abominable, but MOMI has been blessed (thanks to the National Film Theatre in London) with the PowerPoint content to show "soft titles," video-projected over the image and synched line-by-line by French Embassy employees from the back of the auditorium. Conga-happy world music pipes in from a nearby reel-to-reel as Out 1 opens on redheaded Lili's (Michèle Moretti, Wild Reeds) bohemian theater troupe, the first of two rival companies working on Aeschylus adaptations. "Troupe A," as they will henceforth be named, are practicing Guffman-goofy modern dance moves in their "Seven Against Thebes," a rendition so far-out that singing is frowned upon when they form an atonal prog-choir that shrieks in syncopation. Being the fashion-retarded '70s, I'm not entirely surprised that two of the thespians have stage-wear reminiscent of a vested Han Solo and white-robed Luke Skywalker, the latter of whom is a gawky ladies' man referred to throughout as either Nicolas, Arsenal, Papa or Theó (Marcel Bozonnet, The Disenchanted). I shouldn't judge while they're still in rehearsals, but watching them force unconventionality for the sake of creative experimentation has convinced me that they're going to bomb on opening night. Hippies.
Meanwhile, Troupe B is led by the intensely furlable eyebrows of Thomas (Michael Lonsdale, Munich), whose ensemble is putting together "Prometheus Bound," even if it is considered by some modern scholars to be the work of an unknown playwright, not Aeschylus. There's no off-key singing nor affected dancing in their studio, though the group stages organic improvisational exercises, each a potential arc of meditation, mirroring one another, chanting, limping, groping, grunting, crawling, clapping, sleeping, crying and repeating non-sequiturs in the round: "Don't think… that I am silent… out of pride or stubbornness…" It's both hypnotic and tiring when these sequences play out for a half-hour single take, like watching the monolith-pounding apes from 2001: A Space Odyssey in a sexless orgy with Lars von Trier's The Idiots. When it does end, they stop on a dime and sit down to analyze what happened aloud. Is it living theatre, or fad therapy?
Elsewhere, Colin (Jean-Pierre Léaud, The 400 Blows') tears pages out of his books and places them in blue envelopes, which he rubber stamps with: "I'm deaf and dumb. I bring you a message of destiny." Each morning, he hustles café patrons by handing them out, asking for money with an outstretched hand, then blowing a harmonica in their faces. While I'm still digesting the earlier scenes (talk about some major mise en scène: actors playing actors who don't act like they're acting, even when they discuss their acting), I realize that the couple being accosted by Colin's painful mouth organ-playing aren't in on the joke. That's all the proof I need to proclaim Rivette a direct influence on Borat.
Lastly, who's this conspiratorial Pierre fella everyone keeps mentioning?
Jean-Pierre Leaud

Shot over six weeks in the spring of 1970, Out 1 was intended to be messy in scope, or at least chaotic in its decentralizated character hierarchy. Though it ultimately reads as a commentary on the then-fading state of the politically active counterculture, Rivette's initial idea focused on "the variations within the group," as he said in a 1973 interview for La Nouvelle Critique, "so that eventually, by the end of the film, the people wouldn't be the same ones as at the beginning, all the members of the group had changed and their relationships had become completely different, with even the group becoming something else again."

Yet there's so much more going on that it seems unthinkable that Rivette and co-writer Suzanne Schiffman hadn't pre-planned the topics and tactics. As esteemed film critic Charles Taylor suggested to me via e-mail, it's best to think of Out 1 "as the director's Grand Tour, a journey of discovery in which he has time to indulge in all his treasured themes -- performance, process, narrative, mystery, role playing and the way in which duration changes perception. There are more satisfying Rivette movies, and ones that cohere better, but none so heroic."

Ruminations on Episodes 3, 4 and 5
Each new episode begins with a montage of black and white photographs depicting highlights from the preceding chapter, serving as a reminder to how much or little occurred in relation to the viewers' fortitude. (The first time this happens, The New York Times' A.O. Scott fake-narrates from a nearby seat, "Previously on Out 1…")
Troupe A performs more "tacto-physical" gymnastics, reminiscent of those deliciously awkward dance sequences in early Hal Hartley films. Troupe B is now into unscripted familial dramedies of despair, imitating the ocean, and group relaxation exercises, and though they are the more overly sincere of the groups, I couldn't help but laugh when Thomas riffs four hours in, "This has been going on a long time… three thousand bloody years!"
I'm also laughing when Colin picks up a pay phone, until it's revealed that he's not a deaf-mute after all. He's obsessed with cryptic letters randomly handed to him, poems that use nonsensical wordage from Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark. The puzzle's solution is also a literary reference, as Colin begins searching for a secret society based upon Balzac's The History of the Thirteen, going as far as to seek out a professor who is played with hilarious gusto by another New Wave director, Eric Rohmer (Chloe in the Afternoon): "Your poor grasp of reality is matched only by your poor spelling." Colin inches closer when he stumbles into a bookstore full of lefties with Big Ideas, including the rhubarb jam-loving Bulle Ogier (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) and yet another filmmaker, Barbet Schroeder (Barfly and Reversal of Fortune). I'm now training my eyes to spot Godard or Chabrol or even Jacques Demy, but I have a feeling they're off somewhere writing existential dialectics.
I didn't bring up Colin's female-hustler counterpart (doppelgänger?) before, the stunning Frédérique (Juliet Berto, Céline and Julie Go Boating), but I knew there were still over nine hours left to mention her. There's something innocent about Frédérique, watching her play-pretend a game of cowboys-and-indians or hopscotch by herself when she isn't weaponizing her sexuality to con strangers out of their wallets. And speaking of sex, how did Jonathan Rosenbaum proclaim this the definitive film of the 1960s counterculture when it's so surprisingly chaste? There's only tension and teasing throughout, especially when she steals then ransoms letters from the unnamed chess player, propelling her closer to discovering that illuminati of inexplicable radicals.
Who exactly are the Thirteen? How is "dangerous" Pierre involved? And who's Igor?
Juliet Berto

I t isn't actually necessary to sit for 13 hours to breathe in the film's heady aromas. This past spring, Anthology Film Archives screened Out 1: Spectre, Rivette's slightly less scarce cut of the film that runs a comparatively breezy four-and-a-half hours long. Former Village Voice critic Joshua Land, who has now viewed both versions, said he hopes people will also check out the terser edition when it plays at MOMI next weekend. "They are certainly distinct works, particularly in terms of editing," he told me. "Pondering the differences between the two films was, for me, one of the most rewarding aspects of the Out 1 experience. Because there's plenty of time for pondering."

So the uninitiated might be asking: Who would put themselves through such an enormous physical challenge when a shorter film exists? "I’m thrilled to have seen Out 1, something I had read an awful lot about for an awful long time and really never expected to have a shot at seeing," replied Premiere Magazine critic Glenn Kenny. "It just made me wish that we had a film culture that was more actively interested in such work. Right now the cinema is very much an art form in flux, and Out 1, among other things, reminds one of just how much of this art form’s potential remains untapped."

Ruminations on Episodes 6, 7 and 8
Whew, home stretch. However, my biggest sigh of relief is that Frédérique's boyish Edie Sedgwick-as-a-Beatle bob was only a wig in her criminal role-playing, and not just a bad haircut. I'd rather see her go boating than negotiating ransoms; she's so much lousier at the latter, which will probably get her killed.
Poor Troupe A. When one of their crew wins a million francs at the racetrack, newly recruited Renaud (Alain Libolt, Autumn Tale) runs off with it. For the first time in several hours, the gang ventures out of their workspace to eat spaghetti together, scheming about how they'll track the villainous traitor down by combing Paris quadrant by quadrant. Their determination is admirable, but will they ever rehearse again? Apparently not, and neither will Troupe B, who have now unspokenly separated and intermingled into other subplots. Says Thomas, "I don't know if you noticed, but Prometheus has disappeared… vaporized." At least he finally brings some sex into the film when he instigates a three-way, but Rivette cuts before anything more than a little caressing occurs, so it could fizzle into a cuddle party. (Remember those?)
Speaking of failed sexual encounters, Colin's not going to get laid if he thinks a patient game of solitaire based upon the number 13 is going to impress a woman who is already laying on his bed. He's quietly going crazy, and it's probably time for him to cut his losses at go back to his proto-Borat panhandling.
After a half-day's worth of hindsight, I finally see bigger pictures forming: The dialogue has become more elliptical and yet decomposes as it's being said -- powerful manifesto-like verbage anchored to nothing tangible. The repetitive routines and storylines that once sustained have by now shifted, splintered and self-destructed in ways that aren't noticeable moment-by-moment, but only after the film comes to fruition. And Thomas has revealed himself as the main character (if only because his involvement in this web of relationships is the most tangled), who speaks with the chess-playing man about how they and Pierre and the Thirteen are insignificant because they're too paranoid to ever meet.
Thomas alienates his remaining friends by faking his own death on the beach in Obade, leading to a wailing breakdown that I'm not entirely sure is acting or real. A-ha! Performance and reality have finally and seamlessly merged -- that sly Rivette! But just when you think Thomas' crucifixion pose informs the final shot, there's instead a recycled image from the street search for Renaud, featuring Troupe A's Marie (Hermine Karagheuz, Duelle) for about two seconds. If anyone can remember back 11 hours, she was the one who originally gave Colin the puzzling poetry -- a deeper meaning to a seemingly tossed-off bit of editing.
Wow. So the Thirteen were all talk? How did Rivette already come to know that the '60s revolution was a failure when the '70s had only just begun? I know Igor's in Paris, whoever he is, but please... Who's Pierre?!
Jacques Rivette

T he Out 1 public exhibition on Dec. 9-10 amazingly sold out in a few hours, a phenomenon that could only happen in a culturally rich landscape like New York. (Schwartz told me only 20 people showed up at the recent North American premiere in Vancouver). But MOMI has just announced an encore screening opportunity scheduled for March 3-4, 2007. It might seem like a lot to ask of filmgoers, especially when the bragging rights are so obscure that only a finite group would consider it a conquest, but when was the last time a film event was truly more potent than the film itself?

"It was an experience I never felt I'd have," said Taylor, adding that being part of this elite club is nothing less than great -- "like being one of the Thirteen, only without the fascist undertones."



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Comments (2)

I saw the film on Saturday and Sunday.

Your commentary was excellent.

I find myself two days later "missing" the characters, much, much more so than after other, shorter films I've enjoyed immensely.

This is due to more than just the length of the film or the quality of acting; it's that, at some point, if you've given yourself over to the experience (and the abundant supply of ouzo in the neighborhood helps), you begin to feel like you're living the film.

Its bizarre, freaky, immensely rewarding, and utterly unique to any film experience I've ever had.

David Billotti
NY, NY

It's been four months since I saw Out 1 during the encore at MOMI and I'm still thinking about the experience. In the words of a friend who saw it with me, "It changed my relationship to every other film I've ever seen."

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