Monday, July 8, 2013

OUT 1.2: ...and that would be intolerable!

        When Jacques Rivette's 12 1/2 hour serial, Out 1: Noli Me Tangere, premiered on French television in 1971, no one expected the film to be any great commercial success. It was, after all, a highly demanding and complex piece of work that stripped away most of the certainties viewers carried into filmed entertainment. Even Rivette himself secretly expected disaster. But one broadcaster eloquently stood up for the film, going so far as to stake his career on it, all the while knowing it was likely a suicidal move.
        Yet the first episode drew 12 million viewers, and as the film's enigmatic narrative slowly began to emerge from entropic improvisations, the ratings climbed still higher. By some miracle, the film literally had something for every single demographic. Young children couldn't follow most of the dialogue, but sat entranced at the sight of adults behaving just like them. Teenagers instinctively responded to the quirky Jean-Pierre Leaud and Juliet Berto characters. (Harmonica-related hearing damage and petty theft in Paris cafes skyrocketed accordingly.) The intelligentsia loved the film's literary references and formal adventurousness. Working men and women proved amenable to the film's dramatization of the search for meaning in a chaotic and random universe. Seniors found the amount of screaming somewhat off-putting, but greatly appreciated the slow pace and lack of nudity or extreme violence.

        And the waning counterculture found in the film a revealing mirror image of their situation, and were able as a result of the film's insights to course correct, resulting in a wave of mass political protests that eventually led to a peaceful overthrow of Pompidou's government, and the establishment of a neo-socialist republic, which avoided many of the pitfalls of other socialist experiments by decentralizing power among a group of thirteen individuals from various tiers of society. Some of those involved in the uprising refer to the month of Out 1's initial airing as "The Second May," though it aired in March. Among the first acts of the new regime were the establishment of a channel that played nothing but Out 1, the canonization of Jacques Rivette as a national hero, and the full subsidization of his subsequent efforts.*
        The transformative effect of Out 1 in France hardly went unnoticed by the rest of the world, and indeed wherever it received distribution (it was suppressed in China, banned outright in the USSR), the same energies were released among its viewers, though never again did it bring a nation to the point of outright political revolution. Its main political accomplishment outside of France lay in significantly increasing the worldwide membership of the Situationist International.
        The film was distributed theatrically in US arthouses and received rapturously by critics. "Remember what I said about Last Tango in Paris a couple months ago," wrote Pauline Kael, "that it was the equivalent of The Rite of Spring? Gee-whiz, was I a hasty Harriet!" US audiences took to the film as well, especially young cinephiles, a rapidly expanding demographic. Out 1 became a fixture at campus cineclubs, and posters of the film's enigmatic final shot were a staple of American dorm rooms from the mid-to-late-'70s into at least the mid-'80s. The film was also broadcast on PBS on Saturday mornings in May-June 1974. Its lead-in was Sesame Street.

        Given the political ramifications of the film's success in France, there was quite a bit of uneasiness surrounding the film's box office numbers among the rightist establishment in the US.
        "Fucking frog-loving communists and their 12 1/2 hour nickelodeon shows," Richard Nixon can be heard grousing at one point in the White House tapes.
        "And it's boring, too," responds Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, "One of my aides saw the first four or five episodes and says the whole thing's got less story than a goddamn episode of the Bonanza. That's a show folks are into, right, the Bonanza?"
        "It must be that dope or grass or whatever they're calling it now. Drug fiends just need something to nod out to after a day of stealing things from decent working people and consorting with their homosexual associates."
        Nixon actually wasn't entirely off-base. Out 1 had quickly become a seminal "head" movie, not only because of its countercultural themes, but because it lasted the average length of an LSD trip.** Although after stories spread about one lengthy theater exercise in the first episode triggering psychotic breakdowns legitimate LSD/Out 1 experiences tended to be undertaken mostly as a dare.

        Out 1's influence on the development of the arts in the English-speaking world was especially profound. Some highlights:
  1. Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey's 12 1/2 hour film, Joe Dallesandro Watches Out 1 In Chaps (1973)became one of Warhol's most well-known and highly-regarded productions. 
  2. Having heard good things about Out 1 from George Harrison, John Lennon invited Paul McCartney to a screening of it in New York, partly as a mea culpa for "How Do You Sleep?" Both emerged so invigorated that they immediately set out to reform The Beatles for an Out 1-themed concept album, Corner of Chance, which many place on par with Sgt. Pepper's (Ringo Starr's jaunty contribution, "The Croissant Meet-Cute" is widely considered the best thing he ever did). The Beatles quickly disbanded again, though all showed a continuing fascinating with Out 1 in their solo careers.***
  3. Allen Ginsberg saw Out 1 in 1973, and composed a tripartite poem about the experience, "By Out 1 An Ode Won," which culminates in a powerful series of exhortations: "Hours! pass through me electric in wild fevered dance! / Conspiracy! tickle my buddhabelly and laugh through my bones!"
  4. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas--after a string of financial failures (Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978), and Adventures of Luke Starkiller, As Taken From the Journal of the Whills, Saga 1: The Star Wars (1977)****) that were too literal-minded, plot-dependent, emotionally manipulative, and quickly paced for America's challenge-hungry audiences--finally saw Out 1 in 1979, shortly after the premiere of their friend Francis Coppola's Out 1-inspired, 192-hour magnum opus, Apocalypse Now (1979).***** Spielberg and Lucas were inspired by the film's debt to the serials of Louis Feuillade to make their own tribute to classic serials, featuring a world-traveling adventurer named Indiana Jones. The resulting film, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), was the box office hit they needed to sustain their careers, though some critics complained that hours six through nine (in which Indiana Jones doesn't appear and instead only exists as a series of contradictory rumors and tall tales being bandied about by Nazi officers as they play a seemingly endless game of faro in the basement of an Egyptian brothel) were a bit overextended. 
  5. Bob Dylan denies ever having seen a single Rivette film, saying in a 1978 interview with Esquire,  "I don't got that kind of time, man. I'm on the lam. Here, could you hold this novelty totem pole for me? Gotta get back to Cheyenne." But most scholars tend to peg his Renaldo and Clara (1978) as being clearly among Out 1's progeny.

        By the early '80s, the vogue for epic-length improvisatory experimental films began to wane. What was initially received as a liberation of filmmaking from commercially-imposed narrative and durational standards had, for all its countercultural cache and political importance, become just another marketable commodity.****** Indeed, a Harvard study in 1982 showed that TV commercials themselves had become on average three times longer and generally more tantalizingly ambiguous than the programs they interrupted. Clearly, something had to change.
        Thus, just as the blunt concision of punk in the late '70s shoved aside the bloated pseudo-symphonic excess of prog, brief and blisteringly fast films became the new vanguard of film culture. An early masterpiece of the movement was the ever-iconoclastic Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1983 adaptation of Alfred Doblin's modernist novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, which manages to boil the trials and tribulations of its hero Franz Biberkopf into four gobsmackingly dense minutes. Many other filmmakers followed suit, most notably the Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr, who can compress an amazing number of bleakly comic portraits of post-communist squalor into the length of a pre-Out 1 TV commercial. This movement has in turn received its backlash in recent years*******, and this backlash will inevitably receive its own backlash, and so on and so forth. Such is cinema history.
        Regardless of where cinema goes next, Out 1 will always be talked about and embraced or rejected by each successive generation of filmmakers and cinephiles. And though Rivette and his collaborators deserve much of the credit for the film's brilliance, we have one anonymous, courageous broadcaster in pre-Revolutionary France to thank for its being among the handful of films to change the course of cinema, and the world at large.******** 

*Which largely consisted of his smash-hit Celine and Julie franchise, beginning with Celine and Julie Go Boating in 1974 and followed in quick succession by Celine and Julie Go Skiing (1975), Celine and Julie Go America (1975), Celine and Julie A-Go-Go (1976), and so on for a total of 28 3-hour films, each chronicling the whimsy-laden metafictional exploits of the titular protagonists, an achievement referred to in Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide as "France's equivalent of the Bond or Tora-san series, only like way better than either of those."
**Ads in The Village Voice for the film proclaimed "Turn on, tune in, drop Out 1!"
***George and Ringo turn up as space rangers in one of the few less than successful Celine and Julie films, Celine and Julie Go Across The Universe (1979), where things get a bit too lumpy and twee for their own good.
****The last was so unsuccessful after its first run that Lucas had all but one print destroyed, which was only recently discovered in Lucas's attic and given a bare bones DVD release.
*****A film that at once updates Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness to the Vietnam era and chronicles the near-breakdown of a film production trying to do the same. Not even Coppola has seen it in its entirety, but the film is nonetheless still very popular, in that it's an ongoing tradition among contemporary cinephiles to pretend to have seen it front-to-back at a formative period in their lives.
******Many contemporary cinephiles point to Spielberg/Lucas as its death knell (the nadir of their Out 1 infatuation being Lucas's animatronic vanity project, Duck 1 (1988)), but most historians trace it to the resounding commercial success of Out 1 itself.
*******Fueled in part by a largely unsubstantiated theory that corporate and political interests sanctioned the movement for fear that unions would soon demand shortened workweeks to accommodate the size of filmed entertainments.
********"But [its all being false] would mean that the magical, mysterious world I've been living in is nothing but an illusion...and that would be intolerable!"--Colin, Out 1

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