Friday, July 26, 2013

OUT 1.4: Don't think that I am silent out of pride or stubbornness.

        One of the most notable structural features of Jacques Rivette's Out 1 (1971) is that about half of its 729-minute running time is given over to the acting exercises of two theater groups. The ostensible goal of both groups is to find fresh angles from which to approach the work of Aeschlyus, but although some of their exercises yield intellectual and emotional rewards for their participants, the groups fall apart before the plays are ever performed.

         So why on earth does Rivette make us watch, interspersed with the slightly more conventional narrative material involving Colin (Jean-Pierre Leaud) and Frederique (Juliet Berto) and, eventually, the members of the two groups, hours upon hours of these exercises? Of all the film's difficulties and eccentricities, this is the one most likely to have prevented it from being more widely seen. Presenting us with such a bulk of seemingly irrelevant and aimless material is a brazen violation of the expectations we tend to carry into even the most artistically adventurous narrative cinema.* In fact, the exercises so dominate the first several hours of the film that for long stretches it doesn't seem like we're watching narrative cinema at all, but something between a barely-edited assemblage of footage for a documentary about experimental theater techniques, and one of Warhol's conceptual films. There is no one simple answer as to why these sequences are there; however, there are multiple, complex ones:
  • The structure of Out 1 is that of a narrative gradually taking shape from chaos, a narrative in which the characters think they're uncovering a secret order underlying the random flux and tedium of life, but may in fact be generating that order themselves by searching for it. The theater exercises serve both as examples of that flux and tedium, and, particularly the exercises of Thomas's (Michael Lonsdale) group, as microcosms of the film's structure, because they involve the actors attempting to build some narrative order from their improvisations.
  • Juxtaposing them with the scenes outside of the theater has a dialectical effect, throwing light on both the performative nature of "real life" and the reality that is still present in, or heightened by, theatrical performance. One of the film's most brilliant coups is the feeling it sometimes achieves that what unfolds within the performance space is closer to the capital-R Real than what unfolds outside of it.
  • Rivette has stated that, for him, everything actors do is interesting. Other than his unorthodox approach to duration, this is the most radical aspect of his work, and Out 1 its ultimate expression. Not everything the actors do in the film (whether within the confines of the theater or in the outside world) succeeds, but by immersing us so exhaustively in process, Rivette scrambles our notions of success and failure. A scene that fails to lead anywhere narratively can be enjoyable as its own, wayward thing. Take, for example, an interminable single-take interlude involving Thomas, the woman alternately referred to as Pauline and Emile (Bulle Ogier), some toddlers and a live turtle. It seems to have been intended initially to advance the conspiracy plot, but the dialogue Lonsdale and Ogier come up with is vague and repetitive and both are continually sidetracked by the behavior of the kids and the critter, the former of which don't appear to have been instructed to ignore the camera's presence and so spend stretches of the scene staring right into the lens. As exasperating as this is on one level (Christ, when will it end!), as the minutes accumulate a certain dry hilarity takes hold. In the context Rivette creates by devoting so much time to the exercises, watching the film's narrative stutter and stall becomes part of its fun.
  • By taking such a leisurely approach to connecting the lives of Colin and Frederique with that of the two theater groups, Rivette achieves a strange and potent sort of suspense. The intercutting of the exercises and the equally hermetic antics of Colin and Frederique compels us to wonder how and when connections will be drawn between them. Rivette holds off long enough that when the threads finally do overlap, we're hit with a force that belies the casual, offhand presentation and resembles the kind of payoff one might derive from a more conventional suspense thriller.**
  • Another lens through which to interpret the exercises is that of jazz. Jonathan Rosenbaum, who has been the film's most vocal American proponent since the '70s, uses Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz as a point of comparison. Both Coleman and Rivette arrange the improvisation so that performers with very different energies wind up playing off each other in interesting ways: "Much like Coleman’s thirty-eight-minute venture into group improvisation with seven other musicians, [Out 1]’s surface is dictated by accommodations, combinations, and clashes brought about by contrasting styles of 'playing.' The textures run the gamut from the purely cinematic skills of Jean-Pierre Léaud and Juliet Berto to the stage-bound techniques of Françoise Fabian; from the nervousness of Michel Lonsdale to the placidity of Jacques Doniol-Valcroze; from the reticence of Bulle Ogier to the garrulity of Bernadette Lafont."*** The exercises especially could be said to resemble warts-and-all jazz sessions.
         Certainly, a couple of the theater exercises will try the patience of even the most Buddhistic of audiences. But one exercise, in the first episode, is one of the most transporting sequences in all of cinema. To find a way into the language of Prometheus Bound, Thomas's group enacts, in miniature, the development of language itself. We follow the actors as they move from silence and stillness, to primitive yowlings and insensate gestures, to the development of art and myth, before, after about half an hour, one of the actors begins, haltingly, to speak a line from the play: "Don't think… that I am silent… out of pride or stubbornness…"
         Much of the sequence is so extreme you might want to recoil from it, consisting as it does of dozens of minutes of people rolling about and pawing each other like condemned spirits writhing in the pits of Hades, their screams forming the vocal equivalent of an assaultive recording by the Peter Brötzmann Quartet, yet it's hard to look away from. Even though we know on some level that it's a theater exercise and not a group of Gallic hippies going insane before our eyes (that comes later), there's a sense that what we're witnessing is tunneling much deeper than we thought screen acting could go (was permitted to go) into the primordial stuff underlying human experience. As a sense of what's happening before us begins to dawn, we start to root for them, and by the end of the sequence, as the line from the play is finally spoken, repeated, broken down, and subsumed back into the mass of inchoate burbling, bleating, and moaning, we feel like we've become one with them. When they finally break out of the exercise to sit down and rap about the experience, we're as curious as anyone onscreen as to how they'll make sense of what they've just done. Out 1 hits several pinnacles as it progresses; this is the first, and maybe the highest.

This clip, while a useful illustration, probably doesn't give one a sense of the incredible power of this sequence. 
Experiencing the full duration of it is necessary.

*Compare it, for instance, with another monument of durational cinema, Bela Tarr's 432-minute film Satantango (1994), which consists of 150 extremely lengthy and slow-moving shots. These often linger beyond the point of narrative necessity, but each ultimately advances the film's plot.
**One of the reasons I love long-form cinema is its capacity to make two characters simply passing each other in a store as thrilling as twenty car chases.
***Rosenbaum's actually writing here about Out 1: Spectre (1974), a 250-minute cut of Out 1 which I have yet to see, but anticipate doing so before this cycle of pieces concludes. Though Spectre's reputedly a very different film, this passage seems equally applicable to the longer version (which sometimes is referred to as Noli Me Tangere (Don't Touch Me)).

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