Jacques Rivette and the Other Place, Track One|
When a submerged continent rises suddenly to the surface, and one is able to visit territories that had been relegated to the fabulous by their previous inaccessibility, and trace continuities and significant ruptures between what had seemed isolated promontories, when there are new languages to learn and histories to uncover in urban centers still impossibly vibrant with life despite their decades of undercover existence, that, you may say, is a hell of a thing, and one steps out onto ground still redolent of fish and spackled with seaweed with excitement and apprehension, not least at the fact of one's own inevitable inadequacy as explorer, at a time when one stays close to home, keeping company with the cats, so seldom finding new neighborhoods, let alone new worlds. It's what one amazed gentleman was heard to exclaim in Queens, at the American Museum of the Moving Image's retrospective of the films of Jacques Rivette: Who knew?
Well, people did, of course. Jonathan Rosenbaum, perhaps more than any other English-language critic, wrote wonderfully about Rivette's early films, and inspired the cult of Out 1 (1971) among younger generations of cinephiles, many of whom may have suspected they would never come any closer to it than they got in their imaginations through reading his traveler's tales ("And I only am escaped alone to tell thee"). Out 1 grew in darkness, secret and seemingly made of secrets, and due to this unavailability (a function of the marketplace rather than fate or aesthetics, as Rosenbaum would sensibly point out), it joined that pantheon of broken and vanished objects (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.
So Out 1 faced a tall task in living up to its legend, and the fact that it so splendidly does so is due in no small part to the fact that a matched quest for ineffable order forms its narrative spine, a spine attenuated almost to the point of nonexistence at times but surprisingly resilient (1). Out 1 is engaged in hunting itself, this "cinephile's holy grail," as Dennis Lim has called it, contains its own interior Parsifal as a figure of its endlessly self-interrogatory desire, its self-consuming spirals.
"Find the mortal world enough" was W.H. Auden's kind and unlikely wish for a casual conquest, probably paid for, and whether or not one finds such a state possible or desirable, it's rarely attained by Rivette's characters, who are always searching beyond, at whatever cost to their stability. When Jean-Pierre Léaud's Colin, the part-time deaf-mute turned investigative hero of Out 1, hears the suggestion that his quest may be a hoax, he responds, "But that would mean that the magical, mysterious world I've been living in is nothing but illusion. "And that," he declares, "is impossible!" Rivette's work takes place between the world of magical mystery and the flatland of impossible reality, a no-man's land of his very own. Recognizing, with Colin, the allure of a controlling narrative -- and seeing, in Colin, a figure of warning in regard to its strict application -- let's start by proposing an underlying myth beneath the Rivette corpus, before moving on to examine its mutating manifestations.
The Other Place
The Other Place was here but now it's not. (Hypothesis: the Other Place has moved behind the scenes.) The Other Place was the citadel of order and abode of gods, and maybe it still is. Or perhaps the Other Place has been seized by shadows that would undermine its order not by breaking the connections but burying them and tying them in place, creating a citadel not of order but control. (Was there ever a difference?) Or perhaps it's only we who have changed, our eyes corrupted and apt to confuse order and control, unity and eternal night. The disappearance of the Other Place, or its retreat into a form we fail to recognize, has left us alone, in the terror and exhilaration of our unbound selves (hypothesis: once we were bound, like a captive or a book, and unable any longer to read in ourselves, uncertain which loose leaf contains our destiny, we cry for rebinding, finding certain freedoms too painful).
Those aware of its disappearance, who tell themselves that story, are haunted by the Other Place and discover two courses open: to find it or to recreate it. Neither, finally, comes to any happy culmination, unless it's the case, as it might be, that the Other Place comes to us in our confusions and achieves its order only on the point of our disintegrations.
But that goes against another way of telling the Other Place, which defines it by the fact that it locks and seals its gestures, holds them suspended and revolving on themselves. That's what we try to capture when we draw a square or rectangle on the ground and attempt to stage the Other Place in miniature. But in order to inhabit its gestures, we must find a line connecting to them from somewhere within our broken being, and once we locate these forms, we have to slip them on, make them new and ours. But that effort is beyond us, we fall back into our slipping selves and prop one or another of these partial I's up as a curtain to disguise the fact that somewhere inside, something is falling, and it can't be caught (you can hear it fall).
It's sounds we're left with, sounds never emerging into speech, never able to enunciate the generative words anew, never able to live inside them like a home. We fall apart while miming the larger disorder, and the gods and the shadows are one, united in not being us, in mocking us (but something belongs to us).
The City Shell
Paris lies old, smudged, and nearly deserted under the heavy skies of Rivette's first feature, Paris nous appartient (1960), a charcoal sketch whose title contains its own dialectic between freedom and force, depending on which "nous" one imagines speaking it. The mirror-image quotation that follows the credits (both from French poet Charles Peguy) only complicates the movement: "Paris belongs to no one." It is there to be claimed and always unclaimable, dispersed beyond the bounds of control and lacking any holding point for orientation. For the space of the film, its stone façades, cracked hallways, and doors in all their phases -- flying open, listened at, peeked through, locked -- become an antique pinball machine through which the film's guileless protagonist, Anne (Betty Schneider), is propelled by means of deflected agendas, chance encounters, overheard and ill-understood phrases and fragments, and occasional bursts of action directed toward finding the film's missing center, the piece that might unite it: a solo-guitar recording made by Juan, a Spanish political exile whose death sets the eccentric machine in motion.
Here we're introduced to two of Rivette's primary motifs: conspiracy and theater. They aren't separate or opposed, but facets of the same central structure, windows into the Other Place. Both are rather cartooned here. The nominal conspiracy lacks any definite outlines but comes loaded with all too many significant names -- Hitler, McCarthy, Big Business, Franco, Fascism -- as if jumbled together in an unwieldy sack tagged "Nasty Things." Where the true conspiratorial mindset functions through an overabundance of specifics, here even those most in thrall to the idea of the sinister "organization" seem unsure of its nature. Likewise, the travails of Gerard, the theater director trying to scrape together a production of Pericles with no money or permanent rehearsal space, and with an ever-dwindling cast, seem more rooted in received narratives from Hollywood and the commercial theater than any direct experience of theatrical process (a defect Rivette set out to correct in his later work, saying in 1968, "I hadn't forgiven myself for the way I had shown the theatre in Paris nous appartient, which I find too picturesque, too much seen from the outside, based on clichés.")
Even so, the film lingers in recollection, partly due to its intransigence, its refusal of satisfactions, whether those of narrative, character, or performance (befuddled Anne must surely be one of the most easily distracted "goal-oriented" protagonists in cinema history). Which is not to say that the film is punishing or unpleasurable, just that it realizes itself more fully on the level of image and sound than of story or meta-story. Its Paris is a hard and empty shell, open to takeover from whatever sinister mollusc may be murmuring "nous" in the offing. And the aggressive score by Phillipe Arthuys and Ivo Malec both echoes and pulls away from its hidden rhythms and oblique emphases -- sounding, in fact, far more like the imitation of Juan's music heard in an early party scene, via the vocal stylings of Claude Chabrol, than the snippet of the tape we're finally allowed to hear. In fact, the score mimics the function Gerard assigns to Juan's tape in his limping attempts to mount Pericles (a description which might be taken to double, maybe a bit too neatly, the film's own agenda).
Gerard: The reason I want to stage it is because it's 'unplayable.' It's shreds and patches, yet it all hangs together somehow.... It shows a chaotic but not absurd world -- rather like our own. Flying off in all directions, but with a purpose. Only we don't know what.
Anne: I agree. The world is less absurd than it seems. But what can we do to show this clearly?
Gerard: I'm counting on the music.
The job of Juan's music, therefore, would be to stitch the "shreds and patches" into a provisional order, a form strong enough to suggest purpose and fend off utter randomness and absurdity but sufficiently elastic to respect the partial and inconclusive nature of its material, to leave room for the emergence of meaning, should it care to declare itself, and leave inviolate its birthright in chaos. One might imagine the projected play/film as a piece of luggage capable of turning itself endlessly inside-out, the better to contain the unbounded. It's not surprising that Rivette should fail to find such a rare piece on his first search, particularly when he hasn't really allowed chance much breathing room (he later criticized the film's scripted dialogue in particular as striving for "effects, in the worst sense of the term" and "terribly pleased" with itself). What's amazing is that he should ever succeed in simulating such an ever-expanding, always-collapsing object.
Rivette has reiterated an artistic credo: "One must do the easy things and leave the difficult things to pedants." This applies as well to his activities as thinker and stylist, the enormous sophistication he brings to bear on the basic questions of film construction. Feuillade is frequently invoked as a primary forebear, and there's no reason to question the lineage. Rivette never strays far from origins and, especially in the first half of his career, seems dedicated to forever restaging cinema's first steps, outlining in that process other paths it might have followed. For that purpose, Feuillade serves as a much richer point of departure than, say, the dubious dichotomy of Lumièreality and the Meliesian fields of fantasy, which was already arthritic when Rivette began writing in the '50s. For one thing, Feuillade possesses the virtue of impurity on both counts.
In digging up the roots of Rivette's dialectic between theater and conspiracy, one could do worse than to posit a point of origin in two consecutive shots of Fantômas (1913) or Les vampires (1915), any point of juncture between Feuillade's blatantly stage-bound interiors and the startling immediacy of his street scenes, their document of a Paris not yet hardened to posing for the camera but already infected with fiction. Just that -- the mystery of the transfer from a potted room (a theatric hothouse, fully frontal, where every movement is directed outward and every object is chosen toward a unified and general impression of a home, an office, a hotel, etc.) to the sunblast immediacy of the street (where our eyes energetically scan the frame for intrusions of the random, evidence of vanished life caught unawares, and the fictive action too is freed to slink/dash from unexpected vectors, since lines of movement travel out in all directions, off the screen and into the world).
What could possibly link these spaces? What universe could contain them both? How can the thread (of secrets) that binds them be strong enough to pull them together into a world neither real nor irreal -- a parallel life? And last, what of the space we're not shown, which links the contraries and provides the means of passage, the space between? These are the "easy" questions that Rivette poses to himself and his cabal of viewers. The superficial fragility, awkward angularity, receding presence, and shy smile we confront in his photos may conceal the inner animal, but we recognize its presence in the pit bull tenacity with which he grips and shakes, and never stops shaking, the foundations of cinema.
Tracks and Lines
So, two panels: the street/the stage. Played in large: Paris nous appartient/La religieuse (1966). Rivette's second feature is a fascinating and largely neglected film I'll proceed to neglect further, since it stands at a tangent to the progression I'm trying to follow, inaugurating a shadow line of development. I might as well state my principles:
- There are two tracks in Rivette's career: the first an ongoing push of exploration, culminating in Noroit (1976), and the second a zigzag of cultivation over the territory previously pioneered. These are based in chronology and correspond to his career's frequently referenced first and second halves.
- The second track is in no sense inferior to the first. In place of the flamboyance and vertiginous sense of performance on the borders of the unknown of that initial, horizontal trajectory, it devotes itself to the vertical (digging, planting) and subterranean (unearthing, tunneling).
- Within the two tracks, there are two lines of internal development, which carry across both periods. The first is what I'm trying to trace here as the quest for the Other Place, itself often linked with or mirrored in theater. The second, shadow line is not of but in some sense in theater, adopting its limitations as productive restraints. The two lines intersect in Celine et Julie vont en bateau (1974) and merge in Duelle (1976) and Noroit, but after La religieuse, the shadow line only comes to independent realization in the second track, in Hurlevent (1985) and Jeanne la Pucelle (1994) (and, from reports, his new film, Ne touchez pas la hache).
Any effort to come to terms with Rivette needs to confront his seemingly paradoxical assertion: "All films are about the theatre, there is no other subject." This statement, which draws no objections from his interlocutors, may seem teasingly perverse to those of us drilled in the received notion that cinema is defined in opposition to the theatric, but it has its roots in Andre Bazin's rich essays on "Theater and Cinema." Many of Rivette's ideas about filmmaking seem to spring from this source, perhaps regarded as both inspiration and irritant. The shadow line in particular appears founded on two points of divergence Bazin sees in between the artforms: performance (the theater audience is not allowed the psychological identification with the actor afforded the cinema spectator, being separated from the action by the footlights, regarded emblematically as a "fiery frontier between fantasy and reality which gives rein to Dionysiac monsters while protecting us from them. These sacred beasts will not cross this barrier of light beyond which they seem out of place and even sacrilegious...." and "the dramatic place" (the stage is "a privileged spot actually or virtually distinguished from nature" which "must not be confused with nature under penalty of being absorbed by her and ceasing to be.") For Bazin, theater stands distinct from cinema precisely in its distance from the world: "These false perspectives, these facades, these arbors have another side which is cloth and nails and wood.... [Theater] exists by virtue of its reverse side and its absense of anything beyond, as the painting exists by virtue of its frame."
In the films of this shadow line, Rivette honors these precepts through violation, grafting the stage onto the world, and thereby also digging around once more among the roots of cinema (2). La religieuse, which he first presented on the stage, is the most blunt of these attempts, with its color-coded lighting, schematic movement, highly pitched and posed performances, and controlled (in fact often sound staged) environments, which pivot around the trope of a stage within the stage by means of a dividing grid (through which the nun speaks to the outside world, or, in confession, to the priests). Hurlevent pushes these ideas further -- drawing the three-sided box from real locales and building its mise-en-scène on theatric principles: directing the action forward, almost to the point of tableaux, predominantly showing the actors full-figure, and always respecting the position of the imaginary audience, even while occasionally cutting at right angles inside the configurations, by eliminating shots which would reveal the fourth wall. Jeanne picks up from Noroit by integrating a moving camera into the equation, setting up a fluid succession of "stages," quickly organized and dispersed, within deep space (the scene surrounding Jeanne's offscreen meeting with the dauphin is an especially impressive example).
Paris nous appartient and La Religieuse might almost comprise a precis of the films that would follow. In these first two features, the themes are stated, a trajectory is announced, but the unknown and unruly are contained within pre-established limits. Rivette credits his work on the three-part documentary Jean Renoir, le patron (1967) with giving him the impetus to introduce process, in the form of improvisation and a collaborative approach to construction, as an active element in the filming. In L'amour fou (1968), "I wanted to make a film, not inspired by Renoir, but trying to conform to the idea of cinema incarnated by Renoir, a cinema which does not impose anything, where one tries to suggest things, to let them happen, where it is mainly a dialogue on every level, with the actors, with the situation, with the people you meet, where the act of filming is part of the film itself. What I liked most about this film was enjoying myself shoot it.... This was the first time that the shooting was not only not hell, but was even a most exciting time."
Theater is the dominant element in L'amour fou, which begins less as a tale than a forged document of a small troupe's rehearsals for a production of Racine's Andromaque. Conspiracy, in the localized form of one individual's paranoid narrative, shifts the film onto another course in its second half. The film blends 16mm footage of the rehearsals and interviews with the players -- purportedly the rushes of an episode of Theatre du notre temps directed by Andre Labarthe -- with 35mm footage covering both the activities at the theater and the private lives of the protagonists. Rivette left Jean-Pierre Kalfon, the actor who plays the director, Sebastien, free to direct the rehearsals as he saw fit, only intervening, in the theater scenes, to occasionally prod the cast interviews in potentially provocative directions, along with Labarthe, who was also accorded a large degree of free agency. This might suggest a schema wherein the narrative division is easily gaugeable as (theatrical) reality or (filmic) fiction by the stock of a particular shot, but in fact the fictive germ is planted early on, in 16mm, when Sebastien's wife Claire (Bulle Ogier) drops out of the production and into a new line of action in the middle of the first rehearsal.
In effect, the difference between theater and conspiracy is one of vantage. Theater belongs to the plotters, a group of relatively likeminded individuals huddled together in dark rooms to realize a guiding narrative. In many of Rivette's films, theater is also a utopian venture, a miniature model of a new form of society, able to function without rigid hierarchies of control (but both Kalfon in L'amour fou and Michel Lonsdale in Out 1 are less than successful in abolishing their own role as group father and leader -- and perhaps less than fully sincere in their desire to do so). Conspiracy is the province of loners, those cut loose from the web of human relations whose search for a hidden order imperfectly conceals their own desire for connection (in Out 1, Colin is driven not by a desire to expose the mysterious cabal known as the 13 -- rather, he wants to join them).
In Paris nous appartient, Rivette stamps the seal of Babel on both drives by incorporating the tower sequence from Lang's Metropolis (1927). The last image seen in that screening, just before the film flips out of the projector, is a field of hands, raised toward the tower's architect, who has just announced his plan to invade the Other Place in one of its sectarian guises. The link between architect, conspiratorial mastermind, and director is obvious, but I don't believe that in incorporating this parable Rivette intends to issue a reactionary warning against trying to overturn the realms of higher power. He's offering instead a canny apprehension of the ways in which networks of power infiltrate and corrupt even those proto-utopias formed on an opposing model, the way such attempts constantly threaten to transform into mirror images of exactly the hierarchies they oppose in a serpentine twining of anarchy and synarchy (3). Rivette's groups tend to disperse before their production can reach an audience and project these inward exercises back out into the world (the sole exception is 1984's L'amour par terre, where the will of the writer/director is paramount), but eventual collapse doesn't negate the search and process, the liberating potentials and revolutionary energies of play. His career itself, in its ongoing attempts to explore these delicate balances and betrayals in his own role of architect and collaborator, is the clearest example of this.
Once excluded from the group, Claire begins to counterplot, launching "an investigation into Sebastien," accumulating "evidence" of his shortcomings and liaisons. Forced to choose between his work and his wife, Sebastien opts for the latter, and the couple retreats to the domestic theater to form a band of two, constructing yet another model of the Other Place within the enclosed confines of their bedroom. This protracted siege in the room -- both a claustrophobic cage to desecrate and an open playpen of the imagination, as Claire and Sebastien adopt different roles, scrawl on the walls, free everyday objects from their determined functions to serve as props for their fluid role changes, and finally plot an escape -- is the centerpiece of the film's second half and the site of one of Rivette's most thorough examinations of the notion of "play."
As Gilles Deleuze notes in his brief essay on La Band des quatre (1988), "Rivette's Three Circles," the mutating meanings and manifestations of play are a central concern in Rivette's work. Deleuze breaks play down into three aspects: roles, attitudes/postures, and masks, stating, "We are all rehearsing parts of which we are unaware (our roles). We slip into characters which we do not master (our attitudes and postures). We serve a conspiracy of which we are completely oblivious (our masks). This is Rivette's vision of the world, it is uniquely his own."
Play is many things in these films -- magical, tedious, creative, destructive, puerile, revolutionary, deadly -- but it's never innocent (another of Rivette's maxims, as a critic and afterward: "We are no longer innocent."). Claire and Sebastien's interactions in the room are complex, and any interpretation of them can only be tentative. Even the results are questionable. If Sebastien intended to find a point of common ground, to meet Claire in her descent and reestablish the terms of their relationship in order to rebuild it, he succeeded in loosening the web of paranoia she was weaving round herself, but the relationship still comes to an abrupt end on Claire's declaration, "We've played too much, I've had enough."
Presumably, this staging of their relationship allows Claire a new perspective on it -- not of its essence, since to speak of revelation of essence would throw the proceedings into the realm of psychodrama, an area Rivette views with infinite wariness, but of the shapes it made, of the roles and postures they were capable of adopting toward each other, of their possibilities and limitations as a duo and as a unit. For Claire, it cracked open the edifice they had built, and in laying bare its constituent elements created what Deleuze calls, in other contexts, a "line of flight," of which she avails herself. Sebastien, meanwhile, has learned the perils of true collaboration ("Of the two, he was clearly the one who was more sick," Rivette later said). Having initiated a process which assumed its own momentum, he now finds himself trapped inside it, inhabiting the shell of a departed life. Mourning is its own paranoia, and Sebastien is left locked in Claire's old role, shut up in the apartment, listening to the recordings she had made to summarize the findings of her investigation, conducting his own investigation into absence and loss.
Every film of this first period begins as a critique of the work preceding it, undermining its premises or results. Each moves further into the unknown. The process orientation of the shooting, the ongoing interrogation of cinema's means, and the sense of active intellectual and emotional exploration beyond the bounds of pre-shrunk models of the psyche (there's a true kinship between Rivette and Deleuze, each continually asking himself, what if it were otherwise?) all add to the urgency of the series and a kind of psychological brinksmanship for both the participants and, to a lesser extent, the viewers who sign on for the trip -- as Rosenbaum says, these are films that "teeter on the edge of madness."
So Rivette says Out 1 was initiated as a response to L'amour fou, and in particular its tendency to dip in the direction of psychodrama, but in such enterprises, the intention is no guarantee of the result: "In order to counteract the spuriously 'lived' aspect of L'amour fou, each actor had to play an extremely fictional character, and theoretically maintain a considerable distance between himself and that character. In the event, there really was 'play' between the actors and the characters they were playing, and at the same time they revealed a hundred times more things about themselves than if they had been identifying with these fictional characters or were supposed to be playing their own 'characters.'" And: "Initially we thought it was going to be very jolly, and we started out with the actors by criticizing L'amour fou for its element of anguish, of psychodrama -- psychosis, even -- saying, well, it won't be like that this time but just a jolly game with serial-type fiction. But very soon, an element of anguish crept into the film...."
The Seed/The Rock
Rivette has the kind of rigorous, mathematical mind that discovers itself in pitching against its opposite -- the unformed and that in the stages of formation, active energies always pulling in new and contradictory directions. This is why he only came into his own when he decided to relinquish control, and also how his films manage to be so distinctly marked by his own search and sensibility while remaining also genuinely collaborative enterprises. Out 1 is both sprawling and beautifully shaped, though this latter aspect only becomes fully clear in retrospect or reviewing. Many of his films are studded with holographic miniatures, in which the whole is encapsulated in a part (and, as I hope to show later, what's true of his films taken individually is also true for his career in macrocosm, with certain titles functioning as particular points of reflection on the larger trajectories). The opening sequences of Out 1, apparently so trying to many viewers, judging from opinions expressed recently by writers unable to understand why Rivette would ask them to look so long on hippie theater games, are one example of this, so it's worth examining them in some detail.
The first episode opens on the bizarre image of five torsos upside down and folded into themselves, so that we see only the back and the spine. These figures are arranged in an X, like the pattern on a die, without any means of communication or locomotion -- the body as hard, isolated, and unresponsive object (the rock). After a moment, the torsos flower into humanity, as the actors slowly unfurl, raising their legs above their head and their arms outward to curl down into an upright position on the floor (the seed). They begin their warm-up routine, the minor ritual preceding the larger ritual of theater itself.
These scenes, apparently so rocklike, demanding, and intransigent, are in fact the seed of all that follows. The first introduces us to the group founded by Lili (Michelle Moretti). But there are no introductions, rather Rivette throws us straight into their process. As a general rule, aside from the primer on Balzac provided by Eric Rohmer in a later episode, Rivette avoids exposition, preferring to allow information to emerge casually, or not at all. And once the allure of the grand, impersonal conspiracy drops away (when we learn that this modern 13 was the stillborn creation of a group of friends back in 1968-69, a period charged with possibility, and that these friends have since scattered into new formations), the film's primary narrative motor for the interested viewer comes from piecing together the character information we're given -- in tiny bits, spread all across the body of the film -- in order to understand each figure's history and position in relation to the others.
It's perhaps a surprising strength in a director who treads so warily around the concept of identity, but Rivette strikes me as one of the handful of filmmakers capable of presenting characters of a believable history (the illusion of life before the film) and depth (the partial illusion of interiority and independent action). This is another benefit of his process, since in the case of Out 1, he charted a course of intersections but left the cast to fill in the roles, a temporal and successive process of discovery in which the actors come to define their characters in action, in response to ever-shifting situations. Moment to moment, they exist in a state of unknowing, or rather of acquiring knowledge. So, according to the schema Rivette planned in advance, he and the cast would know, say, that Character E would meet Character P in Scene 36, but what would happen between them would be the product of multiple engines: the decisions and goals of the actors, along with the shapes and senses developing in the larger film itself. In such process-oriented art, the number of possible moves is always large, but the work is geared to a point where the material begins to assert a mysterious coherence and the sets divide into narrowing categories of playable and nonplayable (the game of Go provides a good analogy: Players begin with an open grid, but as the game progresses moves must increasingly be made in response to the larger patterns already on the board, either to fill in gaps or exploit them in order to break up the formation).
The next brief sequence shows us Colin distributing envelopes stamped with the words: "I'm deaf and dumb. I bring you a 'message from destiny.'" Colin is one of the film's two major solitaries, and as such, a destabilizing force loose within the group frameworks of the film. Here, he divides and connects the sequences which bring the two troupes into play -- he is the integer in between. Already self-positioned as destiny's agent, he produces the message he would like to receive.
The third, much longer, sequence throws us into an improvisation by Thomas' (Lonsdale) troupe, kneeling with heads together, rising in unison, and playing a "mirror game" of doubling each other's actions. A tailor's dummy, painted red, is introduced, and much of the improvisation is centered around it. It is worshipped and mocked, given a head, a face, and a hat, while around it the actors whimper, make animal noises, moan, and shout. We can see that each actor is invested in a narrative postulate, the screen is crawling with larval stories, but because the communication remains non-verbal, interactions, when they occur, are a matter of continuous unspoken negotiations to determine the postulate of another and to find a possible point of intersection between interior worlds.
Another short interruption by Colin, in his room, stamping his envelopes with self-consciously mechanical efficiency, a destiny machine for yet other narratives, as yet undisclosed.
When we return to Thomas' group, they have collapsed around the dummy like sunrays. Joined in a single tone, they rise together with linked arms and begin the difficult work of coming to speech, grunting, pointing to their mouths, finally producing words and then a sentence -- "Don't think that I am silent out of pride or stubbornness" -- a line that's taken up and echoed in various registers by other actors.
Back at the improv, the figure we will later know as Thomas appears to have assumed a role we will later identify as Prometheus, a tumble of words: "Fire...it's hot..." The group comes together in an embrace, each with a separate cry, and quiet each other: "Shhh...shh...sh..." Gradually, they sway into silence, then begin rocking faster. Laughing, they dissolve into scattered formations again. Thomas knocks the head off the dummy and the group lays it on the floor, piling on top of it. An ellipsis puts the group at yet another stage, grooming each other solicitously, like friendly cats. They stand up and the improv dissolves: "You've cleaned me up."
Colin stops stamping long enough to pull a book from a nearby pile and rip out pages at random for insertion into his pile of envelopes.
Thomas's group begins their post-mortem on the improv: "How was it for you?" Actors reveal the narratives they had created, the motivation of their behaviors, discovering the sets of rules in retrospect: "Bergamotte healed my sight," "We started fighting," "I had a child with no hands, just little stumps." Many feel the exercise was unsuccessful: "I found it very hard to get into it for a long time," "I felt we started much too soon," "You started very violently, which forced me into it."
Ways of Approach
These sequences tell us several important things about the strategies of the film we've only just entered. We see first that the uses and meanings of theater have deepened immeasurably since Paris nous appartient, and considerably even from L'amour fou. Rather than continue to refer to the groups by the names of their founders, we'll designate them according to the Other Place they target, both via texts by Aeschylus. So, Lili is a member of the Thebes troupe, which is working with Seven Against Thebes, while Thomas is the head of the Prometheus troupe, exploring Prometheus Unbound. The two groups take opposing means of approach. The Thebes troupe begins in language and a rather Apollonian approach to ritual, using the words and gestures as empty structures to occupy and orchestrate, a birdhouse, as yet untenanted, for meaning. Their score determines the enunciation of names ("Ayyyy-tayyyy-o-clayyys") and even nonverbal expressions -- screams and moans are conducted musically. Their working procedure is comparatively underdeveloped in the film, and their interaction with their guiding myth operates along more superficially ironic lines. Rehearsing a play about a city resisting infiltration, they are themselves infiltrated -- by another in-between integer, the scrounger Renauld -- whose intrusion and later disappearance effectively turns the troupe inside out, from the enclosed world of the theater to eventual dispersal in the city, seven against Paris.
The Prometheus group takes a more tortuous path, trying to begin in meaning and occupy language from within, rather as Borges' Pierre Menard finds the materials for Don Quixote inside himself, producing a text that's both precisely the same and utterly new. Rather than adopting a set of rites, they take on the mammoth task of reinventing ritual. The three stages of the rehearsal we see, bracketed by Colin's preparation of messages, are both relatively distinct movements within a general flow and a matching stalling, reigniting, collapsing schema for the entire film. The first corresponds to what Deleuze and Guattari, in A Thousand Plateaus, call "the so-called primitive presignifying semiotic": "...a pluralism or polyvocality of forms of expression that prevents any power takeover by the signifier and preserves expressive forms particular to content; thus forms of corporeality, gesturality, rhythm, dance, and rite coexist heterogeneously with the vocal form. A variety of forms and substances of expression intersect and form relays." The somewhat self-consciously "Dionysian" approach (the god doesn't descend, so they start the orgy without him) is figured in the totem of the tailor's dummy, which forms a center of attention for the pullulating movement, and the shifting tides of their attitudes toward it (from reverence to desecration) both echo the fall of Prometheus and predict the disintegrating course of the group's attempts to revitalize the titan.
The second segment enacts the troubled "coming to language" which the group itself identifies as "artificial" in the post-mortem ("It's always words we find difficult," "We're at a pre-verbal state, so the transition is very hard," "Even if we start with the alphabet, it's hard to move directly into the play"). Consciously or not, their improvisation is structured on the principle that the Other Place they sketch will establish a line of connection to the Other Place they hypothesize: the mythic origins of theater as a sacred space in which the actors would find themselves inhabited by gods and able to live again the paradox of ritual, in which the story is simultaneously frozen and fresh, eternally the same and yet always alive and multivalent. When this fails to occur, the shift to language must be induced, in a stuttering of speech that, in its forced translation of actions to verbal equivalents, moves yet further from meaning.
The third segment plays out in the aftermath of that failure. The first stage might be seen as the attempt to make the dummy a signifying center (not yet named "Prometheus"), the second as a new tactic, to distribute the figure of Prometheus among the group, different members taking up his speech (itself a justification of silence). Which leads us to consider the importance of Prometheus within the general frame. If Abraham is the Father of Faith, so Prometheus is the Father of Signs, which is also to say the Father of Conspiracy, the equivalent of the Gnostic Christ smuggling divine light into a realm kept deliberately occluded by a malign god (Zeus, Aeschylus notes, wishes to give up humankind as a bad job, and it's Prometheus who dissuades him). Before his intercession:
...they had eyes, but sight was meaningless;
Heard sounds but could not listen; all their length of life
They passed like shapes in dreams, confused and purposeless.
Aeschylus's play is a prolonged lament from the fallen titan (another in-between figure: not a god himself but the offspring of the union of a god with the Earth). Fire was not his only gift, as he reminds the gathered chorus: he brought humans the concept of number, writing, astronomy, the ability to domesticate animals, the techniques of sailing, medicine, and, not least, prophecy. He
...was the first to tell from dreams what Fate ordained
Should come about; interpreted the hidden sense
Of voices, sounds, sights met along the road....
Leading men on the highway of an occult art;
And signs from flames, obscure before, I now made plain.
He brought not just fire but the ability to interpret fire, the riddle and its solution at one in the flame. So this troupe has set itself the tall task of establishing an original relation not with localized meanings, not with Quixote or Hamlet, but with Meaning itself, the sourcebed of signs -- forever torn from the founding body, as Prometheus is rent by birds of prey, and forever restored, as Prometheus is made whole again in the night in preparation for the renewal of the cycle, the "paranoid face or body of the despot-god in the signifying center of the temple" (Deleuze and Guattari). And from the beginning their attempts are marked by failures and resentment. "He's beginning to bore me," Thomas says. But in his role as a founding member of the purportedly benign conspiracy of the 13, Thomas himself is a thwarted Prometheus and another warning case of power's disturbing tendency to infiltrate opposing models like a parasite, consume them from within, and wear them as a mask (not for nothing is the sinister, and apparently active, group glimpsed toward the end of Out 1 named The Devourers).
Hypothesis: From the beginning, and perhaps without knowing it himself, Thomas is such a double agent. To a group founded to function without hierarchy, he brings the not-so-covert desire to lead, to play papa, as we see, initially in caricature, in the first of the group's most engaged confrontations with Prometheus. In these, the titan is lampooned as, in turn, a whinging, crazed patriarch (an Ubu-Prometheus, performed by Thomas) and a decadent diva, a sphinx without a secret (performed by a female cast member, with Thomas acting as intercessor and interpreter). By the end of the film, as Thomas and his few remaining acolytes decamp to the beach house which exerts an increasing gravitational pull in the second half, he may have become trapped in that Ubu-Prometheus role, querulous, domineering, and infantile. We last see him spread-eagled by the sea, assuming, in fact, the position of Prometheus at the start of Aeschylus' play. Whether this is a last supplication or an indication that the god has finally descended, but in degraded, "devoured" form, is left to the viewer.
The post-mortem reveals some of the individual narratives at work, but already in their peculiar premises and dreamlike transpositions, we realize that "narrative" is the wrong word, what we have instead are play positions, attitudes adopted but not fixed because their goals are fluid and subject to alteration through interaction. The rules of the games are invented in the acting out, and even then an unexpected response can overturn solidifying suppositions. Games become stories and play positions become roles only through explicit enunciation. Even so, the improvisations demonstrate a continual movement toward narrative and resolution (one general goal seeming to be to make one's own play position clear to another, and to find ways of relating the two positions, without speaking them or attempting to find a gestural equivalent for explication, such as mime), and we discover later that there's also the magnetic push-pull of the Prometheus myth lying behind them.
But because each participant, Thomas possibly excepted, remains unbound by internal identification, it remains possible to change play position at any time, as children do, whenever the game becomes boring or predictable. We see this in the way the improvisation as a whole seems to come together to a "point," a grouping of attitudes suggestive of resolution, four or five times. But the process doesn't stop, it overturns into new patterns, running reluctantly congruent to or more freely in opposition with the given guidelines (not just Prometheus but more generally received ideas of the one-way street of human evolution and arc of individual life, in both of which the moment of coming to language represents a crucial juncture).
I've talked about these opening scenes at such length because there's a lot going on in them, though one would hardly guess that from most of the pieces written in the wake of the recent screenings, which tend to describe them as a wearisome slog one must endure, due to some perversity on the part of the director, to get to the good stuff. It's peculiar to think that the very real conspiracy to discredit the '60s and the set of resistances they've come to represent may have settled somewhere in the sediment of knee-jerk reaction even for individuals who would probably reject the notion were it presented to them outright, but such seems to be the case, judging by the frequency with which the decade has been called into service as shorthand for pointless indulgence. It's true that the film deals in part with the collapse of utopian models, and also that the theatric games play out with a certain desperation that is itself a snapshot of its time, a period when the window of revolutionary possibility seems to be closing quickly and those who had dreamed of a better life outside the grounds of force and finance are finding themselves either disconcertingly comfortable within the managed climate or else (or also) gasping for air (perhaps 1968 is the true Other Place of Out 1).
But as Deleuze notes, the ultimate failure of a movement does nothing to negate the revolutionary energies unleashed in its inception (and in the case of that decade, can one even call it a failure since it's left us a legacy of new models of praxis in art and politics, as well as setting landmines under calcified attitudes toward race, gender, and sexuality?). As I've said, almost none of the rehearsals we see in Rivette's films make it to opening night. Judged from a pragmatic, result-oriented view, therefore, his decision to show so many of them must seem very perverse indeed. Rather, it ought to be a tip-off that one might, more productively, try to view these scenes with some of Rivette's own fascination at the raw process of creation and expression, for it has implications that travel well beyond the theater.
To trace some of these, it may be helpful to contrast Rivette's practice with that of a director whose career offers a number of intriguing parallels: John Cassavetes. One of the charges often leveled at Cassavetes' films by critics contemporary with their release was that they were essentially little more than extended acting exercises (as opposed, presumably, to something more shapely, presenting functional figures crafted to meet the exigencies of a well-turned plot). It's a critique that causes partisans to bristle, since, in their view, the performances in these films display human behavior in all its conflicted, fluctuating, actuality (it seems all praise of Cassavetes, from the simplest to the most sophisticated, is staked somewhere on claims of "truth" and a nearer approach to reality). Yet here is Rivette giving us exactly that -- acting exercises -- at considerable length.
I make this comparison not necessarily to rank one auteur above the other, but merely to point out that two very different conceptions of being may be at work here. Cassavetes' attitudes, especially in his early films, seem very much shaped by the intellectual currents of the American '50s, and in particular the crosswinds of Russian theatrical theory and the dispersed influence of Freud that birthed the "method." This is a term that tends to get tossed around pretty unreflectively, I'll note as I toss, but I think it's accurate to say that it relies on a notion of centered being, of finding the "truth of the moment" (in an immediate, tactile, and emotive sense) from within a reservoir of personal experience. One risk run by such a regimen arises from an implicit anti-intellectualism which creates a dichotomy between feeling and thought, to the detriment of the latter. Related to this is the fact that it ignores the extent to which many aspects of human behavior are imitative, that we learn behavioral codes for expressing grief, love, anger, etc. from a variety of social sources -- not least of which is performance, via movies, TV, and theater. By neglecting the extent to which our acts can be learned and inhabited as signs (and felt no less because of it), method acting tends to prize certain signs in particular -- especially "raw" emotional display -- and in so doing elevates them to a category purportedly above signs altogether: that of truth.
Cassavetes' ideas of acting, and of human behavior, grew more complicated as his career progressed (and the two auteurs even seem to wave to each other, across a gap of time and culture, in Opening Night and L'amour fou, probably their closest points of contact), but it seems to me that they remain based in concepts of truth and essence, the multiform externalizations of uniform being. This isn't an assumption Rivette dares to make, though it's a possibility that draws him on, often onto treacherous ground. He seems to start from a position of fundamentally dispersed and performative being, an idea that coded patterns and rituals can potentially be inhabited in emotional fullness while still allowing some degree of independence for both the role and the performer (since, in ritual, the role exists apart from whoever inhabits it, and even if the goal remains what it was in ancient theater -- possession, the revelation of the god -- the entity revealed is emphatically not located purely or even primarily in the being of the actor). In Out 1, as in many of Rivette's other films, being is a play position which begins in artifice, a totem gradually forged and perpetually melted and remade by the roles we adopt. That's what these rehearsals are, staging grounds of being, littered with the skins of identities grown and shed: production would be something else, an Other Place.
- As Rivette himself discovered when he came to edit the nearly 13-hour Out 1 into the shorter Spectre: "It was immediately apparent that you were still held by the fictional centre, which proved to be much tighter, much more compelling, than I'd thought.... The whole center of the film dug its heels in completely; and this four-and-a-quarter hour version was edited from the centre outwards. We couldn't really touch this centre, because there is a moment, one single shot even, in which almost all the fictions intersect, as if all these lines had to pass through a ring. This shot we put squarely in the middle...."
- It's in this sense that these films might almost be considered science fiction, artifacts of an alternate history of development in which stylists decided to honor rather than efface the theatric paradigms of early cinema. And here, too, Bazin set the scene: "The more the cinema intends to be faithful to the text and to its theatrical requirements, the more of necessity it must delve deeper into its own language."
- The latter term was coined, in this context, by French occultist Alexandre Saint-Yves d'Alveydre (1842-1909), in explicit opposition to anarchy. Where anarchism offers a call to individual freedom of organization and a rejection of compulsory government, synarchism proposes the secret infiltration, by an "enlightened" elite, of central social structures to establish a binding but invisible system of control. Saint-Yves d'Alveydre is part of a long line of esoteric writers to claim inspiration from an ageless group of Hidden Masters, sages of an Other Place, in this case the mysterious city of Agartha, nestled somewhere inside the hollow earth. Like many Hidden Masters, the Agarthites' politics swing severely to the right.
Originally appeared in Cinema Scope 30 (Spring 2007): 12-21. This is the first of a two-part piece. The second installment appeared in Cinema Scope 32.