A Very (Very) Long Engagement


The fantasy of a parallel movie world—most often expressed in the idea of extraordinary cine- duration—has been around nearly as long as the cinema itself. Jacques Rivette’s 1971 12 1/2-hour
Out 1: Noli Me Tangere is one such marathon movie that takes the existence of a parallel world as its mandate.

For years, Out 1, reprised this weekend at the Museum of the Moving Image after last November’s sold-out show, has lived a shadowy half-life. Not only a legendary succés fou seen only once by a handful of people or an alternatively plotted four-hour “specter” fashioned by Rivette from its footage, Out 1 is part of a tradition of “impossible” cinematic gestures going back to D.W. Griffith who, even before Erich von Stroheim attempted to make his eight-hour
Greed, had envisioned an equally long Intolerance. But where Griffith and Stroheim sought to engage the audience in narrative epics, others proposed something like the imitation of life.

In the 1920s, the painter Fernand Léger imagined a 24-hour movie that would document a day in the life of a man and a woman. Forty-odd years later, Andy Warhol—who’d already produced the five-hour portrait Sleep and eight-hour still-life Empire, screened a one-time only, 24-hour assemblage ****. Out 1 has aspects of the Warholian notion that existential “hanging out” can create a movie, albeit creatively misunderstood. (Rivette’s “superstars” are too busy searching for coherence to simply let themselves be.) Fundamentally, Out 1 is closer to the daylight mystery achieved by the first real marathon movies—the World War I-era serials by Louis Feuillade that were shown sans intertitles, as single eight- or nine-hour features at the French Cinematheque. (At the height of the Pop ’60s, an 8th Street movie house did the same thing to less artistic effect with a ’40s Batman serial.)

Not every long movie is a marathon. Some are endurance tests or, like Empire
and Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho, monuments. Others make a particular point. Stan Brakhage unpacked the multiple superimpositions of his epic Dog Star Man in the four-hour Art of Vision; Warhol’s Chelsea Girls used a double projection to present seven hours worth of material in half the time. Still others, notably R.W. Fassbinder’s 15 1/2-hour Berlin Alexanderplatz, are TV miniseries. A true marathon movie approaches the duration of a cross-country or trans-Atlantic flight and demands you reorganize your life to watch it—if only for a day. It’s not for nothing that Peter Watkins titled his 16 1/2-hour magnum opus The Journey. Such marathons offer two experiences—the experience of seeing the movie and the movie itself.

Although I’ve not had the strength of character to sit through The Journey I have attended various versions of Ken Jacobs’s Star-Spangled to Death, begun in 1957 and completed 47 years later as a seven hour-20 minute DVD, as well as a half dozen great marathons. I saw Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s six hour-45 minute Hitler, a Film From Germany twice; the excitement with which it was greeted by 50 spectators squeezed into the hard-seat Goethe House screening room was balanced by the disdain with which it was received by the tout-le-monde crowd lured to Francis Ford Coppola’s ballyhooed Lincoln Center “presentation.” Ambience, however, can be overcome. I first saw Claude Lanzmann’s eight hour-23 minute Shoah at a nearly empty press screening—or so it seemed, the power of the movie obliterated its surrounding.

If sitting through Shoah is an essentially solitary experience, other marathons promote intense solidarity. Those who saw Bela Tarr’s seven-and-a-half hour Satantango at the 1994 Berlin Film Festival understood that they had collectively (and correctly) jettisoned an entire day’s schedule for a single movie. Where Ron Havilio’s six-hour Fragments: Jerusalem created a site-specific installation at 1997’s Jerusalem Film Festival, Peter Watkins’s five hour-45 minute
Paris Commune: 1871, programmed opposite the opening night party of the 2001 Toronto Film Festival, effectively generated a counter culture. Only a few journalists signed on for the long haul, along with a crowd of grizzled local leftists.

A successful marathon creates a trance state as well as a sense of being one of the elect. But even among marathons, Out 1 is extraordinary—a movie that following a single, two-part screening in Le Havre in September 1971, was not seen again until an incomplete version surfaced 18 years later at the Rotterdam Film Festival. To call the several hundred with whom I gathered at the Moving Image last November “anticipatory” would be to say the least. Some had flown into New York especially for the experience. (Of course, there had also been some—including the Voice‘s erstwhile film editor Dennis Lim—who had made the pilgrimage to London last April for the world premiere of the English-subtitled print.)

This crowd came ready to work. In addition to sandwiches, spectators brought source materials: the paperback of Balzac’s History of the Thirteen—three novellas featuring the doings of a secret society—which is referenced in Out 1. Others had copies of Prometheus Bound and The Seven Against Thebes, the two plays by Aeschylus that are rehearsed—at considerable length—by two avant-garde theater groups within the movie. Perhaps two-thirds of Out 1 is devoted to the improvisations, exercises, readings, and postmortem analyses of these two echt ’60s ensembles—so, work we did.

Out 1 begins as an endurance test. The vaguely Dionysian regressions and mad Cassavetes theatrics hold sway for the movie’s first three stupefying hours. Intermittently another, more welcome, sort of vérité intrudes as Jean-Pierre Leaud and Juliet Berto separately undertake some enigmatic tasks that involve mixing it up with and annoying the “real” people of Paris. In every marathon, there is a moment when one cedes one’s life to allow the experience to click in. For me, Out 1 didn’t begin to cast even a minor spell until late in the fourth hour after Rivette introduces the idea of the mysterious Thirteen and Leaud discovers an entropic hippie emporia that might be a Thirteen headquarters or at least a Parisian head shop, operated by a delightfully cannabisated Bulle Ogier.

Although Out 1‘s first four episodes establish a mild mood of free-floating paranoia, returning for the final four episodes requires a leap of faith. But it is only with the fifth episode that the sense of a world and its inhabitants truly coalesces out of the earlier chaos. Was it all necessary? In any case, the longeurs pass; rapt fascination sets in and increases exponentially. Crimes are committed and intrigues compound. One theater group moves its activities from the day-room into the flux of the street. Moreover, the movie—so heavily invested in improvisation—begins to suggest that, operating under their individual imperatives, Leaud and Berto have precipitated a narrative into existence by either intuiting or imagined a real conspiracy (or, perhaps, it’s the entranced viewer who has forced the plot). Events achieve hyper-drive with the seventh episode as Leaud believes that he is carrying a message from the Thirteen and, thwarted in his attempt to deliver it, acts to protect the “magical, mystical world” in which he (and now we) are living.

The final episode is the richest in terms of action and revelation. Can this all-consuming spectacle really be ending? Rivette’s last shot is an extraordinary throwaway that provoked spontaneous applause for being at once completely ordinary, totally unexpected, and positively diabolical in shifting the meaning of the entire previous 12 1/2 hours. But of course, I’d have to see Out 1 again to be sure.