I remember my epic journey to watch Jacques Rivette’s “Out 1.” It was 2006 and the film had been near-impossible to see since its debut, in 1971. The print being shown, at Queen’s Museum of the Moving Image, didn’t even have English subtitles, so a fleet of poor kids from the French consulate had to load “soft-titles” manually, line by line, projected onto the bottom of the image. Sometimes they screwed up.
The famously tetchy New York rep audience never complained. After all, “Out 1” runs some 13 ½ hours. It took two days to show, and I couldn’t find overnight lodging, so that meant I had to take the train, 2 ½ hours each way, from Philadelphia, two nights in a row, all to sit and watch scenes that sometimes seemed to go on forever. During certain stretches, usually scenes of bohemian actors rehearsing and moaning and touching feet to faces for tens of minutes on end, I thought I was losing my mind. I loved that I was losing my mind.
Jacques Rivette, who died today at 87 and reportedly spent years battling Alzheimer’s, made you suffer for your art. Not always. There were more compact works, including his last film, 2009’s “Around a Small Mountain,” which only ran 84 minutes yet still seemed to cram all of his obsessions into what would become his elegant, combative, funny swan song. But most deal with duration as a form of rebellion — against mainstream audiences, against even the sturdiest attention spans, against mortality itself.
That’s to say many of them are really long. The average is around two-and-a-half hours, and there’s 1973’s “Celine and Julie Go Boating,” perhaps his most famous work, which runs three-and-a-half. Or there’s 1969’s “L’Amour Four” and 1991’s “La Belle Noiseuse,” both around four.
Time evaporates, in scenes and shots that often go on forever. But there’s more to the super-length than that. He wasn’t Andy Warhol. Starting with his first film, 1961’s “Paris Belongs to Us,” he played with narrative itself, and the way it can slowly form out of the messiness of life. After all, life has no narrative, beyond a beginning and an end, and whatever structures are imposed upon us by biology (aging, puberty, decaying bodies) and society (go to school, get a job, pair off, procreate, wither).