How film history gets rewritten [Chicago Reader blog post, 2007]

How film history gets rewritten

Posted By on 06.13.07 at 05:48 PM


I realize it must sound crazy for people who haven’t seen Jacques Rivette’s 750-minute  Out 1 (1971) or his 255-minute Out 1: Spectre (1972) to keep reading blog posts about them — even though I keep hearing almost every day from various others who have seen either or both films recently, in Chicago or New York or Vancouver or Berkeley, and are still recovering from the experience.

What I’d like to focus on here is how these films wind up getting misrepresented due to the circulation of incomplete data. For instance, everyone who’s seen any stills from the two films and hasn’t seen the films probably concludes that they’re both in black and white. They’re wrong; the problem is that the only photos available from the films on the Internet and in film magazines are in black and white, undoubtedly because color stills would cost too much money to process. In fact, the beautiful restoration of Spectre that showed at the Gene Siskel Film Center last Saturday, blown up from 16-millimeter to 35, had far more luscious and luminous colors than any other print I’ve ever seen — finally justifying Rivette’s supposedly extravagant claim in a 1975 interview that “you might almost say that I am trying to bring back the old MGM Technicolor! I even think that the colors of Out would please a Natalie Kalmus.”

I should add that I’ve probably seen Spectre a good eight or nine times by now. This is partly because I was living in Paris about two blocks away from a cinema showing it for a week-long run in 1973. I was writing about the film at the time for Sight and Sound, and given my far from perfect French, the only way I could assure myself I was understanding most of the dialogue was by going back repeatedly and taking detailed notes. And of course the fact that the film offers itself as a kind of diabolical puzzle only intensified my burning curiosity about its many mysteries.

All of which leads me to my major point. Thanks to both my prolonged immersion in the film and an interview I did with Rivette during the same period, I can state without hesitation that a major aspect of the film’s structure is clarified by the placement of the film’s intermission exactly halfway through, e.g., a little over two hours into the film. Up to this point Rivette has been intercutting between four mainly autonomous plots that have only gradually started to link up, involving two separate theater groups and two lonely, solitary, and eccentric individuals played by Jean-Pierre Leaud and Juliet Berto (decked out in a wig in the accompanying still, supposedly to make herself look like a gangster, with Francoise Fabian to her left). Then, immediately before the intermission, for the first and only time in the film, Leaud and Berto briefly cross paths, at a hippie boutique significantly called L’Angle du Hasard (roughly, “The Angle of Chance”), virtually unaware of each other’s existence — at which point all four of the film’s plots become magically interlinked.

But this is no longer the scene occurring just before the film’s intermission. Similarly, the first sequence after the intermission is no longer an extended sequence of black-and-white stills that either recap the previous plots or anticipate others. Why? Evidently whoever restored the film was unaware this was part of Rivette’s plan, and therefore the 35-millimeter reels were arranged so that the intermission now occurs about five or ten minutes later. So every time the film gets shown today, it gets shown incorrectly, because no projectionist wants to stop a reel before the end, and the grand structure of an already very difficult film gets needlessly obfuscated instead of clarified.

By the same token, the beautiful colors of this restoration, even though they obviously fulfill Rivette’s intentions, don’t really qualify as a “restoration” of anything that audiences were seeing in the mid-1970s. In this case, I’m grateful rather than sorry. But it’s still another case of film history being rewritten.


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Comments (29)

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It doesn’t sound crazy to me, but then I have seen «Celine et Julie vont en bateau» (and about eight others, most of them recent–i.e., «Gang of Four»-on), which is more than enough to make one obsessed with all things Rivette.

Posted by Soori on 06/13/2007 at 6:51 PM

Nor to me, though frustrating to any Rivette fans who’ve yet to get the chance to see either Out 1 or Spectre. I had the same impression of both being in black & white, though in my case received not from the stills but from a very few short clips that appear in Claire Denis’ great Rivette doc/Cineastes du notre temps segment (I’m pretty sure these clips are in B&W, though my memory might be playing tricks on me). Finally, most to the point, does anyone have any idea when (or if) these films are ever coming to Los Angeles? Oh, and thanks for the great post.

Posted by Donald on 06/14/2007 at 1:30 AM

Donald – I saw the Denis documentary at an abbreviated version of the Rivette retro that played in Philly a few months back. The excerpts were, in fact, in color (I’m thinking of a lengthy clip of Juilet Berto getting slapped around in a cafe). Perhaps you are thinking of the sequences from L’amour fou?

Posted by Sal C on 06/14/2007 at 10:05 AM

Sal: Yes, I don’t doubt that you are correct – it’s been quite a while since I saw the Denis doc. Anyone else out there have any info on future L.A. screenings of Out 1 and Spectre? Oh, and to Jonathan, writing any more blogs about Rivette this week should, in my opinion, only come after an entry on the huge loss of Ousmane Sembene this past weekend.

Posted by Sal C on 06/14/2007 at 4:42 PM

oops, sorry Sal C: the post above is mine. Sort of new to blogging.

Posted by Donald on 06/14/2007 at 4:43 PM

JR i am a huge fan of yours, as weird as that might sound for you. i had a couple of questions. First, i am not that familiar with Rivette because of the lack of screenings in southern california of his work. but what do you believe his main influences are? i ask this because i think that Godard’s work is hugely misunderstood by the majority of the world. For me, one cannot understand his work if you are unfamiliar with the films of Hawks and rossellini. Godard’s weird style to me seems to come from a fusion of the realism and personal narrative of a film like Voyage in Italy with Hawks obsession with action, stars, gestures, and a direct approach to to camera angles. i ask this because the majority of Rivette’s writings that i have read seem to indicate that he too has been influenced by Hawks but i have never heard anyone talk about this. Also, why do you believe that it has become so difficult to find a commercial director who is also an artist? it seems that the days of a rear window or rio bravo has long passed us by. and what further scares me is the amount of so called cinephiles who love Godard, kiorastami, but dont like hawks, tashlin and so on. it seems that we are regressing as a cinema culture.
Posted by Puya Yazdi on 06/15/2007 at 12:58 AM

Puya, I can’t assume what Rosenmbaum’s answer to your question will be, but I find it a bit narrow. We may not be living in a golden age like the films you mentioned were from, but our current cinema landscape is still filled with serious film artists who make movies for big audiences. In America, there is surely the likes of Michael Mann, Joe Dante, and Wes Anderson (to name a few), and country’s like South Korea and France have many directors who are pitched to a more commercial market but keep a lot of intergrety and artistry. As Rosenbaum himself said in his review of OFFSIDE, an Iranian film like that can be an entertaining commercial pleasure even though it’s mislabeled as an arthouse exercise. Unless you’re reffering strictly to box-office take, which is unpredictable anyways. Besides that, many directors operate on the basis of a commercial industry and are able to put forth some astonishing achievements even today. I was rivetted just last year by “The Good Shepherd”, and find it a great example that Hollywood can still hit the mark, and look at recent Asian films like Kung Fu Hustle and The Host.

Posted by Mathieu Ricordi on 06/15/2007 at 2:07 AM

1. Rivette’s influences: although Hawks can certainly be cited, I would say that conceptually speaking, Renoir and Lang are the two key influences. One might even say that the 12-hour version of Out 1 is the Renoir version of the film whereas Spectre is the Lang version. 2. To give a very oversimplified answer, I would say that the loss of the studio system and the rise of stupid suits as major decision makers (as opposed to hands-on studio chiefs ranging from Lubitsch to Zanuck; try comparing either of these men to Harvey Weinstein, or to all the others who routinely recut their pictures based on who knows what) play key roles in the change.

Posted by Jonathan R. on 06/15/2007 at 10:42 AM

Hey there, I was one of the lucky 50 (100?) or so who saw the film in Berkeley. I’m still trying to write it up and will definitely be linking to your recent blog posts as well as that other essay or yours available online. I am in love with this film. I saw an actual 16mm print, which was a little flawed, but still looked great, especially Frederique’s final scene. (That shot that pulls back to the barrel of her gun and then pans up her body to her lips, her mask — !!!) Plus, all the mirrors, the performance criticism and celebration, the black outs. Can you believe this is my first Rivette? I can’t believe I’ve been ignorant so long. I’m dying to catch up with _Celine & Julie_ real quick since everybody’s delovely, Juliet Berto, is one of the stars. And, you know, people like yourself only sing its praises. So this is a thank you as well. If not for your writings (in various books, on the internet) and my sometimes-editor Keith Uhlich’s I would not have been so eager to forfeit 14 hours of my weekend to watching this amazing film. OUT!-rwk.

Posted by Ryland Walker Knight on 06/15/2007 at 1:10 PM

Dear Mr. Rosenbaum, Forgive the topical digression, but I had a couple of questions for you in the wake of reading your new book, “Discovering Orson Welles.” 1. You say that there are both complete and incomplete versions of “The Trial” circulating on DVD. Do you have a DVD of this film that you could recommend? 2. Was all of the cut footage from “The Lady from Shanghai” indeed destroyed, or may it exist in a vault somewhere, ripe for a potential reconstruction a la “Touch of Evil?” 3. Is there new progress in getting “The Other Side of the Wind” avaiable to be seen by the public? 4. Is there any likelihood of Welles’s first version of “Othello” being released in any capacity? I’d also like to shamelessly plug my own work,, where I’ve begun a series on Welles, again inspired by your book. Many thanks. -Evan Davis

Posted by Evan D. on 06/17/2007 at 12:53 PM

1. I have the 2-disc French set, but don’t know most of the others. Check out DVD Beaver for comparisons. 2. The late Richard Wilson, associate producer on the film, was convinced this footage was lost, and partially blamed himself for not having done anything to preserve the funhouse sequence. 3. Beats me. The last I heard was that it was a go. 4. Ask Beatrice Welles. I doubt she’d make it available unless she found a way to make it profitable. If you can come with such a scheme, you should let her know. (And no, sorry, I don’t know how to get in touch with her.)

Posted by Jonathan R. on 06/17/2007 at 5:35 PM

In response to Puya Yazdi’s question about Rivette’s influence, I’ve thought Rivette’s 1955 article, “Notes on a Revolution,” points forward to his future films: “What is the meaning of this revolution? To pass beyond the long period of submission to the manufactured product and openly renew links with the tradition of 1915, Griffith and Triangle, whose vitality moreover still nourished the work of the old Hollywood directors — Walsh, Vidor, Dwan, and of course Hawks; a return to lyricism, powerful feelings, melodrama (the audience at the smart halls sneer at Ray’s films as they did at Allan Dwan’s); the rediscovery of a certain breadth of gesture, an externalizing of the roughest and most spontaneous emotions; in short, the rediscovery of naivite.” Feuillade’s films also might have inspired Rivette for the same reasons.
Posted by Paul on 06/18/2007 at 8:02 AM

Cocteau and Hitchcock undoubtedly also had their fingerprints on Rivette’s cinema…evident by his obsession with conspiracy and, in connection to Cocteau, the surrealism of such films as Celine & Julie. Interesting Rivette interview here (from the late ’90s) for any fans/cinephiles: He has funny things to say about Kubrick and Spielberg, as well as the appeal of Titanic. PS–> Mr. Rosenbaum, I sat behind you for the Out 1 screenings in Chicago and it was a distinct pleasure to talk briefly with you. One question: If one wants to become a film historian, would a PhD in film studies be the best way to prepare for such a specialized profession? I’m self-taught and have only studied film as a hobby bordering on an obsession. Thanks
Posted by GM on 06/18/2007 at 3:14 PM

I don’t think a Ph.D. is necessarily the best way to prepare. It all depends on who you might study with, where, etc. And on how you want to make a living.
Posted by Jonathan R. on 06/18/2007 at 3:31 PM

P.S.: J.R., what were your thoughts on “Histoire de Marie et Julien” (2003), or have you seen it?
Posted by Soori on 06/19/2007 at 10:22 AM

I guess I thought it was pretty good, but I no longer remember it very clearly. By and large, I much prefer Rivette’s pre-1980s work.
Posted by Jonathan R. on 06/19/2007 at 9:26 PM

great Rivette interview. He is very cruel to Kate winslet though. She was the only thing about Titanic I liked. Showgirls is an irresistable film if you discount the often ludicrous dialogue.The much-maligned Elizabeth Berkely has proven herself to be a fine actress elsewhere. Minnelli is an auteur, in my opinion. Who else could have made a go of Yolanda and the Thief.

Posted by Craig on 06/20/2007 at 8:36 AM

I’ve never seen “Titanic,” but having seen Winslet in other things, his comments do seem pretty harsh. I actually just saw “Showgirls” for the first time six weeks ago, and while it more than held my interest, I found that the cynicism of Eszterhas’ script (regardless of who Rivette thinks wrote it) made the film far less appealing to me than “Basic Instinct,” which is one of my all-time favorites. Here, the women in the film are seen exclusively as victims almost until the very end (culminating in this sudden, hysterical gangrape scene). Even when the Elizabeth Berkely character has her revenge on two of the men who victimized her, she’s no more empowered for it because the movie exists inside a closed system that offers its characters no alternative to (essentially) prostitution. If, for the sake of argument, we adopt Rivette’s definition of an auteur, Minnelli isn’t an auteur. I think “Some Came Running” is a great film, but the same year he also made “Gigi,” one of the most vapid and uninteresting films I can recall seeing. “Brigadoon” has a few good musical numbers, but it’s not exciting or vital in relation to the rest of Minnelli’s oeuvre. By the same definition, Hitchcock isn’t an auteur either, or at least for me he isn’t, because for every truly great film like “Rear Window” or “Vertigo,” there’s a mediocre one like “To Catch a Thief” or “North by Northwest.”
Posted by Soori on 06/20/2007 at 7:28 PM

i don’t think it is necessary for a filmmaker to have nothing but successes in order to be considered an auteur. minnelli made his share of bad films- Sandpiper, Matter of Time, Goodbye Charlie,I Dood it, Undercurrent, Madame Bovary and mediocre films- ,tea and Sympathy,Brigadoon,kismet,On a Clear day You Can see Forever(this one wasn’t his fault)However his list of good to great films is impressive-Long long trailer, reluctante Debutante, Bad and the Beautiful, Cabin in the sky, Gigi, american in paris, Band Wagon,pirate, Yolanda and the Thief, some came Running,Two weeks in Another Town, Story of Three loves,Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, courtship of Eddie’s father,Cobweb home From the hill,Father of the Bride, Bella are ringing,lust for Life, father’s Little Dividend,designing woman,and Meet Me in St. louis and The Clock arguably his two greatest achievements

Posted by Craig on 06/21/2007 at 7:05 AM

Hey, I like Minnelli as much as the next guy, but what Rivette is saying in the interview is that there are only a handful of directors who deserve serious attention as auteurs. With Nicholas Ray, “On Dangerous Ground” isn’t as great as “Johnny Guitar,” but as a variation on some of the same themes it is an exciting and vital part of his filmography.

Posted by Soori on 06/21/2007 at 12:50 PM

Maybe Rivette was talking about Gloria Stuart?
Posted by Doug on 06/22/2007 at 11:20 AM

JR next thursday the Aero theater in Santa Monica, CA is showing a “restored” and “uncut” version of Howard Hawks’ “The Big Sky”. I know that Hawks complained that the film was cut without his control and I am very excited if this is the version that Hawks cut and was previewed. But JR have you heard anything about this? I can’t find any information on this so called restoration. Thanks.
Posted by Puya Yazdi on 06/23/2007 at 7:17 PM

I don’t know about any restoration, but the preview version, which showed on American Movie Classics many years ago, is (or was) available on a German DVD which also contains a pretty good video essay by Tag Gallagher. It’s certainly interesting to see this longer version of one of my favorite Hawks films, but I wouldn’t describe the longer version as being a revelation, exactly.
Posted by Jonathan R. on 06/24/2007 at 1:53 PM

Jonathan, I was curious about something you wrote in Discovering Orson Welles about the time you met Orson in Paris and how he was “down right solicitous.” Can you expand on that? Do you mean to say that you felt a sexual tension with him? You kind of let that comment hang out there and I was curious what you meant and what he said that made you think this.
Posted by Matt on 06/24/2007 at 8:39 PM

As I was using the term, “solicitous” had absolutely nothing to do with sex. He apologized to me for being five or ten minutes late, kept filling up my wine glass, asked me how I was enjoying the meal, etc. That’s all I meant.
Posted by Jonathan R. on 06/24/2007 at 9:50 PM

That’s too bad. It would have made for a better story. By the way, Mr. Rosenbaum, I noticed that the latest AFI poll of the 100 greatest American films does not include The Third Man as it did a decade ago. Did you have anything to do with getting them to admit that it is not, in fact, an American film? Your argument about the AFI’s willingness to consider The Third Man an American film as an example of American isolationism was very persuasive to me. The nerve to include a Carol Reed film written by Graham Greene as “American” is so arrogant. At least they recognized their error, apparently.
Posted by Matt on 06/25/2007 at 6:25 PM

Jonathan: I’m wondering if Rivette were still alive today, what his take on Larry Clark’s Kids(1995) would be. I feel that Clark is highly influenced by Rivette and was wondering if you agree.

Posted by paul on 07/10/2007 at 6:04 AM

Oops, Paul, Jacques Rivette is very much alive and his just-released new film has been getting good reviews.
Posted by Brandon on 07/11/2007 at 4:16 PM

I don’t find anything Larry Clark-like in Rivette. I’ve seen “Spectre” three times over the years. In a couple of weeks I’ll finally get to see the complete “Out One.” Rivette has written admiringly of Hawks , and “Monkey Business” and “Gentlemen prefer Blondes” clearly influenced “Celine et Julie vont en Bateau / Phantom Ladies Over Paris.” But temperamentally he’s closer to Lang. The influence of Rozier’s “Adieu Phillipine” and Chytilova’s “Daisies” should never be discoutned when speakign of Rivette.
Posted by David Ehrenstein on 07/11/2007 at 4:39 PM
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