Saturday, January 30, 2016

Jacques Rivette, 1928 - 2016


Although I haven't written any obituaries in a while, as soon as I looked at my blogroll and saw, via Catherine Grant, that Jacques Rivette had passed away, I knew I had to say something...not about his death, but about his life and work. If nothing else, a belated "Thank you" was in order. The director's rich body of work has provided me with as much material for contemplation, enjoyment, and engagement as that of any other artist in the past twelve months, save perhaps Hideaki Anno or David Lynch (with whom he was deeply tied for me in 2015). I created several videos honoring his work (including my first-ever collaboration), watched eight of his films on the big screen at Lincoln Center, and covered these and more in a dozen reviews or essays (at least one of which has yet to be published). Just a few days ago I even stumbled across an unexpected American blu-ray edition of his masterpiece Out 1 (including his Spectre cut, unseen by me) which I'm sure I will begin exploring tonight.

I was far from the only one to experience a year of Rivette - the esoteric filmmaker's work has been enjoying a renaissance with multinational blu-ray and DVD releases, various essays and profiles, and numerous theatrical retrospectives bringing formerly obscure movies to many new admirers. From what I understand, Rivette has not been well for several years, so he was probably not able to appreciate this renewed attention. But watching his films, you get the sense that the work itself was the real reward for him - that the experimental, improvisational adventure of gathering actors together and making up a story as he went along was the point. Rivette's body of work was surprisingly diverse, ranging from meticulous period adaptations to rough-around-the-edges avant-garde games but all embodied a sense of discovery. When you connect to that frequency, there are few things more exciting than a movie that is figuring itself out before your eyes.

I found Rivette's work almost exactly ten years ago. His almost never-seen 13-hour opus Out 1 was coming out of hibernation for the first time since the early seventies, and in anticipation I rented several of his films which - even in mid-00s New York - weren't that easy to see. Paris Belongs to Us instantly enchanted me and Celine and Julie Go Boating was even better, an intoxicating mixture of whimsical prank and clever mind game. Bob Clark, not a huge Rivette fan, noted the appealing nature of Celine and Julie's world when he observed the feasibility of an offbeat sitcom in which the two charming, wacky heroines embark on a different standalone adventure each week: "Celine and Julie Rob a Bank, Celine and Julie Join Flight School, Celine and Julie Get Married in Istanbul (shot on location in the Louvre)...Celine and Julie Go to the Carrot Festival in Sarasota (Make Sure to Take a Left Turn in Albuquerque)," adding that he "could even imagine the Looney Tunes crowd making a spoof of it if they'd been exposed to that stuff and it were popular: Bugs and Daffy Go Boating."

With their lengthy runtime, defiance of any form of narrative convention, and fascination with the extended rehearsals of avant-garde theatre troupes, Rivette's most celebrated films seemed quintessentially suited for the urban arthouse crowd yet his masterpieces were so defiantly fun and eccentric that I wonder if he still hasn't quite found his ideal audience. When Rivette passed away this week he was eighty-seven. He launched the first production of the Cahiers du cinema critics-turned-auteurs (now only Jean-Luc Godard remains of that core group) nearly sixty years ago. His most acclaimed and popular film, Celine and Julie Go Boating (still obscure by most accounts, although it did miraculously make an Entertainment Weekly top 100 in the late nineties) - which seems as fresh and personal as a YouTube web series - is well over forty years old. Yet somehow it feels like Rivette's true impact, his true cultural moment, is yet to come.

A few months after my own first engagement ten years ago, I was finally able to see Out 1 on the big screen and it remains one of my most memorable cinematic experiences. I caught up with some of his other films in subsequent years, but I didn't really get to dig too much deeper into his work - especially his recent films - until a month ago, when the Lynch/Rivette series introduced me to The Duchess of Langeais, The Story of Marie and Julien, and Joan the Maid Parts I & II. That last film was particularly impressive, with perhaps the most captivating depiction of a religious rite that I've ever witnessed. But then all of Rivette's film had that sense of reverence for the numinous, sometimes faintly disguised beneath a secular skepticism or a playfully postmodern surface. His films trained us to witness the miraculous within the texture of everyday reality rather than just somewhere beyond it. In his hands, cinema was an instrument of revelation as well as revolution.

My reviews, video essays, and other discussions of Jacques Rivette

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