Reinventing the Reels: Considering the Implications and Possibilities in the Rivettian Make-Over Edit

One of the countless things I admire about my favorite filmmaker and personal creative hero Jacques Rivette is his insight for recognizing and actively realizing the breadth, depth and fullness of expression in the artistic process and the filmmaking craft.  This, to me, is illustrated perhaps most in the fact that Rivette has, on his own volition, recut, overhauled and completely made over certain films of his own, as a thoughtful meditation and reconsideration of the material itself.  This is truly extraordinary, in that literally no other filmmaker on the international scene does such a thing.  This practice, however, is not to be confused with directors presenting a director’s cut and/or an extended version years after a film’s initial release.  This is reinvention.  We are talking about an artist totally rethinking the work at its core, and reconsidering its essence.  We are talking about re-focusing a project’s ambitions — watching it walk back over itself.

In 1974, Rivette recut and reinvented his Out 1 into the retitled Out 1: Spectre.  In 1981, he reshaped his feature film La pont du nord into a short film called Paris s'en va.  In 1991, he recut his La belle noiseuse into the retitled Divertimento.  These are six completely different films culled from the same wells of footage.  There are select isolated incidents in cinema history when material is used over again in only slightly reinvented versions, but no one seems to think as deeply about the ramifications of this as Rivette does.   One such example is Alain Robbe-Grillet, who helmed N. a pris les dés (1971) using footage from his previous year’s Eden and After (1970).  Robbe-Grillet later did the same in literature, reworking his early novel Le reprise into a late-career novel called Les gommes. In the music world, the late musician Arthur Russell conceived many of his most haunting cello/vocal songs using worked-over riffs, repeated, sharpened then softened again with a shuffling of moods and audio motifs. Russell meditates on these elements, in some sense reinventing them in succession over the course of entire albums.  Filmmaker Alain Resnais also toyed with a similar notion of meta-reinvention with his 1993 diptych Smoking/No Smoking.

Sure, needless to say, there are plenty of horror stories about any number of outside hands wrecking and emasculating films and, yes, I include studio heads and overzealous producers in the “outside hands” category.  But a director himself beginning again from scratch after having completed a cut he has approved for release to the public, and then releasing yet a second film for the public to consider is unique and exhilaratingly novel.  It’s a patently original process, demonstrating great care, respect and excitement for the form, as no other filmmaker in my perspective possibly could demonstrate it, at least to such an extent.

Time Out London critic and film scholar Jonathan Romney writes of Divertimento, “Rivette here remodels La belle noiseuse into another film entirely, using alternative takes, recutting to a much brisker rhythm, and bookending it with a discretely but crucially different beginning and ending.  The film makes more of a mystery out of the artist-model relationship; the emphasis now shifts radically onto the artist’s wife, who now witnesses the proceedings from outside, much as we do.  It’s a lighter film, but by no means slighter; it’s more like the difference between a Henry James short story and an extended performance piece.”  Romney also writes that Out 1: Spectre is “not so much a digest of Rivette’s legendary original Out 1 as a ghost and a reworking of some of the same material (‘a critique,’ Rivette himself says).  Cinema will never be the same, and neither will we.”  I cannot undersell how enterprising and fascinating this is.  This idea of a film critiquing itself within the outlines of a reinvention of itself is truly revolutionary, and not even Godard at his most deconstructively fiery could reach these heights.  Of this, Rivette says, “Film is not granite or stone.  It lives.  A general release of one version does nothing to change that.”

Jonathan Rosenbaum writes, "Complicating the textual status of Out 1 still further is the 255-minute Out 1: Spectre, which Rivette spent the better part of a year editing out of the original material. Part of the fascinating difference between the two films can be seen in the ways that identical footage can often carry disparate meanings and perform radically different dramatic and narrative functions according to its separate placement in each film. (The opening shot of Spectre, for instance, occurs almost three hours into the serial. One of the more striking differences in the long version is that Michel Lonsdale, the director of one of the film's two theater groups, emerges as the central character -- not only because of his role in guiding his group's improvisations and psychic self-explorations, but also because his ambiguous role as a rather infantile patriarch becomes pivotal to the overall movement of the plot.)"

As I am on hold while facing vexing but not insurmountable production troubles on the thriller I am directing, promoting my newest film A Simple Game of Catch, and in early pre-production on a film I am co-directing in San Francisco, I have decided to “do a Rivette” on my 2011 feature The Idiotmaker’s Gravity Tour.  I have taken this task upon myself knowing that there is enough material that was never used in the original version, which makes such a prospect exciting for me as its principal creator.  Insofar that every film one makes is like a child to its filmmaker father/mother, I will have eventually given birth to twins.  In considering this upcoming recut of my own film, seeing my raw material anew with a fresh pair of eyes courtesy of the sweet immunities granted by time and distance, and calling to mind how exceptional Rivette’s cinematic “reinveted films” are, I started thinking about what other films for which I would love to see make-overs — and not out of discontent for the films the way they are currently, but out of an awareness of and excitement for their own elasticity.

Not every film warrants reinvention, however, and some films warrant it more than others.  For instance, in the creatively fertile early 70’s, it seems that shooting ratios (i.e. the ratio of raw film shot to film elements used in the final cut) were at the most “insane” for American film.  It was not uncommon for filmmakers to shoot almost a million feet of film for a 90-minute motion picture.  In perhaps the most exploratory and intensely probing period for actual film production, when single scenes became encounter sessions and epic-scale improvisatory wonder-reels, and when the editing process became something akin to active sculpting of the unwieldy moving parts, the possibilities for re-toolings works of this nature are endless.

Similarly, The Idiotmaker’s Gravity Tour, a film which pays homage to many of the pictures of that period, was simply a constant discovery in that the cameras just rolled often with only the vague outline of a game-plan, ending up with a prodigiously large shooting ratio and material at which I ultimately chizzeled away for over a year.  As a result, I have one finished film and loads of unused material that I’ve been turning over in my head for some time, and I now believe I can tell another story (or at least another side of the same story) with this wealth of rushes.  The new work will be titled Teschlock’s Whale.

Below are some other films which, to me, are the most promising candidates for Rivettian re-imaginings, by sheer virtue of the nature of the projects and the rumors of their shooting ratios.

The Last Movie (1971, Directed by Dennis Hopper)  Wild stories of this film’s production are truly the stuff of legends.  Running the gamut from a dancing-wild-in-the-aisles airplane trip to Peru with cast and crew, to a drug-fueled flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants shooting schedule, The Last Movie has time and again been used as an example of the wretched excesses of the New American Cinema of the early 70’s.  I am one of a steadily growing number of admirers, however, who find that film extraordinary, or at the very least challenging and brilliantly daring.  Albeit, this is through the lens of four decades having gone with the wind.  It is certainly one of the few examples of abstract expressionist filmmaking.  Dennis Hopper himself used the term “abstract expressionism” to describe the film’s bold editing techniques in the now rarely seen 1988 documentary Out of the Blue and Into the Black.  At the time of its original 1971 inception, though, it was barely released and promptly buried as an incomprehensible failure of the first order.  As rumor has it, cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky (of El Topo and The Holy Mountain fame) goaded Hopper to rip an early more straightforward edit apart in favor of a final version that would, among other things, more directly insure traumatizing the Universal Pictures execs.  Most of all, though, what the current edit of the film does is test the elasticity of the film form to muse on its fallibility and its beautiful fallacies.  One can witness an unhinged Hopper in Taos, New Mexico editing The Last Movie first-hand in L.M. Kit Carson’s documentary The American Dreamer, and that can tell you an awful lot about Hopper’s chaotic, tripped-out headspace while putting the film together.  A miscellaneous brigade of hippies and transients that Hopper encountered in Taos had their go at shaping the film’s final form.  However, knowing what the shooting ratio was on The Last Movie and knowing what must have gone on while on location in Peru makes one chostle in wonderment about how a Rivettian reinvention of the material would play.  Unfortunately, Hopper has left the planet, so we will most likely never know.  As is, it is a film that has angered and frustrated audiences for decades.  That does not take away from the fact that the film is still brilliant and original…even if it were only by sheer virtue of being itself loud and proud.

One-Eyed Jacks (1961, Directed by Marlon Brando)  The workprint Brando turned into Paramount Pictures in 1961 for his Method Acting Western-revenge saddle-drama was over five hours long.  At 141 minutes, the film still holds the record for the largest shooting ratio in Hollywood history, with six times the amount of footage normally shot on a picture of that size.  First-time director Marlon Brando assumed the director’s chair after personally firing Stanley Kubrick.  Cineastes have been trying to envision for years how a Kubrick-directed One-Eyed Jacks would have played.  What transpired as a result of Kubrick’s firing was a genre-constrained acting workshop for Brando and his band of undoubtedly bewildered actors.  Just how much and how substantially the film could be altered and re-focused will probably be forever left to the imagination, as the footage is most likely long deteriorated and/or destroyed.  As it is, One-Eyed Jacks would most definitely make my top-ten favorite Westerns list, and is also a favorite of Martin Scorsese, mostly because it takes a standard cowboy-bandit revenge tale and injects a healthy dose of Stanislavsky, in which we can see Brando wired at his most layered and finely tuned since On the Waterfront—and it’s a small wonder that his career petered out for over ten years after this film’s completion, as his amount of exertion on this film probably made him run out of gas fast.  One can only wonder if the mountains of unused material could yield a solid reinvented edit, but I personally have faith that there most likely was enough.  Concerning even his five-hour cut, Brando was unhappy with the final product.  Of it, he said, "It's a good picture for Paramount, but it's not the picture I made.  Now, the characters in the film are black-and-white, not gray-and-human as I planned them."

A Safe Place (1971, Directed by Henry Jaglom) According to a 1971 public television talk show featuring film critic Molly Haskell in which she interviews Peter Bogdanovich and Henry Jaglom about their respective films’ inclusion in that year’s New York Film Festival, Bogdanovich reveals that Jaglom shot enough material on his debut film, the 94-minute A Safe Place, to render at least two finished films.  Unused material apparently included a lost scene of Bogdanovich himself dancing and juggling.  Bogdanovich later says in that same talk-show interview, “I think Henry just wanted it for his scrapbook.”  In interviews decades after the aborted Columbia release of the sharply polarizing A Safe Place, Jaglom claimed that he shot around 65,000 feet of film on the project, rendering his shooting ratio somewhere in the range of 15:1.  Considering both this prodigious shooting ratio and the breezily experimental nature of the film, a hallucinatory and fragmentary journey into the world of a young woman’s complex emotional life, one can easily and with very little concerted effort imagine an alternate Rivettian reinvention of the material, and one that would zero in on other themes and aspects of Jaglom’s simultaneously loose but tightly structured tableau.  Then again, truth be told, it would also be interesting just to see Bogdanovich dance on camera.  Jaglom remembers the film's massacre in the press: "The New York Times or Time Magazine said the film looked like it had been tossed in the air and landed in a mix-master."  The film dabbles in a variety of thematic areas including memory, illusion, time and its repercussions in the world of human emotion and, in many ways, women's liberation.  The character tries to find her "safe place" by, among other things, willfully abstaining from the world at large, rather than by clawing away at her identity.  These are rather capacious thematic aspects, each worthy of their own film (or even their own recut and reinvention).  Screen tests featured on the Criterion Collection DVD of the film intimate that scenes existed between characters who, in the finished version, passed like ships in the night (e.g. the characters played by Phillip Proctor and Gwen Welles share a seduction scene in the screen tests, and never share a moment together in the final cut).  Jack Nicholson’s appearance in the final cut of the film feels deliberately capricious and fly-by-night, suggesting to me that his scenes were heavily workshopped as the cameras rolled mag after mag.   Orson Welles’ “wonder rabbi” character, the presiding spirit in Tuesday Weld’s character’s fractured cine-psyche, seems similarly urged towards in-the-moment invention by a general on-set spirit.  Evidently, Jaglom also captured a collection of encounters with various personal friends and personal acquaintances for the film, as well as recording every nook and cranny of his parents’ posh Central Park West apartment as it existed in 1970.  Now, one can most likely only imagine, and leave it at that.  As an addendum, Jaglom’s sophomore feature, the 90-minute Tracks, is perhaps equally a candidate for Rivettian reinvention, as an early version of that film allegedly ran four hours.

Scenes from a Marriage (1973, Directed by Ingmar Bergman)  It would seem as if Bergman chose to shoot Scenes from a Marriage in much the same style as Rivette shot both Out 1 and La belle noiseuse, with a copious amount of angles that could serve in visually and psychologically re-contextualizing the audience's experience of watching the tremulous marriage between Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson disintegrate, if re-edited in such a way.  Bergman's objective in making this film seems quite focused and incisive, however, and it is doubtful that he would have ever entertained a reinvented version of this film, although it was ultimately condensed from a 281-minute Swedish miniseries down to a 173-minute American theatrical film—and there is a palpable difference in the rate of an audience's appreciable emotional exhaustion between the two cuts.  Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives could similarly be re-imagined in this vein, considering its kamikaze jump-cut hand-held style.  In Episode/Chapter 5 of Scenes from a Marriage, titled "The Illiterates," the ferocious argument over the signing of the couple's divorce papers constitutes the majority of screen time.  It is a sequence whose power and message solely relies on the conviction of the actors and the precision in the rhythm of cutting, and Bergman does establish such a precision.  As much as there are different ways of painting a landscape or a face, there are a myriad of ways to cut a scene, with every bit as much precision.  Rivette's use of alternate angles in an early dinner scene of La belle noiseuse/Divertimento alone renders a different scene both psychologically and emotionally.  Scenes from a Marriage is perhaps one of the most exciting prospects for a reinvented film, but alas, it will most likely never happen.

Coming Apart (1969, Directed by Milton Moses Ginsberg) Director Ginsberg once mentioned in an interview that the cut he originally delivered to the distributor was four hours long.  As is, the film is a 110-minute series of hidden-camera encounters that psychiatrist Rip Torn has with a parade of unusual and often damaged women.  I have written about this film before, in my article about New York mayoral eras on film (despite the fact that we never leave Rip Torn's high-rise apartment over the entire length of the film).  One of the words that leaps to mind about Coming Apart is "raw" in that its edgy caught-in-real-time technical parameters and its frenzied penchant for emotional outbursts do much to jangle the nerves.  Much could be done in the editing room to render a different take on the events in the film.  This example is certainly more difficult to discuss relative to the other films I have profiled, in that it is perhaps the most confounding and discursive of the five examples.  Ginsberg certainly does not lack a sophistication in his approach, but the work itself can appear rather unforgivingly rough-and-tumble on a cursory glance.  The majority of the film is shot in long takes, and every cut is met with a harsh punch on the audio track, making us wholly cognizant of the cut itself.  I have often tried to imagine the alternate cut of the film which would function more of a scrapbook of bedlam, cutting more often than it does and often returning to fragments of the encounters that would build towards another design.  The centerpiece of the film is undoubtedly an orgiastic gathering of spaced-out individuals which occurs about an hour into the film.  Presenting this sequence alone in a kind of fragmentary manner would shape Coming Apart into something wholly other.

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