1. The Cattle Car of Narrative (a history)
Two of the most lauded films on this year’s Winter season festival circuit, Kékszakállú by Gastón Solnicki and Dane Komljen’s All the Cities of the North, fiction films that are almost undistinguishable from documentary, struck me as remarkably similar excavations of the ‘New Cinema’ of the sixties and seventies. Both coupled temps morts and characters occupied by everyday activities – alienated in the case of the former (bourgeois holidays conveyed by the ennui of adolescents waxing surfboards, mundane reality conjured up through factory jobs involving the preparation of Styrofoam), Rousseauian in the case of the latter (rowing a boat, chopping down a tree, painting a white chair red, much napping and sleeping) – to stark, theatrical compositions in the manner of Akerman or Godard (especially in the Godardian 1.37:1 aspect ratio of the Komljen film), and were hugely informed by architecture (the white-cube modernist cities in former Yugoslavia’s northern region in the case of Komljen, the modern luxury rentals of Uruguay’s resort Punta del Este in the case of Solnicki). Both are narratively oblique and depend more on the careful matching of filmic elements of Godard and Straub-Huillet’s montage films than on story or characterization. The influence of modernist musical patterning, which Noël Burch famously tied to modernist montage, is made explicit in Solnicki’s case by the structural and auditory reference to Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. Both films were made with little planning, and a minimal script keyed the description of mood and atmosphere, a relinquishing of control that recalls Rivette’s ‘jazz’ films from the seventies: hurried, sketchy, improvised and seemingly amateurish, full of slips and false notes (like the ‘making-of’ element that is central to Rivette’s L’Amour Fou (1969) and slips into Cities of the North in, perhaps, a more Godardian manner when Komljen is suddenly visible behind the camera). These films ceded creative initiative to the collective, embraced the central conceit of ‘letting things happen’ and questioned the dominance of traditional scriptwriting. Rivette was often satisfied with a few pages of synopsis, which mostly constituted little more than a starting point, the standard or classic to be transformed by exploration and ‘riffing’ in jazz. Similarly, Solnicki’s starting point was the folktale underlying Bartok’s operaSummarized by José Teodoro writing in Cinema Scope as “young women suspended on the precipice of apprehending some forbidden knowledge.”, while in Komljen’s case the ‘standard’ was the medieval epic Prince Marko and the Fairy. In the Q&A following the screening of their films at the Rotterdam Film Festival, both filmmakers confessed to a complete lack of interest in plot and dialogue, preferring to concentrate on plastic-textural and rhythmic elements and the ‘raw truth’ of the body. Here again a parallel can be drawn to Rivette’s interest, circa mid-career, in the categorical refusal of written dialogue for the actors to interpret by either asking the actors to find their own words or of giving them pre-existing texts (‘pre-texts’) to be used as ‘matter,’ as in Bresson’s ‘adaptations’ of Diderot, Dostoyevsky and Bernanos (Straub-Huillet and Godard being the most clear exemplars of the latter strategy).
What this proves, I think, is how much the perennial search for the new in art cinema, especially the strand deemed ‘political,’ is still grounded in a fundamental suspicion towards narrative and its association with popular mass-consumption, perhaps today more than ever now that ‘narrative complexity,’ once the prerogative of the art film, has been adopted as the standard for blockbuster sci-fi and episodic television. A couple of years ago, Kent Jones evoked, with Proustian accuracy, the historical origin of this anti-narrative tendency in a Film Comment piece, ‘In Defense of Storytelling’:
When I was young, the words ‘plot’ and ‘story’ and ‘narrative’ were dirty words in downtown New York cinema circles—so dirty that they became interchangeable. Stories were bad habits, “19th-century theatrical conventions” (the conventions in question stretched much further back in time than the 19th-century, but no matter). Narrative was, on the one hand, an additive that polluted pure cinema; on the other hand, the Trojan Horse that concealed the secret weapon of ‘ideology,’ undermining us in ways that only those who read the right books could even begin to understand. Plots were to be dismissed, reviled, feared, seen through, exposed, but they were never to be taken seriously.
While the point of the reminiscence is to take another look at the stories of Douglas Sirk movies from another than the standard Brechtian point of view (which incites us to look past the surface story to the real subversive story within), to call this suspicion of narrative ‘Brechtian’ is to forget – as Gilberto Perez reminds us in his chapter on Straub-Huillet in The Material Ghost – that ‘epic’ means narrative. In the heady days of downtown New York cinema circles, the dismantling of ideology was, therefore, despite its demystifying intentions, less a matter of Brechtian estrangement than austere structural experiment. The other, more ‘hedonistic,’ side of the same endeavor to ‘suspend’ content and meaning, is memorable evoked in a 1978 conversation between film critics (and jazz lovers) Jonathan Rosenbaum, David Ehrenstein and Raymond Durgnat (RED), that took place – where else? – in California. In the ‘Jam Session on Non-Narrative,’ published in Film Comment, their (legitimate) annoyance with “critics interpreting even Michael Snow films in relation to narrative models,” quickly turns into a denunciation of story, plot and narrative and their proposed values of coherency and meaningfulness. The metaphor of choice for expressing the workings of narrative progression and containment is that of a “cattle car that is headed for the slaughterhouse,” with images for both audience, narrative trajectory and plot-as-grave. “Telling a story,” both in a film and in the critic’s synopsis, becomes “a singular grid through which all the diverse structures and operations of movies can theoretically be apprehended, codified, and converted into meanings.” Put like this, the beef RED have with narrative takes us back to the semiological Barthes of ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ (1964), in which the inherently polysemic nature of the image (and especially the pure denotation of the photograph) is fixed/tamed by ‘coding,’ by the application of a set of rule-governed transpositions servicing the creation of stable meaning. But the theoretical baseline (bass line?) for the session is clearly the post-structuralist Barthes of the ‘readerly’ or ‘open’ Text and the autonomy of the reader-spectator. Specifically, it’s Barthes’ first text on the cinema from his deconstructionist period, ‘The Third Meaning: Research notes on Some Eisenstein Stills,’ and its fetishization of ‘obtuse’ meanings in filmic representation for which textual exegesis is at best approximative, that provides the dynamite to derail the meaning express.
RED unleash their stampede of free-floating signifiers in a variety of ways that all fit the Barthesian project: attention to movement, incidental detail and surface texture (‘atmosphere’) is put forward in the way of classical mise en scène criticism; the fundamental poetic nature of cinema is offered via two implicit references: to Pasolini’s ‘Cinema of Poetry’ (which had just appeared in English translation in Bill Nichols’ Movies and Methods ) and its conception of film as a pre-grammatical, irrational language of oneiric imagery, i.e. poetry; and to Roman Jacobson’s conception of poetry as the projection of ‘paradigmatic’ equivalences onto the text’s ‘syntagmatic’ succession. (Durgnat: “Many writers, especially poets, begin with a feeling — what they’ve got to put before you is a state of mind, which in itself is complex and simultaneous, a vertical structure but in a sequential order.”) Finally, the constitutive ‘heterogeneity’ of the filmic text is recognized both in the fragmentation and disordering achieved by experimental filmmakers like Joseph Cornell and Kenneth Anger, in the serialism of Resnais and Robbe-Grillet, and in the surrealist technique of “irrational enlargement” that luxuriates in the “lure of an extra or a prop” and causes Gilbert Adair to memorialize the color of Cary Grant’s socks in North By Northwest.
Although it was Stephen’s Heath’s translation, in his edited collection Image—Music—Text (1977), that made ‘Troisième sens’ available in English, Heath is clearly cast as the villain of the round-robin, the poster boy for the structuro-semiologists. You regularly get the impression that the jam session is a demonic dance around his diegesis-bound analysis of Touch of Evil in ‘Film and System: Terms of Analysis’ (1975), in which he offers the bottom line that the film frame’s organizational process is fundamentally narrative. If the Barthesian viewer/reader is ‘free,’ her counterpart in Heath is bound in chains by the filmic system. Ehrenstein summarizes:
For what’s at stake is the relative autonomy of the spectator on the one hand, and the actual process of his intellection of elements on the other — something that diagesis-bound (sic) semiotic studies (such as Stephen Heath’s on Touch of Evil) haven’t really been willing to come to grips with. Heath shows how everything can be returned or translated into the story. He notes a few loose ends or gray areas, but that’s all.
Those “gray areas” are addressed by Kristin Thompson in her essay, ‘The concept of Filmic Excess’ (1977), which goes a long way towards gauging the seismic shock of ‘Third Meaning’ even in neo-formalist circles. Thompson quotes those parts from ‘Film and System’ that seem to support the Barthesian cause and could have drawn some of the hedonists’ fire away from Heath – “homogeneity is haunted by the material practice it represses…narrative can never contain the whole film which permanently exceeds its fictions” – before pointing out that the scene he takes to be in ‘excess’ in Touch of Evil is, in fact, still narrative. For Thompson, excess – Barthes’ ‘obtuse meaning’ – comes forward only when a viewer begins to notice style for its own sake, when techniques are foregrounded or repeated, exceed their structured function to create connections between their individual uses. This distraction from the narrative serves the Russian-formalist goal of ‘ostranenie’ or defamiliarization, of ‘baring of the device’:
Pretending that a work is exhausted by its functioning structures robs it of much that is strange, unfamiliar, and striking about it. If the critic’s task is at least in part to renew and expand the work’s power to defamiliarize, one way to do this would be precisely to break up old perceptions of the work and to point up its more difficult aspects.
Barthes is offered as an alternative to Heath not just in his Brechtian-ideological purport, making sure that “the viewer is no longer caught in mistaking the causal structure of the narrative for reality,” but in the possibility the ‘obtuse meaning’ offers for enabling the creation of an alternative diegesis, a ‘counternarrative’ with its own temporality, a whole new film existing in some sense alongside the narrative film. (Barthes’ idea of the ‘counternarrative’ echoes Pasolini’s cinema of poetry that “relies upon a mystic and embryonic film, a ‘sub-film’ which, from the very nature of cinema, unwinds behind every commercial film, even a decent one, even a socially and esthetically rather adult one.” Both conceptions hark back to Jacobson’s principle of non-perceptible structures of poetry.) For Thompson that alternative diegesis is constituted by the film’s style, which constitutes what for Barthes is the film’s ‘materiality.’ It all depends, of course, on the kind of movie you’re watching.
Like Barthes, Thompson is watching Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, which she has offered as a prime instance of the kind of style-centered narrative David Bordwell, following Noël Buch’s structuralist priming of technical-stylistic parameters in Praxis du cinéma (1969), has termed ‘parametric.’ Mind you, parametric narration – the creation of salient formal patterns independent of immediate narrative needs – still involves plotting. Only in the most extreme avant-garde examples – notably in Peter Gidal’s structural-materialist film – is plot wholly subordinated to style. Very few of the examples RED give of a more discontinuous cinema, “where the putative story line starts to crumble, and other kinds of continuity come in to replace the gaps,” come from this tradition – Gidal, Snow. Most are Burch favorites – Dreyer, Tati, Resnais, Marcel Hanoun – or old Cahiers champions like Renoir, Mizoguchi, Bergman, and Hawks (The Big Sleep is included for its inflated plotting and occasional breakdown in narrative causality). The avant-gardists favorites old and new are mainly of a surrealist rather than a structural inspiration – Vigo, Cocteau, Cornell, Anger – and this might have something to do with RED’s hedonistic concern with ‘jouissance,’ the blissful experience of ‘openness’ (“a sensual dive into non-narrative,” Rosenbaum describes it) straight out of The Pleasure of the Text (1973 – English translation in 1975) that sits uncomfortably with the strict demarcations of structural cinema.
Rosenbaum sees the most systematic application of the principles of textual pleasure in Rivette’s Out 1 (1971) and Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974), highly playful films that, because of the absence of scripted dialogue and classical dramaturgy, create an ‘open’ space for purely plastic and acoustic ‘events.’ That Rivette was highly influenced by Barthes is made evident in a much-quoted 1973 interview with the Marxist La Nouvelle Critique conducted by the formidable trio of Edouardo de Gregorio, Bernard Eisenschitz and Jacques Fieschi, in which Rivette inscribes his films of the period in the Barthesian notions of ‘writerly Texts,’ of endlessly deferred or suspended meanings or circulating signifieds: “I refer to Barthes a good deal, but I find that he speaks more lucidly than anyone else at the present time about this kind of problem… and he says: there is a text from the moment one can say: things are circulating.”
Although Barthes frequently emphasized that the discussion of Text (open) vs. Work (closed) was not a matter of the artworks themselves but of ways of reading (“the tendency must be avoided to say that the work is classic, the text avant-garde… there may be ‘text’ in a very ancient work, while many products of contemporary literature are in no way texts”), a clear opposition is made in the RED roundtable between European ‘atmosphere’ and a Hollywood type of filmmaking that’s based on the storyDeleuze would adopt the same rather blunt dichotomy for his two-volume philosophy of cinema (1983-85) in which he makes the distinction between a cinema of the ‘time-image’ and the ‘movement-image,’ the former composed largely of long takes and showing minimal cause-and-effect narrative movement, the latter denoting classical ‘rational’ plot-driven narration.. While the classical Hollywood film strives to minimize excess by stressing causality and motivation in its narrative economy, potentially excessive elements become more noticeable in the art cinema which calls attention to its (lack of) causal patterning, as Bordwell has shown, and not only opens gaps that aren’t closed, but allows for “patterned ambiguity about events or states of mind” and “play among competing schemas of comprehension that invite us to interpret the film more abstractly” (as in parametric narratives like Vampyr or Marienbad). Still, there are exceptions of auteurs that seem to straddle both traditions. Here’s Durgnat on Hitchcock:
There’s really a traditional Hollywood style of filmmaking that’s based on the story, and a European style, which is more discursive and atmospheric; you can see it in Renoir and Hitchcock. Even in apparently narrative film, the entire narrative exists largely to maneuver two or three scenes into position to maximum effect. The narrative really has only a framing function. It’s a static construction, essentially. The particular scenes that are being nurtured are actually functioning in a lyrical way. They correspond to a lyrical poem rather than a narrative poem. It’s true that action may go on in them, but nonetheless they’re a lyrical description of an overall — and in that sense, static — situation. Hitchcock said of his English films that the central idea was just to present a series of strong scenes, and never mind how the people got from A to B. When he got to America, he found everybody worrying whether the plot was plausible or not, so he had to change his method of constructing a movie.
Durgnat is doing two things here. On the one hand he’s recalling the auteurist portrait of Hitchcock the poète maudit forced to make grist for the Hollywood mill and in the process subverting the very conventions he’s supposed to uphold. Call it the Brechtian/Sirkian Hitchcock, the one Kent Jones offers in comparison at the end of his piece on Sirk. “Hitchcock understood that a good film both tells a story and imparts something more mysterious to us on another, less easily definable level,” Jones agrees. But while he “built his films around improbabilities more outlandish than anything Ross Hunter dreamed up” and “knew that story is always just the vehicle, the vehicle has to be kept in good working order.” The second thing relates to Durgnat’s evocation of Jacobson’s paradigmatic and syntagmatic axes, the one standing for selection, the other for combination. When he cites Hitchcock’s penchant for “strong scenes” (the same argument can be made about Hawks, by the way, who thought that a good movie was “three good scenes and no bad ones”), he refers to the discussion of Hitchcock’s ‘set pieces’, those fairly self-contained segments that showcase the filmmaker’s pictorial virtuosity, “style for its own sake,” as Thompson would say. As Bordwell writes on the same subject, “there’s no doubt that a plot driven by set pieces can seem episodic, just a matter of pretty clothes clipped to a slender line.” However, while for Bordwell these scenes can still be integrated in specific narrative patterns and are often thematically motivated, for Durgnat they function as excess, as pure ‘spectacle’ that resists narrative integration. He sees them as ‘numbers’, literal showstoppers that elongate a ‘static situation,’ bringing the narrative to a screeching halt like Barthes’ movie stills. Rather than syntagmatic progression, he sees ‘states lyricized,’ a whole that, in Gestalt terms, is clearly not the sum of its parts. Ehrenstein, recognizing Hitchcock in De Palma, sees additive set-piece construction as a possible future for cinema, even Hollywood cinema:
Nothing but action set pieces, with little or no connection between one bit and the next. This could be the wave of the future. We’re talking about something totally outside of aesthetics (though it does have aesthetic consequences: De Palma may be Hollywood’s answer to Michael Snow). It’s just that the smart money is beginning to realize it doesn’t have to lie to itself about story values in terms of reaching an audience. Just give them one damn thing after another.
Ehrenstein’s prophecy has certainly come to pass as a new ‘cinema of attractions’ has become the commercial norm, but Michael Bay will never be Michael Snow and even in the most visceral action movies the lack of coherency will always be perceived, aesthetically, as a flaw rather than a virtue.
One Damn Thing After Another
The discontinuity or episodicity of the set-piece narrative is also the sense in which Rivette’s apparently free-flowing ‘open’ films can be said to be ‘Hitchcockian’. Ehrenstein follows Rosenbaum’s characterization of Rivette’s films as the “systematic application of discontinuity” when he characterizes his psychedelic one-two punch of the mid-seventies, Duelle and Noroît (both 1976), as “one shapeless enervated scene follow(ing) another without a sense of overall purport”:
Bernadette Laffont slitting a compatriot’s throat … Hermine Karaghuez’s sudden scream at the ominous approach of the croupier summoned by Bulle Ogier in the casino in Duelle — her mouth opened, her body tensed. Juliet Berto’s double annihilation of Jean Babilee (also in Duelle) — dragging him into the darkness of the corner of a hotel room in one scene, casually shooting him on a subway platform in another.
Ehrenstein presents these scenes as heteroclitic elements that make up a laundry list of ‘moments’ that could be extended endlessly, like the items in Borges’ Chinese encyclopedia. The open-endedness that the literary scholar Ross Chambers (referring to Barthes) calls the ‘etcetera principle,’ is exactly how Rivette originally conceived of his film-fleuve Out 1:
It was a way of starting off a film which could be even longer and which could be continued, where the various strands were brought together of a plot that could be continued, with new characters still to turn up later on. We had made up a possible list of all the actors who might be interested in working on a project like this. The ending was deliberately inconclusive.
In the end, they did shoot an ending, instead of leaving the story suspended like an unfinished serial. What this shows, I think, is not merely Rivette’s nervous energy – he soon got fed up with the idea of continuing the project for another year – but his thinking about the syntagmatic or what semioticians refer to as the rhetorical figure of ‘metonymy,’ by which they mean the grouping of discursive items between which relationships and connections are produced, i.e. the syntax.
When Rivette and Michel Delahaye interviewed Barthes for Cahiers in 1963, the latter suggested that the only filmmaker to have managed an actual ‘suspension of meaning’ is Buñuel in The Exterminating Angel (1962). Rosenbaum is surely still thinking of this exception when he offers The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) as an example of the ‘bracketing of narrative.’ But where Rosenbaum celebrates only discontinuity, “the disintegration of a single continuous thread,” the Brechtian Barthes of ‘63 praises Buñuel precisely because he acknowledges that in cinema “there is no getting away from progression and transformation” and that the progression of the plot is what (potentially endlessly) ‘defers’ the signifier to gel into any clear signified. Barthes calls this progression ‘dispatching’ and ties it to the what-will-happen-next? of suspense: “One likes the film so much because there is a story; a story with a beginning and an end and an element of suspense…. What we would like to see is a syntagmatic cinema.” So for Barthes, if any suspension of meaning is to be achieved, it is through suspense, through anticipation about forthcoming events, what he called the ‘proairetic code’. Contrary to Ehrenstein, 1963 Barthes holds no truck with pure serialism à la Robbes-Grillet, who only ‘varies’ or scrambles the meaning, whereas in Buñuel, repetition is derided and scenes construct an irreversible time span. What Ehrenstein sees in the anti-narrative Glissements progressifs du plaisir (1974), “a gradual accumulation of meaning with no end in sight,” Barthes sees in the highly narrative The Exterminating Angel.
Rivette’s colleague, Eric Rohmer, whose classicism is usually perceived in opposition to Godard and Rivette’s modernism, seems wholeheartedly to agree with the Barthes who told Cahiers that the kind of literature where ‘nothing happens’ (as in Flaubert’s L’Education sentimentale) is impossible in cinema: “The cinema, even when it is not geared to popular demand, is a discourse from which storytelling, anecdote, plot (and therefore suspense) are never absent…In the cinema, ‘something is always happening.’” Rohmer was never one for the whole idea of a ‘cinema of poetry.’ Talking to Gilbert Adair in 1978, he expressed his preference for a syntagmatic cinema of prose, going so far as to recruit Pasolini’s primary exemplar, Antonioni, for his side:
I can’t conceive of a film that would be the pure mise en scène of nothing. It was an idea that was kicked around in the sixties, but I don’t believe in it. I believe in the subject. The notion of an abstract or even non-narrative cinema seems to me passé. Take Antonioni, for example, not that his scripts were ever weak. But I particularly like The Passenger because it has a real story, a plot, even if the plot is not that original.
To cast Hitchcock as anti-narrative would seem ludicrous to Rohmer, given that Hitch’s notion of suspense depends entirely on story construction: you build suspense by giving the viewer story information that a character doesn’t have. His own art he defines in Hitchcockian terms (although he does get the principle of suspense wrong):
I think it’s the art of story-telling that keeps the spectator guessing – what I would call my “suspense”, in reference to Hitchcockian suspense. (When I show students Hitchcock films they ask what relation there is between our films – I think this is the only influence he had on me.) It’s part of the game I play in my films. All film viewers or readers of books like to guess the story and feel that at the end they’ve guessed what was going to happen. Now, I think I’m like that, and my viewers are like me – I don’t seek out difficulty, but I don’t want to flatter my audience or simplify their task. This is very important at a time when people say that he public isn’t capable of following a complex plot any more – it’s another reason to make sure my stories are well constructed.
What Rohmer emphasizes is Hitchcock’s ‘classical’ side, the side Durgnat and Rosenbaum maintain was merely imposed upon him (can’t they see that Hitch, like Welles, liked trains?). Classical narration, whereby the filmmaker cues the viewer to construe the story, moment by moment, can involve a lot of diversions and blind alleys, as Bordwell has argued, but eventually we arrive at fairly definite and reliable inferences. Rivette was never that classical, but he does share Barthes’ assessment of the inescapability of narrative: talking to de Gregorio, Eisenschitz and Fieschi: “I don’t say narrative would be completely eliminated, I think that’s impossible: if you throw narrative out by the door, it comes back through the window.” Even as he wants to get away from ‘story’ as the main engine of a film, he also continues to share Rohmer’s interest in plotting. Call it Rivette’s Balzacian side.
Out 1 draws on the paranoid urban conspiracies of Balzac, Hugo and Sue, while Céline et Julie follows both Alice in Wonderland and Henry James’ ghost stories The Other House and ‘A Romance of Certain Old Clothes’ (1868-1885). While the films in no way can be seen as adaptations of these stories, their choice, pace Ehrenstein, is all but arbitrary, and point to Rivette’s fascination with the construction of adventure stories, the fantastic and Hitchcockian or Langian suspense. His collaboration on Céline et Julie and on the ‘Filles du Feu’ trilogy to follow with Eduardo de Gregorio, in this context, is also enlightening. De Gregorio, a former student of Borges, refers us back to Borges’ famous introduction to Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel (1940), in which he defends the tight plotting of Chesterton, Stevenson and Verne. De Gregorio was one of the interviewers for La Nouvelle Critique. In the preface to the Nouvelle Critique interview, de Gregorio, Eisenschitz and Fieschi quite accurately describe Out 1 as a meeting between openness and rigorous form, a continuation of the Bressonian dialectic between abstraction and reality:
The script is no longer a program to be carried out, a score to be followed, but a sort of vast fictional trap, simultaneously rigorous and open, designed to orient the improvisation (by actors and technicians), to subject it to certain ‘obligatory passages’ or to abandon it to a free flow which will acquire its order, its scansion, its proportions only during the final montage, in an ultimate interplay between the inherent logic of the material filmed (its potentialities, its resistances) and the demands of a rational critical organization. Critical in two ways: of the material filmed (concrete) and of the scheme (abstract) that provided the initial impulse. (my emphasis)
They also identify the interview’s big theme as “the problem in the cinema of the relationship between premeditation and improvisation, freedom and restraint, chance and design,” and thereby provide another accurate definition of Rivette’s dialectical art. On the ‘restraint’ side, the rational organization provided by the parallel narrative structure was inspired by Chytilova’s Something Else (1963) and Cayatte’s La vie conjugale (1963), from which grew “the desire to make a film which would not be made up of just two interlocking films but of several, a whole series…referring back and forth to each other.” Together with Suzanne Schiffmann, Rivette turned this idea into a workable schema by constructing a ‘bogus’ chronological grid with names of characters and days of the week that could bring the various strands together. The chronology might be ‘bogus,’ but Rivette quickly realized that the syntactic structure of film was hard to mess with without devolving into empty Robbe-Grilletisms:
As we were putting it together, we soon began wanting one particular scene to come after another. We quickly realized that it didn’t cut together any old how, in any order. For instance, if you put Juliet Berto’s scenes one after another, or did that with Jean-Pierre Léaud’s scenes or Michel Lonsdale’s – something we never did, actually – it was obvious that they had to be broken up by each other, and that there was in fact another continuity in the intersection of the strands which we had to follow or find.
And it was immediately apparent that you were still held by the fictional center, which proved to be much tighter, much more compelling than I’d thought, and that there weren’t umpteen solutions, there were only two. Either we could do something extremely arbitrary, with flagrant ruptures in time, breaking up the chronology, a sort of Robbe-Grillet montage. Or we could play the game of a seeming narration, which was after all the game played by the material, thus keeping a seeming chronology, no matter how patchy and wobbly it might sometimes be.
The ‘game’ of cinema, Rivette realized, is played through narration, through plot, which also provides a lot of the pleasure, both on the (dispatching) filmmaker’s and the (speculating) viewer’s part. Plot, it bears repeating, does not equal story. Story – the cause-and-effect chain of events and actions as reconstructed by the spectator (what the structuralists called histoire and the Russian formalists fabula) – is what provides the material for the synopsis of a film. Reducing a film to its story material indeed shortchanges its aesthetic impact. Plot – the actual presentation and arrangement of the story actions (discours or syuzhet) – is what constitutes a film’s grammar, what makes it take the form it does. To illustrate the confusion here’s Rosenbaum on Resnais’ Je t’aime, je t’aime (1969):
Doing a synopsis of Je t’aime, je t’aime means concentrating on the clumsy s-f framing device and trying to reconstruct an inner plot out of the scrambled and fragmented chronology — none of which comes within miles of dealing with what the film’s about, or what its deepest sources of pleasure are.
What Rosenbaum calls the ‘inner plot’ is the story; the ‘scrambled and fragmented chronology’ is the plot, which, together with the film’s style, constitutes its narration. And there is nothing in narrative cinema that isn’t narration. Basically, what Rosenbaum, Ehrenstein and Durgnat have done is to project an avant-garde poetics upon auteur cinema, to graft the Buñuel of the indeed discontinuous, oneiric Un Chien Andalou onto the French collaborative works with Jean-Claude Carrière, leading to oxymoronic statements like, “Think how Buñuel doubles the framing narrative, for no narrative reason…”
Carrière once called Balzac the greatest screenwriter that ever was and Rivette and Rohmer – both Buñuel fans – might well agree. On Out 1, Balzac provided not just the exposition – lengthy, dry descriptive passages laying out setting, characters, social contexts in documentary detail – but the plotting, the design, the different lines of action meeting at a central juncture, the vast narrative web not just of the conspiracy stories but the entire Comédie humaine. Like the Balzac of Une ténébreuse affaire (Rivette’s favorite) and the Hawks of The Big Sleep, Rivette has inflated plot, creating four parallel stories with eight interlocking character perspectives that take the form of itineraries from one character to the next (from A to B, B to C, C to D etc.). The idea of a group of thirteen that aspire to world domination becomes the excuse to link up different storylines and character perspectives in an early instance of what Bordwell has termed the ‘network narrative,’ in which “characters either familiar or only tangentially related, with shared or diverging purposes and projects, intersect or separate often through the sheer workings of chance.” One of the classic instances of the network narrative discussed by Bordwell is Altman’s Nashville (1975), which despite its radically digressive and episodic plot structure – which Durgnat suggestively but also rather derogatorily compares to an Ealing Studios omnibus picture – Rosenbaum still takes to task for failing to deliver a “proliferation of narrative that deflects away from any center and spins out in all directions.” Such centrifugal free-jazz conception of narrative might resemble the ‘open form’ of the ironically titled Out 1I can’t help but think of that title as slyly winking to Barthes’ anti-hierarchical comment, in ‘From Work to Text’ (1971), that uncouples Text from modernist and postmodernist literature: “It is not a question of drawing up a crude honors list in the name of modernity and declaring certain literary productions ‘in’ and others ‘out’ by virtue of their chronological situation” superficially, but certainly doesn’t fit with the other, more ‘classical’ side of Rivette’s inspiration that also comes out of Renoir’s interest in the structures of commedia dell’arte and its legacy in the French theatre of the restoration, in Corneille and Marivaux (and their 19th century offspring, Musset). The charms of Nashville that Rosenbaum berates – “a drawing together, an interweaving of all the strands” – comes out of the comedic choreography of multiple couples joining, separating and reorganizing before bowing out in a collective tutti, typical of both Lubitsch and Hawks’ – and even Bunuel’s – variations on classical romantic comedy and, in a more explicitly theatrical fashion, Renoir’s Le Carrosse d’or (1953) and Elena et les hommes (1956), two films adored by Rivette and Rohmer.
It’s worthwhile, in this context, to take a closer look at another pair of filmmakers, Korean master Hong Sang-soo and Argentine wunderkind Matías Piñeiro, who both have expressed great admiration for Rivette and Rohmer and have similarly tried to reconcile Rouchian observational simplicity – attention to the immediate, to mood, attitude and character – with both classical and modernist narrative organization. Their games with narrative I will take up in my next two blogs.