It’s probably just a coincidence. But in the middle of the two-week theatrical debut of Out 1: Noli me tangere (receiving its world theatrical premiere, 44 years late, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music), former child star and current actor/oddball Shia LeBeouf settled into a seat at Manhattan’s Angelika Film Center, across the East River, for #ALLMYMOVIES, a three-day bit of Internet-mediated performance art during which he watched his entire filmography in reverse order. What’s more, for three days, you could tune in to a livestream of LeBeouf’s face as he watched, by turns bored, tired, interested, emotional, and—as his on-screen self got younger—more and more delighted.
The response to this stunt was remarkable, at least from my Twitter perch. When the news broke that he’d started watching (the still unreleased) Man Down on Tuesday around noon, the response from the Internet was largely, “Oh, this guy again,” which is exactly what I said. But as the days wore on, gifs started to appear of LeBeouf laughing, or crying, or (at one point) catching some zzzs during Transformers. He reportedly ordered pizza and shared it with some people in the seats nearby. Several of my own students waited in line for seven hours to sit in the theater with him for an additional three. By Thursday afternoon, responses had turned to genuine affection, as we hovered ’round the browser and watched Shia crack up at his Even Stevens-era self.
And why not? We weren’t just watching a guy watch himself. We were watching a guy watch things we, too, had seen (and who among us doesn’t harbor affection for Louis Stevens) but for the most part only dimly remember. We had gone on a weird little reverse journey into the past with him, a massive backward Boyhood filtered through his actual image and our memory of his image. We recalled who we were when we saw (or deigned to see) the movies he was acting in then, and now watching. The sheer endurance involved in his experience (physical and emotional) led to something like affection on our part and outright joy on his.
Like I said, it’s probably a coincidence that during the same stretch of time, a bunch of cinephiles, hardy or foolish or both, were spending $50 plus popcorn money to sit in a theater for 13 hours for Jacques Rivette’s 1971 film OUT 1: Noli me tangere. I was one of them, perching dead center for all eight “episodes” of the film over two days. In the sprawling narrative, two different Parisian theater groups are rehearsing plays by Aeschylus (Seven Against Thebes and Prometheus Bound), while one young deaf-mute man panhandles and a bewitching young women swindles. Also there’s some kind of conspiratorial group modeled on the “Thirteen” of Balzac’s novels.
Most of the first installment consists of the Prometheus group engaging in a big, loud, moaning-and-mud-slinging acting exercise that begins with pairs mirroring one another’s actions and ends (a lot later) in a pantomime of a pagan ritual. There’s other stuff going on, but this sets the tone. We’re not here to engage with an epic plot so much as settle down into the slow rhythm of real time, to live with characters over a long period. Most of the characters are actors, conscious always of being watched (and trying not to be). And those characters are played by real actors who know they’re in a film. So we’re several layers deep, as audience members.
The film wants us to remember that real life is just as much of an improvisation—in fact, more so—as anything that happens in the theatre. People repeat lines and interact with one another in ways we realize are drawn from previous interactions. In real life, Rivette seems to be saying, we are all engaged in creating some kind of spectacle, each of us at the center of our own story. The theater exercises in which characters engage are designed to break down barriers between their fellows (barriers that keep getting thrown up through arguments or conflicts of artistic vision) and to bust any wall between emotion and reality. They are getting “in touch,” sometimes literally, with each other, with themselves, with the story. In other story lines, the deaf-mute young man, Colin, is suddenly neither, and wanders around the city chanting to himself; the young woman, Frederique, falls in love and mingles her blood with her lover’s blood. But all falls apart. Connection fails. The troupes split up. Language begins to run backwards or loop, underlining the difficulty of any of this happening at all.
“Noli me tangere” is the Latin translation of Jesus’ words to Mary in John 20:17 following his resurrection—”touch me not,” he says, “for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” In the story’s context, the reader is meant to understand that post-tomb Jesus has a body, but also not a wholly normal one; he can pass through walls and disappear, but can also be touched. He isn’t a ghost. (A final scene in the film serves up some overbearing Christ imagery of its own as troupe leader Thomas lays on the beach in a cruciform shape, but lest we get too serious about it, he then gets up and wanders away.)
Interestingly, Rivette created a shorter version of the film—which still clocks in at a butt-busting four hours—subtitled Spectre, and so Out 1’s Wikipedia entry suggests that the longer version’s subtitle is a cheeky reference to being the full-length film, not to be messed with. But in a few moments, it seems, the point is that real life is an effort to get past the borders of oneself and sustain touch with the world outside your head.
The sheer length of Out 1 provides a good way to do this, because it turns out that there’s no instant fix to loneliness and isolation. As we sit with the characters (none of whom, it ought to be noted, are terribly deeply fleshed out), we begin to develop a relationship with them, too. My husband sat beside me all 13 hours, and said five days later, “I miss these characters, and I might want to go back and watch a section again.”
Which brings me back to goofy gifs of Shia LeBouef laughing at himself, and us laughing along with him. I don’t know what he thought by the end of his exercise, but if you want to break down the barriers celebrity throws up, maybe the best way is to sit in a theater and let other people watch your face. Mirror your face. Be a human with you.
Alissa Wilkinson is chief film critic at Christianity Today and an assistant professor at The King’s College in New York City. Her writing appears at Vulture, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The LA Review of Books, Pacific Standard, and others. Follow her on Twitter.