August 30, 2011

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“In true travel, what matters are the magical accidents, the discoveries, the inexplicable wonders and the wasted time.” -Raúl Ruiz, paraphrasing Serge Daney in Poetics of Cinema

No director wasted time more spectacularly than Raúl Ruiz, who passed away last week at the age of 70. The restively prolific Chilean, who fled to Paris after Augusto Pinochet’s rise to power, made over 100 films, and was working on two at the time of his death (the Australian film journal Rouge compiled an invaluable annotated filmography through 2005). Obsessed with the multiplicative nature of storytelling, his work branched narratives, opened up parallel worlds and rendered dreams more real than reality. They often feel like a serial drama happening all at once, the plot twists layered one on top of the other in a dissolve or superimposition. Raised on robust American trash like Flash Gordon, Ruiz’s films are overflowing with wild incident (he later wrote scripts for the brash anti-realism of Mexican telenovelas). He embraced their  irruptions of logical narrative order, and also found delight in the “mistakes” of higher-budgeted productions :

For years I watched so-called Greco-Latin films (toga flicks, with early Christians devoured by lions, emperors in love, and so on). My only interest in those films was to catch sight of planes and helicopters in the background, to discover the eternal DC6 crossing the sky during Ben Hur’s final race, Cleopatra’s naval battle, or the Quo Vadis banquets. That was my particular fetish, my only interest. For me all those films, the innumerable tales of Greco-Latinity, all partook of the single story of a DC6 flying discreetly from one film to the next.

Ruiz always followed the plane, that is, he let the image determine the story, rather than vice versa. If a plane entered the frame, that dictated that a new tale had to be written: “It [the image-situation] serves as a bridge, an airport, for the multiple films that will coexist in the film that is finally seen.”

Ruiz did not emerge with this theoretical grounding in place, however. In watching a few of his early works, the influence of Neorealism and the American Independent Film of Cassavetes comes through stronger than Flash Gordon. His first short film, La Maleta (The Suitcase, 1963) is a grim Kafkaesque tale revealing a violently competitive Chilean society. It was presumed lost, but resurfaced at the 2008 Valdivia Film Festival, re-edited by Ruiz. It follows a gaunt silent man as he cleans up his spartan apartment. Ruiz follows him in tight handheld 16mm shots, registering the actor’s perpetually sour visage. He cheerlessly labors with unintelligible grunts (there is almost no dialogue), hauling a trunk on his back to another grim-looking room. Ruiz reveals another sallow businessman trapped inside the case, who then exacts an ironic revenge for his unusual imprisonment. There is one Ruizian moment within this social commentary, though, involving human experimentation with plastic tubing and water bubbles. This eruption of an inexplicable dream-image presages his bolder leaps from narrative.

His first feature, Los Tres Tristes Tigres (Three Sad Tigers, 1968), named after a Spanish tongue-twister, continues the handheld, back to the street aesthetic. It follows Tito (Nelson Villagra), a lower middle-class hustler who pimps out his sister Amanda (Shenda Roman) while doing errands for a struggling real estate developer. This is a hang-out movie, with Ruiz clearly influenced by Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959). Tito and Amanda stumble around Santiago, setting up men to fall for Amanda’s charms while failing at landing any bigger scores. The loose structure allows Ruiz to string together a series of short stories, a more straightforward version of his later re-combinatory approach to storytelling. There is also a striking scene at a strip club, in which empty bottles cover the floor, and Tito’s drunken friend instructs the lighting guy to direct his lamp towards this field of debauchery. The bottles are too intricately arranged to be natural, a shot of pure artifice in this otherwise “realist” drama. It won the Golden Leopard at the 1969 Locarno Film Festival, and the unvarnished performances of the two leads still effectively bear witness to the wounds of everyday disappointments.

After the CIA-aided overthrow of Salvador Allende in 1973, Ruiz moved to Paris, where he would continue to elaborate his theories of storytelling. I have only managed a glancing familiarity with his work (having seen 9 of his wide-ranging corpus), but the trio of Hypothesis of a Stolen Painting (1978), Three Crowns of the Sailor (1982) and City of Pirates (1983) seem to give full flowering to his experiments in narrative fracturing. Hypothesis was made for French television, and is on the surface a parody of stuffy masterpiece gazing (the on-air host, Jean Rougeul, falls asleep at one point), but becomes an elaborately proliferating mystery. That is, Ruiz, along with writer/artist Pierre Klossowski, invented a painter (Tonnerre) and his cycle of historical canvases, which contain a puzzle that Rougeul and an anonymous announcer try to solve. Re-enacting the paintings with live models, secret patterns emerge. Rougeul urges that the only way to see them is to ignore the story and simply examine the image, which reveals hidden symbols and matching gestures in the un-looked at segments of the frame. The visible narratives of the painting mutate under each inspection, revealing troubling absences and cloudy motivations in each composition. One of Tonnerre’s works has been stolen however, thus much of the mystery is speculative, and thereby unreliable.

The narrator of Three Crowns of the Sailor is equally unreliable. Ruiz took the stories of his merchant seaman father, Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and Erich Maria Remarque’s “A Night in Lisbon” and placed his Sailor (Jean-Bernard Guillard) as the protagonist of all of them. The Sailor cannot re-board his beloved phantom ship, the Funchalense, until he receives three Danish crowns. He intends to earn them from Tadeusz, a theological student who has just murdered his teacher and is eager to leave the country. The Sailor will grant him passage if Tadeusz will listen to the story of his life, leading up to his requesting of the crowns. What ensues is a convulsion of myth and bullshit and braggadocio, as the logorrheic Sailor recounts his adventures with whores, reverse-aging doctors and men who sweat worms. The various stories overlap, details leaching from one to the next. The Sailor even tells a variation in which he dies in a car crash. The stories are shot in rich candy colors, while the present day scenes are shot in Bela Tarr black and white. Ruiz develops a fun house visual style that uses extreme foreground close-ups in between his already-patented circling tracking shots. Faces loom absurdly large, the lines in their faces as prominent as the waves in the sea, human folly and imagination shaping the world to their own ends.

While Three Crowns is still moored in reality because of its flashback structure, City of Pirates proceeds entirely on dream logic, with the images dictating the story. It is the purest example of Ruiz’s approach to cinema that I’ve seen. The centering force is Isidore (Anne Alvaro), a wide-eyed, perpetually perplexed woman who drifts through landscapes like Maya Deren in Meshes in the Afternoon. She is first seen as part of a family unit, in a resort house by the sea. Images of the uncanny abound, including a ball that can hear, a séance that summons the police, and a POV shot from inside her dad’s mouth. This pileup of unnatural visuals unsettles Isidore, and she desires escape. After she does an I Walked With a Zombie stutter down the seaside, she elopes with a serial-killing Peter Pan who becomes her fiance. His face is angelic, so his story is irrelevant. She floats with him through white laundry and into the Isle of Pirates, where again her reverie breaks down and she must confront images of imprisonment and decay. Shot in soft, glowing pastels by Acacio de Almeida, and with Ruiz slowing down the pace to a REM sleep crawl, it’s a film that will live in your dreams.

One of his more approachable puzzle boxes (albeit at 4 hours and 20 minutes) is Mysteries of Lisbonin theaters now,  a grand melodrama about an orphan’s convoluted parentage.  Adapting the 1852 Portuguese novel by Camilo Castelo Branco (also a favorite of Manoel de Oliveira, who put Branco’s Doomed Love on screen), Ruiz stays within a stable narrative world, but it is a world of constantly shifting identities and slippery truths, changing with each character’s perspective. Joao is the child in search of his parents, the result of a forbidden union in the aristocracy. This act instigates a cascade of conspiracies, kidnappings and murder that has reverberations over thirty years. Mini-dramas open up inside the grand narrative, digressions within digressions, where Ruiz can have his play with story and reveal his characters as constructions, their personalities cogs in the story-machine. Father Denis (Adriano Luz) acquires no less than three of his own – to prolong the story and his own survival. Mysteries of Lisbon is an expansion of similar ideas he explored in his Proust adaptation, Time Regained (1999), which also pushes his restlessly arcing camera around characters of brittle and fungible identities.

The loss of Raúl Ruiz is an immeasurable one, and the sole consolation is the presence of more new Ruiz movies. Before his untimely death, he had completed La noche de enfrente (The Night Ahead), which, according to Screen Daily, is “a Chile-set film inspired by his childhood.” Whether or not this is his last film to be discovered, his work is inexhaustible, revealing as it does the secret life of stories, the forking paths tales could proceed down, each leading to a parallel world. Instead of taking the road less traveled, he took them all.

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