Long before the Rotterdam International Film Festival programmed their 2004 retrospective "Raúl Ruiz: An Eternal Wanderer", in collaboration with the second issue of Rouge, Adrian Martin had already been a key player in organizing "The Cinema of Raúl Ruiz", a 1993 Ruiz retrospective sponsored by the Australian Film Institute. He authored the accompaning booklet for the retrospective, which featured his introductory essay "Raúl Ruiz: The Comedy of Exile", as well as program capsules for 16 Ruiz films. That booklet is available in PDF format at the Pacific Film Archive (PFA) CineFiles website; but, for ease of reference, Adrian Martin has generously granted The Evening Class permission to replicate his essay and four of his program capsules relevant to PFA's retrospective "The Library Lover: The Films of Raúl Ruiz (March 2, 2012 - April 15, 2012). Along with his seven essays on Ruiz for Rouge, and—relevant to PFA's upcoming series—his specific essays on A TV Dante (1989) and Three Lives and Only One Death (Trois vies et une seule mort, 1996), these earlier pieces from the 1993 Australian retrospective provide keen and additional insight.
Also of related interest is Martin's eloquent elegy "A Ghost At Noon" published at Girish Shambu's site. Upcoming: Along with Jonathan Rosenbaum, Adrian Martin is finishing up a long new essay for the Madrid Filmoteca volume on Ruiz and, of course, hopes to write his own book on Ruiz in the future. He advised that it was great to see one of the last Ruiz films, Ballet Aquatique (2011) at Rotterdam, which he described as a "droll and wonderful tribute" to Jean Painlevé.
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Raúl Ruiz: The Comedy of Exile
by Adrian Martin
An exile, as Bertolt Brecht stated, is the ultimate dialectician. But I want to add that an exile is also a consummate traveller whose cultural territory is shaped through a layering process and whose representational world is made up of intersecting figures.—Zuzana M. Pick, 1989
I spend my life looking for equivalences, like all exiles.—Raúl Ruiz, 1983
Raúl Ruiz has often been described as the exemplary artist in exile. Since his sudden departure from Chile in 1974, he has wandered between many countries and cultures—France, Portugal, Germany, America, Italy—and explored many different ways of getting films made (in TV, cinema, schools, arts centers, galleries and museums). Probably more intensely than any other living artist, he has consciously lived out what Zuzana Pick calls the "subjective paradox" of exile, everywhere finding surreal equivalences or building baroque bridges between bits and pieces of various real and imaginary worlds.
Exiled (in Eduardo Galeano's formulation) "between nostalgia and creation", Ruiz has been poetically dubbed by one commentator the "fatherless ghost" of modern cinema. Given the steady erosion of the old myths of national identity in an increasingly multicultural, diasporic and "post colonial" world, the tag is surely true: Ruiz has himself stated, "I believe in the variety of cultural identities—you need many if you want to become yourself."
Yet Ruiz and his characters are fatherless (and motherless) in another, equally pressing and poetic sense. Personal identity is always in flux in the wayward Ruizian universe. His motley crew of heroes and heroines—twins, reincarnated beings, ghosts, zombies, sleep walkers, wandering spirits who inhabit many bodies—are forever in search of a home, a self, any kind of resting point. The problem is that none of these charming, old fashioned unities seem to actually exist. (The narrator in Three Crowns of the Sailor learns too late that his life only has a meaning as part of an infernal pact with the dead—and he is condemned to re-live, re-tell that lesson eternally.)
Yet if there is a territory (key Ruizian term) that one can profitably inhabit, it is that shifting, partly phantasmagoric space formed at the intersection of many stages, stories and identities. If Ruiz found himself, at the end of the 1970s, at the helm of a "return to fiction" within experimental narrative cinema, it was because of his open, shameless delight in spinning stories ("high" or "low" culture, it doesn't matter), conjuring imaginary worlds, and playing childlike games with their building blocks.
Ruiz is one of the great storytellers of the modern cinema—not one story at a time, but many all at once, or overlapping each other, or suddenly displacing each other. He is drawn to pregnant physical sites—gothic houses, mystery islands, picture palaces—where stories are going on everywhere, in a perpetual cycle. And those perenially ghostly and/or multiple characters of his are ones who can easily jump (or be shunted) from one parallel story to another, one parallel world to another.
Many of Ruiz's films resemble the B movies of yesteryear—the cheap, seedy horror, fantasy and pirate movies that he used to watch as a child in Chile. Ruiz loves obvious artifice. His films use bargain basement special effects from the cinema's earliest days: mirrors, split screens, optical toys, smoke, shadow, garish colored filters. Ruiz emphasizes the strangeness of shots, edits, scene transitions. "If you take two images and link them by superimposition, a simple enough device, you—the spectator—are actually in two places at once: a logical impossibility."
From the connections between shots, characters and events, Ruiz derives and explores an entire metaphysics of cinema. He is undoubtedly a highly philosophical filmmaker. But his intellectualism is (as he has avowed) often of a "very sportive and funny" kind. And it expresses itself in his work in a devious, volatile way. For if Ruiz seeks to create a rebus, a didactic illustration of abstract ideas, he pursues this rebus through the intricate, material alchemy of images, sounds, environments and gestures. This translation of the rational into the sensual always results in a joyous betrayal of the initial intention, a vertiginous transformation of the givens, and the opening of a door onto the unknown, the not-yet-thought-or-felt.
Ruiz is the poet laureate of cinematic excess. Many elements of his films appear adrift, hallucinated, surreal: bizarre point-of-view shots; gaping, grotesque distances between foreground and background; colors, lights, decors forever twisting and transforming themselves around the actors; the music of Jorge Arriagada bathing everything in unruly, oceanic, romantic sentiment. Ruiz dreams of making a film in one continuous shot where all the elements would be utterly transformed from start to end; or conversely, where the characters and plot would be perfectly consistent, but the film would "begin in the time of Ivanhoe and end as a Western".
Perhaps we are close to the very heart of Ruiz's cinema here. Reflecting on Eisenstein's unusual "laws of cinematic perspective" which Ruiz adopts as perverse axioms—the part is greater than the whole, the instant is longer than the day—Cahiers du Cinema critic and screenwriter Pascal Bonitzer intuited the deep logic of the director's poetics and his politics. "If the smallest is greater than the largest, the order of the world is overthrown, inverted. The cinematic dream becomes a subversive enterprise, the subversion proper to humor." It is this comedy of exile that liberates us when we encounter the cinema of Raúl Ruiz....
© Adrian Martin, January 1993
Three Sad Tigers, Ruiz's first feature, is a fiction of everyday life, following the random adventures of a group of Chilean "marginals" during a summer weekend. The overtly psychodramatic aspect of the film reflects the influence on Ruiz of John Cassavetes' early films, and also the social reality of "violence and self-deception" which (as Ian Christie has remarked) are "shown as elements in the everyday life of many Chilean marginals". Freddy Buache compares the film to Luis Buñuel's Mexican B-movie melodramas of the 1950s, in which an "exaggerated dramatization is aimed at disparaging the ideology it at first sight seems to be illustrating".
Stylistically, the film is an innovative hybrid of Italian nee-realist and French nouvelle vague styles. Pushing the possibilities afforded by light, portable filmmaking equipment to their limit, Ruiz pursued a systematic, deliberately contrived exaggeration of cinema verite style, highlighting the extreme mobility of the camera, "rough" editing, and the wayward trajectories of the actors. Charles Tesson notes the film's "figures of inversion: the landscape becomes a character, the story becomes a backdrop, and the characters become pure decor".
Zuzana Pick highlights the film in its original historic and national context: "The work of Raúl Ruiz was marginal to what was termed as the 'cinema of Allende'. The ironic treatment of middle-class stereotypes in Three Sad Tigers and Nobody Said Anything (1972) went against the grain of social realism in that it transgressed the documentary tendencies that impregnated the cinema of his generation".—© Adrian Martin, program capsule for The Cinema of Raúl Ruiz.
One of Ruiz's key concerns during the 1960s and 70s was what he called the "institutional" behavior of individuals, regardless of their specific ideological creed: whether a member of a political party, a religious group, or indeed any professional association, the individual "hyperconforms" by consciously or unconsciously adopting certain bodily postures, a way of speaking, a complete mode of psychological behavior. What made Ruiz's Chilean films controversial was the use of his own left-wing culture as a prime (and richly comic) example of such institutional behavior. More broadly, Zuzana Pick has emphasized how Ruiz's Chilean films "drew attention to national identity as a perversely codified and ritualized performance".
The available, subtitled version of The Penal Colony (a free adaptation of Kafka's short story of that name) lacks all credit titles, and may be some seven minutes short. The basic premise of the plot involves an island named Captiva, whose basic industry is the manufacture of news on behalf of international press agencies—and in particular a visiting journalist who is a declared "specialist in underdeveloped countries". Thus, "typically" Latin American scenes of torture and execution are staged for the eyes of the world, while a typically Latin American President strikes dictatorial poses.
"A complex ironic commentary on Latin America's strenuous efforts to conform to the stereotypes by which it is commonly represented abroad" (Ian Christie).— © Adrian Martin, program capsule for The Cinema of Raúl Ruiz.
Ruiz once remarked apropos the smallness of his budgets: "Usually I'll take a poor image and drown it in words." This inversion of the typical sound / image relation has been explored by Ruiz in a number of ways throughout his career. In its extreme form, a reduced number of static images (such as the paintings in Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting or the stills and icescapes in his episode of Icebreaker) are rotated, while a voice-track breathlessly narrates a comically excessive, fantastically exaggerated story. Dogs' Dialogue is devoted entirely to this principle, counterpointing a spoken "family romance" melodrama of love, murder, and shifting personal identities with spare images of barking dogs, streetscapes and a set of illustrative stills.
"The net result of these combined strategies is to reveal melodrama itself as a pure formal mechanism, with characters and plot reduced to the status of necessary props. The disturbing lack of individuality and identity which derives from these attitudes, turning all the characters into mere aspects of a playful, arbitrary schema, seems merely the logical outcome of Ruiz's skepticism about the homogeneity of his own authorship. With characters and auteur all assigned such a mockingly nihilist function, the dialogue that ensues might well signify no more than the barking of dogs" Jonathan Rosenbaum).— © Adrian Martin, program capsule for The Cinema of Raúl Ruiz.
Suspended Vocation is based on a 1950 book by Pierre Klossowski, written in the indirect form of a commentary on an imaginary novel. Aiming to translate this technique, Ruiz's adaptation purports to be two films, one shot in black-and-white in 1942, the other in color in 1971 (although deliberate anachronisms appear), each film having its own cast of actors.
Ruiz: "The story told by the film occurs within the Church. Its internal ideological and political struggles are unfolded, but treated from the point of view of the Church itself. What is the interest of a story of this sort? Like any organization, the Church is constructed on a dual principle of obedience, and separation from the rest of the world. Like any organization, it requires exclusivity, constant growth and hierarchy. In a certain way, the Church is the organization par excellence. To speak of the Church is thus, perhaps, to speak of bureaucracy and dogmatism. The Church is thus the totalitarian system par excellence, based not on police violence but the free will of its members. The Church is perhaps the most successful example of 'totalitarian fascination', with two principal sources of pleasure: the fascination of discipline, and of power."
"There is, in both novel and film, what ought to be the ultimate heresy: a meticulous description of a theological combat from which every trace, every relevant sign, of the truly religious—the 'supernatural', as Klossowski would say—has been erased. And, as one might expect, what remains is—in its purest, most pathological, most totalitarian form—paranoia" (Gilbert Adair).— © Adrian Martin, program capsule for The Cinema of Raúl Ruiz.