Monday, February 13, 2012

THE LIBRARY LOVER: ROSENBAUM ON RUIZ

Recently, in one of my moods where—contesting the seeming digital accessibility of everything—I decided to go retro and spend an entire afternoon browsing used book stores in the Bay Area looking for things I didn't even know I wanted; in other words, cultivating what Mark Cousins terms "appetite generation". I found the third volume of Cinematograph: A Journal of Film and Media Art (a journal published by the San Francisco Cinematheque back in the '80s) and a cursory review of its Table of Contents revealed articles by Lynn Hershman, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Steve Seid, Guillermo Gomez-Peña and—most pertinent to this entry—Jonathan Rosenbaum's essay "Mapping the Territory of Raúl Ruiz", which—after the fact—I discovered has been digitized for Rosenbaum's archival website; but, without the black-and-white photo illustrations (reason enough to allow the completist in me to purchase the volume). Rosenbaum's essay evolved from earlier drafts and was eventually republished, of course, in Rosenbaum's Placing Movies (University of California Press, 1995:222-237).

Rosenbaum's 1987 essay (since revised once or twice) stages a cartographic conundrum: "According to the mathematician Pierre Rosenstiehl, the 'wise Ariadne' method consists of backtracking after exploring each new corridor. That way, it is known, and then it is the turn of another. By contrast, crazy Ariadne explores as much as possible and only backtracks as a last resort. These two attitudes are coherent and make it possible to resolve the labyrinth. Every traveler may be considered myopic. He cannot see further than the horizon. The map is the means of enlarging one's field of vision. Thus the map of the maze destroys the maze at a stroke. The map suppresses the labyrinth. The history of cartography is therefore the business of labyrinth destruction, as was known five thousand years ago. A labyrinth is resolved—one also says 'beaten'—when each corridor has been used once and only once in each direction.

"From one point of view, at least, any attempt to chart the breadth and unity of Ruiz's works in film and video threatens to become a betrayal of that work. If the map suppresses the labyrinth, it is always possible that the cultish desire to possess Ruiz's oeuvre as a coherent entity works against many of Ruiz's own strategies. An anti-auteurist par excellence, Ruiz proceeds partially by subterfuge and anonymity, addressing many of his works to an audience whose responsiveness is largely predicated on not knowing who he is or even precisely what he is up to."

A fair caution, I concur, with approaching the films of Ruiz, even the mere octet sifted from his prodigious output of more than a 100 films (!) being offered by the Pacific Film Archive in their retrospective sampling "The Library Lover: The Films of Raúl Ruiz" (March 2-April 15, 2012). In his early survey of Ruiz's work, Rosenbaum does a fine job of preliminarily mapping (and, then again playfully, inaccurately mapping) the Ruizan terrain. His piece is delightful for likewise illustrating how a good film critic is obliged to change his opinions and perspectives as experience (and re-experience) allows. The revised version of this essay, especially in its footnoted comments, makes clear that Rosenbaum found himself proven wrong in some of his youthful presumptions. But then aren't we all? It's gracious of Rosenbaum to admit how refreshing it felt for him to admit he was wrong. One might even argue that—when it comes to the films of Raúl Ruiz—if one isn't wrong on occasion, then the confused pleasures of wandering among the master's work might be forfeited and wouldn't that be a loss as folly? Even more, one could only wish to find oneself wrong with any frequency considering how rarely Ruiz's films are screened. If the PFA series "The Library Lover" is, in gist, a jar in which only eight fireflies illuminate the night, better the guidance of that light than none at all. Reading Rosenbaum's essay "Mapping the Territory of Raúl Ruiz" becomes a bit intimidating for revealing that it will be the rare opportunity indeed for most of us to see as many of the master's films as has Rosenbaum.

Continuing to dalliance with his labyrinthine metaphor, Rosenbaum writes: "A map may be called inaccurate when one cannot find in the territory that which appears on the map. Inaccurate maps are valuable aids. They enable you to discover what you do not expect to find, take your desires for realities. They also make it possible constantly to make new maps. [¶] Viewed as a tool for mapmaking, Ruiz's filmography constitutes a scholar's nightmare."

Then with one final poetic flourish, Rosenbaum wraps it up: "If the map is a representation of the landscape or territory, what is the territory? It is quite clear that the territory is the sum of all the maps, the result of an infinite addition. Or, conversely, the territory is what is left when one removes the whole tissue of lines, drawings, symbols and colors which covers it. Its existence becomes doubtful."

As doubtful, perhaps, as desirous?

From Rosenbaum's survey expedition, I sift out only a few points relevant to the upcoming PFA series; but, I strongly encourage the essay be read in its entirety.

In 1968, while still living in Chile, Ruiz wrote and directed Tres Tristes Tigres (Three Sad Tigers) "adapted from a play by Alejandro Sieveking—a film with no relation to G. Cabrera Infante's epic Cuban novel of the same title—and won the Locarno Film Festival's grand prix with it in 1969, although it was seen by only thirty thousand or so spectators in Chile. Judging from various interviews, the film has a neorealist subject—the marginal Chilean lower and middle class, according to one interviewer—but a somewhat self-reflexive style influenced by the
nouvelle vague which played on camera / actor relationships: a 28-millimeter lens was used exclusively, the actors' awareness of the (mainly handheld) camera was emphasized rather than discouraged, and Ruiz notes [in an interview conducted with Ian Christie and Malcolm Coad for Afterimage, no. 10, Autumn 1981] 'an attempt to tackle the embarrassment of Mexican melodrama by a kind of inversion, as if the camera were in the opposite position, showing the secondary characters, extras waiting for the big scene to take place.' "

Notwithstanding, Rosenbaum suggests
Tres Tristes Tigres might belong in a group of Ruiz's films that could be categorized as "pre-Ruizian", "to the degree that they are Chilean or Latin American in subject, hence regional—if we understand that 'Ruiz' in this context is less a biological entity than a particular point of convergence between different levels of culture, and a lack of fixed identity or allegiances"; a creature of exile, in other words, which explains the mercurial quality of Ruiz's later work after fleeing the Pinochet regime for France.

Rosenbaum asserts that
La Colonia Penal (1971)—suggested by Franz Kafka's short story "In the Penal Colony"—survives only as a "truncated" 16-mm print. Ruiz's filmic adaptation deals "with an island whose main industry is the manufacturing of news and whose language is 'completely invented' " and "anticipates the metaphysical conceits of such later films as La Toit de la Baleine." He describes the film as "difficult and/or intractable." Ian Christie reported in Monthly Film Bulletin that The Penal Colony reached Britain "after a series of adventures too complex to detail" and in a version "that lacks all credit titles and which may be some seven minutes short." Though granting that this was almost certainly the best conditions achievable for watching the film, Christie added the film was not to be approached "without some contextual information", which perhaps set the precedent for how audiences should best receive several of Ruiz's subsequent films. The Penal Colony, incidentally, is available on YouTube.

Rosenbaum categorizes The Suspended Vocation (La Vocation Suspendue, 1977)—adapted from the novel by French writer and painter Pierre Klossowski—as "esoteric" and "intractable." Irregardless of its difficulty for audiences, the film won the first prize at the 1978 San Remo Film Festival. What perhaps makes viewing the film so daunting, Rosenbaum suggests, is "the interweaving of two 'films' and time frames" within one film.

Equally as daunting would be the "narrative overload" Rosenbaum identifies in Ruiz's "parodic / melodramatic short" Dog's Dialogue (Le Colloque de Chiens, 1977), wherein he likewise traces a thematic element obsessively repeated by Ruiz in at least three disparate works made over a six-year period: namely, "the idea of a corpse hacked up into several pieces which are then hidden in separate places." Rosenbaum takes a leap and suggests that a possible meaning of this recurring motif of the corpse in question is as a metaphor for "Ruiz's own status and identity as an auteur, which commercial, political, national, and institutional categories have torn asunder and buried in diverse locations."

Even though Rosenbaum positions "the Cocteauvian gem" The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (L'Hypothèse d'un Tableau Volé, 1978) as Ruiz's "calling-card in Europe" and his "first prestigious European film" and acknowledges that the film "helped to establish the Borgesian side of his reputation by positing a playful metaphysical system as the basis of his fantasy and suggesting a subtle camp irony lurking behind the taste for academic pedagogy, fanciful English storytellers (from Coleridge to Carroll to Stevenson to Chesterton), and notions of narrative as impenetrable labyrinth", he qualifies that
Hypothesis nonetheless dissatisfied "many arthouse expectations with its odd running time of sixty-six minutes ... and its even odder educational television format."

A decade later, in the 1997 January-February issue of
Film Comment, Rosenbaum drafted a second comprehensive essay on Ruiz entitled "Ruiz Hopping and Buried Treasures: Twelve Selected Global Sites" whose admitted aim was to correct, augment, and update many of his earlier remarks rather than to duplicate them. It does so with the selfsame playful cartography exercised in his 1987 essay, compounded with the aforementioned theme of "the idea of a corpse hacked up into several pieces which are then hidden in separate places." This is laid out clearly in Rosenbaum's closing paragraph: " 'A story is the connection between the objects in the set,' Ruiz once wrote in an essay. And the connections between the objects created by Ruiz forge a precious legend at the same time that they tell a story—even if certain portions of that story and legend still remain scattered and buried, like clues in a treasure hunt—or like dismembered body parts turned into a jigsaw puzzle, a recurring notion found in such scattered Ruiz pieces as Utopia (1975), Dogs' Dialogue (1977, available on the same video as The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting), Le Borgne (1981), and The Blind Owl. Put all the parts of the puzzle together, and you come up with a miracle, a fiction, a legend, an exile's notion of utopia, and a good many enduring objects, spread out over vast reaches of time and space."

The
Film Comment essay is especially helpful for contextualizing Ruiz's "laidback alienation from narrative illusion" (or, as Rosenbaum terms it elsewhere, his "metafiction") as a creative opposition to "central conflict theory". As Rosenbaum explains: "Once you decide that drama isn't based on conflict, a lot of unforeseeable things become possible, and the cinema of Raúl Ruiz is one of them. Look at the first chapter of his book Poetics of Cinema (Paris: Dis Voir, 1995), which spells out this argument in some detail, and even gives it some national, cultural, and political inflections: 'America is the only place in the world where, very early, cinema developed an all-encompassing narrative and dramatic theory known as central conflict theory. Thirty or forty years ago, this theory was used by the mainstream American industry as a guideline. Now it is the law in the most important centers of film industry in the world.'

"What are the implications of this law? Skip ahead 13 pages to one of the chapter's closing arguments: '[T]he criteria according to which most of the characters in today's movies behave are drawn from one particular culture (that of the USA). In this culture, it is not only indispensable to make decisions but also to act on them, immediately (not so in China or Iraq). The immediate consequences of most decisions in this culture is some kind of conflict (untrue in other cultures). Different ways of thinking deny the direct causal connection between a decision and the conflict which may result from it; they also deny that physical or verbal collision is the only possible form of conflict. Unfortunately, these other societies, which secretly maintain their traditional beliefs in these matters, have outwardly adopted Hollywood's rhetorical behavior. So another consequence of the globalization of central conflict theory—a political one—is that, paradoxically, "the American way of life" has become a lure, a mask: unreal and exotic, it is the perfect illustration of the fallacy that Whitehead dubbed "misplaced concreteness." Such synchronicity between the artistic theory and the political system of a dominant nation is rare in history; rarer still is its acceptance by most of the countries in the world. The reasons for this synchronicity have been abundantly discussed: politicians and actors have become interchangeable because they both use the same media, attempting to master the same logic of representation and practicing the same narrative logic—for which, let's remember, the golden rule is that events do not need to be real but realistic. (Borges once remarked that Madame Bovary is realistic, but Hitler isn't at all.) I heard a political commentator praise the Gulf War for being realistic, meaning plausible, while criticizing the war in former Yugoslavia as unrealistic, because irrational.' "

Rosenbaum concludes: "The metafictional universe of Ruiz is neither real nor realistic—only possible, or let's say conceivable, because Ruiz thinks and films it. Whether this makes it good or bad, commercial or uncommercial, is another matter, existing off somewhere in a parallel universe—and fortunately not one that Ruiz has to worry about much, because unlike practitioners of central conflict theory, he doesn't have to draw in large crowds in order to keep on working."

In contrast to certain films in the Ruiz ouevre that exhibit a "studied indifference to central conflict theory", Rosenbaum suggests that one of the reasons Three Lives and Only One Death fares much better in delivering Ruiz to a wider public is because of "its repertoire of twice-told tales like Hawthorne's 'Wakefield' and Dinesen's 'The Dreamers' and its supple employments of Mastroianni."

At the time of his 1997
Film Comment essay, only four videos of Ruiz films were available in the United States and, fortunately, one of them was The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting, which Rosenbaum explored in detail: "One of his first French TV commissions, and possibly the best of his black-and-white films. His assignment: to make an arts documentary on French writer and painter Pierre Klossowski—a novelist (one of whose novels, The Suspended Vocation, Ruiz had already adapted the year before), a commentator on the Marquis de Sade, a brother of the painter Balthus, and a painter of some distinction in his own right. What emerged isn't really an art documentary, but it starts off by offering a deadly parody of one. Ruiz began by considering what TV documentaries were like in general: 'I looked at television programs on famous personalities and observed that the usual format is a voiceover which poses questions. So I kept to this format and developed it into a kind of philosophical dialogue. This is the basic format, which is exactly the same as any banal television program on almost any subject.' As pointed out by critic Ian Christie—probably the individual most responsible for introducing Ruiz to the English-speaking world—Ruiz's two principle strategies were 'parody and literalism, both "rationalist" in their pedigree and both calculated to subvert the normal discourse of television.' Knowing the importance of slick production values in France, Ruiz hired the superb Sacha Vierny, who shot all of Alain Resnais' early features and has more recently worked for Peter Greenaway.

"What's subversive about Ruiz's fulfillment of his assignment is that he essentially invented a series of fictitious paintings by a fictitious painter—invented, in turn, by Klossowski, who collaborated with Ruiz on the script—and got an actor to play a fictional art collector who has a dialogue with the offscreen narrator about the paintings. What comes out of this is not only parody, but also a mystery story, an essay about representation, and, as critic Thomas Elsaesser puts it, "a very literary meditation on the subject of parallel worlds, of secret messages disguising themselves as accidents and coincidences."

The
Film Comment essay does a great job of finessing Ruiz's 66-minute A TV Dante (1991), which is included in the PFA retrospective. Ruiz returned to Chile to film A TV Dante. "What's disconcerting about the six cantos (9-14) of the Inferno that Ruiz 'adapted' for Channel 4's A TV Dante, each of which begins with the title 'Santiago de Chile' and runs for ten minutes, is that they rarely illustrate the original, at least in any obvious way. (A typical unobvious way: to accompany, "His speech alarmed me all the more for that," Ruiz offers a shot of a burning alarm clock.) As in the preceding eight cantos adapted by Peter Greenaway, Tom Phillips's translation is heard offscreen, with Bob Peck reciting Dante's lines and John Gielgud reciting Virgil's. But Ruiz gives us another Dante and Virgil onscreen, played respectively by Francisco Reyes and Fernando Bordeu . . . .

"In a brilliant lecture given to accompany an Australian screening and discussion of
A TV Dante with Ruiz in 1993, critic Adrian Martin analyzed the multiple continuity errors in the opening shots of Un Chien Andalou—the figure of Buñuel with and without a watch and tie, for instance—as well as the eyeline match of Buñuel looking at the moon with the moon itself to describe four distinct ways that Ruiz creates 'impossible scenes' while combining images: (1) the Hollywood eyeline match favored by Hitchcock to establish expectations of conventional continuity; (2) the graphic cuts of Russian montage (and TV commercials), exemplified near the beginning of the 9th canto of A TV Dante by a statue used as a foreground pivot in consecutive shots to construct an 'impossible' space; (3) the style of French Impressionist cinema, featuring such devices as superimpositions and seemingly unmotivated dissolves; and (4) the 'free association' style favored by Maya Deren in Meshes of the Afternoon, where symbolic images (like the aforementioned clock in flames) and physically disjunctive match cuts abound."

Rosenbaum brings the discussion back to the value of inaccurate cartography: "Ruiz noted paradoxically in the same Australian discussion that video makes it possible both to make and use films like maps—spaces for individuals to explore and move around in, as opposed to collective emotional experiences akin to theater. And insofar as maps can chart 'impossible' spaces as well as possible ones—an idea explored in Ruiz's key 1980 short
Le Jeu de l'oie (Snakes and Ladders), made to promote a map exhibit—the philosophical and metaphysical adventures of Ruiz's work thrive on such potentialities."

Rosenbaum's third piece on Ruiz—in my mind, important for providing a sense of their friendship—is his extended interview with Ruiz for the Summer 2002 issue of
Cinema Scope ("Trying To Catch Up With Raúl Ruiz"). In their conversation, they exchanged comments on the making of Three Lives and Only One Death and the scriptwriting process for Time Regained (1999). Both films came from a period when Paulo Branco, Ruiz's longstanding producer, suggested that maybe they could make "normal" movies with well-known actors. Branco approached Marcello Mastrioanni and suggested that it would be nice for him to go back to the period in the 1960s, when he used to make very unusual movies with Marco Ferreri. That brain child was, obviously, Three Lives and Only One Death. "With Mastroianni and [his daughter] Chiara," Ruiz relayed to Rosenbaum, "I tried to make a narrative that was not conventional in that there was not one but three narratives that were combined in such a way that they could make a kind of cubist impression in narrative terms. In visual terms it was very simple, it was kind of flat. And then there was Catherine Deneuve, to get back to the actors. The actors helped me a lot. I have to say that Deneuve accepted to make a movie with me, I only told her the story. She said you can use my name, I accept the movie, with no script at all." That became the film Genealogies Of A Crime (1997), which Ruiz deemed "more ambitious than the others."

Rosenbaum positions his Chicago Reader review of
Three Lives and Only One Death alongside David Lynch's Lost Highway (1997)—both "must sees"—characterizing both as "postsurrealist filmmakers" and adding: "Though Raúl Ruiz and David Lynch are separated by a world of differences—political, cultural, national, intellectual, and temperamental—both are expanding the options in filmmaking as well as filmgoing. Each offers a different kind of roller-coaster ride that manages to be bewildering, provocative, kaleidoscopic, scary, visually intoxicating, and funny."

Reiterating the bulk of his
Cinema Scope conversation with Ruiz, Rosenbaum writes that Three Lives and Only One Death was "conceived as a kind of concerto for the late Marcello Mastroianni, who plays four separate roles in the picture, it comprises, among other things, a wonderful summation of what the charismatic Italian maestro could do as an actor."

Rosenbaum continues: "If Lynch is essentially a painter turned filmmaker, Ruiz is fundamentally a literary man with a baroque and Wellesian eye—a man with a taste for tales and yarns rather than short stories or novels. That places him in the same ballpark as Jorge Luis Borges, who had a similar taste for English writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson and G.K. Chesterton, as well as tellers of twice-told tales like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Isak Dinesen. The first of four tales-within-a-tale in
Three Lives, recounted by Mastroianni to a stranger in a cafe, is a free adaptation of Hawthorne's 'Wakefield', the focus of a famous Borges essay about Hawthorne. It's the account of a man who leaves his wife without cause, rents an apartment only one street away, remains there incognito for the next 20 years, then returns without explanation, long after his wife has given him up for dead, as if he'd been away for only half an hour, and is an exemplary husband for the remainder of his life. It's characteristic of Hawthorne that he recounts this mysterious and haunting tale in strictly realistic terms. And it's no less characteristic of Ruiz—who retains the essentials of Hawthorne's protagonist and plot, though his setting is a Paris neighborhood—that he adds several whimsical fantasy details, all of which are illustrated visually: the nearby apartment seems to grow larger over time and contains miniature fairies who dress like Parisians and who devour the hero's time, so that his 20 years of exile seem to pass in a single night; they gobble up his leftist newspapers, drink all his brandy, and then trap him inside a single frozen moment for two months. [...]

"
Three Lives and Only One Death is one of his sunniest comedies, and perhaps the most accessible, but it runs for slightly over two hours, and there are moments when it seems longer than it has to be. The prodigious invention is often exhilarating—the sheer happiness of Ruiz tossing off jokes (such as his running gag about Carlos Castañeda being a fraud), spinning yarns, devising visual tricks, and enjoying the energy of Mastroianni is infectious—but aside from a few melancholic asides and codas, his emotional palette is restricted to the same amused banter, which eventually threatens to become monotonous.

"France became a kind of second home to Ruiz after he became a political exile from Chile and resettled in Paris, and
Three Lives, made around the time he became a French citizen, is in some ways the most self-consciously French of his movies, despite a cast that's made up largely of non-French actors speaking with accents. The narrator is Pierre Bellemare, a French radio broadcaster whose show served as Ruiz's route into learning the language, and Ruiz's recent collaborations with screenwriter Pascal Bonitzer on his scripts suggests the sort of relationship that was forged between Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière in broaching French culture in the 60s and 70s, in features like Belle de jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and The Phantom of Liberty—movies whose frivolous play with narrative conventions suggests another close parallel.

"As an exile, Ruiz has had to reinvent himself many times in other languages and cultures, and the various characters embodied by Mastroianni in
Three Lives reflect these multiple identities: a wealthy man who willingly becomes a beggar, a character who invents a family for himself, a butler who turns up with an inherited mansion and turns out to be its original owner (in another story borrowed from Hawthorne). Combining all his heroes and stories into one, Ruiz at one point turns to a Dinesen tale called "The Dreamers," about a former opera singer with multiple identities (Orson Welles also started an adaptation of this work, the most treasured of his unrealized late projects).

"This is a humanistic, relatively optimistic take on the notion of multiple personalities, predicated on the idea that we all lead different simultaneous lives. As Ruiz puts it, 'Multiple personality disorder is the disease of the 21st century and is a mental, or rather, a moral disease in which one divides oneself into different compartments and builds different personalities in relation to the people one meets. You become one person when you're with someone, and another person when you're with someone else…. I'm a virtual Balkan republic. All exiles are…. You can be ten people who don't necessarily all know each other. The idea has plenty of narrative potential.' "

On
Time Regained, Rosenbaum writes: "Raul Ruiz's adaptation of Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past can't be regarded even remotely as an adequate substitute for the original, even though the director sensibly concentrates on the last of its seven parts. But this 1999 film is still a lot more imaginative and entertaining than one might have thought possible. Ruiz ingeniously tries to convey the transports of Proust's labyrinthine sentences through camera movement and the displacement of characters and scenery, almost as if he were constructing a theme-park ride. The result isn't as emotionally potent as one might have wished, but it's never boring, and its very inadequacy and occasional obscurity are part of its charm."

Rosenbaum's review of Ruiz's short film
Dogs' Dialogue (Colloque de chiens, 1977) has been included in the Rouge annotated filmography.

As far as any further commentary on the specific Ruiz films programmed into PFA's "The Library Lover", Rosenbaum has written a new critical essay for the Blu-ray release of
Mysteries of Lisbon. A longer version of this piece was written for a forthcoming book on Ruiz being published by the Spanish Cinematheque, and will eventually be placed on Rosenbaum's web site.

2 comments:

Milenko said...

I am closely reading your fantastic texts on Ruiz; I wish I could visit the Bay Area for a week an see all the films. Well, I will settle for the CineFiles (the internet's best kept secret for the cinema completist)

Michael Guillen said...

I wish you could visit too, Milenko. It's been a long time between visits. I just received the accreditation form for the TCM Classic Film Fest. Am I still invited to crash on your kitchen floor? Might be able to get you into the opening night gala premiere of the restoration of Cabaret!