Raúl Ruiz: 90s

On Ruiz's lesser known 90s work in America, his masterful book "Poetics of Cinema", doublings, and his famous adaptation of Proust.
Le film a venir

Above: Le film à venir (1997).

Notebook is unfurling a series of tributes to Raúl Ruiz entitled Blind Man's Bluff: along with some previously published articles, here in English for the first time, the bulk a compilation of new, shorter pieces from a few generous critics and Ruizians on favorite moments from a vast, subterranean filmography.  For more from Raúl Ruiz: Blind Man's Bluff see the Table of Contents.


The Golden Boat

A man follows a trail of beat-up shoes left discarded along a New York sidewalk. They lead him to an older man, who sits crouched on the street, crying. “This, my son, is not my place,” the older man proclaims—and then stabs himself. So begins The Golden Boat—“a game between soap opera and reality,” as Ruiz called it—his first film in America, made in exile over a few long weekends during a teaching stint at Harvard. Shot as quickly and as cheaply as an Ulmer B, it features a very Ruizian glut of “chance” encounters, throwaway jokes (sushi dogs & wonton enchiladas), narrative tangents, sight gags, and canted angles. If the dry line-readings, largely static compositions, dialogue laced with arch aphorisms (“These days everybody's been dead”), and telenovela parodies (replete with laugh track) recall Mark Rappaport’s downtown comedies from a decade prior, the funhouse atmosphere is uniquely Ruiz’s. Characters keep getting stabbed but don't die; they can't—they have too much to say.

The movie's a playground of arresting formal experimentation (abrupt shifts from color to black-and-white and back again, often within a single scene) and startling, suggestive images: a painting falls from a wall, tearing the George Washington print (!) wallpaper; a man uses the blood from a fresh corpse to paint on a bathroom wall. (“An artist is always ready to use whatever’s at hand.”) But I keep coming back to that first shot: our protagonist following the path of those abandoned old shoes. Ruiz cited the influence of Mexican melodrama on the film, where—as in much of the 19th century European storytelling he often lovingly de- and reconstructed—“the main character never conducts the action but is instead moved by the action.” This wonderfully absurdist first image recalls nothing so much as a piece moving along a game board—Ruiz leading his game cast (largely Wooster Group and Squat Theater vets) through his cracked version of early 90s Manhattan, a treasure island of vibrant people and moments, diners and dingy apartments, rumbling subways and leaky ceilings. It's a wonderland informed as much by real-life experience as the tropes and clichés of American television. The city may not have been Ruiz's place, but as with so many other familiar locations—and genres, and stories—he made it his own. —C. Mason Wells



Above: Las Soledades (1992).

It is a rare thing to say of any filmmaker, but the written ideas in Ruiz’s Poetics of Cinema (1994/2005) might be as significant a contribution to cinema as his work with image and sound. The book, in short, is a sketch for an “unheard-of form of cartographic narration, its rules still awaiting invention, its poetics still awaiting discovery”: a future cinema of multiple, self-replicating lines of flight, where the image determines the narrative, not the reverse. The starting point of this is a clear rejection of central conflict—that is, the backbone of the culture industry and its commercial cinema. 

At one point, Ruiz laments that cinema history has come to represent the history of the triumph of capital over a visionary socialist future. As this utopia has all but collapsed in the face of Empire, which realizes and produces the absolute power of capitalism today, Ruiz asks: what are cinema’s utopian visions now if not the “placeless, rootless images” of globalization, enforced by its myriad “theologians, inquisitors and police force”? The systemic imaging of capital and its hold on life is supreme, to the point at which “the rules governing cinema (let’s say, Hollywood cinema) are identical to the simulation that is life today.” Real life, as Adorno & Horkheimer predicted, has become indistinguishable from the movies: today, nothing is more real than images! So, as Empire enters a new stage of prolonged (and, let us hope, terminal) crisis, one question hangs heavy over cinema and art: “What can we do to build a world that will not fall apart tomorrow?” If there is no outside to capitalism, we have little choice but to create, in Ruiz’s words, images from nowhere. This is, without doubt, one of the starkest warnings to modern cinema that a filmmaker has made.

Ruiz’s best films begin at a point of departure familiar to those who have idly succumbed to sleep in a theatre hosting projected spectacle, visualizing how our dreams might slip through capitalist machinery. They are abundant with the antithesis and connections lacking in the culture industry; kaleidoscopic configurations of objects or durations in unthinkable relations. But the basis of Ruiz’s written poetics is comparatively clear and concise, much like Deleuze’s categorization of the historical break between the movement- and time-image. Underpinning Deleuze’s history was the simple assumption that cinema is the world and the world is cinema: everything is connected, and films are a process of imaging, even thinking, that connectedness. Ruiz’s poetics echoes this history, and leaps from it—if we are to create a new world, we must believe in our capacity to image the one we have. —Matthew Flanagan


Shattered Image

Plenty of genre cinema claims to be “self-aware,” though this posture typically just winks and nods toward the tropes and iconography of the genre in question. But self-awareness as a matter of philosophical curiosity…this is a more precious attribute. In Ruiz's Shattered Image, Anne Parillaud plays two or more roles—mainly a honeymooner and an assassin—as fragments of the same character, Jessie. It's impossible to determine which character is “real,” though each one suspects that the other is simply a recurring product of her slumbers. Roughly two-thirds of the way in, on a stormy night, Parillaud's two selves meet and interact. The assassin-Jessie is an hallucinatory likeness photographed as through glass on a bathroom mirror. First, though, we hear the intrusion of assassin-Jessie into honeymooner-Jessie's world, the former admonishing the latter not to cut her wrists. This use of sound to trigger transitions is a common tactic in Shattered Image. In the meeting of Jessies, one says: ““You're a dream.”  The other replies: “Well … you're a fucking nightmare.” 

A theme that haunts so much of Ruiz—life as a dream—crystallizes in this confrontation, this image (broken down into medium close-ups, mostly, after the early double image captured here). This irresolvable clash of “sensible” story worlds proves surreal, playful, nagging. One doesn't give birth to the other; they co-exist tentatively and uneasily. So ignites an entire unconscious of a certain shard of cinema that beckons such contemporaneous cousins as David Marconi's The Harvest or Renny Harlin's Long Kiss Goodnight, or so much Ferrara and De Palma, and direct-to-video titles of all kinds. Ruiz, of course, has made no secret of his respect and affection for the cheap genre movie, which frequently risks nonsense, delirium, and boredom. Shattered Image cavorts with all three. In truth, we may admit that this film is less than a crowning Ruizian achievement. And yet it has its finger clean on the pulse of a certain cinematic strain, a way of linking images where causality and reason evanesce. It demonstrates plainly enough that, whenever explanations cinema's appeal are offered, there is inevitably going to be something extra, something unreasonable, left unaccounted for. —Zach Campbell



Above: Promenade, from the omnibus film À propos de Nice, la suite (1995).

To take two diverging paths at once is impossible, unless you have a double. Ruiz generates impossible images that endlessly multiply the doubles populating his innumerable, impossible films. But they are doubles that don’t share resemblances with one another, are not their own duplicates, are dissimilar or disparate even in relation to their own identity. They’re simulacra that display the power of a synthesized split. It’s a bold wager: one that requires calm and good humor on the part of whoever believes they can doblar la mano, manipulate and multiply, double deal these everyday splits. That requires an art of multiplying doubles that evaporate immediately when confronted with some principle of identity. Of the vertiginous dobleces, duplicities that inundate fiction and multiply (replicate) mirrors that only reflect what’s unknown. It’s an art of doblar y plegar, the folded and two-folded, of desdoblar y desplegar, unfolding and unfurling, of implicar y explicar, implicating and explicating. Deceitful art that leads to the generation of “pure events” enfolded in half-revealing veils, hinting at ambiguous codes that seem to hide enigmas, or many enigmas, because what is always exposed is a multiplicity…

To double, to wrist-twist the grain of the real, sure, but from its own inner realm, always to produce two diverging paths. Ruiz’s art consists in plodding both paths and, with sly humor and superb discretion, to choose the most unlikely inner realm of each one, or to affirm the impossible in a sweep of fanciful splits, bifurcations. Such is the purpose of the Ruizian image-simulacra.

The fundamental generative signal of this devious and deceitful artistic agenda is the strange attractor, which functions like a torsion capable of registering signals from whatever trivial event and transmuting them into free singularities or gestures toward a phantom, fantastic dimension; but that also allow the return trip to triviality—in a constant movement forward and back. —Cristián Sánchez Garfias


Time Regained

Set Adrift on Memory Bliss: Time Regained opens with a sequence that may disconcert audiences hoping for an arthouse version of In Search of Lost Time, soggy as a madeleine, but that reassures Ruiz (and Proust) fans. In rapid succession, we see a bedridden Proust, dictating his novel; the novel’s Marcel, seemingly something of a wallflower, slipping in and out of the background of the frame; and Marcel as a child. Thus Ruiz introduces the fascination of the novel’s narrating voice: is the Marcel of the novel Proust himself, or not? Here Ruiz lays out the entire constellation of voices at work in the novel: Marcel the character, Marcel the narrator, Proust the writer, Proust the person.

From the beginning, Ruiz affords the film’s audience no fixed point of identification but rather sets it adrift among the events onscreen. He alters the camera set-ups from shot to shot with complete disregard for the rules of continuity editing and moves furniture and set pieces both during shots and between them, further rendering space ambiguous. After a few minutes, the viewer is thoroughly disoriented and mesmerized.

This unmooring of the spectator is underscored by a simple yet ingenious device: Ruiz occasionally mounts not just the camera but also the furniture onscreen on dolly tracks or cranes, allowing them to drift or levitate within the frame, together or independently of one another.  This shifting movement evokes the dispersed nature of a subjectivity created out of networks of memories, images and narratives. (These gliding shots, which recur throughout Ruiz’s later films, especially Mysteries of Lisbon, can also be seen as an expression of spatial dislocation related to Ruiz’s status as an exilic filmmaker, as defined by Hamid Naficy.)

At the same time, the film foregrounds various technologies of perception, from mirrors and magnifying glasses to magic lanterns and stereoscopic slides to the Theatrophone, a precursor of the radio that fascinated Proust, and cinema itself. These instruments deterritorialize us, defamiliarizing our sense of space or time; Ruiz foregrounds them in Time Regained as his cinematic version of the argument that modernity’s unsettled, drifting consciousness is a byproduct of these sound and image technologies.

But this drift isn’t necessarily a sign of inauthenticity or alienation.  Or rather, besides those things, it also indicates a sense of wonder and mystery.  A consciousness that glides and floats!  That is cinema’s gift to us, and we are grateful to Ruiz for pointing this out. —David Pendleton

Cristián Sánchez Garfias’ text freely translated from Spanish by David Phelps and reviewed by author; originally published in Sánchez’s Aventura del cuerpo, el pensamiento cinematográfico de Raúl Ruiz, Ocho Libros Editores, 2011.

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