Over the next couple weeks, Notebook will be 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.
I had recently arrived in New York in the late 90s and was completely lost, overwhelmed by the need to adapt, to no longer be just chileno, and to understand this multicultural, all-consuming city, when I found myself with a worn-out VHS tape of On Top of the Whale, an alien film that only left me feeling more displaced but crying with laughter for five minutes straight. Amidst everything else in this enigmatic movie, there's one of the most remarkable, humiliating, and endless tirades—or chuchadas, as they say in Chile—in the history of cinema. In the scene, a guy taunts another for some minutes with insults that make up a greatest hits of all the harshest, cruelest, and most hilarious expletives in the Chilean vocabulary. 5000 miles from home, I could understand the barbed humor of the Cono Sur much better now, and I discovered one of the first codes of Ruiz while at it: Chilean-ness.
It would be in Chile, some years later, seeing the director at work, that I would get another code to navigate Ruizian nebula. At the invitation of my friend Jorge Aguilar—Ruiz’s devoted director of photography—I visited the set of Litoral, cuentos del mar (2008) in Santiago, and in the little time I shared with Ruiz was quickly impressed by his ability to broker so many ideas at once. It was a whirlwind experience that in a couple of minutes took us through his memories of his time in New York filming The Golden Boat (both of us knew his New York producer), to what drew him to Bela Tarr and José Luis Torres Leiva, and to his familiarity with some astonishing documentaries I’d never heard of—all this while he prepared a shot and calmly sipped a glass of wine that he referred to as “el cañonazo del mediodía,” “the midday bomb.” Soon, behind the camera, he invited a poet friend to his side to talk of Chilote myths, as one story shifted abruptly to a discussion on ancient European texts and ended with Ruiz humming to himself a Medieval song. It was an overwhelming sensation that I suppose everyone who knew him or has seen has films has experienced: the sense of being on a convoluted adventure, at once uncertain and perfectly lucid. —Jeronimo Rodriguez
DON RAÚL'S RUIZNESS
I first met Raúl Ruiz back in 2004 at BAFICI when he was invited by Quintín (then director of the prestigious Argentinean film festival) for a semi-retrospective. As Quintín put it, since it would be quite impossible to show a whole Ruiz retro in a single sidebar, they would plan on screening his films in groups of five or so, year after year, and maybe in one or two decades (or more) the journey through his films would be complete. Of course it would have been a very Ruizian endeavor: the retrospective would never end if Ruiz kept making four or five films a year. But even if it would have been impossible to finish, it was a very good idea (sadly, in the following years new festival directors came in and the idea was not continued—although I believe they show one or two Ruizes every year).
Since he was Chilean (and I am too), I remember I was very pleased to hear Ruiz speak seriously about his films in front of the Argentinian audience. For me, this was something new. When he visited Chile, Ruiz usually did the opposite: maybe suspicious of a sincere interest in his work in his own country, he used to subtly make fun of silly questions, or speak in riddles and codes. As I would later discover in a book written by Adrian Martin (Sublime obssesions, edited by BAFICI in 2004), not to talk directly about his films was part of his art. To use rethoric as a veil was a central point of his cinema.
The following years I tried to discover the real Ruiz, to unveil the veil. Happily, he was less reserved with Chileans in his final years. I was invited to be part of a radionovela he had written (and directed) for a local radio, and he was very amazed at how Chileans had changed their accents since he had left the country in 1973. Later, in 2008, as part of the programming staff of the Valdivia Film Festival, we invited him to finish his first film, La maleta, whose 16mm uncut negatives had been recently found in the archives of the Cineteca de la Universidad de Chile. He was very enthusiastic with the assignment: not only did he personally check the transfers, but he also he gave the material a whole new meaning in his new cut (“Now I remembered why I didn’t finish it in the first place”, he said, pausing for a laugh), and he even recorded his own voice for the soundtrack—making noises.
Like everyone who knew him in Chile in the last years of his life, I was very impressed by the Ruizness of Don Raúl: his master intelligence was some kind of veil of rhetoric to hide an intense emotion. And at the risk of cliché, it’s the reason why he truly lives ad eternum in his films. — Gonzalo Maza
LA MALETA (1963/2008)
Using some film stock Sergio Bravo had given him for a screenplay that treated Greek myths of metamorphosis as insular Chilote traditions, Raúl Ruiz began to work with Enrique Urteaga in late 1962 to shoot scenes “on the fly” with actors from the Compañía de los Cuatro from two of the 100+ plays he had written by then, La maleta and El cambio de guardia, which los Cuatro had recently staged under Victor Jara’s direction as Dúo. Humberto Duvauchelle recalls that each time someone asked Ruiz to solve a problem found in Dúo, he would literally “whistle the same tune” he’d whistled as the “simple solution” for the first problem. Elements of mise-en-scène tend to become parties to dialogue in Ruiz’s cinematic narratives in ways that defy easy summary. Various masks invented to handle and hide technical obstacles (answering whistles) become integral to each piece’s eventual form. The synopsis connected with La maleta today comes from a mid-1980s statement by Ruiz that very closely resembles one of its several retreatments in La chouette aveugle (The Blind Owl, shot in 1987):
“A man walks through the city with a valise. Inside of it is a man much smaller than he. When the one carrying it gets tired, he stops, is packed inside of the bag and the other one takes over.”
It is probably better to apply this synopsis to La maleta at a time when it was being reinvented in exile in France in Ruiz’s repertoire rather than to what at that time was lost 1963 footage or to the film that Ruiz and Inti Briones reassembled in 2008 once that footage had been recovered in a canister labeled “French film” in a University of Chile storage closet.
Consider La maleta’s final seconds: at the end of a long sequence shot, the camera pans right and pedestals down as Gastón Duvauchelle (the “other” man) suddenly collapses backwards onto a bed. The camera’s motion appears to be tracking his movement from the same axis as it has done throughout the shot since the exit of the hotel concierge (Gonzalo Palta) who has helped him pack the man (Hector Duvauchelle) into the maleta (a cabin trunk). But as the camera continues fluidly, the maleta now makes its appearance in the extreme foreground, gradually filling the frame: which fades to black. This is a familiar means of blocking a reverse shot into a traveling sequence shot, as in Hitchcock’s Rope, where the move also masks cuts within the “blackouts” so that viewers’ complicities in continuity stunts become entangled with the murderers’ points-of-view. In La maleta, Ruiz deduced another instant for this abstracted point-of-view: the last shot's continuity is not to be found in another image sequence but in this conditional blackout which lingers, in a sort of optative mood, between one more title-card "One day more…", and the end-title, “Fin.” This wink at a “stolen chapter” leaves us blocked into a point-of-view que anda la maleta. The old Chilean saying andar la maleta invokes maleta as the general category of baggage, large and small, to figure “a bad mood” that is ready to steal away from the present scene…quite a different “point-of-view” than the unwanted visitation of past grievances on the present that “having baggage” conjures up in American English idiomatic usage. —T.C. Smith
DIÁLOGOS DE EXILIADOS (DIALOGUE OF EXILES, 1975)
Video essay by Catherine Grant.
COLLOQUE DE CHIENS (DOG'S DIALOGUE, 1977)
I first saw Colloque de chiens as a preamble to an assignment in which each student had to make their own photo-roman. No voices, no sounds. 25 still images, on screen for three seconds each. At first, Ruiz’s film seemed an unjust example; he had more tools—voice-over, music, sound effects, footage of street life. He also had those barking dogs venting on our behalf, giving our eyes respite from the motionless photographs, letting us catch our breath between narrative flurries.
Viewing the film again I realized that, despite the imposed limits, Ruiz’s greatest weapon was available to us. The drama of Colloque is in the ellipses and the elisions. Ruiz’s is a montage that juxtaposes the infinitesimal and the epochal. The changing shadows of young Monique’s face, fractions of a second apart, are set against the weight of her abandonment. From these micro-moments Ruiz leaps to the vagaries of Monique’s life in Bordeaux, a life ruled by sex, domination and revenge. Mirroring Monique’s tragic cycle, Henri’s five years in Baumettes prison are rendered with a cutaway to a cellmate observing the start of his downfall. Ruiz goes on, galloping across lives, trampling dramatic arcs underfoot, but pausing on Odile’s shifting eyes as a bottle approaches her temple to deliver a final blow.
The slowness of these moments accentuates Colloque’s leaps across years and lifetimes. Like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ruiz shows melodrama from a wide angle, with characters as generational cogs, as causes that perpetuate repetition and, having done their part, recede. From the tailspin of these lives Ruiz fashions something like a logical proof, a melodrama ad absurdum. Sidney Lumet once observed that in drama characters determine the story, whereas in melodrama, it is the story that determines the character. Ruiz tests this theory the old-fashioned way by taking melodramatic entrapment, the film’s “macabre circle,” to its logical conclusion. And contrary to expectation, the endpoint he discovers is not a black hole, but a moment of liberation.
The ending of Colloque is both repetition and difference. Same playground, same schoolboy cruelty. Yet despite the melodrama’s centripetal pull, Luigi escapes the spiral. The insult that hurt Monique doesn’t touch him. His response (“The woman you call my mother isn’t my mother”) is a gesture of strength. It is not unusual for melodramas to end on such a note. However, displays of strength are typically laden with self-sacrifice. Recall Now Voyager’s famous last line: “Oh Jerry, let’s don’t ask for the moon, we have the stars.” Colloque’s ending disavows such sacrifice for an unforeseen independence. Ruiz repels melodrama by ending on a young boy who is certain that this particular story will not determine his character. — Maxim Pozdorovkin