Arts & Events

AROUND & ABOUT FILM: Raul Ruiz Retrospective at the Pacific Film Archive

By Ken Bullock
Friday March 02, 2012 - 03:22:00 PM

"My films are not fiction, but about fiction." Raul Ruiz, the Chilean filmmaker, who over a 50 year-plus career was playwright, novelist, ghostwriter for Mexican soap operas ("telenovelas"), film advisor to Salvador Allende—and maker of something like 120 films and videos—died last summer at 70. This weekend, the Pacific Film Archive will launch "The Library Lover," curated by Kathy Geritz, March 2-April 15, a retrospective of some of his films adapted from literature—including his acclaimed version of Proust's 'Time Regained' and 'Mysteries of Lisbon,' the last film of his to be distributed here, widely pronounced a masterpiece, from the 19th century Portuguese novelist Camilo Castelo Branco (whose works have also been adapted to the screen by Manoel De Oliveira). 

As the above quote indicates—or intimates—Ruiz's relationship to literature wasn't the same as, say, Masterpiece Theatre. His two adaptations of novelist-philosopher Pierre Klossowski's books, among others, often invent whole new storylines and have a critical undertow. Within a film, one story adapted from one author will suddenly intrude and collide with the title story, as in his version of 'Treasure Island,' 'L'Ile au Tresor' (not in this retrospective), where Melville's "Benito Cereno" hijacks Stevenson's tale for awhile—though the Ruizian "Treasure Island" is both a fond tribute to its original and a burlesque of both narrative conventions and satire on Critical Theory. 

Both a brilliant aesthetic thinker and a humorist, Ruiz ceaselessly explored new ways of approaching the tacit fusion of artists' and audiences' intentions and self-consciousness in showing something and watching it. Declaring in a 1985 interview during the making of 'L'Ile au Tresor' that many of his fellow countrymen didn't believe in, say, the existence of whales because they'd only seen them on TV or in a film, Ruiz concluded "The suspension of disbelief has itself become an element of the fantastic." 

"Confessing" he watched films sometimes only to observe the background of the shots, Ruiz remarked that in 'Cleopatra,' while aware that Antony and Cleopatra's love scenes reflected the real-life affair during shooting of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, there were other anachronistic dimensions he found inadvertently fleshing out the story as well, like the jetliner he spotted for a second, flying over Ptolemaic Egypt. 

(Ruiz collaborated with great cinematographers, Henri Alekan [Cocteau's 'Beauty & the Beast' and 'Roman Holiday'], Sasha Vierny [Resnais' 'Last Year in Marienbad' and 'Hiroshima Mon Amour' as well as many Peter Greenaway films] and Ricardo Aronowich [Resnais' 'Providence'], and with a great film music composer, his compatriot Jorge Arriagada [besides over 50 Ruiz films, films by Barbet Schroeder and Olivier Assayas], and collaborated on scripts with novelists like Klossowski and Salman Rushdie.) 

Author of many original scripts and films, such as the extraordinary 'On Top of the Whale' (formerly available on VHS, but not presently on DVD), 'Three Crowns of the Sailor' and 'City of Pirates' (both on DVD—and complete on YouTube), besides unusual adaptations, like Racine's drama 'Berenice' (shot as a telenovela, with the heroine speaking dialogue directly to the camera with the shadows of her interlocutors cast on the wall behind her), 'Life Is a Dream/Memoire des Apparences' (Calderon's play seen onscreen alongside Flash Gordon serials by a Chilean underground agent, sneaking into his neighborhood movie house in a clandestine return from exile—formerly on VHS), 'Fado Major and Minor' (from Dostoyevsky's "The Eternal Husband") and Sadegh Hedayat's modern Persian novel 'The Blind Owl' (reset in Spain and North Africa, with dialogue in Arabic and Ladino), besides collaborations like 'Mammame,' with a French modern dance company, Ruiz would seemingly change styles flagrantly, sometimes within a single film, like 'The Suspended Vocation' (in the PFA retrospective), in which two wildly different films (one a stiff Wartime expressionistic black-&-white, the other a postwar Cinema Verite' color film with constantly moving camera) are spliced together to elucide—or further elude—the story of intra-ecclesiastical Church conspiracies that keep changing form as in a dream, his metaphor for the incestuousness and obtuseness of institutions in general. He often said that each shot constituted a new and unique film—and even within one shot, different elements of the tableau would contradict or comment on each other. (The image of a character in a mirror, for example, engaged in something different from the "reality" it reflects.) 

The same sensibility is behind the Cassavetes-like 'Tres Tristes Tigres' (Ruiz's first feature, set in Santiago, Chile, in which the passive lower middle class intellectuals cede place to the real protagonist, the setting of this milieu) as it is throughout 'Time Regained' (with its Proustian leaps in memory and transformations character—even those who've seen it before on the big screen should see it at the PFA; Aronovich's cinematography has subtleties the PFA projection will reveal more fully than most movie houses ... it was only on the third showing I saw that, due to superior projection, I could see many details of tableaux, transparencies of images); 'Mysteries of Lisbon' brings Ruiz's irony to what is essentially a panoramic melodrama of revelations-within-revelations, just as 'Dog's Dialogue' makes the format of a "graphic novel" cinematic, with stills, sound effects and narration, as well as a Protean, absurd tale of shifting identities amid catastrophic yet everyday troubles ... 

Like Borges—an early influence, along with Poe and Rabelais, Chilean poet Nicanor Parra (of 'Anti-Poems' fame)—and Walter Benjamin—Ruiz's films have the wild diversity of a limitless library—or a stream of conjectures that flows to the end of the old, flat world and over the edge. They are unique, like nobody else's, unrepeatable expressions of a bemused but constantly probing mind. 

This Friday at 7: 'Mysteries of Lisbon' (2010); Saturday at 8:30: 'Three Lives and Only One Death' (1996), Marcello Mastrianni's next-to-last film, with stories from Hawthorne ("Wakefield") and others, and references to Carlos Castaneda and Berkeley's own Jaime De Angulo; Sunday March 18 at 6: 'Time Regained' (1999), with Catherine Deneuve, John Malkovich, Emmanuelle Beart; Friday, March 23 at 6:45: 'Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting' (1979) from Klossowski's 'The Baphomet' with cinematography by Sasha Vierny), with short, 'Dog's Dialogue' (1977); Wednesday, April 4 at 7: 'The Penal Colony' (1971), Kafka reset in Latin America, with short, 'A TV Dante' (1989), Ruiz's episodes from a BBC series of filmmakers' versions of "The Inferno," Ruiz's contribution (Cantos 9-14) set in Chile during the Coup, with John Gielgud and Bob Peck as the voices of Virgil and Dante; Saturday, April 14 at 6: 'Tres Tristes Tigres' (1968); Sunday, April 15 at 4: 'The Suspended Vocation' (1977), from Klossowski's novel of the same name. 

Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft Way, just east of Telegraph, up stairway on UC campus. $5.50-$9.50. 642-1412; 

(Sometime during the run of The Library Lover, some of us in the Bay Area who were associated with Ruiz hope to hold a few video screenings in Berkeley of unusual films of his, along with casual conversation and reminiscences. Details will appear here—or contact me:; 415-433-6988.)