Tuesday 15 August 2017

On DVD - Rod Bishop explores RARIDADES, a box set of four films by the prolific Chilean exile Raul Ruiz

RAÚL RUIZ Raridades

Cover of the Raul Ruiz box set
A Chilean who fled his country after a military coup, Raúl Ruiz spent his remaining 38 years in exile making films in French, English and Portuguese. The man kept up a prodigious Fassbinder-like output directing more than 100 films in his lifetime, including 70 features. Before turning to film, he left his studies in theology and law to write 100 plays.

At the time of writing, legitimate websites list 26 Ruiz features for sale, many without English subtitles. You Tube offers others, but English subs are rare. Presumably, an eager devotee could find more in what David Hare refers to as the “back channels”, but there’s still likely to be 30 or more that are difficult to find. That’s a lot of rare feature films from the same director.

Raul Ruiz (1941-2011)
At least two of the four “rarities” in this Portuguese box set have been screened in Australian cinemas – City of Pirates at the Melbourne and Sydney Film Festivals in 1986 and also during a nationwide Raúl Ruiz retrospective in 1993. The Territory was also part of the 1993 retrospective, an impressive event staged by The Australian Film Institute and including eight Ruiz features, six shorts and work by his partner and long-term collaborator Valeria Sarmiento. The retrospective was held in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, Hobart, Perth and Adelaide with programme notes provided by leading Raúl Ruiz scholar Adrian Martin.

In his writings (see Poetics of Cinema), Ruiz talks of “cinema as a machine for travel through space and time” and believes “a film is not made up or composed of a number of shots, rather it is decomposed by the shots; when we see a film of five hundred shots, we also see five hundred films”.

Many have described him as a fabulist, and Jonathan Rosenbaum compares his work with Welles’s Mr Arkadin and The Immortal Story as “fabulist forms of address and ‘irresponsible’ production values”. Adrian Martin also raises the spectre of Welles when referring to Ruiz as combining “surrealism, magic realism, hyperreal documentary and French ‘poetic realism’ of the 30s and 40s all mangled, mixed and put into loony overdrive…a gagological Welles”.

Others cite Godard, Warhol, Rivette and Nabokov and you could probably throw in Herzog, Malick and Bunuel, but these comparisons only serve to testify to the difficulty of coming to terms with the breadth and complexity of his astonishing body of work.

City of Pirates (1983)

City of Pirates
Regarded by many as impossible to categorize and by some as a film without plot, here is Ruiz’s own summation (although some viewers may not agree):
the story of the impossible love between a maidservant and a child assassin on a semi-deserted island. It is the story of the conflict between a child who ran away and a woman who could be (who should be) his mother, and who oppresses him in a thousand ways. It is the story of a child pushing his mother into committing suicide or into becoming a slave. It is the story of an assassin who hides on an island and who sees his executioner coming to meet him--an executioner in the form of a child who is the exact copy of himself as a child. There are three stories that fuse into one--a free variation on the theme of Peter Pan.” 

City of Pirates
Far from a series of difficult-to-follow surrealist non-sequiturs, it’s a rigorously deconstructed and transgressive narrative allowing Ruiz to utilize his seemingly unlimited ability to reference what he likes from film, painting, cinema, literature, photography, philosophy, music, myth and fable. His 10-year-old Malo (Melvil Poupaud) is an unforgettable malevolent, macabre Peter Pan who has murdered his father, mother, uncle, four-year old twin girls, grandmother and 13-year-old sister with “brutal mutilation” and “unconfirmed sexual abuse”.

He teams up with Isidore, the grown maidservant, herself a virgin and sleepwalker and possible victim of sexual molestation in order to murder her father and castrate her suitor. They travel to the Isle of Pirates where Isidore encounters Tobi the sole inhabitant, a man capable of becoming the personae of various members of his family.

Isidore is later told by ‘cultists’ (in uniform) that the boy is the prophet Don Sebastian, who manifests in England as Peter Pan, in Denmark as Skallagrimsson, in Russia as Michael Strogoff and on Easter Island as Hotu Matuá. He appears every ten years to kill his entire family “with joy” and now resides inside her as her unborn child.

'Dental deficiencies', City of Pirates
Despite the detractors, plot is definitely not a Ruiz shortcoming. In this wondrous, operatic use of lurid melodrama, where time and space seem to contract and expand, he plays his usual games with dialogue (“My bitter coffee. It’s sad, the coffee of exile”) and with image (a POV from inside a mouth during an examination of dental deficiencies).

In one of the Extras, Ruiz discusses the origins of the project: “a film made by using ingredients of the surrealist kitchen”; his interest in Peter Pan; and in “a Jean Genet-esque vision of a child assassin”. 

He also tells an intriguing story of a 400-strong pre-Masonic Brotherhood of Pirates who formed a community for more than 50 years in a bay north of Valparaiso in Chile during the 16th and 17th Centuries. Francis Drake and his son were involved, as were corsairs, galleons and buried treasure. Their pirate city was eventually wiped out when 2000 soldiers were sent from Peru to stop them marauding along the coastline. It seems Ruiz is talking here of Coquimbo and La Herradura Bay where a statue of Drake now resides. The two pirate ghosts searching for treasure from their past lives in Love Torn in a Dream (see below) come from this tale.

Love Torn In A Dream (2000)

Love Torn in a Dream
This wildly audacious work is made up of nine fables, each designated with a letter of the alphabet – a) a theology student is paralyzed by doubt after reading Descartes’ First Mediation; b) a thief finds a mirror that steals everything reflected in it; c) a painting that cures rheumatism, acne and stomach pain also spreads concupiscence (sexual desire); d) twenty-two rings and a Maltese Cross allow someone to live in different worlds at the same time; e) twin brothers, both theologians, debate the conflict between predestination and free will; f) two pirate ghosts search for treasure they buried 200 years ago; g) a young student finds an internet site that foretells his future; h) two lovers meet only in their dreams; and i) a Catholic finds out he is Jewish.

Inspired by 13th Century Catalan writer Ramon Lull and his work on the art of combinatorial mathematics, Ruiz’s characters, stories and time-frames all begin to interweave and combine with such rigorous precision, the viewer is quickly immersed in a delirious world, losing all frames of reference and becoming subjected to the director’s masterly and playful intellectualism. Adrian Martin describes such a place: “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”.

Most of the film is shot in the Portuguese wonderland of Sintra – the idiosyncratic World Heritage Site of 19th Century romantic architectural monuments. It’s a perfect fabulist location for this impish intoxication.

The Territory (1981)

The Territory
Two American families on a camping vacation in Europe become hopelessly lost, walking around in circles, oblivious to a village only kilometres away. One character says they are looking “for a road that leads to Europe”. When their food runs out, they start eating each other and Ruiz raises the number of battles fought throughout history on this land, suggesting these hapless vacationers are merely the end result of a dehumanizing process that has been in train for centuries. One of the survivors eventually publishes a best-seller about the adventure.

The Territory
Bunuel comes immediately to mind, but the occasionally gruesome cannibalism fits more with Roger Corman, who was thought to be involved in financing the film (uncredited). After visiting the set, Wim Wenders moved Ruiz’s actors and crew onto The State of Things using seven of the principal actors from The Territory, as well as two exec producers, a cinematographer, production manager and a couple of camera crew. Corman was also involved in The State of Things, the story of a film crew running out of money and where Corman plays the part of “The Lawyer”.

Point De Fuite (Vanishing Point), 1984

Buried in the Extras is this film made a year after City of Pirates and using some of the same locations. It’s an example of the influence of Edgar G Ulmer’s quick low budget style on Ruiz. It also looks, sounds and feels like a 1960s Beat Generation experimental feature. The copy comes from a 16mm print with plenty of projection scratches, occasional hairs in the gate and contrast so stark, when a man who can’t speak uses written notes in close-ups, they are illegible. Spoken in English, French and Portuguese, Ruiz has said after City of Pirates he wanted to make a “wanderer” film, a “film of walk as often does Wim Wenders” and much of Point De Fuite is paced and as understated in its exposition as Alice In the Cities and Kings of the Road.

Raul Ruiz and Paulo Branco
There are two interesting performances, one from Steve Baes, an actor, novelist and scriptwriter for Barbet Schroder’s Tricheurs (1984). The other comes from the legendary Lisbon-born producer Paulo Branco playing a philosophical poker-playing hustler. It’s a rare opportunity to see this man on film. Branco has produced more than 300 films in his career including 20 of Ruiz’s films. He holds the record for the number of films in the Cannes Film Festival (53) and the record for films in the Official Selection (27). He has produced work by Ruiz, Manoel de Oliveira, Marguerite Duras, Barbet Schroeder, Chantal Akerman, Wim Wenders, Valeria Sarmiento, Alain Tanner, Peter Handke, Olivier Assayas, Pedro Costa, Andre Techine, Jerzy Skolimowski, David Cronenberg, Michel Piccoli and Werner Schroeter.

Pointe de Fuite
Ruiz talks briefly, but lovingly, about their intense collaboration. He mentions Branco’s long-standing habit of playing poker with anyone on the set - trying to win back the money he’d spent on the actors and crew, says Ruiz with a wry smile.

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