A Ghost at Noon:
I try to remember that disparity exists. And that is a good way to remember death. Then death becomes something completely other than accommodating or resigning oneself to dying, something other than melancholia. On the contrary, it becomes a ‘working tool’.
– Raúl Ruiz, 1987
In the magisterial Mysteries of Lisbon (2010) – which is not, in fact, Raúl Ruiz’s final feature film (he subsequently shot La noche de enfrente in Chile), even if it is, happily, one of his most internationally successful – there is a scene in which the mysterious priest of the saga (superbly played by Adriano Luz) enters a private room in which we see, neatly arranged, the traces of all his other, previous identities. They are more than just disguises or costumes; they are his other selves. Ruiz’s camera makes a slow, elegant pan around this small, confined space of intrigue, coming to rest on the diminutive Father Dinis, simply reflecting, absorbing all these signs of the labyrinthine fiction of suffering and woe to which he has been a party, both player and puppet. It’s the kind of moment that – as in every great film – you don’t necessarily really see or take in on a first viewing, or even fifth viewing; but it’s there, waiting for you to catch up with it at last.
Another of the best Ruiz films, in my devoted opinion, is Three Lives and Only One Death (1996). It is among the many he made that reflect (in so many allegorical and metaphorical ways) on mortality. The movie seems to mark a somber limit: after living so many parallel lives, so many second chances, so many imaginary identities – each one spinning out its own world or universe – the main character (Marcello Mastroianni) discovers, as we discover, that the proliferating game comes to halt with the full stop of the mortal sentence: there is only one death and, beyond that, nothing (I believe Ruiz remained an atheist his entire life). But, in the immediate wake of the announcement of the director’s own passing at the age of 70, someone on Facebook turned this title around in a pleasing, triumphant way: one death, but so many lives.
And Ruiz did indeed lead so many lives, progressively as well as simultaneously. An astonishingly prolific artist who was unafraid to grab any production opportunity, no matter how small (“Give me ten thousand dollars or ten million dollars”, he once joked, “nothing in-between”), his career went through many phases. Although some commentators (including passionate supporters) tended to reduce every one of his works to the same ‘Ruizian’ wash of zany angles, coloured filters and narrative illogicalities – how he must have grown weary of that appellation, as Welles grew tired of Wellesian or Antonioni of Antonioniesque! – there are important differences, in scale, medium, strategy and level of achievement, between his very diverse productions. (He also intenselt disliked the inevitable Frenchification of his Chilean first name into ‘Raoul’ – something I wish the New York Times and many French commentators had gotten up to speed with by now.)
I won’t attempt a synoptic sweep of his full career here – that will require a hefty book or three. Some highpoints that come immediately to mind, however: the first films made in Chile, 1960-1973, full of treasures unknown to many of us, such as No One Said Anything (1971) and Socialist Realism (1973) – what a blast, three years ago, to see in Valdivia the discovered and restored (by Ruiz himself, with a mouth-music sound accompaniment) inaugural short, La Maleta (The Suitcase, 1960). The wayward-lurching Los Tres Tristes Tigres (1968), a hyper-realist bourgeois drama already way out the other side of Cassavetes, Dogme and Mumblecore combined – arch-surrealist Ado Kyrou knew the spark of genius straight away when he saw that one, just as Serge Daney would, four or five years later, when Raúl and his wife, director-editor Valeria Sarmiento, had hastily relocated in France in exile from the dire political situation in Chile.
This begins the period via which most of us encountered Ruiz in the English-speaking world, usually belatedly: from Suspended Vocation (1977) and Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (1978) through to The Roof of the Whale (1981) and City of Pirates (1983) – an extraordinary run of dazzling, neo-baroque explosions, many emanating from the B movie-type conditions of television commission. Ruiz took his working-method inspiration on these projects from Edgar Ulmer or Buñuel in Mexico; the speed and improvisational gifts he evolved there meant, many years later, that he could sustain the elaborate mise en scène of Mysteries of Lisbon over an entire six episodes – something the HBO/Canal+ crowd cannot quite do.
Some of Ruiz’s champions tend to stall around here, fixating on these works and the apotheosis of their wild techniques in Treasure Island (1985) or Life is a Dream (1986). But Ruiz, far from exhausted, had a long way to go yet. The Blind Owl (1987), an adaptation of a classic Iranian modernist novel by Sadegh Hedayat, is among the summits of his career, as is the too-little-seen series Manoel on the Island of Marvels (1985), which crept out, unannounced but subtitled, at midnights on Australian television in the ‘90s. Dark at Noon (1992) looked like a turn into the ‘genre mainstream’ (horror-mystery), but when that didn’t pan out, Ruiz – as always – continued on with his low– or no-budget works, and essayistic videos like Mirror of Tunisia (1993) in collaboration with Abdelwahab Meddeb.
The long-nurtured partnership with Portuguese producer/entrepreneur Paulo Branco led to another kind of upswing in the mid ‘90s, with glamorous stars inside the labyrinthine plots of Genealogies of a Crime (1997) and, later, That Day (2003). The film that really made the difference for Ruiz, film-industry wise, in the 21st Century was Time Regained (1999) – and whoever first had the crazy idea to get him to helm this classic of French literature must be eternally thanked. This gave Ruiz the ability to keep lavish, high-profile projects (the ten million dollar ones), like the underrated Klimt (2006), going.
The works kept flowing forth, on all levels – the English language productions (genre turf, again) of Shattered Image (1998) and A Closed Book (2010), as well as the advanced hermetics of free experiments such as Love Torn in Dream (2000) with its multiple, arithmetically arranged, interconnecting plots across different historical times and spaces, or the heady Lost Domain (2005), or La maison Nucingen (2008). He worked in gallery installation and in theatre, a real multimedia guy, giving rise to pure experiments with actors and language like Agathopedia (2008) – every kind of actor loved Ruiz – and the tribute-in-process Responso: Homage to Huub Bals (2004), which had a special poignancy for its Rotterdam audience.
Ruiz was so often ahead of the curve: we hear a lot about mind-games and puzzle-films these days, as if Christopher Nolan is doing something new and innovative, but the real mind-games were laid out by Ruiz in Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983), The Comedy of Innocence (2001) and Three Lives and Only One Death. And then – once more obscured in the West – the return to Chile as both its Prodigal Son and Revered Master (national pride over him is more than palpable there): starting with the TV Dante (1992) and going right through Días de campo (2004) and two elaborate TV series (La recta provincia  and Litoral ), ending with La noche de enfrente – and, in between, the groundbreaking long-form ‘digital essay’, between documentary and fiction, of the Chilean Rhapsody (2002-3), a marvel of exploration and inquisition.
Like every filmmaker, Ruiz always had many projects. He seemed to work on the principle once well described by Joseph Losey: have five films on the go, and you’ll get to make the sixth. And, because Ruiz wrote assiduously most days of his young-adult and adult life, deft writing without much need for redrafting, these were not mere sketches; he had a well-developed script in his drawer for most of them. But he almost never expressed regret for this or that unmade baby; as he once proclaimed, “it’s stupid to make only one at a time: you have to create a dozen or twenty in one” – so traces of phantom projects managed to find their way into every crevice, every opportunity.
Ruiz was a gifted teacher of filmmaking; several of his features, including The Golden Boat (1990) and Vertigo of the Blank Page (2003) emerged from ultra-low-budget classroom exercises. He always believed, pedagogically, in the rigorous union of doing and reflecting, in serene, morning/afternoon alternation; theory and practice were never split apart for him, although he would always add that, in his own work, he was able to carry out only a fraction of the experiments he conceived.
Experimentation was, indeed, his watchword: in the last years of his life at University of Aberdeen in Scotland, he speculated about the possibility of marrying cinema theory with neuroscience via experiments on the brain and its strange force-field ‘aura’; this followed on from his interests in all things mathematical and scientific. He was a mind-bogglingly well-read person (while scoffing at the academic pedantry of precise bibliographic citation – he once tossed me a rare manuscript by someone who had crossed his path, saying: “If I need to refer to it, well, I know you’ve got it”) – and only Valeria could have the faintest clue, now, of all the rare and obscure texts he acquired (he was an avid antique book collector) and pored over in his lifetime.
The importance of Ruiz as a theorist of film has, I believe, been criminally underrated and overlooked. In many essays throughout his life (such as those given to Positif), in the brilliant Poetics of Cinema book series for Dis Voir (unfinished, alas, but with a third instalment partially reconstructed by a Chilean publisher), and especially in his manifesto-like “The Six Functions of the Shot”, Ruiz probed, with infinite care and patience, the mysteries and possibilities of every linkage and liaison in cinema: cuts, camera movements, sounds, gestures, shadows, narrative and non-narrative events … And no less important, on this level, were his more obviously creative pieces (film, play and radio scripts, novels, the ‘notes for actors’ that he provided on all his later projects, and the literally hundreds of in-depth interviews he gave in many languages): Ruiz never ceased elaborating, teasing out, refining and extending his often extraordinary (and only seemingly whimsical) ideas. His life was one continuous ‘thought experiment’, as the logicians say.
I feel honoured and privileged to have known Raúl a little, between his visit to Australia in 1993 and his death. He was a marvellous, generous, endlessly hospitable guy (as all who ever visited his home in Belleville will testify), and his lifelong relationship with Valeria was something wondrous to behold. His mischievous sense of fun and laughter, once you had his trust, was truly infectious. Hanging out with him was always a delight, and brought unexpected revelations at every turn in the road, or in the conversation: from his sudden confession to me that “the great secret to good filmmaking is this: you must always cook for your cast and crew!”, to the reluctant admission that the reason he doesn’t figure much in Gilles Deleuze’s Cinema books (and he absolutely should) is that he and the philosopher once got into a raging fistfight after a hot intellectual disagreement.
A rarity among filmmakers, Raúl actually liked critics, and encouraged their creative drive (as with Benoît Peeters and Pascal Bonitzer) – although he was also sensitive to their capacity for fickleness, and easily hurt when he felt he had been unceremoniously ‘dumped’ by them (“dumped for Kiarostami!”, he once privately opined). Partly because of this, he developed, at least from the ‘80s on, a droll sense of cultural fashion: “Every five years, I am embraced for being a player of games”, he drily told me, “and then, for the next five years, I am castigated as being unserious and irrelevant. Then we start over again”. Ruiz knew how to bide his time, ride the waves, and stick to what mattered to him: serious playfulness, playful seriousness. Nobody in cinema worked that dialectic better than him.
But if I had to pick one anecdote (among so many) that best characterised the warmth and genuinely democratic, open spirit of Raúl, it would be from his International Rotterdam Film Festival retrospective of 2004, when I was standing next to him in a crowded foyer. Suddenly, he spotted and waved to a distant guy; they approached each other, warmly embraced, briefly chatted and parted ways in the throng. Who was he (I asked), an actor, a producer from one of his films? No: “He projected my films here in Rotterdam twenty years ago”. For Raúl, a good projectionist was just as important, just as valuable as anyone who contributed to his work, no less than a Malkovich or a Deneuve, a Jorge Arriagada (composer) or a Sacha Vierney (cinematographer). What a memory he had – and what a profoundly ethical sense, right where it most matters, in everyday life, and in the lived history of that everyday.
I first met Raúl when he was 52 years old – which is the age I am about to reach as I write these words. (I am instantly reminded of the beautiful sentence in Poetics of Cinema to the effect that his “astonishment” at Hollywood’s bizarre rules of storytelling “is as young today as I was then” when he first encountered them in a scriptwriting manual of the 1950s.) At that time, he was starting to feel an anxiety that I can only fully relate to at this point: a sense that his life’s work had been scattered, much of it lost, and out of his control or reach. He was looking for someone who could be both an archivist and a booking agent for his work in all media. There was a desperation in his voice and his eyes when he spoke about this – and that was an uncharacteristic symptom coming from this always elegant, controlled, outwardly modest man (“chaste”, he would say with a smile).
Mercifully, the coming history of technology turned to his assistance: on DVD – which I believe Raúl came to regard as his archive – so many works, unseen for decades, have come back: The Territory (1981), Point de fuite (1984), key shorts … and with a brisk trade in less legal restorations downloadable on-line. There remains so much more to cover and explore in Ruiz’s œuvre; most accounts barely scrape the tip of the iceberg. But there are also (I believe) two foundations working to preserve his legacy; and a major retrospective flagged for Spring 2016 at the Cinémathèque francaise.
In the whole time I knew him, and also frequently in his writings, Raúl would return to a peculiarly Chilean experience that fascinated him, the phenomenon of the ‘noonday ghost’. He would retell this typical, iterative tale with the utmost conviction and sincerity: walking in a Chilean street, he would see an old friend from 40 years ago. They would speak of banalities: the traffic light not working, the rising price of milk, the hole in the nearby bridge. Then they would saunter apart – with Raúl realising, some minutes later, that his friend had been dead for some long time already.
This is the noonday ghost, Raúl explained: nothing like the Gothic ghost of shadows who avenges wrongs, returns the repressed or haunts the living with a malign force. The noonday ghost looks just like you or me, in the bright daylight, and is just as boring. This ghost is a figure for the other key dialectic in Ruiz’s cinema: the interplay of mystery and ministry, as he described it – sublime things that inevitably become dead ordinary, and ordinary things that become suddenly, strangely sublime.
I hope to bump into Raúl Ruiz, ghost at noon, someday in the street, or in a crowded cinema foyer. He will once again be walking calmly, hands clasped behind his back. And he will be saying, as he so often did, and will again: “Dying is no big thing”.
See also: Raúl Ruiz: Displacements
© Adrian Martin 20 August 2011