Introduction 2022: My writing over more than three decades on Raúl Ruiz, like my work on Philippe Garrel, Chantal Akerman, Brian De Palma or Philippe Grandrieux, has proceeded in fits and starts, at the mercy of editorial commissions, event deadlines, and occasional more expansive opportunities. As it has also occurred across different languages (English, French, Spanish), I have tended to make it a perpetual work-in-progress, incorporating, revising and expanding or contracting parts of earlier essays or program notes inside later forays. One day, I hope it may add up to a book, or some equivalent of a book (prospective publishers, please line up!). In the meantime, although I keep most of the material of my various large works-in-progress off this website, I offer the following text written at the end of 2003 and the start of 2004 for the now hard-to-find book that I co-edited, Raúl Ruiz: Images of Passage.
Even if the solution seems satisfactory and without gaps, the possibility always remains that the dream may have yet another meaning.
– Sigmund Freud, 1900 (1)
I once had the opportunity to ask Raúl Ruiz his opinion of a certain, well-known filmmaker. “He’s supposed to be making moving pictures”, he sighed. “But they just don’t move!” It was a curious admission to hear from this artist who is so often tagged as esoterically intellectual. And yet Ruiz often uses this charged, almost thermodynamic language of intensity when describing his own work or the work of others: it’s strong, he might say, or it has an energy. And that’s entirely reasonable, after all: even the severest avant-garde film, viewed from the angle of those who make them as opposed to those who simply comment on them, needs to have a current, some kind of energy (however complex or difficult to define) that drives it from one end to the other and renders it a whole, coherent piece capable of being experienced (initially at least) in one sitting.
Cinema, as a time-based art, depends on precisely that kind of intensity: a film moves, or it dies. (And there are plenty of born-dead films.) To listen to Ruiz in person or in his many interviews, that energy is everywhere, not just in cinema but in the cosmos: it’s the great tension that moves the sun and the stars, holds the planets in balance and passes the wind over the water; or that animates the telling of stories, the combinations of numbers and letters, the erotic attraction-repulsion of bodies …
The energy of movement is central to Ruiz’s films. He is sometimes described as a montage director – orchestrating a dynamic collage of starkly contrasting forms, multiple stories and parallel worlds, from Socialist Realism (1973) and Suspended Vocation (1977) to Manoel on the Island of Marvels (1984) and Love Torn in Dream (2000). But he is more crucially someone who works with a holistic conception of mise en scène to which he applies a malign, ingenious pressure. This is a founding paradox of Ruiz’s cinema: he channels a love of the image through that more classical unit of the scene, no matter how unusual its content.
Commentators started noticing the lush, Ophülsian camera movements in the mainstream breakthrough of Time Regained (1999) and tracked them through to the stately, Preminger-like arrangements of bodies and spaces in Savage Souls (2001) – putting all this down to a little more money, better technical resources, and the obligation to tell more clearly circumscribed stories. But these long sequence-shots with their sinuous, ceaseless camera movements are there almost from the start of Ruiz’s career (disguised by seeming carelessness in Tres tristes tigres, 1968), and appear already full-blown by the time of City of Pirates (1983).
In that film, there is a sequence-shot, over three minutes long, of astonishing beauty and virtuosity – while remaining wholly within the poverty-row framework of the project (a beachside, a few rooms, a bunch of props, half a dozen actors). It is the textbook case of a mise en scène that proceeds via small-scale, internal repetition and difference, symmetry and dissymmetry. It begins and ends on a door, through which the father (Duarte de Almeida) first enters, banally, and Isidore (Anne Alvaro), at the last, exits in a trance. Sound-wise, the scene begins with his softly-spoken, supplicating, slightly creepy voice, and ends on a complex mix of musical layerings: his singing and primitive guitar plucking, Jorge Arriagada’s score, and a mysterious nois, something between a hummed voice and a sliding synthesiser tone, providing the transition between them.
At the core of the scene, the father (standing, in a green top) approaches Isidore (sitting, red top), as he gives her money; it’s a two-shot with the window opening out onto a landscape in the background. As she rises and enters the dream-trance, her head tilted back and neck offered to view as if to vampire’s teeth, the camera tracks in to frame a close-up and lifts up on a crane – just slightly, but enough to obliterate both the outside world and the father (who is unexpectedly sitting by the time he appears in-frame again). Isidore’s slow, possessed walk across the room – the speed of all movements and gestures is carefully choreographed throughout the scene and in the film as a whole – is matched to the swirl of the various musics. When ultimately she exits the frame and the room, passing behind the door, the camera is back in its most conventional, cool, observing position. So little material, architectural, domestic space in this scene, but such richness and variety of moods, textures, intrigues, associations!
Eighteen years later, in Savage Souls (a film full of elaborate constructions of variable movement), another sort of mise en scène figure, simple but arresting, regularly insists: a camera that tracks in and around (right or left) on a sole figure or during a dual dialogue scene, and then stops – but, after a pause, it suddenly makes the journey back out again to its original vantage point, half motivated by the shape of the scene and its dramaturgy, half motivated by nothing but itself and the odd, irregular rhythm of its own gaze. How curious that one of the writers on this film is Alexandre Astruc – whose dream, long ago, of the caméra-stylo finds here a calmly disconcerting expression he would never have imagined.
Ruiz’s meditations on the “six functions of the shot” evoke the dynamic dialectic of centrifugal and centripetal forces. (2) It’s an issue, on another plane, that can derail Ruiz criticism from the get-go. This is a director who loves to eulogise dispersal, who is glad when his films drift from their initial premise and lose sight of any nominal theme, who improvises and seizes on the merest whim during shooting. A director who speaks of either, each time, making many films in one (“One gets so little time to film, and one makes so few films, finally it’s so complicated that it’s stupid to make only one at a time: you have to create a dozen or twenty in one”) (3); or of spreading bits of the ‘one’ film, matrix-style, across many in a row (as in the re-use of certain characters, actors, motifs and situations, or glimpses of some subterranean, unrealised project to adapt this or that classic novel). But how can we focus on a single, cohering text anywhere in his œuvre, this “confused court” (to cite the title of a play by Lope de Vega [1562-1635])? Where does any one film start or end? Does it make any sense to talk at all of starts and ends – why not, as many commentators do, just plunge into the Ruizian sea (fragments of films and concepts) and forget the individual works?
But if this is a cinema of dispersal, is that necessary energy dispersed, too? If it’s a militantly decentred cinema, does any individual film have an organic coherence that drives it from start to end – however surreal that organism, however unfamiliar or inexpressible that coherence? What can it mean for Ruiz to claim that “my dream is to create a kind of centrifugal force in the midst of these different levels”? (4) The dual possibilities of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s theorised cinema of poetry again raise their horned heads: either a film (even one seemingly scattered to the four winds) finds its internal, poetic core, its mystery; or it is internally rent, a surface film ghosted by another, “abstract” film that the director secretly pursues – with what Pasolini described tellingly as an “obsessive force” – between the frames. (5)
Is the secret of this cinema to be found in its constant recourse to, and love of, displacement, in all the senses of that word? First, there is displacement as literal, physical movement: in the classical mode of the camera moving with or in counterpoint to the actors and their ordinary means of vehiculation (cars, escalators, fairground rides … ) – but also, in Ruiz’s work since the mid ‘90s, even the walls, chairs and props move, invisibly slid or lifted, pulled apart or squeezed together, with the actors equally subject to these disquieting manipulations that often replace their natural capacities for self-propelled motion.
Second, there is displacement as a process of shifting, a constant referral elsewhere in terms of the action’s origin or destination, its animating impulse or its ultimate meaning … Can a philosophy of displacement possibly hold together the centrifugal and centripetal, unifying and disunifying, compacting and dissipating forces in Ruiz’s cinema? In these movies which are (take your pick) Molotov cocktails, alchemical experiments or improvised cooking recipes, can the momentary explosions, fleeting apparitions or ephemeral taste-sensations add up to a poetic practice of profound, lasting value?
Putting secret and displacement together in the same thought-experiment is a slippery business. How can you claim to put your finger on a secret, and hold it forever more in place, if (in the classic American saying) “there’s no there there”, no centre to the discourse or the system, nothing but rug-pulling scene-changes, radical metamorphoses of identity and narration, and magical bridges appearing at every turn to shoot us toward the unknown?
Freud found a technique to accommodate this paradoxical and reciprocal relationship of critical, hermeneutic exploration and the incessant base-shifting of everything truly alive and creative: free association. He knew he was both opening up a treasure trove and stepping on a minefield with this revolutionary intuition: everything can mean something – or at least, can lead to something, and that act of association is meaningful in itself – but where can the process ever end? Free association is a Pandora’s box: begin it, and the consequences can sweep you away in a whirlwind of sensations and connections. You can’t ever know whether you’re getting to the bottom of anything (let alone your “self”!), or just following an infinite line of flight, trailing after these desires, obsessions and symptoms that take you right out of yourself and into something that can feel like an infinite artwork-in-process, composed in real-time with the materials of speaking and feeling …
This, it seems to me, is one of the more open secrets of Ruiz’s cinema: that art itself, if practised at all freely and cannily (not always an easy thing to manage, especially in the industrial world of film) – in a word, creatively – is a special case of free association, its prolongation and extension into the arena of collaborative projects, of “group psychoanalysis” (not group therapy, but collective, public, shared psychoanalysis in the radical mode of Massimo Fagioli). But should art really be considered a metaphor for psychic work – or should that be vice versa? Another displacement.
All metaphorisation is displacement: one thing taken for, referring to, another. And what cinema raises, more than any other artistic or cultural language, is the possibility of unfixing the set direction of that relationship. In the comparative Eisensteinian intercutting of men and chickens, is it that men are like chickens, or chickens are like men? Ruiz expands this misrule of metaphor to a level playing field: allegory. Ruiz’s statements leave us in no doubt as to his immense, almost inbuilt fondness for the allegorical mode. Some commentators apply a very specific theory of allegory (Walter Benjamin’s) to the understanding of Ruiz’s work, but I believe that the allegorical mode is here better grasped less for what it means than for what it allows.
Allegory is the grand shifter. Its drive, in any situation, working with any material, is precisely “to evoke something completely different”. It takes the basic notion that “everything refers to something else” or “can mean absolutely anything else” to the point of delirium. The effects of metaphor are no longer local (this bit of symbolism or that) but all-over: the entire tale, its theorem of people, places and events, is always potentially “about something else”, “something completely different”, (6) a distorted reflection of an elsewhere (such as, in Ruiz’s case, far-off Chile) – and that other plane, once solid enough to be brought into consciousness, is immediately available for another allegorical free association.
Freudian dream-interpretation is allegorical through and through. Dream-thoughts transmute themselves into dream-content – and are translated back, experimentally, through the work of analysis – via the complex processes of signification that Freud labelled condensation (many dream-thoughts compacted into a single element of dream-content) and displacement (dream-content referring to something else that it is not). Freud dismisses the simplistic interpretative model of the rebus – and Ruiz, with his mischievous delight in illustrating literalisms, has sometimes jokingly constructed rebus-images. But the filmmaker well knows that rebus-decoding is a constrained, strangled version of the allegorical impulse or mode. In place of such simplistic dream-decoding, Ruiz substitutes what Freud, in his context, described as tantalising “new connections … as it were, loop-lines or short-circuits, made possible by the existence of other and deeper-lying connecting paths”, such as, for instance, the figurative role of what Freud called the “intermediate common entity” that links seemingly far-away dream-thoughts “by copious associative connections”. (7)
Apart from (notably) Thierry Kuntzel’s brilliant, lively adaptation of Freud’s principles as the film-work, and Christian Metz’s commentary on the film-as-dream relation, (8) The Interpretation of Dreams is a text that, surprisingly, has had little effect on film analysis. In the 1970s, when cinema studies raised itself as an institution on claims to the scientificity of its new-fangled structuralist and semiotic tools, Freud’s method was sometimes dismissed as a quaint throwback: was he really saying that, in the reading of dream-signs, any one thing can mean a dozen diverse things, itself included (condensation); and that, equally, it can just as well mean something else entirely, completely removed from itself (displacement)? But the mechanistic signifier-and-signified forms that briefly dribbled into cinema studies curricula never managed to get even close to the analytic richness and creative suppleness – not to mention the psychic truth – of Freud’s insight. The Interpretation of Dreams has energy – and legs; still today, it moves. If Marx’s Capital was Eisenstein’s great, impossible project of non-fiction to be translated into film, could The Interpretation of Dreams be seen as Ruiz’s matrix-grail?
I had a discussion recently with a mathematician friend, Emilio [Del Solar], who is working on the question of infinities. In re-reading Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, he discovered a model that could be applied to what can be called a “non-standard model” in the theory of infinities. And once he had explained that to me, I remarked that the best way to adapt a film is to dream it. When one dreams, there’s what’s called the dream-work – the equivalent of the work of mise en scène – which thus produces displacements of intensity, condensations: the mise en scène of the dream. And in my adaptation, this is doubtless what I did, without fully realising it. (9)
Ruiz’s fascinating free association goes from the principles of the dream-work to the work of mise en scène, and from there to the dream as a model for cinematic narrative: from here to eternity! We return to the seeming paradox of Ruiz’s classicism, how both his staging and storytelling seem, much of the time, to be linear, whole, expansive – while the holes of other worlds open underfoot like silent, deadly mushroom clouds (reminiscent, in this regard, of late Buñuel). Mise en scène becomes a practice radically different to its time-honoured dramaturgical understanding and usage, if conceived and executed in terms of condensing and displacing, loading and discharging psychic intensities.
The scene – like the dream – can have the appearance of time-space unity, while everything in it (to use a favourite term of Ruiz) circulates strangely, intensely. Motifs – set up but not constrained or fixed by the narrative context – are forever in the process of morphing into each other; microfictions and virtual fictions are ghostly backdrops that can, at any moment, take the foreground, and then recede once more.
Recall the jubilation of Ruiz’s renewed encounter with theatre in the ‘80s, taking on the role of director rather than (as in Chile in the early ‘60s) playwright or critical spectator: it was there – faced with the most monumental classic texts (such as Racine’s Bérénice ) and the most constricted set of elements (actors, props, costumes, lights, voices on and off) in a single, small space – that he consolidated his penchant not for mise en scène as we know it (the director’s particular reading of the text expressively realised, given unique form) but rather what he calls “different mises en scène” which “become possible” once a director embarks on creating “a true mise en scène – in the sense of searching for the logic of micro-dramas within a global structure”. (10)
There is a challenge to film criticism in Ruiz’s work – especially to mise en scène analysis, which would have to transform itself utterly in order to cope with what is going on here, picking up the road it very rarely took when modernist filmmakers began radically reshaping this mode of stylistic practice in the ‘60s. (11) Certainly, film theory has, at moments, approached this kind of Freudian-Ruizian insight – as in some ‘70s writings on melodrama as a symptomatic mode of excess and hysteria – but such efforts (often pitched, at the time, at a level supposedly beyond “mere” auteurism) rarely seemed to connect with the materiality of what it is that directors actually do in order to achieve effects, structures and feelings. The challenge today is more to understand this film-work practically, in terms of the decisions that Ruiz (or – differently in each case – Jacques Rivette, Manoel de Oliveira, Béla Tarr, Alexander Sokurov … ) makes on set, the processes set in play.
That’s why – apart from the fun of reading them – it is useful to consult and try to get inside the mindset of Ruiz’s shooting documents, such as the diaristic script notes or the “tales for the cast” he gives to his actors shortly before filming begins. (12) The latter, as he points out, aim to “advantageously replace any rational analysis of the character” – substituting instead (in the case of That Day ) a web of narrative motifs (horrible whiteness, throat-cutting, blackouts), series of gestures or behaviours (mirror-gazing, gun-shooting, grimacing), and intermittent psychological states (fear, paranoia, identity-splitting). Each actor is thus invited to “circulate within the fiction”, to contribute to the mise en scène of its dreaming, rather than give a too-solid life to any particular one of its necessary character-pivots.
Likewise, Ruiz’s scripts, which are (especially in freer, more experimental situations) more like notes or indications for possible scenes – organisable and no doubt transformable in any number of ways – than blueprints of a set narrative logic: hence the opacity of the fragments written for The Comedy of Shadows in 1996 (an unfinished project), where characters, voices, locations, in fact the entire dispositif or arrangement of each scene, remain to be attributed. (13) Cinephiles have some inkling of how (for example) Orson Welles went about bringing his scripts to life – taking a single line written for one character and splitting it among several actors on the set – but we, as yet, have no model for coping with the kinds of subtle yet radical deformations carried out by Ruiz as he both intellectually and intuitively subjects his scenes to the oceanic pressures of a dream-logic. (The same could be said of, for example, Werner Schroeter, whom Ruiz greatly admired.) For starters, we would need to ponder all over again what it means for both director and actor to improvise: improvising with what, how, to get where?
In referring to displacements of intensity, Ruiz declares how alive he is to the psychic charge, the emotional overflow, of Freud’s dream-model – not just its capacity to generate meanings, readings, interpretations. And this is something else we can be a little surprised to see Ruiz evoke so often: what he regards as the emotional content of his films (with autobiographical clues: “My films started getting warm only after I arrived in France … sickness liberated my spirit”). (14) Emotion in films where characters, in any standard sense, do not exist – flattened by the allegorical mode into figures, text-reciting zombies or ghosts, or mere way-stations for transmutating identity-spirits – and where stories are usually false or circular journeys? Ruiz’s description of this emotion is formal, mysterious, even Utopian: “An emotion still relatively unknown in cinema, yet specifically cinematic … born from seeing the elements circulate in all possible ways inside the film”. (15)
To pursue the aesthetic secrets of movement (displacement, circulation) in cinema – along a path of free critical association – will inexorably lead to the darker and more ecstatic secret of what moves us.
1. Sigmund Freud, The
Interpretation of Dreams (New York: Avon, 1965), p. 313. back
© Adrian Martin December 2003 / January 2004