Friday, September 23, 2011
Raul Ruiz RIP
In the wake of any great filmmaker passing come countless tributes, recollections, reflections, and salutes to their greatest days. In the event of many filmmakers their best work are dusty old distant relics of a previous generation, risen to prominence in the glorious yesteryear when they still made great cinema, as if to imply today’s films are somehow lacking. Sometimes we hear a figure has passed away and we ask ourselves out loud “Didn’t he die already?”, other times it’s someone taken far too soon in the prime of their career with infinite more promise to come. In the case of Raul Ruiz, like his many films, he may not fit into any of the above categories.
Ruiz had just passed his 70th birthday shortly after his passing last month. You can scarcely say he was gone too soon, after all 70 is an age many of us may not ever hit (sorry to be morbid). However looking at his glorious yesteryear proves a little trickier with Ruiz. A workaholic of biblical proportions Ruiz made around 100 films from 1963 until last year’s Mysteries of Lisbon, and I’d venture to say no one except for possibly Ruiz himself had seen all of them. Even after my recent Ruiz-fest in preparation for this blog, I’ve only totaled 17 films of his, so I still have a long way to go, not even 20% done.
His theory was always to keep working no matter what the source or cost. The fact that a huge majority of his films came from his own scripts only goes to enhance his status as a supremely prolific and gifted auteur. The varying degrees of quality in his work however may attest to the fact that when your objective is output you may not have the emotional attachment to your work that often leads to highly personal masterpieces. Or you may simply say that Ruiz was a filmmaker and scenarist who trusted his instincts, went with his first response and rarely second guessed himself or his work. If his film was poorly received, or not received at all it didn’t matter because by the time it premiered he was already working on his next project.
Ruiz’s career is one that spans decades of peaks and valleys. He was born in Chile and began making films when many of his more politically oriented countrymen started to gain notoriety. After Pinochet took power in 1973 Ruiz like many of his countrymen became a political exile, relocating in France where like the great surrealist before him, Luis Bunuel made a second home for himself. His first French language film, Dialogue of the Exiles takes a Ruiz-ian approach to the displacement of Chilean citizens in the wake of Pinochet. Lacking much of the surrealistic flourishes that would characterize his later work, it is a dialogue heavy film about people in exile trying to find a new home, yet surprisingly low on overt political commentary. Unlike say Miguel Littin, Ruiz was not terribly political in his films. Sometimes his beliefs were hidden under layers of surreal mystery available only for the most adventurous psychoanalyst to decipher like complicated dreams, but this led to some criticism by other Latin American filmmakers who felt he should have been more vocal.
Borrowing slightly from Chris Marker’s still photography film La Jettee, Ruiz made Colloque de chiens (Dogs Dialogue) in 1977 which gave a hint at the subversive and often brutally violent style that he would go onto develop in the coming decade. Expanding on this further was Hypothesis of a Stolen Painting in 1978, his first real international success and arguably the first feature that was quintessential Ruiz. This led to a period of great production and critical acclaim as his style began to fully mature with films like On top of the Whale, City of Pirates, Three Crowns of the Sailor, and arguably his best film Manoel on the Island of Marvels. In addition to his extremely surrealistic themes, Ruiz typically employed stories within stories, notably on Manoel, Pirates, and even more so on La chouette aveugle (aka The Blind Owl). He loved shooting in deep focus and a typical Ruiz shot would usually have someone in the extreme foreground with plenty going on in focus behind them. His multiple narratives which seems to layer into themselves rarely tie themselves together instead follow more like the linear and strange pattern of dreams where one thread leads to another to another and rarely back again. For this reason Ruiz has never really achieved the popular acclaim of other surrealistic filmmakers like Bunuel, Lynch, Maddin, or even Godard.
His esoteric appeal is another reason why many critics love his work. The experienced film scholar may look at Ruiz’s films as densely layered puzzles, challenging work that you can’t just shut off your brain to. Films that you have to be smart (like them) to understand and if you don’t get it then you must somehow not have the intellectual capacity to appreciate them. For this reason his films may seem elitist. Even today fewer than 10% of his films are available on DVD, which means few countries seem willing to tackle Ruiz’s monolithic filmography. Even Criterion, long since the beacon of good taste when it comes to art house faire, has never released a Ruiz film, but they have put out more than one Michael Bay film just saying.
Ruiz doesn’t share his esoteric appeal alone. Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira, whose still making films into his 100s, also has avoided the illustrious Criterion treatment and his films are certainly slower and more refined for a crowd looking for cinematic excitement. Oliveira’s films however don’t carry the surrealistic flourishes and avoid the violent outbursts like Ruiz, his is certainly more of a deliberate nature. However both filmmakers seem to often be neglected in terms of first tier status of the world’s greatest directors. The sheer enormity of Ruiz’ output alone should have him in that discussion, and perhaps with his passing, more people will do what I did and start to take a closer look at one of the most complex, fascinating, and rewarding cinematic legacies you can find.