August 19, 2016, marks the fifth death anniversary of Raoul Ruiz, the giant of Chilean cinema. Starting from his early works as a fledgling avant-garde film practitioner under dictator Salvador Allende’s Chile to becoming the darling of the French arthouse scene before his death in 2011, Ruiz was able to create a uniquely original world through his films.
A keenly original and organic visionary, Ruiz takes us back to a world where cinema was not about pre-established theories or approaches but about an intuitive outlook explored throughout one’s career.
The director believed cinema to be more a medium of shadow and silence instead of sound and light. Ruiz emphasised the reversal of consciousness that the ritualistic watching of cinema requires. His narratives emerged from the image instead of the other way round, as in Hollywood. His cinema attempted to create an actively imaginary world and challenged conventional film criticism that championed realism. For Ruiz, cinema stimulated a part of the brain that was otherwise only active during the sleeping consciousness.
A key element of Ruiz’s cinema is the emphasis on constructing the film as a game or through a game. The Chilean auteur looked upon the theories of Janos Hintikka with much reverence, especially his theories of language games that could either have a “recursive paradigm”, implying a set of pre-existing rules, or a “strategic paradigm”, where the rules can be changed or modified before every “match”.
In his masterful short film Zig Zag (1980), Ruiz constructs a map of Paris by juxtaposing several of its territories that are then sutured together through “a roll of the dice” . Unlike Alain Robbe-Grillet, who works with chance and the game in a more formalist way, for Ruiz the game structures the content.
Raul Ruiz’s first short La Maleta (1963) is a surrealistic short in the tradition of Un Chien Andalou, the cult film by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali. La Maleta records a central protagonist in several spaces united by objects such as caskets and boxes that suggests the possibility of a narrative causality, which never arrives. His early masterpieces Three Sad Tigers (1968), The Penal Colony (1970) and Nobody Said Anything (1973) continue this “opening out of narrative”, so that each action leads to its logical conclusion. These films are a balancing out of Bunuel’s early potboilers with the off-the-cuff techniques of the early films of Jean-Luc Godard.
The 1941-born filmmaker functioned in exile in France for most of his career. His condition was best captured in his first masterpiece Dialogues of the Exiled (1974), in which he constructs the experiences of Chilean expatriates in France. The film engages some fairly high modernist concerns, such as the relationship between the frame and what lies outside, the placing of the camera at a distance to emphasise what is being recorded, and the using of the telephoto lens to iron out the image to the same plane.
The next phase offers a peek into Ruiz’s developed aesthetic, namely one in which the film is a crystal comprising actual, virtual or imaginary parts. Most important is the image of the sea, which when united with the sky creates an infinite representation within a single shot. As Ruiz progressed, he was able to unite the viewer’s consciousness with the state of the character, so as to produce disequilibrium within the logic of this image. Perhaps this tension is at its peak in his 1998 British thriller, aptly titled Shattered Image.
Often in films like On Top of the Whale (1982), City of Pirates (1983) or Three Crows of a Sailor (1983), Ruiz uses monochrome in order to iron out the already flattened image to the same degree of intensity, challenging cinema’s most primordial function: that of representation.
Ruiz would often equate a shot with its conditions of production. In his masterful cinema-verite documentary Of Great Events and Ordinary People (1978), Ruiz works with the format of the interview, its denotational aspect and the connotations the interview has for everything around it, the viewer and the film director. Filming is a record of a transformation, which Ruiz’s voice over is witness to.
On a more formal level, Ruiz was interested in the puzzle image that emerges when images are placed alongside and then pulled far apart. For Ruiz, cinema belonged to the realm of the “photographic unconscious”, or that which denotational representation in any other medium could not capture. The image in itself is a fragment, something that remains incomplete and must be made to do so. Another influence was physicist Neil Bohrs’s fish paradigm, according to which two unrelated images affect and transform one another. In films such as The Territory (1981) and Comedy of Innocence (2001), Ruiz explicitly deals with the image as surface, something that is being projected onto a screen.
Consciousness and film viewing can be related only when the image is one of thought. Ruiz integrates methods through which the actor embodies thought through his or her actions. In Three Lives and Only One Death (1995), the great Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni quizzed Ruiz on whether he should “act” in the next scene or whether he is “a wardrobe”. Ruiz’s Mamamme (1986) emphasises the madness of moving bodies in motion through the choreography of Jean-Claude Gallotta, so that all that remains within the realm of the image is free thought. Ruiz attempts to liquefy these images in his later film Ballet Aquatic (2011), in which he uses underwater footage of organisms.
Ruiz formulated several models of tactically handling the territories of imagination through his aesthetic. The French travel in a straight line and return, the English work in spirals, the Spanish explore territory and then exhaust it and the Germans move from summit to summit in search of overarching panoramas.
Ruiz was like the Spanish conquerors who chose to exhaust a territory – that is, the film he had chosen. The director gave Marcel Proust’s work as an example of an artistic aesthetic similar to that of the Spanish conquerors. It is significant to note that Ruiz’s adaptation of Proust’s Time Regained (2001) is his crowning achievement.