Written in late November 2011 for a book on Ruiz being prepared by the Spanish Cinematheque. A shorter version appears with the Blu-Ray of the theatrical version of Mysteries of Lisbon released in 2012 by Music Box Films. — J.R.
It was disconcerting to see a passage from a 1997 article of mine about Raúl Ruiz quoted in several of his mainstream obituaries: “Ruiz is the least neurotic of filmmakers; he doesn’t even seem to care whether what he’s doing is good or not.” Not because this was false when I wrote it but because it related to my earliest encounters with his work and its seeming challenges to film commerce, not to his better known big-budget efforts such as Marcel Proust’s Time Regained and Klimt.
This is why some of these latter films disappointed me, pointing towards what Ruiz himself frankly described to me in a 2002 interview as a “capitulation”. With money often comes anxiety about audiences and investors — and, even worse, not always being able to distinguish clearly between the two – and the cheerful freedom from this anxiety that characterized the extraordinary productivity of first two decades Ruiz spent as a Paris-based exile (roughly 1975 to 1997) seemed to be threatened by his escalation to higher budgets. Even more pointedly and personally, the period when Ruiz and I were friends fell approximately halfway through his most prolific period.
But Mysteries of Lisbon shows retroactively that he may have gained as much from these bigger budgets as he lost, and I’m not speaking about pocket change. What he actually broadened was his film vocabulary, especially his employments of long takes and camera movements. Over the course of well over 100 films, in English, French, Italian, Portuguese and/or Spanish, shot on separate continents over four decades, runs the continuing question of how we position ourselves in relation to a story being told. Whether Ruiz’s working model happens to be Orson Welles or Richard Thorpe, Robert Louis Stevenson or Jorge Luis Borges, the usual strategy is to keep us shifting and guessing.
The challenge of adapting Proust may have clouded this issue, especially when it converted his novel into the equivalent of a theme park. But Ruiz’s “capitulation” also enriched his aesthetics while complicating some of his earlier indifference towards success or failure. Despite his soft-spoken, laid-back manner, he remained a radical both as an intellectual and as a director, and, as with Godard, could be as creative in interviews and written texts as in his films, meanwhile remaining a devout believer in both popular cinema and the avant-garde.
One of his avowed motives for working with serials like Mysteries of Lisbon was their avoidance of “central” conflicts. His ongoing quarrel with what he called the “central conflict theory” behind American-style dramaturgy — which once even led him in his early 20s to quit the University of Iowa’s writers workshop program, following the suggestion of one of the teachers there, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. — eventually became the basis of the first chapter in his Poetics of Cinema (1995), where he wrote:, “America is the only place in the world where, very early, cinema developed an all-encompassing narrative and dramatic theory known as central conflict theory. Thirty or forty years ago, this theory was used by the mainstream American industry as a guideline. Now it is the law in the most important centers of film industry in the world.”
What are the implications of this law? Skip ahead 13 pages to one of the chapter’s
The criteria according to which most of the characters in today’s movies
behave are drawn from one particular culture (that of the USA). In this
culture, it is not only indispensable to make decisions but also to act
on them, immediately (not so in China or Iraq). The immediate
consequences of most decisions in this culture is some kind of conflict
(untrue in other cultures). Different ways of thinking deny the direct
causal connection between a decision and the conflict which may result
from it; they also deny that physical or verbal collision is the only
possible form of conflict. Unfortunately, these other societies, which
secretly maintain their traditional beliefs in these matters, have outwardly
adopted Hollywood’s rhetorical behavior. So another consequence of the
globalization of central conflict theory — a political one — is that,
paradoxically, “the American way of life” has become a lure, a mask: unreal
and exotic, it is the perfect illustration of the fallacy that Whitehead dubbed
“misplaced concreteness.” Such synchronicity between the artistic theory and
the political system of a dominant nation is rare in history; rarer still is its
acceptance by most of the countries in the world. The reasons for this
synchronicity have been abundantly discussed: politicians and actors have
become interchangeable because they both use the same media, attempting
to master the same logic of representation and practicing the same narrative
logic -– for which, let’s remember, the golden rule is that events do not need
to be real but realistic. (Borges once remarked that Madame Bovary is realistic,
but Hitler isn’t at all.) I heard a political commentator praise the Gulf War for
being realistic, meaning plausible, while criticizing the war in former
Yugoslavia as unrealistic, because irrational.
The metafictional universe of Ruiz is neither real nor realistic — only possible, or let’s say conceivable, because Ruiz thought and filmed it. Whether this makes it good or bad, commercial or uncommercial, is another matter, existing off somewhere in a parallel universe — and fortunately not one that Ruiz had to worry about much, because unlike practitioners of central conflict theory, he usually didn’t have to draw in large crowds in order to keep on working, at least until his “capitulation”.
Did that make him crazy, or us?