Visionary film-maker Raúl Ruiz may seem too esoteric for London’s West End but the Chilean director recently talked to Vertigo in the snug rococo tearoom of a hotel off Trafalgar Square, his conversation, as aleatory and fertile as his films, mingling with the insistent twang of a nearby harp.
Ruiz has made nearly a hundred films in an unstinting cornucopia of cinematic invention and aesthetic enquiry, some of the most baroque and oneiric in all cinema, mirages of stories, labyrinths of images. He is about to shoot Miss Christina, “a B-movie in three weeks, editing during the shooting”, based on a novel by Mircea Eliade, whose analysis of Shamanism, exploration of sacred and profane dimensions and theory of the Eternal Return are all represented in the Ruizian celluloid cosmos. He has recently completed the video essay Chilean Rhapsody, a new short and a drama about Gustav Klimt. Klimt is a mainstream film by Ruiz’ standards but is characteristically populated with ghosts, doubles, charlatans and itinerant philosophers streaming through shadowy boudoirs and lurching across café floors seasick with intellectual ferment. The screen fills with the shards of a smashed mirror or a blizzard of gold leaf; there are Chinese calligraphers in the ghetto and an artistic dispute by men wearing gorilla heads in the gilded cage of a Vienna whorehouse.
Ruiz has also just published the second volume of his Poetics of Cinema, “more than theories, they are intuitions, they are images”. In Ruiz’ poetics, impressively hermetic but also endearingly ludic, he shows that the Hollywood doctrine, that narrative must be built around a central conflict, is nonsense. He discusses different kinds of Utopia – “images of nowhere”; how a thing can be true even though it isn’t real; declares that, even though we have explored space we have still to explore time; “films are like human beings: you look at them and they look back at you”; the unconscious secrets of photographic and video images… He advocates a Shamanic cinema that voyages to different worlds, that accounts for all varieties of experience and can preserve the mystery of the world and its hidden details, a vertiginous sense of mutating images… He tells magical-realist fables and cites arcane passages of medieval theology and Chinese aesthetics. He stresses the importance and autonomy of shadows.
Ruiz was approached by an Austrian producer to make the Klimt film. He was surprised at the proposal, but supposed the style of his Proust adaptation Time Regained had appealed. However the script was “an extremely erotic biopic. My problem is I’m not really good at erotic movies because I am a prude.” They agreed to make a different film, positioning Klimt in “the ambiguous political and intellectual situation in Vienna at the beginning of the century”. This contradictory Vienna was a crucible of modernity in the narrow minded Catholic hub of a vanishing empire, “a kind of head without the body”, a flowering of Jewish genius and nascent fascism, excoriated by satirist Karl Kraus – newspaper columnists who then as now “write because they have nothing to say and have something to say because they write”- whom Ruiz credits with posthumous co-operation; fictionalised by Arthur Schnitzler, from whom he took the film’s whirling storylines; and given unique pictorial expression by Klimt and Schiele.
Klimt is one of Ruiz’ few films in English. He wrote the script in French, then turned to former collaborator Gilbert Adair to give the dialogue the kind of belle-epoque Viennese sound of films such as Max Ophüls’ immaculate Letter from an Unknown Woman. Even if Ruiz did not originate the project, Klimt is an appropriate subject: the latter’s figures have the frontal flatness that Ruiz has admired in Russian icons for their “inverted perspective”; both artist and film-maker favour Byzantine mosaic effects, in Ruiz’ case in both the pictorial and narrative, and he saw Klimt as a fellow-pendulum, swinging from the experimental to the mainstream: “I move from one extreme to the other, and Klimt was like that, he was in the centre of all the artistic quarrels.”
The film depicts events remembered by a delirious Klimt as he is dying of syphilis. Ruiz ingeniously manages to evade biographical fidelity: “The commonplace belief is that you remember everything of your life when you die, but you can remember things that never happened, you can wonder and wonder. There is this idea of involvement and detachment in Poetics of Cinema, the idea that you go in, you are fascinated by visions and suddenly you go out and distance yourself, and so you have another aspect of Klimt’s life, you see the social contradiction, the life with the models, the latent racism, the craziness, the illness, the syphilis...”
Ruiz once planned to film a parable concerning a race around the world between Georges Méliès and the Lumière Brothers. The Lumières set off with their crew, and circumnavigated the world shooting only unrealistic curiosities, while Méliès remained in his studio painstakingly recreating real events. Upon meeting again, both parties exchanged their films. Ruiz claimed that this was a metaphor for his cinema, and while that film was never made, the pioneer of cinematic artifice and docu-drama does play a role in his new film, where Méliès meets Klimt in Paris, having already shot a report using an actor impersonating the artist. “The meeting could have happened: Klimt was a celebrity, Méliès at the time made the news, he invented news, he made films about the coronation of the King of England, in Paris with actors in his studio.”
In Ruiz’ Poetics he asks us to imagine that successive shots of the same character in a film are in fact a shot of the character and then one of his double – comparing this to animist Viking beliefs in the doubles of animals. In Klimt, the artist meets the newsreel actor playing him, then pursues an exotic dancer who may herself be an impersonator. Ruiz elaborates: “a good example of this idea is to see different shots as different films”. He had just returned from the Cannes premiere of his latest work, one of 33 three-minute episodes made by leading directors in the portmanteau collection To Each His Cinema (well, Jane Campion was the sole woman involved). In Ruiz’ contribution, ‘The Gift’, a blind cinephile tells his anthropologist niece the story of a bishop offering a radio and a projector to a village in the Atacama desert fifty years earlier. Watching the whole thing “you had this impression that there was one film and several films, but literally both, there were several shots inside each film but the impression of this proliferation was there.”
Throughout Klimt the paranoid, hallucinating artist is confronted by the Secretary, an allegory of “bureaucracy, the state, the skeleton of the state. You have to play an allegory like a normal character.” Klimt here appears to others to be talking to himself. In the Poetics Ruiz imagines the evolution of culture as a contest where “Mystery fabricates unique objects and Ministry tries to take them away” or copy and institutionalise them. This is the struggle between Klimt and the Secretary. Who wins? “The mystery, as always.”
Ruiz insists on the existence of ghosts and his ability to realize phantasmagoria onscreen is suggestive of André Bazin’s idea of the “mummy complex” in which embalming a body “to snatch it from the flow of time” was a fundamental factor in the creation of the arts. “In the long term, all films are ghost films because all the actors will be dead. I lived in a country where ghosts are everywhere. When you reach my age (66), sometimes you have to make an effort to remember if that person is alive or dead. It’s not about religion, it’s about the fact that the dead and alive go together. I had some conversations with people in Cuba involved with Santeria, a kind of voodoo, and they say they can see behind you all the dead of your family. Well, that may be irrelevant for religious purposes but it is very important for cinema. Dealing between the alive and the dead in cinema is as easy as to make a narrow or orthodox realist film.”
Ruiz’ images are like the hypnagogic phenomena one sees while falling asleep but, although his films are closer to dreams than most, he argues that while psychoanalysis is important for the interpretation of dreams, films cannot be analysed in the same way because they are only part of a total experience, the rest of which is invented by the spectator and, anyway, “films are not always about drives.” One even has to be careful when talking of the language of dreams, because “a language has to be translated. If you can translate a language, it is a language, if not, it’s another thing, that’s what Wittgenstein worked with.” He refers to Wittgenstein’s statement that “there are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.”
“This” comments Ruiz, “is the picture theory. The atomic facts are: pictures are not language. By mystical he means something very simple. You have to distinguish between things you talk about and things you show, but there are more complicated things like…” and making his point with a simple set of gestures that are complicated to transcribe, with one hand he points towards me and with the other at that pointing finger… “This, what is this? The finger that shows the finger that shows: what does it show? The finger shows you or shows simply this other finger? And here there is a mirror, there is a movement of return, a circular movement of showing, so to show is not so evident, as when you say things in film, where the actors are talking in a particular language. There is the sound of the language, to use the expression of Orson Welles, “the human noise” and this is mystical in the sense that, as Karl Kraus says, it’s a mask, it’s a sound mask.” Having said all that, Klimt is a lot closer to Ken than Bertrand Russell – which is never a bad thing.
“The analysis of film has limits and the dream function in film is extremely important,” Ruiz continues. “I have now been working on that at the University of Aberdeen, with the neurology department, who work a lot in imagery and the brain, and what is clear is that for watching films, at 24 images a second, the chemistry of the brain seems to be as in the composition of dreaming. You dream the film, amongst other reasons because the amount of black in the film is important. My cinematographer said to me that in cinema we should pay half because we invent half of the film in the black. It’s not exactly half because there’s a sort of invasion of images in the black but it could be up to 40 minutes in three hours. What happens in that black? Maybe you invent your film but maybe it’s more complicated, maybe some other thing. It seems for me a very stimulating problem in film theory.” The principle still applies with new technology “because video in progressive scan can simulate the division of frames”.
Ruiz is also interested in playing with continuity, to challenge the seamless alternate reality created by most films. Often “you realise after the principal shoot that there are some details missing, let’s say the hand of an actor, so I pay attention that it’s replaced by a different hand. The disconnection is as important as the connection. You have the automatism that tells you that you are in the same film from beginning to end and you can play with these connections and with visual and narrative incoherence, and that can make a film more fascinating, more stimulating than a film that is just a story with illustrations.” In the Poetics he writes: “There will always remain something outside a film, which will continue to resonate within what we do see... a ceremonious imperfection.”
He also agrees with Jacques Rivette’s statement that “there is no such thing as bad acting, it’s always good, always interesting and moving. This was for me the main problem when I made a film in Taiwan, Comedy of Shadows. I was not able to say if it was good or bad acting. I wrote the script in French, they translated it into Mandarin and I never knew whether the dialogue was well understood, it was a mystery for me!”
Film creates its own sense of time. “The idea of the tempest of duration: it’s now 6.15, we talk about many things and then I look and it is still 6.15, and other times it’s the opposite, and duration moves. It’s not easy to decide what is good timing in a film, this American expression, “the timing is wrong”…. In Antonioni… What is wrong is your connection with the film, the timing of the film is what it is, you can’t say the timing of this landscape is wrong, the timing of the sunset is wrong. You can measure the timing in the music; in cinema I’m not sure it is measurable because there is a coexistence of very different durations and if you deal with that you can have a very rich experience in time. We can play with different durations sometimes in a very childish way, like, if we are talking here and in the background everybody is moving in slow motion, but slightly, so you are not sure that it is artificial or natural and there are some movements that go on the wrong side in the wrong direction…
“In Béla Bartók’s Mikrokosmos studies for piano he put very simple melodies with a wrong note, to make the students wake up. This narrative incoherence is important to me because you are fascinated or you are bored and you suddenly realise there is something wrong there, so you are awake and something happens internally. In Klimt and Time Regained there are several moments where the actors are playing with tracks, moving with the tracking camera and that means that the instability of the space contaminates the feeling of timing.”
Films such as Being John Malkovich and others by Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry are the closest to Ruiz’ in American cinema and he notes with approval: “the proliferation and games where they go inside and upside the representation. But there was much more freedom before. The problem in American movies is they are filled with administration meetings, you feel there was an advisor for every detail and that’s why they kill any invention in the film. It has to be spontaneous.” From distributors “the first question is: “Is that film European?”” If you say yes the film will not be bought by most of the potential buyers. This is a political problem, we are not talking about film theory, we’re talking about globalisation, which means a uniformity of narrative.
“There is a moment in Klimt where the model Mizzi is telling the story of Red Riding Hood and the wolf, this variation that the grandmother is a wolf and eats the little girl, and she becomes a Baba Yaga, so with that twist we are talking about Ukrainian folklore, and in Ukraine they use these Russian dolls, and I learned recently that often they are used to help your memory when telling stories because the story out there is not the same as the doll who is inside, they are slightly different. Cinema narrative is something like that, it’s about stories inside the story but with movement, with variations, with metamorphosis. I try to invent new ways of telling stories with images using the ambiguity and richness and polysemia of the image. I’m not against Hollywood movies but political statements like “all the audience should be the same” are really unacceptable.”
Ruiz will have to confront these issues with Love and Virtue, a major forthcoming project with a meaty (hopefully more beef than ham) international cast including Malkovich, Peter O’Toole, and Daryl Hannah based on The Song of Roland, a medieval epic set in the court of Charlemagne. “Roland and Charlemagne are a special case because the legends were invented when they were still alive. It’s a game of representation, they used names coming from Greece and Rome, trying to Christianise the past as they had the Saxons and the Vikings. It’s the very first case of this extreme attitude of the Christians.” Ruiz has been studying Charlemagne’s “almost New Age statements about education, about public health. Klimt is essentially about the lack of depth, here I’m trying to use Rossetti’s work, the Pre-Raphaelites, all between symbolism and romanticism.”
With films such as this, Ruiz’ voyage of exploration is set to advance further over the horizon. As he says: “films are always in the tempest, it’s always bad weather, so it’s like a ship, you have to deal with the waves.” Hard to predict where he will take us next, but with a filmography that includes City of Pirates, Treasure Island and numerous other maritime yarns, Hollywood would do well to follow the spectacular, incoherent and underrated Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End with an invitation to Raúl Ruiz to make the next instalment of the series.
James Norton is a film writer and television arts researcher.