Mexico Rising: Interview
In this month's Sight & Sound we published an interview conducted by Editor Nick James with the Chilean director and polymath Raúl Ruiz at the Morelia film festival in Mexico. The published text drew on only part of a much longer interview and concentrated on Ruiz's advice for young film-makers. In the full transcript here Ruiz also describes several fascinating recent and upcoming projects.
NJ: Can you talk me through the ideas you were giving these young Mexican filmmakers in your lecture?
RR: I played around with the usual film topics to show that things are not always what they seem. Take, for instance, film as a mirror for life - I proposed that the mirror has a memory. Also, is film is an art or not? Most people say cinema is the seventh art, assuming that there are six beaux arts. In the medieval liberal arts there were the trivium [grammar, rhetoric and logic - or dialectic, as we would now define it] and the quadrivium [arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy]. But there are something like 20 different kinds of trivium and quadrivium. There's a medieval book, Arta Scissoria, written by Enrique d'Aragon, the Marquis of Vienna, a magician and friend of the King Don Juan Segundo. It's about the art of cutting with scissors, particularly cutting meat. At the time there were about 300 acknowledged 'arts'. All of these arts are in the cinema. People who walk practise the art of walking - people who run, who talk, the art of naturalism, the art of framing, all these can be connected together.
One definition of cinema is that it is a kind of total art like the opera. Another is the extremist proposition of Bazin that cinematography is the only case in which a machine can make masterpieces without human interpretation. I suggested the students should mix both ideas since cinema is the totality of all the arts connected by poetry - meaning poetry in the sense of craziness, the poetry that Plato was afraid of. The French have a good expression for it - bricollage. I recalled Jack Valenti's statement that the French should stop making films and make what they know how to do - cheese. But to make cheese is very close to making films - it needs all kind of manipulation. The French way of making cinema makes one film very different from another so it's difficult to make them competitive, difficult to make them acceptable as a genre because you can say that this film is a mystery movie, or an erotic movie or a western.
Then I discussed cinema as a mirror. I used something that a Chilean poet Jorge Tellier says: that he was afraid of mirrors because he was very narcissistic and handsome. There were some mirrors that refused him and others that accepted him. He said that you have to treat a mirror as you would a tiger - you have to master it.
The last idea was film as a sin. We have seven sins - maybe eight, the last one, according to the Institutes of the medieval monk and saint John Cassian is tristitia, so sadness or melancholy [in the face of goodness]. What he says is that the sin never works alone - you need two. Gluttony is more compelling if you put it with avarice. In cinema, you mix the western with horror. We could call the genre capital sins and something may happen. I've had only one experience of that with Combat d'amour en songe (2000). I put a renaissance book in the centre and played with nine different stories and tried to forge new ones. Playing with sin, with ideas of transgression, but not the usual ones like crime or sex. Transgressions that cut between the sins, making fractions: infinitisimal, trans-finite sins.
The Infinite variety of hell?
It's funny you should say that. While talking about all these topics I was really preparing a film. Recently I have been collecting pacts with the devil. One person told me he persuaded a taxi driver he was a devil. When he said the words he felt a frisson, something like possession. The taxi driver wanted to know what was numbers would win the lottery so he gave him some numbers and said, "see you in ten years". So I asked him, "what about the numbers?" He replied, "I don't know". Another person told me they made a pact to kill Pinochet. He said, "kill Pinochet and I'll give you my soul". The devil said no, because he'd already made a pact with Pinochet.
I realised that really these were pacts with a mirror. The mirror has become the great metaphor in quantum physics. People like David Bohm are called the physicists of the mirror. The expression used is The Turbulent Mirror, the title of a book about Chaos Theory by John Briggs and David Peat. The image is of the world as a river. In the river there is some turbulence, and we are the vortices. It is never the same water but always the same vortex. We are the movement and we make part of the totality of the river. I found this metaphor incredible. It is what it is - much more fascinating and funny than the mechanisms of the Newton-Descartes paradigm, especially as it's more poetic and for me it's a source of invention for making films in different ways.
Some say that the feature length fiction film which has dominated for so long may become less relevant in the digital age.
The explosion should be there but its not. It is still people trying to make the same format. There is this amalgam of video art and film and installation, which is good. But people decide to be video artists. Very few mix. The great thing is that many things that are a struggle in film, like re-shooting a scene, are nothing in digital. You can stop when you get tired, for instance, like Godard does.
If it becomes cheap like that you can do it - as long as it doesn't become too epic a production.
My experience in Chile is that I get some money, not a lot, but enough to make very cheap films. I realised that if, with digital, I can make 10 films of one hour and a half it helps me to play connections, games of combinatory permutation of a kind that are less evident in cinema. One day I can have something that I've never had before in film - like 100 extras. And then the next day, I'm myself alone, making pick-ups. That gives me greater freedom.
Would you then have the opportunity to show those 10 pieces in one go?
Yes - in fact I've made some of the films, not for TV or cinema, but for cultural centres. The theme is Chile. What is strange, funny, and curious about Chile. The purpose is to provoke conversation. I try to show Chile at its most anodyne and grey. I tested directly my theory that a film should start with an image and then the image will generate or determine the fiction. Make your fiction, but start with images that are half-allegoric, half-enigmatic.
When you generate these images, do you do drawings or do just have it in your mind?
No, it's found in the street. The starting point of this film was when I saw a young woman washing the street with a power hose and looking somewhere very far inside herself with no expression at all, with a very strong anti-expression. She was cleaning and that was all. The water goes in one direction and she never moves. It was somebody who has nothing to do but it was a positive nothingness. I went to the bank, and when I came back she was still there, half an hour later, but now there were three people looking at the water. Others like her, who have nothing to do. I went to France and came back four months later and she was still there but pregnant.
Another story was a little boy on the street. People around him kep asking him if he was ill. He said, "No." They said, but where is your father?. He said I don't know. Why are you there? He said I don't know. I saw him four or five times. So I started the film like that, developing it a little bit, making commentary.
Has this been finished and shown?
The film is called Cofralandes: a Chilean Rhapsody. It was shown and won the Glauber Rocha prize for the Best Latin American film in Montreal.
Where will it show next?
It was shown in conference centres in Chile, but not a lot. I have made six of the films. I will make the ten but I need some money. It already cost me $10,000. I spent all the money on six. In my home country, in the south of Chile, in the islands, when people have troubles with their neighbours they leave but with their house. They literally move the house with bulls - fight bulls because they're more aggressive so they're stronger. They move from one island to another. My grandfather did that all the time because he did not have a very good character and he was always having trouble with the neighbours. The houses were made of wood so they could float. I wanted to make that but there have already been a lot of documentaries about it. So I decided to make a film with a big radio that goes from one island to another with people inside.
That reminds me of Ena Baga, a lady who used to do piano accompaniment to silent films. She told me an extraordinary story about moving a grand piano through the jungle somewhere in Africa.
It's incredible because I put this in a film. In Días de campo which was a real success in Chile. One of the great pianists in Chile was Rosita Renard. She decided to go back to Chile to demonstrate, to teach, and to communicate good music to peasants and countrymen. She travelled with the piano on a kind of chariot. Sometimes there was no road at all. People listened and said thank you and invited her to dinner but she went away like a gipsy with her piano.
Let's talk about some of the projects you're preparing.
Right now I have a special project based around Jansenism and Pascal. For the first time in a long time I used a kind of premise. The French say all the time that they are Cartesians. My feeling after 30 years of living there is that they are Jansenists. Jansenism is a very complex phenomenon. It's a kind of soft Protestantism. The same polemics that happened between the Jansenists and Jesuits in France happened before in Spain with no problems. All the tendencies were accepted inside the religion because the King was not bothered by them. But in France all the Cartesians were concerned by Pascal. It was mainly Pascal in the provinces who fought to develop his ideas to show, to explain and defend etc. He moved through mundanity to the so called libertant that supports him. This is a very French attitude to pass through mundanity to serious things.
Margarite Duras once explained to me how film works in France as an art form. First there are those who are important somewhere, who are not necessarily the most prominent. Sometimes intellectuals who live alone and have their own opinion. In France there must be about 400 of these. Then there's le tout Paris - all the people who are important in Paris. There are about 1,200 of these. Then there are those who decide - there are something like 100 - those that commission, who give the money. Then eventually the critics. And that's all. Forget about the audience, she said. If you put everyone together it's only about 2,000 people.
I had a film, which from this point of view was a big success. The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting was seen by about that number - 2,000 persons. There was a very small group who rented the film to project during a banquet. So its about the importance of mundanity, les salons, all that - it's frivolous but in a very serious way. I want to make a film around this idea so I will have prominent intellectuals play the role of Jansenists and, since they're intellectuals, they will modify the text, playing with all the ideas that are still there - determinism etc.
This becomes a series of conversations?
Yes. Made in a Jansenist way, very strict, poor and simple. On digital so it's not very expensive. I should start with Bernard Henri-Levy, for instance and there are others but I realised that there are very few young people who are prominent intellectuals because the brilliant young men have now moved to other fields. There are not many young intellectuals who are a kind of political party composed by one person. So I have to deal with people who will give another aspect of France. In fact, it's an indirect documentary about France. I will start this when I go back in November.
Then I have the other film in beginning of February - Les Mains d'Orlac, Mad Love is the name in English, the film that Peter Lorre was in.
And you're going to do what with that?
Make it in the present. It's a French novel, by the way, Maurice Renard. France had a very strong popular surrealist movement, unconnected with the official surrealist movement, but using the same ideology - extravagance, dreams etc. There are two or three existing version of les Mains D'Orlac but mine in contemporary because now, in Lyon, there is specialists who do hand transplants with similar, if not exactly the same, consequences. You receive the hand of some dead man and the hand starts giving the orders. You remember the story of Mad Love - it's the pianist who has the hand of a killer grafted onto him. In my version there's someone who has one hand of a thief and the other of a suicide. So at the end he puts a gun to his temple, and with the other asks for money, saying if you don't give me money I'll kill myself. My pianist is a kind of Liberace. He plays but he can't control his hands. So he plays contemporary music that he hates. He meets another man who has the hands of two people, one is bigger than the other, and there are many fraternities of people with new hands. There are many games around that. It's a kind of comedy. The others are playing a little bit with Rupert Sheldrake's ideas and mixing them with the four souls of the Vikings.
Tell me what they are
There is the animal soul - your double. You're a kind of house that they come in and out of. Normally in those cultures they are bears or horses. Then there's your double. It's you but separate from you. Alexandre Dumas said he had a Swedish friend in Italy who, when he goes to the hotel to ask for his room key, he is told that he has already been given it ten minutes ago. So he says, not again. There's a story of somebody who has to come to buy antiques and is told by the storekeeper everything is ready. What's ready? What you chose two months ago. The third soul is your normal one inside you, but which can go in and out and in as the others. And the fourth is your bones, so it is complicated to burn people because the soul is still there for something like two years. And that one is normally the ghost. There can be many - you can sometimes have 20 doubles everywhere. They eat, they go to restaurants, they go away without paying and you have to pay after. So I'm playing with that idea but mixing that with Rupert Sheldrake's idea of morphogenetic fields. It's the mirror. An electron looks into the mirror and becomes two. The form comes from outside. Turing starts playing with that idea. It's called morphogenetic function. It imples another space - Morphogenetic space but the consequences are very funny like being in two places at the same time. So I'm playing with various characters - Laetitia Casta, the actor model, will play someone who kills old people with a syringe. Most old people over 80 years old, at least once a day, ask to die but just for two minutes, then they change their mind. So Casta says, Ah you want to die, shhhk, and kill them with the syringe. I suppose that will move me on to summer if it's made. If not I have another one, let's say four.
The things that occur to you to do - do they all come from reading. Do you have to take time out?
There's a lot of talking with friends, telling stories and reading, of course. Sometimes reading during the shooting. A friend told me that my films were notes in the book I am reading during the shoot.
Can you do that because of your system?
Because of the freedom of the way that I shoot, it's not expensive. I have a clear structure at the beginning so the film can be imagined and then I can play inside it. I say that but many of my films are made normally with a script. The films made in a more extravagant way are not normally shown. Once on TV, a lot in festivals, that's all. My films are poor. They're like my family. They are all poor but they have longevity.