Raúl Ruiz died in Paris on August 19th, 2011, after making 113 films. He was 70. I think the count doesn’t include one he had just finished, La Noche de Enfrente (“The Night Ahead”), which was after the recent many hour Mysteries of Lisbon. Back in 1980 I met Ruiz in Portugal, where I was supposedly making a documentary on him, at the behest of the BFI via Don Ranvaud’s pushing. At the time Raúl was a festival and critic’s favorite, something which he remained until the end, though his work never seems to have acquired a normal audience, not even a festival one. I think I might have seen an early film, The Penal Colony, which I thought was rather amateurish and bad (many critics liked it). And I think I saw, at least part of, Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting, and perhaps one other thing. I found them needlessly convoluted, visually inventive but lacking something elemental – a sense of something that needs to be said, and said carefully, with conviction. Ruiz seemed more to be obsessively playing and not much caring the it all held together. I was more sympathetic to the thought of his exile from the Pinochet regime, though I later came to think his leaving Chile was less political than something else. Later I saw a few other films, which were critic favorites but did little for me. Raúl is quoted as saying, “If you can make it complicated, why make it simple?” My inclinations go in the opposite direction, towards simplicity. To each their own.
In Portugal Raúl was shooting a film called The Territory, with Paulo Branco producing (though the current credits list Pierre Cottrell and Roger Corman). I was present, meeting Ruiz, whom I found a very nice man, who enjoyed his work, and enjoyed eating and good wine. The cast and crew – including famed cinematographer from long ago, Henri Alekan – were housed in a villa in Sintra, near Lisbon, and the film was shot in the surrounding area. Communal meals served by an excellent Portuguese catering outfit were a major element of the day, with ample wine used to lubricate the social ambiance. Being ostensibly about cannibalism, there was an intention to involve schlock master Roger Corman as a co-producer, and later I went to a very swank 5 star Parisian hotel to shoot an interview of a shark-skin suited Corman talking with a seemingly ironically amused Ruiz, who was clearly aware of the lack of communication that seemed to lie between them. I also visited Ruiz’s apartment in Paris and met his wife and editor, Valerie Sarmiento.
While I was rather busy trying to shoot, on my usual minimal terms (the film stock, very little of it, and camera were mine and I wasn’t being paid), I was present during a week of interesting days. The cast was mostly of young Americans, and Wim Wender’s girlfriend at the time, Isabelle Weingarten. Wenders had been off in California shooting Hammett, when Francis Coppola yanked Wenders’ star, Frederick Forrest, for his own One From the Heart Las Vegas film.
I shot during the shooting of a few scenes, obtaining some nice images, interviews and a mixed bag of odds and ends. I found Ruiz’s manner with the actors desultory and almost disinterested, which seemed to baffle them. He appeared more interested in the visual imagery, some of which, in screened rushes, was indeed dazzling. Alekan was a magician, and so it seemed also Raul.
After some days a rumor swirled through the production, that Wenders was coming to (a) visit Isabelle, and (b) bring some film stock as supposedly it was running low. But even before this White Knight arrived, another rumor arose: Wim – who was a famous and hot director – was going to shoot his own film, with the crew and cast of Ruiz’s. With this new rumor, the interests and energies of the actors turned on a dime, and were directed immediately to the idea of making a film with the hot Mr. Wenders. At the time Raul had 6 more weeks of shooting scheduled.
On Wenders’ arrival all attention turned to him, and curiously (?) Raúl was told to wrap up in a week instead of the scheduled six. And indeed, Wenders did make a film, The State of Things, using a good portion of Raul’s cast and crew, including Alekan. Not only did he hijack these things, but also a bit the predicament of Ruiz and of himself. This is reported, falsely, in various movie world mythologies in a somewhat a different manner. Having previously crossed paths with Wenders in New York in the making of his film Nick’s Film (or, Lightening Over Water), I can’t give Wim any benefit of the doubt: the man, despite his air of the put-upon innocent and current Jesus follower, is a self-serving liar. His claim that the characters in The State of Things do not reflect real people – for example, Coppola – ring transparently false. Casting his German director “hero” as a victim of the machinations of Hollywood paint an even more hypocritical image of Wenders.
I last saw Raúl at the Rotterdam Film Festival, I think 3 years ago. He was wandering in one of the areas for participants – filmmakers, press, hangers-on – and looked abandoned and lost. I think he lived – as his record shows – to make films, and when a final accounting is done, that is a perilous ground for life. He looked as if that recognition were within him.
The film world is small, and I am a mere barnacle on its massive hull, but in Googling for some pictures of Raúl, I found it odd that I should find a picture by Clay Walker, whom I met a few decades ago, or that Ruiz’s death would entwine a handful of others I have met and with whom I had some kind of transaction.
Back to the world of the living, the last week had me in Paris where I saw a basic edit of my friend Toshi Fujiwara’s new film, No Man’s Zone – a documentary of the area around the Fukushima nuclear plants devastated by the earthquake and tsunami of last January. His images and interviews are powerful and revelatory, and I anticipate a very good film coming of it. His editor is Isabelle Ingold, who, as it happens is the usual editor for Amos Gitai, whom I met long ago, and whose Paris apartment I have also visited.
A few years back – 2006 – Toshi made a lovely film, We Can’t Go Home Again, improvised with his friends in Tokyo. After he did a long documentary, Fence, on a US military base in Japan and its impact on the town it is beside. And he’s working on another long improvised film from which he was detoured by the earthquake and tsunami – he went to shoot not long after it all happened. I met Toshi some time ago, when going to the Yamagata film festival, in 1997. It has been a pleasure to see him blossom as a filmmaker, and to have him as a friend (despite our wide variances in film tastes)!
Wandering in Raúl Ruiz’s labyrinth of Paris, I had the nice fortune of meeting other people and seeing some things which had elided my eyes when I lived there in 1997-98.
In the Père Lachaise cemetery I visited again (it’s the end shot almost in OUI NON) the grave of Méliès and took many other images of the grand theater in which death is presented.
And there were others met, among them Verena, and Vivianne, and Marianne, Roberto, and others, and to whom all a merci for the fluid of life: without friends life is a dry matter, perhaps improved by death.