The great, sadly missed filmmaker Raúl Ruiz was born 77 years ago today. Since his death in 2011, he has unfortunately been releasing fewer and fewer feature films. The most recent was The Wandering Soap Opera which finally premiered at Locarno last August to the customary mix of elation and puzzlement, before dipping from sight. As a proud Ruizian, I can only hope that there is more to come. Ruiz of course taught fourth-years and MA students at the University for three Winter semesters (2007-9), based out of a sparsely decorated wee flat (and occasional film studio for his students) in Don Street – disappearing off to shoot the (supremely) odd folkloric miniseries in Chile or direct-to-DVD Daryl Hannah thriller in Knebworth. I first met him and his life accomplice Valeria Sarmiento here in 2007 and was privileged to attend his classes over the years and assist with translating the many pages of notes he wrote for students before each playful tutorial. I’ve sometimes pondered what memories Ruiz’s students might harbour from that time. My feeling as an observer was that he was a profoundly inspiring teacher.
My tribute today consists of a commentary about yet another posthumous Ruiz work which appears to have fallen through the cracks: the novella The Wit of the Staircase (2012), a mesmeric and unanticipated companion piece to his autobiographical feature Night Across the Street (2012). If we may regard that film as a farewell to Ruiz’s native Chile, and the celebrated Mysteries of Lisbon (2010) as a tribute to his beloved Portugal, with this fiction he takes leave of Paris, the city he made his home after 1974. As was his wont, this most singular filmmaker here dryly and playfully combines ideas on metaphysics, memory, scientific enquiry and storytelling in a narrative rich with paradoxes and enjoyment. His contrary creative take on these fields is recommended to genuinely cross-disciplinary specialists. At just 127 head-spinning pages, the novel is also accessible for anyone seeking a closer acquaintance with the concerns of Ruiz’s labyrinthine, sadly neglected back catalogue. It is, as you will imagine, an essential read for long-time Ruizians.
Ruiz often made use of the fantastic and the supernatural in his quest for innovative ways of telling stories which would make his films unique. All too wary of an entertainment industry keen to transform such work into prototypes -a process he denominated “Ministry”-, Ruiz dedicated his career to the search for creative means of remaining within the realm of “Mystery”. In Wit of the Staircase, he immerses us in worlds where the tensions between the unknown forces of the beyond (Mystery) and the established linearity of institutional order (Ministry) are in eternal simultaneous flux.
Over seven Vigils, somnolent states demarcating the chapters, we the readers attend a sequence of séances held by a Parisian scientific spiritualist society in its search for signs of transcendence to prove its secular theory of dialogue with the dead. The spiritualists have summoned forth our narrator, a cryptesthesian Belgian revenant named Flanders who, before joining this kingdom of shadows and biographical invention, had been a writer and a leading light in a Parisian branch of the secretive brotherhood of puckish flâneurs, the real-life 1840s Société des agathopèdes. The author’s devotees will surely be reminded of the bohemian lifestyle Ruiz led as a twentysomething poet in early-1960s Santiago, evocations of which he conjured up in the bizarre cinematic nocturnes of Nadie dijo nada (1971) and Klimt (2006). Flanders recounts the stories of his lives while the spiritualists take copious notes in the seemingly futile hope of verifying the facts of his past existences – those versed in Parisian history may well play the same game as they read. We encounter this charming naïf’s childhood recollections of his extended family and accompany him on a deliriously perverse sojourn as he possesses the body of his female medium. And before long, Flanders finds himself reliving a past life and death as an uncanny unseen doppelganger multiplies into countless clones in a “Malkovich? Malkovich!”-like scene to do Charlie Kaufman fans proud.
Wit of the Staircase was Ruiz’s late (but not last) ode to the transformative power of imagination, with the peculiarity that it remains within us even after we die. Like Flanders, the vagabond spirit from a beyond “next to the present”, who writes about characters who subsequently invent him, these Ruizian loops inspire us to draw on those objects which have made our own lives meaningful and use them as a creative starting point to reimagine our truth – but with a slight shift. May this blog entry invoke the master’s memory and spirit today.