The August/September 1990 cover story takes a look at the Chilean director's foray into American film.
Frame enlargement from Raúl Ruiz' "The Golden Boat," with theater professor/critic/ actor Michael Kirby as Austin.
Today, producer James Schamus’ Indignation plays in movie theaters, but back in 1990 he was working to bring the “best known unknown filmmaker” Raúl Ruiz to American cinema, on a smaller-than-small budget and an extraordinarily short window of opportunity. The result is The Golden Boat, a domestic film with a decidedly foreign feel. This article was originally appeared in August/September 1990 issue of The Independent and is available in the print archives.
For many European directors, coming to America marks a certain arrival, a recognition of their marketability — both aesthetically and commercially — to an American audience. But for Raúl Ruiz, whose first “American” production, The Golden Boat, is due early this fall, America marks simply another departure, another exploration of a terrain that stays persistently on the horizon. Called by one critic “the best known unknown filmmaker in the world,” Ruiz has created a body of work whose quiet fame (as well as its notable obscurity) rests with his position as the quintessential foreign filmmaker.
It is not simply that (to an audience in the United States) he creates what we so gingerly call “foreign films” or even that, as a Chilean living in self-imposed exile, Ruiz works by necessity in foreign countries: the madcap metaphysical lands he cinematically imagines are essentially foreign strange, eerie, uncanny. As visiting professor of film at Harvard University this year, Ruiz secured time to direct in New York City what may become our first truly foreign American film. Making a film with scarce financial resources is not, however, an unforeign condition to Ruiz (or to most independent filmmakers). What is particularly American, according to Ruiz, is the force of enthusiasm harnessed to make the film, an enthusiasm that is most obvious in the melting pot of celebrity artists — Jim Jarmusch, Vito Acconci, Kathy Acker, Annie Sprinkle, to name a few — who have joined in.
It would be unfortunately imperialistic to label Ruiz’ work in America as foreign, since as a Chilean he is as American as those of us living in the US. Raised in a family of sailors, Ruiz studied law and theology before entering the choppy water of filmmaking as a scriptwriter and editor. Going on to produce, write, and direct films throughout Latin America, Ruiz also rose to the head of Allende’s film office before his local career was suddenly cut short by Pinochet ‘s coup d’etat in 1973.
In 1974 he settled, more or less, in Paris and has gone on to make over 40 features and shorts in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. While Ruiz has participated in international filmmaking, it is in France where his films, like Colloque de Chiens (Dogs Dialogue, 1978) which won the noted French César award for best short Les Couronnes du Matelot (Three Crowns of a Sailor, 1982), and La Ville des Pirates (City of Pirates, 1983) gained the most attention. It is also in France where his talent has seeped into theater, television, and performance. Since the late seventies, Ruiz has collaborated with French television’s Institute Nationale de la Communication Audiovisuelle (INA) to produce a series of innovative television works, including his Petit Manuel d’Histoire de France (Short Manual of French History, 1979), a work where the cramped television format comically helps to deflate the grand ideology of French history books. In 1983, he was commissioned by the prestigious Avignon Festival to direct and film various theater works. And in 1986 he was appointed director of La Maison de la Culture in Le Havre, where he has not only produced films himself but has graciously assisted other artists in film, dance, and performance.
While Ruiz’ nautical upbringing consistently resurfaces in his films and film titles (Three Crowns of a Sailor, On Top of the Whale, and now The Golden Boat) — his previous legal and religious education often anchors his police-like interrogation of the metaphysical. In La Vocation Suspendue (The Suspended Vocation, 1977), for example, Ruiz debates the mysteries of church doctrine, whose mystical complexities prove no less bewildering or political than the public bureaucracies they metaphorically serve to parody. And in his devious piece De Grands Evenments et des Gens Ordinaires (Of Great Events and Ordinary People, 1979) the public sphere explodes as a surrealistic documentary. Commissioned by French television to provide an individual perspective on the 1978 election in Ruiz’ Parisian district, the film personalizes his experience as a political exile by turning the teledocumentary genre inside out to reveal its colonial roots and colonizing effects.
In making his latest film in New York, Ruiz not only returns to the Americas, but returns to America some of its most precious cultural artifacts: the B-movie, the soap opera, the television cop story. But this cultural collaboration between high and low art is also a creative one between France and New York, a collaboration that has been in negotiation for several years. In fact, The Golden Boat marks the successful culmination of many attempts by Ruiz and the film’s producers, James Schamus and Jordi Torrent, to produce an American/Ruiz creation.
For Schamus, who lives in two worlds as an academic and an independent producer, as well as director of development for Apparatus Productions, hopes of working with Ruiz go back to 1987, when Schamus was researching his dissertation on Carl Theodor Dreyer. Discovering in Copenhagen an unproduced Dreyer manuscript, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, Schamus rushed the script to Ruiz in hopes of securing “a collaboration between my favorite living filmmaker and my favorite dead one.”
While the project has yet to be realized, it did unite Schamus, Torrent, and Ruiz. While this creative menage à trois was culminated only recently, Torrent’s own affair with Ruiz has been ongoing since 1982 when he organized a show of Ruiz’ work for Spanish television. Since then he curated the first US showing of Ruiz’ video work for Exit Art in 1987 and was associate producer of Ruiz’ Allegory (1989).
The first real collaboration between the three began in 1988, however, when a development deal for a film on Velasquez was struck with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Art on Film Program. Not satisfied with the traditional films about art, Ruiz plotted an odd detective yarn investigating the mystery of the Velasquez painting The Expulsion of the Moors, an allegorical work which supposedly was destroyed in the Alcazar fire of 1731. Although the proposal was intriguing enough to garner development money, it was, according to Torrent, ultimately “too scary and too experimental” to finally sail with the Met’s board. But from its sinking was launched The Golden Boat.
Financing The Golden Boat posed a rather knotty question: How can two fairly novice producers with only $18,000 and a stack of credit cards produce a feature film by an unfortunately unknown foreign director with a severely limited schedule? The answer, according to nearly everyone associated with the film, is enthusiasm. Enthusiasm, that odd American commodity endorsed by Emerson and George Bush alike, proves to be as elusive as it is effective in producing independent films.
For Schamus, whose own intimate knowledge of poverty helped concoct The Apparatus Guide to No-Budget Filmmaking in New York, enthusiasm translates into simple honesty and frantic scrambling. “On the first day of shooting, I left the set and made 28 phone calls in a row to raise just enough money to cover the rest of the week.” Friends, family, an old film professor, everyone got called and asked to invest, make loans, suggest investors. “A lot of people said, ‘You must have called in a lot of favors,'” relates Schamus, “but in fact, no one owed me anything. I simply communicated our hopes and expectations and made it clear that we valued their input. And people responded.”
One of those respondents, Maryse Alberti, who recently won best documentary cinematographer at the US Film Festival for her work on Stephanie Black’s award-winning H2 Worker, agreed to be director of photography on the project after a single screening of Ruiz’ work.
“When I saw City of Pirates [after Shamus proposed that she work on the project],” recounts Alberti, “the thought of working with Ruiz was like a dream come true. His films are so visual that the image tells the story almost better than the script or the characters.” The single problem for Alberti was not the lack of money, but the possible lack of vision which she might encounter in upcoming, better-paying jobs. “After working with Raúl Ruiz and Todd Haynes [whose new film, Poison, Alberti also shot], I feel a little spoiled. There are lots of film projects out there with more money but with only a fraction of Ruiz’ or Todd’s genius.”
While nearly everyone on the film either worked for free or for deferred payment, the upgrading of duties necessitated by the film’s low budget helped generate team enthusiasm. “The person who was a second electrician on a $2 million film,” points out Alberti, “is suddenly upgraded to gaffer here.”
But job inflation only tells part of the story.
More directly, the film provided what can best be described as an exchange program in foreign filmmaking without leaving New York. For according to assistant director Christine Vachon — herself a director and producer — Ruiz did not so much construct a scene as he launched an adventure — and took the crew along for the ride.
“Forgoing the reverence which many American directors have for spatial arrangements,” Vachon explains, “Ruiz would shoot from every possible angle and through the most strange and ordinary objects — salt shakers, the spokes of a wheelchair, anything.”
Echoing Vachon, Alberti recounts how Ruiz fragmented the comfortable and often cliched space of a car interior by shooting the scene from over 25 angles — from the glove compartment, the carpeted floor, the rear view mirror. Perhaps even more indicative of Ruiz’ epistemological style is his penchant for making reflections (both literally and figuratively) on the mirroring surfaces of the most implausible objects: a chrome gun handle, a polished appliance, a pool of blood. And while Ruiz carefully supervised the film crew’s translation of real space into metaphysical inquiries, his handling of actors often left them to their own devices.
Rather than using solely professional actors, Ruiz prefers to mix his talent with amateurs whose own unrehearsed styles lend a certain regional texture to the film’s drama. “Since I often work in countries whose languages are foreign to me,” Ruiz relates, “I rely heavily on local nonactors.” (An interesting comment on New York demographics: nearly all the actors in The Golden Boat have foreign accents.) Such reliance, of course, carries with it a financial benefit. While The Golden Boat‘s cast includes such serious actors as Kate Valk and Michael Strumm of the Wooster Group, the producers also drafted local art celebrities (Vito Acconci), visiting film directors (Jim Jarmusch, Barbet Schroeder), ex-porn stars (Annie Sprinkle), as well as visiting journalists (like myself), and possible investors, for whom a cameo appearance served as an extra perk. (Additional support came from John Zorn, who will compose the film’s score with funds derived from his own grants.)
The lure for the film’s principals, however, was the film’s script, a noted anomaly in Ruiz production, since he often either ad libs or scripts his film only a few days in advance. For Michael Kirby, who has written and acted for the Wooster Group and most recently performed in Woody Allen’s Another Woman, it was the role of Austin, the artistic and demented street person/assassin, that was most enticing. “All actors like playing psychotics,” says Kirby, “since they provide one with the largest range of emotions.”
Psychotic indeed, the script, supposedly based on the popular TV series Kojack, turns this popular image, sans Tootsie Pop. on its bald head. Following Austin through the streets of New York as he compulsively stabs assorted strangers and pursues his obscure object of desire — a Mexican soap opera star — the script joins him up with naive rock critic and philosophy student Israel Williams (Federico Muchnik) in what must be the most perverse father/son plot around. Although it would be impossible to untangle here the film’s meandering subplots or render coherent its dizzying philosophical debates. I might note that the film’s sometimes comical, sometimes weird vision of New York provides a fitting allegory for its own production. In imagining New York as a land of immigrants (Austin’s favorite line: “I don’t come from around here”), the “foreign” status of this American film reinforces the inescapable strangeness of its urban setting. And the enthusiasm which made the film possible and which is oddly reflected in Austin’s friendly stabbing of people on the street, is nevertheless necessitated by the lack of public funding for the arts, a governmental neglect which finds a parallel neglect in the lack of housing for street people like Austin. Indeed, while Ruiz could only make this film by relying on the kindness of strangers, the very institutionalized difference between American and foreign film financing is also what gives the film its strange and powerful edge.
What may finally be the most unsettling quality of this paradoxically foreign American film is the utter foreignness of the American culture itself. From the odd topography of the cast’s different faces, accents, and body types to the oddly familiar shapes of the TV soap operas and cop shows, the film looks too familiar to be recognizable. At one level, Ruiz’ style simply provides an eccentrically curated museum of cinema and Western art. “When shooting,” Alberti confides, “Ruiz would tell me, ‘This is a Godard shot…. This is from Bresson…. This is like a Velasquez tableau.'”
At another level, this history of cinema and art mediates Ruiz’ own peculiar memories and experience. Having written for a Mexican soap opera earlier in his life, Ruiz also came to America through the alternately stylish and banal violence the US exports abroad in the form of pulp novels, gangster films, and TV police serials. But if Ruiz’ take on America is ostensibly foreign, it is not ultimately that different from any other perspective. National identity is, after all, as Ruiz’ earlier exploration of French culture affirms, simply an image, or rather an image so utterly persuasive as to be, in fact, real. If, in the capital-intensive world of the dominant US film industry, independent film production is already labeled a foreign practice, then the wandering cast of characters in The Golden Boat — characters who barely understand each other’s words, let alone their actions — in many ways enact their own filmic creation.
To be sure, the film encountered the expected unexpected catastrophes of production. In one intimate bedroom scene, set in the redecorated space of Mary Boone’s old loft, a sprinkler system set off by the lighting rained black sludge all over the pink satin sheets and amorous actors. But beyond the set of budgeted accidents, The Golden Boat was also greeted with indifference and animosity. When shooting at 80 Center Street, a heavily trafficked space for film production, the crew was continually interrupted by union workers building sets for Woody Allen’s new film, who intentionally rolled noisy weight-lifting machines to disrupt the nonunion production. After several exchanges and phone calls to Allen’s office, one cast member finally explained to the movers, “When we say ‘roll,’ we mean the camera, not you.”
Ultimately the most subtle violence practiced against this production took the passive/aggressive shape of no money. Even Ruiz, who has become a master alchemist in consistently transforming financial crises into cinematic masterpieces, voiced a tone of regret when he described the film’s harried pace. But the financial indifference that greeted the film’s production is oddly recast as the violent greetings which the film’s characters exchange. “Violence,” as Schamus suggests, “is not so much hatred, but is understood by the characters as one of the only ways to communicate with each other. This is the way Americans express themselves through the media.” Violence is also the ultimate way to recognize a film. Michael Kirby recounts how, after he had stabbed himself for a certain scene, he returned to the office covered in blood and with a knife sticking out of his stomach. When he turned the corner, a friend who was passing by greeted his wounded condition with the friendly question, “You shooting a film?” Other New Yorkers, however, for whom even cinematic violence is routine, simply passed him by with complete indifference.