The Subject Was Death

The following is a contribution to David Cairns' Blogathon entitled The Late Show, looking at the final films of actors, directors or any other notable talents. Head on over to Shadowplay to catch up with the happenings and the many brilliant words being spilled over many odd and interesting works in the autumn of many lives. 

Raúl Ruiz spent his whole career making one indelible impression after another. Based on personal accounts I've read and the experience I have with his films, the overwhelming feeling I always got was that he was always just behind you in the cinema smiling at you while you watched what he was up to. You could turn back around, whether through charmed confusion or plain ardor and he'd be there to wink at you, then nod to indicate that you're about to see something better. Even if you don't like his films, how could you not admire him? His movies were always adventures, if perhaps not always naive or traditionally thrilling. Even the byzantine corridors of Mysteries of Lisbon had reveals and reversals that turned an ordinary passage into a grave, bold twist of fate. Sure it's classic literature, but it never forgot to occasionally act like an action-packed serial. 

Naturally he was gone before I had a real opportunity to engage with his body of work. Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful there's a whole canon I get to experience at my leisure but one never likes to view a body of work as an obituary. How could I watch Lines of Wellington and not wonder how it would have turned out if he'd lived to finish it? But the sadness passed as I began watching this missive from a man on his way into the next life. Valeria Sarmiento, Ruiz's great love in life (after the cinema) had stepped up and completed it in his absence and done an absolutely marvelous job. Her hand seemed guided lovingly by the man himself, though no one without great talent could have produced such a splendidly textured work. Perhaps the best way to think of Lines of Wellington is as a wake. Sadness fills the air but there is joy here, and everybody in the world stopped by to pay their respects. One is torn whether to judge it devoid of the departed first author's influence. What is the film if not a tribute to the way Ruiz's camera made us feel, a stunning approximation of his style? I found it a compelling trip down a riverbank with the dead on both sides. What can one do when surrounded by sadness so profound as this, sadness, a lack that has actually produced a film. Lines of Wellington is about surviving. Naturally it's all Sarmiento and the friends of Ruiz can be asked to do, but they've done so much more. I'm incredibly grateful for Wellington. 

Death is the ultimate producer isn't he? You can work to whatever deadline you think you have, craft your life the best you can, roll with the punches, deal with bumps in the road and uncooperative performers, work magic time and again, but the fucker always gets final cut, don't he? Who's ever really ready to let a legacy lie? Francis Ford Coppola has a marvelous zen attitude toward death, I find, but I think secretly he's as nervous as I am. He gave a whole series of interviews around the time of Tetro and Twixt where he talked about death, how he's come up with mechanisms, games, to take the weight out of the event; Take the wind out of death's sails. He would ride an elevator to the bottom floor of his building and in the dark passage between the first floor and the lobby would pretend he would be dead when he hit the bottom. Everything seemed ok in those moments. But now he's out raising money for another mob film. Death can fuck right off, it seems. Three films for no money with no pressure were enough to get all the demons out (they make a hell of a triple feature, they do. Watch them backwards, Twixt, Tetro and then Youth Without Youth and see if you aren't bawling by the finish) and now he's back on the horse. I just know I'm going to be having this conversation with the bastard all my life. There's no playing fair with death. Ruiz's passing strikes me as so marvelously sly because he left after completing what really ought to have been his last film. If I may read into the motivation of someone I will never meet, Lines of Wellington was one more film than Ruiz knew he was meant to make, so he passed it to his loved ones. Is this provable fact? Not at all. It's just the narrative I gave to myself to make his passing seem less cruel, and more a final twist in a narrative Ruiz had been writing since he started making art for kids like me to consume, analyze and fall for. 

I'll tell you the best approximation of grief I've ever encountered: In Bertrand Bonello's marvelously decadent wallow House of Pleasures (oh how I love that film) one of the denizens of a brothel succumbs to syphilis and the other girls are left to mourn her. Quite without warning we're in a dark room dancing with the girls to The Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin." They're too broken up to speak, they can only sway and sink into each other for unvoiced support. One of them walks up the hall, not hearing the music, peering into the room. Darkness everywhere but for the candle lit bodies in a silken parlor filled with the most marvelous suffering you've ever seen. That is how one wants to mourn. We almost never get to. That is the sort of mourning Ruiz deserves. Sadness that compels one to dance. Perhaps fittingly, perhaps not, I saw Lines of Wellington before La Noche De Enfrente, Ruiz's final complete work as director, just after hearing about his death. Lines is a remarkable film, but it came with the nagging sensation that he wasn't really gone. The wake had been thrown too soon and like Don Juan or Tom Sawyer (or both) he was watching it from a safe distance, smiling just a little wider than he should at the tribute paid to him. He couldn't be gone. He had one more film coming out. 

Thus is the frustrating magic of release dates; they bring the dead back to life. We still have one more James Gandolfini performance to look forward to. What a horrible, bitter hope to give to us. Gone too soon. Everyone always gone too soon for my liking. Thanks to Film Comment, La Noche De Enfrente played New York's Lincoln Center and I got on the first train I could to go see it. The screening was patchily attended, to say the least. There can't have been more than fifteen people in the theatre. I settled in and so did this dreamy vision of life and art holding hands for a long walk down the beach of Ruiz's memory, consciousness, unconsciousness and desire. The first thing that really jumps out: the bit where Bluebeard the pirate talks with a young boy in front of a bluescreen beach. What's that about? Why the artificiality? There are no beaches in Chile? Aha! Forest for the trees. Rookie mistake. This is his version of the Byron Haskin technicolor fables that had invaded his childhood like pirates on a galley. Suddenly I was at a beautiful crossroad: the 24 year old in the theatre wanted to figure out the tricks being played, the 4 year old in the back of my head was intoxicated by the scenes of peculiar logic drifting into each other like rogue brushstrokes. I've been giving a lot of thought lately to what might have been the first film I remember seeing in a theatre. Best I've been able to narrow it down to were kid-friendly rep screenings of Treasure Island (Haskin, naturally) or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea at the County Theatre in Doylestown, my home all these years. They still show those kid friendly matinees and the world's a better place for it. I remember being enchanted by tales of pirates, of being carried out to sea with a bunch of disreputable characters who you could never spend enough time with. Old Hollywood may have been built on lies but never let anyone tell you it wasn't magic. If I could retire to anywhere in time and space, it'd be to Hollywood in the 50s, because I could go anywhere in the world, do anything, be anywhere. The lies were exquisite back then. You could sink into them, like the girls in House of Pleasures, a similarly anachronistic voyage. Ruiz understands this. He doesn't try to lift us out of dreamland too often, but his last scenes are quite haunting without exerting too much effort. We are in the barrel of a gun for one brief scene after all. Doesn't get any more uncanny than that. 

Ruiz really did direct as if he were orchestrating your dreams. La Noche De Enfrente especially has a "Now you're here. Now you're here. Now this happens" sequencing that is truly the stuff of dreams. People walk from one room to the next, only to discover a whole new plot thread waiting to take them far away from the quiet retirement drink they were just having. Ultimately they shall have little consequence, but you'll wake up believing them. I was in the thick of all this when around the halfway point something drew me ever so slightly from the fantasia. Breathing. I had no memory of anyone coming and sitting behind me, but sure enough there was a low, wheezing sound, the unmistakable husky sound of a slightly sick older man breathing just behind me. For money I would have sworn there was no one there before the lights dimmed. The breathing continued right along with the film. I said nevermind and delighted in the things Ruiz was showing and telling me and it does feel like it's just to you, the viewer, independent of every other viewer. Dreams have that kind of intimacy. A thought strikes me, and I'm regressing to childhood in my seat so I entertain it. Could it be Ruiz seated behind me for one last screening? He seemed to be welcoming death with a joy-buzzer hidden in his palm all throughout the film, what with his conversing with historical figures and mixing his spiritual plains. Is it so far fetched that the man flew here to see his last work at a low-key venue, a small, sparsely attended theatre, someplace a throng won't recognize him. Tom Sawyer is sitting behind me, watching his own film, breathing down my neck. What a trick to play. What a damn good last laugh. It's so beautiful I want to believe it. I can't but I want to. I let the idea float away like pipe smoke to the carpeted ceilings and I settle back in, a little more invested than I was before. 

We want to believe the fairy tales, that we can be abducted by life-loving pirates and into high-seas adventures we'll never forget. The truth, that we could never live the lives of fictional characters, is too painful for us to cope with, which is why we've got movies, isn't it? To paint fantasy with lights and people and words and imagine for a moment we've lived something we haven't. One dream at a time, some good, some bad. The best films can do this to us, anyway. He had a bit of an ace up his sleeve in the form of a 6 hour runtime (!) but when I stopped watching Lav Diaz's Century of Birthing I felt I was still in the Philippines and it would take another round of dreams set somewhere else to wake me from that illusion. That is why we watch, isn't it? Am I being overly optimistic? Childish? Good. I'll never get to be these people, so I want to live their lives for a few hours at a time. I want to go off and live dangerously with the likes of His Majesty O'Keefe, Lord Jim, Robinson Crusoe, John Carter, Mick Travis, Bluebeard the Pirate or even Ruiz himself, lovable character that he is. Was? Is? But one has to grow up, so we get our doses in two hour films and pretend. Next best thing we can do is dream. So when the film ended, I stood up, gathered my things and walked out of the theatre as quickly as possible, taking care not to look behind me, never to know the identity of the man behind me, if indeed I hadn't dreamt him up. Sometimes we need the lie. Death taps his foot, looks at his watch, and waits for the ugly truth to show up. I like the truth, so long as it's given to me in a good film, but I'll take the lie any day. What's the point a dyin' if we don't know what we're gonna miss? 

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