The Black Spot

But forget all that and focus on this for a minute: it was said that Raoul Ruiz’s dream was to film Hamlet with a cast of vegetables.

Raoul Ruiz and Treasure Island

Pip Goes to Town

My tale opens on a misunderstanding. Obligated to assign one book report a year, my seventh-grade English teacher hit upon an ingenious alternative: why not show us the movie instead? Compounding the tarted-up accessibility of that cinematic streetwalker, literary adaptation, was the neatness with which an untold amount of class time spent reading and discussing the rococo bedswappings of Linton’s and Earnshaw’s in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights could be siphoned into the 105 minutes it takes to watch Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1992). Since we were still expected to write as though we had read the book, CliffsNotes were distributed all round, which proved an almost Brontëan twist of fate once we found out that the videotape’s audio was fatally corroded and unlistenable. For years I regarded my gallant attempts to cobble together a summarized plot I could overdub onto poor distorted Juliette Binoche as the low point of my life in both words and images. I’ve since learned it was an important lesson, a necessary game of charades that prepared me for further adventures in that mystic third space where the book and its adaptation leave off and true misunderstanding begins.

Of course, nobody goes to the movies expecting to see their favorite novel faithfully illustrated, do they? As if moving pictures and soundtracks comprised a dimension accidentally left out of print! Indignity at the cuts and plot compressions directors are obliged to make on behalf of their medium is the territory of boring conversations and bad dates, hijacked by people who want to be flattered for reading books. Hewing to the letter makes for a crude visual list of a novel’s contents. Truffaut’s diagnosis, directed at the literature-adapting team of Aurenche and Bost, was that psychological “realism” underestimated the capacities of cinema in boiling subtle novelistic nuance down to splashy mise-en-scène. The latter-day team of Merchant and Ivory accustomed us to E. M. Forster proxies so soft-lensed and nostril-pinching they left us with the impression we had actually just read every word in the novel. The Merchant-Ivory idea, in general, seemed to be to transliterate a story’s most memorable scenes and lines of dialogue into an overall lacquer that at least subdued the purists. Whoso list to look Emma Thompson in the eyes and complain of impropriety?

A frequent condition of the Filmed Masterpiece is that novel-ness overlays novelty, and if the feeling persists that something has been lost amid all this emphasis on equivalency, it is still less reptilian than the wholesale reduction of Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient into breathy gibberish about the hollows of women’s necks. David Lean’s 1965 version of Dr. Zhivago is another cinematic synecdoche, with the passion of lovers standing in for the twinned destiny of states and individuals (though the addition of ice castles and Klaus Kinski is hard to hate).

In saying that only bad books can be adapted successfully, Luis Buñuel knew what he was talking about. The free indirect discourse that allows a writer to speak directly to the reader has no easy equivalent in a medium that depends upon a singular eye. The dismal lesson seems to be that films begin where the literary imagination runs dry and that to confuse image and print is to find yourself in the same predicament as a college acquaintance of mine who, citing an English teacher’s assertion that Charles Dickens always used the name of his protagonists in his titles, insisted that the 1998 Ethan Hawke adaptation Great Expectations had been based on a book called either Crazy Times With Pip or Pip Goes to Town. Dickens, of course, is that most pliable of writers, considered by Eisenstein to be the father of montage, and books the size of Great Expectations are obviously ready-made for epic sensibilities like David Lean’s. Still, Lean’s 1946 rendering of Great Expectations, with its frame purified of the sooty details and loopy subplots that act page-for-page as barometers for our sense of simulated reality, no longer resembles a novel at all; reborn as escapist allegory, it might as well be Pip Goes to Town. Clearly, the vocation of the director or screenwriter who ignores Buñuel’s decree and aims to adapt a well-regarded doorstop of a novel lies not in what is kept, but in what is cut.

Besides, omission was supposed to be part of the fun! How did they ever make a movie of Lolita? went the flirtatious 1962 tagline and, let us not forget, movie posters used to feature the cast of The Grapes of Wrath (1940) or Bambi (1942) superimposed over an open book cover, as if challenging the filmgoer to reconcile these obviously incompatible formats—“A cartoon version of Bambi? Now I’ve seen everything!” Adaptation under the Hays Code was a mischievous, Oulipo-like game of restrictions that could result in genuinely exciting permutations, as in movies like Mildred Pierce and The Big Sleep (1945 and 1946, respectively), which deviated wonderfully from their hardboiled source material. As for higher art, the well-meaning efforts of auteurs to organically import existential fare like Kafka and Camus were doomed to flounder beside the wise excisions of Antonioni, who used only the germ of Cortázar’s short story “Blow-Up” for his film, or (in an extreme case) Alain Robbe-Grillet’s screenplay for Last Year At Marienbad (1961), which putatively takes the conceit of an island party suspended from time and space from Adolfo Bioy Casares’ sci-fi novella The Invention of Morel and leaves out the beginning and ending, effectively doing away with anything that would explain the eerie, automatic competitions between vacationing parvenus.

It’s with good reason that the most successful modern adaptations shed, like vestigial tails, the forgettable books that inspired them. Who remembers that 1964’s Dr. Strangelove began with a paranoid Cold War thriller called Red Alert? Who cares that so many of the blockbusters of the 1970s were freely adapted from once-hot properties like The Exorcist, Jaws, and MASH: A Novel about Three Army Doctors? Meanwhile the dearth of box office hits derived from that era’s postmodern vogue doesn’t look like any great loss for either side (1981’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman may be the only exception). Mercifully, there are no known attempts to film, say, J. R. or The Crying of Lot 49. Moral or mental ambiguity tended to wind up commuted to dream-sequences: Carrie (1976) and Deliverance (1972), both adaptations programmed to overwhelm their originals, end with shots of hands reaching out from beyond the grave to disturb the guilty sleep of their survivors.

When the movies returned to more sacrosanct literature, it was either with a weary sense of responsibility heralded by Daniel Day-Lewis and Dame Judi Dench, or some sneaky producer’s “improvements” clutched to its bodice. For example, what should be an innocuous substitution, in 1997’s The Wings of the Dove, of a Klimt painting for what the book has as a Bronzino, accomplishes the subjugation of a key emblem, leaving it a garish, drained ornament. It is also an early indication that Henry James’s Belle Époque has been retooled toward Burtonesque phantasmagoria, a suspicion borne out by the casting of Helena Bonham Carter as the novel’s fascinatingly immoral—but not amoral—Kate Croy. The insult is done one better in 1998’s Cousin Bette where, following a maniacally happy ending in which the seamstress achieves the revenge Balzac disallowed, we are unequivocally mooned by a scornful Elisabeth Shue and her cohorts. And with good reason—the decision to star in one of these gross revisions is way more defensible than sitting through it. We could be reading!

For all the bandied-about democracy of film as an art form, it is also the narrowest with regards to the room for interpretation it allows, collapsing the possibilities of narrative in the mind of the casual reader into a single, oppressive vision that—with their massive budget-backed compromises, tie-in paperbacks, and comely stars—can’t help but make each freshly scalped Love In the Time of Cholera (2007), Never Let Me Go (2010), Blindness (2008), or The Road (2009) look like a feckless, despotic attempt to dress up one more arbitrary imagining as definitive. Being forced to watch as nominally literary fiction like these last four are optioned, processed, and their posters festooned along the subway platform is akin to having some out-of-it big shot in a seersucker jacket plop down across from you in a Waffle House and ask “Whatcha readin’ there, boy?”

So why do we continue to do it, to treat ourselves to the likes of The Reader and The Lovely Bones, movies hamstrung first by the material they’re obligated to emulate and second by their deviation from it? “Because these stories are important!” Such, at least, seems to be the lesson to be absorbed from the ongoing renaissance of the Classics-as-teen-movie sub-genre, with the latest, 2010’s Easy A (a rehabilitated Scarlet Letter), doing proud the tradition of 2006’s She’s the Man (Twelfth Night) and 1995’s Clueless (Emma). Images alter, prose attenuates to appease the test market but the narratives stick in our craw and insist that they are not done with us. To deny them their recurrence is to succumb to the ironic despair of Michael Winterbottom’s Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2006) or vanity projects like Al Pacino’s Looking For Richard (1996), each charmlessly coy about the impossibility of adaptation.

A plot that’s been poached from its roost, carried far from authorial intention, and subjected to re-education comes back observing telling customs. Kiss Me Deadly, from 1955, gauged the national paranoia by trading Mickey Spillane’s drug-bonanza McGuffin for a box of pure nuclear death. De Palma’s disastrous Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) is manifestly a product of the same 1980s greed it lampooned, and The Scarlet Letter’s 1995 reconfiguration as a Demi Moore sex romp is a fascinating relic of the erotic thrillers that glutted that decade. Disney’s Treasure Island from 1950—one of at least fifty movies based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s adventure novel—where Jim Hawkins, like a good baby boomer, identifies with causes plainly detrimental to his kith and country, might have the most going for it. Probably the first film version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel to seize on the Oedipal fixation that joins Jim and Long John Silver (played by Robert Newton, who here bequeaths pirate-talk to the ages, no mean thing), it admits to the essential violence done to our ability to generate our own ideas about what we read, the crime at the root of all adaptation: piracy.

Which brings me to another Treasure Island, or rather a film, directed by the Chilean exile Raoul Ruiz (who died this August) masquerading under that name. But actually it is a form unique in the history of pictures and ideas, a conversation between the contradictory spirit of the invisible story and its manifestation in the world. And Ruiz’s films, bordered on all sides by mystery, are exemplars of what literary divergence can accomplish if it is prepared to be as interesting as it is unfaithful. Still, the real hero of this story is the puckish and holy programming director who aired L’île au trésor (completed in 1985 but apparently not formally released in France until 1994) on late-night cable television roughly ten years ago. I was up very late, half asleep, visiting home after my first year away college, when premium cable gave me my first taste of this film that would become a weird and abiding obsession. I had no way of knowing then that when I clicked off the television, the movie would all but vanish from existence. Which is where my adventure begins in earnest.

Lucky Jim

“My tale opens,” the voiceover begins, in strangely accented English “with a misunderstanding.” But actually, everything is where it should be. Young Jim Hawkins lives in a room in his parents’ coastal inn, sleeping through the day and watching television at night (initially, this is the only hint that our story takes place in the present day; Jim’s duds are probationary fop). He has his territory beneath the inn, in a system of caves he calls The Jolly Fellows, and his childhood is interrupted by the ordained parade of treasure-hunting mystery men. There is the new lodger Captain Billy Bones, and Blind Pew—but neither is called by name. Even Jim is mostly called “Jonathan Cutino,” though we hear his father and the Captain speaking of a “Jim Hawkins.” Discrepancies accumulate amid ridiculous overplayed dialogue (“Don’t hit a blind man if you want to find treasure. Let the blind man hit you!”), even crazier narration that often doesn’t seem to be what our hero is thinking at all (“Now I can see the unreal business of the blind man’s funeral all over again, stripped at last of the question marks over the manner of death which haunted me for years.”), and a surfeit of maniacal laughter. The Captain’s seduction of Jim’s mother is strikingly anomalous—and not only because the Captain is played by Martin Landau and Jim’s mother by Anna Karina. The casting of cuddly Vic Tayback—cook Mel Sharples on television’s Alice—as Long John Silver is almost as peculiar as the library of annotated copies of Treasure Island he keeps at his Lebanese restaurant—though he prefers to discuss shoes: “I always go for the feet when I want to find out more about someone.” And what’s Jean-Pierre Léaud doing skulking around the grounds? Is this even a real movie? Suddenly nothing is where it should be and it gradually dawns on us that we are on another island altogether.

Narratives don’t so much accrue in Ruiz’s Treasure Island as superimpose prismatically. Just when think we recognize a particular signpost—Bones dying of fear, Jim’s eavesdropping on Silver’s plot, the marooned Ben Gunn—Ruiz reveals his mutinous intent. For one thing, the pirates don’t look much like pirates, more like guerillas, revolutionaries. Jim’s friends the Doctor and the Squire appear without much fanfare. Other characters, like participatory academic Aunt Helen, are without an analogue in the book. The Oedipal strains of the Disney version have gone haywire, as everybody claims to be Jim’s father and nobody seems terribly concerned with treasure. But as Jim says—or, rather, as Jean-Pierre Léaud says, since we learn three quarters of the way through that he has literally run away with the script and has been telling the story from Jim’s point of view—“I didn’t see why we couldn’t just carry on without the treasure. It was an adventure anyway.”

By the time we reach the puzzle’s solution, meanings are not just layered, they’ve become a fossil record of incomplete ideas opening into a sea of suggestions, surprisingly few of which are undercut by the revelation that we’ve been watching an exercise in militant game theory. Silver is, in reality, Professor of Polemology (war theory) at the University of Ghent and the architect of an experimental game called Treasure Island that has been played once a year for almost thirty years. Young Jim is the control, a child brought up under circumstances identical to the hero of Stevenson’s book. And Aunt Helen is a rival ideologue hoping to challenge Treasure Island’s phallogocentrism, much to the disappointment of the rebuffed Squire, who is robbed, by the tides of normative empowerment, of his chance to play the dashing hero. At the game’s conclusion, the roles will be reshuffled: today’s Jim is tomorrow’s Silver, the worst player always becomes the stranded Ben Gunn and the best always becomes Israel Hands—who dies. But alas, no reconstruction is perfect: in perhaps the funniest joke in the movie, Silver, disappointed that the action has fallen so far from the book, echoes the sentiments of any reader who has ever been outraged by a movie straying from its source: he fires a machine gun into the air while shouting “It was not written! It was not written!”

“My films are not fiction films, but about fiction,” Ruiz told the Australian journal Cinema Papers in 1993, “I have been interested primarily in the problem of how more than one fiction can coexist in the same instant.” Nesting a new story in an old, his Treasure Island sidesteps the contradiction common to almost every other remake by acknowledging that it’s not in the nature of any tale to be retold without eventually becoming another. By putting Jim Hawkins so squarely in our position, halfway between recognition and incredulity, he not only catches the moment when a beloved book blurs into a mainstream bastardization, he mimics the experience of watching one: the movie’s Jim is increasingly bored by the developing action, sardonic regarding the machinations of the adults around him, bemused by the air of unreality, uninterested in uncovering secrets that he realizes depend on him (he is, after all, the protagonist). But he does draw certain conclusions that make his full-bodied captivity by the plot bearable (like identifying the players who populate his hotel with the cast of his favorite television show, in a neat bit of mise en abyme).

Set adrift following the mutiny of their crew, Jim and his friends are lured aboard a ship whose captain claims to have captured Silver and his men. He asks if anyone has read Benito Cereno, the “prophetic masterpiece” by Herman Melville. Unfortunately, his reference to the novella, where prisoners pretend to be jailors and jailors pretend to be prisoners, is lost on our heroes, who walk into the trap. Likewise, having read Treasure Island puts us on marginally firmer ground, but generally just outfits us with a different set of misunderstandings against Ruiz’s incongruous, as he puts it, “game of combinations.” Knowledge of a primary source may change the way its descendents are received, but Ruiz’s films propose a model in which no narrative is privileged over another; not when, together, they can imply whole new fictions. In a film that allows every possible story to protrude—including literary blueprint, children’s adventure movie, and academic analysis—the respect for the associative imagination is profound. In one of the essay-lectures collected in Poetics of Cinema 2 (from a supposed three-volume set, two of which were published in this country by Dis Voir in 1995 and 2007, that is addressed to the reader prepared to view film “as a machine for travel through space and time” and is frankly still more accessible and easier to find than most of his films) Ruiz writes:

Which is the true version?  I answer: a film, one that we shall never watch, consisting of resonances and vicinities. In each version that we watch, there lives, there vegetates, another film that we won’t see. And if we could see the other, then the first version would be by its side as its neighbor, though a terribly noisy neighbor. In film, more so than in other arts, coexistence and co-insistence . . . make themselves noticeable such that they determine a reflective and speculative off-screen. That is to say, when we watch a film, any film, we haven’t seen it completely. (“Vicinity and Resonance,” p. 64)

The rooms in Jim’s seaside hotel each contain a peephole (or “Eye of God”), so that every guest can spy on every other. If the same equilateral perspective exists in Ruiz’s films, it owes more to the subjectivity of his camera, the clash of visual information with mnemonic implication (or “intense interaction between what is inside and what is outside”) than the isolated shots themselves. I’ve so far neglected to mention that Treasure Island kind of looks like shit; film quality and production values are curiously top-heavy, so that the second half of the film barely limps toward its conclusion, as though hemorrhaging money, and the plot even carries on, via voiceover, as the credits roll. Also, we’re halfway through the two-hour running time before we get to sea. Israel Hands, Crab, and Ben Gunn just sort of show up incidentally without a real introduction, and in general the bullet-point “adventure” scenes that line up with Stevenson are so choppy and poorly lit that they only underscore the film’s liberties (unless they’re what’s left from the legendary four-hour cut, about which more later).

Liberty from ingrained expectation was ever Ruiz’s intention. “Ask indirect questions,” is the advice offered the crew of Jim’s ship the Iguana as they interrogate a prisoner. Ask about “more abstract things. You might get information that will be more enlightening to you.” And so they bark questions about football teams and pop singers, all in a cheeky gloss on Ruiz’s own esoteric approach. The cinematography of his 1980s films is a jarring marriage of Sacha Vierny, cinematographer of Last Year at Marienbad, and the extreme perspective of an Alexander Rodchenko photograph. We peer through fingers, stare up from between a pair of legs or, infamously, in 1983’s City of Pirates, assume the POV of an open mouth. The most defamiliarizing effect of all is the lunatic depths of field that can make a foregrounded pigeon look like the Roc from 7th Voyage of Sinbad or a screaming Martin Landau appear poised to devour us all. “Antichrony,” a visual counterpart to the call and response of Gregorian monks or sea shanties, is one of the terms Ruiz used to refer to this switchboard of sympathies and repulsions, but the prevailing feeling is of a director who was dedicated to play, allowing bricolage to determine structure and not the other way around: “Images striving for their independence.”

Hamlet with a Cast of Vegetables

If Ruiz’s final twenty years of filmmaking raised his profile beyond France, it is not only because he worked with prominent stars like Marcello Mastroianni (Three Lives and Only One Death, 1996), Catherine Deneuve (Genealogies of a Crime, 1997) and—check that box!—John Malkovich, but also owing to a perceptible shift from the interior play of images to that of narratives. Time Regained, his 1999 adaptation of the last book of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, takes an approach to the famously unfilmable novel exactly opposite to the one proposed by Harold Pinter in his unproduced screenplay for Joseph Losey. Whereas the Pinter proceeds by montage, with every scene or line of dialogue skipping a stone across all seven volumes, Ruiz relaxes into a reasonably straight translation of Marcel’s last encounters with the enchanting Gilberte, the violinist Morel, and the rest of the haut monde, allowing incremental flashbacks to key scenes from the other six books. This approach turns out to be exactly the right tack for a book set entirely in the land of memory. The recessed narrative takes the pressure off the “present” and frees Ruiz to spend several leisurely minutes on Marcel’s search for a suitable chair to stand on so as to spy on the profligate Baron de Charlus (the best of all possible Malkoviches) as he takes his pleasure in a male brothel. When we encounter the aged Baron on the streets of Paris, we feel genuinely wistful for his halcyon days being whipped by young boys, even though very little actual time has passed between the two scenes. Nor is the existence of characters like Albertine, who dies before the seventh book begins, covered up; Ruiz is remarkably unembarrassed at film’s infelicity in exhausting the stuff of novels (“The incompleteness that renders the work breathable”). Instead, he finds a new place to go:

Nowadays I refer to this manner of playing with structure and construction as a double mosaic model. The reason is that for it to work efficiently one has to privilege fragmentation. The pieces of a puzzle that together form a predetermined figure, which given that the pieces have mixed with another puzzle—let’s say, by virtue of an accident—now foster the emergence of figures foreign to the original puzzle. The success of this procedure depends on the ability to combine both puzzles in order to construct a third. (Poetics of Cinema 2, “Structure and Construction,” p. 45)

I realize that the relevant term for this bookish, joyfully artificial approach (and, make no mistake, Time Regained is ripe with magic lanterns, flying chairs, and smoke-filled sets meant to evoke mental corridors) is “Borgesian,” but I hesitate to inflict so weighty a pedigree as Jorge Luis’s on Ruiz, partly because of—Stevenson and Proust notwithstanding—his preference for what he called “second division” writers, meaning writers who usually reach the US in monochromatic small press translations, if at all. He filmed works by Pierre Klossowski (The Suspended Vocation, 1978), Arthur Adamov (Professor Taranne, 1987), Enrique Lafourcade (Little White Dove, 1973) and, in 1990, Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl.

“That’s what suits me, less-known writers,” Ruiz once said. “With less-known writers I feel like I’m completing their work.” Considering the economics of adaptation, of how much filmmakers have to gain by linking themselves with profitable entities, Ruiz’s penchant for literary writers whose difficult, regional works hardly recommended themselves to film in the first place bordered on the inconceivable. And isn’t the urge to “complete the work” the cardinal sin of screenwriting (next to Truffaut’s commandment against “dulling down, shrinking down, or sweetening down”)? But whereas any other director would wind up replacing bookish solipsism with a different deficiency, whenever the director of The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (1979) promoted a piece of fiction to the populist medium of film, he did so with something more akin to anagogy in mind; a mystic transcription of the word that nonetheless leaves its fundamental incompleteness intact. Hypothesis, after all, takes the form of a dry art documentary where we are granted access to the house of a great collector, where tableaux vivants—living paintings—stand in for the works of art in his collection. But of the stolen artwork, the one that gave all the others meaning, only an enigmatic mask remains. The “inaccessible center” is always present. Whereas most artworks struggle to hold their pose of totality forever, Ruiz captured again and again the moment when the story leaves. And then it comes again.

None of this means Ruiz’s oeuvre doesn’t draw from writers with a wider profile overseas. The stunning (and easily available in Region 1!) Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983) takes its cue from the premise of Remarque’s 1964 novel The Night In Lisbon, but contains many short episodes that reference, among other things, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and—in an especially traumatic digression involving a chanteuse with removable nipples who declares, “Nudity is an art. Besides, art is only nudity”—Balzac’s Sarrasine. Similarly, Three Lives and Only One Death, which presents itself as an anthology film where Mastroianni plays three characters who all end up residing in a fourth, is a descendent of Hawthorne’s “Wakefield” and Maupassant’s “The Horla.” Here Ruiz’s trademark multiplicity, having moved from image (Treasure Island) and narrative (Time Regained), becomes physically incarnate. But Ruiz was clearly more at home in the arcane; his 1988 short feature All the Clouds Are Clocks is based on a Japanese novel by Eiryo Waga. But there is no Waga; Ruiz fabricated the book, which is missing its last chapter. So it goes.

Just picture it. Nearly fifty films, maybe more, some of them destroyed, the majority of them practically unseeable, all touched by a strangeness out of books, all repeating the “give and take between sacred and profane, day-to-day things and fantasy.” Asked, in a 1988 documentary called Exiles, about his audience, the maestro replied that his audience is those concerned that “films might show another world. Maybe what you dream when you sleep in the theater.” This theater sounds a great deal like the one in Life Is A Dream (1988), which can almost be said to be based on the 17th-century play by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, even though the main character spends most of the film in a movie theater somewhere in Pinochet’s Chile watching Flash Gordon and Zorro serials. Such schlock is the only way the protagonist can recall his youth or remember what is happening in his life; men from the government interfere in his affairs, femmes fatales make bold propositions and he sits there, watching, remembering what it was like to see those movies for the first time, like the dead remember life.

If any single piece can act as a key to Ruiz, it may be the 1997 short Le Film à Venir (The Film to Come). The titular film is a holy fragment of celluloid that can only be seen by a secret society known as the Philokinetes. They watch it on a loop, somnambulating through a life that is unreal by comparison. It is the belief of the Philokinetes that film has an existence “independent from humans. Cinema, they said, is the primeval soup of a new life form. There from were to emerge pure screening creatures. Which is to say, non-topical beings.” They also have a Bible, actually two Bibles, known as the Double Book of the Dancing Mysteries, which two priests are reading in unison at any given time:

They had taken a vow of illiteracy. In their minds, this was actually a film, of which the conventional signs—letters, words, sentences—were dream landscapes or healthy faces. The simple act of leafing through the book gave those a lively, even sublime movement. I stayed there, reading without reading.

But forget all that and focus on this for a minute: it was said that Raoul Ruiz’s dream was to film Hamlet with a cast of vegetables.

The Black Spot

Raoul Ruiz was born in 1941 in southern Chile—Patagonia—where he wrote 100 plays by the time he was twenty. He attended writing school in Iowa, was a student of Kurt Vonnegut, apparently spent some time writing Mexican telenovelas and, back in Chile, came to prominence making films for the Socialist Party, for whom he eventually became official Film Advisor. In 1973, after Allende’s government fell in a US-backed coup, Ruiz fled to France, leaving behind the prints of many of his movies, including a version of Kafka’s In the Penal Colony. Beginning again in the neighborhood of Belleville with, appropriately enough, 1974’s Dialogue of Exiles, his films gradually shifted their focus from Marxist politics to the “logical paradoxes” of his later work. This is not to say that he ever abandoned the spirit of resistance (judging from haunted backward glances like Life Is A Dream) or that of Chile, especially if one accepts his description of the Chilean national sport as “the game of nonsense,” or entertains the notion that the fracturing of symbolic totality might in itself be a revolutionary act. In any case, the watersheds seem to have been Of Great Events and Ordinary People—which begins as a commissioned documentary about the 1978 French elections, until the camera wanders inward and ends up examining the impossibility of documentary—and the 1977 short film Dog’s Dialogue, a violent narrative palindrome about sex and domination told mostly in stills. Even more outré films followed and, France being France, they resulted in an appointment to the Maison de la Culture in Le Havre. By the time he made Treasure Island in 1985, he had shot several movies in Portugal, had his 1981 film The Territory more or less cannibalized by Wim Wenders (who made The State of Things in 1982 with the stranded cast and crew), solidified his avant-garde credentials with Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting, directed a 1984 children’s television serial (Manuel on the Island of Wonders), and made City of Pirates, perhaps the only movie to combine the aesthetics of René Magritte and Ruiz’s beloved American comic strip Terry and the Pirates.

Those are the facts, as far as I know them. They may not even be facts. Ruiz was one of those self-mythologizing artists who preferred to keep his biography fluid—in keeping with the recondite character of his work. I am indebted to Jonathan Rosenbaum’s prolific articles on Ruiz for observations and annotations on such artifacts as 1984’s made-in-a-day Vanishing Point, which I gather exists only as an unfinished work print. Another lucky break has been the success of Ruiz’s last film, the terrific Mysteries of Lisbon (2010). A lush, encyclopedic 19th-century drama dealing (again) with libertines, identity crises, and pirates, the four-and-a-half hour Mysteries went on to win the venerable Louis Delluc Prize, beating out formidable contenders like Polanski’s The Ghost Writer, Olivier Assayas’s Carlos, and Claire Denis’s White Material. The 2011 US release of Mysteries, which was hailed as a masterpiece by The New York Times just days before Ruiz’s death, has me hoping that soon there will come a day when you don’t have to go to a sketched-out video store in Sheepshead Bay to score a muddy VHS purporting to be Raoul Ruiz’s On Top of the Whale (1982), and nobody will ever have to suffer as I have.

Because the fact is that I have seen laughably few of these movies. A quick scroll through the auteur-movie streaming site MUBI has entries for Ruiz productions that seem more like mirages, hovering just out of reach: a noir about Marxists and literary critics called The Golden Boat (1991), made in the US and featuring appearances by members of the Wooster Group and cameos by Jim Jarmusch and Kathy Acker; continental thrillers with hokey names like A Place Among the Living (2003) and Savage Souls (2001); a quasi-adaptation of Racine’s Bérénice called The Real Presence (1985); Love Torn in a Dream (2000), an insane-sounding fantasy with Melvil Poupaud, Treasure Island’s Jim Hawkins, all grown up; a Daryl Hannah film of a Gilbert Adair novel accurately titled A Closed Book (2010); another quasi-adaptation, this one of The Odyssey, called Voyage of a Hand (1985); and movies I’ve been trying to see almost as long as I’ve been trying to rewatch Treasure Island, like Dark At Noon (1992), The Blind Owl, and an adaptation of Dante’s Inferno made for British television in 1991. Don’t these sound amazing? No? Suffice to say none of these titles are available to stream, download, buy, borrow, barter for, or steal. Most heartbreaking of all, there’s mention of The Lost Domain (2005), yet another ersatz adaptation, this one taking inspiration from the only children’s book I know of that is more beautiful than Treasure Island: Alain-Fournier’s masterpiece Le Grand Meaulnes. If anyone has a copy they can loan me, I’d really appreciate it.

I was not always like this. We’ve all been caught off-guard by movies that, upon reconsideration in the sober light of day, deserved to walk the plank. I wish this had been the case with Treasure Island. But just as that original random transmission seemed immediately to fill in an empty space between book- and film-fictions that I’d instinctively known must exist, the fact that it literally could not be possessed became a noticeable absence, a dream that remained real—albeit barely—in the morning. Or as Jean-Pierre Léaud puts it, “Once again, the voyeuristic sleepwalker in me was aroused.”

There’s another scene in which Jim finds Léaud at his typewriter and asks if he writes stories. The writer effetely snaps, “There aren’t any more.” I knew that there was still at least one, even if no one had seen it. There were, however, rumors, and unverifiable internet newsgroup postings. One legend explained why screenings of Treasure Island were so far and few between: it wasn’t a full movie at all, but the surviving footage left from what was intended to be a completely straight adaptation of the book! When the investors discovered the crepuscular, self-indulgent excesses Ruiz had taken with the reliably crowd-pleasing classic Treasure Island, they pulled out, leaving the director to salvage his movie with late additions, bizarre resolutions, and voiceovers on a shoestring budget. Was the movie I loved really the result of an abandoned, botched shipwreck of a feature? One long deleted scene that corresponded to no complete work? Except then it emerged that there was a finished version—an incomprehensible, four-hour cut that only Raoul Ruiz himself possessed, presumably to screen for friends (but I’m not sure even they get it; Jonathan Rosenbaum all but dismisses the film). Nor did the sightings and inter-rumblings end there. Was it true that Chris Marker had edited it under a pseudonym? And what was I to make of this strange book, In Pursuit of Treasure Island?

An obscure, undistributed, unseeable, unfinished film is one thing. But when you have a readily available novel by the director that can only be understood (sort of) by someone with a working knowledge of the movie, then you are truly lost down an intertextual rabbit hole. If there’s a solution anywhere in In Pursuit of Treasure Island (2008, Dis Voir), I haven’t found it. While not strictly speaking a novelization of the film, it shares certain key elements that fail to unlock any of the new puzzles it introduces on almost every page. Postmodern doesn’t begin to cover the copious confusions of identity, strange references to occult books, patricide, possession, lovely inset stories that sound like something out of The Arabian Nights (or The New Arabian Nights, a book by Stevenson), dream sequences, secret codes, digression, and barmy misdirection only marginally relieved by the occasional appearance of a modular plot:

Robert Louis Stevenson’s book had been scrutinized, read and re-read a thousand times. It has been used as a model for a map which was to lead us in search of an island where (the doctor thought he knew) that cave representing the sky was located. In that sky, you will have guessed, the stars and planets were represented by diamonds, real diamonds. (Part Two, Chapter 1, p. 63)

It could be the account of another game of Treasure Island, taking place after the one depicted in the film. Or meant to fill out the missing scenes. Or a prequel. Or (anything being possible at this point) the rulebook of an actual game. Or maybe Ruiz, unable to make his film and lay the theme to rest, had still been wrestling with the material, just like I was. A character called Midas appears toward the end of In Pursuit who, having hijacked the game and suspended the story, might well be the Jean-Pierre Léaud role, a rogue narrator who navigates between mediums and plays the game from both sides. But, just pages from the end, Silver proposes another game called Time Regained! And, come to think of it, didn’t Ruiz’s Treasure Island and Time Regained end with exactly the same image? Of a little boy running along a beach, between the sand and the roaring ocean? And wasn’t this the main image that had haunted me since the very first time I saw the movie? Just when the correspondences couldn’t get any weirder, I learned that the US distributor of In Search of Treasure Island was D.A.P., where it just so happens my roommate works. When I asked if they’d sold many copies, she replied, “As far as I know, just one. To you.”

It was about here that I began to wonder if, like the doorway in Kafka’s Before the Law, this film might be applicable only to me, causing me all the more consternation because I so consistently failed it. I had become accustomed to (1) finding a listing for Treasure Island or some other Ruiz film on a library’s online catalog, (2) calling to make sure they actually had the movie they said they had on the shelves, and (3) taking the subway across town or to a whole other borough only to find that they didn’t have the movie after all, or they had the wrong version. Was some synchronous doppelgänger getting to the library just minutes before me every single time? If I tried to see the film with other people, would they see only a blank screen? Maybe life really was a dream! At any rate, the story had by now fully detached from any conceivable notion of author or text and wasn’t going to go back into fiction, where it belonged, without a screening.

So you can imagine my excitement when the Film Society of Lincoln Center booked the film for a one-time engagement in mid-November, 2010. I cleared all my own engagements, made a few paranoid calls to the box office and showed up ready to face down the cursed piece of celluloid that I had, somewhere along the line, allowed to take over my life. A few friends, having tagged along out of pity for my desperate condition, pretended disappointment for my sake when the cashier at the box office informed us, with excellent bedside manner, that the theater had ordered the wrong Treasure Island (I believe it was the 1978 Japanese anime Takarajima). I trundled into the lobby, put my head in my hands and overheard the ushers discussing the whole fiasco: “Hey, whatever happened to the Treasure Island thing?” “Oh, somebody goofed and they ordered the wrong Treasure Island.” “Oh well. Nobody showed up anyway. Except that guy.” Ben Gunn was never so lonely as I in that dismal hour. Truly one of life’s castaways.

By this point, I’d met plenty of people who were on some level familiar with Ruiz as a filmmaker and, for them, the movies ended with their knowledge of them. What they couldn’t know, they didn’t want to know. So what was wrong with me? My answer to dislocation—the inability of any given experience to reconcile with its representation—was to hide out behind increasingly hard-to-fathom stories. Was this all there was to life, was this what my model of civilization amounted to? A video store where I could rent movies like The Wicker Man, Liquid Sky, and Holy Mountain? My aesthetically indefensible assumption seemed to be that, the stranger the film, the closer it would come to telling the truth. Treasure Island had caught me looking and unmistakably rejoined that truth was not at all what I wanted. I wanted the thing movies ripped off and books aspired to; I wanted a story capable of overwhelming the world.

Plus, consider the wonder, bordering on the miraculous, that in the age of digital singularity, file sharing, and information hunger, something could still be impossible to find. I figured if a piece of art couldn’t be owned, digested, or turned on and off at will, it couldn’t be commodified either. Obscurity was its own reward. You can get tired of things, but there’s always more nothing, more unfinished space and suspended potential. The society of sailors in Three Crowns of the Sailor each have a letter tattooed on their forearm, but only the captain knows the sentence to which they belong. Still, they sing a shanty that goes “Words are made of letters and songs of words.” The smallest unit of any finished work is absence, making incompletion a far more natural and realistic way to go about things. Wasn’t it true that some of my favorite books I hadn’t bothered to finish? And others I hadn’t even bothered to begin? Treasure was treasure because it was buried. Otherwise it would just be money.

Well, so. The story leaves. And then it comes again. I had my lesson (even if I didn’t know it yet) and, after a few weeks, I also had a copy of Treasure Island. It buzzed incessantly, so loud that I could hardly hear half the dialogue (with headphones it wasn’t so bad) and the picture was as bootleggy as I remembered, so that it looked a great deal like something that shouldn’t quite be, something that isn’t all the way: a dream vicariously captured on film and preserved for the two or three people that knew how to score a copy. No one could argue that, as a consumer, I hadn’t done my part. I had read the book, watched the movie, and by now—as coincidences mounted and I continued to adapt my own life to suit the stories inside it—the film and I had effectively reversed our streamlined subject-object relationship.

Having gone deep enough into the movie, I’d become much less a mere spectator and something more like a character in a dream this movie was having about me. It struck me that Ruiz had been so much more than just a clever fellow: he’d been the operator of a machine that bent narratives so far back that they leaned into real life. I had been excited to read how the exiled Ruiz, refusing to become one more artist-of-the-diaspora who tried to regain the authentic flavor of his interrupted life, had sided with an ethos of artifice that involved “breaking the natural flow of discourse” and “restoring to the image its natural ability to engender stories.” Behind these words and films are the purest and maddest of intentions: to depict, not the subject or content or the general idea of books, but what it might look like when books dream. Dreams that might beget more dreams, in a loop that sometimes resembled, at different times, an infinitely re-readable book or the sacred film of the Philokinetes or rapid movements of the eye.

One more thing. The first time I saw Treasure Island, I somehow missed that, while it is several different stories in due course and often all at once, it ends as a cautionary tale. I just want to say this: I wish I had watched it a little closer. Maybe then I would have remembered how Jean-Pierre Léaud describes, in that same strange accented English of his, how the nasty, jealous narrator set his trap for poor Jim and finally won his battle for control of Treasure Island:

Jim Hawkins was spotted running along the beach. He ran to and fro for hours. Some people claimed he was crying. Others said he couldn’t stop laughing. . . . But actually, the main thing he felt was sheer contempt. Contempt for the whole business, contempt for everyone involved and, above all, contempt for Treasure Island itself. He would never have made a good John Silver, nor even a decent Israel Hands. There was only one part he would have been any good at. And that was mine. That’s why I was lying in wait for him at the other end of the beach. The official version is that no one ever saw Jim Hawkins again. Whatever you do, don’t try and make some kind of hero out of him. You won’t find the corpse. From now on, I am the only Jim Hawkins.

In Stevenson’s novel, we learn that the black spot is the method by which the pirates pronounce judgment on their own kind. It consists of a stencil cut out of a book, a round page with a printed side and a blank side. The printed side is stained black, completely obscuring the text, with the pirates’ message scrawled on the reverse. But Stevenson warns us that, should the page in question be torn out of a holy book, a book with power over the lives of men, the sentence that would have been carried out on the accused instead reverts to his captors. Adaptation, as Ruiz practices it, is easy. It only means not minding when you discover that no story survives retelling without suffering a sea change, and reveling in the moment when characters revolt against their author, plots collide and the words come unstuck from their old meanings, leaving something wild and unique in their place. Or as Stevenson writes, “I have that curiosity beside me at this moment, but not a trace of writing now remains.”

If you like this article, please subscribe or leave a tax-deductible tip below to support n+1.

Related Articles