Two Films: Ruiz’s On Top of the Whale and Norstein’s Tale of Tales

23 10 2009

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I saw two films today, something I never do because I prefer to be patient with my viewings, allowing each film to own a portion of my week, maybe a day or two, perhaps even more, and, although I may continue to think about a film after I interrupt its rule over my consciousness by watching another film, I still like to bestow upon films some kind of exclusive period. Today, however, I watched two films: Raul Ruiz’s On Top of the Whale and Yuri Norstein’s Tale of Tales. There was little chance of this dynamic duo disappointing me. Norstein’s Hedgehog in the Fog is one of my favorite films and Raul Ruiz becomes better and better the more I am exposed to his work. I first encountered the latter director through a screening of Time Regained at the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Film, commonly known as BAFICI. That film was impressive enough: a whole era, a vanishing class, a cast of characters roaming through a subjective memory, a dying writer whose brain hosts the only space wherein these characters can still exist, destroyed as they have been by time and other unfortunate processes. There was a lot of visual wonder on display, obviously: a Ruiz trademark, although he was helped along handsomely by cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich. They are a good fit for each other, which is why they’re currently inseparable: they have already done two films together and are preparing a third. Aronovich’s fluid camera, his mechanical gymnastics, are exactly what Ruiz’s layered visual narratives require. What Ruiz does is to make images exist on many different planes at once. For instance, the flashbacks that comprise most of Time Regained are simultaneously: an adaptation of the original Proustian text; a costume drama about early twentieth century aristocratic society; a distorted visualization of one man’s past; and an attempt by a dying man to understand his memories, to find connections, to envelop everything a distant era meant for him.

On Top of the Whale does not have Aronovich’s flying camera. It does, however, have Ruiz, so there’s still a lot of aesthetic beauty, albeit beauty that might be undermined by the film’s lack of availability and prospective viewers’ subsequent dependence on terrible prints. One problem with Ruiz – at least for newcomers – is that, like Sokurov, he embodies all the cliches of art-house cinema. If we were to create a checklist of feared traits, neither director would leave a single blank box: heady dialogue, a lack of conventional plotting, slow pace, visual eccentricities, emotionally distant characters, intellectual preoccupations, an occasional lack of polish, and plenty of thematic obscurity. Sokurov even flirts with self-parody at times. Ruiz is too humorous for that, even if his humor might fly away undetected by those whose patience has given out. A question frustrated viewers might ask is: “What does it all mean?” I never ask this question because it reeks of simplification. We risk leaving the film up there on the screen, a puzzle to be deciphered, a chessboard forever beyond us, to be manipulated, but never to be accepted into our imagination. I prefer to ask: “What does this film mean to me? What did I feel while watching it? Why did I feel that way?” That’s a more intimate line of questioning, closer to self-analysis.

It works wonders with Tale of Tales. Like Tarkovsky’s The Mirror, figuring out a specific meaning for each scene is difficult if not impossible and useless. Norstein, like Tarkovsky a few years before him, is delving into his own memories and displaying the results, a little like the writer in Time Regained. Thus, it could be said that the only one who truly understands Tale of Tales is Norstein. What keeps me from embracing this criticism is that, impermeability notwithstanding, I was constantly occupied with emotions and ideas throughout the film’s duration. Does it matter that I don’t understand every scene? Am I supposed to? I don’t think so. This film is going more for rhythms and moods, different drawing styles alternating between each other, each suggesting a different reality: there’s the parent storyline of the little wolf; there’s the poignant visual poem about the effects of wartime on civilians; there’s the aside to the apple-loving boy and his alcoholic father; and finally there’s that bit with minotaurs, jumping ropes, and harps. These sections weave together and combine. Memory and dreams emerge from the fantasy of the little wolf. We navigate each reality, notice melancholy patterns: departures, time lapses, destruction, burning, death, and other natural cycles. Free association takes us to random places, but there seems to be a structure, an emotional core. I have only seen Tale of Tales once. These kinds of films have a way of being new with every return. You find currents and threads that had been invisible during the introductory voyage.

On Top of the Whale likewise has different realities, but they happen simultaneously. For comparison’s sake, Ruiz’s own Life is a Dream is more in line with Tale of Tales: the protagonist returns to his past through cinema, and each new film he watches or recalls belongs to a different genre. We jump across the assortment of films, eventually falling into some bizarre afterlife. Ruiz suggests that our experiences and memories are not merely linked to the fiction we enjoy, but rather, fiction contains and conceals our memories, our passions, our doubts, our fears, as if we discarded our traumas into the celluloid. Tale of Tales does not suggest this so directly, but there are still transitions between varying aesthetic styles, each style containing the memory that the protagonist is trying to reach, explain, or share. Some segments appear remembered, others appeared imagined or dreamed, and even the memories appear twisted by dreams. There is the implication that many of these dreamed memories might be products of artistic endeavor, as indeed they are if we consider the film’s origins: we do have an artist mixing dreams with memory and artistic endeavor, and that artist is Norstein. To share one’s memory is also to share one’s perception of it. It’s a performance: the artist is playing the part of distorting brain, unable to display the memory without first sending it through a subjective grinder.

Going back to On Top of the Whale, the film exists both as the story it tells and the story it refers to. It parodies Hollywood movies about white first-world rich folk who visit exotic third-world locales and mingle with the curious locals. There is a fittingly overwrought Hollywood soundtrack, full of dramatic rises and self-important cues. There is also a running commentary on Argentine history: during the 1800’s, a fairly deliberate cleansing of indigenous people was carried forth in order to make way for incoming European immigrants. An obvious reference to this occurs when one character blabbers on about the “bloodshed.” Another, grander reference recurs throughout the film. Among the central figures of the plot – if we can call it plot – are the last two specimens of a near extinct Indian tribe.

There are mirrors everywhere, languages where words and metaphors contain or produce other words and metaphors, language that replicates itself, language that can be reduced to certain essentials, language that perishes, mirrors that give birth to new individuals, replication, multiplication, reduction, etc. There is uncomfortable humor. One character beats an Indian because Indians need physical stimulation to stay alive. The rest of his white cohorts look on with bemused whimsy. There is a child of uncertain sex. There are various spoken languages: this film is an aggressively polyglot affair. The Indians learn European language and culture. One of the more cultured white characters ends up a dullard. An anthropologist who wants to learn about the Indians spends most of his time debating different theories of language. He exits the film and when he comes back everything has changed. Meanwhile, objects are incessantly being unearthed around the house where the protagonists are resting. On Top of the Whale occupies a fantastical plane. It is a pastiche of other films, a dreamy philosophical conversation, and a humorous satire. What do we have, then? On Top of the Whale surreptitiously enters our dreams, using pieces that are decidedly recognizable (world history, cinema history, etc) and then shuffling their typical order. This is common with surrealism. The hope is that audiences will confront and experience the recognizable pieces anew.

Ruiz includes an awkward reading of the following passage from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities: “Kublai Khan had noticed that Marco Polo’s cities resembled one another, as if the passage from one to another involved not a journey but a change of elements. Now, from each city Marco described to him, the Great Khan’s mind set out on its own, and after dismantling the city piece by piece, he reconstructed it in other ways, substituting components, shifting them, inverting them.” Marco Polo, inspired by his recollections of Venice, crafts city after city for the edification of Kublai Khan, who crafts new cities based on those he is told about. One place, twisted by imagination, leads to dozens of new places, and these new places, dismantled and reworked by another imagination, lead to yet more places, and so on. As before, replication and multiplication, and not just that, but replication and multiplication based on previous storytelling. Marco’s fiction allows Khan to engage in further fiction, not unlike Ruiz’s usage of previous genres, legends, and historical events. Like the two famous figures, he dismantles the cities piece by piece. His reconstruction begets On Top of the Whale. This precedent invites us to similarly dismantle the film and come up with our own product. Since it is such a fragmented constellation of old movies, esoteric ideas, murky characters, murkier plot, inexact surfaces, ineffable interiors, strange dream sequences that might be real, odd realities that might be dreams, and pseudo-science-fiction that deliriously projects a lackadaisical Soviet future, we can deconstruct and reconstruct at will, shaping a new fiction inside our minds.

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3 responses

12 02 2010
7 05 2011
James

can you please tell me who wrote this article?

many thanks

3 06 2011
beaucine

Yes, well, I wrote this article, given that this is my blog.

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