Manoel on the Island of Marvels (1984)

4 07 2010

For some Ruiz enthusiasts, this is the best thing that the Chilean director has ever done: a television series “for kids,” about a cute seven-year-old whiling away his youth in several imaginative adventures, a television series which exists in various versions with various running times, but which is now only available as a downloadable curio comprised of three episodes screened in Australia during the early nineties. I do believe that, as far as the summit of the Ruiz canon is concerned, there is ample competition from Klimt, Time Regained, and The Blind Owl, but this one is so close to nabbing the peak, that disagreeing is pointless. I will simply nod my head in half-agreement.

Manoel is consistent with Ruiz’s other eighties work, their experimentation and claustrophobic visuals: strong colors, narrative obscurity, spatiotemporal uncertainty, and intellectual humor. Whether or not you find it all quietly funny is key to your enjoyment. Ruiz won’t make you guffaw, but he might make you smirk: his storytelling gamesmanship has a comic layer that permeates every image. There’s a fondness for the archetypal characters and genre conventions that he interacts with, a fondness that remits back to his childhood, if the opening to his Poetics of Cinema is any indication. Yet it’s a fondness warped by adulthood: he can’t abide by such archetypes and conventions any longer, for he has out-grown them, but he can’t mock them either, for that would be disingenuous. So he does what Adrian Martin suggested he does: his cinema is obsessed, and in this obsession, all links to his childhood movie-past are severed. This guillotining is not violent and it does not consist of a clean cut. Quite the opposite, for the links are severed via their combination. Everything that has made Ruiz the cinema-watcher he has become is meshed together to produce a new renovated aesthetic vision. And the ways in which this process leads to exaggeration and stretching — archetypes and conventions are pulled every which way — is thus essentially comic. But the remnants of his fondness, as I said, keep the endeavor from diving into parody. At most, it’s self-parody, again as per Martin. Ruiz cannot actively make fun of the same material that has provided him with content. He can, however, play with this material until its containing structure — causality, clarity, consistency — buckles and something fresh arises from the resulting ruins.

Manoel begins simply, or at least, as simply as you can hope for with Ruiz. The first episode sets up the pattern of the whole. The protagonist walks through an enchanted doorway, past which he meets himself as he will be in a few year. This later self tells his earlier self what to do in order to avert an incoming disaster. Without revealing much, the disaster is averted, but a new one emerges in its stead. As the years pass, the earlier self comes of age and turns into the later self, who again returns to meet the earlier self, albeit with new suggestions in light of new tragedies. All in all, the first episode has three possible life-lines, one of which is vaguely followed through with in the remaining episodes. One interpretation I might hazard is that all three episodes represent the imaginative product of a child coping with loss. He attempts to escape the tragedy, the one reinforced in the second and third episodes, through his whim: new time-lines, new places, new houses, new characters, new identities. By the time we reach the third episode, everything is in disarray. The clarity of the first episode — by far the easiest to follow, with the fewest number of tangents — has given way to a more heavily-dreamlike incursion into phantasmal imagery and chronological fragmentation. Those bifurcating paths from the first episode infiltrate the film’s editing patterns. Whereas in the first episode, the appearance of bifurcating paths was an obvious part of the plot, by the third, it is only and subtly present in how we experience the visual narrative. No longer do we have a later self telling an earlier self: “do this, or that will happen.” What we have are glimpses of the movie’s future. Strange images interrupt the story we are seeing. We cannot know what they mean in the narrative that we are following. Say we are watching the second episode: suddenly, some people are eating dinner, listening to the radio. It seems random, a purposeless tangent. But in the third episode, the same scene reappears, now with the contextual information we needed to figure out what’s happening. Similarly, a game seen from afar in the second episode is given more screen-time when it comes back for an encore in the beginning of the third. And it’s not just about more screen-time. We get new angles, and these are more beautiful than the earlier ones, more evocative. We return to the same place and time, but see it differently.

This is akin to the fluctuations of memory. We don’t merely see the old places and times differently. We see more of them, we remember more of the surrounding scenery. Images in Manoel arrive like lonely islands of visual revelation in a black void. Slowly, the outlying landscape is filled-in as the narrator colors the darkly empty canvas. Manoel is thus a movie that is remembering itself as it goes. Moments arise, lonely moments unconnected to other moments, fascinating nonetheless. And because they are fascinating they refuse to fade back into the obscurity from whence they have come. So the missing connections are procured, and suddenly, the lonely moment is no longer lonely, now it has found the surrounding life it needed. Manoel reacts to the appearance of lonely half-forgotten moments by trying to recall what made those moments possible, what narrative once held those moments and gave them significance.

Or maybe he doesn’t recall, maybe he invents. Somewhere in the second episode, the titular seven-year-old, speaking from a future vantage point beyond the present-time of the film, officially becomes the narrator of his own story, replacing the detached adult that had been contributing up until then. Manoel thus announces that he will unveil an imagined tale he conjured up as a kid, a tale set in the future, though not the future from which he is now speaking. We never depart from this visit to imagination-land, and we could very well determine that, given the fantastical content that preceded this announcement, we were never outside of imagination-land to begin with, since remembering real events and remembering (day)dreams are the same thing: both extract from the same pot of wonders, the same sea of remembrance inside of which everything swims indistinguishable, at least when we are at our most feverish, our most passionate. The imaginary and the real are of equal merit, of even more merit if intertwined, together surpassing the sum of their values.

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