When I'm on Twitter—which I have to say I don't recommend, now that I'm in it more or less for keeps I'm almost entirely convinced it's the devil, although I haven't pinned down quite why yet (that is, I absolutely know the reasons, but am not sure which of them is paramount), and may report back further when I do—I sometimes like to do this hashtag I call dub "cinemaequations" in which I try to describe a film according to the way it manipulates certain of its antecedents. For the new picture by the estimable and prolific Raul Ruiz, a four-and-a-half-hour epic (which has its origins as a television mini-series) adapted from a three-volume 19th-century Portuguese novel by Camilo Castelo Branco, my summation was "The Saragossa Manuscript + Great Expectations x Judex=Mysteries of Lisbon." As in Dickens, this tale begins with a rather poor orphan (although it's worth noting that while this particular tale is full of characters of low fortune, or who are about to be deprived of what fortunes they may have, there is not much in the way of depictions of privation here) of obscure origins; like the ever mind-blowing Manuscript, it has a story-within-a-story-and-look!-over-there-another-story structure that creates a sometimes vertiginously "reality, what does it mean?" effect on the viewer. As for Judex, that's a little harder to quantify. There's no real nefarious-crime element to the narrative, but once a black-clad young noblewoman played by the estimably beautiful Clotilde Hesme turns up, the intimations are palpable. I was reminded of Elie Faure's description of Vigo's L'Atalante, the memorable phrase "fugitive shadows of Rembrandt;" fugitive shadows of Feuillade are cast throughout here. It's not just the costumes or the moods but aspects of the framing and lighting (and I do love the way that Ruiz uses actual objects—not just the usual door frames but the edges of parted curtains and such—to narrow the frame and often create simulated iris-in views), and the distorted-lens effects, but also the simple elegance of the frequent long takes. This stylization is a huge part of the picture's often intoxicating atmosphere. A friend used the word "romantic," and I agree, but the picture is not overtly concerned with sweeping emotion as such—the various narratives provide it with a near-constant momentum that leaves little room for contemplative rich-in-feeling pauses. Rather it's the relentless aggregation of situational details relating to a romantic mode—legacies, scandals, gossip, matters of honor, swooning—combined with the stylistic inflections, which of course end up constituting a kind of cinematic gothic, that sweep you away. Kinda like Gone With The Wind, if you think about it! (Or maybe not.) In any event, a real good one.
I found the below, from an appreciation Ruiz wrote of Ulmer's The Black Cat for Positif (reprinted in the English-language collection Projections 4 1/2) about a decade and a half ago, of some pertinence here. He takes off from describing an animated discussion he had with the actor Martin Landau (who appears in Ruiz's thoroughly amazing 1985 Treasure Island) and goes from there:
"...I drew on the books I had with me, and especially on an article by Jakko Hintikka [...] who, on the subject of theories of language, or rather of general semantic constructs, makes fun of Noam Chomsky (his sworn enemy) by making a distinction between the recursive paradigm which states that 'language must be considered as a process governed by rules' and the strategic paradigm that 'language brings into operation strategic rules that govern a process analagous to a game.'
It seemed to me evident that some films—Rossellini, Cassavetes—develop out of certain situations which are connected together according to the rules created by the situations themselves, while other films (the majority) present themselves as a completed game, with variations provided for by the rules that the game makes explicit (if they aren't so already)—films made in Hollywood, both now and in the past.
I've always believed that the two paradigms overlap: in a set of fragments of a game, each one potentially contains a film to be completed by the audience; also the fragments behave from game to game in a generative sequence (according to the recursive paradigm).
In general, my films try to integrate both paradigms. They are made up of fragments of incomplete stories which, in an unpredictable manner, engender other stories about daily life, and lead to temporary conclusions. Each fragment wishes on the one hand to find its conclusion far away from the sequence we are watching, and on the other hand to 'beget' and link itself with other fragments, affiliating itself to them like a son is linked to his sires.
I've found very few examples of commercial films that illustrate my theory, apart from The Black Cat, which in its way is the best, the most drastic and irrefutable. It was what epistemologists call (but here I use the term in a mocking sense) a 'crucial experience.'"