Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Three Crowns of the Sailor: A Resurfaced Masterpiece from Cinema's Forgotten Decade

As I have noted before, one reason for the persistently low opinion of the 1980s as a decade for film art is that such a large number of its greatest works remain unavailable to audiences in this country. Supreme achievements by directors of Hou Hsiao-hsien's (A City of Sadness, 1989), Edward Yang's (Taipei Story, 1985) and Alain Resnais' (Mélo, 1986) stature exist only in foreign-region DVDs or bootleg videocassette versions at best, while those of other masters, such as Manoel de Oliveira (Francisca, 1981) and Jacques Demy (A Room in Town, 1982), continue to be even more obscure.

Recently making the jump from the latter category to the former -- thanks to Blaq Out's invaluable three-film Raoul Ruiz box set, released in France this past March, and also containing the director's Suspended Vocation (1977) and his somewhat better known Hypothesis of a Stolen Painting (1979) -- is Ruiz's Three Crowns of the Sailor (Les Trois couronnes du matelot, 1983), a work that surely rates among the decade's dozen or so best films, no matter what clandestine masterworks may be revealed to us next.

Based on the Chiloé Island myth of the 'Ship of the Dead' (Ruiz, it is worth noting, is from the nearby southern Chilean city of Puerto Montt, even if most of his nearly 100 films, including the film in question, were made while in exile in France) Three Crowns of the Sailor tells the story of a man who seeks passage on a ship, after committing murder in the film's opening sequence. Actually, the initial set of shots, prior to this opening scene, depict a man writing, which, as it will become clear, is the primary preoccupation of the film.

But back to the plot. The man with whom he seeks safety requests two things: first, that he listen to his life story, and second, that he gives him three Dutch crowns. The younger gentleman reluctantly agrees, and the sailor begins to describe his passage as the only living member of the ship. What ensues is an episodic narrative, dictated less by any plausible formulation of spatial or temporal unity than it is the exigencies of narrative invention. In other words, the world of the film is constructed out of the unfolding of the plot, rather than existing prior to and apart from a plot that more characteristically would proceed while preserving its integrity (as if it were itself a reality incapable of logical contradiction).

This pretence of realism, however, does not hold in Three Crowns of the Sailor, wherein it is possible for a character to be both alive and dead, in two places at once, etc. As analytic philosopher cum film scholar Lisa K. Broad puts it of her fellow former analytic philosopher Ruiz's work, we often see things through the sailor's eyes while seeing him in the space of the frame; in this contradiction we see the essence of a narrative art that expects us to accept this logical incongruity.

And of course, this is very much the point of a film structured on the basis of a continual flow of stories and storytellers; Three Crowns of the Sailor is a narrational Chinese box where new characters are always ready to tell their tales. Explicitly positioning himself within the Latin American literary tradition of 'magical realism' (both in this text and in subsequent interviews), narrative becomes the primary tell of cinematic form: no longer is it the photographic basis of the medium alone that lends it its ontological shape, but instead it is the presence and contours of storytelling (along with that photographic basis, providing a quality of the uncanny, as Broad also points out) that dictates the internal logic of Ruiz's picture. Moreover, not only is it a work aware of its own form -- insistently recalled in the choruses of "I have a story to tell" -- but it is conscious of its creator as well, which Ruiz slips into one of the closing lines of dialogue, "there always must be one living person on the ship:" Le matelot est Ruiz; he is the living one in this ship of the dead, cinema.

At this point, it may be worth cautioning that all this talk of narrative (and in effect time) does little to address the other essential elements of its form: namely, space and light, which is to say its visual style. While perhaps less integral to the form of Three Crowns of the Sailor than are concerns of narrative and plot, Ruiz nevertheless showcases a visual flamboyance, style to burn, in this work. For one, there is Sacha Vierny's (Last Year in Marienbad, etc.) cinematography, varying between black-and-white and color -- the former for the present-tense of the sailor's narration, and the often shifting palette of the latter for the stories that shape the narrative. As to his black-and-white, Vierny's lensing alternately evokes (quite literally, in fact) the baroque hall-of-mirrors aesthetic of the aforementioned Marienbad (1961).

Yet, it is less the occasional opulence of its mise en scène than it is the compositional embellishment between extreme foreground and the deep recesses of background that distinguishes Ruiz's (and Vierny's) protean style in Three Crowns of the Sailor: Ruiz and Vierny utilize extreme close-ups to frame distant action, whether it is a character's arm or an empty glass near the camera. While there may be space to interpret Ruiz's utilization of space with relational to the picture's narrative content, it would seem more accurate to say that the visual style of Three Crowns of the Sailor represents an incidence of style for its own sake, a means of description that is more interested in the visual elegance and extravagence of what it shows rather than in finding spatial corrollaries to express the film's themes. Perhaps this apparent absence of rigor is not a want at all, but rather further conformation of the film's key ethos: that the point is in the telling, not in what is being told.


Anonymous said...

Hi. You might want to change the bit in this posting about Puerto Montt being a "fishing village" - it's actually a major Chilean port with a population larger than Vancouver!
Nitpicking aside, thanks for this excellent blog! Please keep up the good work and I'll be sure to check back when I get the time.
Best, L

Michael J. Anderson said...

L, you are correct in pointing out Puerto Montt's size. I have actually visited the city and should have been more careful with my description. I will make the change and hope you continue reading Tativille in future.

Mubarak Ali said...

Hey Michael - just wanted to say this was invigorating reading (I agree, the film is a one-of-a-kind masterwork).

I've read your stuff on Senses of Cinema but didn't know you kept a blog. Keep 'em coming!