Ruiz, a prolific avant-garde director who was forced to leave Chile when the fascist coup toppled the Allende government in 1973, has spent most of his exile in Paris. Through the 1980s, he built a passionately loyal international following with his taste for bold experiment and a gift for cinematic gamesmanship reminiscent of Peter Greenaway's movies.
The Golden Boat is Ruiz's first English-language feature, and that makes it a noteworthy event in its own right. While it falls short of the masterly enigmas of The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting, the 1978 movie that secured his reputation in Europe, The Golden Boat abounds in his tantalizing trademarks. Perspective keeps changing and nothing is what it seems. The real changes place with the illusionary, the past with the present and even the dead with the living.
Ruiz is the kind of filmmaker who has audiences reaching for superlatives or running for the exits. There is no middle ground. In tone and style, The Golden Boat is by turns fascinating and exasperating. It is a movie that defies description or category. Suffice it to say that if the gods somehow had made it possible for Samuel Beckett and Gabriel Garcia Marquez to collaborate on a screenplay (with Harold Pinter brought in to give it a final polish), and if the script were then given to a director with a lordly disdain for narrative tradition and rules, you might wind up in the same territory as The Golden Boat.
Ruiz opens on Manhattan's Lower East Side, a congenial locale since - in real life - anything can and usually does happen there. Israel Williams, a rock critic who has been deafened by overexposure to killer heavy-metal decibels, follows a trail of empty shoes and boots that leads him into an
alley. There he finds an aging drifter named Austin, who is bleeding from a self-inflicted knife wound.
The knife stays jammed in his stomach and the blood flows freely, but that doesn't keep Austin from going about his business. Besides being suicidal, he is homicidal and the brief encounter turns into a very bad trip for Israel.
Austin is obsessed with a ravishing star of a Latino soap opera, and Ruiz serves up this playful melange of love and death with a strange amalgam of dialogue. Gangster-movie cliches and the debris of pop culture mingle with the great existential questions and the clipped crypticism we associate with Waiting for Godot.
The Golden Boat is not a picture for the faint of stomach for, along with sight gags, there are sights that will make the squeamish gag. Nor is it for anyone committed to screen conventions.
More adventurous palates will be tantalized, and The Golden Boat, which features cameo appearances by directors Jim Jarmusch and Barbet Schroeder, should whet their appetite for Ruiz' more inspired work.
THE GOLDEN BOAT * * *
Produced by James Schamus and Jordi Torrent, directed and written by Raul Ruiz, photography by Maryse Alberti, music by John Zorn, distributed by Strand Releasing
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes.
Israel Williams - Federico Muchnik
Austin - Michael Kirby
Amelia Lopez - Kate Valk
Tony Luna - Michael Stumm
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (violence, gore, adult themes)
Showing at: International House, 3701 Chestnut St. Tonight at 9, Thursday at 7 p.m. and Saturday at 5 and 9 p.m.