This three part French TV serial for children (alternate versions exist as a feature, Manoel’s Destinies, and a 4 part Portuguese TV serial, Adventure in Madeira) is the favourite of many devotees of Raúl Ruiz. This is because it ties the enchantment and mystery of Lewis Carroll, Carlo Collodi and the Brothers Grimm to the filmmaker’s experiments with narrative strategies and what he calls the pentaludic model of storytelling (where characters are thrown dice-like into combinations and situations governed by the play of Chance and Destiny).
But this film for children is among his most complex works, hard to grasp in its totality. Often it can seem an arbitrary collection of free-associational images and words, bordering on nonsense. But attentive viewers will have the strong sense that there is method behind this near-madness. Otherwise, it could never produce the intense emotions it so clearly offers. Ruiz’s obsessions from film to film bind the fragments together – within a single work and across projects – and the emotion comes from the totally unexpected forking taken within a well-worn territorial map.
Writing or filming for children can sometimes bring a person straight to the source of their art. Having to perceptibly adapt their style confronts them with what must be included. Manoel leaves us with the essential Ruiz, the audio-visual companion to his extraordinary book Poetics of Cinema. (1) Its dizzying narrative fold-over-fold methodology creates a labyrinthine temporal structure.
Part One presents us with three possible worlds. In each world, seven year-old Manoel has a different response to an entreaty from the outside world. Fittingly, in this film in which nothing coincides, the three parts of the story do not coincide with the three-episode structure (the trinity-form recurs frequently in Ruiz). In this case, past, present and future – the unholy trinity or Time en soi – is the film’s very protagonist, variously called ‘long ago’ (Part One), ‘now’ (Part Two), and ‘future’ (Part Three). At the outset, this gives the story an apparent order before digressions take it over.
The boy responds to a call but cannot tell if it is a call for help, an invitation, an order or a warning. Is it all of these things? Immediately the spectator is thrust into a position of maximal ambiguity, the viewing situation eluding the conventional paradigm of conflict and audience identification which typifies Hollywood cinema. Ruiz joins forces with an entire alternative line of cinema from Kenji Mizoguchi (an avowed early inspiration) to Hou Hsiao-hsien which offers inactive, almost somnambulistic characters. These characters have a duty or liability inrelation to unseen forces, voices carried on the wind – even if this notion is soon undercut by Manoel’s declaration: ‘I’m not skipping school because a voice calls me, but because I choose.’
Soon he is face to face with himself six years older. Only stories could have filled – or rather, produced – the interval. As in Samuel Beckett, only stories separate our scattered selves from each other. The effect of Manoel’s decision – in a universe where only the most distant events affect each other – is brutal: the sudden death of his mother. Watching Manoel, the dominant questions become not ‘what will happen next?’ or ‘what is this about?’ but rather: ‘from where do these images and narrative fragments come? What are the film’s generative rules?’
The multiplication of narrative threads continues throughout the work. It can never be a matter for Ruiz of going ‘simply’ backwards and forwards through Manoel’s life story. Instead, he applies the narrative techniques outlined in Poetics of Cinema: images come first, narrative must follow. Images generate more images, bringing about the linking and unlinking of story-fragments in a ‘lottery of synchronisms and diachronisms’ (p. 54). The organizing principles of Ruiz’s narrative construction have nothing to do with those that govern reality. In Ruiz, the generative rules involve only images and codes that escape the impoverished rationality of the Hollywood model. His aim is to produce, in his own magnificent phrase après Walter Benjamin, ‘a dustcloud of meaningless signs capable of conspiring against visual convictions’ (p. 32).
Manoel number two takes centre stage and we begin again in a new possible world. ‘Within each series of stories each story is a game in itself,’ says Ruiz (p. 85). The question posed is: what occurs when there is an added element in the very same scenario, namely Manoel being watched by his mother? On this occasion he will enter the forbidden place, meet the fisherman, raise new questions and trigger a new outcome: the punishment and the death of his father.
In the third possible world he chooses caution to save both parents but, in line with the exhaustion of possibilities that this Leibnizian method demands, Manoel himself must now die. It’s time to begin again! Ruiz’s dream: ‘a film made up only of departure points’ (p. 112).
Part Two (the status of which is at first confusing since it begins after the three mini-narratives of the first Part and before the end of Episode One) is entitled ‘The Picnic of Dreams’. Whilst vaguely ‘keeping to the storyline’, it veers off in many different directions, where the thematic coupling ordinary/special replaces the familiar/unknown dualism of Part One. (Each Part is guided by a thematic ‘dominant’, a pair of notions that tend to exchange their meanings as it progresses.)
Ruiz invents series of mini-narratives, serial scenes, events or vignettes which follow in sequence along parallel tracks. Their occasional meeting-points are more impressionistic than progressive. This part involves a lot of counting and mathematical totting up. We shift from a concern with Time, Fate and Storytelling to the more scientific problems of experiment, arithmetic and economy (a character is called Sir Money). If Ruiz remains a Surrealist, it is expressed in his obsession with metaphors drawn from physics concerning electromagnetic forces, interfering wavelengths, short circuits of energy and tenuous links formed between ‘communicating vessels’.
On a school outing to the forest in an effort to make a collective dream come true, Manoel’s body is stolen by a woodcutter prone to worry about the decline in the creativity of ‘the people’. Soon we meet a ghost band of ex-pirates, a pretext for Ruiz to enter a sensual laboratory of deranged faculties as tears change their taste and a deck of cards is listened to for lessons in truth-telling.
Part Three (beginning in Episode Two), entitled ‘The Little Chess-Champion’, hands the (until now) off-screen voice-over narration to Manoel himself. He promises to tell his own story, but adds that it’s ‘a story that I made up in my distant childhood and that happens in the future’. The tone is less Baroque, more Gothic, as Ruiz explores the ‘wonders of the night’. The filmmaker’s obsession in this section concerns perception and the deciphering of secret signs and codes. At a children’s party staged in a Museum, questions are posed: ‘Where do these voices come from? Where do shadows go?’
The general pattern of the work as a whole thus becomes clear. If Part One offers philosophical stories and Part Two explores science (of a somewhat New Age variety), then Part Three works like an audio-visual poetics of art which draws an equation between cinema and the shadow-world of children’s stories. It is a call of the wild: ‘Well, my friend, art calls,’ says one child before launching into song (in English). In this very moving Part, Ruiz the filmmaker really lets loose – accompanied by the equally hypnotic music of Jorge Arriagada. From Elephant Island (a kind of cinema situated inside an elephant) arrives Captain Pombo de Albuquerque. He stages a display of shadow-theatre of such menace, it appears that something beyond life and death is at stake. Like the mythic Ferryman, the Captain announces: ‘Crossing borders is my business. I take people from one world to the next’ – before dying, stabbed in the back by one of the shadows he himself has conjured. The lesson: art is born in the murky world of children’s games. It is a bombardment of signs ‘sprung from nowhere’ (p. 31), evading articulate decipherment. But, because of its demonic origins, art is fated to destroy its practitioners.
Ruiz’s ars combinatoria is never arbitrary, and the spectator must not be merely content to savour the audio-visual feast on offer. It is a matter of deciphering the singular generative form of each individual work: those endless digressions that create a poetics of generators unique for each film. So what is the blueprint for Manoel on the Island of Marvels? It takes us on a search through the worlds of, firstly, the storyteller, the philosophical weaver of words and worlds; secondly, the calculating and computing laboratory of science; and, thirdly, the generating sources of creativity, of art and life. A search for what? For the one image (or more accurately for its power, its ‘reach’), the Ur-image from which narrative can flow (as in Citizen Kane): in this case, the yellow light at the window of his parent’s house, and the thief’s hand clutching stolen treasure on the grounds outside that window.
In Manoel more than in any other film, Ruiz’s cinema takes us everywhere at once. And having done so it asks, in a final ironic twist: ‘Can you really see? Is it what you wanted to see?’