Tuesday Editor’s Pick: The Golden Boat (1990)

by on February 22, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri Feb 24 at 9:30 and Tue Feb 28 at 7:00 at Anthology Film Archives [Program & Tix]


In “The Wooster Group at Large,” Feb 24 thru March 1, Anthology presents a series of rarities from the avant-garde artists ensemble. Between this, and the John Sayles screenwriting series, you might want to set up camp. Melissa Anderson has a great rundown in The Village Voice.


Cinephile favorite Raul Ruiz (who died last year, after directing of his greatest works, The Mysteries of Lisbon) made his first American feature with downtown scenesters including Jim Jarmusch, Kathy Acker,and Annie Sprinkle, and according to accounts pretty much every independent filmmaker and aspirant wanted in on the action. This is one of the movies where even the negative reviews make it sound mighty tantalizing.

John Powers for LA Weekly:

This is Ruiz’s first American movie, and, befitting the cheery hodgepodge of Ameircan culture, Ruiz combines noir, telenovelas – and parodies of them both – to produce a movie far breezier and more than fun than much of his earilier work. Ruiz takes his odd couple through the remains of the once-flourishing downtown culture while offering cameos to the likes of Kathy Acker, Jim Jarmusch and Barbet Schroeder – all of whose work, at moments, The Golden Bowl seems to echo. Even if you think you can’t bear to see another movie about New York bohemians (and I thought I couldn’t), Ruiz’s knockabout look at a failed scene is never less than witty and often much more; it’s a grungy, low-budget After Hours.


J. Hoberman for The Village Voice:

Stars Michael Kirby as a creepy, logorrheic derelict and compulsive slasher – modeled according to Ruiz on Kojak – who leaves a trail of unquiet corpses around Lower Manhattan as he leads a young Village Voice rock critic on a quest for God, or maybe a Mexican soap opera star.
The least one can say for The Golden Boat is that it should show would-be purveyors of ironic noir how it’s done. In addition to the requisite impossible camera angles and loop-de-loop dialogue, the movie is characterized by its bloody tableaux, circular structure, and pervasive hacienda music. The locations range from a Bowery flophouse to Mary Boone’s loft to a pink-walled Loisaida apartment, and there’s some superb local color: the garbage that stews some Noho alley includes a half dozen pairs of shoes.



Caryn James for The New York Times:

“The Golden Boat” will be shown at midnight as part of the New York Film Festival, and though that slot is an appropriate tribute to its hip, cult sensibility, the film deserves prime time. Mr. Ruiz’s absurdist wit and skewed visual style have rarely been so accessible. His often laborious artistic imagery has never been so distant as it is from this slight, gleeful work. The twisty narrative line is as smooth and nonsensical as the film’s opening shot, in which the camera glides at ankle level through garbage-strewn gutters, following a trail of abandoned shoes. But unlike most Ruiz films, “The Golden Boat” at least has a narrative, however loopy it may be.
Though the lines of influence are clear – Mr. Jarmusch has called Mr. Ruiz’s “On Top of the Whale” one of the best films of the 80’s – audiences unfamiliar with Mr. Ruiz’s work may see “The Golden Boat” as a more cockeyed, surreal version of Mr. Jarmusch’s deadpan stories and characters. ”I’m Swiss; I can’t be wrong,” says a man who has just killed the wrong victim. But only Mr. Ruiz could have created this film, which puts a strange spin on stock scenes. When two men dig for a body on a Coney Island beach, a helpful woman happens along and says: ”Looking for a body? Here’s a pastrami sandwich,” as naturally as if she were offering coffee to a crossing guard on a snowy day.
Mr. Ruiz and his actors, notably Michael Kirby as Austin and Kate Valk as the Mexican siren Amelia Lopez, never let “The Golden Boat” become broadly farcical. Instead, they walk a sophisticated line between parody and homage, and end up with one of the smartest, giddiest movies around.



C. Mason Wells for MUBI:

A man follows a trail of beat-up shoes left discarded along a New York sidewalk. They lead him to an older man, who sits crouched on the street, crying. “This, my son, is not my place,” the older man proclaims—and then stabs himself. So begins The Golden Boat—“a game between soap opera and reality,” as Ruiz called it—his first film in America, made in exile over a few long weekends during a teaching stint at Harvard. Shot as quickly and as cheaply as an Ulmer B, it features a very Ruizian glut of “chance” encounters, throwaway jokes (sushi dogs & wonton enchiladas), narrative tangents, sight gags, and canted angles. If the dry line-readings, largely static compositions, dialogue laced with arch aphorisms (“These days everybody’s been dead”), and telenovela parodies (replete with laugh track) recall Mark Rappaport’s downtown comedies from a decade prior, the funhouse atmosphere is uniquely Ruiz’s. Characters keep getting stabbed but don’t die; they can’t—they have too much to say.
The movie’s a playground of arresting formal experimentation (abrupt shifts from color to black-and-white and back again, often within a single scene) and startling, suggestive images: a painting falls from a wall, tearing the George Washington print (!) wallpaper; a man uses the blood from a fresh corpse to paint on a bathroom wall. (“An artist is always ready to use whatever’s at hand.”) But I keep coming back to that first shot: our protagonist following the path of those abandoned old shoes. Ruiz cited the influence of Mexican melodrama on the film, where—as in much of the 19th century European storytelling he often lovingly de- and reconstructed—“the main character never conducts the action but is instead moved by the action.” This wonderfully absurdist first image recalls nothing so much as a piece moving along a game board—Ruiz leading his game cast (largely Wooster Group and Squat Theater vets) through his cracked version of early 90s Manhattan, a treasure island of vibrant people and moments, diners and dingy apartments, rumbling subways and leaky ceilings. It’s a wonderland informed as much by real-life experience as the tropes and clichés of American television. The city may not have been Ruiz’s place, but as with so many other familiar locations—and genres, and stories—he made it his own.


Rouge posts an an account of the film by Ruiz:

When I came to teach at Harvard, I had the idea of trying an experiment with American TV. So I asked my students to watch television and try to come up with parodies of what they saw, using the aberrations and monstrous qualities of TV as poetic elements. I began to watch television in order to study the iconography of American TV. Then I started watching Mexican soap operas on the cable channels. One day after watching two or three soap operas, I decided to write something using the rhythms of soap operas about some experiences I had many years ago while living in New York. I tried to use the dialogue of soap operas as a kind of music. I started writing very quickly and tried to finish the script in forty-eight hours, so as not to allow myself the possibility of playing too many games with the dialogue (which is my natural tendency). I didn’t succeed, but I tried.
My ideas was to make a sort of Mexican soap opera, incorporating elements from many sources, including Macedonio Fernandez and a nineteenth century Spanish melodrama called My Son, the Doctor. I was amazed by the narrative structure of the Mexican melodrama, which was the opposite of an American soap opera. Mexican melodramas use the structure of nineteenth century European melodrama, in which the main character never conducts the action but is instead moved by the action.
It’s a logic governed by miracles. The story proceeds by a sort of chemical reaction between the character and the forces that are against him. He is trapped against a wall and this wall is magnetic, so he escapes. He never tries to destroy the wall or to open the door – to beat the forces that are against him. There is a deification and exaltation of chance, of hasard.


James Schmaus, who produced the film, remembers Ruiz for Filmmaker Magazine.

Desmond Ryan for The Inquirer:

Bursting in on the two lovers in a nondescript motel room, the killer opens fire on the man. When the miffed woman tells the murderer that he has shot the wrong guy, he bridles and indignantly rejoins, “I’m Swiss. I can’t be wrong.” This sly swipe at alpine smugness is typical of what might be called the telling non sequiturs strewn through Raul Ruiz’s The Golden Boat – an absurdist black comedy that makes a film like A Fish Called Wanda seem downright conservative.

The Golden Boat abounds in Ruiz’s 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. 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.



Jonathan Rosenbaum is intrigued but not impressed, for Film Comment (Jan/Feb 1997):

In November 1987, at a panel discussion held in Manhattan, one member of the audience, noting Ruiz’s interest in wideangle lenses and low and canted angles-comprising what many have called his Wellesian camera style-asked him if he’d ever contemplated shooting a film in 3-D. His deadpan answer was yes he had, and he’d even worked out a method: to paint all the actors and scenery red and green and distribute red and green 3-D glasses to viewers. “You could also do the same thing on the stage,” he added helpfully.
This sort of laidback alienation from narrative illusion-also reflected in his cherished project to film Hamlet with a cast of vegetables-leads to what might be regarded as both the boon and the curse of Ruiz’s work, central to what is both good and bad about The Golden Boat, his only made-in-America feature to date. Shot by the resourceful Maryse Alberti (Crumb) and scored by the eclectic John Zorn (another pal of Ruiz’s), it undermines its own premises so repeatedly and relentlessly in terms of settings, characters, and plot that it eventually becomes a kind of textbook illustration of the law of diminishing returns. Visiting Ruiz at Harvard between the two long weekends he spent shooting The Golden Boat in New York and environs, I recall he was unhappy about the size of the crew, many times the size of what he was comfortable with; it seemed every film student in lower Manhattan wanted to work on the film, and he characteristically found it difficult to say no.

The movie does convey some of Ruiz’s feelings about American violence, central conflict theory and all: the central figure is a homeless serial killer named Austin (Michael Kirby) whose stabbings are so affectless that their main consequences are chiefly formal. (In the first murder we see, the knife thrust coincides with the first of the film’s many temporary shifts from color to black and white.) The young hero (Federico Muchnik) shifts blithely from being an artist and a Village Voice art critic in one scene to being a musician and a Voice rock critic a scene later and his thesis adviser, initially played by writer Kathy Acker, is later transformed into Alina (Mary Hestand-the first murder victim, resurrected without explanation. (A more systematic exploration of this principle can be found in La Professor Taranne, an adaptation of an Arthur Adamov play in which all eleven actors rotate their parts.) Physical space is equally mutable, and causal gags abound: when two characters repair to a diner, they each order a sushi dog and a wonton enchilada; and much of the dialogue pivots around absurdist exchanges like the following:
Tony (Michael Stumm): “Tell me, Amelia, do you love me or do you love the world?”

Amelia (Kate Valk): “You said it!”


Judith Shulevitz, with further accounts of the set, also for Film Comment (May 1990):

The ghost of the irate spectator kept hovering: what the hell was this film about? You could read the script, ask the question, provoke guffaws, and never get an answer. More often people defined the story by what it was not: the Wooster Group’s Kate Valk lectured me, “There’s no psychologically linear narrative. It’s more formal, more surreal. I am the sound of my voice, which is the same as the color of the room” (which was hocking pink, topped off by a satin heart-shaped headboard with a blinking-light tiara).

Ruiz didn’t answer the “about” question for his actors, costume designer, “blood man” ( a major figure in this stab-happy thriller), or director of photography. Mary Hestand of the Wooster Group recalled only one instruction: “Look at The Untouchables.” Watching Ruiz speed through 96 pages of script in just twelve days, invariably calm amid spurting blood and minor disasters, I concluded that the whole point for this erudite ex-student of theology and law was not to know. “You can follow this direction or you can follow that direction and then suddenly there’s another one which moves parallel to that one,” Ruiz said.


Parallel directions, parallel worlds: if you can’t say what a Ruiz film is about, maybe you can say what it’s like. Ruiz likes, he says, to plant “suspended fictions” like land mines in his films. During The Golden Boat he planted one charged with the scary genius that wrung an angry cry from MoMA audience members. In the movie’s opening sequence, a young student had to be seduced off a sidewalk into an alleyway. Spurning a more realistic motive (a scream, say, or dialogue), Ruiz laid a trail of old boots. The student would find and follow this trail, picking up the boots one by one. The trail, of course, was a trap: a psychopath, we’d learn later, had laid it; to step into these boots – a killer’s boots, Ruiz’s boots – was to take the fist steps towards the wild and violent territory that lay somewhere just beyond Ruiz’s mind.


Recent Features

Gene Kelly retro at Film Society (thru Jul 26)

July 13, 2012

I'm happy again and like myself: 100 years of Gene.


Erich Von Stroheim retro at Film Forum (thru Jul 30)

May 28, 2012

The decadent realism of Hollywood's favorite sadist.


Migrating Forms Fest at Anthology (thru May 20)

May 11, 2012

Traveling through time and space at NYC's upstart experimental film fest.

View All →