New York

Raul Ruiz, Mammame

Film Forum

It’s always been pretty obvious that Raul Ruiz has a terrific eye, and perhaps less acknowledged that he has a great mouth. All his films (and that’s a lot) are marked by virtuoso verbal eruptions, a scripting that skids from aphorism to sophism to humorism. This is most apparent in Roof of the Whale, 1982, where he is freed from his crush on avant-garde linguistic turns and self-congratulatory dazzle and constructs a work that is at once gorgeous, grim, and gigantically giggly. So it is with much curiosity that we approach Mammame, 1986. Here is Ruiz without words, Ruiz and the document, Ruiz and the body. Mammame is a film of a dance by the French choreographer Jean-Claude Gallotta, whose tribes of dancers tend to work space like disgruntled molecules, tumbling, shifting, and passing time on the way to exhaustion.

The “dance on film” genre is a skittishly predictable one, which generally respects the proscenium view, reducing dancers to tiny Thumbelinas, shrunken but bouncing denizens of a minuscule world. Locked in static long shots and literalized linearity, they are genericized, turned into “dancers on film,” robbed of their excesses and particularities, exiled far from the shameless revelations of lascivious tight shots and roving ogles. Ruiz, of course, will have none of this. His long shots are really long, shrinking his dancers to stage size with a kind of pithy irony, knowingly foregrounding the genericization of their forms. His incessant gamesmanship involves a playful recognition of the camera’s ability to giganticize and miniaturize, to over- and underwhelm. And where “dance film” shows us figures, Ruiz shows us bodies, bringing us “up close and personal,” making us check out niches and crevices, making us privy to the ambient sound of physical exertions. His camera revels in crotch shots and looming profiles plunked on the floors of stark white chambers that recall Bill Brandt’s photo work of the ’60s. The austere settings sport only stray telephones, scattered lemons, and Gallotta’s troupe of four women and five men, who indulge in episodic minidramas, concise, predictable sexual vignettes. Language relinquishes its place to barely audible gurgles and sighs, an Esperanto of affection and duress wrapped in breathy annunciations and punctuated by rhythmic moans. Wrists are clasped, clavicles bonded, hips soldered and disengaged with the regularity of ailing mechanisms at the end of the machine age.

On the up side, Ruiz and Gallotta work to embody the stereotypes of “dance film,” to bloat the empty figures of stylistic precedent with biological effluvia. Refusing to lay down and play dead in the face of the genre’s gelled visuals, they work to dishevel the notion of the document and reportage by shuffling setups and indulging in an antic process of splicing, cutting, and pasting. On the down side, they’re hell-bent on “transgression,” making Mammame exude shock value like cheap perfume. (After all, what could be more revolting than tarting up Mommy?) This avant pretense runs so thick that one almost expects Dan Ackroyd to strut onto the set as Leonard Pinth Garnell and proceed to introduce this week’s episode of “Bad Conceptual Art.” (Garnell was the character who stalked “Saturday Night Live” over a decade ago, providing manic introductions to ludicrously arty TV programs.) In addition, one can’t help but wonder if this 65-minute film couldn’t be consolidated into an even more economical rendering of Gallotta’s work. A filmic proceeding does not have the same corporeal charge as live performance, carrying with it an altered sense of time and its unravelings. Perhaps Ruiz and Gallotta could have gone further in displacing “the document” by playing even faster and looser with the notions of replication and verisimilitude. By clipping and deliteralizing the site of “the recital,” they could have more potently foregrounded the picturing of moving bodies while still allowing film to strut its stuff.

Barbara Kruger