Fascinating docu-blend telling the story of late playwright Andrea Dunbar, who lived in a low-income neighborhood. We also see scenes from her plays being performed in the park of this neighborhood in present day. And increasingly the story becomes about Dunbar’s daughter Lorraine, who appears to be following in her mom’s footsteps of hopeless addiction. And all this (except the outdoor performances) is told through actors lipsyncing the words of the real people. Beautifully staged and totally unique movie, though Katy got depressed by the death and drugs and abuse.

Lorraine and Lisa inside a childhood memory:

S. Tobias:

Though the synching is remarkably close to unnoticeable, the style takes some getting used to, mainly because The Arbor isn’t dramatized like films with actors generally are. The scenes are more like eerie tableaux where the “characters” tell their stories straight to the camera, wandering the haunted backdrop of Bradford’s Buttershaw Estate and other settings. This ingenious conceit, borrowed from Robin Soans’ 2000 play on Dunbar, called A State Affair, solves the longstanding problem of documentaries penned in by static talking heads.

N. Rapold in Film Comment:

What’s disorienting are the muted tones of the interviews, which were obviously not originally spoken with the intonation of a dramatic performance. This lends a curious low affect to the recounting of extraordinary incidents, and this disjunction, as well as Barnard’s hyper-immaculate RED photography, are a characteristic of other recent film work by artists such as Steve McQueen and Miranda July. As Lorraine becomes the central focus in the second half of the film, her matter-of-fact, downcast delivery becomes a drumbeat anticipating her inevitable downfall.

Ruiz made a series of films in the mid-1980’s involving sailors, pirates, children, islands, treasure and magic. There’s an explicit Treasure Island reference in Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983), and in between the similarly-themed City of Pirates and Manuel on the Island of Wonders, he made the movie Treasure Island, and wrote a book called In Search of Treasure Island.

As I learned from The Golden Boat, I’m not a big fan of Ruiz’s English-language films (actually Klimt was good). Treasure Island is full of fascinating work, especially when the plot comes together at the end, but while watching all I can think of are the language problems. Most actors (not Martin Landau or Anna Karina) are badly dubbed. Dialogue is imperfectly translated and conveyed, and performance styles are inconsisent – I tried to overlook it, but it’s too clunky to ignore. Little things make me think Ruiz wasn’t at the dubbing sessions (paella is pronounced “pai-YELL-ah”). And it’s cool that Jean-Pierre Leaud was cast, but distracting to hear him speak with no trace of French accent.

Ruiz’s Treasure Island isn’t an adaptation of the novel… not exactly, anyway. After a while it starts to follow the story when young Jonathan’s father dies while his seaside home is being visited by Landau (who asks to be called The Captain), then after Jonathan runs off he’s picked up by a sailing shoe salesman named Silver.

Some mutinies and mercenaries later, it comes out that this is an annual reenactment LARP, performed with a different Jim Hawkins every time. Captain Silver is the professor who invented the game, an “expert on game theory” (maybe not coincidence: when Silver gave his real name I wrote it as Omar Amiralay, which is also the name of a Syrian filmmaker who was active at the time). Jim/Jonathan sees through the ruse when he realizes during a gun battle that the fighting is fake, so he goes off alone, commandeering the ship with only Israel Hands (who soon dies) aboard. I start to lose track of the characters as the roles shift (The Dead Father returns as the ship’s doctor, for instance) – shades of the re-enactment identity-blending of The Territory. Even the narrator, who we assumed all along to be Jim/Jonathan, is revealed to be another character, who kills J/J offscreen at the end.

Jim and Helen:

Martin Landau, who dies, comes back to life, declares Jim is his son during an earthquake, and jumps out a window:

It’s fun to analyze the movie afterwards, to go through the screen shots and read reviews – maybe a less painfully-dubbed version exists in another country and will come out someday (argh, a restored print played Paris last month – the poor dubbing remains, and the movie has lost 15 minutes). Anna Karina is very good as J/J’s mom, anyway.

Karina and Helen:

Don’t think I got all the characters straight. Multiple possible captains – besides Landau we’ve got Silver (Vic Tayback of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore), the French Captain (Yves Afonso, who appeared with Karina and Leaud in Made In USA), and Mr. Mendoza (Pedro Armendariz Jr. of Walker in a Yankees hat). Mendoza is obsessed with a different ship-mutiny novel, Benito Cereno by Herman Melville. There’s the doctor / Dead Father (Lou Castel, Bruno Ganz’s driver in The American Friend) and J/J’s aunt Helen (singer Sheila). Crabb (Michel Ferber) imprisons J/J, Ben Gunn shoots diamonds from a slingshot. That leaves Israel Hands (Jean-Francois Stévenin, the immortal Max in Le Pont du Nord), Squire Tim Moretti (Jeffrey Kime, the doomed Jim in The Territory), and back on shore before the adventure began, Leaud as a writer (and possibly the narrator), and the creepy Blind Man (Charles Schmitt). Jim/Jonathan himself is regular Ruiz star Melvil Poupaud, returning from City of Pirates.

The island scenes (second half of the movie) were filmed on the coast of Senegal, where Katy is now.

Back on land, The Blind Man with Karina:

Played in Cannes in 1991 alongside Yumeji, Boyz n the Hood, Hearts of Darkness, and three African films. Rumor is that Chris Marker assisted Ruiz in some way. A four-hour cut was planned, but I don’t think it was completed (nobody claims to have seen it).

Ruiz in conversation with J. Rosenbaum:

Treasure Island was a complete misunderstanding, because the money was there at the beginning and then suddenly the money was gone [not there anymore]. So I had to reduce the budget, and do it like a kind of B movie. This movie starts very strangely, with a good atmosphere, and then suddenly we are in a typical TV serial, because it was shot in continuity, so you can see the point at which the money starts to vanish.

From Michael Goddard’s book:

As [the film’s introductory] television transmission is interrupted by a power cut, we are informed that its tale of a coup d’etat, diamonds and treachery continued in Jim’s head. In other words while we may be aware that stories originate elsewhere and come to us from the outside it is we who continue them as they take possession of our imaginations; so before even introducing any of the elements of Treasure Island, the key theme of possession by prior stories that make up not only Ruiz’s film but in a more implicit way the original novel itself is already established.

As in the cartographic game in Zig-Zag this is a game played in real spaces with real lives and deaths but it is no less fictional than the novel on which it is based, while the latter is increasingly read not as fiction but rather as an instruction manual for how to operate successfully in the Treasure Island game.

JW McCormack:

For one thing, the pirates don’t look much like pirates, more like guerillas, revolutionaries. Jim’s friends the Doctor and the Squire appear without much fanfare. Other characters, like participatory academic Aunt Helen, are without an analogue in the book. The Oedipal strains of the Disney version have gone haywire, as everybody claims to be Jim’s father and nobody seems terribly concerned with treasure. But as Jim says — or, rather, as Jean-Pierre Léaud says, since we learn three quarters of the way through that he has literally run away with the script and has been telling the story from Jim’s point of view — “I didn’t see why we couldn’t just carry on without the treasure. It was an adventure anyway.”

But alas, no reconstruction is perfect: in perhaps the funniest joke in the movie, Silver, disappointed that the action has fallen so far from the book, echoes the sentiments of any reader who has ever been outraged by a movie straying from its source: he fires a machine gun into the air while shouting “It was not written! It was not written!”

Ruiz interviewed by D. Ehrenstein:

When I reread Treasure Island recently I discovered that the structure was stronger than the material. The way Stevenson tells the story is so remarkable that it could be about anything – pirates, kidnappers, whatever. We are surrounded by stories that are like houses we can enter. We play amidst these stories, sometimes being involved in two or three of them at once. In one you’re the hero, in another you’re a secondary character. These scripts are the society in which we live – if you want to be a sociologist. It’s a notion I feel more and more. This has been expressed in many ways – by Stevenson, by Orson Welles, Borges, and many others – this notion that certain stories have the structure of dreams. For those stories it’s as if the cinema had already been invented.