In 1990, the late Chilean filmmaker Raul Ruiz conducted and filmed a series of acting exercises over seven days. Stashed away for decades, they were found by Ruiz’s widow and frequent editor Valeria Sarmiento, who edited the footage into (a sort of) coherency, set them to music, and has now released them as a film, appropriately titled The Wandering Soap Opera. The scenes don’t exactly make sense, have perhaps a passing relation to one another, and occasionally share cast members who may or may not be playing the same people. They play with language and expectations, characters knowing more about each other than would ever be possible, and taking the scenes toward surreal ends. If Ruiz was using them to uncover anything deeper, it went over my head, but I require not such things. At around 75 minutes, The Wandering Soap Opera draws more pure pleasure than sense can handle.
Filmed on 16mm film, Ruiz and his cinematographers push the saturation to the breaking point; some daylight scenes rest on the verge of blowing out, while darker scenes are nearly swallowed whole, save for the pulsing reds and blues that course through its veins. It raises a sense of a heartbeat, a rhythm that keeps flowing, that must keep flowing. If a character encounters somebody he does not know, now he does. They have a mutual friend even. They watch the same soap opera, or want to be part of one. In a way, though, they already are. The scenes utilize simple sets and locations, and while they use higher-end cameras than the blurry video we’re used to in American soap, the shot set-ups are often quite familiar to those who have spent some time on daytime TV.
The acting style, too, pushes the emotion to the fore, even as the words they speak bear little relation to any kind of emotional development. In the first scene, a man and woman nearly come to tears over the revelation of his “muscles” – just a wad of raw meat he was carrying around. The performers’ earnestness lend urgency the rather silly set-ups (one simply involves a series of people shooting others in their car, only to befall precisely the same fate; this is repeated…ten times?), even as they also parody the very soap form they’re honoring. Most of the cast has extensive experience in that medium; I’d be curious to know if a Chilean audience at the time might have brought certain associations to the film. At any rate, they also bring credence to the effort, which is felt even without knowing the actors’ backgrounds.
Soap operas recur throughout the scenes, as something the characters want to be a part of, or interact with, or which interact back with them. The TVs seem always tuned to them, the people within them just as present in their world as if they were sitting right next to each other. Their shows are intertwined in their lives, inextricable even when they want a moment away. The soap seems to wander right into their psyches. TVs within TVs suggest the people on TV suffer a similar fate. How deep could it go? Anywhere and nowhere.