Taking risks and being experimental have been standard operating procedures for Peter Sellars during the course of his provocative and successful career in the theatre. His transition to cinema is a significant event for an art form which too rarely in its history has given any support or resources to those willing and able to challenge conventional presumptions. Sellars’s reputation and talent have enabled him to do exactly that. But Sellars is not just challenging conventions in this film. His ability to construct the filmic world of <i>Dr. Ramirez</i> is the work of an artistry informed and fueled by philosophical and aesthetic concerns that motivate very few filmmakers, rather than being simple reformulation or academic frame breaking. As Sellars commented in a recent article, “Late in the century there are no more borders among art forms. Everything is now interdependent and multimedia and interactive.”
<i>The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez</i> is loosely based, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say, inspired by Robert Wiene’s 1919 classic, <i>The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari</i>. Sellars’s reworking, however, bears little resemblance to the original. Since the story line was created as the film was being made, there is a basic ambiguity in the film that makes it difficult to analyze at any given moment exactly what is happening and what it means. But Sellars’s superlative capacity to entrance us and hold our attention, while at the same time deliberately remaining interrogative, assaultive and even at times obscure, gives this film a great deal of power, in all senses of the word. Perhaps in his own synopsis, Sellars describes it best: “The film is a series of layered and parallel episodes that will be experienced and interpreted somewhat differently by each viewer. They are linked in a world of pure color, sound, light, emotion and human presence.” With music by John Adams and the Tibetan monks from the monasteries of Dharamsala, cinematography by David Watkin, and performances by Mikhail Baryshnikov, Joan Cusack and Peter Gallagher, <i>The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez</i> marks an effort which, at its most significant level, represents an expansion of the “envelope” of American independent cinema. At the very least, it’s an invigorating cinematic experience.
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