The first whispers I heard concerning Louis le Palme’s Ruins of the Sun arrived just hours before the film’s first and, as far as I have been able to determine, only screening. The circumstances of the screening itself were strange, to say the least, and, since any accounting of the film itself must be pieced together from those of us who attended the screening, it is impossible to discuss either the film itself or its screening without discussing the other.
The first mention of the film I have been able to unearth was the modest advertisement I first saw in a thin weekly Modesto Bee mentioning that, in the neighboring town of Los Suelos, Hibiscus Bernard’s drive-in theater would screen for an exclusive week-long run the “presumed lost but recently rediscovered film by Nouvelle Vague auteur Louis le Palme, Ruins of the Sun.” This advertisement caught my eye and aroused my curiosity: despite having completed my coursework in a PhD in film criticism with a sub-specialty in French cinema at CSU Fresno, I had never heard of Louis le Palme. Sensing a possible direction for my dissertation—lost French auteur rediscovered—I made a snap decision to make the trek to Los Suelos. A decision I have since come to profoundly regret.
I borrowed my girlfriend’s car and drove to Los Suelos, a seedy little town in the middle of nowhere. I arrived at the drive-in near dusk. Very few other cars were there, perhaps a half dozen or so in all. I was admitted to the lot without ceremony, waved in, without having to buy a ticket. Once inside, I drove around a little until I judged myself to be at the optimal distance from the screen, and then pulled in next to a speaker pole, rolled down my window, hung the speaker in place, and waited.
I would, as it turned out, wait for some time. I found myself drumming my fingers on the steering wheel, wishing I had brought something to read—though, to be honest, it was dark enough that reading would have been an impossibility. Finally, bored, I started to open the door so I could get out and stretch my legs, perhaps visit the concession stand, but I could not open the door fully. A man was standing there, very near to the car, preventing it.
“How many?” he asked.
“I—” I said, momentarily confused, and then said, “One.”
“Adult, child, or senior?” he asked. A strange question since it should have been obvious to anyone that I was far too old to be a child and far too young to be a senior. But when he continued to wait, mouth open, I finally said adult.
A price was named, I paid it. He laboriously counted out change to me and then tore a ticket off a roll and slipped it under my sun visor.
“Is there anywhere I can get concessions?” I asked.
He looked puzzled. “What do you want to concede? And to whom?”
“No,” I said. “Snacks, treats. Where can I buy popcorn?”
“Nowhere,” he said. “Not tonight. Don’t leave the car. The show is about to begin.” And then he left.
Only a few days later, when I saw his picture in the Bee, coupled with notice of his death by smothering—a death that was somehow, absurdly, ruled a suicide—did I identify this ticket distributor as Simon Falle, the projectionist who also showed the film.
Let me see if I can’t describe the film as I saw it that night, before I go on to take it apart. Now, knowing what I know, I always hold in my mind both the film that I thought I saw that first night, and another film, full of secret knowledge. It is safe to say that, depending on the depth of their understanding of events taking place in Los Suelos, each audience member saw a different film, or at least felt the film was saying something different to them. Even now, having done what I can to educate myself, having realized that the film I thought I was watching was not actually the film I was watching, having tracked down as many fellow viewers as I could discreetly manage and hearing their accounts, having learned that each of us experienced a different musical score coming from the tinny speaker hanging from the car window, I’m still not sure that I fully understand what exactly I saw. This article I am writing is an additional attempt to try to do so. Or, at least, to go one layer deeper, regardless of the risk.
Here is what I thought I saw, that first and only time. The film begins—simply begins, stutters to life, no credits, no title. The anonymous white speaker box, which is the only companion to my viewing, tells me: We had been stranded. How many days, how many hours, before the sun would arrive, our hazard suits would begin to smoke, would catch fire, and we would be reduced to ash? There was a score of sorts, like the music one might find in a 1970s sci-fi movie, heavy on theremin. The six cosmonauts—and I only knew they were cosmonauts because the speaker box told me so—are moving with their flashlights through the dark. They stumble onto an old mineshaft—a curious and disturbing thing to discover on what they had believed to be an uninhabited planet. Perhaps it hasn’t always been uninhabited. They descend, but the shaft ends after a few dozen meters. Is it far enough? they ask one another. No, they say, not far enough!
For what? I wonder.
They try to dig down further, to a level that will be safe. Now the motives behind their perpetual downward movement are revealed: the planet’s week-long night will soon end and a scorching and deadly week-long day will commence. Suddenly, the wall crumbles to reveal another, adjacent shaft. They descend as far down this new shaft as they can and then they pace along side-tunnels. Is it deep enough? No, they fear, it is not deep enough. The sun might somehow still find them here. They must dig deeper! In doing so, they dig through loose earth only to uncover what appears to be (so the speaker box tells me) an ancient wall of baked clay.
“Do we dare break through?” asks Commander Strugatsky. In theory, he is asking his men, but he is staring at the screen, directly at the viewer. It is, as it turns out, a rhetorical question: what choice do they have? Even the barest hint of sunlight from the sun of this planet will annihilate them. (Of course, I know that this is ridiculous—even if they were in danger from the sun they have traveled deep enough to avoid the slightest glimmer of it—but it is the premise of the film: I accept it and watch on.) They break through.
Behind the baked clay wall: the remnants of a lost civilization. Odd, squat buildings that do not feel entirely as though they have been designed for human beings. As they breathe the stale air enclosed for so long, something changes within the cosmonauts: they become ecstatic and joyful, almost as if possessed. “We must go down!” exclaims Commander Strugatsky. “We will go down!” respond the other cosmonauts in unison. And they set off to do just that.
Where does the film go from there? I can’t say. At 56 minutes in, a man rushed past the hood of my car, his face transfigured by what I am tempted now to call holy wrath. A moment later the screen went black and the same man came out, reels of film clasped to his chest, and told us to leave. This man, the man who stopped the showing, I have since been told was Hibiscus Bernard, the owner of the drive-in. Though I cannot prove it, I suspect he is also the one responsible for the suffocation of Simon Falle.
That is the movie, or portion of the movie, that I saw. I have managed to track down two other people, residents of Los Suelos, who also saw the film. I can say that their experience of the film was radically different from my own. For one, the only sound coming from the speaker box was low, chuckling laughter. The other heard another story entirely, one of faith rather than planetary exploration and peril. Indeed, he told me, most of the footage I had seen had been appropriated from the USGS, or had been filmed later by the Church of the Belowdown. How do you know? I asked him. The man, who asked that his name not be used in this account, admitted, Because I was the cameraman for some of the later footage, before I lost my faith.
The movie itself was badly edited and spliced—which I just saw as a clumsy extension of the Nouvelle Vague aesthetic. According to my unnamed source, however, it was simply that whoever had made this film and attributed it to Louis le Palme—a director I have since determined never existed—was working with stolen footage and was forced to assemble it quickly. I suspect, though again I have no definitive proof, that this compiler was in fact Simon Falle. What his motivations were, whether they were more than artistic, I cannot say with any degree of certainty. But yes, I suspect he had an ulterior motive in trying to make the footage available to anyone who wanted to see it, even if only in a very limited way.
I have since tried to locate the reels of the film, emphasizing that I desire to see them exclusively for scholarly purposes, but I have been told the film does not exist. Indeed, I have been told that the film never existed, and that what we experienced that night in the drive-in was collective hallucination. I have been told this by Hibiscus Bernard—the very individual I saw clutching the film reels to his chest!—and have indeed met personally with him, which is why I am absolutely certain that he was the man I saw rushing past my car to stop the film. Was it wise of me to let him know I had seen the film? Now, having learned of the death of Simon Falle—suicide by suffocation?!?—I suspect it was perhaps unwise, perhaps terribly so.
I plan, this evening, to mail this review (such as it is) to my editor, just in case. Probably I have nothing to fear, but I worry nonetheless.
In conclusion, I can only ask: what is the true story of Ruins of the Sun? To what degree was it a simple, relatively harmless experiment (perhaps by Simon Falle) and to what degree did it depict and reveal matters that the Church of the Belowdown would prefer to keep to themselves? Why did Simon Falle die? Was he killed or did he really, improbably, commit suicide by suffocation? What, above all, was on the final reels, the reels which were never shown?
I may never know the answers to these questions. Nevertheless, I cannot prevent myself from asking them.
Editor’s Note: The writer of this piece on Ruins of the Sun, Karl Rogen, has disappeared and nobody has any idea of his whereabouts. He submitted this article by mail several weeks ago. We accepted it, despite being uncertain whether it was meant to be a description of an actual experience or a piece of fiction. We suspect it might provide some clue as to where he has gone. For this reason, we are taking Rogan’s submission of his piece as an implicit acceptance of our contract, and are choosing to publish it. If Mr. Rogan or anyone knowing of his whereabouts reads this, we encourage you to reach out and tell us what has become of the author.
Featured image by Maria Pogosyan.