Joseph Ruben | Return to Paradise | The Forgotten

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Joseph Ruben

Joseph Ruben is a director, mainly of thrillers and science fiction.

Return to Paradise

Links to True Believer: Idealistic Drama

Return to Paradise (1998) is the second-most recent feature directed by Joseph Ruben. Among his previous work, it most resembles his True Believer (1989). Both of these stories involved burned-out men trying to gain a new idealism, to bring some meaning into their lives, and take action that will help some other person. Both stories are courtroom dramas, at least in part; both have a lawyer among their central characters, as well as a judge, and some scenes in prison. Both take place among a somewhat blighted, run down cityscape, depicted with rich atmospheric intensity. Both stories have a considerable degree of direct social criticism. (All of Ruben's movies have a liberal point of view, but in some, such as The Stepfather (1987) and Sleeping with the Enemy (1991), the criticism is directed at the patriarchal family, and less on society at large.) There is a special concern with the poor, the dispossessed, and those spending their lives in prison. Both films have a good deal of male bonding.

These two films of Ruben's can mainly be classified as dramas, with well developed characterizations, and moral issues that are carefully thought over by the characters, without a superficial judgment. They have considerable suspense, but go very lightly on what is now called "action". The screenplays tend to be well plotted. The emphasis on good drama mixed with suspense can make these films seem "old-fashioned", in the best sense of the term - the cliché is that "they don't make movies like they used to", but Ruben does. However, Ruben's interest in contemporary society makes his films seem extremely up to date - their milieu is that of the very modern world.

Links to Chekhov

In Sleeping with the Enemy, Julia Roberts eventually meets a nice young theater director in Iowa. The play he is putting on is Anton Chekhov's The Sea Gull (1896). It is not identified by name in the film, but its opening lines are performed.

Ruben's picture of modern middle class America, in all his films, has much in common with Chekhov's Czarist Russia. Both are full, in their authors' point of view, with middle class people who have given up, and who are wasting their talents by inaction. These people need to find some sort of idealism and conscience, and need to start doing practical things to help all the suffering people around them.

Figures and Background

Ruben's visual style is excellent. Most of the shots are very well composed.

The typical shot in Return to Paradise displays one of the figures in a moderate long shot. The figure is shown from head to toe, and nearly fills the top to bottom of the frame. Behind the figure is either a room, or a cityscape. The background image is clearly focused. It is full of very revealing detail. The shot is designed to clearly, logically lay out the contents of a room, or a street, or a skyline. Ruben has staged the shot so that its left and right boundaries exactly coincide with the relevant boundaries of the location. In Ruben's film, both the figure in the foreground, and the landscape revealed in the background, have equal weight. Each is important, and neither dominates over the other. We watch the emotions of the character being revealed by the performer's acting. We also watch the environment in which they find themselves, and which is part of the drama. The two often comment on each other; a character's room reveals their personality, their social status, and their attitudes, for instance. However, the foreground actor and the background are often fairly independent of each other, offering two parallel "tracks" of filmmaking.

The audience does not "know" the characters in Ruben's film right away. We watch through the entire picture, for clues to their personalities, which gradually emerge over the course of the film. In fact, the biggest mystery in the story is what the characters are like deep inside. So the audience is always in a watchful, receptive and analytic mood, trying to receive and process information it is receiving from the screen. The constantly new backgrounds are part of this experience, just as much as the dialogue and the acting of the characters in the foreground.

The shot is not only informative; it is also beautiful from a compositional standpoint. Ruben's compositions tend to be orderly, rather than wildly baroque, in the manner, say, of Orson Welles. They are often full of strong vertical lines formed by the windows of his interiors.

The word that most leaps to mind in discussing Ruben's images is interesting. They consistently interest the mind and the eye throughout one of his films. Consequently, his films are rarely boring; they are far more consistently absorbing to watch than those of many other contemporary directors. They tend to be a satisfying experience.

Realism - and the Tropics

One by-product of Ruben's careful marshaling of detail: an increase of realism. For example, the scenes under the coconut palms in Asia show the ground. The ground is a mixture of bare earth, and the sort of fallen plant material known to botanists as "leaf litter". This is exactly the experience of walking through a tropical or semi-tropical area. Ruben captures this with a sort of vivid, "you are there" quality. This is the only fiction film I have ever seen which does do that: all the other fiction films I can recall which are set in tropical areas seem much less realistic. They are full of what seems to be a vague, sketchy indication of the tropics; Ruben's shows the real thing.

Wide Screen: Cityscapes and Rooms

Ruben's compositions are carefully designed to take advantage of the widescreen format in which the film is shot. In Godard's Contempt (1963), Fritz Lang says that Cinemascope is only good for funerals and snakes. That famous quote is not the whole story: widescreen ratios are also very good for presenting cityscapes. The same goes for rooms, which tend to be much wider than they are tall, at least in Ruben's apartments and restaurants. Virtually every shot in Return to Paradise shows in detail some background important in the story.


Ruben does not tend to use a lot of camera movement. When he needs to move away from one of his carefully planned compositions, he cuts to another well made composition. There is little pretense in his films that the camera has found this position "by accident". The point of view is clearly much better, more revealing and more pleasing to the eye, than a randomly focused camera aimed at reality would be. The pretense, used by Jean Renoir and his pupils, that the camera is just off handedly gazing at reality, is not for Ruben. Of course, Renoir's films are full of the most exquisite planning. Ruben's point of view is that of a sort of public servant of the audience. His job, he is implying, is to put the camera into the most logical, most informative position possible, and then compose everything with the maximum visual beauty.

The Forgotten

Links to Ruben Films

The Forgotten (2004) is Joseph Ruben's first feature in six years. It has a number of similarities with his earlier work. It is a science fiction film, like Dreamscape (1984). In both films, the science fiction centers on the inner imaginative life of the protagonist, and its effect or contrast with the real world outside of the hero: in Dreamscape, the hero's dreams affect reality, in The Forgotten, the heroine's inner beliefs about the existence of her son contradict the "official" reality around her. In both films, the hero soon goes up against government officials.

The attempt by the heroine's husband at the start of The Forgotten to make her forget her son, recall a bit the controlling husband in Sleeping with the Enemy. But only to a degree. In some ways, the husband here has a point: mourning cannot go on to the extent of total withdrawal from life.

The paranoia that engulfs the heroine recalls both True Believer and Sleeping with the Enemy.

Actors: Links to Other Films

Ruben is an actor-centered director, who has always been interested in encouraging strong performances in his films. The Forgotten is blessed with a cast whose most famous work has been in art films, not popular horror film material: Consequently, The Forgotten has a cast that oozes intelligence from every pore. There is also a sense of strange comedy, in that The Forgotten is a reprisal of many of the most celebrated art house successes of a slightly earlier era. It seems deliberately to echo these 90's films.

Anthony Edwards, although a talented character actor in a league with the others, is a bit miscast here. His husband character seems like a direct reprise of the numbingly bourgeois husband in [safe], a role that Edwards did not play. Maybe Edwards is here because [safe] actor Xander Berkeley was not available! While Edwards does a good job, he is not well cast as an unfeeling conformist - warmth and individuality being his strong positive traits as an actor.

The sense that The Forgotten is reprising and incorporating other films in its mix gives the whole enterprise a very strange feel.

A Mix of Genres: Science Fiction and Thriller

The Forgotten further complicates audience response by being a bizarre mix of genres. The Forgotten is marketed as a horror film, and certainly has some elements of the genre. It looks really, really dark, with sets that are lit by a single lamp, spooky shadows, and occasional shock effects. However, the gore of many modern horror films is completely absent here, as are the sick killings.

Instead, much of the film is a Hitchcock style thriller, a genre in which Ruben has often previously worked. Horror is further undercut by having the film turn out to be science fictional in its underpinnings. This is all to the good, as far as I am concerned: both science fiction and suspense thrillers are far more to my taste than gory horror. The film has elements that recall the non-science fictional thriller The Net (Irwin Winkler, 1995), with the heroine on the run, erased identities, and general paranoia. And hovering over the whole project is the prose science fiction of Philip K. Dick, with its scenes in which reality breaks down, and the final explanation of events somewhat in the tradition of such Dick novels as Time Out of Joint (1959).

New York City near the Brooklyn Bridge

Much of The Forgotten seems to be set in regions of New York City near the Brooklyn Bridge. This was also the locale of part of Return to Paradise. It now seems like a personal locale for Ruben, just as Monument Valley was for John Ford.

High Camera Angles - and Camera Movement

Ruben shoots much the action from above, from very high angles. Some of this seems to be using a crane, other parts a helicopter. There is perhaps some CGI here, too. Ruben gets some remarkable effects from moving camera overhead shots. How did he get the scene of the heroine running down an alley, for example?