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On Lav Diaz and the Cinema of the Comatose November 15, 2008

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Essay, Noypi.


It is hard to judge Diaz coming from the point of view of someone who has only seen three of his films – – the last one barely seeing it due to inconsiderate technical problems in the venue – – but this being a free country where we enjoy such freedom with tantamount decay of values and discipline, and this free space where every word published costs this writer a universe of dismal thought-producing nerves becomes a mere tiny molecule in the infinite cosmos of McLuhan’s subconscious, consumed for free by anyone who drops by either by accident or choice. The words are at my disposal, I don’t know if they work the same to you, I have no way of knowing, but what harm does someone unpopular like myself can do if my thoughts are pored over by a thousand anonymouses in this galaxy of firefoxes and explorers? Writers can only be free once in their life – – and their statements during that time can only be the most honest words that can drip from their fingertips. (Does anyone here still write using a pen? What is a pen anyway? Is writing a Magritte parody of a pen is not a pen?)

See how easy it is digress and not focus: discombobulation is sometimes the key to longevity. I am not skeptic of Diaz’s intentions; after all, that moment after the screening of Batang Westside, when I walk out of my seat after the credits, which I intentionally oblige myself to finish, with my knees trembling and my temples throbbing after an unexpected crash of epiphany, I felt something has changed in me, an act of deliverance, a recognition of divine prophecy, of Philippine cinema’s rebirth in the hands of the redeemer. That’s the same enigma I had after seeing Citizen Kane, walking away from the Fine Arts Auditorium on a Wednesday afternoon when a cold drizzle becomes a sudden realization of my dreams in life. Serafin Geronimo marks the arrival of a scribe-turned-filmmaker who, in the succeeding years that trail his destined direction, as if whispered by God’s soundless words, has intricately rebuilt our pasts, reminding us that we have long forgotten them, and with that gift for epic lyricism Diaz turns into the anointed raconteur of the Filipino condition – – sad fates and social injustice, as well as the tradition that modern living has buried in our own soil, deftly shaped in the hands of his self-effacing discernment of the race that has nurtured his ideals.

Length being the only thing considered, cinema compared to literature shrinks in comparison: a two-hour film is equivalent to one or two short stories, read in a sitting or over a lunch break. Short stories are just empirically inferior and easy to dismiss, but as what has Chekhov and Munro have proven in their literary careers, it is always the insecure who undermines the talented, that with the little time we have in this world these short pieces are sometimes more fulfilling than convoluted novels masked by shortness of ideas – – that brilliance is brevity. That Diaz is aspiring for the equivalent of the novel in cinema has long been raised, not only because of his films’ length but also in the range of their subjects, the authorial grip in his stories, that unmistakable narrative voice in his silence. Truffaut and his gang have already asserted that before – – la politique des auteurs, the auteur theory as its misnomer, championed by Sarris and backlashed by Kael  – – but why is it that the passage of time makes it all more resounding, truer? Why is it that its influence has changed the way we see films, that even I myself wonder why I put the name of the director before the film’s title, blessing it with the power of ownership given by a small punctuation called apostrophe, that simple apostrophe that bestows omniscience. Don’t you think that is the biggest blunder in orthography?

Contrary to Rick Warren, it is the discovery of purpose that limits us – – that given the idea that we will die all too soon makes us cram the things we want to do in life, that since we will die we have to find that purpose, that without the idea of death why bother to do the things that we are doing since we have the eternity of doing it anyway, we have tomorrow, we have endless time to correct our mistakes, we can try and try until we tire, and we will always succeed because we can take all the chances, but since we become accustomed to the nature and spontaneity of death we have grown to look for purpose, that is why we resolve to religion, to art, to romance, to lust, every creation that gives us pleasure and assurance but never the physical certainty of absolution – – the only thing we are deprived of.

The most fundamental judgment I can give to a work depends on how its creator regards the essentiality of time. In this world, Time is the supreme god, whether you are Christian, Buddhist, Protestant, atheist, or agnostic. Time is the most “tangible” manifestation of omnipotence, of godlike presence, of the paramount values only attributed to the lord of all lords. Denying it proves neither guided spirituality nor unquestioning faith, but feigned ignorance and abominable destiny. Arguably the greatest filmmaker this world has ever borne Andrei Tarkovsky knows Time very well, and his films rarely show any hint of misconstrued interpretation. They sweep you in their massive use of Time as an element, filling them with ecclesiastical undertones that question one’s existence. Sculpting time is indeed the filmmaker’s ordeal for the rest of his life.

Time, however, also works against Diaz’s advantage. After Batang Westside, which ran for five hours, he went on to shoot films that are sometimes longer than life itself, think of miscarriages and babies who died after delivery – – from nine to ten hours – – proving cinema’s unyielding nature to collapse against imposing comparisons, getting nods from foreign critics for their mesmerizing beauty and braveness. Just recently he received the Orrizonti Grand Prize in Venice for Melancholia. The confirmation that award-giving bodies give is naturally a sign to continue – – only it matters less and less as time goes by – – and being able to represent one’s country overseas entails responsibility, of providing these people an idea of our way of life, even in fantastical and implausible plots, which was how the great Marquez and Borges represented their countries anyway.

Nine to ten hours is a long time, I tell you. A joke our professor used to tell us is that he can fly all the way to Singapore, go shopping, dine in a restaurant, and book a flight back and still Diaz’s film would not be finished. Putting one’s self under such strenuous artfulness is a devotion akin to literary faith, of finishing a tome for three weeks or less, that very idea of equivalence Truffaut is referring to. This age when everything is an endeavor to get ahead of another, of the fast and the instant, such tedium is almost an impossibility if not for a few, someone like Alexis Tioseco who welcomes Diaz’s indulgence with affection, even a stroke of magnificence. Limiting an audience is not Diaz’s concern; artistry is never known to please. He is making films about and for the Filipino people. But at this point who exactly are the Filipino people? Us, here in the Philippines, working day in and day out waiting for an opportunity abroad? The forgotten folks in the countryside? The immigrants who choose to stay in greener pastures as if the quality of life itself is determined by color, by varying hues of cultural understanding? The writers who write for invisible readers, imagined communities that comprise a nation of political amnesiacs? Have we ceased to exist? What proof of existence can we be proud of?

It demands an awful lot from us – – time, effort, sleep, patience, skipped meals, urination – – and those things are quite difficult to surrender in exchange for a film that reeks of pain, far from physical, but the pain of the soul, the pain of staying here on earth, the weight of history in our shoulders, the agony of just being alive, the nightmare of the past,  the anomaly of the present, the ambivalence of the future. It makes you wonder if we are really created in God’s image. Shall we suffer as much as he did?

F. Sionil José asks, If there was logic to existence, what was the logic of art if art was to be able to evolve, to materialize into miracle? Miracle may be a word of the saints but such miracles in cinema do not happen much often. It is an utter grace to witness such spectacle, a singular event, may it be from Dreyer, Tarkovsky, Bresson, Bergman, or even Diaz himself. Religion (or the lack of it) binds these filmmakers together, and even in Bergman or Buñuel’s atheism there are still those moments of irreverent piety, as if to say that in the bigger view of things, it is what keeps us – – everyone in the world – – together, what keeps us on track, what gives life to art.

Bear in mind that an unseen film is still a film; the lack of audience does not diminish its merits. Obscurity is an artist’s double-edged sword. Otherwise filmmaking will lose its ground on art; it will compete for utmost viewership, a shallow empirical judgment that can only come from an audience, which is not far from happening considering that IMDB’s greatest film of all time as of the moment is The Dark Knight. The power to the people becomes an insurmountable power that works in the extremes of success and failure, more especially in the latter’s favor.

As in every art, once people have seen it, the artist no longer owns it. Responsibility, then, is passed to the audience – – the word of mouth, the force of description, the attraction of beautiful arguments – – and when art becomes life, it is bound to meet its death as well.



1. JERIC - December 11, 2008


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