This is another unofficial site for Lav Diaz, "...the great Filipino poet of cinema." (Cinema du reel, Paris).

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Beyond the Time Barrier

by Christoph Huber

Hollywood may have taught us that It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, but Lav Diaz reminds us that the world is also sad sad sad sad. And if that repeptition sounds crushing to you (whereas the one in the title of Stanley Kramer's Hollywood film is just there to tickle), you are on the right track: Inaugurated by the epic masterpiece Evolution of a Filipino Family (Ebolusyon ng isang pamilyang pilipino, 2004), the Filipino's director recent cycle of black-and-white video works, with their seemingly unwieldy lengths - inbetween seven and eleven hours - represent a unique achievement and offer unique experiences in the history of cinema. Their length is not an affectation, but a necessity, in reaching for heights of expression that the conventional (and commercial) "rules" of moviemaking deny. They demand (but also: allow, for their durational strategy is ultimately liberating) uncommon dedication and concentration by the viewer, whose patience is rewarded with a physical experience of time and a stunning, singularly concrete feeling about their spaces, emotions and characters unlike almost anything else. The film's world starts to feel lived-in (and in that sense, Diaz' penchant for unbroken marathon screenings of his work is all the more understandable: bringing food and other stuff to the cinema, you have to make the screening room something like your living room: a lived-in place as well).

Which in a roundabout way, brings us to the ingeniously titled Melancholia, (after all, already Hippocrates characterized as the symptoms of melancholia "all fears and despondencies, if they last a long time" - a perfect match for the director's temporal strategies.) For Diaz' most recent film, the highlight of the Orrizonti section at the 2008 Venice film festival, whose main prize it deservedly won, is on the one hand a deeply moving seven-and-a- half-hour lament about resistance against all odds following through on the now somewhat familiar strategies of the filmmakers' recent work. On the other hand, its remarkable structure and subtle revelations of layers, adopting a (self-)critical stance (both in respect to its characters as well as to itself - and both political as well as aesthetic) mark it as maybe the boldest experiment yet in Diaz's daring reconception of cinema-as-we- know it.

In the beginng Melancholia may seem linear and following the logic of a conventional narrative - a tale of a prostitute, a pimp and a nun in a small town in the Philippines, described with Diaz' characteristic attention to details and rhythms of life, of perception and thought. But in the first of two decisive breaks -roughly after a third, respectively two thirds into the film - these carefully rendered lives prove to be chimeras made up to deal with the pain of existence and the throwbacks in the fight for freedom equality. From then on, sounds and motives (not just visual ones) begin to dominate the flow: A woman wailing unforgettably in the jungle, her sad ballad haunting the proceedings, as the losses and crushed hopes of the protagonists become ever clearer. Ever the commited filmmaker, Diaz not only insists on the political dimension - for all its depression, Melancholia is nothing less than a cri de coeur for continuing revolution -, but also incorporates fascinating detours into the situation of Filipino filmmaking (reminding one, for instance, of the crucial Brocka subplot in Ebolusyon).

"Why is there so much sadness and too much madness in this world? Is happiness just a concept? Is living just a process to measure man's pain?", asked Diaz in his director's note accompanying the film's description in the Venice Festival catalogue. The answers to the last to questions seemingly remain ambivalent: the wounded world of Melancholia may suggest desperation at times, but the effort of the characters to struggle on - and the efforts of Diaz himnself, who from what are nearly no-budget filmmaking circumstances, wrestles a richness, both philosophical and artistic, that all those pricier films daren't even dream of - also touches deeply, with a renewed sense of hope and commitment that remains incorruptible even under the most adverse of circumstances. Beyond the time barrier, Diaz' filmmaking manages to open reservoirs mostly untapped by cinematic (or "visual") art. There is a long sequence of guerillas in the jungle near the end, whose radical means and spiritual dimension begin to suggest what Steven Soderbergh recently persumably tried for, and miserably failed to achieve in his two-part epic about Che(Guevara). One of Diaz' fighters writes in his notebook: "I now realized the lyrical madness to this struggle. It is all about sadness. It is about my sadness. It is all about the sorrow of my people. I cannot romanticize the futility of it all. Even the majestic beauty of this island could not provide an answer to this hell. There is no cure to this sadness." By bearing witness to this sadness, without simply succumbing to it, by speaking out about to the woes of the world and our times, Diaz offers a poetic approach that may be somewhat disillusioned, yet is clearly driven by an unrelenting urge and a refusal to give in, whether to the (mostly unwritten) laws of the market, to the (obvious, but mostly circumscribed) failure of politics, or to the (downplayed) worldwide decline of ideology, solidarity and humanist values. As Robert Burton noted in "The Anatomy of Melancholy" back in 1621: "All poets are mad." Lav Diaz may be one of the maddest of them

Christoph Huber, Vienna 2008

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