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(On) Time: Lav’s (R)Evolution
Cinema as an art or better yet as a language, as a system of items that can be articulated in ways that are semantically and syntactically meaningful, embodies time and is embodied in time. This now common place remark has been at the center of cinematic theory and critical debate since the birth of film itself, and has produced a noteworthy stream of theoretical reflections of huge relevance and influence, not only for the specific field of cinema, but also for the opening of new perspectives in philosophy at large, as in the case of Bergson's or Deleuze's work.
While the embodiment, reflection or representation of time have been at the center of much academic discourse involving the linguistic resource of cinema in articulating time, through camerawork, screenplay and mostly editing or absence of editing, or the codification and de-codification of the temporal dimension generated by those proceedings, it seems to me that much less effort and little critical output has been devoted to two other facets of the way time is sculptured through filmmaking. On the one side, the ever-perilous terrain of detecting and analyzing the audience's reception of time in film and especially of the time of the film itself remains widely unexplored: at the first level, this concern regards how the viewer, both correctly or wrongly, decodifies cinematic time, as in the process of applying and understanding a learnt set of conventions of reading patterns that sometimes might be also subverted or inventively redefined; at the second level, as for the reception of the time of the film itself, one has to encompass both the not-so-banal general questions of sociological and cultural determination in the actual practice of cinematic fruition and the more subject-oriented interrogations about the experiential and perceptual sides of inhabiting or being inhabited by time as duration, as the length of the film text.
On the other side, still little attention has seemingly been paid to deconstruct or at least put into question the very notion of time that is subsumed and often taken as given in our readings of cinematic texts. What I am arguing here is that we often tend to forget how and to what extent in cinematic analysis (and not only here), structurally basic, yet eminently complex notions of time and space, not to mention self, are or might be (over)determined by cultural encoding; something that is so deeply inscribed in ourselves that it might be difficult to detach or distance oneself from. Time as we know, conceptualize, live and of course apply it to cinema might thus be posited as a variant, a coordinate that possibly changes at different latitudes and longitudes on the cultural spectrum. Inevitably, then, one has to also raise the question of whether a preferred, habitual or even dominant determination of the codified meanings and perceptions of time is at work whenever cinematic texts are experienced by viewers or investigated and dissected by critics or theorists. Moreover, one might be also coming to terms with how the notion of time in film mirrors the inscription of cultural differences, changes in epoch or even the concept of cinema itself in the texts themselves and their readings.
Lav Diaz's ten hours thirty minutes Evolution of a Filipino Family (Ebolusyon Insiang Pamiliang Pilipino) provides a deeply resounding and stimulating challenge to the aforementioned assumptions and prompts responses that deal with all the questionings just raised. In addition to this, Evolution also symptomatically revolves around another, conceptually distinct issue connected with time and time in film, that of History and more specifically of the representation of History in film and the articulation of History through histories (here intended as both fictional narratives and accounts of individual lives).
All these aspects concoct a high textual complexity that undeniably exceeds the scope and ambition of this work. I therefore will not attempt to fully untangle these many intermingled nodes of complexity, but rather provide a framework from which further, deeper and more academically sustained approach might take reference and depart, while hopefully including at least some insights into Diaz's masterwork.
When a film exceeds the usual allotted landmark of 90 to 120 minutes, and stretches its duration more and more towards the three, four and even more hours, it starts to undermine a set of unquestioned assumptions about film. Assumptions intimately related to the status of cinema and the position it occupies both in the wider system of society and economy and in the daily life of individuals. On the one hand, in fact, the usual duration of 90 to 120 minutes is one that is today deeply connected to the unwritten laws of exhibition in theatres and broadcasting on television. This format is the one that, while keeping to the viewer's standard request and expectation of development in storytelling, to which he/she has been trained since his/her very first experiences of cinematic viewing, and historically since the establishing of the canons of narrative feature filmmaking in the ages of silent cinema (when the "excesses" of Von Stroheim where already harshly sanctioned by the industrial establishment), at the same time, maximizes the number of daily screenings in theatres and better fits into the flux of television schedules, allowing respectively the largest sales of tickets and multiple insertion of commercials. The urge of cutting films exceeding the "habitual" running time is evidenced by default practices adopted by producers, distributors, exhibitors or TV broadcasters and periodical querelles between them and the auteurs who struggle for the integrity of their work that punctuates the history of filmmaking. These days, such burning issues have been somewhat muted by the emergence of DVD as a proficient means of reintegrating sequences directors were striving to include in their films, but were denied to by the keepers of capital in the moviemaking industry. The sheer possibility of "adding" material lost or often just simply left in the editing room has ingenerated a somewhat dubious (and very profitable) fetishism for the so-called director's cut, which might make sense for opuses involved in troubling fates in the past, but which today has assumed the blatant and lavish aura of the "good selling point"...
Works such as Lav Diaz's Evolution of a Filipino Family, therefore, not only represent vindications of an auteur's integrity, but also implicitly defy the occupation and abuse of cinematic time by capitalism. The fact that Diaz himself insists that his work has to be seen in one breathe, in just one long seat, appears clearly as the ultimate act of an artist's self-consciousness, one that reveals his heartfelt concern with matters of tempo and crescendo in the fruition of his art (issues precisely related to the development in time of the film). One that might as well scare audiences away for its sheer "integralism" or "egotism" in robbing the viewer of one entire day of his/her life, preventing him/her from the customary multiplicity of activities in everyday routine or, as for the critic or cinéphile at a festival, depriving him/her of multiple visions. However, when re-positioning Diaz's demands on the viewer of Evolution of a Filipino Family in the larger picture of how capitalism has shaped the norms of cinema consumption and of the life routine itself, one can readily grasp the intrinsically subversive nature of this same artiste's "integralism".
On the other hand, in fact, when focusing on how capitalism, now in its advanced stage of late capitalism, has (re)modeled the daily lives of human individuals in contemporary, Western or Westernized society, establishing unquestioned routines forged according to imperatives of optimal time allocation and fears of wasting time, all underscoring the common place, but revealing the principle of "time is money" (and, on a more existential level, the horror vacui that prevents us to be reminded of the ultimate end, of death), devoting yourself for ten hours and a half to one single "activity" seems not only a Herculean enterprise, but also and mostly an unthinkable, unimaginable sacrifice. In other words, the loss of precious, non-refundable time feels even more painful than the physical tour-de-force itself. It is not so easy to realize, though, how the emphasis on and the concerns about time, time consumption and the value of time enforced by capitalist society, to an extent that they are almost encoded in our genes, are ones that reveal the full appropriation of both work and the so-called "free time" by capitalist logics. In the whole-comprehensive scheme of capitalism, when not occupied by labor intended to direct profit-making, individuals are supposed to engage in self-recreating activities of leisure and entertainment that are themselves, intrinsically, sources of consumption, and of course profit.
The industry or rather industries of entertainment that take (interested) care in providing individuals with services and products to occupy and consume their free time rely on a double concept of diversification; obvious diversification of products for their output, and also the diversification of prospected activities, in terms of consumer expectations. The commodification of free time and entertainment implies and inevitably leads to the same "sane and healthy" situation of competition verified in other sectors of the capitalist economic system; a competition that is particularly diversified and intense, since it involves an immensely wide variety of products and activities. A direct effect descending from this intense and integrated competition in conquering the free time of consumers is the social, cultural and economical pressure on the consumers themselves towards the diversification of activities (not only of entertainment), and conversely the stigma associated to obsessive, compulsive mono-activity. These mechanics mostly act in non-overtly commercial manners, operating at different levels in constructing a collective mind or routine that asks and compels individuals to engage or at least try to engage in multiple tasks and chores in their everyday lives, especially when it comes to re-creating and re-generating themselves in their free time through entertainment. Entertainment might therefore be profiled as the sensitive and crucial nexus of actual re-creation, re-generation and re-enforcement of the system itself (in particular when it comes to ideological aspects of the content of mass audio-visual entertainment).
As contextualized in this quick and certainly oversimplified framing, a film like Evolution of a Filipino Family - and of course its likes - appears as a disruptive, subversive and eye-opening agent provocateur. The commitment of spending ten hours and a half of one's own life watching a film goes far beyond personal cinéphile abnegation and sheer matter interest (say, in this specific case, the Philippines and their history); it implicitly appeals to one's own ability and will to detach from the superstructure of society and economy that perpetually and unperceivedly molds our existence. Films like Evolution of a Filipino Family open factually a space and time to abstract and disengage from the system we are constantly immersed in, allowing for the opportunity to become aware of the system itself and to realize how pervasively it works. The complicity and affinity matching the viewer and Diaz's film is one that at least for those ten and a half hours is capable of opening a window of subversion to the musts of emploi du temps in capitalism.
There is another aspect to the whole question of very long films that has to be addressed here, one that is specific to the case of Evolution of a Filipino Family: the very fact that this is a Filipino film. As previously observed, up till now it has been the almost exclusive privilege and credit of European or Western directors to accomplish the enterprise of disruptively breaking the conventions of duration in narrative feature filmmaking. Even the mentioned case of Egyptian Yousry Nasrallah's passionate epic of the Palestine nation La Porte du Soleil has to be further qualified as a project supported by European capitals and intended to be broadcasted by the French-German cultural network ARTE as a two-part TV series. In the light of this remark, the uniqueness of Lav Diaz's film, as a totally "homegrown"
If what I have here been labeling as the standardized canon of full-length feature filmmaking, the 90 to 120 minutes narrative fiction film, is clearly meant to define the product mainly catered by Hollywood, if not the greatest in output - Bollywood claims this leadership - certainly the most influential and invasive film industry in the world, one has to notice how the spaces of contention and competition against Hollywood and the format it imposes on global audiences both in the most overt and the most unconventional ways seem to be the prerogative of European or First World filmmakers.
Ten years in the making, Evolution of a Filipino Family provides then a truly un-compromised attempt at Third World filmmaking that advocates the right to trigger aesthetic and conceptual (r)evolutions without the good-willed, but often binding support of international funding. Although this might not have been meant or planned, the mere completion of Evolution of a Filipino Family without (in its funding) and against (in its form and aesthetics) global capital signifies the thorough achievement of a masterpiece without boundaries.
In the outlined context it might seem difficult, although eminently appropriate, to pose the question whether space for alternative or even resistant models is still allowed, either on a macro or a micro level of society, economy or culture. In the form of a film discourse, Lav Diaz's Evolution of a Filipino Family provides a double act of resistance to the normative, basic and essential conceptualization of time in modern, Western(ized), capitalist-oriented society: first, as mentioned above, through its torrential length, undermining the deeply encoded patterns of behavior (film viewing, multiple-activities scheduling); secondly, through an articulation of diegetic time in film narration that reflects a perhaps culturally-specific and non-Western, but certainly pre-modern and pre-capitalist conception of time.
Before being reshaped by European colonialism into the modern nations of
Quite an interesting example in this regard is provided by the persistence of an unusual "practice" of time in contemporary
Although Lav Diaz's Evolution of a Filipino Family might in some way seem to provide a cinematic reproduction of the culturally specific notion of jam karet, it actually does so by going straight to its perhaps forgotten roots. Characters in Diaz's film never live according to the logics of modern, capitalist, Western time, as embodied by the simulacrum that materializes and visualizes the passing of time, the clock or the watch, an object whose presence is never to be found in Evolution, and neither is any reference to timing and scheduling in hours or minutes. The characters of Diaz's film work, interact, wait, walk and die according to a different system of time, one that is at the source of jam karet, but actually goes even beyond its cultural specificity. The characters of Evolution of a Filipino Family are peasants still living in a pre-modern, rural space-temporal dimension, whose logics and tempo are those governed by the cycle of work in the fields, by the passing of days, months, seasons and years, as measured through the changing of nature and environment, and especially by the daily motion of the sun from dawn till dusk.
Since the characters live time according to sunlight, in Evolution of a Filipino Family the rendition of light itself acquires a crucial relevance that accounts for one of the most striking compositions ever seen in filmmaking. Light is light and darkness is darkness in Evolution; the whole film appears to have been shot carefully and rigorously using only natural light, thus creating a sense of density and grain meant to provide a perceptual correspondence to the peasant characters' experience of darkness and light. This virtual proximity becomes patent in the nighttime sequences, where only the fable flame of rudimental oil lamps lights the space, leaving the surrounding space in almost ominous pitch darkness. There one can really feel some sort of materiality of light through the rendition of film images and, at the same time, share an abstract correspondence with the perception of the characters.
The materiality of light in Evolution is nonetheless the emanation of a broader scheme to materialize Filipino peasants' experience of time. Since the very first sequences Diaz asks the viewer to attune to this "new", yet elemental and antique way of experiencing time, immersing him/her right away into the dull and slow course of work in the rice paddies. Diaz stretches the depiction of daily chores as well as breaks of lazy relaxation conveying a double effect of realism and abstraction: their nude and crude protracted duration stands for their real length and dullness, still they obviously cannot match a real time reproduction, hence they abstract real time duration by exceeding sensibly an economic employment of time in film representation. Throughout the film, the formal device of long takes makes the viewer systematically aware of time as a palpable presence that requires adjustment and adaptation. Although an unavoidable abstraction of the actual time experienced by Filipino peasants in the rice paddies, the time perception and dimension that Evolution of a Filipino Family strives to (re)produce and (re)create radically differs not only from that subscribed by standard filmmaking, but also from the one experienced daily by viewers in contexts of modern, urban(ized) and Western(ized) capitalist societies.
The declination of cinematic time in Evolution of a Filipino Family puts the (Western/ized) viewer in contact with a reality far-removed in space and time, subverting practices, tropes and conventions of the usage of time in filmmaking, thus undeniably putting into question the superstructure that over- and pre-determines them (film itself, as a product of modernity is indeed a Western medium, mostly submitted to Western encoding and decoding). Diaz's final aim is recognizably to appraise and pay homage to the pre-modern, rural roots of Filipino culture and society, from which his alternative cinematic rendition of time also originates. Pursuing this goal, however, he also enacts a manifest act of subversion and revolution: rewriting and inhabiting a modern, Western and capitalist medium through and with pre-modern, Filipino and rural codes.
Ileto focuses explicitly on the introduction of Catholicism in the
The theoretical framework and analysis of Pasyon and Revolution seem irrefutably fit for approaching the treatment of time as History in Evolution of a Filipino Family. Of course, the attempts at telling History through film, and of doing so even "from below" are innumerable, but one has to reconsider how these attempts were conveyed and how Diaz's differs from them. If we just take a look at our selective pool of very long films, and focus on those that thematize History or nation making, we will find a blatant divide. Syberberg's idiosyncratic Hitler left aside, either in Reitz's three installments of Heimat, Bertolucci's Novecento or even more in Giordana's La Meglio Gioventù and Nasrallah's La Porte du Soleil we are bound to encounter similar narrative patterns featuring (supposedly) ordinary characters who find themselves either on purpose or involuntarily mingled with the major happenings and traumatisms of their country's History. Protagonists in these films take either an active or a passive part in the events creating a direct implication of the macro level of History on the micro dimension of their (fictional) histories. The codification of this prototype fictionalizing the discourse on History dates back to European Romanticism, when the issue of nation-making came into absolute prominence and was felt as an inescapable obligation for the bourgeois middle-class that nurtured the intellectuals and literates that in those days were fashioning the codes of the modern novel. Even if this might sound as an oversimplified paradigm, it is undeniable that most of the ordinary characters in films such as Heimat or La Meglio Gioventù are actually not as ordinary as they are intended to be. By their very implication in History, they can be aptly profiled and tagged as "heroes", or rather "romantic heroes", as those featured in Romantic novels. The notion of ordinariness is of course symptomatically compromised, in ways that undermine and negate the actual enactment of narratives of History "from below".. The European, Romantic tradition that encrypts the individual self into the collective process of nation-making creates a generally paradoxical pattern of fictionalization that identifies the ordinary heroes' fates with the dominant paradigms of agency or emotional response to the historical events in question. For the mere ease of providing ready-made resources for identification through characters that shape as "heroes", and secondarily for offering (often involuntary) the means to uphold the dominant readings of History, this modern, romantic and bourgeois grammar has been fully embraced by cinema when dealing with History.
A truthfully contrastive example of History from below in cinema has however notoriously been made available to academic discourse by the films composing Hou Hsiao-hsien's "
Undoubtedly, Hou's approach to History in fictional cinema represents a pertinent parallel to Ileto's work in historiography, as it problematizes the sources of official History itself and privileges subjective, popular and non-normative memory over the compromises of dominant discourse. Hou's landmark trilogy has been casting a profound influence on Asian cinemas for over a decade now, both in terms of aesthetics and the conceptualization of History; by result of pure stimulus or sheer convergence, Lav Diaz's Evolution of a Filipino Family is no exception. Diaz's approach to History (the Marcos' years) replicates in many aspects Hou's, but also presents at least a couple of specificities or differentiations. Even more than in Hou's films, the characters of Evolution are far-removed from the main stages of History and their direct intervention in its course is nil: when Kadyo kills a group of sentinels to steal their weapons and sell them to guerilla militants, he is by no means acting out of ideological reasons, but just for the sheer necessity of granting basic survival to his family. The complete "alienation" of characters' histories from History plays also to a somewhat metaphorical extent, as it seems to be overtly evoked by Maria's impending blindness or Reynaldo's dreamlike meetings with the animated statue of José Rizal. This irreparable, yet meaning-pregnant fracture gives reason to Diaz's divergent strategy of inserting historical coordinates. In Evolution, for example, the radio plays a different but stronger and more extensive role than in Hou's films: although Diaz's characters extensively listen to it, their favorite broadcastings are soap operas, not news; Diaz thus stresses the power of the media in building collective consciousness or lack of consciousness of society, politics and History, for they provide the ruling power with vehicles of efficiently distracting mass entertainment. Diaz hence appeals to the more customary insertion of archive footage to document the salient episodes in the History of the
In terms of aesthetics, Diaz, as Hou, mainly relies on long takes shot with mostly fixed camera. Although this choice seems to reflect the same concern for giving time and space to the dynamics of human interaction, it is worth noticing how converging styles also envisage cultural specificities. Whereas Hou Hsiao-hsien's painstakingly-composed tableaux include blockings and an articulation of depth that reflect the arrangement of Chinese or Japanese-style housing in Taiwan, Diaz's compositions are for the largest part en plein air, exteriors that portray the communion of peasants or miners' characters with the environment they live in, a nature on which their culture is molded and their survival relies.
By the aforementioned means of plot configuration and style Diaz is thus able to come as close as possible to a cinematic, fictional rendition of the "History from Below" advocated by Ileto. This of course represents a further refusal and subversion of dominant modes of cinema, and of narration of History at large. Although Evolution of a Filipino Family is undeniably indebted to the groundbreaking precedent of Hou Hsiao-hsien's "Trilogy of Taiwan", Diaz's film displays a vital and consistently specific Filipino declination of this pioneering paradigm.
His murdering significantly follows his decision to abandon a plot aiming at the assassination of director Lino Brocka, a resolution matured after listening to Brocka's speeches recorded on the videotape provided by the heads of the plot. This is a deeply resounding and meaningful moment in the film, since at this point Kadyo is awoken to consciousness and acquires an awareness of the political and social system he lives in that no other character has experienced before. This enlightenment is the result of a "revelation" delivered by Brocka, the grandest filmmaker of the Philippines and for a long time the unheard critical conscience and an international delator of Marcos' regime; his presence in Evolution appears as Diaz's respectful and sincere tribute to a filmmaker whose cinematic style certainly does not represent a model for him, but whose commitment to his people and country impart a great lesson and profound inspiration.
Added to this, for once in the film, the staging of Kadyo's death, the final act of one of the histories in the film, occurs simultaneously with a key event in
Once the metaphorical mode of Diaz is exposed and set, what follows resounds in its full, disruptive potential. Kadyo's slow, protracted, exhausting death, staged as a continuous and iterated path of falls and subsequent rises, is none other than a new, contextually meaningful and rooted re-appropriation of the Pasyon, of the Passion of Jesus Christ. As Filipinos have been doing for more than a century, Diaz plies the visual motif and repertoire of Pasyon to comment upon History in cinema. As the nexus of a double identification, Kadyo's protracted sufferance and his long path to death not only stand for Christ's ascent to the Cross, but for the plight of the Filipino self in the course of History. As a coherent signature to his multi-faceted (r)Evolution of cinematic time and History Diaz once again stresses the pride of Filipino culture: Kadyo's body is collected and disposed of with the bodies of the victims of Mendiola Massacre by a crowd of youths in a sequence that replicates "Spoliarium" (1884), the grand masterpiece of Filipino painter Juan Luna.