Thursday, August 14, 2008

Unmoving Cinema

Eileen Legaspi-Ramirez

The year 2007 saw Lav Diaz’s cinematic argument for Malay time embodied in the lingering musings of his Venice Biennale special prize winner, Death in the Land of Encantos. In the film, poet-philosopher Benjamin Agusan’s homecoming from a scholar-exile’s jaunt through Europe occasions his reckoning with abandoned relations—blood-filial/creative and ideological comrades, earthly and otherwise. The lead character’s self-referenced taking stock interlaced with the off-cam presence of a journalist shooting footage of the desolate spaces of by-then boulder-strewn Padang in Bicol occasionally comes interrupted by Benjamin’s brooding encounters with fellow poet Teodoro and erstwhile partner, the visual artist Catalina. Their verbal tussles over their own and collective pasts and futures thicken the layers of dredged up tales of spirits entombed in a terrestrial radius wiped out by typhoon Reming topped off by the subsequent surging ecological comeuppance of Mount Mayon.

As in previous projects like Batang Westside, Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino, and Heremias Book One: The Legend of the Lizard Princess, Diaz plants his camera statically for most parts of the meandering journey taken by Benjamin alongside spirits haunting places within which seminal events in his life occur--such as his mother slowly lapsing into insanity, a lover leaving him behind on the streets of Kaluga, Russia even as he mourns the loss of a child, etc. Diaz’s camera here is terra firma, playing counterpoint to the heady roundabout, floating-in-the-ether exchanges one could easily eavesdrop on in run-of-the-mill artist-activist haunts and drinking sessions. In Death in the Land of Encantos, the camera comes cast as pensive anchor, a stoic, unobtrusive presence that never hurries viewers unto narrative turns nor neatly tidied up resolutions. It makes for a virtually motionless cinema congruent with a time and place rendered immobile by ingrained inertia, tragedy, betrayal, and blasé state inaction.

Encantos’ visual scape is in fact as sullen and still as Diaz’s camera, with scenes so subtly lit that they keep to the grey, barren, and pared down tone painstakingly throughout the 538-minute cinematic engagement. Within it, the image rhythm is dissonant, congruent with the weaving together of memory, myth, and presumably unedited truth, cutting in and out of what is framed as documentary footage and the intimate moments between Benjamin and personas of his past.

Much has already been said about Diaz’s particular streak of endurance cinema coaxing anything but neutral reactions from viewers opting to either sit through entire or even disjointed segments of his lengthy films. This high-stake cineaste-go-the-distance taunt that underlines his film-making unarguably demands earnest investments of dedicated viewing and stretched cognitive skills. And yet while Diaz makes the case for an alternative regard for time and space (alternative that is to the rigid formula of moviehouse ticket turnarounds triggering the humming of cinema tills) ironically, it is the large proportion of Malays in his own immediate backyard that may still be the least able to watch his most recent cinema. While successfully and dramatically departing from his early mainstream work (Burger Boys, Serafin Geronimo: Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion, Hesus Rebolusyonaryo) which arguably kept to studio stipulations vis-à-vis running time and casting, the truth remains that it would be supreme sacrifice for a Filipino living off a daily wage of P382 to opt into a day-long Lav Diaz filmic tale, assuming they would want to watch this sort of films in the first place.

So apart from earnest affinity with his work, it may still well be, the utter auteurial and indie groupie conceit, of nearly zero accountability and maximum self indulgence that keeps a niche audience aligned behind Diaz. With his obvious disavowal of the mass audience, and apparently employing this tactical dogma/tism as shield to keep market demand at bay, Diaz’s viewers may continue to imperiously pause, revel in their exalted notch above the festival throng, while making much of their trying to make sense of these films. And while it may precisely be Diaz’s tortuous, stream of consciousness shot-making which challenges fastfood cinema provisos, this will also play very much into which voices will get to weigh in on the contentious place Diaz’s films will ultimately be accorded in critical film history.

Yet in the specific case of Death in the Land of Encantos, it is indeed a yawning pace of a story that imaginably comes together in real time in the writer’s mind as it unfolds as leisurely onscreen. And with all that the luxury that that contemplation presupposes, the film’s organic, non-linear working out of questions on art, life and ultimate survival options are pondered upon in plain view with the alternately somber and heightened emotional tension milked rather than truncated. And this is perhaps why there appears to be no middle ground in the appreciative spectrum in relation to Diaz, with his films engendering either a welling up of empathy or sheer indifference, if not disgust. It is after all, for all intents and purposes, a solicited engagement, one that makes viewers wager a position rather than hibernate in nonchalance.

Abetted by the user-friendliness of digital cinema-making, much of Diaz’s latter work unfolds in the D-I-Y pace of read text. Shot and re-told in this vein by an artiste striking out on his own terms and squarely facing the begrudging for it, Death in the Land of Encantos makes for a small-big film, simultaneously epic on many counts yet visibly spartan in other respects as in its production design made manifest in Diaz’s apt banking on nature’s givens.

By intelligently siting Encantos in physical reference to his own notion of home, that is, in the locale of typhoon- and landslide-ravaged Bicol, Diaz ably invokes stasis and silence as key metaphors. In the film’s stifled landscape of a tenuously stilled volcano looming over stilled lives woven into a virtually still narrative, we find our characters and selves perennially waiting, on the precipice of stupor and turbulence. In this particular made-up world, every character apart from nature, is infinitesimal, dwarfed or literally washed out by boulders and surging topsoil; all apparently disposable in the midst of personal and shared grief, where all are left pining—a partner-model, fellow artist-comrades, and finally an abandoned land itself-–all left fallow, wanting for the returning of waylaid heroes toting a glint of redemption. All this, while Encantos’ dystopic desolation translates into a blank slate yearning for alternate endings.

Undeniably writing and weaving stories primarily for himself and any other soul with the wherewithal and stamina to journey with him, Diaz, like most of what makes up the indie world was reared on a type of film education that stuck its finger against what was trite and popular. The irony is that the film crowd that gravitates to work such as this today, while indisputably growing in numbers, still exists as seductive niche to marketers hunting down the next big juiciest milking cow. While still primarily talking only to each other, the onset of Indie Sine Cinemalaya-Cinemanila-Cinema One festival ad infinitum notwithstanding, filmmaker and audience in this ragtag cosmos will ultimately need to reckon with how wide an orbit it will actually drift within particularly since there is nothing intrinsically incorruptible about the films coming out of this as-for-now still alternative economy.

In fact, Diaz’s case may be instructive particularly because of the artist’s perceived stature in the eyes of emerging film makers in this burgeoning environment. And so perhaps what is precisely behind the unsettled critical response to Diaz and his ilk consists of a requisite navel-gazing, of an independent cinema slowly coming of age.

Unapologetically wrapped up in his own poetics nuanced by years of crafting images hewn in police beat-pop culture journalism and TV writing, Diaz renders Encantos with a confident visual impeccability. With most scenes coming to bear on the viewer as stubbornly unflinching stares unto a grey world of unanswered questions and nagging ambiguities integral to Encantos’ filmic un/reality of toned down art, Diaz serves up an upturned dialectics of beauty and terror of uncompromising visual integrity which the Young Critics Circle Film Desk cites this film for in year 2007.

In the end, Diaz and his film engineer their own small deaths, failing to leave the embattled landscape unbruised nor unscathed. By juxtaposing the physical torture of Benjamin Augustin with his military assailant’s rabid mouthing of an upended national anthem, Encantos implicates both state and storyteller apparently succumbing to the pathos of cast-off promise and imposed disappearance.


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