Probably a month before I first encountered Lav Diaz’ epic Evolution of a Filipino Family (at the Rotterdam Film Festival in early February 2005), I encountered for the first time – thanks to Dave Kehr – a fascinating bit of information concerning the original version of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed. King Vidor, one of the few persons invited by MGM studio boss to the now-legendary first marathon screening of Stroheim’s rough cut, often referred to as a cinema’s lost “holy grail”, had told Kehr in an interview that (as paraphrased by Kehr) “most of the running time was devoted to Stroheim’s insistence on spelling out every single action of the characters, such as leaving one apartment, going down the stairs, walking down the stairs, walking down the street, entering another building, climbing the stairs, knocking on the door, going in, etc.”
Thinking about Evolution invariably has taken me back to this story for various reasons, the simplest probably being the comparable extraordinary length (over ten hours in both cases) and a subplot in Evolution that immediately brought Greed to mind: one character develops an obsession for gold, and while that doesn’t lead towards an appropriately grandiose and deadly renunciation of the American Dream in the endless plains of Death Valley, it causes a path of descent into abandoned mines, an image that seems an equally fitting metaphor for the Filipino tragedy that Evolution is about. (Receding into this cavernous subterranean space in search of immediate material gratification not only seems a perfect picture for the refusal of the Filipino people to deal with their history, especially including the period of Martial Law declared by president Marcos that is the setting for the later part of Evolution, there’s also a clever ironic juxtaposition in the dialogue about the gold that’s actually in the president’s vaults.) Coincidentally, in a recent interview Diaz has noted that this subplot was the crucial last thread he inserted: “Gold as a metaphor for so many things in the Filipino socio-cultural milieu.” Funnily enough, the first item on his shortlist of meanings that follow is “gold for greed”.
But such comparisons, instructive as they may be, certainly mean less than the questions of feasibility, duly ignoring the fact that one film was made with the backing of a major studio, while the other was an independent production and arte povera, both in the truest sense of the word. If somebody wants to discuss what’s the grander gesture – getting a big company to produce what must seem a monstrous achievement from a commercial point of view or, for lack of such means, investing a decade of your life in a similar undertaking: Go ahead, waste your life in a similar undertaking: Go ahead, waste your time. (I hope it’s argued elsewhere in this issue why questions like these are part of what’s wrong with film culture today.) What counts, in both cases, is that the mammoth undertaking and result ostensibly spring from a commitment, an idea of unearthing “truth” (to use Diaz’ phrase) without compromises, be they financial, aesthetic or just dictated by what is often referred to as “common sense” (and as often a thinly veiled rationalization for the complacent “majority vote” of what’s acceptable).
Not only the enormous and demanding running time, but this rare commitment (which is of course what causes the runtimes) is what makes both films impossible objects in a way. And logically, this applies quite literally: the long Stroheim cut of Greed is long lost, which of course, as long as it remains that way, only heightens its mythic aura – indeed, it begs the question, if Vidor’s description is true, would it be considered a hallmark of cinema on such a broad basis if it were every regained, given Vidor’s claim that the first (and also lost) four hour re-edit that followed, (again, per Kehr) “lost no narrative incidence whatsoever”… And Diaz’ incredible achievement, as it could be seen so far, is somewhat diminished by a visible lack of financial resources, which also was one of the main reasons for its ten years in the making, first on 16mm, then on cheaper Digital Video: it only exists on Video Beta, hampered by aural and visual glitches and a horrible transfer. (The irony, probably not lost on the DV-weary eyes of many a festival-goer, is that the passages of the film shot on video look much better this way than those shot on film).
Now, while it would be foolish idealism to expect a film like Evolution to be immediately making the headlines, its should have merited at least a few more notices than it has so far. Obviously its length plays a part in its neglect (films that are considered epic and difficult get skipped over in favor of larger quantities of less challenging fare at every film festival, by audiences and critics alike), but that alone shouldn’t pose to great an aesthetic challenge for a world from culture that has enshrined Bela Tarr’s Satantango as one of its contemporary touchstones (and now has to deal with lots of untalented imitators of dead-time formalism). The reason seems much simpler, as evidenced by the neglect of Diaz’ previous film Batang West Side, a five-hour chronicle of the Filipino Diaspora set in New York, whose form is also initially demanding (though certainly, at least on a surface level – which unfortunately is what counts here – not more than anything by Tarr): a deliberate, slow and ultimately hypnotic pace, consistently unusual camera placement (which never calls attention to itself, typical of Diaz’ strict avoidance of all things flashy) and a complicated, yet carefully unraveling structure essential to its cathartic power. (It’s really only during the last major scene that all its layers – emotional, political, historical and dialectical – completely click, and the result is overwhelming.) But unlike Evolution, this masterpiece, doesn’t suffer from an obvious lack of funds, so its sidelining can only be accounted for by the supposedly “esoteric” nature of its subject: For one thing, the Philippines are not (at least as yet) considered an Asian hot spot, exactly, so there’s no hype to be garnered. And Diaz’ staunch refusal to pepper his movies with extraneous explanation, including historical markers, certainly doesn’t help in a film culture so afraid of knowledge outside its cemented grasp (although anyone who’s seen Batang can testify that you certainly don’t need the extra knowledge to get it, it just deepens the experience). All this may seem ironic, since Diaz’ grand subject is ostensibly the heritage of his nation (indeed, I can think of few directors, living or dead, as committed to this cause), but only at first glance: Scrutinized more closely, what Diaz really deals with is the refusal of a nation to come to terms with its troubled past.
Fittingly enough, Evolution kicks in at the crucial point in history marking the great final revelation of its predecessor, just before Philippine president Marcos declared Martial Law in 1972. a family chronicle spanning 16 years (from 1971 to 1987, one year after Marcos finally had to relinquishes presidency), Evolution challenges not only conventional viewing habits and criteria of evaluation, but also a nations’ denial of its dark recent history. (In a personal conversation, a visibly disgruntled Diaz pointed to the successful Manila run of the uncritical (to put it mildly) doc about Marcos’ widow Imelda (2003, by Ramona S. Diaz – no relation, obviously), mentioning how the audience was blithely laughing along with the glamorously madcap posturing of their erstwhile co-dictator.) While this national/historical imperative may be the prime source for the palpable urgency and fervor of Evolution, and it allows you to immerse yourself in a whole period on a level that almost feels like you’ve lived through it, it has a lot of timely things of global importance to impart as well: Just for one thing, it should be kept in mind that Marcos’ corrupt terror regime also remained in power thanks to the US support.
Centered around the fate of the Gallardos, a poor peasant family, whose members’ hardly dignified lives become even less so, while they are scattered all over the country during the years, Evolution unfolds mostly in large, long-shot-long-take near–real–time chunks detailing their daily struggles, lending it not only a hyper-realistic aura that borders on the documentary at times, but also making the devastating major turns of events that happened to the Gallardos, well, every few hours, seem less like crucial intersections, as they are in most narratives, than logical, even inevitable peaks of suffering. It’s the unique result of this method, a kind of unhurried idea of verisimilitude, which at the same time magnificently exceeds any conventional notions of “realism” and allows for an exceptionally multi-faceted narrative, that has since given me an idea of what writer Henry Carr – another person present at Thunberg’s private screening of Greed – was referring to when he compared Stratham’s original 45-reel version to Les miserables, writing, “Episodes come along that you think have no bearing on the story, then 12 or 14 reels later, it hits you with a crash.” These crashes are intensified by the elliptic approach Diaz has chosen for Evolution – indeed, given the convincing, almost organic result of the non-chronological structure, it is quite surprising that the film was conceived as a linear story and only brought into its ultimate form during finalization. The nonlinear narrative is only one element of a rich series of very modern counterpoint devices to the detailed rendering of the slow passage of time: Evolution also includes documentary footage of important political invents and, more oblique, long excursions into the radio soap-operas that were the only official entertainment for some time in the 70s, and are eagerly devoured by many family members, as well as seen performed by its cast on a sound stage. The latter idea is especially resonant, unmasking the state-sanctioned promotion of escapes fantasy by showing how the “lives” of the “invisible” members of what constitutes almost a fictional second family for the Gallardo’s are just empty constructs executed with impersonal professionalism. There’s a revealing, stark contrast to the many actual members of the Gallardo family that really become invisible (as was the case with most of the “missing people” of the Marcos era, usually by death), but it’s also one of the many instances in Evolution where Diaz shows his insightful, dialectic relationship to his own craft.
This reflexivity is also visible in the noticeable maturing of Diaz’ style (only fitting for a film at the time of writing), in which you can see him accumulate lessons learned from other filmmakers, including acknowledged sources like Tarkovsky, Tati and Jean Vigo – to whom the film is, in a way, dedicated -, without ever being in danger of lip-service or, even worse, imitation. (As evidence by the fact that I don’t know how familiar, if at all, Diaz is with Stroheim, but as you can see from this article, there seems to be a grain in there as well, maybe the lesson is quite banal: that great directors always seem to have a spiritual exchange going on.) The complexity of maturation also informs the film quite naturally: Seeing some younger cast members literally grow up before your eyes yields a powerful fascination. (In another testament to the long, troubled shoot, the disappearance of others sometimes is just due to the fact that they died during production: more invisible men.)
But of course, given Diaz’ insistence on coming to terms not just with history, but especially with the history of his own country, it is two Filipino filmmakers that play the most important part in the cine-genealogy of Evolution, both of them markedly being in the film and being not there at the same time (I guess you can see it as another wry comment about historical amnesia, in this case film historical). There’s a fascinating subplot about Lino Brocka, who can be seen voicing his strong opinions on responsibility in politics, cinema, their relationship and other matters. Only that it’s not Brocka, but Filipino film critic Gino Dormiendo (a fact that is never acknowledged in the film), who looks almost exactly like the late master and is just as convincing impersonating him. And then there’s Taga Timog, who was already the sole person (within the film) privy to the final confession of Batang West Side: a fictional character but – especially in the earlier work – ostensibly a stand-in-for Diaz himself, the present-day director who tries to find a proper way to communicate the state of things – and, by logical extension, what led up to it: history, again – to the people. He also has the final word (or more precisely: images) in Evolution, handing the last puzzle piece, the appropriately dialectic “Tale of Two Mothers” (for which he is credited as a director), to the audience. There’s an endearing playfulness at work here, but Diaz isn’t playing games with his viewers, as it’s completely beside the point whether one knows about the difference between “reality” and “fiction” in both cases, just as the documentary inserts of Evolution can be sufficiently understood without great prior knowledge of Filipino history, even if there’s no commentary. (Diaz’ style is true to conveying a complex vision of the world, which is exactly why it’s never hermetic.)
It’s also Taga Timog who’s credited with the documentary on Lino Brocka that hapless Uncle Kadyo, having left the Gallardos in search of their adopted “lost child”, watches on TV, leading up to what may be the most moving sequence in Evolution, also because Kadyo’s fate ties together the ideas about a nation’s oppression and its historical failures with the ideas about resistance out of commitment to truth, necessarily including cinema. It’s and almost unedited 20-minute-take in which the dying Kadyo stumbles through the capital’s empty backstreets, and it takes on epiphanic power, as one can’t help but realize how it expresses the experience of a nation in agony for centuries – first under foreign powers, and finally, and even more devastatingly, under one of their own.