Just the night before first sitting down for the marathon sitting of Lav Diaz’s entire opus, I had been rewatching the flawed 1995 TV film England, My England, John Osborne’s final work detailing the life of Henry Purcell. It had the feel of a funeral, not just because of the use of Wendy Carlos’s reworking of the immortal Purcell ‘Funeral March of Queen Mary’ for A Clockwork Orange, but in addition to Osborne’s final work it was also the last performance of Robert Stephens as Dryden. So far, so how is this relevant?
And so it was that I took on Diaz’ masterpiece less than 24 hours later. A film that took me through a door that I thought had long closed and untouched since the heyday of Jacques Rivette. There had been long films since, films that would never be seen as commercial propositions, but Diaz was going further than anyone before. None of his films are on DVD, and this one wasn’t even his longest. It’s the only one I have been able to track down at the time of writing and is enough to convince me that he belongs in the higher echelons of cinematic visionaries still working today, with Lynch, Malick, Von Trier, Davies, Tarr, Haneke and Sokurov. All this from a film which could be argued as an oxymoron; the eight hour plea for cinematic minimalism.
Take three characters – a prostitute, a pimp and a nun – who live in the remote small town of Sagada in the Philippines. Their paths intersect at various points prior to their meeting in the ruins of an abandoned building one wet afternoon. What transpires is that these three people actually know each other and are enacting parts, escaping and withdrawing from a world which has become too painful following the assumed death of loved ones. The pimp Danny Boy is really writer Julian, the mastermind of the ‘process’, the prostitute Jenine is really Alberta, widow of a rebel and adopted mother to a girl, Hannah, who is close to falling into her own abyss. The nun is Rina, and she finally cracks, taking her own life and causing the other two to question their own mindsets.
Or that’s one take on it. Leaving aside the surface plot, just take in the detail, the pin-sharp monochrome hi-def photography, the deliberately natural sound which would make some dialogue inaudible but for subtitles, the way Spanish segues into English and back again, often in the same sentence, the way scenes don’t so much end as drift away before stopping abruptly. The camera barely moves, the characters moving slowly in and out of scenes so that the eye becomes quickly accustomed to examining the edges and far off distances of frames for characters or movement. Emotions are banished, exiled from the id, Julian organises sex shows for visiting tourists but the sex is at best mechanical, functionary, even tedious.
Stylistically, it probably owes most to Béla Tarr, while Diaz himself was obviously inspired by Lino Brocka (even the music is done by his own ‘group’, the Brockas). Still, though, we go back to Rivette, that ferryman across the Styx of the id to a Wonderland beyond even Lewis Carroll’s imagination. Diaz’s version is a forbidding place, where characters feel safer in the dark and light scares, where storm clouds, both figuratively and physically, gather overhead like vultures surveying carrion and any form of coping mechanism, or ‘process’ to use the euphemism of choice, is better than living with reality, even screwing men for money. While its creator, Julian, can be seen as a God, a Christ-figure who in one scene looks at first glance like he’s walking on water. The characters, especially in the opening reels, move as if in a trance and, suddenly as if hypnotised, I recall the words of Robert Stephens as Dryden the night before; “our world has disintegrated. We moved as in a dream, shadows without substance. Thus did our life become. ‘Tis all a cheat, yet fooled with hope men favoured the deceit. Trust on, and think tomorrow will repay, tomorrow’s falser than the former day.” Diaz’s film summed up, the sadness of the world as timeless as its joys.