From its start—"this is the new politics," announces a coffee shop lounger, knee knocking at each half-thought protestation—Norte, the End of History broadcasts art-house competency. Austere framing; casual gestures. The lounger's shamefaced need to take something, anything serious without sounding embarrassingly serious himself, it seems, is Lav Diaz's great problem as an artist as well, and the opening sets the appropriate non-tone: just as our hero couches Raskolnikovian pontifications in mock-impromptu waffling, knowing laughter, and conjectural hand-motions, Diaz couches his characters... as couch-dwellers, half-lit, all half-turned away as decorative elements in an astutely naturalistic mise en scène. No doubt, it takes a lot of work to plant so many markers of improvised non-acting in a calculatedly scripted scene about The Nature of the Modern World. Still, though, I feel... well, you know, I feel like there's a thin line between, on the one hand, attentive patience and, on the other, blissful inattention that is only occasionally called to narrative order by big events illustrative, in that Woody Allen way, of Deep Metaphysical Traumas underlying the everyday longeurs of people hanging out over coffee and reiterating the movie's themes in with-it, Bud-Lite-commercial fits of laughing.
For in this long call for conviction, Diaz, like his anti-hero, is determined to come out in-the-money. What might be most impressive about Norte's simulation of formal rigor—long takes, fastidiously unbalanced compositions—is how Diaz, like few other filmmakers apart from Malick, is not afraid of sounding embarrassingly serious at all. The world is a terrible place, not because commercial culture makes each of us insidiously complicit in systematized exploitation: no, quite the opposite, because the system, after all, is only a collective delusion, one in which politicians and criminals fight as each other's twisted double, so that Norte's canny prison scenes take on the air of a Roman forum. The horror is hardly systematized by external forces, Diaz's films incessantly claim—it is intrinsic to all men, unleashed by mob mentalities and loner grievances alike. And the world, then, is a terrible place because when Man wakes up from the delusion of history and realizes anything is possible, naturally, he, always he, will be drawn to torture, murder, rape. The question in Crime and Punishment (the source text) of whether man can choose to excuse himself from the compunction of invented moral codes is replaced, instead, by the answer that man can never escape his essential immorality: Raskonikov's willful attempt to break external social protocol is reversed by Fabian's helplessness at facing the beast within. The world is a terrible place because man is a terrible thing.The facade of coffee culture is but mere gossamer over the horror that lies within us all—or at least, all males.
Who else besides Mel Gibson and Steve McQueen has this sense of Passion Play scopophilia? Women can only be conceived as victims, and even the poor, male victimizer himself is only a victim of uncontrollable angst. Montage, pacing, gesture, psychology, plotting, social document—all televisual properties serve to identify and support the theme coherently, and in classical terms, one gets the familiar cinematic satisfaction of knowing that the Puritans were right after all. Yet no property is more important to Diaz's Passion Play than duration. Here is the ultimate buttress for his simulated improvisations: for how much more impressively improvised they must seem in a nine minute take than a mere two. But more importantly, here is the instrument to redeem spectacle from the random-shot-generator-cutting of the blockbusters. After all, Diaz's embrace (like Jia Zhang-ke's) of a mobile camera and exploitation stories suggests that "contemplative" cinema has probably never really been a reproof to Hollywood spectacle and suspense, so much as it's been an extension of spectacle by other means. Whereas Diaz's previous film, Florentina Hubaldo CTE, is built on a Corman/Bergman exploitation movie premise of a girl being chained up and raped intermittently for six hours, Norte's murders and rapes are sprinkled in only as set-pieces, made to leverage its ambient hours with Grand Guignol opera. Each of these scenes, big narrative and thematic fulcrums, are handled in single (spectacular!) "real-time" sequences, discretely off-screen and accompanied by hysterical shrieking, followed by bloody, sometimes naked bodies writhing on-screen. Just as one awes in admiration at each flayed chunk of prosthetic flesh sprinkling streams of blood across the screen in the real-time coups of 12 Years A Slave, one feels Diaz's fakery made painfully, wonderfully real by his recourse to Bazinian ontology. For even while being bludgeoned with the fullness of Diaz's serious (spectacular!) statement about the human condition, the viewer is graciously absolved from complicity in this blood-thirsty extravaganza by its imputation of manufactured pageantry to a realer time and space apart from the camera and camera's vision. The humble, Sophoclean assumption that depicting atrocities—in image or sound—on-stage only shows their artifice rather than reality is not one that occurs to filmmakers of Diaz's and McQueen's purpose (not that Diaz is so lo-brow a pornographer as to depict the penetration itself, which, let us concur, would be taking Bazin a little far). And so we're stuck in the familiar arthouse territory of shame-faced spectacle, pioneered by Haneke: it would be impossible to find more tasteful rapes, more tasteful murders, and more meditative carnage outside the canons of such festival luminaries.
But there is a final purpose to the duration, and that is to offer us what the characters struggle to attain themselves: patience. Once again, Diaz shows himself a great Puritan in the Jonathan Edwards mode. Zen calm aside, as "patience" has become the favorite stereotype of Eastern sages, it is important to recall the centuries-old role of patience in Western-Protestant bureaucracy. Not only must we wait for our just rewards; waiting itself is the very investment that will earn them, as one experiences beautifully in Straub-Huillet. Obviously the fad of "patient" cinema in the past ten years is as much a product of the digital usurpation—10 and 20 minute shots can even cost less work and money than shorter sequences—as it is a rebuke to this era of digital distractions. Who doesn't feel good about themselves that they can watch this movie in a single setting without even, just once, checking Facebook? But to suggest that the simplest Hollywood suspense mechanisms understood viewer engagement as an exact corollary of viewer impatience is maybe just to articulate Diaz's own assumptions.
Still, I guess—I guess you could say that there's this danger of durational cinema being commodified. This danger that we're witnessing the commodification of patience, of satisfactorily "demanding" experiences that perhaps demand very little. It's hard not to watch these things without that Protestant/Straubian evaluation of what the reward will be for the longeurs—what this submission to a reality beyond the apparatus will offer us, miraculously, at any given moment (in Straub-Huillet, even a fly on a performer's shoulder might seem like a small miracle of filmmakers giving themselves up to the conditions of their production). Still, the question is what will arise out of the shot—what shifts in light and posture, even—when a filmmaker risks the sound and image to factors beyond his or her control: the kind of risk-taking Straub might attribute to Griffith, the first great fast-cutter. I wonder whether I'd like Norte more or less—same with Leviathan last year—if I believed it actually was patient in its spectacular pastiches of Angelopoulos and Tarkovsky: instead, the rape (of the guy's sister!) lasts 30 seconds, rain pours down over the film's gratuitous dead as soon as the camera pauses at the last corpse, a clear cue for the effect, and there's little pause for the husband's corpse to start levitating during his obligatory sanctification at the finale. Each is deployed as no more than a symbol for the kind of grandiose, risk-taking project they're even undercutting in letting us see the strings being pulled. But wouldn't it be worse if the movie was successful enough that we couldn't?
Special thanks to Wai Ho