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The Same River Thrice: Close-Up on Lav Diaz’s “Elegy to the Visitor from the Revolution”

The Filipino director’s nearly wordless storytelling connects the past of his country to the present.
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Lav Diaz's Elegy to the Visitor from the Revolution (2011) is playing January 12 - February 10, 2017. 
Lav Diaz’s Elegy to the Visitor from the Revolution is a unique example of how texts inform each other. In the film, elements of the past inform and comprise those of the present, while exposition ultimately informs images of the present. As a viewer, one can reasonably make a case that this was Diaz’s intention given the film’s story and structure: While its premise is relatively simple—a mysterious woman appears in various places in a 20th century city—Diaz tells it primarily with wordless storytelling, mostly images and extended takes. While the viewer gathers that the woman is the titular ‘visitor from the revolution,’ implying that she is from the late 1890s (the Philippine Revolution), it is only late in the film where dialogue informs the narrative, and the viewer, as to how one might interpret wordless storytelling. Further, the story is told out of chronological order, the third ‘visit’ being flanked by the first and second. 
Consider the opening scene of the film (the first visit), which is a wide shot of a street in Manila at night. A prostitute, Teresa (Sigrid Andrea Bernardo), saunters back and forth across the street, posing and smiling for male passersby without much success. In another scene, the viewer sees a guitarist (Diaz himself) from a low angle in his apartment, from the neck down. Diaz either frames a scene in an unorthodox way or stays with a scene long after another director would probably cut it. In doing so, he brings the viewer’s attention to ambiguities inherent in the image: These scenes are disorienting and begin and end in the same place without any apparent resolution—but they are there anyway. Eventually a woman (Hazel Orencio), the titular visitor, appears in a number of scenes, often abruptly through editing and backlighting. She observes the rapids of the Pasig River, wades on the river’s banks, moves in slow motion about the guitarist’s apartment, and regards the camera directly.
Teresa’s monologue in the last act (though the second visit) to a degree contextualizes the images for the viewer: "She's always in my dreams. The woman from the past. From the time of Andres Bonifacio and Jose Rizal. She looks like that. From the past. She is always sad. And crying. She's always in my dreams. I don't understand. Over and over. She's always in my dreams. Sometimes I don't know if I dreaming or not. She's always sad. In my dream, there's always water. A river, a fisherman. A musician. I can't see the face of the musician. There's a room. There's music. But the woman...she's always sad. I can't understand. She's always staring at me. Wherever I go, she's always staring at me." 
Up until this point, the viewer has seen a sequence of seemingly disparate events. Teresa’s exposition charges those events. The viewer’s mind is then enflamed with the notion that Diaz’s images of the visitor not only represent a ‘dream’ state but also a political statement regarding a turning point in the Philippines’ history when one colonial period (Spain) ended and another began (United States). The viewer’s quandary with the relationship between images and exposition here is not unlike that with Chris Marker’s Sans soleil: If the viewer saw just the images in Marker’s film without the voiceover, would they signify something else? How much stock is the viewer to put in visual storytelling vis-à-vis exposition?
Moreover, to a viewer with peripheral knowledge of the history of the Philippines watching Elegy, what does one deduce from the images alone? While several shots use juxtaposition as a visual device to compare a modern urban life to a more ‘natural’ or ‘classical’ past life, the present (comprised, by necessity, in part of the physical deposits of the past) in a sense represents what Jacques Derrida called the ‘always-already absent present.’ For Derrida, a word contains a non-meaning that is inseparable from its meaning, or a remnant of what it does not signify just as much as what it does signify (the English word ‘male’ has meaning only when paired with the word ‘female’). If language bares within itself the necessity of its own critique, in Derrida’s words, than the viewer in this case might apply this idea heuristically to the images in Elegy, wherein elements of modernity bear within themselves the necessity of their own past. For instance, I’m writing this on an Apple MacBook Pro that was built somewhere in China in 2012 while sitting in a rowhouse in the United States that was more than likely built by immigrants in 1916. While I have no spatial connection to the former and no temporal connection to the latter, both the computer and the house are the physical deposits of social relationships that are specific to a distant time and place, and are extant around me and comprise part of my time and place.
Elegy to the Visitor from the Revolution
By using extended takes in Elegy, Diaz directs the viewer’s eye to the placement of physical remnants of the past and present together in single shots, such as one of a city street where the visitor stands in a sculpted fountain in the foreground with a tableau of contemporary life in the background: Passing cars, parked delivery trucks, and pedestrians with umbrellas contrast against the ornate fountain, the trees and the rain. If the viewer were to contextualize these images (as Teresa does for the viewer), then the viewer might conclude that the latent ‘non-meaning’ of the repeated shots of the river, the city streets, the bridge, and so on, has to do with the effects of colonial rule over the Philippines (“…from the time of Andres Bonifacio and Jose Rizal”).
One might also consider the various dimensions of the word ‘revolution’ when thinking about the Philippines on a longer timeline. Though the title alludes to the Philippine Revolution of the 1890s, the word ‘revolution’ itself also signifies the cyclical nature of colonization and independence. When American rule over Philippines ended in 1946, the city of Manila experienced a massive increase in population, which consequently begat growth in the city’s infrastructure and pollution. With this in mind, the numerous shots of the Pasig—particularly a shot from underneath a bridge—take on new non-meanings. The concrete supports for the bridge contain painted murals of plantlife. This image again connects the past with modernity visually, but is now charged with a specter of past events.

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