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Notes Towards a Cinema of Impatience: Lav Diaz’s “Norte, the End of History”

How patience is the only virtue in Lav Diaz’s world of sin.

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

A very interesting take on what nevertheless remains my favorite film of 2013. (Especially way more interesting than all the “like a classical novel”-hymns i read recently – feels like “The Wire” all over again). But still… for me this only proves the impossibility of separating Diaz’s aesthetics from Philippine history. Read as a film about “The Nature of the Modern World” Norte might be accused of commodifying patience (although I’m always a bit sceptical about those “commodification of everything” arguments – too often, maybe not here, they feel like self-fulfilling prophecies). But when seen as another film about the prolonged sorrow of the Filipinos (to borrow from Martin’s truly spectacular film), another obsessive return to the trauma of the Marcos dictatorship? (A trauma that comes with a clearly gendered imago, btw, although this probably isn’t an excuse for Diaz’s sexual politics…)
Lukas—so sorry it’s taken me 11 days to respond, though I suspect you know why. Danny, my editor, also regretted that I didn’t overtly discuss Filipino politics, though it’s one of those cases where a presumption of knowledge would be as bad as this piece’s willful ignorance (though the line about the politicians and criminals serving as twisted doubles is hardly intended as negative criticism). The best piece I know on Norte is Noel Vera’s; to wit: “Fabian isn’t just Raskolnikov; he’s also former Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos. Diaz made it a point to film Norte in Marcos’s hometown (Paoay, in the Ilocos Norte province). Like Fabian, Marcos was a brilliant law student who committed murder when younger. Marcos, however, was tried and convicted, then argued his own appeal and won an acquittal while still studying for the Philippine Bar Exams (for which he achieved the highest score). As Fabian makes clear in his discourses with friends and professors, he, like Marcos, admires competence, the ability to take decisive action against perceived evil. Fabian at one point openly professes his admiration for Marcos, declaring the former president as having been on the right track when it came to fighting Communism (he only got distracted in his later years). The parallels couldn’t be clearer.” That’s convincing enough for me. At the same time, the gesture of taking a Dostoevsky anti-hero, the social outcast and political exception that proves the rule, and superimposing him onto a real-life politician seems like the worst kind of literal-mindedness: as I was saying in person, I could take a text with a criminal and say it’s about Bush, or Obama, but I wonder not only how this clarifies but even how it problematizes history. The counter-point here would be Oliveira’s O QUINTO IMPÉRIO—ONTEM COMO HOJE (The 5th Empire—Yesterday as Today), an adaptation of a 1948 play about a 16th century ruler whom Oliveira explicitly compared to Bush: but there, as always in Oliveira, the act of historical superimposition is stressed by the central premise that 16th century history can only be imagined and staged as an arch-theatrical 21st century theater piece, and that perhaps that was always the case. In NORTE, the temporalities are simply collapsed by Diaz’s shift from theatricality to naturalist-mumblecore: Dostoevsky is Marcos is 21st century coffee culture, with little gap between these. And I wonder what kind of parallels are being proclaimed here. Fabian, like Raskolnikov, kills because he can; from what little I know, Marcos, seemingly a pragmatic opportunist like every other evil dictator, killed the Nalundasan family in 1938 because they stood in the way of his political ambitions. This was hardly a guy questioning the social contract he openly defied, but someone who knew perfectly how to exploit it for his own ends. Compare to Raskolnikov, who wonders what ends are served by anyone’s actions… But in the end, there’s the question for me of how Diaz can so easily restage events from 1938, as countless countries tore towards fascism, in 21st century coffee culture. Doubtless countless murders still occur, and contemporary Philippines is hardly one of the safest countries in the world. But, if we insist on drawing out some political commentary from this film, are we to understand that even a portion of these are motivated by intellectual curiosity? Finally, you’re absolutely right to call me out on “commodification” in regards to a niche filmmaker who makes the films he wants for cheap with little success outside festival circuits (one of the many things I loved in FLORENTINA HUBALDO is its end credits, listing about six people for all positions of cast and crew), and who undoubtedly believes in what he does. The issue there, for me, is the critical/festival establishment, which thrives off a filmmaker like Diaz: easily describable formal ambitions; political surtext; offer of self-gratifying badge of honor for watching something so damn long. Surely, he is the best filmmaker since Bela Tarr for cinephilic bragging, and if Diaz hadn’t existed, I wonder if the critical/festival establishment would have invented him.
Also took me a while to come back to this… not much more to add, though. I get your argument, although for me it is still more convincing as a general attack against certain tendencies present day cinephile / festival culture (from which I, too, feel kind of estranged more often than not, these days). When it comes to the film itself: I don’t know, I probably would have to see the film again, first. My defense of it might start with the tacky christmas decorations present in the background of so many scenes, which I thought might expain for not only Diaz’s use of color, but also his aesthetics as a whole: a cinema trying (and achieving) grace with the humblest of techniques.
The irony that you take so many words to say that the film’s too long...

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