Florentina Hubaldo CTE
Speaking of Andy Warhol's eight-hour Empire, documentary editor and writer Dai Vaughn, in For Documentary, proposes there are certain works that needed to be made but don't need to be seen, while the writer Milan Kundera, in The Art of the Novel, talks of admiring Robert Musil's long work, The Man without Qualities, but insists, "don't expect me to admire its enormous unfinished size...There are anthropological limits - the limits of memory, for instance - that ought not to be exceeded." Often when critics talk of a cinema of excess they are talking about representational sex and violence, but what about an excess of length? Lav Diaz's Florentina Hubaldo CTE is 360 minutes long and is shown without a break, and it might be a film that brings to mind Vaughn's and Kundera's comments in the most basic sense: can the filmmaker expect the viewer to sit and watch a film for this length of time without basic anthropological limits of the body, of stiff backs, toilet stops and hunger pangs?
Yet certain unusual perceptual rewards come out of such experiences, and where with most films we can usually say we are an hour in, with films like Empire, Florentina Hubaldo CTE, Satantango, Hitler: a Film from Germany, The Commune, Shoah and other films that run to more than five hours, time takes on a different quality. We seem to have escaped the clock time of conventional narrative film and entered a duration that can't so easily be ascertained.
How we might ask is this achieved, and surely it is more than an issue of length initself? One of the advantages of a film like Diaz's is that the scene can be extended far beyond its importance as a unit of narrative information, and take on a quality of endurance. In one scene a Gecko noisily drives one of the characters to distraction as he tries to find out where it is. In many a film this would be a major nuisance for the character but a minor nuisance for us: we'll suffer briefly the sound of the Gecko. But here we also feel we are being driven a little mad by the noise. In another scene a young woman coughs and coughs, and Diaz's medium long shot on the hut in which she sits captures well the horrible illness she is suffering from, but also the impossible position of nobody (including of course the viewer) being able to do very much about it. While fast-paced cinema gives us the sense that we need suffer briefly before identifying with heroic endeavours, Diaz's film is in a fundamental sense, here, a cinema of cruelty.
If it has been said that Mizoguchi was a great director capturing the cruel on film, then Diaz seems to extend this problem into the question of scenic endurance. In a number of scenes we see the eponymous character, who since puberty has been prostituted to various men in the community by her father, chained to the bed, screaming and yanking at the chain. In other scenes we hear her in the hut but concentrate on the exterior, as the abusive father, or the fearful grandfather, hears her anguish. Another filmmaker would make the point, but wouldn't have the temporal freedom to make us endure it.
This cinema of temporal endurance has always had detractors. In The New Yorker, Pauline Kael said of the nine-hour and twenty-three minute Shoah that the director Claude Lanzmann "slows down the material, stretching it almost languorously. While the subjects speak, the camera stays on them for very long takes; at first, the faces may be fascinating, but then nothing more is revealed to us and the camera is still on them." Writing in his Biographical Dictionary on Hitler: A Film from Germany, David Thomson observed "people marvel and complain that this Hitler is seven hours long. Why complain, if something like a terrible and tormented century has been conveyed in just one night's sleeping space?"
It is a point Diaz might make - if we find it difficult sitting through six hours of Florentina, imagine the hell of spending hours a day chained to a bed, or, like her daughter, coughing and coughing day after day until eventually she coughs up blood. Diaz says in Criticine, "We seek redemption, we seek goodness, we seek purgation, we seek answers; even the most misguided and disoriented and solipsistic and narcissistic, and maybe instinctive, destructiveness is all about that." Of course, "it could get too abstract and ambiguous at some point, this issue of redemption, but in my case as a filmmaker, or simply a teller of tales, or a visual juggler, I struggle to concretize it by creating concrete beings, concrete characters, concrete conditions, concrete visions, concrete words, concrete pains, concrete sufferings, concrete vistas." Diaz seems to be looking for an elongated catharsis, and the ratio between concrete scene and narrative point becomes ever greater, so that the focal points of the story become weak next to the detailing of the events. For much of the film we're left in the narrative dark, and it isn't until several hours in that we're offered a key expository passage from the character of the farmer that makes sense of situations we may have assumed were taking place in the same time zone, a revelation that has been a long time coming, but earns its delay through the manner in which we have to realign ourselves within the narrative.
There is a feeling here that Diaz doesn't push the story along, he drags it behind him, accepting that difficult stories need difficult forms of telling. It is as if most films don't earn the right to tell a story, they assume it, and take the shortest possible route available to push that story forward. Diaz's stories feel like balls and chains, carrying the weight of guilt and responsibility with them, so that though the story is specifically focused on a humid, tropical environment, it also searches out first principles of feeling as dense scenic matter. Indeed, when the film in voice-over literally asks what is cruelty, grief, compassion, one senses a metaphysician at work: like Tarkovsky and Malick, Diaz isn't afraid to put probing thoughts into the film to draw out its broader implications, as if the films are long, hard stares into the infinite, and the film possesses something of this infinitude in the very length of the shots. In Criticine Diaz reckons: "I believe that the greatest struggle in life is the struggle to become a good human being."
Interestingly it is an idea echoed in different ways in many a film of temporal endurance: Shoah, Hitler: A Film from Germany, Satantango, La Commune; films dealing with oppression and fear that end up creating the opposite of the good human being. Maybe optimism can be done in ninety minutes, but does extracting hope from despair, like an alchemist of film, often take much longer? Such films force upon us what we might call a performative question, performative in the sense the viewer isn't actively engaged but passively positioned. When Michael Haneke reckoned people who didn't need Funny Games should get up and leave, this request, for all the brilliance of the film, lacked a performative dimension the way we are couching it. In Funny Games our passive positioning, our sense that we can't intervene in the film as we feel that we vicariously can in so many others, would be all the more subjugating if there were six hours of suffering rather than two. If Haneke refuses the viewer the feeling of empowerment we often get in films chiming with our feelings of indignation, revenge, grief, then this would have been horribly exacerbated by length. When a Stallone, Schwarzenegger or Bruce Willis character is tortured, we can accept the torturing in a twofold way: firstly the torturing is relatively brief and essentially illustrative, and secondly the hero will defeat the villain and any feeling of despair we initially possessed will be more than rewarded by the vengeful indignation we get to feel later. But if the film expands the torture and despair beyond the illustrative and into the scenically vivid, then the performative element of being a viewer becomes paramount. Haneke's film possesses undeniably the scenically vivid over the narratively illustrative, but partly because the film falls easily within conventional film length, the question of whether one should stay or go is much less in evidence than if the film were six hours long.
Diaz's film is not, of course, the deliberate ethical assault Haneke's predicates itself upon being. But it is an assault nevertheless, and not through the violence it shows, but more through the length that it insists upon. There is a useful term David Bordwell uses in his blog called scenic density, and he adopts it to explore how certain films have a complexity of mise-en-scene. "By scenic density I mean an approach to staging, shooting, and cutting in which selected details or areas change their status in the course of the action. I don't count the bustle of background business, all that street traffic that is so much pictorial excelsior in our movies. Nor do I refer to stuffing the setting with desk and kitchen flotsam, allusive pop-culture posters, and the other distinctive "assets" that will be exploited when the film's world gets transposed to a videogame. I mean something more expressive and intriguing". Bordwell is interested here in spatial density. But the scenic density that interests us in a film like Florentina Hubaldo TCE is durational. It isn't like the moment in Citizen Kane where the boy is in focus in the background of the shot and the others in the foreground. It isn't even where we see a character in the background of the shot collapsing while the concentration remains on the foreground as in Goodbye South, Goodbye. These are fine scenes of scenic density, but temporal density consists less of layered information than time expansion.
When Claude Lanzmann asks the barber to recall his time in the camps in Shoah, or when Bela Tarr shows us the locals drunkenly dancing deep into the night in Satantango, these are scenes of dense temporality, determined to take us out of the immediacy of cinematic clock time (where most films are around two hours long), and place us into what philosopher Henri Bergson would call 'duree': in time that is dislocated from sensory-motor expectation (with its immediacy of function and cause and effect) and placed in a meditative mode that wants to access less ready functions than more elusive thought processes. When Bergson talks of a dog that recognizes its master, he proposes this isn't because the dog remembers its master, more that it registers the fact automatically: it consists in the "animal's consciousness of a certain special attitude adopted by his body, an attitude which has been gradually built up by his familiar relations with his master, and which the mere perception of his master now calls forth in him mechanistically". (Matter and Memory) Bergson coincides with Pavlov here, but our point lies in what isn't so automatic: "To call up the past in the form of an image, we must be able to withdraw ourselves from the action of the moment, we must have the power to value the useless, we have the will to dream."
There are of course many 'shorter' films that decouple us from the immediacy of automatic action, from Tarkovsky to Dreyer, from Rohmer to Antonioni. But cinema still has very few filmmakers who demand this retreat from the ready act into the meditative through the accumulation of length. Even Jacques Rivette (whose Out 1 is thirteen hours long) rarely made a film that was more than four hours. And it is not enough to say there are many television shows now that run to over a hundred hours, because for all their length they do not break with the sensory-motor schema: they play on our sense of habitual actions rather than deviate from them. In this sense, a two-hour film by Haneke will possess far more temporal density than a TV show many hours longer. But equally, we might wonder whether a Haneke or Antonioni film at three times the length (the length of Diaz's film) would achieve a still greater temporal density than they possess.
One doesn't at all want to undermine the efforts of great filmmakers still working within the limits of prescribed cinematic length, but there is also a space occasionally available for filmmakers to wonder what happens when you break with both clock time (the action-oriented cinema that falls under the rubric of what Gilles Deleuze calls The Movement Image) and its deviation evident in Deleuze's follow-up book The Time Image, and instead search out a temporal density through the cinematic endurance that in some ways doestest anthropological limits. It is a type of cinema Lav Diaz maybe more than anyone else has pursued: Melancholia, about summary executions, lasts eight hours. Death in the Land of Encantos runs to nine, Evolution of a Filipino Family is almost eleven. Is this work entirely in keeping with Bergson's notion "that in pure perception we are actually outside ourselves: we touch the reality of the object in an immediate intuition"? Certainly numerous great films of conventional length achieve exactly this, but can films that run to eight or nine hours achieve it not only because of the form (which as we've suggested is nevertheless essential and fundamental, otherwise TV shows would possess this type of intuition), but also because it can create new levels of temporal density? Taking into account Bergson's comment of being outside ourselves, maybe such an approach goes beyond even radical empathy, and into a sphere where self and other become a non-issue.
© Tony McKibbin