Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Lav Goes Long

It’s been a while since I last posted, but that’s because I’ve been watching a lot of movies. Long movies. I’ve watched bunch of long movies this year overall, from the intimate 3-hour opus “Yi Yi”, to the 4-hour mindfuck “Love Exposure”, to the dense 4.5 hour “Historie(s) du Cinema”. But longest of all, and the single longest movie I’ve ever seen, was “Evolution of a Filipino Family,” Lav Diaz’s 10.5-hour epic.

I’m not sure exactly how to summarize the plot of a film like this, but it essentially follows the story of a clan of Filipino farmers in the politically turbulent 1970s and 80s. Its official runtime varies, but the version I saw was 630 minutes. I watched it in three different sessions, ranging from 2 to 5 hours. Not as ideal as watching it all in one go, but life got in the way.

When talking about long movies, especially one as long as this, it is easy to get hung up on the run-time. 10 hours! That’s nearly a full day gone, just for one single movie. It’s a lot to ask, and one might accuse director Lav Diaz of being presumptive that anyone would have the time to watch a black and white foreign film for 10 hours. 10 straight hours no less, as he often requests that his films be played at festivals all the way through, with only one ten minute intermission.

It’s certainly a criticism that many have leveled at him throughout his career, which is highlighted by films which generally run between 6 and 10 hours, are black and white, and include many, many long takes. Only a director with a track record like that would be accused of being a sellout for making his latest film, “Norte: The End of History”, in color and “only” four hours.

But these criticisms miss the point. Yes, admittedly, it is a lot to ask from viewers. His films check all of the boxes that the average moviegoer generally shies away from. But for those willing to put in the time and effort to appreciate them, the rewards are immense. Lav isn’t just making these films for the fun of it, he’s an artist with a vision, and that vision eschews any sense of commercialism or pandering.

He is making films about his culture, the Filipino culture, and all of the change and upheaval and struggle that comes along with it. He is passionate about the value of cinema as art, and art as a means of expression and solidarity. He makes his art on his own terms, and refuses to compromise, which has led to his style of digital, black and white, long-take, long films. But he would reject that statement, as he once said, “My films are not long. They are free.”

It seems kind of pretentious at first. Of course they’re long! Movies aren’t normally more than two hours, three at the most, but ten is nearly unheard of. But if you give the work a chance, it becomes clear what he means, and you really start to believe him. Not only was “Evolution of a Filipino Family” one of the fastest ten hours of my life, it also made me reconsider how time and editing functions with every movie I’ve seen since. Lav’s shots, often static, linger for minutes at a time, sometimes capturing exciting moments, sometimes mundane ones.

One shot near the end of the film consists of two characters squatting on the side of a dirt path, motionless and silent. It goes on for about four minutes. But somehow, it is not nearly as grating as that description makes it sound. Every movie I’ve watched since has seemed so… curtailed in comparison. Hour and a half movies seem like bite-sized TV episodes now. Even a three hour movie seems short. After seeing what is possible to achieve in ten hours, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to go back.

It may sound ridiculous, but “Evolution of a Filipino Family” goes into the category of things that must be seen to be believed. I could describe how the film’s lackadaisical pace, knowledge of the hours and hours to go, and scarcity of dialogue somehow lead to a meditative, almost hypnotic viewing experience, but it really is something one has to experience to understand. All I can say is, take my word for it, once it gets going, you’ll forget all about the runtime and just soak in unique atmosphere.

I say atmosphere because that’s the easiest entryway to discussing the movie critically. The plot is dense, non-chronological and takes place over such a long period of time that its pretty difficult to discuss, but the basic idea is that there is a family of farmers who are all connected by one boy, Reynaldo. Much like in last year’s “Boyhood”, Rey begins the movie as a young boy and ages in real time over the 10-year shoot, but unlike in “Boyhood”, the development and aging of the characters isn’t a central part of the film. It feels more natural and less gimmicky, and its hardly even noticeable most of the time. Visually, the story of Rey and the rest of the family is told mostly through wide and medium shots, often static, and often very still.

A typical shot would be of a field or something, held for about thirty seconds, until some characters walk in on the left of the screen, walk through the field to the right of the screen, then disappear. Cut. Much of the film follows in this fashion, which gives it a meditative quality and allows for some beautiful shots of the Philippine countryside. It also makes it all the more startling when the pattern is broken with moving shots or close ups, or most strikingly in the poetic dream sequences shot with 16 mm film. These moments may be few and far between, but they add some nice variety and are really well-done for what they are.

Whenever anyone writes about Lav Diaz, they always write about how long his movies are, and I didn’t want to just go on and on about length, but I did anyway. Now that I have that out of my system, maybe I’ll be able to write about the next film of his I see without mentioning its runtime. We’ll see. All I have left to say is that, as bad as I have been about explaining why, I believe “Evolution of a Filipino Family” is one of the best movies ever made. But it has left me a little drained, so while I recharge for another Diaz film, I’m going to watch something a little shorter. Maybe “Sátántangó”…

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