I've long maintained that Joel Shepard, the film/video programmer at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, is a national treasure, bringing to his 90-odd seat room the kind of remarkable and diverse film/video program that I wish every town in America could have. I would say this even if we had not been colleagues at one point - though I haven't worked at YBCA in years, Joel's film program keeps me coming back, despite the exciting, and sometimes quite charged, differences of opinion that occasionally emerge between us.
Joel is currently on a tour that includes stops at Rotterdam and the Philippines. He's excited about the work that he's planning on showing at YBCA in the coming months, and so am I. BUT: one work he's excited about possibly bringing is Florentina Hubaldo, CTE, a five-hour opus by Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz.
There are times when the differences between Joel's perceptions and mine are somewhat painful, and this is one of those times. Here's what I wrote after seeing Evolution of a Filipino Family, a ten-hour film widely regarded as Diaz' masterpiece.
"Some things to remember if you're making a TEN AND A HALF HOUR MOVIE -
--Cinematic conventions are your friend. Especially when you're making a movie this long. Making repeated statements that you hate conventional stories within your movie (by, say, interrupting stories coming from radios, or even the mouths of your most likeable characters ever chance you get) is a great way to alienate your audience.
--No matter how long your movie is, something needs to happen in every scene. It doesn't have to be splashy, it can be quite sedate, but something needs to be happening. If your audience is willing to engage your day-long opus, you need to give them enough to keep them anchored and interested. You should avoid shots of roads, and watching people walk down them for three minutes. And you should avoid having a long chain of such shots with nothing else happening.
--If your audience is going to have any kind of empathy for the painful death of one of your characters, you need to make sure that you've given the audience enough reason to care about the character. Particularly if the character's death scene is at least fifteen minutes of him stumbling down an endless street, bleeding.
--"Slow motion shot of a river flowing. A big log falls from the sky and splashes in the water. A voice says "I'm falling." The river flows. A couple minutes later, another log falls from the sky and splashes in the water. A voice says "I'm floating." The river flows. A couple minutes later, another log falls from the sky and splashes in the water. A voice says, "I'm falling." " Do not put a scene like this in your movie.
"Lav Diaz's 630-minute film EVOLUTION OF A FILIPINO FAMILY has some amazing stuff in it, including a strong and surreal portrait of life under the Marcos regime (and a harrowing look at the violence after), a palpable fear that the horrible stories being played out in the film have befallen thousands in the Philippines (thousands of children-turned-murderers, thousands of old women dying surrounded by photographs of departed loved ones, thousands of sisters waiting forever for missing brothers), and a hell-bent determination to portray reality in its rawest form.
"Alas, such rawness manifests in a Dogmaesque B+W video style, with very little to distinguish the story's present from its various flashbacks. Diaz eschews camera filters with an aim towards portraying brutal, unfettered reality, but it winds up bleaching out his images at the exact points they need to resonate. Actors are forced to do absolutely nothing for long, long stretches of time.
"There are enough instances throughout where Diaz keeps his scenes brief and to-the-point, where he does pay attention to cinematic convention, and these scenes are a joy. None of the problems with the film can be blamed on the cast, all of whom are completely natural. The eleven years over which this film was made are evident in the final product - this thing was given plenty of room to grow, and seeing the actors age before your very eyes on screen does lend the whole project a certain (though by no means unique) gravitas.
"But it is frustrating that Diaz is too often willing to subordinate his cast's performances, his own fine filmmaking, and the history of his country to a style that doesn't serve it. Particularly when the film is this fucking long."
I've never felt so at odds with a movie that so many have felt is a masterpiece (and not even a movie universally derided as terrible has left me gibbering and screaming outside the venue afterward, as this film left me). Praise for this film became a sign of a critic I couldn't trust. I'm amused, and not surprised, that even a Rotterdam Film Festival programmer admits to being put to sleep by Diaz' work.
I can't help but be curious about Florentina Hubaldo, CTE. It seems that at least some of my issues from my previous encounter are lifted, with Diaz shooting on HD instead of whatever B&W shit EVOLUTION was shot on. Plus FHCTE is half as long as EVOLUTION, clocking in at a mealy five hours. Joel's painful earnestness in describing it would be enough to make me check something out, and even though a ten-hour ordeal can be hard to forget, enough years have passed to dim the memories of that fraught, painful screening. Plus my words remind me that there were many worthy things in the film - perhaps a half-as-long film won't bury such things under so much indulgence.
Diaz' supporters agree that they demand much of the viewer - we're at odds on whether what the viewer gets in return for the time investment is worth it. Perhaps FHCTE will change my mind. We'll see.