Pregnant with the Word of God
The Virgin will
Come down the road
If you give her shelter.
In this famous poem, Saint John of the Cross, the great Spanish contemplative, says of the Logos (“the Word”, or the divine reason that orders the cosmos) that it will not (and cannot) be born in us unless our spirits are empty of anything else. In contemplation, attention must be on nothing else but one’s waiting for God. Since the saint was also a remarkable poet, he may also have had poetry in mind when he wrote these lines: the fact that writing a poem awaits something whose advent cannot be willed, for to will a poem into being would mean we already knew which words to write. “Mental action in thinking,” writes the philosopher Galen Strawson, “is restricted to the fostering of conditions hospitable to contents’ coming to mind.”1 This, Strawson argues, is the case for all reasoning and judgment. It is certainly true of poetic creation. The American poet George Oppen adapts these lines of Saint John of the Cross in this passage from “Route”, giving them a Heideggerian inflection:
What was there to be thought
Comes by the road2
Simone Weil thought that sustained attention to the good was central to moral development. If it is, it is because we cannot will ourselves to desire anything. What we can do, by paying attention, is encourage an involuntary process in the right direction.
A hill slope opposite us (in black-and-white). A small dot to start with, a woman appears, a tribal woman, and walks a winding path to the dale below, then up the path until she reaches us. The film begins, begins with a typical shot, one occurring again and again in every film by Lav Diaz. In his five-hour-long Mula Sa Kung Ano Ang Noon (From What Is Before, 2014), at least half of the shots (so it seems to me) are views of some landscape, which someone then traverses by walking. Landscape frames the action in the film. The shot may be in the middle of a jungle, or of a yard in the barrio (village) with chickens clucking, or a cogonal bordered by scrub; someone may be found already in it, performing a recurring task in the tropical environment, shot in shades of grey, charcoal and bone-white. We wait for something to happen; for half a minute, a minute; there is some uncertainty about who will come and effect a shift in the narrative already begun; then someone rounds the distant bend of a road, or appears as a point in a long perspective defined by a road, and walks towards us, his or her image growing larger; someone pushes along a winding path, and his or her head bobs into sight above the tall grass; someone swims out of the jungle foliage, before it closes around him like a sea.
Every Diaz film, from his landmark Evolution of a Philippine Family (2004), regularly returns, as if to touch ground, to a shot of a landscape or streetscape; after a while, someone enters, then walks across it in real time. In From What Is Before, this event of someone appearing and walking through a place seems an analogue of the emergence of narrative, irreversible, unrepeatable, from cyclical time.
Here, in this Southeast Asian landscape, amidst cogon, coconut palms, a few mango trees, is a rural settlement, a barrio, a scatter of stilt houses, unpainted, furnished with, at most, a table and chairs; people sleep on the floor. In one shot, we see two or three larger wooden houses of the town centre in the background, in another, its plaza. The municipality’s outlying barrios, ignored by the national government, still have no electricity. The police are nowhere to be seen – which suggests a relative freedom from government control (until martial law is declared two thirds through the film), but also a community in which the poor can seek no institutional redress for violence committed against them. This settlement, its terrain, its mainly subsistence economy, is part of a country that could be no other than the Philippines (yet the relation between the fictional and the real is enigmatic).
A series of incidents in the life of a coastal barrio takes us over a period of three years from 1970 to just past the declaration of martial law by President Ferdinand Marcos in September 1972, each incident taking place in the setting of a customary activity. The stories traced by the film through these incidents, these intersections of the lives of the inhabitants, involves a moral duty, sin and the redress required from the sinner. Over this period, the countryside has been subject to mysterious acts of terrorism. It is supposedly to protect its inhabitants that Philippine soldiers arrive and occupy the town. Their invasion, like one by a more technologically advanced society, disrupts the preoccupation of the barrio’s inhabitants with their sins and obligations, and it brings into the town a new kind of evil in contrast to the individual and, in a sense, human failures that the townspeople have so far dealt with. Sometime later, the distant president is heard on the radio declaring martial law. A paramilitary death squad has already been roaming the countryside. The settlement in and around the town drains away. People flee to where they might find work, joining the slums of a city perhaps. In the final long-take, two students, one unconscious, one half-conscious, slung from a tree branch and bleeding, are tortured; we are left to contemplate their hanging there, while the torturers idle away the afternoon. We see an event for which the language of moral failure or sin seems inadequate. (The film, however, doesn’t quite end with this image, because a second before the cut to black, one of the students, that is, one of the actors, hanging from the tree, pulls himself up and says he’s dead, he’s had enough.)
The film’s municipality lies close to a mountain range but also within trekking distance of the sea. Town and barrio are unnamed, but there are clues to their location in north-east Luzon: the wildness of the surf, the foreshore plain and mountain range. (Misled by Diaz’s reminiscences of his childhood in Maguindanao, a predominantly Muslim province in Mindanao, some reviewers have taken the film to be set there.) In fact, the geography of the region of the town and barrio is a constructed one, filmed in two provinces of Luzon, and its coherence is puzzling, if not impossible. As in other Diaz films, the natural environment of the Philippine archipelago is beautifully framed in its diversity: pastureland and paddy, cogonal, nipa foreshore, rain forest, mountain, river. Sun and tropical rain alternate here, as in other works. In no other filmmaker’s oeuvre is there so much rain.
From What Is Before comes after a series of very long cinematic works of fiction. Ebolusyon Ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Philippine Family, 2004), a few years in the making, 10 hours long, was Diaz’s landmark work, with the scope of a novel by Dostoevsky. After Evolution, he made Heremias, Unang Aklat: Ang Alamat Ng Prinsesang Bayawak (Heremias, Book One: The Legend of the Lizard Princess, 2004), Kagadanan Sa Banwaan Ning Mga Engkanto (Death in the Land of Encantos, 2007), Melancholia (2008), Walang Alaala Ang Mga Paru-paro (Butterflies Have No Memories, 2009), Siglo Ng Pagluluwal (Century of Birthing, 2011), Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012), Norte, Hangganan Ng Kasaysayan (Norte, The End of History, 2013). Butterflies is 40 minutes long; the rest range from five to 11 hours in length. He has also made two extraordinary short, by his standard, documentaries, Pagsisiyasat Sa Gabing Ayaw Lumimot (An Investigation on the Night that Won’t Forget, 2012) and Mga Anak Ng Unos (Storm Children, 2014).
As a rule, Diaz writes, shoots and edits his work, but he does so in collaboration with a close-knit circle of people who not only act from one movie to another but double up as designers, production coordinators, or subtitlers. Perry Dizon, who plays the central character in From What Is Before, is its production designer and a leading actor in other Diaz works. There is, in Manila, a non-commercial, countercultural art scene, many of whose members earn a living in the Philippine film and TV industry. Diaz’s collaborators belong to this counterculture.
Yet the ironic, humorous, portrait we get in Century of Birthing of an avant-garde filmmaker very like Diaz in his devotion to cinema, is – like the account of the life and death of the poet in Death in the Land of Encantos – a study of the melancholy of the artist in a society where the worth of his ambition is recognised by only a few other artists, the melancholy bestowed by the radiance of an impossible object. The filmmaker cuts a needy, somewhat bedraggled but still cocky figure. In the filmmaker’s makeshift studio outside Manila (he has been lent a friend’s neighbourhood convenience store where he edits on a computer in the store window), amidst the lumber, two items indicate his artistic intentions: a poster of Tsai Ming-Liang’s What Time is It There? on the wall, behind clutter, and on a dusty shelf, The Tunnel by William Gass. From a wet market, where he is buying a pair of flip-flops, he answers a phone call from a French festival director and insists on finishing a film in his own sweet time. Everything serious in cinema, he says, listing them in an interview, is called “pretentious”.
Translation is always revision. When Lav Diaz mentions the idea of Malay time, of time measured by space traversed, this idea is mentioned to explain a cinematic development which was, in fact, a response to Tarkovsky and Béla Tarr. Here, I suggest, is an instance of what Harold Bloom, in his theory of revisionism (set out in The Anxiety of Influence), called tessera, or completion and antithesis: when an author “antithetically ‘completes’ his precursor, by so reading” the parent-work “to retain its terms but to mean them in another sense.” In the postcolonial situation from which Diaz speaks, the anxiety of influence is, in fact, the anxiety of inauthenticity, motivated by the urge to find a discourse consistent with one’s beliefs and desires when the received terms of self-description, partly received from the West, are demeaning or invidious or objectifying. This possibility is briefly touched on in the conversation in From What Is Before between the farmer Sito and the poet Horacio (whose name recalls the ancient Roman poet). The two have known each other since youth. Horacio has cancer and has come back to die; he has returned, he says, because although he left to master verse, the source of his poetry, he realised, was always here. With this realisation comes to the desire to be true to the source.
The idea of ‘Malay time’, whatever its merits as an explanation of duration in Diaz’s cinema, implies something of wider significance, that a film style emerges from a way of life. (Hence, an imitation of contemporary Hollywood style in, say, the Philippines, or India, cannot have the same significance as its original.)
From What Is Before is in black-and-white. After Evolution, only Norte, The End of History (2013) is in colour. Why black-and-white? One result of removing colour from a film (by, say, adjusting the colour settings of a monitor) is to make the colours of many things in its world indeterminate to us – or difficult to identify. (The photographs of the crime scene in Blow-up, in pop-art ’60s London, are in black-and-white. This fact seems to figure the elusiveness of what they record.) When we see a shot in a colour film of a puddle of blood, our reaction to this image brings empathy into play, in our comprehension of the reaction of a character who sees the (fictively) actual object. Colour film permits us to draw upon empathy in our imagining of how its characters see what they see. Into empathy, colour indeterminacy inserts a splinter, a crack, and like a tiny defect responsible for random errors in a scientific monitor, prevents us from taking for granted our reliance on internal simulation in making sense of the observable reactions of the characters in a black-and-white film (we don’t quite know what we would see in their shoes). To a greater extent, what is presented of their behaviour is what we are given to know of their psychologies. When its colour eludes us, the fictional world is less penetrable to our wish to be part of it. This condition can serve the reality-effect.
Each scene in From What Is Before is filmed in one shot. Since every shot in From What Is Before is a scene, none is a component in the shot-construction of a scene, and each stands as an equal with every other in the series of shots that make up the film. All but a few shots are stationary. Most of the few pans follow the movement of a character; any pans that don’t are striking. There are no tracks – in Diaz’s oeuvre they are so rare their occurrence is significant. The shots are usually from waist height, at some oblique angle to the direction the characters are facing, and asymmetrically composed at the start. The camera never takes up the point of view of a character; there are no quasi-subjective shot-reverse-shot combinations; the first-person subjective shot – from the literal point-of-view of a character – which occurred, though rarely, in every previous Diaz film, is absent. The shooting is usually in deep focus, and the equal clarity of detail suggests a view that is impersonal. In medium shots, the waist-high point of view and the narrow lens together makes bodies loom against the background, giving them solidity. Although less so here than in other films, Diaz tends to keep a circumspect distance from his characters, and to hold this distance for extraordinary lengths of time. His shots have a striking composure, whether symmetric or asymmetric, at both their beginning and end. After Evolution, there are no cuts to close-ups. Despite the often superb acting by Diaz’s collaborators, their facial expressions are sometimes too distant to be discerned in earlier films, given their low-definition video. Cuts are often unexpected, occasionally startling. Almost always, sound is directly recorded. The rare voiceover is poetically enigmatic. The only extra-diegetic music from Evolution onwards that I noticed is an eerie sequence of notes sparingly used in Death in the Land of Encantos. In every Diaz film, however, one can expect a song composed by the filmmaker himself, sung like a folk song, or poetry by him recited as the work of a character – Benjamin Agusan in the last-mentioned film, Horacio in From What Is Before.
Almost every shot in a typical Diaz film is such that its duration, as well as the necessity to pay attention to it, impinges on the viewer’s awareness before the shot ends. The reliance on long-takes is one aspect of his approach to narration. The avoidance of selective decoupage is another. After Evolution, Diaz began to abstain from intervening through decoupage in an incident or scene, from bringing aspects of a staged event to the viewer’s attention through changes in shot. The first half of Evolution contains remarkable sequences of classical decoupage, including a memorable sequence in which the young boy Reynaldo follows the men who have raped and killed his mother into the woods, where they bury her body; we see his face in close-up as they do; we see – from behind him – Reynaldo shoot the men with a stolen gun. In Heremias, this kind of narrative decoupage has been excluded, and what remains are: (i) the choice of the camera’s perspective, which unless it is a first-person subjective point of view is often at a circumspect distance; (ii) cutting from one long-take to another. Diaz’s approach to cinematic narration is a kind of minimalism. In From What Is Before, it is both more refined and more accessible. In previous films, he allowed himself the liberty to construct scenes in several, albeit long, takes. The simplicity of the action in From What Is Before makes the containment of one shot per scene possible. The average length of shot is also shorter.
This approach to shot-by-shot narration has the force it has in Diaz’s films only when combined with what the viewer is given to see and hear in each shot – that is, the event staged and its mise-en-scene. A preference for content of a certain kind is fused with minimalist decoupage into a distinctive amalgam. In his work, often what is presented shot by shot is elliptical in relation to whatever story is being unfolded, which the viewer has to piece together in retrospect; or the story unfolding is incidental to what we see and hear, as when information relevant to it only comes towards the end of a long-take. A Diaz work is, therefore, as much about what we cannot know as it is about what we can, about what is withheld from us by the world or a point of view as it is about what is open to observation. Understandably, the combination of the length of Diaz’s films and their reliance on long-takes is said to be what makes them so different and demanding. However, when his movies are released on DVD, we can be certain that most viewers will watch them in instalments. It is not duration per se in Diaz’s work that demands a radical accommodation from us, but this conjunction: the long-take, the detachment of the camera, and the equal attention which the viewer is invited to pay to the dramatic and the banal in the passage of time. In a Diaz long-take, anything dramatic is a moment in the passage of a longer event that we have, in a sense, to live through. The viewer may feel his attention is being forced from him. But if he gives himself over to the effort to attend to what is present, as the camera-observer does, he may achieve something worth this effort: a selfless patience. More likely, as an ideal possibility, it will hover before him, because again and again he falls short of it.
Minimalist, elliptical narration, to subserve not a minimalist narrative but a profligacy of story-telling like Roberto Bolano’s in The Savage Detectives and 2666. Every fiction film by Diaz has plot-lines entwining, breaking off, taking sometimes breathtakingly unexpected turns. This urge to tell stories gives Diaz’s work political complexity, and also accounts for their avoidance of closure (a more or less enduring state-of-affairs for which the preceding events in a plot-line are a cause and, given certain moral presuppositions, a justification). The result is a an extraordinary gallery of social types: small farmers, miners, madwomen, a convicted thief, a filmmaker, poets, an itinerant peddler, insurgents, fugitive activists, young professional women, the partners of the disappeared, a security guard, a pornographer, torturers, a tribal woman – a whole social geography brought to light by the work of ten years – 13 if we include Batang West Side (2001), recently restored, about Filipino crystal-meth drug-dealers and a Filipino cop in New Jersey.
The art of film direction has often been asserted to be the mastery of an approach to narration that novels have developed (the art of mise-en-scene): the art of fictional foreshortening, the excerpting of moments from an event and the shifting of perspectives while doing so. Diaz has invented a counter-novelistic method of narration for himself, uniquely cinematic. In his films, at issue in every scene is the fact that the relevance to any story of a passage of real time open to observation always has to be abstracted from an inexhaustible formlessness. His films preserve the awareness (intermittent in everyday life) that time has no intrinsic plot. (Novels come after this fact, but by coming after it, often block it from view.)
Knowledge is difficult, and the comprehension of fiction is not, by itself, the acquisition of knowledge – so Diaz’s films remind us at every elliptical turn. In their embrace of the objectivity that film and video recording are necessarily restricted to (they cannot enter another’s unvoiced thoughts like writing), the viewer is constantly brought up against the opacity of other people, confronted with the difficulty of reading their minds from the evidence of their behaviour. The ease of our access as readers to other minds in fiction colludes with the wish to avoid paying attention to other people in reality. Diaz’s renunciations propose a dissenting conception of fiction.
Everyone in From What Is Before has his reasons, but only the poet Horacio is unwary enough to express his. We, the viewers, are in the position of its characters who are observed spying on other characters, watching action as enigmatic to them as it is to us. Spying and being spied on is a recurring motif. Everyone in this film who has a story hides a secret, because each has a sin that must stay under cover. (Even the poet, who has neglected his daughter.) Secrecy is the complement of the hearsay on which the town runs. Hearsay thrives on secrecy, but when all is hearsay, nothing is transparent. Curiously, it is a deluded rapist, Tony the arak-maker, who denounces the absence of plain-speaking. Here, as in other occasions in Diaz’s films, a serious criticism of Philippine society or politics is voiced by a compromised character. Something is recalled which is a low hum in a remote town but still reaches it: the intensely oral culture of Philippine politics, its endless interpretation of ulterior motives, endless exposure of the underhand.
Violence is inimical to the conversation on which democratic society depends, and for which civility, the opposite of violence, is a necessary condition.3 While hearsay can, at a certain level and intensity, be an affliction of the content of public discourse and degrade the political process in a democracy, violence stops public discussion itself. From What Is Before revolves around an occurrence of violence which by making civility and, hence, discussion impossible destroys a Philippine town. (The town meetings called by the army commander who has moved his troops into the town are, in the guise of public discussion, in fact its denial.) The effect of violence on the town exemplifies the larger effect of the Marcos dictatorship on the body politic. In the myth of the Western, the violence of the good is necessary to counter the violence of evildoers, to clear the ground for law and order. Both Norte, The End of History and From What Is Before doubt the common claim that Law requires blood to found it. A violence that purports to be morally cleansing – in Norte, a Raskolnikov’s vigilantism, in From What Is Before, an ostensibly temporary regime – is shown to be corrupted from the start by its assumption of unlimited authority. The strongman is obsessed with law and order while having contempt for the Law.
What came before? What was lost under the Marcos dictatorship? The poet Horacio remembers the old town, now gone, as a paradise, in that conversation he has with Sito. (He denies that it is gone forever.). The farmer disagrees: it was cursed by its sins; it has no one else to blame for what came upon it. He seems to mean (or can be taken to mean) that the new regime is an outgrowth, a monstrous outgrowth, to be sure, of the sins of the past. The belief that the Marcos dictatorship replaced a democracy can be dismissed. In the standard-issue Marxist critique, one version of this scepticism and typical of the Philippine radical Left, the legal enshrinement of civil liberties dissembled and eased class domination. (And in fact, the country’s liberal institutions were monopolised by big landlords, political capos, and wealthy businesspeople.) In defence of the poet, something like the following could be argued: that public acknowledgment of human rights in our laws is both a resource and critique of existing society; poetry and social action call for each other. A kind of necessary poetry was denied Filipinos.
In 1972, Ferdinand Marcos, in his second and final term as Philippine President, invoking his emergency powers under the Philippine constitution, declared martial law, ostensibly to prevent a takeover of the state by Communist insurgents. The emergency would last 14 years. In 1972 the Communist insurgency had, in fact, only just begun; it would grow, not diminish, under the New Society. Leftist agitation had been building up since the mid-60s. It came to a head in 1970 when, one night, the gates of the Presidential Palace were besieged, vehicles overturned and set afire and students, armed with rocks, bottles and Molotov cocktails, battled police in the labyrinth of inner Manila. From What Is Before begins in the year of this distant off-screen event.
Four years before the street battles in Manila, a new Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) had been founded in a village a few hours drive north of Manila. The CPP was Maoist, and would eventually put out of business the Stalinist Partido Komunista, which had led a peasant resistance movement – the Hukbalahap – against the Japanese, and in the decade after the Second World War, a peasant rebellion in Luzon. The communist insurgency we hear about in the film was the second one. In the aftermath of the war, when the Philippines had just been granted independence, socialist Congressmen had been illegally barred from taking their seats, and socialist politicians murdered. The Huks, only just returned to normal life, disinterred their guns. Ramon Magsaysay, as Defence Secretary from 1950 to 1953, then as President till 1954 (when he died in a plane crash), was advised by Edward Lansdale, the now infamous CIA agent. The Huk rebellion was tamped down. Lansdale, an ex-advertising man, left the killing to his Filipino underlings. But still, the death squad was invented under his watch – by Napoleon Valeriano, his protégé, who would follow the soft-spoken American to Vietnam. Lansdale describes a psy-war operation his friends thought up: descending from their camp on Mount Arayat, Valeriano and his mates trailed a band of Huks, and when one lagged behind, strangled him to death. His neck was punctured and his blood drained to make it seem that a local vampire, an aswang, had swooped on a victim. This example of counterinsurgency is the source of one scene in From What Is Before. In close-up, a man found dead on the ground with a puncture wound in his neck. “Aswang,” voices off-screen say.
The refusal to countenance any social-democratic change – by the US government and the local elite it fostered – fuelled the first communist-led rebellion. The continued refusal to do so made the second seem necessary. The suppression of the second insurgency was the raison d’etre of the Marcos regime. But the regime perpetuated, nurtured it. In the lead-up to the 1969 vote, when Marcos was re-elected president through fraud and massive vote-buying, death squads were commissioned in Central Luzon. In 1970, the Monkees, as the squad-members were called (after the Beatles’ rivals), began bombing department stores and corporate offices in Manila to create the impression of anarchy. The dead man on the road and the burning of buildings in From What Is Before recall their depredations. The army has come to protect them from enemies of the country, Lieutenant Perdido tells the townspeople. Later, in conversation with Father Guido, he mentions the New People’s Army. But the filmmaker’s refusal to let us see it is deliberate. The insurgency was not – in 1972 – strong or widespread enough to justify suspending civil liberties. The insurgency that didn’t quite exist needed to be invented. Without its threat, the Marcos mafia could not have taken over the state, or stayed in place.
From What Is Before is Diaz’s first attempt to imagine the distinctive character of social life in the years before Marcos profoundly transformed Philippine politics. Two earlier films meditate on the dictatorship’s legacy: Melancholia and Death in the Land of Encantos. Melancholy, in these films, mourns the unresolved disappearance of the loved one, and is made darker for the poet Benjamin Agusan, tortured by the military, by the radiance of his poetic quest. The Philippines, in what was left of the century, a land of desaparecidos, is a nation afflicted by various forms of melancholy. Diaz’s films afterwards, by taking an analytical view of the recurring conditions that had made Marcos possible, disperse him, leave the historical person behind.
From What Is Before is marked at the beginning by the descent of the tribal woman Amrayda, and at the end by a diaspora from the municipality, which Sito’s daughter, her husband and the boy Hakob join. The first event alludes to the beginning of Spanish colonisation, when people of the lowland tribes converted to Christianity, yet remained in communication with highlanders who had not. After Amrayda’s son is killed (presumably by soldiers), her tribespeople, who have given shelter to insurgents, decide to move further up the mountains. Her initial descent and the departure of the peasant lowlanders – these two events frame the what-is-before that occupation by a modern state brings to an end. The state-avatars of modern civilisation are urbanite and capitalist, but – we are reminded – they may not be liberal or democratic. Even when they are, the political monopoly they seek is hostile to tribal independence.
To commemorate what was lost, the poet’s pyre is sent adrift on the river, where it stalls, then barely moves.
What is there to be thought, given the perspective of a social history, what is intelligible (or unintelligible) thereby: this is what the literature or cinema of an inspired period, a period recognised only when it is going or gone, manifests. Or the work of an extraordinary filmmaker. It comes down the road.
- Galen Strawson, “Mental Ballistics, or the Involuntariness of Spontaneity,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 103 (2003): p. 234. Also in his Real Materialism and Other Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). ↩
- George Oppen, New Collected Poems (New Directions, 2008). ↩
- See, for example, John Keane, Violence and Democracy (Cambridge University Press, 2004). ↩