Horse Money – Pedro Costa (2014)

It’s kind of sad that you have to wait almost two years for a brilliant film to cross your way. I missed Pedro Costa’s new film in Locarno, because I saw Lav Diaz’s From What Is Before (2014). That was my only chance somehow, because it has never popped up around me. I regret not having seen it there and then. Pedro Costa has convinced me with Horse Money, perhaps even made me a fan. When I saw Colossal Youth a while ago, I couldn’t really get into his work. Cinematographically it was beautiful, but I had issues to follow the narrative. Now, my having matured and having a more in-depth view on themes such as colonialism and the trauma that comes with it, I want to revisit not only Colossal Youth. I also want to see as much of his other films as I can. There is something very attractive about it, very engaging, very enveloping.

Horse Money is an exceptional piece and resonated with my experiences of Diaz’s films. Costa has created a haunting piece. His extraordinary play with light and shadow, the latter being most prominent, renders Horse Money as haunting as it could be. The frames are tight, adding to the haunting atmosphere a feeling of claustrophobia. What is it that holds us so tight, like prisoners? What is it that the characters are imprisoned in? What is it that the characters are looking to escape from, but who cannot flee?

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History. Memory. Trauma.

Three words which are embodied by characters and film style alike. Costa plays on temporal disorientation. Ventura, an elderly man and Costa’s muse, if you wish, speaks of the past as if it was present. He says he is 19 years and 3 months old. When asked whether he is married, he looks at his ring finger and hides it. He walks repeatedly through dark, endless corridors. Passages to the past, passages to memory.

Horse Money is situated on the threshold between life and death. We can never be sure whether the characters we see are alive, a result of a dream, a hallucination, or a simple memory. To me, even Ventura himself was a phantom, a man of ghostly presence who is removed from reality. And so was I. A curious effect I had never experienced with a film before – I felt removed from reality. I felt as though I saw the film from outside my body. The ghostly appearances of the few characters we meet, their almost constant whispering, their positions in dark, shadowy places – I wasn’t really where I thought I was. Where was I, then?

I’m not sure where Horse Money took me. I know that it hit certain spots. Trauma is one of them. I studied Diaz’s representation of post-trauma back and forth, and Costa’s is an entirely different, yet very effective approach. Ventura is paralysed. He’s living in a temporal loop. So are his friends. His shaking hands are indicative of shock, which, it often seems, he has lived through only a few minutes earlier. The date mentioned, however, is 11 March 1975, the day a coup attempt was beaten down by the Portuguese military government. It feels as if it was yesterday.

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Absence. Absent presence. Present absence.

Ventura enters his former work place, a building in ruins. Everything is shattered. He speaks to his boss who is no longer there. He dials numbers on broken telephones. It is an errie atmosphere. The past is well alive in Ventura’s mind, but not in Costa’s screen images. This discrepancy is startling throughout the film, and causes the temporal and spatial disorientation I was speaking of earlier. Above all, however, it is an image of people reeling from trauma. It is an image of paralysis, perhaps most obviously embodied in a single image: that of Ventura, naked apart from his red pants, standing in the streets at night, surrounded by soldiers and an armoured vehicle. He lifts his hands.

“You died a thousand deaths, Ventura,” a friend says. Horse Money feels like the end, but it isn’t. Ventura, struggling with what he calls a “nervous disease”, will die many more deaths before he can break out of the circle of history, memory, trauma.

The weight of time

If you study Slow Cinema, or time in film in more general terms, you cannot avoid reading Mary Ann Doane’s The Emergence of Cinematic Time (2004). It is a kind of bible for those who are interested in how cinema came about, although I do find it, in fact, too little concerned with cinema itself, and more with everything that came before. I haven’t managed to read the whole book yet, though, but I’m definitely missing something there.

In any case, Doane made reference to something that I had come about when I started reading about Futurism and Futurist art. She writes,

“One could argue more generally that at the turn of the century time became palpable in a different way – one specific to modernity and intimately allied with its new technologies of representation (photographs, film, phonography). Time was indeed felt – as a weight, as a source of anxiety, and as an acutely pressing problem of representation” (2004: 4, original emphasis).

Writing this, Doane had an increased speed in the arts in mind. Again, Futurist art is for me the point when speed became so evident that you could not avoid it anymore. It was everywhere. Speed, or rather the passing of time and therefore the seemingly increased pace of walking towards one’s own death caused anxiety, and made people move even faster, because they thought that they could accomplish more if they just did things faster. Indeed, many people – me included – have problems to be in bustling shopping centres or high streets, where everyone is walking swiftly from one shop to another, always on the phone.

What I find interesting is that Doane links this anxiety to speed. I do not argue against her statement. It is more than appropriate. But how about anxiety felt in Slow Cinema? Slow time as triggering anxiety? When I read this passage in Doane’s book, I returned to my paper on the concentrationary universe in the films of Lav Diaz, in which I argued that Diaz created ‘time terror’ for both the characters and the viewer. In his focus on trauma and history, Diaz is surely an extreme example of using slowness as a means to create anxiety. But there are more directors, who use slow time to show the actual ‘weight of time’ as Doane put it.

How much time do we spend waiting when we watch a slow film? How much time do we spend wondering what is going to happen? And with that, how much time do we spend seeing characters suffering?

This anxiety is also visible in Pedro Costa’s films, a fact that makes for an interesting point. The weight of time, infused by slowness, is the weight of the past. It’s the opposite of what we saw with Futurist art, where time was more infused by the weight of the future. Slow films (not all of them) look back to the colonial history of the countries they are made in, and it is not only a traumatic history, which still wears heavy on local populations. It is also a degree of standstill. Can these people – the former colonised subjects, the people depicted in those films – move forward? Can they move at all, or does the weight of time, of the past, prevents them from doing so?

There is certainly an interesting point to study in a bit more detail here, but for some reason it would take me a bit too far astray at the moment, so this will have to wait a little while before I return to it. But I wanted to mention it at least 🙂

In defense of a lack of craft

I read a rather irritating article about Lav Diaz’s Norte, written by Adrian Martin for the Sight & Sound magazine. His reading of the film is good, but the last paragraph of the article makes me want to respond. I want to quote the passage in question first:

“There was a certain thrill to this – the kind that persuades you to endure eight-hour screenings, in search of a new kind of filmic epiphany. But as the years pass and the Diaz ‘formula’ hardens, it becomes more difficult to excuse the lack of inventiveness and craft in his work in the name of some spurious ‘neo-neorealism’. Diaz’s most vocal fans do him no favours in this regard: he might become a better, more self-critical director if people stopped reassuring him that every new film he makes is a deathless masterpiece.”

I know from responses on Twitter that Martin is not the only one who thinks that Lav Diaz’s films lack “inventiveness and craft.” I would like to turn this around and say that film criticism and film studies lack inventiveness and craft. In my articles on Norte (here and here) I stressed that the investment of money changed Diaz’s filmmaking. The film had to be profitable, and in a win-win situation for producer (not the filmmaker) and the viewers, Norte appeals to all those filmgoers out there who live in theories and frameworks they are familiar with.

The reception of Norte was positive, but this was precisely because it was different. According to Martin, it seems as if this is exactly what Diaz’s films needed, as all of his previous films were more or less the same, and any further steps on the same treadmill would have been inexcusable (so he’s not going to like his new film, to be honest). This argument is exemplary for the way critics and scholars treat films in their work. Not all of them, but a great majority sees films in comparison to other films. They want to see that x fits to y. If you can see Bazin’s or Deleuze’s work in films than these are superb and worth mentioning.

Lav Diaz isn’t the only slow-film director, who returns time and again to the same aesthetics, the same actors, the same overall story. The interesting thing is that it is only film critics who complain about this. Fans love the films, and I do not understand why they get accused of not doing their directors a favour. Truth is, every director is free to do what s/he wants, and rather than forcing the directors to return to the same themes, we “fans” simply support them for what they do. We do not ask them to change the way critics do just so that it makes it easier to write about them. We take the films the way they are.

The most pressing issue with regards to the films of Lav Diaz, however, is that there should not be any discussion about his craft or inventiveness. From Batang West Side (2001) to Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012) his films have shown a remarkable development of a filmmaker, who produces films with little means. Making incredibly powerful movies with no financial support, a small crew and indeed little hope of distribution is in itself a craft. Not having any support system that makes popular filmmakers go “from strength to strength”, as critics would say, Diaz’s filmmaking requires inventiveness. You need to be creative to make something out of nothing.

My family would say that I inherited this way of thinking from them and my grandparents – while Western Germany was living in American luxury, those in the East were left with nothing because the Russians took everything away. A kind of punishment for what happened in WW II, if you will. I was born too late to live through this directly, but I grew into this mentality because society has this mentality where I come from. I’m still thinking this way, and that fourteen stunning films come out of a Third World country without any support is a success, and should be acknowledged as such. But here we are again: this wouldn’t happen in the First World. We look down on those filmmakers, and see their films through our pink First-World capitalist-imperialist glasses. And as soon as money flows into production, it’s great for the critics.

Those people don’t really see Diaz’s films. Florentina Hubaldo, for instance, was the strongest Diaz film since the beginning of his filmmaking career. Other people may not agree to this, but for me he has stepped up his aesthetic gear in this film, if you want to call it this way. The narrative, the visuals, the play with sound and silence – all this was at a level of perfection. In between, say, Heremias Book I and Florentina a lot had happened in Diaz’s filmmaking. If you only look at the surface, his films will always look the same. But dive deeper, and you will be surprised by what you find.

One final point, which is dear to my heart: I don’t think critics and scholars should touch his films at all, unless they are willing to commit and open up. I’m in a rather awkward position as a PhD student, but I have a background in filmmaking, and I’m trying my best to steer my work away from theories and standard practice of academia, precisely because it is impossible to dissect Diaz’s films with what academia has established in film studies. We should not discuss the aesthetics of Diaz’s films. We should not discuss why he doesn’t seem to develop, which is untrue anyway. We should not wish for stronger distribution or higher investment into his filmmaking.

What Diaz’s films really need is an attentive eye of an attentive viewer. His films are representations of a terrible form of reality in his country. They are an in-depth study of destructive trauma, of unbearable suffering, of violation of human rights, of torture, of extra-judicial killings. They are a document of a society gone awry, mainly because of Western involvement. It started with colonialism and goes to dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who was installed by the West. Lav Diaz’s films are documents of human rights violations and the effects on an entire society. These films are not made for entertainment. Nor should they be seen in the lights of traditional filmmaking.

Lav Diaz is a filmmaker who, with little means, creates documents that scream for help and justice. Why do critics and scholars want him to do it with stunning aesthetics? We have played a big part in what has been going wrong in the country. Demanding a filmmaker, who documents social injustice which has its origin in the West, to be more creative in what he does, is a demand that defies understanding. The main point of his films is the stories they tell. If we really expect a filmmaker, who wants to put the devastating struggle of his people on screen with something other than with the means he has, then it just proves that we, in the First World, have little understanding or knowledge (or even desire) of what is happening around us, and, indeed, it proves what an ignorant society we live in.

Melancholia – Lav Diaz (2008)

I have seen Lav Diaz’s Melancholia three times so far. As it’s time for a new chapter now, it’s also time for a brief post on the film. I saw Melancholia in Newcastle in March 2012 for the first time. It was running at the Slow Cinema weekend, which itself was part of the bi-annual AV Festival. It was my first Lav Diaz film, and I still remember that it knocked me out. To be fair and honest, I booked tickets for his eight-hour film only because it sounded mad. I never expected to survive the screening. Nor did I expect that it would be a good film. It was more like “What?? Eight hours!?” Well, prejudgement is never a good idea.

Melancholia is, contrary to his other films, more or less neatly divided into three parts. The first part follows three characters who engage in a rather strange coping exercise after the loss of their loved ones. This is all the viewer knows at the time. Only slowly do we learn that the three characters know each other, and that they struggle to come to terms with the disappearance – and supposed death – of their partners, who were involved in a clash with the military. Their bodies have never been found. While the first part of the film focuses on this “trauma therapy”, the second part follows two of those characters – Alberta and Julian – in their day to day life. She’s working at a school, he is a book editor. There is also Hannah, a teenage girl, who Alberta adopted after her parents (good friends of Alberta’s) disappeared. And then there is the third part, which follows armed men in a jungle, losing their sanity, fearing their death – they’re the disappeared, the people who have died in the standoff with the military.

I remember the last section to be the single most tense section of a film I have ever seen. And why? Paradoxically, because this section is entirely based on absence, on imagined off-screen space, on paranoia. There’s nothing much to see in those endless minutes of armed men walking through the jungle. A local acts as a spy for them and from him they know that the island has been surrounded by the military and that there’s little hope of survival. We don’t see the military, though. What we do see is one man losing his sanity. The waiting game drives him mad. At some point he shouts “Here I am!”, kind of “Please shoot me and end this.” What happens is only revealed in the letters Renato, Alberta’s husband, writes, letters which will never find their addressee. It’s psychological warfare, transmitted perfectly onto the screen.

Encantos was about extrajudicial killings and artists’ activism. Florentina Hubaldo CTE was an exploration of the effects of colonialism. Melancholia is quite explicit about the disappeared. The torture of not knowing drives Julian, Alberta and Rina into a coping exercise, in which they immerse into different personae. Aim is the resurrection of feelings. Rina described them as the living dead, as wrecked. She’s the most skeptical about this exercise and loses her faith in it, saying that “There is no cure for this!” Even though Hannah is not exactly a lead role in the film, her character is a great study of the effects of (forced?) disappearances in the Philippines. She’s struggling to cling onto a “normal” life. She steals and prostitutes herself. She’s in and out of psychological treatment. The psychological warfare that drove the men in the jungle mad draws much larger circles and effects those left behind.

I studied the use of sound in Florentina, and the framing of the landscape in Encantos. Melancholia is a reminder of just how individual films and filmmakers are in their approaches. There are specific “rules” in film studies; x means y. This doesn’t work in Melancholia. The x you find has no y attached to it. You have to do more than flicking through the film studies bible. I remember the film for its rawness, and now, re-watching it, I’m reminded of just how raw the film is. And it is this rawness that makes interpretations of the film with the help of cinematic techniques difficult. While high pitched sound in Florentina was unmistakably linked to her mental state, the acoustic stress in Melancholia evokes nothing of that sort. It is simply not recorded properly. There’s no indication that the severe noise of cars, wind and rain has a meaning. It’s just a matter of sound equipment. The same is true for the framing. I have very little success in seeing, say, tilted frames as an indication for the disruption of the equilibrium. This film is entirely open and cannot be approached in the usual way.

I don’t complain. I love it. It actually makes you think. This is what I like about Diaz’s films. They’re unconventional in many respects. If you merely play your film studies cards, you will lose the game.

Day 5 – Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (Diaz)

I admit that I have cheated a bit. I didn’t watch the whole six hours in one go. Not the second time. I did so the first time, though. I watched it at the Edinburgh Film Festival last year. So while I am cheating, I’m not really. This film happened to become a very convenient subject for today’s blog. I had to re-watch it for the chapter I’m working on.

Florentina Hubaldo CTE (2012) precedes Norte (2013), and is by all means a Lav Diaz film; shot in black-and-white, giving his characters space and time to develop in their own pace, and dealing with controversial issues that have arisen in the context of colonialism and dictatorship in the Philippines. There is a lot you can say about the film. I found it to be his most complex, and most powerful film to date.

Florentina Hubaldo, CTE, Lav Diaz

In short, Florentina tells the story of a young woman of the same name who goes through horrific atrocities committed by her father, and the men he sells her to. She is repeatedly raped and beaten. She has developed CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a degenerative condition of the brain, which – as we can see in the film – causes memory loss and severe headaches, and leads to a very slow death. Florentina does have a second narrative strand, which merges with the first around four hours into the film, but the film is nevertheless about Florentina, and her daughter Lolita, or Loleng (her nickname).

Cinematically, I find it significant that Diaz never shows the atrocities. Here and there he shows Florentina’s father being rough on her, but he shows neither the rapes nor the beatings. Everything happens off-screen. The viewer is therefore forced to listen to screams and cries of help. It is a hugely effective method of filmmaking in this case. The uncertainty of what is really happening behind the walls to Florentina is an excruciating pain for the viewer, who is taken on a very intimate journey with a woman who goes through hell.

Florentina Hubaldo, CTE, Lav Diaz

There is also an interesting dichotomy between sound and silence in the film, with silence being predominant in her dream-like states, whenever she sees The Giants, which have a historical meaning. But if I start going into this, this entry will never find a worthy ending. So instead, I want to briefly point to the fact that Florentina is a metaphor. The film is not just about an individual. The young woman functions as an example for the whole of Philippine society. In a Q&A that followed the screening at the EIFF last year, Diaz spoke about the effects of colonialism and dictatorships on today’s society. He put Florentina as an individual on the same level as Philippine society. CTE is functions as a drastic and explicit illustration of what colonialism can do to nations.

The repeated maltreatment by Spanish, American, British and Japanese colonisers took its toll on the people. Diaz equated this with the repeated beatings Florentina suffers in the film. Indeed, “rape” has become a historical term these days. There is the rape of Austria (after the Nazis annexed the country). There is the rape of Jugoslawia, of Nanking in China, etc Rape no longer stands for the human act itself. It has become a metaphor for one country’s maltreatment in war of another country. It is a term, which has come to denote simply “power of one agent over another”, no matter in what form.

Florentina Hubaldo, CTE, Lav Diaz

So if we think about the treatment of Florentina as an individual, we have to see this in the context of Philippine history (which is dark, I’ve read about it). It is a clever cinematic construct. It criticises predominantly Western nations for getting rid of Philippine culture, and often, Philippine dignity, without being very explicit about it. The film is told through a metaphor, and it is the only slow film I know of that does this in such a successful manner.

The Power of Time

People who prefer slowness in their lives argue that we’re all slaves of the clock. Those who can’t live without the constant rush of adrenaline argue that this is grossly exaggerated. However, the concept of being a slave of the clock has a history most of us may not at all be aware of. There are three aspects to it (I will do this only briefly here, more details in my actual thesis):

1) Christianity was the first religion that was focused heavily on doing religious services at the ‘correct time’. This was initially indicated by sun clocks, or water clocks, until the mechanical clock was invented. The pursuit of religious services became more rigorous and were a must for devoted and time-obedient Christians. In a way, then, it was from the beginning the clock that ruled when to pray (Aventi 1995; Landes 1983).

2) The mechanical clock was an ideal instrument to exercise power. Take Charles V of France, for instance. At the end of the 14th century, he had a clock installed in his palace, and requested that all other clocks be adjusted to his time. With that being the case, he also ruled when his inferiors were allowed to do certain things. They were thus enslaved by the clock (and by Charles V) (Scattergood 2003).

3) Finally, the power of time on a larger scale; colonialism. European powers introduced mechanical clocks to those countries they conquered. The technically advanced clocks were seen to be an ideal example to show the superiority of European cultures. I mentioned elsewhere that Lav Diaz explained that the Filipino’s perception of time had changed when the Spanish colonisers conquered the islands and introduced the mechanical clock. In a way you can apply my second point from above here; the ruling power introduces her ‘time’ and the colonised have to obey (Geißler 2012).

In general, the mechanical clock allowed it Man to detach time from Nature. This meant that he was in control, and what would prevent him from using this tool to exercise power on his fellows to secure his dominant position?