Time to Kill
Jeff Reichert on Heremias (Book One: The Legend of the Lizard Princess)
When we speak of time, we often speak of it as something tangible—do we have time for this; do you have the time? Tangibility suggests something quantifiable, something finite. If we only have so much time how should we spend it? For those of us who choose to spend inordinate amounts of their time with cinema—watching it, wrestling with it, writing on it, making it—what does that choice say about us? And what of that subset who actively seek out films that require the better part of a day to watch in their entirety? And who in this day and age has time for the films of Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz, which often stretch past seven hours in length?
Time is the central component of the oeuvre of Lav Diaz to date—their length is why it works, why his films are so special and also why many choose to stay away, if they even get the opportunity to see them at all. In life, things happen over time, and, save for moments of sleep or certain chemical enhancements, we experience all of it. In movies, most time is elided. From a sweeping historical drama to a romantic comedy spanning a few days, we watch selections chosen for our viewing plucked from the arc traced by time’s arrow. Most movies make their selections carefully to provide the illusion of completeness. Smarter filmmakers make their elisions count. (What viewer hasn’t pointedly wondered about the space between Scottie fishing Madeleine out of the San Francisco Bay and her waking up, nude, under a blanket in his apartment?) But what if a film was made entirely of the elisions? Or stubbornly attempted not to elide anything, to show as much as possible? Diaz has tried for, in some of his epic films and the epic sequences nested within them, this sense of wholeness, of completed actions.
There’s a self-contained sequence in Diaz’s, nine-hour 2006 Heremias (Book One: The Legend of the Lizard Princess) that exists entirely without ellipses. Our hero, Heremias, a former traveling merchant who we’ve watched recede from life over the course of the preceding six hours, returns from his evening perambulations to find a few young men carousing in the ramshackle building he’s made his shelter. They’re callow and loud; they drink, listen to rock music, and circulate around a fire. Their talk eventually turns to women. And then the beauty of one local woman in particular. Then, their leader pushes them to agree on how stuck up she is. Then they talk about how they’d like to rape her, how she’d deserve it. Then they plan how and when they will do it. As the scene ends, they’ve agreed on a timeline and a method. Heremias has watched this all from the edge of the jungle.
The shot that contains this turn from harmless revelry to actual malice goes on forever. While watching, I tracked it to at least 55 minutes, though it could even have been somewhat longer. It ends, in my recollection of events, with a reverse of Heremias peeking through the brush. It plays as theater, a one-act play tucked in the middle of nine-hour film documenting, with pinpoint precision, the darker undercurrents of drunken masculine bluster. Everything we see in this shot could have happened more quickly. Diaz could have edited out the longueurs, the moments where conversation drops away. In most movies, filmic techniques would be deployed to signify the passage of time—a dissolve, some kind of camera movement, a crane up to the night sky, perhaps? Diaz instead holds his static shot on a group of young men growing more inebriated and more awful. It’s worth noting that his style of filmmaking wouldn’t be possible without the advent of digital tools.
Where the first six hours of Heremias detail its protagonist’s disconsolate wanderings, the last two, following the revelation of the rape plot, track Heremias’s increasingly frenzied attempts to prevent the violent act. He reports the plot to town elders, the police, all of whom recognize the would-be rapists as the sons of rich and powerful families in the town. Heremias is rebuffed at every turn. At this point in the film, he’s abandoned a family, an act hinted at in a few shots that might be flashbacks. He’s abandoned his cart, his wares, his jocular crew of fellow merchants. He leaves his livelihood behind to walk, and we’re never quite sure what, if any, trauma has caused this shift. Yet now, for the first time, he seems ready to engage with life, and there’s cruel irony in how fully his attempts are spurned (as was the case for his biblical namesake). It’s as if society, well aware of his disdainful exit from its embrace, now refuses his remorseful advances.
It is here, after seven hours, that it feels like Heremias has begun. Why wait so long? Because Diaz is that rare filmmaker who fully understands the physicality of cinematic time. This weight is something that anyone who’s ever edited visual material can understand—the way lengthening certain shots at the outset can make a piece feel shorter, or how too much cutting and shortening can create the opposite effect. Hours of Heremias walking are necessary to ready the viewer for the long take of the boys carousing and the near-thriller that follows. It’s unexpected—we’ve long given up craving action like this, and drink it down. As viewing subjects, we’ve been conditioned to expect that the gradual arrival at comprehension of a narrative artwork is one of the chief pleasures to be had. For most of Heremias, we’re left unclear as to what Diaz is trying to communicate beyond an overwhelming sense of loss. It is the injection of action into the film that defines it: ah, we find it is a movie about the potential for hard-won redemption. It’s like a gift.
In Diaz’s first film, The Criminal of Barrio Concepcion (1998), a man involved in a kidnapping relates the events of the crime to a hungry cub reporter looking for a scoop. As he unspools his tale, and she listens, the film does what many other films would do in this set of narrative circumstances: leave the narration behind and allow us to watch the events as they unfolded in flashback. If Diaz had made Criminal a few years later, that chat with a reporter might well have played out like the scene in Heremias—we’d hear it all, in real-time. As his career has progressed, Diaz has focused more and more on stories being told, at actions begun and completed, people entering frames in the distance and gradually winding their way through them. If Tarkovsky was sculpting his masterpieces from time, Diaz unearths its raw marble from the earth and asks us to admire the mass.
I can remember watching Diaz’s seven-plus hour Melancholia, only my second experience with his films, and my first of his truly gargantuan works (the four-hour Norte, the End of History goes down easier). Lost somewhere in its length, I realized a need to relieve myself. In a typical screening situation, I’d well know if we were approaching the finale, but here, I felt I could have been watching for two hours or six. I left the theater and checked the time, and saw that just under five hours had elapsed since I’d moved, or taken my eyes from Diaz’s grimy black-and-white images. This is the pleasure of Diaz and perhaps of long works in general: the magic feeling of getting lost in images and sounds is allowed to run past all reason, and throws our own internal clocks out of whack, leaving us pleasingly adrift.
Once, in the early aughts, Diaz announced that his next film, which became Heremias, would be forty hours long. What would a movie of such a length do to the viewer that a nine-hour film couldn’t contemplate? (And how would it be different than binge-watching the latest season of some television show?) Can distending the length of a work make the act of viewing it somehow more precious and singular? My viewing of Heremias could well be the only time I’ll see it, and I remember being highly conscious of that fact while watching. There are many films of regular length that one can access and review again and again. Diaz’s films, though often massive and monolithic, feel moment-to-moment ephemeral. Even if I had the opportunity to spend another nine hours with Heremias (Book One: The Legend of the Lizard Princess), would I really take the time?