Saturday, July 20, 2013

some thoughts on NORTE, THE END OF HISTORY

The boundaries of what is acceptable in cinema today are nowhere more circumscribed than what is an acceptable duration, and so when I say that NORTE, THE END OF HISTORY is a four hour film, those who would think nothing of watching, say, four episodes of MAD MEN in a row nonetheless immediately dismiss NORTE as not being of any possible interest. A four hour film carries certain connotations, few of which are, apparently, positive.

NORTE, THE END OF HISTORY is the best film I've seen at the New Zealand International Film Festival since 2010's CERTIFIED COPY, and possibly even better, so I'm pretty passionate about trying to convince people why they should see it. But maybe first it's easier to talk about what it's not.

It's not "slow cinema".

It's not austere.

It's not humorless (although it is serious, in the best sense).

It's not pretentious.

It's not forbidding, or difficult to follow.

NORTE, THE END OF HISTORY, directed by Lav Diaz, is a film that's four hours because that's the right length for this film. It's not about "changing your perception of time and slowing down" or any of that carryon. (I like some of those films - AITA, SWEETGRASS, LE QUATTRO VOLTE come to mind - but this isn't one of them.) I've been in 80 minute movies that tested my patience to much, much greater levels. If I could cut a minute out of this film, I wouldn't.

The other day, I imagined a book festival that was like a film festival: not a "writer's festival" where you hear writers talk, but a festival where you curl up and read books. Today, I saw a film that was novelistic in its feel; detail accruing gradually, characters that lived and breathed and surprised, plot a background function that unfolded organically. I can't think of a film that felt this way since Edward Yang's YI YI in 2000 (although that film is much more "cuter" and likable). Even the structure of NORTE is novelistic: rather than cross-cutting between characters, NORTE will spend quite a chunk of time (a "chapter", if you will, though they're not broken down like this on screen) with a character, then double back to another character.

I often have a bias against films that are socially conscious in some way because they use their dramaturgy to evoke a political point in a way that feels cooked. I generally feel this way when I watch a Dardennes film, I feel it when I watch Farhadi films, I feel it acutely when I watch a fucking Ken Loach film. And an 80 minute version of this film (which you could make, if you believe that cinema only exists to offload narrative in the most efficient manner possible, in which case, you should just skip the cinema and read the plot summary on Wikipedia, shouldn't you?) would have the same problems, which is to say, these films rely on synecdoche to make their political points, e.g. you meet a cop, he's evil, it shows all cops are crooked.

Diaz doesn't believe in synecdoche; instead of having a part stand for the whole, he shows the whole. You see the characters at length, and observe them, and whilst you can place them in a greater sociopolitical context, they don't function solely as signifiers of a critique of a system; rather, they function as humans, with all their messy complications. They are often unpredictable, sometimes in gentle and beautiful ways, sometimes in tragic and horrifying ways, and yet these surprises seem almost inevitable in retrospect. The length of the film shortcircuits your traditional biorhythms of expectation: there's no point where you're like "oh, we're here, so this is what needs to happen now". (Not wearing a watch helped, probably, but still.) His naturalistic observation brought to mind 2010's ALAMAR, only that film was merely about naturalistic observation, where every scene here advances the story and our character understanding.

Directorially, Diaz, like many others who work at duration, is a believer in the long take. He's also a believer in the slow deliberate camera move: some of his push-ins are so slow, you have to watch the edge of the frame to work out that the camera's actually moving. I am also a believer in the slow push-in, so I approve. But he's not overly locked into a single manner: there's quite wide shots, there's closer shots (although no real close-ups, per se), there's shots that have complicated camera movements and blocking, there's POV shots that are handheld. It's always well-considered and well-framed, tasteful without being dull, and intriguing without being unnecessarily showy. Diaz isn't a believer in cinematic manipulation - there's no score to the film - he just uses cinema to accrue detail and character understanding, and that takes time when you're not using cheating shortcuts. But that investment bears a fantastic return.

NORTE does contain a few dark scenes, and that's my only hesitation in recommending it too widely, although the most explicit bits are generally handled off-camera. It's nothing compared to, say, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, but maybe it hurts more here because you care.

NORTE, THE END OF HISTORY is a film that will never come back. There were, maybe, 25 of us in the theater today. It plays twice more in Auckland: once on Wednesday night, and once on Monday afternoon. Maybe eventually you'll find a sneaky way to download it or import a DVD or something, but it won't be the same: it's a film whose sprawling wide shots are made for the big screen. If anything I've said here makes it sound like something you might enjoy, then please: don't miss it.

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