jump to navigation

What will make Ilda think?* January 9, 2012

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Essay, Noypi, Oh You Know.
17 comments

Will this make Ilda think?

On New Year’s Eve, a six-paragraph piece of trash appeared on a Web site called Get Real Philippines. Written by Ilda, “Filipino films: they don’t make us think” is intended to be an eye opener, but the only thing it opens is the lid that covers the stink of the site’s pool of writers. The article is poorly written, poorly edited, and poorly thought-of—poorer than the festival it slams, and poorer than the culture of people it looks down on—and it should never have gotten the attention it received, had people stopped adding fuel to what turns out to be a harmless source of fire.

But shit has already been thrown on both sides and the discussion has switched rapidly between horror and comedy. If shit has some use then it is to make the land more fertile and productive: more reasons to prove that Ilda is a lunatic whose goal to make people “realise that things are not always what they seem” is something that she cannot do for herself. Benign0, the manager of the site and Ilda’s defense lawyer, is a rightist hypocrite who promotes change but whose entries and comments point at his deliberate resistance to change, a shameless totalitarian who’s too conceited to believe that change is possible through his “thinking” and the “mind work” done by his team of editorialists.

On the “mission” page of the site, Benign0 speaks like a scholar of Filipino culture, someone who is able to identify its weaknesses and their corresponding solutions, and believes that the country is “the result of lots of action underpinned by very little thinking.” This is the same person who glorifies the Weinsteins and devotes six paragraphs to the history of Miramax to illustrate his case against Philippine cinema, the same prophet who says that “the Philippine film indie sector lacks the sort of innovation that makes billionaires out of nerds and outcasts like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs,” and the same high and mighty who cannot create anything good from the things and ideas he destroys. In the final section of the page, GRP seems like a network of people—pyramiding?—who knocks on your door in the morning to test your religious beliefs. “But we continue to appreciate the contribution of every member of the GRP community and the conscious effort it takes to maintain a clarity of purpose in our minds to ensure that we do not get lost along the way.” From which brochure was this lifted from?

On the other hand, Ilda, who loves The King’s Speech as much as she loves flaunting her silliness, couldn’t have been a better species. Her judgment is rendered invalid by her own mistaken assumption that the world should be thankful for her opinion. Despite her obvious shortage of knowledge about local films—really, she’s blaming independently-produced films because she’s too snobbish to seek them out?—she still thinks her generalizations are well substantiated. She’s the worst kind of evangelist, the type who never shuts up and whom you wish is battery operated. Leaving a response to the comments section of her article would have been appropriate, but there is danger in the mere idea of engaging oneself in a discussion hosted by the opposing party. Therefore, upon careful consideration—and even though a strong proof has been presented that Ilda’s essay does not deserve any type of critical discourse—I decided that reacting to it is better than ignoring it, so rejoice, GRP ministers. Let it be known that whatever misreading invoked below is entirely Ilda’s fault—her writing and her thoughts leave room for a lot of misinterpretations.

*

The type of films Filipino filmmakers make [reflects] the type of people most Filipinos are – people lacking in substance. Just looking at the list of entries for this year’s [Metro] Manila Film Festival, you can already tell that not a lot of thinking was involved in the process of making them. Even the titles leave nothing to the imagination of the audience. Most of the actors playing the lead roles are the same ones we’ve seen since we were kids or some hot young flavor-of-the-month of one producer or another.

Dear Ilda,

First, local filmmakers do not only make one type of movies—there are several types, if only you care enough to know the difference between them. Second, yes, these movies do reflect their audience, but these are people who do not lack substance. In fact, they are more sensible than you. They have exercised their freedom to spend money on movies. Putting trust in a shaky but venerable industry is a sign of substance, of a mind that weighs the pros and cons of a decision. You have also gone as far as implying that you are different from these moviegoers—you have substance, yo—and by simply looking at the list of MMFF entries, you have already made up your mind not to watch any of them because, hey, you’re smart, you don’t waste money on crap, and you can’t believe these people are lining up in theaters, like they are so bobo, right? Third, have you seen any of Danny Zialcita’s movies? The titles of his films (Nagalit ang Buwan sa Haba ng Gabi, May Lamok sa Loob ng Kulambo, May Daga sa Labas ng Lungga, Nang Masugatan ang Gabi, Bakit Manipis ang Ulap?, Bakit Madalas ang Tibok ng Puso?, and a personal favorite, Kapag Tumabang ang Asin) are laughable, but they are actually good. His characters talk relentlessly, but with a lot of sense. But then again why would you care about something you don’t know?

Take the 13th [installment] of Shake, Rattle and Roll, and ask: What else can people expect to get out of it? Not much, obviously. People are probably watching it for the eye candy. Every year the film features starlets parading and pouting for the camera hoping to look cute enough to win an award. That’s right. Talent in acting is not really a criterion for winning an acting award in the Philippines.

…in the Philippines! …like a pyramid!

You ask: what do people expect to get from watching Shake Rattle and Roll? I ask: why do you care? What reasons sound good to you? That they expect to learn more about the dynamics of horror as a genre based on too-stupid-to-live characters? That they expect to see Don’t Look Back or Rosemary’s Baby?  You’re right, “not much,” but how arrogant of you to belittle the enjoyment, no matter how small it is, that people can derive from watching the movie. For instance, Jerrold Tarog, who unfortunately you don’t know, made an episode last year called “Punerarya,” which I liked a lot. The first two episodes, directed by Zoren Legaspi and Topel Lee, were more than worthy to be walked out on, but I stayed because I wanted to see Jerrold’s shit and I wasn’t disappointed with what I saw. So, that’s what I got out of it. I saw Odette Khan as a monster. I got scared numerous times. I wanted to chop Nash Aguas in half. If I wanted eye candy, I should have watched porn instead. And just to let you know, Carla Abellana was superb in “Punerarya,” but the best actress prize went to Ai Ai delas Alas, so maybe there’s some truth in what you said. But seriously, you believe in awards given by MMDA?

In the case of the film Enteng ng Ina Mo starring Ai Ai delas Alas and Vic Sotto; the actors had nothing to work with in terms of storyline and dialogue. The characters just basically rehashed their roles specifically with Vic playing his Enteng character from the 1980s TV series Okay ka Fairy ko and Ai Ai reprising her winning role in last year’s Tanging Ina Mo. It’s another one of those things in the Philippines we can refer to as scraping the bottom of the barrel. The producers are obviously milking the franchise until it bleeds.

Consider this: if you decide to eat at a fine-dining restaurant, do you make a public announcement and say that the food is too expensive? What’s that expression again, “it goes without saying”?

And what about the new Panday 2 movie? First of all, how does Senator Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr find the time to make movies? Isn’t he supposed to be spending more time deliberating policies in the Senate instead of delivering cheesy lines? Aren’t there enough men to take over the role Senator Revilla inherited from the late Fernando Poe Jr? Second, the new Panday movie is being criticized for being a blatant rip-off of the 2010 Hollywood blockbuster remake of Clash of the Titans. All the film needed was Medusa to complete the cast of Perseus’s nemesis. There was nothing special about the “special” effects either.

This is classified as rant, and rants are OK, especially if they are directed towards someone as irksome as Bong Revilla. However, by making a point that Panday 2 “is being criticized for being a blatant rip-off” of Clash of the Titans is a low blow. Bong said that it’s better than Harry Potter, didn’t he? Furthermore, the MMFF is the only time of the year when Hollywood movies get some rest, so thank you for spoiling it.

How do these filmmakers sleep at night knowing that they are not really creating a work of art but just copies of some other people’s work? They are not even making people think; they are not even stirring emotions or provoking people into doing something with their lives; they are not even inspiring young people to aspire for greatness. What they are producing is just stuff you can discard after one use. In short, most Philippine films are a total waste of the people’s time and money.

So, this is the part when you point the loaded gun at the filmmakers.

Determining if something is a work of art or not is similar to hitting your head on the wall and asking why it hurts—it’s kind of, uhm, stupid. It’s a Moebius strip; it just goes on and on. If you think it’s not a work of art, fine, it’s not a work of art. But what makes art an art is that it can be interpreted in infinite ways; hence one’s appreciation, or the lack of it, is only as meaningful as the others.

Nothing is original: deal with it. Even your thoughts are not. How can you sleep at night knowing that someone has already written what you just said? Your personal observations are sweeping statements that can be proven wrong if we interview people. Perceptions of art cannot be definitive. For all you know, a kid watching Enteng ng Ina Mo or Panday 2 might be dreaming of doing films or being a comedian someday. Who knows about the possibilities?

Moreover, making a categorical statement like “most Philippine films are a total waste of the people’s time and money” means you only rely on what little you know about local cinema. It might have been a stronger argument if you removed “most,” since it would be less ambivalent, but apparently you wanted something safe to say and easy to get away from. Humility is substance, my friend, and you seem to have none of it.

Films are supposed to be cultural artifacts that reflect our culture and, in turn, affect us and our outlooks towards life. Most films are considered art, for entertainment and a powerful tool for educating — or indoctrinating — society. But nowhere can we find our culture or any significant message of consequence in our films. Films are powerful tools of communicating ideas and who we are as a people. Unfortunately, our films tell us and everyone else that we are shallow and superficial.

Aside from its triteness, what’s clear in this paragraph is that the MMFF was chosen as a concrete example to illustrate the shortcomings of Philippine cinema and make generalizations about it. This mindset abridges and limits the arguments because these movies do not represent the entirety of the industry in both quantity and quality. Complaining about the MMFF is like beating a dead horse. Supporting the festival, however, is always a choice. You may not like these types of movies, but you can’t take the entertainment away from people who look forward to seeing them every year. There are options offered, and though it seems that the atrocious outnumbers the bearable, the festival still serves its purpose of providing a family fare during the holiday season. A selection of indie films shown a week before Christmas has also been included in the MMFF since last year, an act that can be viewed as some sort of tokenism, but at least there’s some effort from their part, no matter how minimum.

*

Needless to say, there has been a wealth of Filipino movies in the past ten years, and they cannot be ignored if one decides to write about the matter. There’s a thin line between constructive and destructive criticism, and Ilda’s essay fall into the latter because of its failure to recognize many aspects of Philippine cinema and her tirades that display her lack of familiarity with the subject. Her point of view switches between far-sighted and near-sighted, and in the end she resorts to a cross-eyed pronouncement that lashes against Filipino culture, which she deems” shallow” and “superficial,” as if she doesn’t flag her own abysmal shallowness and superficiality. The biggest blunder committed in the essay is when she claims that she is higher than the culture she actually belongs to, the egotism and conceit that Philippine cinema and its people can be summed up in six lousy paragraphs, backed up by nothing but amour-propre.

Just because they subject themselves to dumb and tasteless movies, Filipino moviegoers are neither dumb nor tasteless. Calling a number of films dumb and tasteless is open to question, but these movies exist because there’s a set of audience who tolerates them, not because of a society that’s in full agreement with their values. They are present in mainstream and independent sectors, made by people whose core of values has been irreparably institutionalized, a cycle repeated over and over, generation after generation. Considering their politics, these movies reflect only a specific aspect of the culture, and not the totality of it.

Furthermore, the clearest  fallacy in Ilda’s generalizations is the confidence in her judgment—her separation of high art and low art, of art and entertainment, of highbrow and lowbrow consumers—and by baring her thoughts she has also exposed how debased and minute her understanding of the world is, how her ignorance is wrapped in despicable pride.  One can only wish that a majority of Filipino moviegoers would have time to see more films, not just the ones shown at malls, but they have more pressing concerns to attend to, be it economic, socio-political, or personal.  Information is readily available online, but not everyone owns a computer and has access to speedy Internet, so it’s admirable when filmmakers decide to bring their works to grassroots communities, reach out to the marginalized, and encourage discourses with people in the area.

The programmer’s job cannot also be discounted. In addition to the yearly screenings of Cinemalaya, Cinemanila, Cinema One Originals, and Cinema Rehiyon—four of the biggest film festivals in the country that showcase a variety of features from north to south—there are small-scale public screenings organized in private residences and establishments that put emphasis on overlooked and underrated films and filmmakers. These movements, which have not been strongly present in the 90s and the early part of the 00s, prove that there is basis in declaring a golden age in Philippine cinema, that in fact there is progress in terms of the quality of films being made and the quality of appreciation being given by the audience, as exemplified by the increasing number of people attending festivals every year and bloggers writing reviews online. Like other national cinemas, the local film industry struggles from the constraints of traditional moviemaking and the fetters of nostalgia—every now and then people look back to the years of Bernal and Brocka—but that’s the good thing about it: contemporary filmmakers and moviegoers are leaving a unique mark on the landscape of Philippine cinema despite these hindrances, and the industry is no longer standardized and homogeneous but multi-faceted and ripe with contradictions.

“Filipino films: they don’t make us think” is one of those incongruities that obviously comes from a group of groundless hecklers who means more harm than good, who believes that all independent filmmakers—unabashedly called “point-missers” and “onion-skinned crybabies,” groundbreaking terms, mind you—are whiners. Let’s leave it on a happy note, can we? Remember Lino Brocka’s Insiang? There’s a short and amusing scene in the film when Hilda Koronel passes by a bunch of kids and she accidentally steps on shit. She gets mad, of course, so she rubs her slippers on the ground and walks away. That’s a brilliant moment, and it befits this issue very well because Ilda, twenty-six years later, is the reincarnation of that piece of shit, excreted without warning. Like Insiang, we should all just abandon her like a boss.

*
(A) Enrolling in a class under Mr. Alemberg Ang
(B) Appearing in a movie with Ms. Lilia Cuntapay
(C) Watching the filmography of Direk Wenn Deramas
(D) All of the above

If you know the answer, please leave a comment below.

Advertisements

(Gibbering Again) On the Importance of Establishing a Film Magazine September 18, 2010

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Essay, Noypi, Whatever.
9 comments

“Divine Reception” by Andy Rementer

<This article was first posted on Lilok Pelikula on April 7, 2009—entitled “(Gibbering) on the Importance of Establishing a Film Magazine”—with countless grammatical errors and just plain stupid points. I am not apologizing for that, hello it’s a personal blog, but since the editor requests it to appear in Escolta (my fault because I did not finish my assignment and didn’t have anything new to submit), I might as well proofread it for dignity’s sake. If I have my punctuations wrong or my verbs missing, and the editor still misses them, well, I call that life.

<Since this is technically a reprint, and my mind has been fucked up between then and now, I am pulling the happy trigger and writing my notes after every paragraph. Bang!>

Becoming a film critic in this country is an ordeal. It is a work that invites loathers, a work that provokes hate from people who can never get used to the idea of civility and meaningful discussion. Even the critic himself is not used to being called a critic because the term connotes harshness, a person who bargains fun for pompousness, an intellectual whose glibness remains his only trait. For the sake of argument he argues, never letting his defenses down without giving his best shot. Primarily the reason we only have a few critics is that we have this culture against them, that they are almost unnecessary, that our small community of moviegoers is better off without them. We have made ourselves immune to criticism, knowing its only intention is to hurt.

<On second thought, who says being or becoming a film critic is a job? Again, being or becoming? Whoa, the stuff of superhero comics.>

In this country also, no one becomes a writer solely by profession. There are exceptions to the rule but most of these writerly dreams are either left prematurely in exchange for more fruitful lines of work—a call center job, for instance—or forgotten, because writing is the trade of the lunatic. A competent writer is lucky if his first novel or short story collection is followed by another one. The chance of getting published is so slim it is almost hopeless. Norman Wilwayco had to ask for pre-order payments to have his Palanca-winning novel be thrown at the printing press whereas in the span of less than a week after the movie came out, more than five times had I heard someone asking the cashier in FullyBooked when the new stock of Twilight would arrive. Another case: Noel Vera was only able to find a publisher for his book Critic After Dark in Singapore. In Singapore? Yes, because where in Manila could you find someone brave enough to publish a collection of film reviews whose readers are not even close to a thousand?

<What else is that supposed to mean? What is it that Filipino writers have to prove before getting the audience that they deserve?>

Little that some people know, writers here are the easiest to please. Almost on the verge of gullibility, the Filipino writer easily clams up when someone approaches him to tell that he has read his story or article—oh how on earth have you read that? no one reads my work, he thinks of saying every word of humility possible—but the giddiness that he felt after that simple anecdote is enough confirmation for him to continue his passion. The god of small things always saves him from despair. Writing has to be the noblest profession in this country, considering its lack of financial reward.

<We need to define noble. Any suggestions?>

The dearth of books that focus on Philippine cinema has pushed me to write. When I was still studying in the university, late in those years, I discovered how awful that in the library we only have less than five books authored by Filipino critics. Noel Vera’s book is literally peerless, and the Urian Anthology of the 70s and the 80s are waiting for another reprint, or for another decade of compilation. (Just so you know, three days ago, The 90s Urian Anthology was launched at Balay Kalinaw. –ed) It was a major orgasm in my life reading these books that more than once I intended to steal them from the library. It is impossible to buy a copy of them here, and if the library or Teddy Co loses them, they are just as lost as Gerardo de Leon’s Daigdig ng mga Api or the ark of the covenant.

<I forgot to add that Ricky Lo also had books. And hey, two books at that: Star-Studded and Conversations with Ricky Lo. I borrowed them twice in the library. I may have to reread them. Seriously.>

So it is a relief when I see a film article in the Philippines Free Press, Philippine Graphic, or Rogue, more so if it is well-written and inspiring, because that space—how little it is—is a dream to me. Every time I come across a lousy film review I cannot help but feel my dream move a million miles away from myself, with great desire to punch the fucking writer in the face. There are times when I wish that we had a coalition for the deserving: the irresponsible crucified and the meritorious esteemed; but determining that, of course, will only complicate things.

<A coalition of the deserving headed by Laurice Guillen and Robbie Tan. Oh, were you referring to another coalition? Let’s have one led by Mauro Gia Samonte.>

Only a few interesting writers are actively contributing to major newspapers today, considering that editors prefer scoops from Dolly Ann Carvajal to refreshing theater criticism of Gibbs Cadiz and Exie Abola. Sadly most of these writers are big bluffs. With all due respect to Nestor Torre, Butch Francisco and Mario Bautista, for what little that I have for them, I always feel the need to implore them to step out humbly from their respective broadsheet spaces; or, if it is ever possible, given their way of lengthening their columns by accommodating cable programs and gossips and whatnots, ask them to be more responsible writers on film, again, if that is ever possible. There are no more tricks to learn from you, Mr. Torre, Mr. Francisco, and Mr. Bautista. What the public needs is insight into intelligent viewership, curious discussions and penetrating cultural discourse, piercing thoughts on our socio-political climate without devaluing cinema’s entertaining virtues, credibility, good taste, and good taste of bad taste. With your empty thoughts, Mr. Torre, Mr. Francisco, and Mr. Bautista, I am afraid, we can only request for the acceptance of truth.

<”Dollywood”, at least, has entertainment value. “Viewfinder” is an insult to the thousands of trees cut for its sake. “Starbytes” is pretending to be journalistic while in fact Butch Francisco’s  writing is Greta Garbage. And “Reel Score”, come on, is just meh.>

Furthermore, what saddens me is that we don’t have any film magazine in print. The short-lived Pelikula had vanished after only several issues. Even I myself had not gotten hold any page of it. The risk of putting up a publication that caters on marginal readership is only aggravated by the fact that the number of local films continues to dwindle down year after year. So, what is there to write if there isn’t much to write about? Old films in abysmal video print? Mainstream cinema’s mastery of cinematic sciolism? Our terrible fate? Luckily right now, the landscape is changing, both in terms of number and quality, and starting to be diverse. That’s why I tell you, it is important to write now, now than ever, because we need to document this point in Philippine cinema that will never happen again. For what are writers but chroniclers, historians in their own selfish right. This movement of independent cinema is an earthquake that needs to be recorded in every possible point by the very few serious seismographs we have (most of them online), like news reports sensationalizing a national disaster.

<Oh, right.  I get carried away there. 189 words? Two words could equally suffice: JUST WRITE.>

The only thing we can never lose, especially in this age of remarkable movement, is passion. There is hope, there is discovery, and there are films to write about. If only Philippine cinema has sufficient readers to support the foundation of a film magazine— moral is good but financial is absolutely better—then we can create the rudiments of critical film discussions in print, which is still the best way to promote movies locally. In theory, this magazine will aim to inform and provide rooms for meaningful discourse. Writers will not be paid unless they write well. If it may be allowed to continue then further avenues for film appreciation will come along the way. The support cannot only come from writers but from you most especially, Filipino moviegoers and readers. And hopefully—yes, the improper way to use “hopefully” in a sentence—things will eventually fall into place.

<Although I still think a print magazine is necessary, I don’t believe that print is the “best way to promote movies locally”.  I was wrong there. I read more articles on the web than in the papers. I was just being stubborn, mind you, or idealistic, blinded by the dream of writing for glossy magazines. Everybody lies, after all.>

There are plans to initiate an award-giving body comprised of active local bloggers (myself included), something that may sound unnecessary considering the uselessness of awards in the industry (“Take it! Take it!” † RIP Viveka Babajee). But with our little exposure to glitz I hope we can give more importance to the why than the what, the films than the glamour they carry with them, and the national cinema than the cinema of the press. The awarding of best films and performances of the year will be a joint effort of people who come from different fields but who share a similar passion, people who agree and disagree with each other because they have different ideas. Unlike other award-giving bodies that exist out of self-importance or passing a forgotten legacy, we write, we write with dedication and sense, words have always been our only weapon, not glamour or friends in the industry (though they do help). Our relationship with cinema is worthy of love without reciprocation. We are here as lovers of good films, and oftentimes their spokespersons on behalf.

<Alas, the plans did not push through. I think I was being a hopeless daydream believer again there, muddy and careless thoughts in breathless sentences. I still dream of doing the awards thing with fellow bloggers, but I admit I watch less movies recently and write less frequently. Could we keep up? Do you wince while reading that last line? Just curious, because I do. Too much beer when I wrote that.>

The critic dies not when he ceases to write but when he thinks there is no more reason for writing. Now, there is practically almost every reason to write. I hope the very few of us who continuously update our online journals will be given at least a piece of encouragement, a tap on the shoulder, a harsh comment, or why not a visit in our dreams, to make this work. And to filmmakers, I dare you, if you are still worthy to be called filmmakers, give us reasons to believe that Philippine cinema is indeed in another golden age, and that, as time will tell, it will linger as fruitfully as before.

<Fuck that first sentence. Fuck this whole paragraph. All bullshit.

<Do not be sentimental for others’ sake. Grieve because you want to. Write because no one will read your work. Watch films because you want to waste time. Once you care about other people, all else fails. Don’t make a difference. Don’t think you can make a difference. Don’t think about establishing anything. Don’t think about relevance. Don’t think about the filmmaker. Think about films. Think about writing. Think about perfect grammar. Think about style. Think about giving up on love (only when provoked). Think about music. Think about books. Think about. Think. Then disappear.

<Writing this now, I feel a sense of dread. What is there to look forward to? Like Carey Mulligan says in An Education, using Lynn Barber’s voice, “I feel old but not very wise.” I wrote this article and posted it on my blog more than a year ago. How come many things I believed in then are so different now? How come I don’t care much anymore? How come I am sending this article to Escolta instead of doing an analysis of sexuality using two films (Patikim ng Pinya and Ang Lihim ni Antonio) from two different decades? How come much of that film drive I used to have has been lost in such a short period of time?

<All I know is that I now have a definition of a critic. “A critic gets paid to write reviews.” As simple as that. With emphasis on the third and fourth word. Nestor Torre is a critic. Butch Francisco is a critic. Mario Bautista is a critic. Damn, Philip Cu-Unjieng and Baby Gil are critics. Noel Vera is a critic. Phibert Dy is a critic. Roland Tolentino is a great critic. Oggs Cruz is sometimes a critic. Dodo Dayao is a rock star critic. Alexis Tioseco was a critic.

<It’s not a question of money. It’s a question of how much a publication values its writers. How much a writer’s service is worth. How much is the writer’s damn fee to write a fucking film review.

<An unpaid writer is just as unworthy as the crap that PEP writers churn out everyday. An unpaid writer is an unappreciated writer. An unpaid writer isn’t happy with just a byline. An unpaid writer isn’t worthy of a byline at all. An unpaid writer whines but continues to hope. An unpaid writer is stupid by all means.

<There, I’m not a bloody critic so please don’t treat me like one. See you at the movies.

<August 12, 2010>

*Published in Escolta, August 2010

On things between poverty and porn (like research and experience) May 8, 2010

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Essay, Noypi.
9 comments

“Foster Child” and “Slumdog Millionaire” – To piss and to kiss poverty

An interesting observation among local films recently is the heavy amount of research against the personality of experience.

Overlap happens naturally, but a quick look at them—especially those that win in festivals—reveals an overwhelming number of works that rely so much on research. Writers go out of their way to find subjects to interview. They seek the help of professionals, lean on their thoughts, and get inspired by them. Directors, on the other hand, borrow the style of films they love. They pay homage to them, proudly admit their influence, and lose themselves in the fantasy of wearing other people’s clothes.

Nothing wrong with that, of course, except that almost everybody is doing it.

In narrative films, research is integral to the film, but a good filmmaker can tell a story effectively without showing off how much knowledge he knows, or how much effort it took him to deliver his statements onscreen. That talent to shape subtlety—not subtlety to be defended as art, but subtlety to command stronger turns of plot—defines authorship which makes films deserving of careful probe and analysis. For no trivial reason must research steal the show. Research will provide the meat, but it will not and should not take away the interest from the film. Furthermore, research can command a work only as much as the filmmaker will allow it, and when that happens—when the illusion becomes too indispensable to be confused with the factual—the personality of the filmmaker’s experience surfaces.

Personality takes over. And when it takes over, clichés are no longer trite; and instead they tell us that something is different, something is rational.

A cliché, for instance, is that every national cinema needs its share of porn to draw viewer interest. However, between lurid/sensational and little/no artistic merit, there must be a proper use of the term “porn” because boxing the trend as such is not only risky—it’s prejudicial. The more frequently the term is used, the easier it should be defined; but unfortunately, definitions only come after the damage is done. Like poverty and porn as individual truisms, poverty porn becomes too definable to define that it is often taken for granted.

Two years ago, the term was severely used to discuss Slumdog Millionaire. A string of heavy write-ups added to the film’s cultural significance, even more than its artistic merits, especially after critics were unanimous in honoring the film. Now, poverty porn becomes another cozy place in which to categorize the films of Brillante Mendoza, Jeffrey Jeturian, and several others who earn recognitions abroad. In the dynamics of foreign festivals, it is the programmers who rule—they dictate which films to include in the fest, which films to represent the country. This way, foreign audiences are led to a common perception: a four-cornered description of life in the country, an interpretation of the filmmaker.

Take the case of Mendoza: his films, no matter how divisive they are, offer drastic shifts between research and experience, but they complement each other in different ways. The movie theater in Serbis is not only a movie theater that houses pimps and perverts; it also serves as a remembrance of things past, an allusion to ways that used to exist, like the family that used to live comfortably or the cinema that used to show decent films. Research is also very powerful in Kinatay, but Mendoza candies it with experiments in form, making it feel like a dissertation on the abstract rather than the tangible. But this dynamic is best illustrated by Jeturian’s Kubrador. Rarely does a local film invoke a sense of alarm that is driven by a perfectly written principal character, that the moment the elements walk freely between the real and the imagined, the marriage of poverty and porn becomes completely relevant.

Upon reflection, it is not incidental that the three films mentioned above were penned by Bing Lao.

Only those who concern themselves with the necessity of terms—and their ability to simplify—are bothered by poverty porn. You ask, why make films that depict/promote/exploit/argue poverty? Why, because we’re still poor. And films cannot do anything about that. The personal politics of cinema can only do as much as make us think. Action lies elsewhere.

*Published in The A/V Club, The Philippine Star, May 7, 2010

Himpapawid (Raymond Red, 2009) November 24, 2009

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemanila, Essay, Festival, Indie Sine, Literature, Noypi.
11 comments

The Force

English Title: Manila Skies
Written and directed by Raymond Red
Cast: Raul Arellano, John Arcilla, Sue Prado, Soliman Cruz

Shortly after winning the Palme d’Or, Raymond Red heard the news of a hijack. The passengers of Philippine Airlines Flight 812, on their way to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport from Davao, were stranded after a desperate man declared a hold-up. Holding a gun and a grenade, he asked for their valuables and kept them inside a bag. He ordered the pilot to descend six thousand feet above ground, went to the rear door, and jumped. He wore a ski mask and swimming goggles, in case of landing on water, and suited himself with a homemade parachute.

That was on May 25, 2000. His body was found three days later.

Our few relevant filmmakers know this: if there is a place where one can find the most important stories to film, they are on the papers. Read and everything is already there. The characters, the plot, the resolution. On his part, Red has a strong grasp of his inspiration, only he uses it to address a common problem, a problem so common it is easily ignored. He works on the same premise but makes his intentions clear: to put emphasis on the social perspective, and to make this premise relate without needing so much details. Not only he achieves credibility in terms of ambition, but he also delivers the image of poverty that we have long been wanting to represent us, fair and square.

Should we remember a meaningful statement released after the PAL hijack, these words from Rep. Roilo Golez could be handy:

I can’t understand why an armed hijacker would risk his life only for a hold-up. Possibly his main goal, besides robbing, is to deeply embarrass the government.

Considering the political climate that time, particularly the series of bombings in the city and the unending tension between the military and rebels in Mindanao, the incident could only be interpreted as politically-motivated, even if it sounds slightly uncaring to the hijacker himself, or more important than what provoked him to such limits. Red, however, wants to pursue the man, know him, get in touch with him, and identify with him. Red makes another story—a narrative less concerned about marital problems and dreams of skydiving—but he gives his character the same conclusion. After all, in light of our condition right now, there could possibly be more reasons to jump off a plane with a parachute with no ripcord than otherwise. It just takes an awful effort.

But an awful effort it is—Himpapawid.

Hunger and misery go hand in hand, and often it is hunger that delivers someone to misery. The way Red shapes the character of the hijacker, hunger is numbed implicitly—or maybe hunger is something we don’t notice anymore, and can only be shown through the symbolism of rats and cockroach crawling unnoticeably—and misery is shown otherwise. What could have led him to hijack a plane, amid the little chance of accomplishment, points to a single cause, something that could only be deduced from the simple truth—that we are poor, that we have a history of poorness, and that we have a strong culture of poverty. Only we feel it more than we see it in the film. Himpapawid isn’t keen on persuading, but it is persuasive enough to attribute the hijacker’s actions to our diminishing regard for social responsibility. We cannot ignore the changing economy yet we try our best to do so; we find ways to make a living and think of the future; we reflect on our steps to get there, while the reasons why we strive—mainly our growing families—are still there, remaining, staying, depending on us.

Red may be talking about the same social cancer that Rizal, through Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, made clear more than a century ago, only in Himpapawid we have a hopeless protagonist to follow, his circumstances closer to recognition, and his fate already known to us. One arguable similarity though: Red unfolds his story like a novel, pacing it through a series of carefully structured rising action, involving supporting characters to further define the main character, apparently to allow his situation to be seen as critical, placing a clever plant and payoff device to render his argument intensely, and, in the writer’s command of words, making all the effort deliver a view of how things had been, and how things are going to be.

Himpapawid may well be the literary highlight of the year, but it is also its filmmaker’s return to the language that has nurtured him most. During those nine years between Anino and Himpapawid, the situations have clearly not changed for the better. We’re still like hamsters running persistently in wheels—running in one place and time, running till we lose the will to run—only in our case, we are running a life that doesn’t do us any good as time goes by.

*

Generations (The Young)

Generations (The Old)

More than forty years since its first publication, Mga Agos sa Disyerto remains a resounding piece of literature. The twenty-five stories that compose the collection—five shorts from Efren Abueg, Dominador Mirasol, Rogelio Ordoñez, Edgardo Reyes, and Rogelio Sicat—deliver a strong command of both language and subject that one can easily smell and taste their settings. The subjects are broad; the descriptions varied; the stories bleed fire and filth; and the characters.are so familiar they seem to walk right past the reader. There is more to poverty than being poor, the book is explicit in telling, and more to depression than not having a place to live and food to eat. Poorness is described the same way they are felt. The pressing depiction of the characters’ lives and their struggle to make out with the little things they have, as they face every day with an empty stomach, leaves its mark on succeeding generations of writers and readers, quickly establishing the book as a canon of short fiction.

Every story in the collection flows from the stream of social realities; each seems to emanate from a small opening of light that lets every observation cut deeply; yet it is in this little opportunity where hope springs forward—hope not only for Philippine literature but also for its inspiration, the poor society that continues to be poor, and the cruel situations that remain more and more cruel. But the writers are less concerned about solutions than problems—problems which cannot be ignored once one goes outside and observes. In these stories hope exists but it doesn’t come in the most appropriate time. Dire situations, however, give way to realities that can only come in such circumstances, a view of life that, for instance, can only be apparent to Ida and Emy in “Di Maabot ng Kawalang-Malay,” or to Impen after brawling with Ogor in “Impeng Negro.”

Included in the anthology is Sicat’s “Tata Selo,” a story that is widely read because it is required reading among high school students. Its language strikes the students first. Words like “istaked, “kahangga,” “gris,” and “nakiling” are new to their ears, or too old to be recognized that even their parents are not familiar with them. The clause “Kinadyot ng hepe si Tata Selo sa sikmura,” may elicit laughter, as the word “kadyot” is mostly used now to suggest sexual action. The names of the characters are also uncommon; “Tata” and “Kabesa” are rarely used in the city at present; and people now are more comfortable to say “Meyor” than “Alkalde.”  This being a suggestion of difference in locality, one cannot discount the fact that the story endures because of its subject. Effort, then, is expected from the teachers to explain to the students not just the meaning of difficult words and its plot structure; but more importantly the author’s manner of description and characteristic language, the context and subtexts of the milieu, and how they still relate today.

Right at the very start it is clear that the tragedy of Tata Selo is his killing of the landowner who forces him to leave his farm. But his greater tragedy—if there is such comparative way of looking at it—is not being able to fight for his reason. The crime undresses him of respect, fair treatment, and humanity; and that crime is a cruel equalizer. In the eyes of the people who look at him in detention, he is an old man—and they pity him. In the eyes of the police and the mayor, he should not have killed his lord—and they also pity him. It is in Sicat’s absolute sensitive control that Tata Selo comes to life as a powerful representation of poverty—both of body and spirit—that is borne out of greed and injustice. The feeling of helplessness is incredibly felt; the thought that the poor will only become poorer looms, and the truth that the rich won’t give a damn about them becomes stronger.

Atrofia, Joey Velasco, 2005, Oil on canvas

One could imagine Tata Selo as he looks outside his cell and the people look at him back—only the old man isn’t aware of them, isn’t aware of their look of pity, isn’t aware of anything at all—and one of those eyes knows he’ll die soon, hungry and bruised. Sicat breathes life not only to Tata Selo but also to countless farmers and laborers who live in deprivation, them who are abused even more because of their situation, them who have to work hard and get less in return without complaining. This value for humanism that Sicat punctuates in his story—a humanism based on character and dignity—also predominates in Raymond Red’s Himpapawid.

Raul and Tata Selo suffer from similar fate—only in different situations and different company of people. Like in “Tata Selo,” age isn’t a virtue to be proud of in Himpapawid; in fact, the older a person gets, the less likely he is to settle down comfortably. The older he gets, the harder the situations can be. And the older he gets, the bleaker his future is. Getting enough food to eat for every day becomes a luxury. A good work is hard to find; and once work is found, keeping it is even harder. In the film Raul asks permission from his boss to leave work in the morning because he plans to complete his papers for his job application abroad. His boss refuses, despite Raul’s plea and display of desperation, at his wits’ end just to convince him say yes. His boss agrees, only he’ll lose his job—and Raul, alone in his dismay and hopelessness, goes home, jobless.

His conversation with his boss is the first instance of seeing him on edge. His anger is understandable; but his steadfast demeanor, revealed in his tone and manner of reasoning, is, for lack of a better word, bizarre. Certainly, the boss wouldn’t go out on a limb to yield to his request. Like he says, people line up every day just to get Raul’s job—a job that demands no rest day, no valid excuse for absence. Raul is just another worker that can be easily replaced. The boss reasons out to his plea like the decision isn’t coming from him. There is a sense of detachment; a feeling of higher control. The order needs to be observed, or else the other workers will follow suit and the whole business will fail. Raul loses his job because he isn’t privileged to have a better work environment, the same way Tata Selo is socked by the police while in jail because he is an old man who killed a powerful person in the community. Their reasons are irrelevant.

Important is the reaction of other people to Raul’s character. The boss maintains his cool as he talks to him, though he almost loses it if he hasn’t been busy. An emotional turning point, however, is seen when Raul goes to the agency to finish his papers. The day, unlike any other day, is a succession of mishaps. He loses his coins in the sewer; he is riled by a dismissive customer in the photocopying shop; he steps on a poop. In the agency he flares up when the clerk tells him that his requirements aren’t right, thus his application cannot be processed. He goes in a shouting spree, denouncing the applicants who will themselves to condescend just to get work, scaring them. He tears up his papers and throws them away. He curses the system; he curses the plight of the unfortunate. He tells the truth, but in the eyes of these people, he is a madman. He is a threat to their dreams of greener pastures. But in the eyes of the audience, is he really acting strange?

It is easy to see where Raul is coming from. He stays in a dirty house, an apartment whose rent he hasn’t paid for months. His father is ill in the province and he cannot go there to visit him. He just lost his job. He tries to apply for a work abroad only to find out that his papers are incomplete. He is hopeless; he would lick any dust of hope that comes along his way. In the company of his beer friends, though, he finds it. And in their group he isn’t different; he isn’t bizarre; he isn’t tense. The long talk in front of the store best describes the “Filipino inuman,” humorous, tacky, and honest. The audience becomes a listener to truthful rants and a witness to a crime that will yield grave misfortune. The group welcomes him. He becomes part of their plan. He agrees to help the heist.

Beer is salvation

Raul isn’t at the center of the plan but it is through his participation that the film is able to convey its strongest point. The life of the poor is like dominoes falling in longer intervals, but the effect and outcome are still the same: the fall of everything. However difficult the situations are, there is still one that will come after another, an action that will trigger another situation to happen.

Everything topples onto another until there is nothing left to fall onto, until the end of everything, until death. And Raul, in the middle of everything, refuses to be defeated by circumstances and loses himself—his sanity letting go and completely leaving him on his own—hungry and bruised, choosing death by deadening. He jumps with the parachute of workers—of strikers who fight for fair treatment—and that isn’t enough. He dies beside their protests, beside the wails of empty stomachs, beside the clamor for little food, beside the cries of the young, beside the dead cause. He lies on the mud with his feet up, still trying to stand.

The fate of the poor is living and dying all the same. Like Tata Selo, Raul could only repeat his words and no one will ever care to listen.

*

Halfway through the sequence inside the plane, before the hijack happens, Teddy Co points at the two flight attendants. “Look at that,” he says in the vernacular. “Look at that. Raymond is telling us that women now have become workers and men have become bummers. Good-for-nothing. Useless.”

The observation is spot-on, so truthful it hurts. The reversal of the set-up is not anymore unusual, though; male chauvinism, at least in the Filipino household, has become lax and impractical. A family that stays together starves together; that’s an acceptable principle. Pride breeds hunger; and that pride is something that Filipinos have learned to set aside and reconsider. If the husband is out of work and the wife takes care of financial support, the former is expected to take over her duties. In some cases, however, such swallowing of pride on the husband’s part harbors guilt, laziness, and misery.

Tom and Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, directed by John Ford, 1940

John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath sets a formidable example. At first, it has the impression of patriarchal solidarity—there’s Tom, Pa, Grandpa, Al, Connie, Noah, Uncle John, and Casy active in making important decisions. But when the family moves out of Oklahoma to find work in California, the said impression of fraternity slowly crumbles and each of these men has shown great weakness that leaves the family down-and-out. Ma, her mind clear and her voice stern and assured, now gives the orders and makes sure they are followed. She pulls the family together; when a member of the family dies, leaves, or gets killed, she is there, thinking, knowing what needs to be done, and doing what needs to be done after. She shows her strength to her husband, telling him in his face that gone were the times when he rules the family and when his decisions matter, especially now that he cannot give the family anything to eat. From pillar to post, she never gives up; she has elected herself to the position of not only being the head of the family, but its light—its direction.

Ma talks with a lot of weight but never inconsiderately. She talks coming from her experience and observations, knowing she has gone through enough hardships to grant her the privilege of shedding enlightenment, of telling what she thinks is unavoidable about their plight. Her words sum up the truth of their condition:

I’m learnin’ one thing good. If you’re in trouble or hurt or need — go to poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help — the only ones.

Only ones. That will help. Poor people.

Strikingly, Himpapawid also makes the league of extra-unlucky gentlemen prominent. The men dominate the narrative, that aside from Raul there are also characters that the story takes time to explore, namely his beer friends and the father and son in the province. On the other hand, there is a particular woman that stands out, not just because she is the only woman in the crowd of men but because she appears in three personas, Red making sure not to tell whether or not they are the same person.

The suspiciously promiscuous woman, the clerk, and the stewardess—Sue Prado plays them with the required ambiguity to further emphasize the mental torment of Raul. Red may have the intention of keeping her characters worthy of probe, especially in relation to Raul’s resolve to hijack a plane, as each of them figures in his moments of utter defeat (first, when he got fired; next, when his application papers weren’t accepted; and last, when he was about to hijack the plane). The woman is primarily seen as the object of his sexual desire—may it be her image specifically or just her as the lone woman in the desert of unfortunate men the viewer is not really advised—but unlike Ma in The Grapes of Wrath, she does not help Raul in the course of the story. The only time she helps him is when she pushes him out of the plane door to his death. Instinctively, that is the culmination of her purpose: bringing him to his grand finality.

A teaser for the film, slated for release in February 2010

Should one think of Filipino novels in a similar vein, Edgardo Reyes’ Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag and Norman Wilwayco’s Mondomanila: Kung Paano Ko Inayos Ang Buhok Ko Matapos Ang Mahaba-haba Ring Paglalakbay come to mind. The former is adapted into film by Lino Brocka in 1975; and the latter is being helmed by Khavn dela Cruz and is set to release next year. Considering that local cinema and literature don’t have a wealthy tradition of working together, there is no question why both novels are picked up for the big screen. Both have strongly defined main characters—Julio Madiaga and Tony de Guzman—who are molded by their experiences in the city, changed by their ill fates, and scarred by their bloody encounters. Allowing these men to represent the proletariat, Reyes and Wilwayco have made their characters distinctly alive that the reader starts to smell them and feel the sweat dripping on their foreheads as they run for their life.

The characterization of the city is by all means integral to the writers’ social criticism, which in closer inspection goes deep into their personal background. Both Reyes and WIlwayco are sons of the streets, children of grief, and drunkards who know the way of the world better than the aristocrat. Reyes, with his understated and careful force of description—always putting importance on precision and truthfulness—is a deserving inspiration to Wilwayco’s savage control of language, whose style has always matched the filthiness and putridness that pervade his stories. They have come to regard the city as a character on its own, defining their human characters, and not allowing them to escape the truth of their condition. They offer no world of beauty, no make-believe world of happily-ever-after—because in reality no paradise can exist in a city that was built in hell. Their city has pushed the animal out of Julio and Tony; and like Raul in Himpapawid, the beast is a creature that evolves grimly and hopelessly.

Julio Madiaga, Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag, Lino Brocka, 1975

Raul, Himpapawid, Raymond Red, 2009

Are they looking at the same person?

In Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag and Mondomanila, the clear conflict is man against society. Julio and Tony struggle to survive; they struggle to achieve their goal—Julio to finally be with Ligaya, and Tony to live a comfortable life out of the slums; and both struggle alongside their need to fill their stomachs with food. Himpapawid follows the same theme; scene after scene, layers pile up to reach the peak of Raul’s desperation. His primary need to go home in the province to visit his ill father blows up when he loses his job and gets involved in a failed heist. In a streak of luck (or unbelievable negligence), he is able to sneak his gun and grenade into the airport. He decides to hijack the plane, collect all the passengers’ valuable possessions and jump off with a homemade parachute. He hasn’t expected his death, for sure; he has overlooked it. Despair has numbed his mental state; he has lost his mind, though not fully. His logic is intact; only his plan isn’t. His distress has robbed him of the right frame of mind, proving the truth of his words, “Bato na ang utak ko!”

Red has gone literary without sacrificing the language of film. His literary devices—the flashback inside Sir Fernando’s office, the tripleganger character, and that particular scene when Raul has slept inside the taxi instead of looking out for his cohort—are woven seamlessly with the storytelling, allowing the images and sound to stand out without too much emphasis. The viewer gets to feel poverty without seeing similar images in the community—unlike, for instance, in Brillante Mendoza’s Tirador or Lino Brocka’s Insiang where the image of the community strongly appears and reappears in the narrative; instead, the emotional equivalent of these images is given: the behavior of Raul, the inebriated Lav Diaz mouthing “Wasak,” the interview of Pen Medina on television, the news clip of hostage-taking, and the numerous close-ups of Raul’s face, dripping with sweat. There is no particular place where Raul belongs—not the slums, not the workplace, not the store—except the streets. Red shoots Raul walking like he has walked these streets all his life, like he was born in them, grown in them, and slept in them every night. The pavement is his home, his last and only place in the city.

Like a flying vulture, Raul is always looking for something; but essentially, he is looking at something. He looks down at his feet; he looks up to see the plane approaching; he looks at his boss with contempt; he looks back; he looks at his side as he eats his crackers and drinks his softdrink; he looks daggers at the passengers of the plane, looking at them as if looking at himself, again, contemptuously. More than anything aesthetic, there is a reason why Red keeps angling towards the sky, from the audience’s point of view to Raul’s. Compassion—Red wants the audience to feel that—but really, is compassion enough? Will compassion help Raul ease his suffering? Will it alleviate his loss? (On second thought, could loss ever be alleviated?) Will it feed him? Will it give him hope?

It is no lie, however, that shared suffering does not guarantee intimacy. Having put the unfairness of human life into perspective, Red seems to say that Raul’s greater tragedy is indeed having us, all of us, as his companions. And around us, those who stay, tragedies like Raul are just waiting for the right moment—the right flicker of despond, and the right sharpness of knives—to happen.

A Day in the Life of Gloria Arrovo (Southern Tagalog Exposure, 2007) May 11, 2009

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Essay, Indie Sine, Noypi.
add a comment

arrovo final

Directed by RJ Mabilin

Tell me frankly, on what condition should we tolerate and continue to tolerate the bigotry of an obtuse, overly conceited, and politically motivated institution that dictates the movies we watch?

It ticks me off that some people are inclined to believe that these are just movies – – not even films I tell you – – movies that merely serve to entertain us for two hours or so, movies that only exist while we are watching them. Yes, we do remember them when time requires us to tell about them, like when friends ask us what movies we saw over the weekend, the usual questions, the usual how-was-its, the usual comments we tell like, Yeah it was fine, it was not exceptional but it was fine, I think I should read the book first before I comment. But do we really care about them? Do we really value the movies that have touched us deeply, moved us like they were narrating our life in front of us?

Over my really short years of watching movies, I feel an intense hatred to people who disparage the power of movies to inspire and challenge common beliefs, something that not even our kangaroo statesmen can do for us. Movies of whatever kind, romantic-comedies, thrillers, Hollywood, Bollywood, B-movies, Z-movies, arthouse, documentaries, animation, experimental, propaganda, straight-to-DVD movies, Youtube movies, everything – – whatever movies that move you to reflect – – I speak for them. (If I may be more personal, I actually fear that in my relatively short stint as a writer, my readers will be led to believe that arthouse movies are all that I care about. A good writer shows his partiality well; that is, if he tends to favor arthouse movies, he should, for the life of him, watch not only arthouse movies, because the constraint of his judgment would be very dangerous for all the movies he writes about. Somehow, in my short life, that’s what I have always wanted to achieve.)

The rudiments of a free society hold strongly on expressing beliefs without fear of getting shot in the head right after. We owe our freedom to democracy, but what does democracy owe to us? What have we done to let it endure? This obtuse, overly conceited, and politically motivated institution still standing is just one of the reasons why we are weak, why our foundations continue to weaken, and why our future reeks of weakness. Any action to mutilate the vision of filmmakers, regardless of what grand or atrocious vision they have or if they even have any vision at all, is a crime to freedom, to freedom that they, the so-called members of the classification board, also enjoy. If they are our watchmen, then who watches them? They don’t even have costumes to hide their inanities, for Christ’s sake. I can almost buy the defense of constitutional duty, that social safekeeping bullshit, but if something is not worth the trouble, or worse, if this something is causing the trouble, then there’s no reason for it to exist. Its betrayal of its name already gives it away: it doesn’t classify, it censors. Who are they to impose their morality on us? Who are they?

The Arroyo government aims to multiply itself in every way possible, to see itself applied from the biggest to the smallest unit of political power, from the tip of our hair to the heels of our toes, inside out, making sure that every one knows her policies by heart.  To say that this obtuse, overly conceited, and politically motivated institution is reflective of the government sounds so easy a statement to make, but if it’s true then I see no reason not to say it. They are remodeling us to suit their fascistic rules. We cannot express our dissent against them; it is, as what news reporters during the Magdalo coup grinningly say, inciting to rebellion.

The fact is they are not belittling the power of cinema; they are scared of it, the diverse lengths it can go through. They are scared of what it can stir up in us, the massive ball of protests that can overthrow this decaying administration. If making films that directly oppose the government destroys its credibility, then certainly it is not even strong in the first place. It doesn’t deserve our trust, our heed, and our support. If they are dictating the films that we could only see, then we get both the ends of bad luck: we are poor, and we are not free. I wish I do not sound preposterous but a few years from now, after cauterizing our eyes and ears, I’m sure they’ll be cauterizing our souls as well, if they still haven’t.

From life to death, from the rising cases of extrajudicial killings to the number of desaparecidos increasing every year, from the campaigns to amend the constitution to the shameless pocketing of public funds, from the altered National Press Club mural by the Neo-Angono Artists’ Collective to the recent move to tax imported books, from the narrow idea of promoting arts to the oppressive situations that our artists face just to have their work exhibited, I am beguiled by the strange predicament we, Filipinos, are in. What could we have done to deserve this government? These islands are not united by culture; we are united by rusty barbed wires that detain us like a dog leashed in the front yard until the day it dies. The great Doris Lessing remarks, “Our time has the honour of narrowing what were broad and generous and complex definitions; ‘political writing’ meant, for decades, communist writing. We have still to recover from that habit of mind: Political Correctness is its heir.” But when would that happen, in this hopeless place and time?

Till then I believe I’ll just continue to vomit.

(Gibbering) On the Importance of Establishing a Film Magazine April 7, 2009

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Essay, Noypi.
12 comments

Becoming a film critic in this country is an ordeal; it is a work that invites loathers, a work that provokes hate from people who can never get used to the idea of civility and meaningful discussion. Even the critic himself is not used to being called a critic because the term connotes harshness, someone who bargains fun for pompousness, an intellectual whose glibness remains his only trait, and for the sake of argument he argues, never letting his defenses down without giving his best shot.  Primarily the reason why we only have a few critics is that we have this culture against them, that they are almost unnecessary, that our small community of cinephiles is better off without them, an atmosphere far from welcoming.

In this country also, no one becomes a writer solely by profession; there are exceptions but most of these dreams of becoming a scribe are either left prematurely in exchange for more fruitful lines of work, being a call center agent for instance, or forgotten, because writing only becomes a trade of the lunatic. A competent writer is lucky if his first novel or short story collection is followed by another one. The chance of getting published is so slim it is almost hopeless. Norman Wilwayco even had to ask for pre-order payments to have his Palanca-winning novel be thrown in the printing press whereas in the span of less than a week after the movie came out, more than five times had I heard someone asking the cashier in FullyBooked when the new stock of Twilight would arrive. Noel Vera was only able to find a publisher for his book Critic After Dark in Singapore. What else is that supposed to mean? What is it that Filipino writers have to prove before getting the audience that they deserve?

Little that some people know, writers here are the easiest to please; almost on the verge of gullibility, the Filipino writer easily clams up when someone approaches him to tell that he has read his story or article – – oh how on earth have you read that? no one reads my work, he thinks of saying every word of humility possible – – but the giddiness that he felt after that simple anecdote is enough confirmation for him to continue his passion – – the god of small things at work always saves him from despair. Writing has to be the noblest profession in the city, and sometimes it is also the most rewarding because it encompasses every depth of dedication known to man.

The dearth of books that focus on Philippine cinema has pushed me to write. When I was still studying in the university, late in those years, I discovered how awful that in the library we only have less than five books authored by Filipino critics. Noel Vera’s book is literally peerless, and the Urian Anthology of the 70s and the 80s are waiting for another reprint, or for another decade of compilation. It was a major orgasm in my life reading these books that more than once I intended to steal them from the library. It is impossible to buy a copy of them here – – and if the library or Teddy Co loses them, they are just as lost as Gerardo de Leon’s Daigdig ng mga Api or the ark of the covenant.

So it is a relief when I see a film article in the Philippines Free Press, Philippine Graphic, or Rogue, more so if it is well-written and inspiring, because that space – – how little it is – – is a dream to me. Every time I come across a lousy film review I cannot help but feel my dreams move a million miles away from myself, leaving a universe of indescribable regret. There are times when I wish that we had a coalition for the deserving: the irresponsible crucified and the meritorious esteemed, but determining that, of course, will only complicate things.

Only a trifle interesting writers are actively contributing for major newspapers today, considering that editors prefer scoops from Dolly Ann Carvajal to refreshing theater criticism of Gibbs Cadiz and Exie Abola. Sadly most of these writers are big bluffs. With all due respect to Nestor Torre, Butch Francisco and Mario Bautista, for what little that I have, I feel the need to implore them to step out humbly from their respective broadsheet spaces, or, if it is ever possible, given their way of lengthening their columns by accommodating cable programs and gossips and whatnots, ask them to be more responsible writers on film, again, if that is ever possible. There are no more tricks to learn from you, Mr. Torre, Mr. Francisco, and Mr. Bautista. What this public needs is insight into intelligent viewership, curious discussions and penetrating cultural discourse, piercing thoughts on our socio-political climate without devaluing cinema’s entertaining virtues. With your empty thoughts, Mr. Torre, Mr. Francisco, and Mr. Bautista, I am afraid, we can only request for the acceptance of truth.

Furthermore, what saddens me is that we don’t have any film magazine in print. The short-lived Pelikula had vanished after only several issues. Even I myself had not gotten hold any page of it. The risk of putting up a publication that caters on marginal readership is only aggravated by the fact that the number of local films produced continues to dwindle down year after year. So what is there to write if there isn’t much to write about? Old films in abysmal video print? Mainstream cinema’s mastery of cinematic sciolism? Our terrible fate? Luckily right now, the landscape is changing, both in terms of number and quality, and starting to be diverse. That’s why I tell you, it is important to write now, now than ever, because we need to document this stage in Philippine cinema that will never happen again. For what are writers but chroniclers, historians in their own selfish right. This movement of independent cinema is an earthquake that needs to be recorded in every possible point by the very few serious seismographs we have (most of them online), like news reports sensationalizing a national disaster.

The only thing we can never lose, especially in this age of remarkable movement, is passion. There is hope, there is discovery, and there are films to write about. If only Philippine cinema has sufficient readers to support the foundation of a film magazine – – moral is good but financial is absolutely better – – then we can create the rudiments of critical film discussions in print, which is still the best way to promote works to local audience. In theory, this magazine will aim to inform and provide rooms for meaningful discourse for both academic and non-academic audience; if it may be allowed to continue then further avenues for film appreciation will come along the way. The support cannot only come from writers but from you most especially, Filipino moviegoers. And, in such fervent hope, things will eventually fall into proper place.

There are plans to initiate an award-giving body comprised of bloggers, something that may sound unnecessary considering the uselessness of the undignified award institutions recently, but with our little exposure to the glitz I hope we can give full importance to the why than the what, the films than the glamour that they carry with them, and the national cinema than the cinema of the press. These awards would be a joint effort of people who come from different fields but who share a similar passion, people who agree and disagree with each other which only accounts for personal tastes. Unlike other award-giving bodies that exist solely out of self-importance or passing a forgotten legacy, we write, we write with dedication and sense, words have always been our only weapon, not glamour and not friends in the industry (though they do help). Our relationship with cinema is worthy of love without reciprocation. We are only here as lovers of good films, not their spokesperson on behalf.

The critic dies not when he ceases to write but when he thinks there is no more reason for writing. Now, there is practically almost every reason to write. I hope the very few of us who are continuously updating their online journals will be given at least a piece of encouragement, a tap on the shoulder, a harsh comment, or why not a visit in our dreams, to make this work. And to filmmakers, I dare you, if you are still worthy to be called as such, give us reasons to believe that Philippine cinema is indeed in another golden age, and that, as time will tell, it will linger fruitfully as ever as when our heroes did during their time.

On Lav Diaz and the Cinema of the Comatose November 15, 2008

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Essay, Noypi.
1 comment so far

lav-diaz

It is hard to judge Diaz coming from the point of view of someone who has only seen three of his films – – the last one barely seeing it due to inconsiderate technical problems in the venue – – but this being a free country where we enjoy such freedom with tantamount decay of values and discipline, and this free space where every word published costs this writer a universe of dismal thought-producing nerves becomes a mere tiny molecule in the infinite cosmos of McLuhan’s subconscious, consumed for free by anyone who drops by either by accident or choice. The words are at my disposal, I don’t know if they work the same to you, I have no way of knowing, but what harm does someone unpopular like myself can do if my thoughts are pored over by a thousand anonymouses in this galaxy of firefoxes and explorers? Writers can only be free once in their life – – and their statements during that time can only be the most honest words that can drip from their fingertips. (Does anyone here still write using a pen? What is a pen anyway? Is writing a Magritte parody of a pen is not a pen?)

See how easy it is digress and not focus: discombobulation is sometimes the key to longevity. I am not skeptic of Diaz’s intentions; after all, that moment after the screening of Batang Westside, when I walk out of my seat after the credits, which I intentionally oblige myself to finish, with my knees trembling and my temples throbbing after an unexpected crash of epiphany, I felt something has changed in me, an act of deliverance, a recognition of divine prophecy, of Philippine cinema’s rebirth in the hands of the redeemer. That’s the same enigma I had after seeing Citizen Kane, walking away from the Fine Arts Auditorium on a Wednesday afternoon when a cold drizzle becomes a sudden realization of my dreams in life. Serafin Geronimo marks the arrival of a scribe-turned-filmmaker who, in the succeeding years that trail his destined direction, as if whispered by God’s soundless words, has intricately rebuilt our pasts, reminding us that we have long forgotten them, and with that gift for epic lyricism Diaz turns into the anointed raconteur of the Filipino condition – – sad fates and social injustice, as well as the tradition that modern living has buried in our own soil, deftly shaped in the hands of his self-effacing discernment of the race that has nurtured his ideals.

Length being the only thing considered, cinema compared to literature shrinks in comparison: a two-hour film is equivalent to one or two short stories, read in a sitting or over a lunch break. Short stories are just empirically inferior and easy to dismiss, but as what has Chekhov and Munro have proven in their literary careers, it is always the insecure who undermines the talented, that with the little time we have in this world these short pieces are sometimes more fulfilling than convoluted novels masked by shortness of ideas – – that brilliance is brevity. That Diaz is aspiring for the equivalent of the novel in cinema has long been raised, not only because of his films’ length but also in the range of their subjects, the authorial grip in his stories, that unmistakable narrative voice in his silence. Truffaut and his gang have already asserted that before – – la politique des auteurs, the auteur theory as its misnomer, championed by Sarris and backlashed by Kael  – – but why is it that the passage of time makes it all more resounding, truer? Why is it that its influence has changed the way we see films, that even I myself wonder why I put the name of the director before the film’s title, blessing it with the power of ownership given by a small punctuation called apostrophe, that simple apostrophe that bestows omniscience. Don’t you think that is the biggest blunder in orthography?

Contrary to Rick Warren, it is the discovery of purpose that limits us – – that given the idea that we will die all too soon makes us cram the things we want to do in life, that since we will die we have to find that purpose, that without the idea of death why bother to do the things that we are doing since we have the eternity of doing it anyway, we have tomorrow, we have endless time to correct our mistakes, we can try and try until we tire, and we will always succeed because we can take all the chances, but since we become accustomed to the nature and spontaneity of death we have grown to look for purpose, that is why we resolve to religion, to art, to romance, to lust, every creation that gives us pleasure and assurance but never the physical certainty of absolution – – the only thing we are deprived of.

The most fundamental judgment I can give to a work depends on how its creator regards the essentiality of time. In this world, Time is the supreme god, whether you are Christian, Buddhist, Protestant, atheist, or agnostic. Time is the most “tangible” manifestation of omnipotence, of godlike presence, of the paramount values only attributed to the lord of all lords. Denying it proves neither guided spirituality nor unquestioning faith, but feigned ignorance and abominable destiny. Arguably the greatest filmmaker this world has ever borne Andrei Tarkovsky knows Time very well, and his films rarely show any hint of misconstrued interpretation. They sweep you in their massive use of Time as an element, filling them with ecclesiastical undertones that question one’s existence. Sculpting time is indeed the filmmaker’s ordeal for the rest of his life.

Time, however, also works against Diaz’s advantage. After Batang Westside, which ran for five hours, he went on to shoot films that are sometimes longer than life itself, think of miscarriages and babies who died after delivery – – from nine to ten hours – – proving cinema’s unyielding nature to collapse against imposing comparisons, getting nods from foreign critics for their mesmerizing beauty and braveness. Just recently he received the Orrizonti Grand Prize in Venice for Melancholia. The confirmation that award-giving bodies give is naturally a sign to continue – – only it matters less and less as time goes by – – and being able to represent one’s country overseas entails responsibility, of providing these people an idea of our way of life, even in fantastical and implausible plots, which was how the great Marquez and Borges represented their countries anyway.

Nine to ten hours is a long time, I tell you. A joke our professor used to tell us is that he can fly all the way to Singapore, go shopping, dine in a restaurant, and book a flight back and still Diaz’s film would not be finished. Putting one’s self under such strenuous artfulness is a devotion akin to literary faith, of finishing a tome for three weeks or less, that very idea of equivalence Truffaut is referring to. This age when everything is an endeavor to get ahead of another, of the fast and the instant, such tedium is almost an impossibility if not for a few, someone like Alexis Tioseco who welcomes Diaz’s indulgence with affection, even a stroke of magnificence. Limiting an audience is not Diaz’s concern; artistry is never known to please. He is making films about and for the Filipino people. But at this point who exactly are the Filipino people? Us, here in the Philippines, working day in and day out waiting for an opportunity abroad? The forgotten folks in the countryside? The immigrants who choose to stay in greener pastures as if the quality of life itself is determined by color, by varying hues of cultural understanding? The writers who write for invisible readers, imagined communities that comprise a nation of political amnesiacs? Have we ceased to exist? What proof of existence can we be proud of?

It demands an awful lot from us – – time, effort, sleep, patience, skipped meals, urination – – and those things are quite difficult to surrender in exchange for a film that reeks of pain, far from physical, but the pain of the soul, the pain of staying here on earth, the weight of history in our shoulders, the agony of just being alive, the nightmare of the past,  the anomaly of the present, the ambivalence of the future. It makes you wonder if we are really created in God’s image. Shall we suffer as much as he did?

F. Sionil José asks, If there was logic to existence, what was the logic of art if art was to be able to evolve, to materialize into miracle? Miracle may be a word of the saints but such miracles in cinema do not happen much often. It is an utter grace to witness such spectacle, a singular event, may it be from Dreyer, Tarkovsky, Bresson, Bergman, or even Diaz himself. Religion (or the lack of it) binds these filmmakers together, and even in Bergman or Buñuel’s atheism there are still those moments of irreverent piety, as if to say that in the bigger view of things, it is what keeps us – – everyone in the world – – together, what keeps us on track, what gives life to art.

Bear in mind that an unseen film is still a film; the lack of audience does not diminish its merits. Obscurity is an artist’s double-edged sword. Otherwise filmmaking will lose its ground on art; it will compete for utmost viewership, a shallow empirical judgment that can only come from an audience, which is not far from happening considering that IMDB’s greatest film of all time as of the moment is The Dark Knight. The power to the people becomes an insurmountable power that works in the extremes of success and failure, more especially in the latter’s favor.

As in every art, once people have seen it, the artist no longer owns it. Responsibility, then, is passed to the audience – – the word of mouth, the force of description, the attraction of beautiful arguments – – and when art becomes life, it is bound to meet its death as well.

A Short Note to Festival Organisers February 11, 2008

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Essay, Indie Sine, Noypi, Short Cuts, UP Screening.
add a comment

batang-westside-final.jpg

While writing my review of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Climates, I’ve come across the site of the 4th Boston Turkish Film Festival which features the Ten Best Turkish Films of all time. The films included were based on a poll conducted by the Ankara Cinema Association, the group who organises Festival On Wheels in Turkey and visits 4-6 cities every year to present the best of world cinema. The selection ranges from Metin Erksan’s Golden Bear-winning Susuz Yaz (1964) upto Ceylan’s Uzak (2002), which in turn gave Turkey its second Cannes Film Festival win after Serif Goren’s Yol (1982). It prompts me to thinking: why can’t we do it here? Why can’t we launch our film festivals that include the best of Philippine cinema?

The line-up of Cinemalaya includes films both in competition and exhibition. To be honest, the films in exhibition are the ones that I look forward to attending. Same goes with Cinemanila, though in the last few years, my interest dwindled due to its faulty scheduling and choice of theatre screenings. I wonder what happened to Pelikula at Lipunan. Is it still existing?

Whether we do it every year or not, until our audience gets nauseated by too much greatness or until we are suffocated by too much Brocka and Bernal that we produce different lists every year, then it is better than having nothing at all.

Which films to include is not an issue: Noel Vera already has his own, which I believe he won’t mind if we follow, and Gawad Urian also has its own selection of best films for each decade. The important thing here is that we have films to see and we have films to argue about. How could we talk about a film if we haven’t seen it? I understand how horrible some of our old film copies are, how they are eaten up by molds and how badly our equipment project them, but do we have a choice? Could we request for budget allocation? Could we ask for the opposite of euthanasia? I am sure that we, Filipinos, have high tolerance to these things. I remember seeing Nunal sa Tubig in a really dreadful copy in UP, but I sat through and finished the film, only to realise that I did not understand it. Again, something is better than nothing.

It is enlightening to discuss what constitutes a great Filipino film after we’ve seen it. Various factors such as timelessness, narrative, and treatment can be easily analysed if we have venues for screening and discussion, which at present Mogwai does. The large-scale nature of Cinemanila, Cinemalaya, and Cinema One Originals can largely help in developing and, later on, establishing our own national cinema. These festivals are only held once a year so people who are really interested will do everything to catch screenings they like. I remember I almost got hit by a speeding ten-wheeler to watch Endo, but I missed it. (I was able to see it the next day though) The flexibility of schedules, the quality of audio-visual equipment, and the efficiency of festival management are the things we need to crown these efforts with success. And if ever this idea pushes through, not only we can increase awareness and following of classic local films, not to mention honest appreciation of these works, we can also achieve a healthy environment for criticism. We do our part, you do yours. Everything follows.

Dr. Strangesoul: Or How I Love The Short Films of John Torres and Why I Get Killed After Seeing Todo Todo Teros Again January 26, 2008

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Essay, Indie Sine, Mogwai, Noypi, UP Screening.
8 comments

Tawidgutom, 2005 (3 mins)
Salat, 2005 (12 mins)
Kung Paano Kita Liligawan Nang ‘Di Kumakapit Sa Iyo, 2005 (13 mins)
Todo Todo Teros, 2006 (110 mins)

tawidgutomfinal.jpg

Except for their quirky titles, I can vaguely remember John Torres’s short films, which were screened at Mogwai almost a month ago. Whether it is genius photographic memory or preordained low-latent inhibition that one must possess to grasp entirely those soporific images of undeniable beauty, I’m sure I don’t have any of the two. Good thing I still have my mind — I manage not to lose even a curl of it, and what immediately runs like a high voltage current and electrocutes me right after is the sheer need to see more of his films, more of his words, more of his video poems, and more of his soulful ramblings — for the only thing that stays with me is the feeling, the deafening sound of eclipse, and, definitely, the enormity of the entire thing.

Tawidgutom, Salat, and Kung Paano Kita Liligawan Nang ‘Di Kumakapit Sa Iyo? compose the Otros Trilogy, Torres’s first wave of shorts, which had its international premiere at the Singapore International Film Festival last 2005. It can be seen as a progression, a linear tale of love and its loss, introduced by a series of mournful shots and bereft monologue, signaling a dismal repertoire of emotions soon to flood our eyes. Or perhaps otherwise — a backward progression, something in his poems that feels like a repercussion of another, feels like we have a corporeal rewinder inside our bodies that we forgot to turn off and before we know it, we are already out of the safe shore, the surface tension lied to us, said we can walk on water like insects. Torres’s decision to share his private miseries with us is not unusual — what makes his works so achingly beautiful is his unwavering sincerity — how brutally honest he is with his words without losing our interest in listening to his pain, it’s as if his agony is something that he would share with us to unburden him, bit by bit, strophe by strophe. Despite the extremely personal nature of his works, which I would describe as “gently indulgent,” he delivers some of the most affecting portraits of love ever seen in digital video, comparable to Jean-Luc Godard’s harrowing In Praise of Love, delineating, a conjecture of cardiovascular freedom, starting to manifest itself gravely, as if it blocks our arteries (fats and coagulated blood), recognising its death, and awaiting resurrection.

salat-copyjohntorrres.jpg

The nocturnal longing in Tawidgutom caves in; the sketches of urban solitude in Salat, an account of vanishing dreams represented by a pair of ice creams in The Last Sherbet, the crakerjack hommage to footballer Miklós Féhér in The Lunar Play, and who would forget how staunch he is in insisting to let her ex-girlfriend cry in front of the camera in Kulob, reflecting their usual pastime before, and now for one last time, after a couple of jerks and thrusts, she agrees — but not letting her tears slip momentarily, in slow-mo and complete silence; the edgy atmosphere of Kung Paano Kita Liligawan nang ‘Di Kumakapit Sa Iyo? preoccupies everything by all means, the spiritual quest for purpose, telling us, that again, moving on is the most difficult thing to do in this world — these vignettes, including the ones that I failed to recall, make up a world painted with untainted love, and it pains me to realise that indeed, as much as it echoes Fassbinder’s first film, Love is colder than death.

Nothing could well prepare Torres for his first feature-length film than these short gems. Todo Todo Teros is the wind that shakes the barley, the penultimate Pinoy indie film, and if local cinema has its Bible, this, by all means, is its Genesis.

It is such a difficult film to review, for in every word there is liability to betrayal; for it is hard to come up with the right words — the proper words to exact its meaning — the right phraseology to express admiration, and it causes me great trouble, distress in fact, thinking how to say how beautiful I think it is without sounding highfalutin, without overusing adjectives and adverbs, without losing my sincerity and compromising exaggeration, which I admit I do most of the time — for in the misuse of words there is the danger of misleading my readers (a number that you could count using your fingers in both hands and feet) in thinking that this is just another film that I liked, that I found great — no, I tell you, this is more than being great, this is an experience, and it is truly therapeutic — and if you want a fitting metaphor, well, have you tried acupuncture?

gabi-noong-sinabi-ng-ama-kong-may-anak-siya-sa-labasjohntorres.jpg

This is what a destabiliser film looks like — carved by a brilliant sculptor, who longs to share his sufferings with everyone — yeah, John Torres loves to share, if that is not too obvious — no matter how bizarre, obtuse, magnified, rarefied, convoluting, hell out of logic: he speaks for us, he tells our maladies, and he cures us — Torres is Dr. Strangesoul, the doctor of our souls, of our sick souls. Aware of his stature in local cinema, he is one of the few storytellers who bravely defies cultural and filmic norms, using digital video as a tool of influence to dig the hole of apathy that continues to eat us, and with that, nothing is more noble: sublimity is the echo of a great soul.

During the discussion, I hesitantly asked Torres (in Filipino): In your films, when you share something with people you don’t know, do you feel that there is something taken away from you? Of course he said yes. Anyway I just wanted a confirmation. Any idea where I can catch Gabi Noong Sinabi ng Ama Kong May Anak Siya sa Labas and Voices, Tilted Screens, and Extended Scenes of Loneliness: Filipinos in High Definition? Come on, I need these pills.

Shoveling Snow in Dance Dance Dance and Ploy October 9, 2007

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemanila, Essay, Literature.
12 comments

snow.jpg

A hallucinatory take on Haruki Murakami’s startling early masterpiece and Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s stunning latest work — pieces of a lost puzzle — picked up, and magnified

The most important facet of film viewing, often shared in public discussions, is its gift of intertextuality — the correlation of emotions to a network of meanings, images, and perceptions that we derive from other forms of art, thus evoking a bullet of memories and shoveling those crystallized fossils in the dark pits of our minds.

FILM A —–> FILM B ——> FILM C ——>FILM D ——> FILM E ………. ——–> FILM Z

One film always reminds us of another, it is inevitable, even in the most obscure reasons. The concept of “who benefits or harms whom” is highly subjective, debatable, and painstakingly difficult to start with.

**

Two months. Two rainy months. It never crossed my mind. It took a while before the idea sank in (in fact, it’s not even my idea): a worthy similarity, a realisation tempting to be conclusive, with lines that never intersect and yet a parallelism so transparent.

Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Ploy bears striking resemblance to Haruki Murakami’s Dance Dance Dance.

In the film, Ploy waits for her mother to arrive from Sweden inside a hotel bar. Wit, a returning businessman from the States who came with his wife to attend a funeral, befriends and asks her to stay in their hotel room, a few more hours before her mother’s supposed arrival. The introduction of Ploy to the couple, to Wit’s wife particularly, marks a turning point: suspicion arises and breaks evenly, surmounted by the nimbus of emotions and unresolved past between the two. Something to ponder on, the fact that she plays the title role, why is Ploy the most passive character in the film? By doing practically nothing, the relationship of the people she has just met falls apart, in a bloody shambles. Provoked self destruction can be considered valid. Ploy is nineteen.

In the novel, Yuki waits for her mother inside the hotel’s restaurant, Walkman stuck in her ears (it might be the Talking Heads or Echo and the Bunnymen playing), and while her role to the protagonist’s search is vaguely presented, her characterisation alone is indeed memorable. Her clairvoyance is puzzling yet believable, and though Murakami is at his peak in having us manipulated in this web of urban mysteries and metaphysics, its thrilling nature leaves a feeling of enchantment. While Yuki seems to agree that “rock and roll is the greatest thing in the world,” Ploy indulges herself in reggae and shares an earphone with Wit, surprised at the world that this young lady exposes herself into. Yuki is thirteen.

That Ploy and Yuki are perhaps the same person — the rebellious teen waiting for Godot — of different age and on different time and worlds, is a product of a young mind’s “extreme indulgence.” But as playful as the dragonflies of the field, we really never know.

**

The film’s lethargic pacing and the novel’s shifting realities seem to share a world of their own, a universe wherein lucidity is beyond grasp, and upon experiencing them, we don’t care — they are just beautiful. On their peripheries are the -isms we would rather neglect: capitalism, modernism, materialism, urbanism, et al, but we are confronted by them, probably on our way home after seeing the film or finishing a chapter of the book, in a way different than other people. A profound delusion, its eeriness and ethereal charm infect us with the feeling that we all share a piece of this mad, fleeting world.

The narrator’s mobility in Dance Dance Dance is apparent. From house to market, car to train, work to rendezvous, Shibuya to Aoyama, Japan to Hawaii, he is restless. Murakami’s plot twists and endless possibilities work effectively with his setting and the disjointed, meandering life of his protagonist. While Ploy is rather seen as a stationary film whose sequences are mostly inside a luxurious hotel, the tension presented, mediated by Ratanaruang’s admirable affection to details, makes it look, and feel, otherwise. The possibilities are surreal. When Dang accuses Wit of infidelity, her unyielding insecurity dwells on her subconscious. In a stunning sequence, Dang kills Ploy using a pillow to suffocate her. Someone knocks on the door. As if it triggers her to think rationally, she pulls her into the bathroom, turns the shower on, and opens the door. Surprise.

The observation may be a bit crude, haphazard, manipulative, and too tied-up, but the hotel in Ploy resonates the claustrophobic atmosphere of Dolphin Hotel — the emptiness, the longing, the deprivation, the notion of abstract itself — and the memories created, and lost, in that place. The room where the Sheep Man stays, a deceptive mind would rather think, is where the bartender and the chambermaid are having their greatest resort to boredom, their strangest pleasure ever, proving words aren’t enough to express one’s feelings. The “monotonous rush” in the Sheep Man’s words reminds me of that silence, albeit their passionate intercourse.

The women in these works — wife, child, stranger, poet, and all the lost women — represent vitality, the struggling force of living, or being alive, and to them where all the overwhelming power of Ploy and Dance Dance Dance owe their brilliance. In a period of unsettling wakefulness, ironically, men created them.

*Thank you very much to Maritess Cruz and Dodo Dayao for the memory support.

Eye To The Telescope: Defying Local Digital Cinema October 2, 2007

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Essay, Noypi.
10 comments

Digital Cinema: Running its way to success,
will it beat the mainstream?

In Tilman Baumgärtel’s seminal essay, The Downside of Digital, he points out: “digital movie making is not magic pixie dust, and might actually be bad for Philippine cinema.” Citing ten reasons to reinforce his assertion, he concludes that “digital cannot adequately depict the Philippine night… In no other area does digital cinema look as poor as in such night scenes, and there seems to be little improvement in this area, thus depriving Philippine cinema of one of its most important characteristics.”

I can even imagine tears in those statements. As a visiting professor in the UP Film Institute, Mr. Baumgärtel might have seen a lot of “sloppy” films made by his students, or even by our local filmmakers, for him to come up with these arguments. If his article has a visual representation, then it would be a clock with impaired hands, a fractured disposition of irony, as it should be the one to remind us of time. It already faded.

**

But our filmmakers should also take heed. A certain tendency of Philippine cinema (inherited by digital filmmaking) is excessive honesty, unaware that too much honesty is dishonesty as well.

There is completely nothing wrong with doing what you want, but doing what everyone else is doing is quite a different story. Some of our passionate directors, and student filmmakers as well, are unintentionally coming up with works that are skeletally-similar, it feels like a hundred bucks of feeble déjà vu. You take out the skin and muscles, you’re left with the brittleness of their stories. You squeeze their blood, you wrestle with their indulgence in form, as if not everyone has seen City of God or Pulp Fiction.

This is not to generalise the independent film industry in particular — in fact, mainstream films deserve contempt — but to progress means to accept critical judgment. In perspective, the mainstream isn’t concerned about criticism — it can stand on its own by determining the preference of moviegoers, which more often than not is a euphemism for insulting their intellect and underestimating their capability to feel a varied range of emotions. It exists without our consent. The independent film industry, on the other hand, deserves criticism because it is the only movement capable of delivering the reform that this industry needs. As film and criticism go hand in hand, we are to produce not only a handful of exceptional works but a pool of talented writers as well.

**

When Mario O’Hara’s Babae sa Breakwater was shortlisted in the Cannes Film Festival three years ago, the attention was not as noisy as when Foster Child did last May. The noise was understandable and expected, as local digital films (Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros, Kubrador, and Kaleldo) continue to reap awards from film festivals abroad. Sadly, the warm reception, extensive news coverage, and positive reviews (whoever thought this formula is also a jinx) didn’t help — Foster Child suffered the same fate as Babae sa Breakwater’s — both ships sank in local shores.

Babae sa Breakwater
stood against Seiko Films’ Liberated and Star Cinema’s My First Romance during its weeklong release. Foster Child kicked off this year’s Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival along with films in exhibition and competition. O’Hara’s film, released in local theaters before its exhibition during the Director’s Fortnight, was unsurprisingly a commercial failure. Pitted against two studio releases, people flocked to see Heart Evangelista giggle and Diana Zubiri undress her undies. Babae sa Breakwater was left to O’Hara’s few, avid followers. Even those few people who had seen it were describing it as “dreadful” and “nonsense.” Fresh from winning international accolades, Foster Child was released on the third week of September in SM and Ayala malls. Three days after, it was pulled out in its supposed week-long run. ‘Only a few people are watching it’ is an understatement.

I admire the producers of these films not only for their intentions but also for anticipating the consequences of their decision to show them locally. It is quite obvious that “Hey, it’s impossible to reach the hundred-thousand mark,” and I sympathise with their qualms toward the Filipino audience, that other people seem to appreciate our films better than us, us who should know better, us who should support our own. On this note, I wonder: Is it the films or the audience? Are local filmmakers working so hard only to be ignored by the viewing public? Aside from being a medium of self-expression, what is the purpose of filmmaking if not to reach a wider audience? Are filmmakers supposed to watch their films along with their actors and crew, and laugh and weep and jump at their own excitement or loss?

**

It is painful to see a beautiful film not seen by a lot of people. But what is more agonising are the thought and reality that these local films, early enough to be considered “masterpieces,” are not seen by the Filipino audience. Likewise, no matter how great a film is, if it has no other film of similar grain to accompany it, it will not fare well. Incidentally, the law of contrast doesn’t work here. People hold tight to their hundred bucks, expecting to be thrilled or at least entertained. Better reserve it to the tried and tested than risk a day’s earning to a probable disappointment. Most people would rather pay to meet Harry Potter or Optimus Prime than Katharine Luna or Cherry Pie Picache. The first pair is far more exciting, if not enthralling, I suppose. A mentality quite difficult to shake off.

It seems contradictory but local moviegoers should also be credited for digital cinema’s boom. It is rewarding to observe that in the last few years (digital filmmaking’s peak years), they have not only increased in number but also in interest in sound judgment. Blogs that range from “angaleng ni Juday, period” to detailed reviews akin to Oggs’ Movie Thoughts are all over the Web. Producers no longer need to force us to see their films; our discretion is far more different than before, more specifically in the 90s when watching films was such a luxury we only see them during Christmas. Now, we see films with less hesitation. Films are shown not only in malls that harbor extreme capitalism but also in small auditoriums, art galleries, cafés, missionary schools, and wherever open spaces are available — a projector, a white concrete wall, and a DVD player are all that’s needed. It even seems that everyone is excited for the next screening. We are given not only more options, but also venues, and how we need a lot of them! The success of the industry is brought about by massive production of films, whether released commercially or not, and digital technology served as a catalyst. In a movement that some critics are tempted to tag as the “Third Golden Age of Philippine Cinema,” our “doctors” have just arrived on time to treat the “patient.” Now that it is not far from impossible to release one Filipino film every day, focus on quality must be a priority.

**

With digital filmmaking, anyone can call himself a director – in the same way that bloggers consider themselves writers. The past three years is a witness to the fall of the Berlin Wall — the once indestructible concept that defi(n)es the line between the endowed and the unprivileged — and proves that a camera is as accessible to a director as a brush and palette to a painter. Every young filmmaker is infected by the Nouvelle Vague spirit: cinephilia, passion, and individuality. As postmodernism progresses, we are caught up in the dilemma of knowing and not knowing. And if indie filmmakers are serious enough to go beyond their “alternative facade,” they should insist in refining their stories, employing basic lighting techniques, and directing with maturity.

**

As what Paolo Villaluna argued in response to Mr. Baumgärtel’s words, blaming the medium itself is indeed moot and academic. Like we should imprison all the bombs and fighter planes used in suicide attacks and not the mastermind himself. Having seen Raya Martin’s Maicling Pelicula ng Ysang Indio Nacional, John Torres’ Todo Todo Teros, Jade Castro’s Endo, and a handful of outstanding, not to mention groundbreaking, films made this year — Philippine cinema is having a blast — and enjoying it. Now is the best time to make films. Luckily, we no longer need divine intervention.