Monday, September 01, 2014

Wishful thinking for Philippine Cinema





















I'd like to think, given the chance, that this is how they'd look like when thinking wishfully

On the fifth year of his passing, reposting one of his last pieces

A bit of background: Alex Tioseco was a critic, editor, teacher and friend who had been killed last 2009 in his home, along with his companion Nika Bohinc. He had written a list of wishes for Philippine cinema and for the second anniversary of his passing, a few people have planned the following event:

1. Pick one wish from Alexis' wishlist. Google the article "WISHFUL THINKING FOR PHILIPPINE CINEMA" for a guide.

2. Write about it on your blogs or word processors. No specific length, style or approach is required.

I thought I'd write about this specific wish from Alex:

I wish Noel Vera would move back.

Hence--

Left for the United States back in 2003. Circumstances compelled me to do so--can't add more to that, except to say said reasons seemed satisfactory at that time, and remain so to this day. I will say that my reasons for leaving weren't meant for my immediate and exclusively personal benefit, least I don't think so...and let's leave it at that. 

I will also say part of my inspiration for leaving was something Lav Diaz mentioned to me once, after I'd seen his Hesus Rebolusyunaryo (Jesus the Revolutionary, 2002). I'd asked why he had his protagonist at one point leave for the countryside--wasn't this akin to giving up? Lav replied "No. It's not a surrender, but a retreat, a retrenchment, a chance to pause and meditate on what's happening, what should happen, and why. He doesn't just want to react to past events; he wants to anticipate trends, and plan the future."

Which made me think: not a bad idea. I'd take the chance to retreat to the United States, pause, meditate, drink deep of the vast resources in films and DVDs available out here, meet a few of the people I'd always wanted to meet, occasionally come back home to catch up on the latest happenings, initiate a few projects, so on and so forth. 

Well--man proposes, God disposes. Things didn't pan out just quite that way. Landed not in a major city but in a lovely though decidedly more rural little town. Nearest theaters are multiplexes, with an arthouse cinema about an hour's drive away. I get to see most of the latest releases, though in the case of such big-ticket pictures like Transformers and the Harry Potter series, I'm able to see them two days after they've premiered in Manila (piracy issues).

Still--not so bad. That I can't cover Hollywood megaproductions means I don't have to make it my priority to see them; I can just see what looks interesting (usually what Philippine distributors don't feel will be an immediate hit), and wait for the titles to open in Manila (sometimes I wait for weeks, sometimes months; some titles still haven't opened there as of this writing). The respite gives my thoughts a chance to marinate, hopefully mature into something more sophisticated or at least nuanced along the way.

What does hurt is the fact that the little town I live in (much as I'm fond of it) isn't a major city, and Manila is; and Manila with its various embassies and foundations that often hold film festivals of their respective cinemas. Not so bad when the country--Spain, Italy, France, Japan and Germany, to name a few--are doing classically themed retrospectives (I can usually rent the appropriate DVD); but for a country's more contemporary works, I'm at a disadvantage. The state of distribution of foreign films in the United States has degenerated, I think; interest is on the wane, and supply has reacted accordingly.  I definitely won't be seeing them in that arthouse theater an hour away, not unless the picture has built unusual buzz.

But not too unusual a buzz. Something controversial like Lars Von Trier's Antichrist, or Michael Haneke's Funny Games, or anything by Takashi Miike or Kim Ki Duk will never show in my local arthouse; it's a conservative region, and their choice of titles runs towards independent productions with movie-star names, or a Woody Allen. 

What I really miss are the Filipino film festivals--Cinemanila (its local independent entries), Cinemalaya, Cinema One Originals, among many others. I badly want to see more digital productions; I'm convinced from what I've seen that the Philippines is undergoing a new golden age, in terms of volume, quality, and variety (boxoffice success would be nice too, and a few titles (Zombadings (roughly translated: Queer Zombies) and Ang Babae sa Septic Tank (Girl in the Septic Tank) seem to be proving that, yes, independent digital films can be boxoffice hits, despite the odds). The young punks have arrived, and I wish to God I was there to see them trash the town.

But more than the films are the friends--people I haven't seen for over seven years. Some I never will--Alex, Joey Gosiengfiao. Some I'd known online, and would love to meet face-to-face for the first time.

So that's the report, from this side of the Pacific Ocean. It hasn't been a bad life; I've done work, some of it good, I think. I've been able to expose my (literally) captive audience to a few Filipino titles. Little by little, I've managed to make a few things happen--the book would be my proudest achievement to date.

I manage to snag the occasional invite to Rotterdam or Jeonju  or Vancouver; I try to go as often as possible to the Filipino Film Festival in New York every June or so, organized by the indefatigable Vincent Nebrida and Jojo De Vera. I do go out of my way to try see films one doesn't find in the multiplex.

On the subject of coming home: it's touching (not to mention hugely flattering) of Alex to think my return would make such a huge difference; truth is there are plenty of critics--Oggs Cruz, Etchie Pingol, Richard Bolisay and Dodo Dayao among many others; Jojo De Vera if you need an authority on classic '70s and 80's cinema (not to mention all that movie gossip)--who are doing the job equally well, if not better. I don't think any one man will make a crucial difference; at most, he or she will just happen to be at the right place and time when things happen, as they seem to be happening right now in Manila...

My intention to fly back and forth from both countries whenever I can has gone the way of the Betamax tape, of course--just can't afford the expense, much less the necessary time off from work. Haven't been home in over seven years, and I miss the Philippines terribly. Still trying to marinate (Seven years! What kind of flavors might come out of that?), to develop my ideas, finish some of the projects I keep proposing. Still have hope for the future, much like Hesus in Diaz's bleakly lyrical film; I haven't given up. Just wish I could touch base once in a while--even one more time would be nice. Ah, well.


9.18.11

Friday, August 29, 2014

Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1 (Lars Von Trier, 2013)

Sex and the silly

And the Von Trier Flying Circus continues on its merry rounds, this time with Mr. Von Trier taking on one of his favorite subjects: self-humiliation. 

Oh, you thought I was going to say 'sex?' Hah--I wish. More on that later. 

Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1 is the first half of a four-hour work, this part devoted to setting up the framework: badly beaten Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is picked up by Good Samaritan Seligman (Stellan Skarsgaard), who for his kindness is allowed to listen to her raunchy adventures as a nubile youth (played with vampiric intensity by Stacey Martin). Along the way Seligman compares Joe's seduction techniques to fly fishing, her true love Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) to a cantus firmus in the polyphonic symphony of her life; along the way Joe beds hordes of men, at one point giving us an extensive picture catalog of all the penises--long or short, dark or pale, circumcised or foreskinned--that have penetrated her, fore and aft and sideways, throughout her sexual career. 

The tone is somewhere between a Victorian erotic novel and a Ron Jeremy porn flick, a mix of the dreamily sensual and vulgarly direct (that description may not be 100% accurate--a genuine Victorian novel would have considerably more whipping (Vol. 2, maybe?)). The fable told by a sensual protagonist goes back at least as far as De Sade's Justine or his masterpiece 120 Days of Sodom, and right there you see a difference: De Sade's narrator in the former is a youthful innocent in the process of being corrupted, in the latter are hedonists attempting to corrupt a herd of youthful innocents. Joe's a wanderer of sorts but her travels and eventual transformation generate very little friction; she basically slides into her groove with remarkably little drama and even less fuss (well, a brief discussion of the Fibonacci numbers 3 and 5), riding to town on an endless series of Toms, Dicks and Harrys with nary a tube of Vaseline in sight (just a quick lick of the fingers, applied to the right orifice). 

It's amazing how fast this gets old, without the frisson of guilt or the concept of sin; when she confesses to having secreted lubricating fluids at the moment of a major character's death, Seligman promptly lectures her on the naturalness of the phenomenon. When she's confronted with one consequence of her actions--a visit from her lovers' wife (a dizzyingly distraught Uma Thurman) and family--the moment should be a chance for some emotional traction, only the dialogue is so laughably bad ("would it be all right if I show the children the whoring bed?"). Thurman plays the wife as a combination of sarcastic civility and barely checked rage, and the mix--as in most Von Trier movies--doesn't quite gel, doesn't quite sound like the words of an angry spouse trying to get some of her own back. 

It's a consistent problem with Von Trier. He wants to provoke, but fails to do the necessary research to cause actual damage (Dogville should have been a powerful condemnation of the United States' puritanical hypocrisy only it becomes clear after sitting through the first hour that the director has never even set foot in the country); he wants to move us, but can't take the time and effort to escalate his heroines' suffering convincingly (in Breaking the Waves he jump-cuts from innocent Bess propositioning other men for sex to innocent Bess being stoned by children for propositioning other men for sex, without giving the town gossips enough time to do their work properly (do the kids have some kind of Sixth Sense for adultery?)). 

Sometimes Von Trier commits both sins simultaneously--refusing to do the research and take the time and effort, in this case to properly chronicle Selma's downward spiral in Dancer in the Dark (the legal circumstances through which she forces her own conviction being so hilariously unlikely you have to be high on drugs to refrain from laughing, much less find her guilty).

Sometimes he's so caught up in the mechanics of his emotional effects--in Melancholia the exact shape and progression of his protagonists' depression, clearly meant to represent his own--that he takes for granted the world's literal end, a cataclysm which looks less like the actual astronomical event and more like its digitally enhanced Disney version, bright and colorful and easy to digest. Makes you want to ask: why bother ending the world if it's going to look so slapdash? Almost bad enough to drive one to melancholia.

Course I'm not 100% sure; haven't seen Vol. 2 yet. For all I know Von Trier recovers and turns this ponderous Skin Odyssey into a masterpiece. He's done it before, transformed an irritating turd into an emotionally shattering work of art (i.e. The Idiots, where the final scene either redeems the film or is the only redeeming moment in the film--can't quite decide which, and the fact that I can't is a source of much of its fascination). Based on his track record though and based on the trajectory this picture is presently taking--wouldn't hold my breath. 

Next week: Nymphomaniac: Vol. 2 

First published in Businessworld, 8.22.14

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Secretary (Steven Shainberg, 2002)

 

Posting this 2004 article partly because I refer to it in an upcoming piece about a Now-on-DVD erotic film, and because well erotic films need no excuse, really.

Different strokes

Steven Shainberg's Secretary, an adaptation of a short story by Mary Gaitskill, turns on a nice little premise: Lee Holloway, a neurotic young woman fresh out of the mental hospital (Maggie Gyllenhaal), comes home to her alcoholic, physically abusive father and battered mother. When things get rough, when Lee's mother gets knocked around a little or Lee feels especially depressed or frustrated, she hides in her bedroom where she has squirreled away (like a stash of dope) a sewing kit full of sharp instruments, one of her favorites being the lovely ceramic figure of a ballerina whose toes are sharpened to a point; with the smoothness that comes from long practice, she draws a bright line down her well-scarred upper thigh.

Later she lands the position of secretary to E. Edward Grey (James Spader), a control-freak lawyer seated in a vast office. Grey likes perfect spelling in all his correspondence and perfect professionalism in all his staff (mostly Lee, and a paralegal who seems to pop in once in a blue moon); he likes to vigorously redline Lee's typing mistakes with a thick marker and, at one point--when the mistake seemed particularly minor--likes to order Lee to bend over his desk reading her faulty letter while he smacks her buttocks with an open palm. Masochistic employee meets sadistic employer in isolated office environment: ingredients, apparently, for the perfect relationship.

It's a fantasy, of course; nowadays American businesses don't call their staff "secretaries," they call them "assistants;" "assistants" don't use manual typewriters and liquid paper (except maybe in public libraries, and even there it's a dying art) they use word processors and spell-check programs. Shainberg presents a fairly strange world--a Dario Argento torture chamber as conceived by Disney's production designers--presumably in the hope that the soft-focus would make this (mildly) twisted version of a romantic comedy easier to take.

That's basically my problem with the picture--that it's a tale of perverse love told wholesomely. The action isn't hardcore; it's barely softcore, just brief sessions of spanking, a few uncomfortable postures, maybe one or two glimpses of hardware. There's even this suggestion that what they're doing is therapeutic and ultimately helpful to Lee's self-image and sense of worth--as if S&M needed an uplifting message to make it more acceptable, a lifestyle choice like colonic irrigation or the Atkins diet. Lee's character is at rock-bottom, what with her history of mental instability and her troubled family--being tied down can only be a step up; Grey is so thoroughly entombed in his King Tutankhamen suite that punishing Lee is a breath of fresh air, a chance at cardio exercise. It's so laughable a sell--kinky sex for squares--that you end up believing none of it.

If anything saves the picture it's the performances. Spader in White Palace and sex, lies and videotape and  even Wolf (as rival to Jack Nicholson's semi-human monster) has always projected an intriguing presence, a yuppie yumminess with just a hint of corruption; his smoothly confident lawyer has a genuine relish for inflicting pain and (beyond that) just the faintest suggestion of guilt at relishing such pain. Gyllenhaal, all saucer-eyes and naughty-girl smile, is even more crucial--on her slender shoulders stands the picture's credibility, and she sells it better than it deserves. She conveys her earlier loneliness with directness and simplicity; when she discovers the pleasures of corporal punishment her wide-eyed sense of discovery is genuinely arousing, preventing you from laughing at all the awkward positions (in a picture that requires such delicate balance a chuckle is appropriate, a guffaw devastating).

Shainberg employs the kind of glossiness required for conventional erotic fantasy; he even has a visual and rhythmic crispness that suggests wit. Secretary is enjoyable for what it is: a fairly fresh twist on a tired genre, so tired even something halfway decent looks special.

When it comes to authentic S&M, though--well, there's American porn, preferably classic '70s (Japanese "pinku" is even better); there's Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ which, much as I loathe it artistically, does show an obsessive spirit. There's Jang Sun-Woo's Lies, which sketches a convincing portrait of an S&M relationship in the process of self-destructing (especially like the oddball humor--the lovers, for instance, scrounging through junk for pieces of wood to beat each other's behinds with).

Even us supposedly staid, sexually repressed Filipinos have done better work: Laurice Guillen and Raquel Villavicencio's Init sa Magdamag (Midnight Passion, 1983) is about a woman who changes persona with each man she beds, most memorably a semipsychotic sadist (I'd go so far as say it's my favorite of a limited and disreputable genre).

So: Passion for the hardcore crowd; Lies for the truthseekers; Init for the artistically imaginative. Secretary I'd say is strictly for the beginning masochist, something soft and tender and ultimately bland. Different strokes, folks. Different strokes.

First published in Businessworld, 9/24/04

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