Thursday, March 29, 2007

Breaking and Entering (Anthony MInghella, 2006)

Breaking and Entering (Anthony Minghella, 2006)

Excerpt:

I haven't liked an Anthony Minghella film in goodness knows how long. I agreed when critics dubbed "Truly, Madly, Deeply" (1991) as a far more intelligent alternative to "Ghost" (faint praise, considering, but there it is); I thought his "The English Patient" some five years later was one of the more passionate and less undeserving films to have won a Best Picture Oscar recently (let me put it this way--it actually seemed too good to win one of those golden doorstops). "The Talented Mr. Ripley" (1999) was stylish and amusing, only Matt Damon made for an unengaging Ripley, easily upstaged by the charming Jude Law; his "Cold Mountain" (2003) scraped bottom for me--Jude Law, so enjoyable in "Ripley," was lifeless in this, a Civil War drama set in a North Carolina that somehow manages not to look anything like the actual Carolinas (much of it was shot in Romania).

There's plenty to dislike in "Breaking and Entering," starting with the title--it's both literal (a gang of young thieves break into an architectural office) and metaphorical (people breaking into other people's lives, stealing a measure of comfort or pleasure, taking some kind of advantage from them). It's just the kind of sophisticated arthouse thesis viewers like to discuss over lattes afterwards (come to think of it, Minghella's always been the kind of refined filmmaker arthouse viewers love to patronize). The film is too civilized--it raises troubling questions, treats them with kid gloves, and at the ninety-minute mark wraps them all up in a neat and tidy package--well, not too neat and tidy; Minghella even adds frayed edges Martha-Stewart style to give the whole thing a comforting rustic feel.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Freddie Francis: 1917-2007; Mel 'Foot in Mouth Disease' Gibson strikes again!

Too much to blog about, not enough time to do justice to 'em. Well, I'll try:

David Hudson's Greencine tribute to Freddie Francis (1917-2007) is about as varied and comprehensive a site on all matters concerning the life and passing of a great cinematographer.

Difficult to add much more--except to note that arguably two of the most memorable moments in his incredible oeuvre stay foremost in my mind: first, the blurry, indistinct ghosts in The Innocents (1961), which Francis lensed, proving definitively that it's not what you see but what you think you saw but can't be absolutely sure you did that unsettles us; uncertainty unsettles us.

Second are the spinning shapes that prance onstage in The Elephant Man (1980)--for a stronger expression of exuberance, I can't think of a better example; the fuzziness through which they're seen helps convey a feeling of dreaminess, of dim traces of a happy childhood memory, bubbling up from the subconscious. A cinematographer is often honored and remembered for giving us crisp, vivid imagery; Francis did, much of the time, but on at least these two occasions, he did more by blurring the images, evoking two diametrical extremes of emotion--absolute fear, and absolute joy.

And the latest from Melvinland--Gibson tells Central American Studies professor to fuck off.

And again, don't feel I've much to add to that, except the following points:

1) Hooray for Ms. Estrada--the woman has guts, and she follows in a long tradition of dramatic protests. A few headlines should serve to call more notice to the movie's racism, and the Mayans' rejection of it.

2) As for Gibson--not surprised. At all.

3) Why would CSUN screen Apocalypto and more, invite Gibson to speak? Did they think he had something to teach them? If I were a film professor, I'd keep my young ones very, very far away from Gibson.

4) "Make your own movie!" Nice parting shot. It's their culture he appropriated and slandered; didn't he think they would try a little payback?

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Comfort Women House Resolution--800 signatures strong

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

The petition to support Comfort Women House Resolution 121 is two weeks old and 800 signatures strong. Though it began as a United States petition to House Speaker Pelosi, we have received global support from citizens in Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, The Netherlands, The Philippines, Australia, Germany, Italy, France, Singapore, Austria, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Taiwan. If you go online you can read comments written by our international community, expressing concern, outrage, apologies, compassion, and testimonies from survivors of WWII comfort stations. It is turning into an amazing international document of support.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Abe said, “I express my sympathy toward the comfort women and apologize for the situation they found themselves in.” While this sounds like an apology, Prime Minister Abe is not taking responsibility for Japan’s Imperial Army’s action under the direction of the Japanese government. He is not apologizing for these war crimes. His statement falls short of a sincere apology.

The House Committee on Foreign Affairs has decided not to take action on the Comfort Women issue until after Prime Minister Abe’s U.S. visit April 26-27. This gives the petition one month to grow and to truly support House Resolution 121. If it passes, Congress will ask Japan to take full responsibility for the systematic rape and enslavement of the 200,000 women and girls during WWII.

More importantly, the petition itself sends a strong message to surviving Comfort Women. It honors and respects their experiences and demonstrates to them that the global community hears them and believes them. Their experiences are a part of history.

I urge you to send the petition around. Continue to post the link on your blogs, continue to send out email blasts and to announce the petition to your friends, your colleagues and your family members. After all, this is about our women. This about how we choose to treat one another. Let’s aim for 1000 signatures at the very least. Let’s see if we can find 200,000 signatures for each of the women who suffered during WWII.

To sign the petition go directly to http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/comfort-women-house-resolution.html or for more information you can go to labanforthelolas.blogspot.com.

Sincerely, M. Evelina Galang

M. Evelina Galang
Assistant Professor, English
University of Miami
PO Box 249214
Coral Gables, FL 33124
Mevelinagalang.com
Labanforthelolas.blogspot.com

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Dreamgirls (Bill Condon, 2006)

Dreamgirls (Bill Condon, 2006)

Excerpt:

After more than two decades in development hell the Broadway musical "Dreamgirls" has finally come to the big screen, and while it's not a great musical or even the best recent one (I'd say that would be the "Once More, With Feeling" episode of "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer"), it's better by far than anything we've seen in years ("Evita," "Chicago," "Moulin Rouge," anyone?). It's a melodrama with musical numbers; a soapy retelling of a famous singing group's dirtiest laundry (The Supremes, and its breakout star Diana Ross); a modest, fairly crafted revival of a moribund genre, all rolled up in one unashamedly glitzy package. It's the story of an ugly duckling--Effie White (Jennifer Hudson) a wannabe pop diva with a weight problem who, instead of becoming a swan by story's end is instead surpassed by Deena Jones (Beyonce), a real (or at least more conventional) beauty, the classic morality tale of surface winning out over substance, which had illusions of matters being otherwise.

Maybe the biggest problem the show has is that it's essentially a retelling; the songs are pastiches (that at times approach parody) of the Motown songs they're supposed to emulate. Actually, they're less than parodies--a parody would at least try and sound like the source material it's making fun of; these are overblown, Hollywood motion-picture soundtrack notions of what Motown's supposed to sound like. Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen can try hard as they can (and they try very hard), but the works of geniuses like Marvin Gaye are sui generis, and therefore inimitable. The film very rarely comes to life in its musical numbers; maybe only twice, and mostly thanks to the actors--"What About Me?" comes to mind, and of course, the showstopping "And I'm Telling You." Most of the time director Bill Condon is content to cut away and go into a montage sequence that furthers the story, instead of wasting time on the number--and for once I'm not complaining.

Butch Dalisay's Favorite Films (and mine)

They're good lists--I like it that Dalisay doesn't just put down titles, but give reasons, and I love it that he put down personal reasons instead of just rattling off the conventional wisdom that follows these titles like so much confetti (so we see yet another list with Gone With the Wind and Citizen Kane--ho-hum).

Especially interesting is his inclusion of Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, Lino Brocka, 1975) and salud to him for including a Filipino film (some cinephiles--
NY Times critic Dave Kehr would wag a finger at those who say cineaste, that's French for filmmaker--don't even deign to include a Filipino title in their list). Film critic Agustin Sotto's vote for favorite Brocka film was Ina Ka Ng Anak Mo (You're the Mother of Your Daughter, Lino Brocka, 1979), which Dalisay wrote (I liked it too; among its many virtues it proved that its star, Nora Aunor, wasn't limited to lower-class martyr roles). So one might argue that his contribution to Philippine cinema is hardly forgettable.

Might be interesting to take a look at what cinephiles consider great nowadays. Off the top of my head, perhaps the most highly regarded filmmakers at the moment in egroups like
a_film_by include Robert Aldrich (Twilight's Last Gleaming, Ulzana's Raid, and most of all Kiss Me Deadly), Douglas Sirk (All that Heaven Allows, Magnificent Obsession, Imitation of Life), Vincente Minnelli (for his musicals, sure, but also for his dramas--Some Came Running, The Bad and the Beautiful, The Clock, Cabin in the Sky), Mizoguchi (Ugetsu, Life of Oharu, Sansho the Bailiff, and 47 Ronin of course, but also lesser-known titles like Street of Shame), Roberto Rossellini (not just Rome, Open City and Paisan, but post neorealist works as Stromboli, Europa '51, and Viaggo in Italia; plus really difficult-to-find TV works such as Socrates and The Iron Age) and of course Orson Welles (Citizen Kane is actually the least of his films; better yet are The Magnificent Ambersons, Mr. Arkadin, F is for Fake, and above all, Chimes of Midnight), John Ford (The Searchers) and Alfred Hitchcock (I don't know how Butch might feel about it, but including Vertigo on his list is perfectly in line with the latest auteurist thinking).

Even Richard Fleischer (Tora! Tora! Tora!; 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Amytiville 3-D (?!) but really more for titles like Compulsion and Barabbas) and Blake Edwards (critic Damien Bona considers Breakfast at Tiffany's the greatest film of all time) have their champions, so who's to say? A list is arguably of interest not for the titles or their makers, but for the reasoning behind the titles. That and the titles you've never heard of, or haven't really considered before (Breakfast at Tiffany's…?).

With that, might as well respond with my own lists:

Science Fiction

10.
Hesus Rebolusyunaryo (Hesus the Revolutionary, Lav Diaz)

9. Exorcist 2: The Heretic (John Boorman)

8. God Told Me To (Larry Cohen)

7. Weekend (Jean-Luc Godard)

6. Videodrome (David Cronenberg)

5. Metropolis (Fritz Lang)

4. Solaris (Andrei Tarkovksy)

3.
Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale)

2. La Jetee (Chris Marker)

1. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (Hayao Miyazaki)

Filipino films:

Thirteen Important Filipino Films

Which evolved into a later list:

Twelve Greatest Filipino Films

Finally, I suppose, an all-time top ten (actually thirteen, in alphabetical order):

Sciuscia - Vittorio de Sica
La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc - Carl Theodor Dreyer
Kaagaz ke Phool - Guru Dutt
Meghe Dhaka Tara - Ritwik Ghatak
Vertigo - Alfred Hitchcock
Sherlock, Jr. - Buster Keaton
M - Fritz Lang
Kaze no tani no Naushika - Hayao Miyazaki
Faust - FW Murnau
Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos - Mario O'Hara
Banshun - Yasujiro Ozu
La Grand Illusion - Jean Renoir
Chimes at Midnight - Orson Welles

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Joey Gosiengfiao, 1941-2007

Alma Moreno in Gosiengfiao's Bomba Star (1980)

Joey Gosiengfiao: 1941--2007

Joey Gosiengfiao wasn't a friend--I wouldn't presume to have enjoyed the privilege. I wasn't close enough to him--didn't spend enough time with him to become close--but it wasn't for want of wanting. Of the many people I've met and come to know deeply or casually in the Filipino film industry he was one of the most good-natured, the most endearing. Never saw him angry; in a crisis he was often upset, but he never allowed himself to cross over to anger--never occurred to him, I suspect; even when he was reprimanding someone he sounded like a favorite grand-aunt telling you something unpleasant for your own good (you hung your head in shame--how could you upset your dear aunt…). Talking to people in the industry--not the celebrity actors or actresses, who demanded the best treatment, but ordinary folk who pushed the wheels of moviemaking slowly and painfully forward--I learned that he was the most beloved director in Regal Films. I don't know anyone who disliked him. Well, some might have felt annoyed at one time or another, but for specific reasons, during the course of doing business; I don't know of anyone who resented the man's character, or held a grudge against him for a very long time.

Best of all was the aura the man radiated--when you stepped up close, no matter what problem or stormy emotion clouded your brow, the sight of those chinky eyes, that wide smile, the hair that looked like fresh-mown grass set your soul (spirit, mind, whatever) instantly at ease. You could sit down with Joey, talk to him, and feel like he was your friend, no matter how short the acquaintance.

That's the man; as for his films--if you browsed through the Cultural Center of the Philippines' 1994 Encyclopedia of Philippine Art, the volume on Philippine Film, you'll find entries on dozens of filmmakers and actors and even writers (the most neglected of the species, I would argue), but you wouldn't find a word on Gosiengfiao (I hear they're updating the books; I hope the omission was corrected). I'm not familiar with the process they used in choosing who gets an entry and who doesn't but if what I've been told was correct, you need to win an award to get in--which is total nonsense. I've argued before and since (and recent award winners only serve to prove my point) that awards (even Hollywood's famous gold doorstops) are a result of compromise and politics, and the need to make the industry appear righteous and respectable--art and quality have little to do with the process.

Joey Gosiengfiao's films are anything but righteous, much less respectable. That was their glory and greatness, and the reason he could never win an award--Christ, I think, with his abhorrence of respectability, would like the man's style. Take, for example, the scene between Eddie Gutierrez and Ricky Belmonte in Bomba Star (roughly translated, Porn Star, 1980). Belmonte and Gutierrez are working out in a gym; Gutierrez starts casting looks at Belmonte; Belmonte coyly returns his looks. The two start teasing each other, tickling each other, suddenly find themselves on the floor wrestling with each other...enter Gutierrez's lover, played by Marissa Delgado--she doesn't do anything, just strikes a glamour pose, a sardonic expression on her face and the world's longest cigarette holder between her fingers. I wish I could explain why the moment is so irreducibly funny, but I can't; if I could, I suspect it wouldn't be funny at all.


Gosiengfiao wasn't just campy; his love scenes can be offhandedly sensual in startling ways. I remember gasping in shock in Nights of Serafina (1996--his last feature film) when Mike Magat, having bent Georgia Ortega over to take her from behind, shoves her face into a tray full of food, Ortega moaning in pleasurable response. It was a disgusting, demeaning, swinish display--and powerfully erotic (it was also a brilliant parody of James Cagney's grapefruit scene in The Public Enemy).
Then there's the death of fourteen-year-old Dina Bonnevie's baby in Katorse (Fourteen, 1980--Joey did five other films that year, and they're all arguably worth watching (What can I say? Filipino filmmakers make six feature films in the time it takes a Hollywood director to make one)): Dina, working hard in the cotton fields, leaves her baby in a basket beside a pile of picked cotton; the cotton falls over, and smothers the child. On one level, you have the pathos of a child's death--Gosiengfiao, unlike, say, Steven Spielberg, isn't so softhearted (softheaded?) that he'd cut away; the cotton in the basket trembles feebly, helplessly, as the baby struggles for breath.

At the same time you can't help but realize that the scenario--young beauty suffering in a cotton field--is a parody of classic Hollywood movies (Gone With the Wind comes to mind) and that the situation is so instantly, melodramatically horrifying it's funny. Mind you, it takes a perverse, witty, cinephilic mind to get all this--cinephilic enough to have seen the 1939 epic, perverse enough to know that Selznick's folly is the height of kitsch (not The Greatest Movie Ever Made, just The Kitschiest), witty enough to realize that the scene is a throwaway sick joke, meant to keep you off-balance and on your toes.

Arguably, Gosiengfiao's masterpiece came out that following year (along with five other pictures). Temptation Island is the story of a group of beauty contestants who set sail in a cruise ship; the ship bursts into flames, sinks (don't ask), the survivors--four women, two men and a maid--land on a deserted island, where they struggle to find food, water, shelter, and an outlet for their hairdryers.

I have to give credit where credit's due--Jessica Zafra was the first to express admiration for the film. I like to think I took that admiration further--far as I'm concerned, there is no Pedro Almodovar, no Matador, no Dark Habits, no Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (don't talk to me of Almodovar's work from All About My Mother onwards--I can't stand the gruesomely sticky, eager-to-please-and-win-awards spirit in which they were conceived); there is only Temptation Island. By turns grotesque, deadpan witty and surreal, it's the only film I know that can redeem the titanic sentimentality of a syrupy perennial like "Somewhere" and leave you howling in laughter and tears, both. A great film, surely, and surely for that one work alone Gosiengfiao will be admitted into the Pearly Gates with all the hosts of Heaven in attendance, decked out in their brightest pastel robes, garlanded with the most garish orchid (Know the etymology of the word? Check it out) wreaths, strumming with their harps the most elaborate arrangement of Sondheim ever created.

But Gosiengfiao was more than just a director--in 1998 he and Regal Films owner Lily Monteverde conceived of the Good Harvest pito-pito (seven-seven) films, precursors to today's digital productions, with a budget of only two or three million pesos (roughly fifty to sixty-five thousand dollars), shot theoretically in seven days, post-produced for another seven (actually ten days, with a little more time for post-production).

Filmmaker Rico Ilarde (Dugo ng Birhen (Blood of the Virgin) and
Babaing Putik (Woman of Mud 2001) describes the experience of working in Good Harvest: "It was a wild, magical time in that Good Harvest office. Under the stairs at Regal, next to Mother's Sto. Nino altar. People would just pile in and we'd take turns using the only conference table in the room-- it would be Mario O'Hara's staff, then after the next hour, Tata Esteban and company, then Lav's team (which included Mammu Chua, his AD), then Jeffrey's, and so on and so forth. It was controlled chaos at its finest and Direk Joey was the General, coach, general manager (and Queen) of the whole lot of it.

"I remember first seeing Lav (it was after the HUBAD (
sa Ilalim ng Buwan (Naked Under the Moon)) shoot in Ilocos) and damn if he didn't look like he just came from hell and back-- he was practically and literally black from being under the sun so much. And he looked dead TIRED like a bag of bones! I told myself, "Shit, what have I gotten myself into?" Little did I know I'd look the same way after my shoot cause it was that type of deal-- make a film at a breakneck pace with little more than an allowance, all for the chance to get your "break", or your see your dream film realized.

"It was a FUCKING WILD, WILD TIME, man. I proudly swear by my time in Good Harvest and talk about it like a badge of honor.

"Good Harvest was a tough place to work in mostly because of the low budgets and pay (and post dated checks), but it really fostered a commitment from any and every filmmaker that walked inside it. Just like the way the old boxing guys talk about the "hallowed" gyms in Philadelphia in the 70's --that if you could survive just the sparring alone then you had "IT"--Good Harvest forced you to develop your skills and really learn your craft on REAL TIME, and if you could hack it there, then nothing would ever intimidate you out in the "regular" world.

"Direk Joey was the perfect leader-of-the-band because he was very film literate and had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of films. In fact, I think his lifelong habit of watching films till daybreak, and sleeping at 7AM (when the rest of the world was waking up), eventually negatively affected his health."

Many were horrific beyond belief--we won't talk of them here--but a handful were genuine little gems.

Sana Pag-ibig Na (At Long Last Love), about a father's infidelity, was the lovely first effort of Jeffrey Jeturian. Gosiengfiao would also produce his sophomore effort,
Pila Balde (Fetch a Pail of Water, 1999); Jeturian would go on to direct, among others, Tuhog (Bigger Than Life, 2001), and Kubrador (The Bet Collector, 2005).


Serafin Geronimo: Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion was
Lav Diaz's ambitious debut (arguably the most impressive debut of any Filipino filmmaker since Raymond Red's Magpakailanman (Eternity) in 1983), a Filipino retelling of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment in the contemplative style of Andrei Tarkovsky or Theo Angelopoulos. Lav would go on to make films with ever more epic ambition and lengths on miniscule budgets--the five hour Batang West Side (West Side Avenue, 2001), the ten-hour Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family, 2004), the nine-hour Heremias, Part 1: The Legend of the Lizard Princess (2006) (Lav may be taking more and more time telling his stories--and how!--but they're nevertheless hypnotic, fascinating journeys into the further reaches of the Filipino soul).

Mario O'Hara didn't debut in 1998--he's a contemporary of Gosiengfiao's. But his work had been inconsistent since his great epic noir Bagong Hari (The New King) more than ten years before, and it was only with the pito-pito films that he came out with not one but two great works, shot back-to-back in twenty days:
Babae sa Bubungang Lata (Woman on a Tin Roof) and Sisa. Gosiengfiao would go on to produce O'Hara's Pangarap ng Puso (Demons, 2000), arguably the best of his recent work, and to my mind the best, most wildly imaginative of recent Filipino films.

By his works ye shall know him, they say. Everyone liked Gosiengfiao; he liked everyone in return, I suspect, otherwise he wouldn't spend so much time and trouble seeking people both new and neglected and producing their films--and what films! His passing is, if anything, a greater blow than Robert Altman's could ever be--at least Altman is mourned by practically everyone, destined perhaps to be remembered forever (but who can tell, in a thousand years?), only a relative few Filipinos know and love Joey and his work. But we few--we happy few--we know exactly what we've lost. 


3.20.07

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Notes on a Scandal (Richarde Eyre, 2006)

Notes on a Scandal (Richard Eyre, 2006)

Excerpt:

In the wake of Helen Mirren's sweep of Hollywood's annual horse derbies for playing Her Royal Highness (a victory that was for the most part deserved, having cracked open that unattractive granite façade to reveal the hint--and it's the sense that you're getting a mere hint that's so compelling--of something warm and vital pulsing inside), two equally impressive performances seem to have been forgotten: Judi Dench's and Cate Blanchett's, for this picture.

Richard Eyre's adaptation of Zoe Heller's novel "What Was She Thinking: Notes on a Scandal" doesn't do much in the way of using the medium to tell its story, beyond the occasional cliché of using handheld shots to suggest the chaos of reporters surrounding a notorious public figure, or the benign chaos that reigns when a family goes about its business of contented living, but the theater veteran does inspire wonderful work from these two royalties. As with his previous picture "Iris," a biopic about author Iris Murdoch, he pairs Ms. Dench with a younger woman--there, Kate Winslet, as the younger Murdoch; here Blanchett, as Sheba (short for Bathsheba) Hart, the object of not-so-obscure desire by the rather obviously named Barbara Covett (Dench).

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Comfort Women petition

Comfort Women House Resolution

110 Signatures
Created by M. Evelina Galang on Mar 13, 2007
Category: Human Rights
Region: United States of America
Target: Everyone
Web-site: http://labanforthelolas.blogspot.com

Description/History:

On March 2, 2007 Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe insisted, “There is no evidence to prove there was coercion, nothing to support it (the coercion of WWII military sex slaves).” We ask Congress to urge Prime Minister Abe to look at the evidence, to see the coercion, to apologize and give appropriate reparations. The women are waiting.

Please See http://www.justiceforcomfortwomen.org/?pg=home or visit http://labanforthelolas.blogspot.com/.

Petition:

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi
H 232 Capitol
Washington DC 20515-6501

Dear Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi,

We the undersigned request you to support House Resolution 121-1H. We urge you to bring the House Floor to a full vote.

Historians and researchers in South Korea and Japan discovered several official war documents in the late 1980’s that established the existence and systematic abuse of WWII Comfort Women. They estimated 200, 000 young women were taken hostage by Japanese soldiers to serve as military sex slaves from all of South East Asia.

After fifty years of silence, surviving Comfort Women have broken the culture of shame to document their experiences of systematic rape and sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army. Their demands are simple -- they would like a formal apology and reparations for the war crimes they suffered, crimes that continue to affect their aging bodies in physically, mentally and sexually abusive ways. The women make their demands in order to reclaim their dignity, and ensure the safety of their own daughters, granddaughters and now, great granddaughters.

The surviving Comfort Women are mostly in their 80’s now. Many are dying. We urge Congress to act swiftly so that some may see justice before they pass away.

Sincerely,

(Go to http://www.gopetition.com/online/11466.html to sign)

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Milkfish (bangus)

I love milkfish; I haven't had it in years. So when my sister-in-law stewed some for dinner, I couldn't resist; the delicately flavored meat, the chunks of rich belly fat (actually good for you, cardiologically speaking) on steamed white rice.

Would that I resisted--halfway through devouring the fish's meat, I felt something stab at the soft flesh of my throat. "Uh-oh," I said. Yep, it was a fishbone. I swallowed, hoping it'd go down. Nope. It was stuck, and from what I could tell at a painful angle. "Not good," I said.

Everyone gave advice; a glass of water, a banana (presumably the chunks of fruit would force it down ). Nothing worked. I didn't mind the pain too much--it was more irritating than agonizing. What I was really worried about was that it would infect and start swelling (no, I'm not being paranoid; happened to me once and it hurt like a motherwhatever). The missus told me she's had worse--that she'd had one stuck for a month. Very reassuring.

Anyway, after dinner, we took the U-Haul truck to the self-storage space to unload in the dark, with no working lightbulb (the self storage facility was brand new), and all the time I was lugging boxes and furnitures from truck to storeroom, every time I swallowed it was like a little hook tugging in my larynx. Sometimes I'd forget all about it (the work was that hard), then I'd swallow tenatively to check; yep, still painful. Sometimes it wouldn't hurt, and I'd feel an irrational rush of joy, and swallow again--and then get that familiar barbed sting (it would actually shift, from one side of the throat to the other).

At one point, I asked what might happen if we had to go to the emergency room; I was told that they'd have to put me out with general anesthesia, to keep me from gagging--a lot of trouble, in effect, and expensive to boot. Besides, fishbones soften, and often slip away without much further ado; sometimes in an hour, sometimes the next day. I pointed out that the missus had one for a month; she shrugged and said sometimes it takes time.

We got home with an empty U Haul truck at two in the morning, dead tired; I didn't even care all that much anymore about that damned fishbone. Everyone just flopped down to sleep. For some reason I couldn't--well, for a specific reason, actually; I couldn't swallow my own saliva, and my throat was parched (not to mention I kept thinking--rightly or wrongly--that it was starting to swell).

So I stuck a finger down my throat. I'd done that before, and all the reaction I got from everyone was "That won't work; have another banana (I never ate so much of the fruit in my life as that night)." It didn't help that I kept gagging, and that the gagging just kept sending that fishbone jabbing deeper into my by-now very tender gullet.

For the upteenth time I passed my finger down my throat in a futile attempt to try dislodge it, when I realized--hey, that wiry thing touching the tip of my finger: that's not bone. At least, that's not my bone, I mean a bone that belonged in my throat; I just belatedly realized that throats shouldn't have bones, at least none that you can feel with your fingers from the inside going in. It was the fish bone! I could just brush one end of it with my fingertips.

I wondered--could I actually do it? I stuck two fingers down my throat, felt the tips pinch the very end of the thorn, pulled my fingers out. And found myself staring at what look like a half-inch of fine wire, with frayed ends like that of a copper cable, or a cat-o-nine tails (the better to hook you with, my dear). I swallowed. It was gone. I'd pulled a fishbone out of my own throat.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Racism in the arts

From Bizarre Hatred of Random Celebrities, the Bookapalooza thread:

Beefy McManflesh:

Last night I discovered something about H.P. Lovecraft that makes me profoundly sad; he wrote the following poem:

On the Creation of Niggers


When, long ago, the gods created Earth.
In Iove's fair image Man was shaped at birth.
The beasts for lesser parts were next designed;
Yet were they too remote from humankind.
To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man,
Th'Olympian host conceiv'd a clever plan.
A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,
Filled it with vice, and called the thing a NIGGER.

H.P. Lovecraft, 1913

I know this has been a topic of discussion in the past, but how can I now relate to the art of a person capable of spewing such vitriol? It sickens me to reread the words of the author whose stories have given me such enjoyment in the past. I feel as if a part of my childhood has been lost.

Is it possible to separate art from the artist, or must they be taken as a whole? Is it reasonable for a humane person to suggest that Albert Speer designed some rather beautiful buildings? What is the morality of this dilemma?

Nerdy suggests that my disappointment shows a certain racial "naivety"; I disagree. I have been surprised by the beauty of the human heart, but never by its attendant ugliness. We invent monsters because we cannot accept the fact that the monstrous lies within us.

In this case, I am saddened because I have begun to receive "viscerally" what I have always understood "intellectually" to be true. Love has bound me to a woman of colour and through that love I am slowly beginning to "feel", piecemeal, what she has put up with for all of her life. I may never fully understand it, but I am continually heartened


The Great Beast:

Beefster, being married to a woman of colour (and into her family) for 23 years I have a bit of perspective I can share.

The past is a different country: they did things different there. Lovecraft was a product of his time, and no worse than any other man who wrote for a living.
It's a mistake to assume that everyone in the past was unsophisticated, naive or ignorant--people are pretty much as sharp as they've always been in our recorded history. However, modes of thought have changed over time. Leonardo thought women were only useful for reproduction, and we don't discard his ideas.

Jefferson was a slave-owner. Greek civilisation was founded on slavery, and we distill our philosophy from them for the most part.

True evil happens when someone is presented a choice, clearly understood, between good and evil, and chooses evil. Someone soaking in their own milieu, who merely failed to overcome prejudice or ill-thinking, and has been dead a hundred years? It's tough for me to get a serious hate on for them--I'll save that for where it can do some good.

Randy Wylde:

It's problematic, I'll give you that. I don't have a good answer, but I do try to allow that people are a product of environment and time, and while it would be great if more would rise above the petty hatreds and misconceptions of their time, many do not. I think that's why I'm more forgiving of the dead than the living.

Wagner's what brought it up for me this past week - he was a bit of an asshole, and also a virulent anti-Semite. But living without the overture to Tannheuser would be very hard for me; it fills me with joy, and I don't hear his antisemitism in it. On its own, it's a work of joy, majesty and great beauty. It also drowns out obnoxious people on the bus very successfully.


I'm trying to love the good works while despising the bad works he did, and to speak out against antisemitism and other hate/bias where it exists today. At this point, my listening to Tannheuser doesn't benefit him or his estate in any way.

I have a much harder time with, say, Mel Gibson. Supporting his work at this time does realize a financial benefit to him; it also adds to the "data" that says he's popular, and while it's specious to say that popularity=support for his ideas, I'm not willing to help build that fallacy.

I'm not sure by any means that my position is defensable, and I don't intend to defend it. But it does bear thinking about and discussion, and I appreciate your raising the issue.

Beefy McManflesh:

You make a good point, Beast. As a student of history, I understand that we need to filter the ideas of the past through the lens of historical "context"; and I am certainly NOT one who holds to a great deal of moral absolutes. I too believe that "people are pretty much as sharp as they've always been"; I guess that's why I'm a little disappointed that Lovecraft was unable to rise above the predominately held beliefs of his day. It was about this time that Franz Boas was developing his theory of cultural relativism.

Randy says, "But living without the overture to Tannheuser would be very hard for me; it fills me with joy, and I don't hear his antisemitism in it."

I hear you, buddy.

It is true that Lovecraft's racism comes through directly in his fantasy fiction in only a few instances that I know of...

Not that I'm trying to be his apologist.

Tim o-Bedlam:

Beefy: It is true that Lovecraft's racism comes through directly in his fantasy fiction in only a few instances that I know of...

it's evident in quite a few of his stories; witness all his talk about "degenerate folk" in many of his stories, like Call of Cthulhu or the Dunwich Horror. ALso, his cat in the story "Rats in the Walls" is named "N****rman".
I suspect Lovecraft was guilty of the upper-crust WASP racism common in his social group.

rufus christ:

You know something? Mores and manners and all of that might have been different back in the bad old days, but it never excuses cruelty. I have it straight from my own maternal ancestors, in their own hand(s), that what was going on in Tennessee in the early to mid 19th century was wrong. So, giving somebody an out based on when and where they lived seems kind of...nope. Can't do it.

It's one thing when you're very young and people are telling you lies and you believe them because it's family and there's a degree of safety and trust. Once you become capable of independent critical thought, then your responsibility should become more personal and less a product of following whatever patterns your culture has taken you.

Maybe this isn't fair, but I hold writers even more responsible than other folks for the simple reason that a lot of what they/we/I/ohputwhoeverthehellyouwanthere do/does in order create often entails wearing someone else's skin for a while.

You can't tell me Lovecraft didn't know he was writing about people and not chattel to be ridiculed. Same goes for Baum's Coulteresque essays about Aboriginal Americans. The thing that gives me hope is that maybe somewhere down the line they had a revelation that their thinking was wrong.

aclipscomb:

I have to bisociate when I read/listen to/view art produced by people I find repugnant. So many artists are just shitty people (but not all of them) that I have to keep two images in my head. Lovcraft(bigot) and Lovecraft(writer) have to be separated or I can't appreciate the art.

And I don't know what that says about me - I don't know if I'm a moral coward for being unwilling to set aside art I like/love over deep moral principles or if I'm being corageous for the sake of timeless art, but I suspect I'm just being human.

It helps that many of the artists I have to bisociate like that over are comfortably dead, so even if I purchase an anthology of Lovecraft's work, I'm not giving him money.

But maybe that's weaseling about it, too.

The Great Beast:

As much as I'm a moral absolutist in my day to day, I'm with Adam here: yes, the baby may be bad, but that's no reason to chuck out perfectly good bathwater.

Tim o-Bedlam:

I think it's death and distance, at least for me. Lovecraft was clearly not the most emotionally healthy person overall (to say the least) so it's not surprising he had some ill-thought-out ideas about race.

Racism among white people was the social norm in 1920 in a way that it absolutely is not (at least, not openly) in 2007.

I do admire people who were able to at least partially overcome the racism of their time: both Lincoln and Darwin were able to do this.

e fulton:

Hearing that someone was a bigot or a misogynist or whatever sours me on them generally and dims the light of any admiration I might have for his or her body of work, but it does not snuff out such light. For people in the past, buying or enjoying their work does nothing to encourage their bad ideas, as (a) they are no longer alive to perpetuate such ideas beyond their existing body of work and (b) I can judge any portion of their work as racist or sexist or what have you, with my judgment being the last word. The ugliness continues beyond their grave, but it stops with me.

Sure, there are those who will draw encouragement in their current racism and sexism and such from old writers who manifest those evils, but as long as I have the ability to transmit my ideas, I hold out hope that over time there will be more people who think like I do and fewer people who think like they do.
So, I think of it like so -- assholes do great work, but great work shouldn't excuse someone for being an asshole. Inasmuch as we know someone is an asshole, we should think such asshole an asshole, but we can still appreciate the great work of such asshole, so long as we don't perpetuate that which makes the asshole an asshole, either by funding the assholicity or by mimicking it in ourselves.

Beefy McManflesh:

Rufus Christ says, "The thing that gives me hope is that maybe somewhere down the line they had a revelation that their thinking was wrong."

True enough. When a writer puts pen to paper, their thoughts, for good or ill, are frozen for all time. What is true for a person one minute may be different the next.

Imagine if we lived in a society where all communications were conducted sans internal filters; what sorts of insane, psychotic ramblings would we be subjected to - racist or otherwise. Does that mean we're all scum? No. Though a confirmed cynic, I still believe "most" people are good "most" of the time.

Me:

As a person of color (brown, dark), racism isn't very far from my consciousness. Apocalypto, for example feels like a personal affront.

You get plenty of that in films, actually--one of the greatest ever made, in my opine, was Birth of a Nation, which singlehandedly revived the Ku Klux Klan; one of the greatest documentary/sports films ever made was by a woman, who did it for Adolf Hitler.

One way I can make some kind of peace with these contradictions is by trying to keep both aspects in focus--I can dwell or write about the greatness I find in a Birth of a Nation or Olympia, but I always append it with the warning that Birth is outrageously racist, and Olympia played into Hitler's notions of a superman (though to Riefenstahl's credit, she did allow for the beauty of a Jesse Owens).

(There's a case-to-case element to all this, too--Intolerance I think was Griffith's masterpiece, and considerably less racist, while Triumph of the Will is more clearly Nazi propaganda, and I think a good deal less interesting than Olympia (though there's a moment in the documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl where she looks at footage of Triumph and--in the way I read her expression--is enjoying the sheer beauty of vast amounts of men marching in precisely orchestrated motion (men depicted as cogs in a machine aren't exactly unique to the Nazis--Busby Berkeley? Fritz Lang in Metropolis?)).

As for Mel Gibson--well, he's an egotist, anti-Semite, and talentless to boot. There's no excuse for the likes of him.


(postscript: a New York Times review of two Riefenstahl bios argues that it's a fine line between accepting her talent and excusing her opportunism--something I hope I'm still on the right side of...)

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Flushed Away (David Bowers and Sam Fell, 2006)

Flushed Away (David Bowers and Sam Fell, 2006)

Excerpt:

David Bowers and Sam Fell's "Flushed Away" (2006) is surprisingly charming, an unholy marriage between Aardman Animations (responsible for Nick Park's "Wallace and Gromit" movies) and Dreamworks that actually manages to stay afloat, despite the tidal pull of American digital animation and all its dreary clichés.

It's hard to say why--there's plenty the matter with the picture. You miss the handmade quality of Park's films (yes, he's started using CGI, but only to supplement the stop-motion animation), the vast tabletop models (the aerial shots of the estate with the carnival rides spinning about in "Curse of the Were-Rabbit" were so intricately detailed you wanted to stop and stare), the (most of all) expressive plasticine forehead of Gromit (he's to silent dog comedy what Chaplin was to silent film comedy--a sweet yet somehow melancholy champion). You don't miss the tired storylines, the action sequences that ape amusement park rides or the latest extreme sports that seem standard-issue in most animated American films nowadays--all that swinging from vines (in this case, electric cords and pipes running liquid nitrogen (but what are liquid nitrogen pipes doing in a sewer?)), the motorboats chased by hand mixers, the parachuting and hang-gliding and water-skiing and whatnot (when Parks did chases, they weren't mere coaster rides, but structural frames on which to hang all kinds of sight gags). Strangely, the baggage that does comes with the digital animation is not as annoying as usual--maybe it helps that longtime Parks collaborator Peter Lord both produced and cooked up the script, with the help of Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais (both veterans who have written for Tracy Ullman and Lenny Henry), with additional material by Tim Sullivan (who has adopted both E. M. Forster and Evelyn Waugh to the big screen).

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Miami Vice (Michael Mann, 2006)

Saw Miami Vice on DVD and the question that immediately popped into my mind was: why didn't I catch this in the theaters? It's a policier, and its cold perfection resembles a diamond--brilliantly cut and faceted, geometrically precise, with a beauty that leaps beyond the precision and perfection.

It goes a long way towards fetishizing guns. I can't say Mann actually sensualizes the weaponry (no long, lingering shots on gun barrels, or much slow motion shots of blood exploding out of hapless human bodies), but he has an awareness of ordinance and ammunition that--well, I never fired a weapon before, but my fingers itched to get their hands on that .50 calibre sniper rifle (what do they say in Mythbusters? "This .38 will kill you. This .50 calibre will kill you and everyone else in the room."), not to mention the way said rifle shoots very large holes into a car, the car seats inside, the people sitting in those car seats, and the engine block sitting in front of all the perforated people.

But I can't see a gun freak grooving to this film; the weapons are taken out and used; no one refers to them or talks much about them (except perhaps in one memorable incident, a brief moment of glory for the character named Gina). They're just tools to be used in the trade (same with the boats, which look as if they could blast off, the Ferrari and BMW, and that beautifully swanlike Adam A500 plane). Actually, I can't see anyone grooving to this film other than a film critic--it's iced ice, exhaling pure carbon dioxide. But it looks gorgeous.

Even more interesting than the weapons or transport are the tactics used, particularly on the raid on the trailer home: establish your positions, get as much reconaissance intelligence as possible and (if the moment befits it) use a bit of improvisation, like a discarded pizza box. These people move the way I suspect Mann directs.

There is heart here, but like the weaponry it's barely glanced at: the interplay between Tubbs and Trudy and the understated concern they have for each other (understated not meaning they don't feel all that much, but that they bury their feelings under some tough-talking shell); an edgy affair between Crockett (Colin Farell) and Isabella (Gong Li) that seems like a totally screwed-up idea (when infiltrating an organization, do you sleep with the boss' squeeze?) and puzzlingly placed--it slows down the action when things should be speeding up. But it's like an added origami fold, an odd bent in a classic-looking form that makes the whole more interesting as a result.


And it leads up to a satisfying (for me, I wouldn't know about the general public) conclusion--after all has been fired upon and blown away (in a gunfight that seems to be trying to outdo the one Mann staged in Heat), what matters, sometimes, is the furtive act of compassion.

The overall result is a quality I find in most Mann films--a realistic action flick where the most interesting action is directed inwards, towards the still, carefully suspended core of the protagonists' souls...

Not bad, not bad at all; if I'd seen this earlier, I'd call it one of the best of last year.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Prime Minister Abe and His Imaginary Comfort Women

This whole brouhaha may be a tempest in a teacup for Americans, preoccupied with their liddle war out in the Middle East, but it's long been a sore point with us Southeast Asians.

The exact statement PM Abe makes goes something like this: "There was no evidence to prove there was coercion as initially suggested. That largely changes what constitutes the definition of coercion, and we have to take it from there"

Personally, I'd like to know what he believes constitutes 'evidence'--the personal testimony of Korean, Chinese and Filipino (not to mention the Dutch) women apparently don't count; they may be lying, to take advantage of Japan's obviously overtaxed sense of guilt about the war that the country helped start.

This argument between Abe and Democratic Party lawmaker Toshio Ogawa is interesting. Some highlights from the debate:

Abe: No one would voluntarily apply to be a comfort woman. In some cases, private agents forced the women, so in this broad context, forced coercion existed. However, Japanese government officials did not raid civilians¡¯ homes to ¡°kidnap¡± women. The testimony that the Japanese military hunted women as sex slaves is completely fabricated. No other evidence supports such testimony.

As the article notes, this flatly contradicts the statement of former Cabinet secretary Yohei Kono in 1993, that the military authorities had been involved. This plus additional unearthed evidence suggests that Prime Minister Abe is either a barefaced liar or in a state of denial as grandiose as Mel Gibson's.

Abe adds in Japan's defense: "Japan¡¯s acts for 60 years following the end of World War II have been highly appreciated."

Sure it's been appreciated. Can we all please say "hush money" out loud?

To his credit, Abe this Sunday still affirmed the 1993 Kono statement. Which leads to the question: does he think they were coerced, or doesn't he? Maybe he's not lying or in a state of delusion; maybe he's just confused. He definitely didn't win a lot of friends in the international scene during the past few days.

The earlier Inquirer article's last sentence, incidentally, is heartbreaking:

More than 80 Filipino women, now mostly in their 80s, have accepted money from the fund out of poverty, but all still seek legislated compensation from the Japanese government.

These women were repeatedly raped, have repeatedly testified in public to their humiliation, and have to take consolation money anyway--money which comes from private funds, allowing the Japanese government to keep its hands squeaky clean.

Frankly, I hope they manage to sue Abe's ass off.

EDIT: Here's a Filipino website that disseminates information on and campaigns for the surviving Filipina Comfort Women of World War 2.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Bridge to Terabithia (Gabor Csupo, 2007)

Bridge to Terabithia (Gabor Csupo, 2007)

Excerpt:

There are a lot of things the matter with "Bridge to Terabithia," Gabor Csupo's adaptation of the Newberry Award-winning children's book by Katherine Paterson, first and foremost being the trailer, which leads you to expect a "Narnia" or "Lord of the Rings" type adventure--nothing of that sort. "Bridge" is about the friendship that develops between two lonely youths, both eleven years old--Jesse, a boy trapped in a chaotic lower-middle-class household with four other women and a seemingly uncaring father; and Leslie, the only child of a pair of loving, well-to-do parents.

The fantasy, it's pretty much made clear here, is strictly in the children's minds--no complex psychological or metaphysical questions posed, no blurring of fiction and reality beyond what can easily be explained by a parent to a child. This is no "Pan's Labyrinth," where the fantasy takes on unsettling parallels with grim reality, even intruding upon it at several points; no "Heavenly Creatures," where the lure of fantasy for two girls is so strong their very sanity is thrown into question. This movie's fantasy is mostly by-the-numbers escapism, set against a reality where--though some of the circumstances may be unpleasant, even tragic--the people transcend said circumstances through persistent strength of character and basic human decency.
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