Friday, August 28, 2009

Up (Peter Doctor, Bob Peterson, 2009)

Down

I. To dream the impossible

Far as I can see Pixar’s Up (Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, 2009) is very in with critics (Liza Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly says it’s a “lovely, thoughtful and, yes, uplifting adventure;” Richard Corliss of Time Magazine calls it Pixar’s “most deeply emotional and affecting work;” heavyweight film critic Roger Ebert declares it “another masterwork from Pixar, which is leading the charge in modern animation”), and most audiences too ($288 million in US boxoffice receipts as of this writing, with another hundred million in foreign receipts--cream off the top, in effect). There’s no reason to believe Filipinos, who can barely resist lovely, thoughtful, deeply emotional and affecting masterworks of uplift (that at the same time lead animated charges), will not respond to the picture.

And it does begin well--one thing I can say for Pixar’s movies nowadays, or at least their last two movies, they do have a neat, unfrenetic way of introducing themselves. Wall-E opened with a silent pantomime of a lonely robot abandoned on a garbage dump-planet lasting some thirty minutes; Up opens with a mere four minutes of wordless animation, but does ratchet up the pathos quotient a notch higher--basically a young boy and girl meet, fall in love, promise each other an impossible dream, then before they realize it find themselves too old to achieve said dream.

To dream the impossible--you might say this is the unspoken mantra of American animation, the spoonful of moral to help convince parents to allow the sugary to drop down unsuspecting children’s throats. Carl (Ed Asner) happens to dream a little more impossibly than most: he wants to lift his entire house up with a couple of thousand balloons (Someone actually went ahead and did the math, estimating that yes, it’s possible to lift a house with the hundred thousand plus balloons on display--but one wonders what, with that much helium hidden away under the house, kept the house from taking off earlier? What kind of string do those balloons use? How could Carl have afforded all this on a pension?) and whisk it away to Paradise Falls, South America (no such place, of course, but the layout--slim falls, vertiginously high plateau, impossible rock spike to the right--looks suspiciously like a similar spot in Harry O. Hoyt’s The Lost World (1925). Let’s call it an homage, and move on).

Pixar would like you to think they’re doing original work; they’d like you to think “Oh! A flying house, how original!” when Hayao Miyazaki has already had a castle walk (Hauru no ugoku shiro (Howl’s Moving Castle, 2004)) and, some eighteen years earlier, fly (Tenku no shiro Rapyuta (Castle in the Sky, 1986), based on an idea by Jonathan Swift, almost three hundred years ago). Some flying sequences here, particularly the aerial battles, look as if they had been inspired by Castle; a crucial subplot--of an explorer discredited and vowing to return for further proof--seems to have been borrowed from the aforementioned Lost World silent, only here Professor Challenger is seen as a villain and not hero. They’d like you to think just because they use a robot, or a rat, or an old man for a main character they’re doing something different when they’re really just telling the same old story (dream the impossible) the same old way, with superficial dressing on top.

II. There’s no place like home

For all the ostensible wanderlust on display by heroes in American animation, the movies betray a not inconsiderable amount of nostalgic conservatism. After all is said and done it’s not your dream that counts, it’s the life you’ve actually lived; it’s not what you take home from some exotic land, it’s how you treat the people around you--the first is actually realized in the main character’s dramatic arc, the second in that subplot stolen--sorry, inspired by--The Lost World. Perfectly good moral lessons, of course, but the point and my main objection is that they’re almost always treated as lessons, as teachable moments and not subversive messages smuggled into the subconscious while you’re engaged in the ostensible story.


Note the difference in Miyazaki’s films, which Pixar head John Lasseter professes to admire: the moral of the story isn’t so much hammered home as it is mentioned in passing--the man makes his themes palatable by introducing them lightly, little to no hammering involved at all.

For example: Miyazaki’s latest work Gake no ue no Ponyo (Ponyo, 2008) is all about a search for “balance.” Miyazaki is a little vague about what’s supposed to be balanced, but never mind--we actually see the theme in action, in the form of pollution and debris fouling the otherwise clear waters surrounding a small fishing town: humans are abusing their relationship with nature, and the result is garbage choking the town’s waterways. But Miyazaki doesn’t allow said theme to stagnate for long; he has Fujimoto (a Captain Nemo-like figure) drive his submarine forward, pushing the heavily metaphorical flotsam aside to make way for story. Heroes in Miyazaki films are too busy, have too little time for what really matters to them to let such issues as “clarifying the morality of the situation” drag the audience down. They make their point, they move on; the audience, intrigued, follows; they are either proven right or learn better, and then move further on. That’s the mark of a storyteller.

That’s not to say Miyazaki’s films are loud and relentlessly fast-paced; he allows for quieter moments, like Sosuke poking around at the beach, or observing the prize swimming in his water bucket. These moments, though, are so expertly paced and superbly realized (no one does quotidian moments in animation better than Miyazaki, far as I know, except maybe for his colleague, Isao Takahata) one can’t think of them as extraneous, or indulgent. For all the apparent leisureliness of his storytelling, Miyazaki’s films have very little fat.

I might add that while Pixar has done its latest in state-of-the-art digital 3-D animation, which pretty much looks alike in all its movies (oh, a few new effects here and there--peacock feathers, for one), Miyazaki continues to prove that there’s still room for innovation in 2-D hand-drawn animation. In Ponyo he’s opted for an unfinished look, with brushstrokes visible and backgrounds at times sketched out. The effect looks spontaneous, even lively--one thinks this is how Van Gogh might do an animated film, if he were handed an enormous box of colored pencils.

III. Leading the charge in modern animation

That’s Miyazaki; a far more dramatically contrasting case on an ostensibly more similar storyline can be made with Mamoru Oshii’s contemporaneous Sukai kurora (The Sky Crawlers, 2008). Oshii’s film deals with aeronauts, with fighter pilots instead of balloonists; there are flight sequences, even dogfights aplenty, but there all similarity ends. The pilots don’t know what they’re fighting for (themes about impossible dreams fly out the window right there), how they got there, and for whom, exactly, they fight. All they know is that their rival pilots are from rival corporations, corporate warfare at its most spectacular and nonsensical (and unhypocritical).

Incidentally, where Miyazaki uses traditional animation digitally enhanced and Pixar uses exclusively digital animation, Oshii mixes both--the human characters and detailed foreground objects are visibly hand-drawn, while the fighter planes straining and roaring in mid-flight are composed on a computer; Oshii manages to combine the non-organic realism of digital with the expressiveness and subtlety of hand-drawn to great effect.

Miyazaki’s been called “The Walt Disney of Japan;” that in my book is an accusation, not a compliment. In the case of Oshii his sensibilities are so alien to Disney it’s hilarious--I can see the older animator shaking the younger’s hand, sensing the thoughts wriggling like electric eels beneath the skin, and flinching . Much closer to Oshii’s thinking (not to mention imagination and sense of disaffection) would be J.G. Ballard; I’d go so far as to say the film is basically Ballard’s autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun done right, without the Spielbergian frippery or sentiment. Compared to Oshii’s (and Miyazaki’s, for that matter), Pixar’s latest is a sad, sad afterbirth of an afterthought, seeking to catch up with the frontrunners.

First published in Businessworld, 8.21.09

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Nonoy Marcelo for National Artist!



If Carlos J. Caparas can be National Artist just like that, why not Nonoy Marcelo?

Undercover history

Filipino cartoonist Nonoy Marcelo's Tadhana (Destiny) is possibly the first-ever full-length animated feature made in the Philippines. Based on a series of volumes on Philippine history officially written by Ferdinand Marcos (unofficially written by a whole team of historians), and produced by his eldest daughter, Imee, the film was broadcast on September 21, 1978--the sixth anniversary of the declaration of Martial Law. It was supposed to be replayed and even have a commercial theater release, but for reasons never made clear that broadcast was it; it was never seen again. Today, no known print or negative is left, only a video copy recorded off that broadcast by Mr. Teddy Co, who lent his copy to Mowelfund for their French-Filipino Animation Festival.

Some sixty artists worked for three months on the project--not many and not long compared to what goes into a standard Disney feature animation (hundreds of artists working for years), but almost unheard of in the Philippines, where animation is a cottage industry--literally a one-man, part-time job. The animation is crude, though compared to what's been done previously and even recently--Geirry Garrcia's Adarna comes to mind--the film stands up surprisingly well. Garrcia's film may have smoother motion (just barely) but Tadhana has a distinct, even unique, sensibility (Adarna's is of the simpering Disney kind).

Marcelo conceived of the film as a series of vignettes, often experimental, sometimes surreal. It has to be--a consistently realist style would have been too expensive. Marcelo turns this idiosyncrasy into an advantage: this is probably the funniest, least stuffy lesson on Philippine history ever given. When Magellan's galleons sail across the Pacific they sway right and left like fat-bellied matrons (to the tune of the Star Wars theme); when Lapu-Lapu lops off Magellan's head it drops to the sands and sings (in Yoyoy Villame's voice): "Mother, mother I am sick; call da doctor very quick." Marcelo's film is less an account of history than it is a gleefully, unashamedly jaundiced interpretation of it--sixty minutes of editorial cartoons, improvising brilliantly.

Imee insists that while it's not a literally faithful adaptation of her father's books, it's faithful to their themes. I've dipped into the books enough to remember that Marcos recognizes (or rather, his historians recognize) the centuries of repression inflicted by the Catholic Church and Spain. But if Tadhana takes its cue from the books in targeting church and state, its humor is uniquely Marcelo's. His near-Swiftian wit turns microcosmos into macrocosmos (as in his comic strip Ikabod, where a mouse and friends represent Philippine society), and compels him to bite the hand that feeds him (Marcos, as skewered in Ikabod, Tisoy, and others).

One highlight is the Blood Pact, traditionally depicted by Filipino artists as a solemn, historically momentous ment. In Tadhana the pact is signed during the opening cocktails of the Sandugo (One Blood) Art Exhibit; boiling blood is served as punch while a manananggal (a woman's severed upper half, flapping about on a pair of batwings) and a tikbalang (a half-man, half-horse--drawn, I think, by cartoonist Edd Aragon) get down to some funky disco music. Rajah Soliman, riding a water buffalo that roars like a Harley Davidson, crashes the party and demands to know why he wasn't invited; when he peers at the exhibited paintings--examples of Western abstract and postmodern art--his brain reels and undergoes a hallucinogenic head trip.

Probably the best part of the film--my favorite, anyway--is the relationship sketched between parish priest and native, animated to the tune of Freddie Aguilar's mournful Anak (Child). The choice is hilariously ironic; Aguilar sings of an ungrateful child and his sacrificing parents while onscreen it's the priest--the native child's spiritual and biological father--who is boorish, abusive, greedy, ungrateful. The child confronts his mother, a veiled babaylan (sorceress) and the priest's mistress; she has wept so much from grief that she has to wring her veil dry. Cut to a close-up of the child's face--now that of a young man--as tears stream down his own cheeks. Aguilar's melody wails on, but suddenly satire is transmuted into something potent and unsaid, something not so very different from genuine tragedy...

The final twenty minutes chronicles an epic war between native and conquistador, an overambitious, overextended sequence stuffed to brimming with all kinds of animation techniques, to the tune of Procol Harum's violent Conquistador. Panoramic drawings of native warriors and Spanish soldiers poised to attack; godlike overhead shots of armies surging like tides; images scratched into the film print itself, depicting elemental chaos...

Marcelo tempers his anti-Western stance with a remarkably clear-eyed view of the pre-Hispanic Filipino; he knows not all blame can be laid at the feet of foreign devils. The datu (chieftain) is an incoherent drunk who considers everything useless and shares his counsel with a jar of rice liquor; his manservant is a craven backbiter constantly aware of the fact that if the datu dies, he will be buried with him. Both are hardly the heroic warriors of Filipino history books; rather, they're the same funny characters that spill out the margins of Marcelo's newspaper strips: as flawed, vainglorious, deluded--as recognizably human, in short--as you or me.

As mentioned before, Tadhana was broadcast once, then apparently never shown again. Why? Did the Church, on seeing the anti-clerical bias, move to have all prints and video copies destroyed? Did Marcos, watching as the natives cried Makialam!" (roughly, "Join us!") against their oppressors, feel uncomfortable enough to want to suppress it? We may never know...

Another intriguing question: if the series had continued, how would Marcelo have handled recent history--particularly the Marcos years, up to his declaration of martial law? Would he have tried smuggling anti-Marcos criticism under the censors' noses, as in his later cartoons? Again we may never know, and perhaps Marcelo himself intended it that way, stopping far enough in the past while it's still safe.

Anyway--what we have, here and now, is a video copy of the remote past, brought to glorious, comic life by one of our greatest satirist. Is the film still relevant? More then ever, I think, what with parish priests still molesting parishioners, wealthy patriarchs still abusing laborers, and the all-mighty West still oppressing us all ("War on Terrorism" anyone?). The film ends with the glowing circular logo of Marcos' Bagong Lipunan (New Society)--symbol of Marcelo's patron without whom the film would never have been made, the same time it's a symbol of the twenty-year dictatorship he would end up fighting through his comics. The irony, I hope, isn't lost on us.

(Excerpt taken from Critic After Dark: A Review of Philippine Cinema. Click here to order online.)

Joyce Bernal for National Artist!


Continuing from the news that Carlos J. Caparas is National Artist, yet more artists that 1) better deserve the title, 2) are I think genuinely talented, and 3) deserve to be much better known--in this case, Ms. Joyce Bernal:


Excerpt from: Two love stories

Viva Film's Kailangan Ko'y Ikaw (You Are All I Need, 2000) is a romantic comedy starring Robin Padilla and Regine Velasquez and--surprise, surprise--it's actually very good.

It's nothing really new--actually, it's the nth variation of William
Wyler's Roman Holiday (1953), where Audrey Hepburn plays a lonely princess longing to escape her duties and go on a holiday and Gregory Peck plays the journalist who accompanies her on her holiday and ultimately falls in love with her. Here Velasquez is a pop-music princess with a full schedule; one of the quickie activities she happens to be involved in is a "Your Dream Date" contest which Padilla happens to win, hence their first meeting.

Not quite--Velasquez does show up, but she's in such a hurry to get to her other engagements that Padilla is left forgotten and bewildered and not a little disappointed. So he stalks her, kidnaps her, then continues the date from where they left off.

And they fall in love. And they have the usual lovers' quarrels (here involving her being a rich and famous singer and him being some poor nobody). And, despite everything, it all ends happily. That's not the point; the point is Joyce Bernal (who directs) and Mel Mendoza (who wrote the screenplay) have taken a tired genre (the romantic comedy) and a tired plot (poor boy meets rich girl), and spun off fresh (okay, fairly fresh) and funny moments from the less-than-promising material. And that (as anyone familiar with recent romantic comedies can tell you) is a minor miracle.

Part of it is the way the film plays against the two stars' public persona…which has been done before, but rarely with such intelligence and wit (I can barely remember the last Filipino or even Hollywood romance that had wit, much less intelligence). It's established early on, for example, that Padilla is popular in his impoverished little baranggay (village)--one of the film's conceits is that he's so popular everyone in the community submitted his name to the "Dream Date" contest in the hopes of seeing him with their favorite singing star (Velasquez), which explains why he won (cute; a stretch credibilitywise, but cute). He enjoys a standing among his people, and Velasquez's unintended snub was more than his honor can bear--hence his improvised kidnapping.

Which is pretty much a recap, in romantic-comedy form, of Padilla's public life to date. We know he has the ability to command the loyalty and affection of ordinary folk; we know he's popular with girls and gays (though with gays it's strictly "look, no touch"); we know he's given to impulsive acts of questionable legality (for which he's already spent time in prison); we know he's a die-hard romantic of a lover, who falls for all his leading ladies. We know all this and still we forgive his flaws, still we cheer him on--because he's not just the movie's leading man, he's our leading man; he has that indefinably quality that kept stars like Fernando Poe Jr., Joseph Estrada, James Stewart, John Wayne popular through the years.

It helps, I think that Bernal is directing; an accomplished editor, she knows how to pace the film, to keep it moving along. More, having an intelligent woman filmmaker take the famous Padilla machismo and--well, not exactly deconstruct it, but contribute her take on it--gives the movie an interesting tension. Bernal doesn't do much to soften his character--we still see his temper flareups, his tendency to talk with his fists rather than his brain--but she does see him as a kind of anachronism, one to be put up with and understood rather than put down and censured.

Which, incidentally, is where I think recent James Bond movies fail--instead of seeing Bond as the dinosaur that he is and honoring him for what he once represented (male European sexism), they updated him, made him politically correct--in short, emasculated him. Bond, and to a lesser extent Padilla, belong to an earlier age when men were men and women loved them as such; that's the basis of their appeal. Defanging them doesn't make them more interesting as characters, or help us understand them.

It also helps that in Velasquez, Bernal has a champion willing to fight for her sex, on both the ideological and comical front. She concedes little to Padilla's pride and reverse snobbishness (in this the film is spot-on accurate--the rich are proud, the poor prouder); she even engineers the film's fairly ingenious conclusion, bringing the whole story to a full circle. Better, she brings her own public persona and charisma and sense of humor to the role--at one point she's game enough to even make fun of her surgically improved nose (very distracting to look at). And she has a strong singing voice (the film manages to work in a few numbers--some of them, surprisingly, the picture's comic high points. Unsurprisingly, Viva Recording is promoting Velasquez's album based on the song score).

Kailangan Ko'y Ikaw is a hit--the theater I saw it in had people sitting in the aisles. It's heartening to think that at a time when the local film industry seems to be in a depression people still love to go see a movie; it's even more heartening to think this particular movie is not unworthy of their love--that it earns that love through heart and skill and carefully crafted humor. The film isn't the best local film I've seen this year--it lacks the harrowing realism of Tikoy Aguiluz's Biyaheng Langit (Paradise Express, 2000), or the poetic ferocity of Mario O'Hara's Pangarap ng Puso (Demons, 2000)--but it pretty much stands head and shoulders above everything else.

(Excerpt taken from Critic After Dark: A Review of Philippine Cinema. Click here to order online.)

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Ronnie Ricketts for National Artist!




If Carlos J. Caparas can be National Artist just like that, why not Ronnie Ricketts?


I'm serious. I've seen Caparas' films, I've seen Ricketts' films, and I'm telling you, the latter is a real filmmaker, with talent and passion and (unlike Caparas) a becoming modesty.


Here's an article I'd written on Ricketts, in the Manila Chronicle, 7/26/97


Solid-Fueled Rickett

HARD TO BELIEVE, BUT THERE YOU ARE: of all the recent actors who've tried their hand at directing, the most promising seems to be Ronnie Ricketts. Ricketts onscreen comes off as a quiet, unassuming action star with day-old stubble and excellent kickboxing form. Not exactly material for Aspiring Director, which usually calls for an actor who's won a number of dubious acting awards (nowadays all local acting awards are dubious) and an ego to match.

But Ricketts is the real thing. His budget for Hawak Ko, Buhay Mo (Your Life in My Hands, 1997) can't come up to more than a fraction of Mission Impossible's budget, and he still manages to make lively action sequences that rival Impossible in energy and inventiveness. Without the money for a Steadicam, he simply keeps the camera handheld: the resulting jumpy, restless images charge up the audience, keeping them on the edge of their seats; the secret of his cinema seems to be in the wrist, which is kept fast and loose and funny.

He has three weaknesses that I can see: his editing can be tight when the situation is tight and someone wants to manhandle someone else, usually with both bare hands; and he knows counterpoint--a few fast cuts, then a sudden image in slow motion. But in between the action set pieces, the film is oddly slack. Ordinary scenes which shouldn't trouble more conventional directors are long and drawn-out; dialogue in particular is a real pain. Once in a while the editing can get too tight, and you don't know where you are in the fight scene--a cardinal sin for an action director. Can't emphasize this too much, but the greatest action directors on film are great precisely for their clarity--Akira Kurosawa, John Ford, Howard Hawks. Even Sam Peckinpah with his furiously edited violence never allowed you to get lost (His slow motion is cited as a trademark style, but it's more than that--it's one way he lets you know what's going on).

Ricketts is competent with actors, but only competent. He still doesn't let his actors or himself break out of that stop-start style of declamation that's standard with local action flicks--you know, the scene where the hero faces the villain and they declaim their respective philosophical positions on the meaning of life in endlessly convoluted speeches before trying to whack each other's heads off. It's a formula, true, something the local audience tends to expect, but he could at least subvert the convention, give it a satiric spin the way Anjo Yllana does in one of his action-comedy capers--can't for the moment remember which one.

Michelle Aldana does well in what's largely an ornamental role. Her affair with Ricketts is nicely low-key, with minimum dramatics. Ricketts himself isn't really acting; this is the persona his fans are familiar with, a mix of melancholic vulnerability and driven determination, badly in need of a shave. Ricketts seems to model himself after Clint Eastwood, an approach which has its advantages and drawbacks--the drawback is that Sergio Leone once referred to Eastwood as a block of marble you have to shape yourself; the advantage is that, well, he is after all marble, which easily gleams once the polishing is done.

Complementing Rickett's block is Michael De Mesa's fine-grained performance as villain (asked about Robert De Niro, Leone considered him not a block but a finished work of art). De Mesa isn't given equal billing or even equal screen time but his slyly perverse grin and laser-sighting eyes have a way of burrowing under the skin, to the point that in the final faceoff with Ricketts, he achieves a larger-than-life stature. It's been years since I felt any kind of shudder in a Filipino action film (the last time might be in Mario O'Hara's noir masterpiece, Bagong Hari (The New King, 1986)). Standing on that catwalk in leather cladding, his hands hanging loosely at each side like a pair of power tools, De Mesa made me shudder (Can I suggest De Mesa as an anti-hero in a Ricketts-directed flick? Just hoping).

Rickett's most serious weakness is in scripting. We get a serial killer (De Mesa) who likes to break people's spines; we get a sex slavery ring thrown in for good measure. The two storylines could make a movie by themselves; together, they tend to detract and weaken each other. De Mesa is very good, but his serial killer isn't that much out of the ordinary--after the tableau killer in Se7en and mimic-killer in Copycat, you expect a little more. The sex slave ring also cries out for a twist or three--the revelation, for example, that Rickett's boss is actually heading the ring.

But what we do get is pretty interesting. The showdown between De Mesa and Ricketts features a deft mirror-maze sequence that recalls something of Enter The Dragon and even Orson Welles' Lady From Shanghai. Ricketts is fast on his feet, and has a filmmaker's eye; with more consistent editing, a more inspired script and somewhat bigger production budget, he might make a movie worth sending to film festivals abroad. He is one propulsive vehicle that shows every sign of taking off.

(Excerpt taken from Critic After Dark: A Review of Philippine Cinema. Click here to order online.)

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Cory Aquino--sinner or saint?





Corazon Aquino, 1933-2009

Filipinos loved her; now that she's gone, Filipinos mourn her. And I understand that.

Her finest moment, I believe, was during the 1986 Snap Elections, declared by then president (and dictator) Ferdinand E. Marcos. When accused of lacking experience, she replied: "It is true. I have no experience in lying, cheating, stealing and killing. I offer you honesty and sincerity in leadership."

We loved her for that. She said it in a monotone; she had little to no gift for public speaking, but the fact that she sounded like such an inexperienced political speaker was in itself refreshing. We'd had it with Marcos' legendary eloquence (muted perhaps by advanced age and acute lupus) and as far as we were concerned, she was a startling sea breeze, blown in from a window long padlocked.

The revolt itself happened almost despite Aquino's popularity, a military coup prematurely discovered; but people decided enough was enough, used said coup as an excuse, and poured out in the streets to demand Marcos' resignation.

Aquino rode on the crest of that wave to Malacanang, but it's instructive to remember what factions made up that wave--the Philippine military; the Catholic Church; people from upper to middle to lower class, not just in Manila but the provincial cities as well (Manila hogged the lion's share of media coverage, of course). It wasn't just her, though she was possibly its most prominent figurehead, in bright yellow.

The government she formed right after the revolt might be what we call the Dream Team of Philippine politics--Claudio Teehankee as Chief Justice, Juan Ponce Enrile as Secretary of Defense, Fidel Ramos as Armed Forces Chief of Staff, Jaime Ongpin as Finance Secretary, Joker Arroyo as Executive Secretary. It was like a rainbow spectrum, from right to left and all shades in between--for a brief, shining moment, an example of the lion lying with the lamb (who was lion and who lamb I wouldn't dare guess).

But she couldn't hold it together--who could, actually? Juan Ponce Enrile and his military supporters tested her, thought her weak, tried to overthrow her the way he tried to overthrow Marcos (what's that again about an untrustworthy servant?). She survived--mainly because Fidel Ramos remained loyal to Aquino. She stayed in power despite six coup attempts in all, a feat in itself, but at a cost: she was forced to purge her government of leftist elements (Arroyo among others, left her cabinet).

She refused to repudiate any of the huge debts Marcos amassed during his reign, forcing her to prioritize debt repayment over poverty alleviation and economic development. She slow-pedaled attempts to achieve a peace settlement with the New People's Army and the Moro National Liberation Front (we're still trying to negotiate/wipe them out some twenty years later). She outlawed paramilitary groups, then turned around and allowed them to continue, under a cosmetic name change. She initially championed land reform, though when the law finally passed, how effective has that really been?

On a relatively smaller issue, Ms. Aquino was not exactly a friend of Philippine cinema--or rather, the industry during her administration was not known for enduring art. Number of factors for this, including inheriting an ailing economy from the Marcoses, and the fact that the Marcoses themselves were convenient targets for some of our finest filmmakers' finest films (the fact that for years the Marcos administration actively practiced censorship meant that said films had to be subtle, not blatant). Developing Philippine cinema may not have been her priority and understandably so, but she could at least have lifted the enormous entertainment tax (almost 30%, or a third of the gross receipts) that was such a heavy drag on the industry for decades.

And Ms. Aquino was a good and faithful Catholic, meaning censorship under her watch didn't relax much, overall (remember that her administration banned one of Lino Brocka's most outspoken films Orapronobis (Fight for Us, 1989)). Despite her daughter's long showbiz career, Ms. Aquino remained pretty much clueless when it came to films and filmmaking (to be fair, why not? She had more pressing problems to pursue).

That all said, she will and should be remembered for three not inconsiderable achievements: she led an opposition movement to popular victory; she opened a Philippines in stasis for decades to change and reform; and she arranged for the orderly transfer of power to her protégé, Fidel Ramos.

My point being: she's no saint, she's only a human being. A wonderful human being, I'm sure--I've talked to people who have known her, and I once had the privilege of shaking her hand; I believe the goodness of heart is genuine. But goodness of heart can only do so much, and Aquino with her brief career showed its limits as well as capabilities.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Carlos J. Caparas, National Artist.



In honor of Carlos J. Caparas, who was recently made National Artist, an early article on one of his cinematic masterpieces:

Fidel’s Favorite Film

Tirad Pass, or: The Last Stand of Gregorio del Pilar

Starring Romnick Sarmenta, Joel Torre, Tommy Abuel, Mikee Villanueva
Written and directed by Carlos J. Caparas
Highly recommended by the MTRCB

Carlos J. Caparas’ version of the fall of Tirad Pass is an artistic, dramatic and historical disaster--a triple threat by all accounts. We’re talking bomb, as in atomic, maybe even thermonuclear.

To add insult to injury, no less then the president of our country recommends this film. “One of the best films I have ever seen” he is quoted as saying (which begs the question: are the cigars you’re so fond of smoking full of just tobacco, Mr. President?). With his endorsement, the MTRCB’s, the secretary of the Department of Education’s; with a reportedly 40 million-peso budget, and the current interest in history, this being the country’s centennial year, how can the film not make money?

And it is making money: hand over fist, the way a child molester steals candy--or worse--from a baby.

Wonderful news, you might say: other historical projects are in development, and this can only encourage them. Wonderful news, that is, till you see the movie itself.

It begins with a dedication to the Chief Executive, which may explain his enthusiasm for the film. It goes on to sketch a simplistic version of Katipunan history, underlining (highlighting, italicizing, printing in bold, bright colors) the nobility of the republic’s first president, Emilio Aguinaldo (and--by association--the republic’s latest president, Fidel V. Ramos). The flagrant bottom kissing of these scenes would turn any leader’s head (Again, I hope so*).

*I sincerely hope President Ramos endorsed this film for cynical or manipulative reasons. If he was sincere--if he endorsed the film because he liked it--then I‘d really be worried about the state of Philippine government today.

That’s not the worst of it: to preserve Aguinaldo’s cartoon heroism, the film has Bonifacio killed by the villainous Spaniards. This, if anyone knows his history, is like having Ninoy Aquino shot by Communists to make Marcos look better.

It’s not just the wholesale rewriting of history; the details are equally irritating. Joel Torre as Aguinaldo spends most of the film scowling and looking generally irritated—who wouldn’t, with hair like that? But at least the attempt to give Torre the semblance of a crewcut is fairly accurate; Del Pilar and the rest of his youthly crew sport modern ‘dos that could have come out of the nearest Fanny Serrano beauty salon (Are we to assume that people of the 1890’s gel, tease and blowdry their hair?).

Then there are the writing implements. After all the effort of using feather quills dipped in blood, Sarmenta drops the melodramatic nonsense and scribbles into his pocket dairy with a ballpoint pen or sign pen--can’t decide which, though the head looks suspiciously Kilometric.

Or how about the moment where a girl shot through the chest sings in a beautifully operatic voice? The image is so startling you shake your head and wonder if perhaps Caparas is an artist after all: Werner Herzog had a modern-day boat hang from a tree while conquistadors sailed underneath in Aguirre, The Wrath Of God; Alex Cox had Ed Harris rescued from Nicaragua by US Marines in Walker. Is Caparas’ shamelessness actually a kind of surreal style?

Then something broke the spell (the audience laughed its head off) and I came to my senses. I shuddered at the manhole I had nearly stepped into--insidious, the influence of a Caparas film! To paraphrase a famous saying: bad filmmaking corrupts; absolutely bad filmmaking corrupts absolutely.

I can’t even begin to count the ineptly staged scenes, the unintentionally hilarious dialogue, the unbelievably embarrassing performances that pepper the film like 12-gauge buckshot. Caparas achieves the near-impossible task taking 40 million pesos in production budget and turning it into yet another cheap massacre movie. You want to ask: where did all the money go? To the overbright costumes with plastic buttons? The lame New Year’s fireworks that passes for military artillery? The sharpened bamboo stakes? I like to think a good chunk went into catering: one scene had a mouthwatering array of watermelons and pineapples that put the rest of the film to shame (don’t you think a film has problems when the ongoing drama is upstaged by fruit?).

The siege of Tirad Pass is memorable for the endless number of Filipino stuntmen that suddenly stand up, clutch their chests as if heartbroken, and fall over, impaling themselves on conveniently placed bamboo stakes. It’s also memorable for the way the American extras just keep going up against that hill, only to be stopped by a few paper-mache rocks thrown at their heads. The way this scene is shot, the Americans look as if they’re having more fun than the Filipinos (Actually, they look as if they’re having more fun than the audience).

Sarmenta, like Aga Muhlach, is an improbably pretty actor with a lot of untapped talent. Unlike Muhlach, he doesn’t try to coast on his cute looks; he actually gives a performance. He tries gamely here--you have to give him that. But he has no character to play and no one to play against. Poor Sarmenta, left stranded in the middle of a psuedo-epic, is posing for tourist postcards.

He has two scenes that stick out--in the first he murders a Filipino in cold blood (the man just lies there, helpless), his reason being that this Filipino was working for the Spanish (Sarmenta has a point, though this comes off as being less than compassionate). In the second one of Del Pilar’s sharpshooters loses his cool and wants to run; Sarmenta points a gun at the man’s head and threatens to blow his brains out if he doesn’t back down (the man promptly does, is just as promptly shot dead). The scenes play in such a hysterical tone you wonder if Caparas thinks Del Pilar was a psychotic megalomaniac (the pot calling the kettle off-white).

Then there's Tommy Abuel (excellent actor, one of the best). He gives a performance as a religious revolutionary that would have been classic if this had been a comedy. In one scene he steadies a gun against a cross as he fires (Harvey Keitel does something similar in From Dusk Tll Dawn). Abuel is caught and put before a firing squad of Spaniards. They shoot; Abuel laughs out loud. He can only be killed by bullets fired from Filipino-held guns. So the commandant--for the first time in the history of Caparas flicks--does something intelligent: he switches the firing squad from Spanish to Filipino sharpshooters, which wipes the smirk off of Abuel’s face double-quick. Still wondering how I should feel about this scene.

There’s a lot more wrong with the film, but I’m writing an article, not a multivolume novel. It should be obvious though, that this isn’t one of local cinema’s prouder moments--fact is, I can’t think of a moment for which I could be less proud--unless someone has the bright idea of sending this turkey to film festivals abroad. Then, I believe, I would actually campaign to raise money for airline tickets so I can follow the film wherever it goes, stand outside the theater, and warn people not to watch. Call it my sense of patriotic duty--seems to me it’s the least I could do for my country.

(Excerpt taken from Critic After Dark: A Review of Philippine Cinema. Click here to order online.)

Some links:

Petition declaring Carlos J. Caparas is not qualified to be National Artist

Eulogy on the death of a meaningful National Artist Award

Statement from National Artist Ben Cabrera

Concerned Artists of the Philippines statement

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