Monday, December 30, 2013

Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not, Gerardo de Leon, 1961)


On the occasion of Rizal Day, and as part of the yearlong celebration of Gerardo De Leon's centennial, a reprint of an old article:

Can't touch this

Even with a perfect print, I can't imagine anyone saying De Leon's Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not, 1961) is a perfect film. While the casting of the men is impeccable (Eddie Del Mar as Crisostomo Ibarra, Oscar Keesee, Jr. as Padre Damaso, the great Leopoldo Salcedo as Elias), the women (Edita Vital as Ibarra's beloved Maria Clara, Lina Carino as the hapless Sisa) seem to have been hired more for their pretty faces than their acting abilities.

Actually the film's true star is De Leon' style, virtually an encyclopedia of low-angled shots, striking deep focus compositions, dramatic lighting, on-camera effects, and precision cutting--the variety in turn complementing the collection of anecdotes, plot twists, and melodramatic confrontations that made up much of Rizal's novel. If the results are not perfectly satisfying, perhaps that's in part due to the fact that De Leon is a master of Gothic drama, and Noli a dark but essentially comic satire of Philippine society; only later, when the forces of oppression rise up triumphant does the film truly come into its own. Perfect marriage of material and filmmaking sensibility had to wait until El Filibusterismo (The Filibuster, 1962), when the ambivalently evil Simoun (Pancho Magallona, in what may be the greatest performance in Philippine cinema) plotted revenge against the all-powerful Spaniards.

Nevertheless--two boys, Crispin and Basilio, shiver like mice high up in a bell tower, where De Leon uses the claustrophobic space and enveloping darkness to suggest the shape and nature of the children's fears; when the tyrannical sacristan finally appears, De Leon momentarily wipes away the eyes' pupils, giving him the blank stare of a doll, a shark, a child's terror. When Basilio finally comes home, he learns that his long-missing, much feared father had come home before him, eaten his dinner, left; Basilio ignores his mother's news and immediately checks her for bruises (a lovely gesture that endears Basilio to us--not only is he caring, he's smart, too).

De Leon's realization of the famous scene where Sisa is arrested (famous partly because it's based on what happened to Rizal's own mother) is equally vivid. Sisa runs up the street to the camera in panic; cut to Basilio in the house, backing away; soldiers are approaching. He drops out a window, sprains his ankle, but manages to crawl away. His mother isn't as lucky; as the soldiers approach the camera, De Leon cuts to her stepping in from the side to stand in their way. She's force-marched across beautiful landscapes, past the church that was source of much of her troubles (she asks not to be humiliated before the townspeople; the soldiers order her to march two steps ahead--no more). At the station of the guardia civil she's marched past prostitutes and a hanging saddle (De Leon's not one to shy away from a sexually suggestive visual metaphor); the capitan angrily dismisses her. Sisa, running home, cries out for her two boys, both of which are now missing. She finds a torn shard of Basilio's shirt, and in one of the most beautiful shots in the film De Leon's camera gazes at her from below as she raises the fluttering piece of cloth up to the sun.

There's Ibarra and Maria Clara's party at the fisheries, where a crocodile is discovered inside the netting; a man dives in and Tarzan-fashion, wrestles with the creature. De Leon's cutting is fast and furious; there's so much splash and struggle you find yourself panicking along with the witnesses. Ibarra jumps in to help, and the sequence ends spectacularly, with men heaving on a rope and pulling out a live, roaring creature (the shot sells the sequence; seeing the monster in all its glory, you can't help but believe the two men were in mortal danger).

There's the attempt on Ibarra's life: Elias' profile as he catches wind of the plot; Ibarra's frightened glance at the cornerstone hanging fatefully above him; De Leon's thrilling yet coherent cutting of the chaos that ensues. There's Sisa--driven mad at last--urged to dance then whipped by the capitan's sexually deprived and sadistic wife, the whip like a tongue flicking about Sisa's body.

There's a shot midway through the film--Ibarra and Maria Clara walking down the street when they encounter a leper; Sisa standing beside the leper and pointing to the church tower above them; soldiers of the Guardia Civil riding up to drive the leper away--that's clearly a throwaway moment, one the viewer can easily miss, but the shot is colonial society crystallized in a single image, arguably the greatest in all of Philippine cinema. Standing at ground level, the bourgeoisie; low near the ground are derelict and outcast; towering above all--aloof and unperturbed--is the almighty Catholic Church's bell tower.

Finally there's the great phantasmagorial sequence of heroic Elias, confronted with one revelation too many, running across the novel's many landscapes with figures from his dead past (a woman prostate on the ground; a man's decayed and bloodied head in a cage; a girl floating on surf, knife buried in her bosom) bitterly accusing him of cowardice. Flawed in print and execution De Leon's Noli may be, still it stands as the definitive, most visually striking realization of Rizal's celebrated novel ever made.

(Portions of this post taken from my entry on the film found in Chris Fujiwara's Little Book of Movies)

2.19.08

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Cinemanila 2013: The Act of Killing (Anonymous, Christine Cynn, Joshua Oppenheimer); Norte: The End of History (Lav Diaz)


Killing with Lav

 Cinemanila 2013 has come around again, from Dec. 18 to 22 in the SM Aura Premier Cinema, Taguig, and its range and depth and variety of titles is--for a Filipino festival--as breathtaking as ever. I mean, where else can you find one brilliant if morally problematic film, another arguably the best of the year (and yes I've seen a few of the suspects--To the Wonder, Blue Jasmine, Gravity, Dallas Buyers Club, Captain Philips, 12 Years a Slave)?

Sight and Sound dubbed Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn and an anonymous collaborator's The Act of Killing its film of the year, and one can understand the admiration: it's a collection of interviews of gangsters commissioned to torture and execute hundreds, perhaps thousands of Communists in 1960s Northern Indonesia; not only have they not been brought to justice since but today are hailed as heroes (some anyway), even hold powerful positions in Indonesian government and society. The filmmakers, not content to simply hear what these men have to say about the killings, gave them free rein to stage and shoot said killings in any manner or style they choose: straight documentary, noir, and (most bizarre of all) a musical number with overtones of an expensively produced prayer meeting. Not a few re-enact their exploits with energy and enthusiasm, even unmistakeable glee.

On watching this my unthinking reaction was: why listen to these people? Thought about the question, thought some more; finally realized--why, that was the right question to ask all along. Or rather: yes we should listen, yes their input on the events of 1965 to 1966 has relevance even importance, but why limit the film to merely presenting their story unfiltered and unmediated--no historical context, no opposing viewpoint to complicate, if not counteract, theirs? It's like giving these people a hundred-and-sixty-minute platform to reach not just Indonesian but international audiences, accompanied by the weight of dozens of awards, the praise of hundreds of critics. Validation perhaps not of the rightness of the killings (though most make many onscreen declarations), but of the killers' humanity, charisma, charm.

"Ah,” but you ask; “what of Anwar? Doesn't he come to regret what he did?” Yes he does apparently (though many of the others are loudly unrepentant), and that's the most insidious service of all performed on behalf of these people. Every time Anwar expresses doubt about what he did I wondered: how sincere was he? When he becomes violently sick and the camera moved in to capture his distress, I wondered: how sincere are the filmmakers? Is Anwar genuinely experiencing remorse (in which case why doesn't he turn himself in?)? Was he, as he later claimed, deceived when making this picture? Or was his onscreen breakdown a brilliantly acted tale of self-redemption handed to him free and clear, his backstage pass into morally acceptable society (“I regret what I did, may I join you folks?”)?

One further question: is Cinemanila right to screen this in Manila theaters? I think so: The Act of Killing is perhaps not an ethically irreproachable work, but it's an important work, in that it has dragged (promoted?) a heinous crime involving thousands of lives into the international spotlight, complete with accolades and awards. It needs to be seen, digested, discussed; if the filmmakers fail to provide us with a mediating intelligence to suss out the meaning of what they have shown (and--trust me--much of it is appalling to watch) I'd say it's up to us to ask the questions and suss out the meanings ourselves. If Oppenheimer isn't able or willing to finish the job, maybe we should do it for him--transcribe the discussion and hand the record over, as a gift. He may or may not like what we have to say, but he might finally get his work of art.

Then there's Lav Diaz's Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (Norte the End of History) which I submit is the corrective to Oppenheimer's documentary--here is Diaz's equivalent of Anwar Congo, in the guise of Fabian (Sid Lucero), a brilliant former law student turned existential murderer (this is Diaz's unabashed re-enactment of Crime and Punishment in a Philippine setting). Fabian has killed only two souls compared to Anwar and his friends' thousands (I for one am a believer in the absolute value of a single human being), but otherwise the key details are there: the eloquence, the authority, the charisma; the intelligence and self-serving arrogance.

But his isn't the only story Diaz tells; there's also Joaquin (Archie Alemania), the unintended consequence of Fabian's crime--when Fabian escapes, Joaquin is arrested, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison in his stead. Victimizer, meet victim; unlike in Oppenheimer's film, the criminal does not get a free pass--Fabian follows Joaquin's family and his conscience torments him accordingly (this being a fiction film, one accepts without much trouble the storyteller's omniscient viewpoint...where in Oppenheimer's, a documentary (a film where the ostensible intention is to arrive at the truth), you're strangely far more reluctant to accept the veracity of the onscreen redemption).

Diaz doesn't operate according to the oversimplified calculus of good vs. evil, innocent vs. guilty; watching Joaquin we wonder just how much in his innocent goodness he's culpable for the situations he somehow magically (even comically) falls into; likewise while watching Fabian we wonder at what point do his anguished attempts at retribution become valid, maybe even acceptable. Diaz clearly has sympathy for Joaquin, but you can't help but notice that Fabian's sensibility--his critical view of the ordinary Filipino, his philosophy of fighting ignorance and evil without mercy--feels uncomfortably similar to Diaz's own.

Diaz doesn't mean to present an ethics lesson; you realize this sitting through the film's entire two-hundred-and-forty-minute length, and in fact I'd even insist it's necessary to sit through the film's comparatively long running time (comparatively; he's been known to make films that run for eight, nine, eleven hours) to realize the full extent of its complexities and ambiguities, a realization which gradually seeps in, as opposed to being baldly presented on a silver platter--or not present at all.

What distinguishes Diaz from Oppenheimer, and his collaborators? The latter gave the game away early in his film, when a gangster bullied a Chinese merchant into giving not just his daily blackmail amount but a considerable extra--the unspoken implication being that he's demanding more because there are cameras watching. At which point I realized Oppenheimer hadn't fully thought out the consequences of this scene--how the gangster would react to his presence, how it would affect the merchant--and that he probably doesn't know what he's doing at all. Diaz does--least I feel he does--and he presents, questions, provokes with the probity and passion of a real artist.

First published in Businessworld, 12.18.13

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Peter Jackson, 2013)

Back in The Hobbit

Putting it out and aside, my official position on Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug--overblown, overlong, overproduced, even thinner on characterization than the first (we have no equivalent to the unsettlingly suspenseful battle of riddles between Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and creepy reptilian Gollum (Andy Serkis); we do get a scene between Bilbo and the outsized Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) which sadly involves little wit and even less riddles). The eccentric charm of Tolkien's Middle Earth has largely been supplanted by elaborate action sequences, some of which are shaped suspiciously like amusement park-style theme rides (Middle-Earth Barrel Flume--With Pursuing Orcs! Erebor Mountain Forge Slide! Molten Gold Body-Surfing!), all at a Higher Frame Rate and in smashing 3D. On the other hand you do get Freeman, whose deer-in-headlights expression backed up by a steely core of decency makes for a more intriguing protagonist than his wet-noodle nephew Frodo (the incurably spaniel-eyed Elijah Wood).

A weaker chapter in the proposed trilogy, though stepping back for the longer view I find it better provisioned with humanity and humor than its longer, more epic (though Jackson tries very hard to catch up), far more solemn (more soporific?) predecessor

So: got that out of the way for what I really wanted to discuss--

Sex.

Where is it? Where's the copulating in this cornucopia of incident and narrative? Where's the real fun? Are wicks really so dry, weapons all uncocked--is the gunpowder all wet, p'raps? How do people reproduce in Middle Earth?

No issues about humans--at one point Bilbo and the dwarfs arrive at Laketown, and we see women, children, families--the necessary building blocks for a thriving society. But the band had also visited the wood elves of Mirkwood, and you wonder: where's the fairer sex? We have one girl--Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly)--who basically has the attention of Legolas (Orlando Bloom, reprising his role); who has the attention of the rest of the elves? Is the situation similar to The Smurfs, where Smurfette looks mighty lonely, if not totally out-of-place? Is this a we-didn't-think-of-it-so-we're-clueless deal, or a we-know-but-are-not-talking deal? Or is Tolkien kinkier than even I suspected?
 
Alas, I doubt if the latter could ever be the case; something rotten in the state of Mirkwood--but at least it's confined to the wood elves. In the other pictures we glimpse she-elves in Rivendell, and one even plays a major role--Cate Blanchett's Galadriel, a sort of cross between Queen Elizabeth and Smurfette. 

And the dwarfs? In all the movies I have not spotted a single she-dwarf. Have the dwarfs hidden them that well? Why hide them? Is Jackson so afraid he couldn't make them look pretty, hence the apparent absence?

Sex is one of the great sources of drama, the giving and withholding and pursuing of it some of the strongest motivation any character can have, in any genre of literature. Granted Tolkien wrote The Hobbit originally for kids--when his sequel expanded into a three-volume epic and he revised Bilbo's original adventure to conform more to the tone and narrative of Frodo's latter, couldn't he have tossed a she-hobbit into the Fellowship? Nothing sells better than romance, maybe even rom-com, and boy, this endlessly expanding franchise (fifteen hours (I'm estimating from the running times of original releases) and counting) could use a lot more com, maybe even more explicit rom. Lilly's Tauriel is a good start, she has twice the presence and charisma of Liv Tyler's Arwen; couldn't she have flashed a shoulder, maybe chased Orcs in bikini leather?

It's gotten so bad I've started giving Smaug a second look, and as voiced by the inimitably throaty Benedict Cumberbatch, he (she?) sounds like a salacious, seductive little devil. Isn't there a Mrs. Smaug, just to spice things up a little more? I wouldn't mind a little worm-on-worm action--no waitaminute wasn't there a movie where a dragon hooked up with a donkey--?

Yes there was, and come to think of it, the dragon-vs-hero action in the earlier pic was better, for being shorter, faster, far less pretentious. Funnier too--it parodied similar fantasy moments, and action scenes in general. Some good musical numbers, and the ending was actually affecting--the barely disguised disdain for all things Disney being the cherry atop this delectable treat.

An irascible Dreamworks adaptation of a children's book, better than Jackson's multimillion dollar fantasy? But that's what you get when you skimp on skin: dissatisfied viewers, booing at the screen and tossing their rubbers--not all empty--and yelling: "Show us the honey!"

12.19.13


Sunday, December 15, 2013

Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948 and 2004)--tribute to Joan Fontaine (1917 - 2013); Shrek Forever After (2010)

(In tribute to an actress who, if I don't exactly consider great, did appear in one of the greatest melodramas I'd ever seen. As famous as her face and roles was her lifelong feud with sister Olivia de Havilland; with this one film in my book she both settles the sibling rivalry and cements her reputation amongst the cinema immortals)


Monday, December 09, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Francis Lawrence, 2013); Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallee, 2013)

(Warning: storyline and surprise twists of the following movies discussed in detail)

Smoke and mirrors

Francis Lawrence's Hunger Games: Catching Fire, second of the Suzanne Collins' franchise, is a marked improvement over the first. Which isn't saying much. 

The action's better--not a lot of shaky cam, not a lot of ADHD editing, Lawrence's camera actually follows the action--without elevating the movie overall from its Young Adult roots: it's still weak-tea dystopian science fiction*, with a little Young Adult soap thrown in (who does Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, no relation to the director) love, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) or Gale (Liam Hemsworth)?).

*Give it this much credit, at least it is science fiction--a sincere attempt to engage the conventions of the dystopian genre--as opposed to mere sci-fi (i.e. the usual Star Wars crap).

That said, the science here isn't exactly topnotch: a fog that induces instant boils (a dermatological tear gas?) then washes away with water, like bad makeup? Force fields that look as if they'd been borrowed from Cabin in the Woods? An island that spins like an out-of-control carousel? The mind doesn't so much boggle as wobble, unsteadily.

Lawrence the director manages to make the movie look a tad more interesting by taking a page out of Lang's Metropolis for pointed contrasts between rich and poor, and Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will for Capitol's fascistic architecture--but production design aside, the satire in the movie (haven't read the book) is largely toothless. Where's the ferocious wit skewering media, social corruption, and public competition found in films like Paul Bartel's Death Race 2000, or Elio Petri's The Tenth Victim? Where's the equivalent moment when Frankenstein (David Carradine) in a fit of childish pique runs over his own pit crew, or Catherine (Ursula Andress) dispatches her pursuer with a deadly .38 caliber metal bra? Hell, where's Lawrence the actress' deadly .38 caliber metal bra? I'd pay money to see that

Lawrence the actress is nicely physical here--handles the bow like an extension of her arm, and somehow Lawrence the director fudges the action in such a way that we forget her character Katniss still hasn't developed much of a short game--once the enemy gets past her bow she's helpless, and needs a little damsel-in-distress rescuing. She's given a little PTSD moment that lingers in memory a minute (we're meant to think she's far from being a stone-cold killer) and her tour of the various districts promoting the repressive regime is a mildly amusing procession of embarrassments (if Bartel were available to direct the procession might have been elevated into an orgy of humiliation) but beyond that Lawrence the director (and presumably Ms. Collins before him) has carefully set things up so that her moral fiber isn't truly tested in the games: she's not called upon to cold-bloodedly murder anything more advanced than a bad-tempered mandrill.

And what's with her obsession with Peeta? The kid--he doesn't look old enough to grow facial hair, much less a beard--doesn't have the charisma or warmth to inspire our interest, and Katniss' determination to keep him alive at her expense is well nigh inexplicable. Did he save her life in the first movie (don't rightly remember and don't really care to go back and find out)? Does she feel so much despair, so much contempt for herself that she would rather he survive (slightly more persuasive--remember that PTSD episode--though wouldn't she have to worry about her family back home if she were eliminated?)? Was the sex that good? Vulgar question to ask, but (while we're asking) I might as well confess how annoying these movies can be whenever the subject of sex looms, or even threatens to loom, especially as Lawrence the actress has already moved on to grown-up, sexually active roles (would they be this chaste if the movie were, say, a French production?).

As for the rest of the cast--Philip Seymour Hoffman radiates more threat with an impassive face than many an actor can with a villainous sneer. Donald Sutherland is nicely menacing as President Snow, though I can't help thinking his equivalent character in Battle Royale (played by Takashi Kitano) was far more unsettling: an authority figure who literally didn't give a fuck, who regarded the whole thing as not just a game but a joke (which it is), and who despite everything is still the baddest ass around.

By movie's end Katniss shoots an arrow literally into the air and brings the whole fragile, rather silly premise down; enough with the game play, now we're moving on to the serious business of revolution, leaving as many questions unanswered as has been answered (Wouldn't it have been simpler--and safer--to abduct Katniss before the games began? Wouldn't it be smarter not to do that silly Mockingjay gesture and avoid having the head cracked so you can do some real revolutionary work (see Hoffman)?).

But that's the subject of the next book adaptation, which, alas, has been divided into two separate pictures, to increase box-office takings. While we're talking about greed and corruption has anyone mentioned the people back in Hollywood? Because they make the nasty folk back in Capitol look like choirboys in a chapel, singing. 


Staying alive

Jean-Marc Vallee's Dallas Buyers Club is for all the foul language, raunchy sex and drug use on display a surprisingly sweet-souled enterprise. Imagine a Schindler's List only with Schindler himself Jewish (or infected, if you like) and not enjoying the being kosher one bit--here we have Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a hard-drinking, hard-living homophobe, forced to admit he's got a "Gay Disease."

I suppose if one must adopt a true-life story (which from the evidence of recent efforts is the equivalent of biking into a minefield blindfolded) Woodroof's is better than most: his life isn't all that well-recorded, and it's easy for the writers (Chris Borten, Melisa Wallack) to appoint themselves experts on the subject. They have the material, they're open about what they've changed or deleted or combined, and they are pretty much free to do whatever they need to do to make the material more palatable.

Which apparently doesn't really mean cleaning up Woodruff. As McConaughey plays him he's not just rough to deal with (he'll hustle you for what he wants and if he doesn't get it starts pushing hard) but rough to look at as well; McConaughey lost a reported forty pounds for the role, and looking at him you're not sure where the intestines go, much less larger internal organs.

Sharing an emaciated body image is Jared Leto as Rayon, a transgendered AIDS victim who becomes Woodroof's reluctant ally and business partner. Rayon unlike Woodroof isn't from real life, rather a composite of several characters Woodroof had to deal with; that said, Leto manages to make a whole from the many and not just play a mere "tragically-dying-gay-victim" cliche. He's so convincingly transgendered when at one point he shows up in a suit to beg money from his estranged father, you have to laugh--he looks as if he'd dressed to go trick-or-treating (which when you think about it isn't far from the truth). When in a grocery store Woodroof manhandles a former friend into apologizing for some choice homophobic remarks, Leto manages to show us--sans words, sans histrionics--Rayon's dawning realization that Woodroof is more than just a companion or partner, but a real (albeit spiky, gruff, hard-to-get-along-with) friend. You realize the full extent of both their character arcs, and you're startled at just how far this film has come, in what direction it has gone.

I'm not saying--it's not exactly a great example of the genre like, say, Akira Kurosawa's masterful Ikiru, where we're totally immersed in a man's last few days, then the action shifts midway into a kind of static courtroomlike inquest into the significance of those last days (Kurosawa first measures the man, then measures the wake in the man's passing). They say God is in the details and in my book He granted Kurosawa the kind of divine insight a filmmaker would kill to possess, even for a few days (Kurosawa had it most of his life). Vallee isn't blessed with such intense grace; what he does have is an amazing cast, some profanely funny dialogue that once in a while trods upon the truth, and the raw material of a man who for all his flaws and failures stumbled into genuine heroism. One of the best of the year, I'd say. 

12.9.13

Friday, December 06, 2013

Dead of Night (Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer, 1945)

(Warning: plot twists discussed in close detail)

Little wooden head

The Ealing Studio horror film Dead of Night (Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer, 1945) is like most portmanteau films an uneven affair, ranging from visually daring (man looking into mirror sees dark Gothic bedroom, Hamer) to awkward if charming (golfer haunts fellow golfer, Crichton), to psychologically harrowing (ventriloquist convinced his dummy is alive, Cavalcanti)--the whole bound up by a linking story (man at dinner party announces he's been through all this before, Dearden). 

Hamer's "The Haunted Mirror" is shackled by a leaden script (you want to yell at the threatened couple "smash the mirror, morons!") which obviousness it manages to transcend--eventually--with the literal (and totally CGI-free) use of mirrors. Looking at them, into them, through them, watching people pause in dread before opening their eyes before them, Hamer's camera manages to convince us that the mirrors are less mirrors than windows into another world, where the possibilities are less marvelous than they are menacing.

The casually curious will want to check out the infamous Cavalcanti. Where "Hearse Driver" and "Christmas Party" and "Mirror" and the linking story depend on atmosphere and the occasional shock cut to scare us, what scares us in "The Ventriloquist's Dummy" is the spectacle of Michael Redgrave's Maxwell Frere slowly cracking up on the big screen. Well not really, and here's the difference: Redgrave doesn't play Frere as an insane man struggling to deal with the sane world; he plays Frere as a man in full (if precarious) possession of his sanity, doing his level best to deal with a world gone suddenly insane. 

At first glance he's disturbed, wild-eyed, unpredictable; you flinch because his responses to people seem overwrought, inappropriate. It's when you realize (and it's a credit to Cavalcanti and Redgrave that they delay this realization as long as possible) that he's like this because he's reacting to everyone in the room plus one extra person (the dummy) that everything he does and says suddenly makes sense. That realization--that he's really not crazy after all--is the segment's true source of horror. 

People have noted how much Hitchcock has borrowed from this for his masterpiece Psycho (the lone figure in a chair; the police officer walking into a cell with a bundle of cloth in his arms; the talk of a split personality being half of one and half of another, with one sometimes consistently dominant; the final image, of an unnatural voice coming from perfectly natural human lips); I can't think of anyone who's noted how much Anthony Perkins owes Redgrave. Norman Bates is an unsettling character not because he's insane but because he's sane, a perfectly rational character thrown into a (for him) totally irrational situation (his mother's still talking to him, even after death), and he's dealing with the matter the best he can. That's our entry point into Norman--and, fifteen years earlier, Maxwell's--mind: if we think that at some level of perception no matter how distorted or grotesque their actions might somehow make sense, then the distance between us and them is almost no distance at all.

How effective is Cavalcanti and Redgrave's gambit? At one point Maxwell starts strangling his mannequin and the observing doctor (Frederick Valk) rushes in to save the dummy. Maxwell's belief in his delusion is so intense he's managed to convince not just himself or those immediately around him but also a trained psychotherapist, and--be honest--in all that panic and confusion didn't you, however momentarily, feel the need to rescue the poor thing? Cavalcanti allows the camera to linger on the mannequin's crushed face, and one's revulsion can only come to fore: this? You wanted to run in and save this crumpled and pitiful block of wood?

After Cavalcanti's tour de force you'd think the rest of the film irrelevant and you'd be wrong: Dearden's been working in the sidelines on his eerily funny linking narrative, dropping clues here and there that despite the psychiatrist's reassurances things are getting worse, not better. He concludes everything with a delirious passage mixing all the segments together (that's what you need to finish an anthology film--a climactic sequence mixing all the stories up!) and most terrifying of all, a finale that echoes Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, where the realization dawns on you that what looks like the film's ending is actually its beginning--this daisy chain of horror has no real end. 

Not a great film but with great segments, and of course Redgrave is unforgettable. 

12.6.13

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Invictus (Clint Eastwood, 2009)--in tribute to Nelson Mandela 1918 - 2013

I'd seen Mandela, with my own eyes. No, really.

In 1990 if I remember correctly, I'd forgotten enough of my anger and bitterness to visit the Los Angeles City Hall; heard Mandela was giving a speech there and wanted to catch a glimpse of him as he stepped out.

I was in a crowd. I saw a wizened old man escorted out of the hall's main entrance to a waiting limo. The crowd keened; Mandela paused and gave us a wave, then disappeared into the car. 

That was about as close as I ever got, but it's like a Mr. Bernstein moment; I've remembered it ever since.

As a kind if sideways tribute to a great man, an article on one cinematic interpretation:

Winner takes all

Always felt Clint Eastwood, possibly one of the oldest, longest-working, most respected American directors still around, was too problematical. Always thought he never got out of the shadow of his true masters, Don Seigel and Sergio Leone (yep, Eastwood's star shines brighter than Leone's now--who knew then, when he directed his first feature, Play Misty for Me (1971)?). Always thought he was afflicted with that most fatal of diseases, good taste. Always thought his most awarded work was flawed, in one way or another (felt Mystic River (2003) didn't have a hard enough edge; Million Dollar Baby (2004) was too sentimental; Letter From Iwo Jima  (2006) presented a too-soft picture of the Japanese warrior).

That said, he's a prolific, consistent filmmaker, and out of his large output, there's bound to be something that pleases. Felt Unforgiven (1992) was lean and modestly moving. Felt Gran Torino (2008) to be an amusing, largely unassuming, poignant final statement (not his final as it turns out, but poignant nevertheless). Think  A Perfect World (1993) was his best work--about half of a great film, with maybe one indisputably great scene (if you've seen it, you know what I'm talking about).

With Invictus (2009), his thirty-fourth film, one wonders--will Eastwood glide gracefully under the radar or will he (like I feel happens when he makes his biggest 'statements') sink under the weight of his own earnestness? Thankfully the film takes its cue from Morgan Freeman's sly performance as Nelson Mandela--fresh out of prison, and freshly elected into office, he takes his morning jog and confronts the morning edition headline on a newspaper: “He can win elections, but can he govern?” “It's a fair question,” Mandela tells an angry reader.

It's not a complicated story to tell; what makes it challenging is keeping a sense of proportion around Mandela (active in politics since 1948; sent to prison for about twenty-seven years; freed, won the Nobel Prize, and became the first black president of South Africa), one of the most outsized heroes in recent world history, and keeping a sense of clarity about what he was trying to do. Eastwood has Freeman depict Mandela not as a starry-eyed idealist but as a weary pragmatist who understands how people think and feel and is willing to take risky, even unpopular measures for the long-term goal.

Hence his treatment of the problem: what to do with the white Afrikaaners? They have lost the election, but they still hold considerable power (much of the country's economy and military). A policy of retribution would alienate them, perhaps even spark a civil war; a policy of appeasement would alienate his own political base. Mandela opts for a sideways move, looking to the somewhat apolitical arena of sports for an answer: the Springboks, the South African rugby team, as a sign of unity and of South Africa's new identity in the world arena.

Not that easy to do; for one thing, politics has a tendency to contaminate all areas of life, even sports--the Springboks were thought of as a symbol of white supremacy, and the game of rugby a sport only white South Africans played. Mandela steered against popular sentiment to embrace the sport and team, and Eastwood records this painstaking process as only a careful carpenter, a builder of straightforward narratives, can do--little by little, detail by detail, with a deliberately determined pace.

Perhaps one way Eastwood has managed to maintain consistency throughout his career is by carefully picking his material. He does take risks--not all his films work (I'm thinking of his recent Changeling (2008) with its ham-handed treatment of female oppression); but even the failures teach him something and strengthen his skills as a director, so when one comes along that seems tailor-made (like I believe this one is), he has enough game to swat it out of the ball park.

That's half the story told, the to my mind more interesting part (I love how Eastwood peppers Mandela's storyline with suggestions that he's had a complicated private life); Eastwood also tells the other half, the sports half, led by Matt Damon playing Francois Pienaar, captain of the Springboks. Much publicity has been spent on marveling how Damon mastered the Afrikaaner accent, considered one of the most difficult in the world (sounds okay to these inexpert ears, but then so did Leonardo DiCaprio in Blood Diamond (2006); I did like the accents in John Boorman's In My Country (2004), and while Brendan Gleeson's accent slipped in and out, it didn't stop him from giving a powerful performance), but when all is said and done, Pienaar's is the supporting role, in a story of secondary interest. Eastwood seems to recognize it too--he sketches Pienaar's character, and uses rugby sequences sparingly, saving the most coherently shot and most detailed depiction of the game for last, the climactic battle between the underdog Springboks and the mighty New Zealanders in 1995. The victor is a matter of public record of course, and of course in sports movies you know who's going to win (the only picture to actually surprise me with its conclusion was Michael Ritchie's The Bad News Bears (1976)).

Eastwood doesn't entirely wipe away this handicap with the razzle-dazzle of his filmmaking (he pretty much shoots everything with a handheld camera, cuts to build tension, so on and so forth) but hopefully by this time you've been so caught up in the film's larger narrative--that of Mandela trying to bridge the gap between two political powers, two races, a divided nation (of course this is Eastwood's open letter to Obama)--that you find yourself cheering anyway.

First published in Businessworld, 2.18.10

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Day of the Doctor (Nick Hurran, 2013, Dr. Who 50th Anniversary Special)


(Warning: plot points and twists to be discussed explicitly and in detail)

Timey wimey blimey

You'd think they'd come up with something special for a 50th Anniversary Special, and by George, they do.

Three Doctors--four if you count the Special Guest Appearance towards the end; three actors who used to play the Doctor (yes there's a difference); Star Wars like special effects for the ADHD afflicted demographic; jokes, in-jokes, out-jokes, and enough plot twists and clever bits and roof-raising revelations to redefine the term 'timey-wimey'--not to mention "game changer," "heartstopper," and "highly quotable."

Oh, it's full, very full; not the best writer Steven Moffat's ever done, arguably (that in my book would be the trio of singletons (The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances; The Girl in the Fireplace; Blink) he wrote for the Russell T. Davis era), but perhaps the best he's done recently. If taking a half-year sabbatical is what's needed to raise his game, I recommend he work this way for the rest of his career. I'll sit here and wait, promise.

Basically, it's all about identity, about determining who you are by what you've done. Ever since Davis' reboot in 2005 the Doctor has been pretty much defined by what he did in the Time War (Last of the Time Lords; The Oncoming Storm), our first sight of him is of a lonely, bitter old alien skulking through the department stores of London (Rose). He's quick to lash out; he's only too ready to insult the slow and clumsy human race for being too stupid to properly defend itself; and he's vindictive as hell. 

I can point out crucial episodes that chart the development of this character arc, starting with Christopher Eccleston's Ninth Doctor (episodes that are incidentally some of my favorites of the rebooted series): from Dalek, where he confronts another last survivor and--significantly--fails to finish him off, to The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances, where he glares at the Child and the prospect of a particularly grim Armageddon and sends out a desperate prayer (To whom? Who does a Time Lord pray to?): "Give me a day like this! Give me this one."

And when it works his relief is heartbreaking: "Everybody lives, Rose. Just this once: everybody lives!" What a world of guilt and pain suggested in those three words: "Just this once!"--he's like someone who's pushed the nuclear trigger before and again finds himself standing with hand on the button, hoping against hope that this time the circuit has shorted.

Rose (Billie Piper) reminded him of his humanity; later she becomes not just a reminder but a genuine romance (helps that by this time Ninth has morphed into Tenth, the more conventionally handsome David Tennant). Donna (the always wonderful Catherine Tate) won't have any of that; she's insisted on being treated as the Doctor's equal so often that at one point she becomes the Doctor, albeit temporarily (and was extravagantly punished for her presumption). By The End of Time we learn the significance of Gallifrey and the other Time Lords to the Doctor: not friends but deadly foes, a menace so vastly, instantly terrifying that the Tenth, on learning they were about to break into the present universe, picks up a gun to either defend himself or finish them off. 

You see the progression: the Ninth seethes with hate and anger; Tenth has managed to bank that anger long enough to respond to human love (Rose) and friendship (Donna)--though he hasn't banked it far enough to leave the gun alone--

Well...the progression isn't all that clear. Perhaps the biggest flaw to The Day of the Doctor (which for all its grand drama, sly charm and exuberant joy is far from perfect) is the lack of a beginning to that progression,of gaunt-cheeked, leather-jacketed, hollow-eyed Ninth. 

But that's where the War Doctor comes in. The Ninth's anger is in response to what he's done; the War Doctor's weariness, we see, will be the cause that drives him into doing what he's about to do. In the brief prequel The Night of the Doctor we glimpse the War Doctor as a grim young man; with Day we have the same Doctor years later, and as played by the legendary John Hurt he's exhausted beyond belief--his face betrays a hard struggle where he's not even sure he has the upper hand, and he's had it. He sees no other alternative.

Matt Smith's Eleventh Doctor seems blithely free of this angst; maybe a bit of wistfulness here, a lonely look there--and that because Moffat may have wanted to avoid covering the same ground Davis did, wanted to leave his own mark on the material (he goes so far as to do a universe-wide reboot in The Big Bang, clearing house for his (Amy Pond's?) toy collection). The Eleventh is the youngest-looking Doctor the same time he's the oldest, and Smith's achievement is in reminding you of that...here, there, not too often, just enough to sometimes creep you out. He's a thousand-year-old near-immortal willfully acting young, refusing to grow up, possibly due to a repressed trauma, suffering the Time Lord variant of PTSD.



And it becomes explicit here in The Day of the Doctor. I love it all--the War Doctor jousting with The Moment, in the guise of Bad Wolf (Billie Piper, in a welcome guest role); Tenth riding a white horse with Elizabeth I (Joanna Page) for passenger, then upbraiding a massive--possibly alien--rabbit; Eleventh tossing his fez like a Frisbee into time fissures. But perhaps the heart of the seventy-six minute long drama (was it only an hour and a quarter? Could've sworn it was twice as epic) is that scene in Elizabeth's prison, where the War Doctor in an It's a Wonderful Life moment learns all about the man he will soon become. "I regret" says one; "I forget" says the other. Moffat lays it all out on the table for us--and him--to examine, and you can't help but sympathize with Hurt's falling expression as he listens. It's the Doctor's--this Doctor, anyway, as conceived by Russell Davis and extended and elaborated on by Steven Moffat--touchpoint with us humans, this feeling of shame: of deep remorse at having done unforgivable wrong. 

And he comes to terms with it, or rather the impossibility of it (that classic moral dilemma--would you kill a few to save the many?--multiplied by billions), and so do his two other incarnations. So all three hands on the Big Red Button (as The Moment puts it he's "always wanted one") supporting the War Doctor's wiping two sentient races and their children off the face of the planet (well, Gallifreyan children--but don't Daleks have kids? Imagine two-foot-high pepper pots scooting around waving their tiny suckers and yelling "EXASPERATE! EXASPERATE!"). Not with hate, or anger, just resignation: the Kobayashi Maru scenario. Only--

Only (as Davis has established with the first episode of the reboot (Rose)) the companion must have her say, and Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman, who has been relegated to the background up to this point) says "I just never picture you doing it."

I've heard accusations that the episode is basically a science-fiction dramedy where a conscience-stricken bomb saves the day (Dr. Strangelove anyone? Dark Star?), and I'd to a large part agree--though is this really a bad thing?--only for me The Moment was mostly facilitating the Doctor's decision-making process. Yes she's biased (what bombshell isn't?) but she mostly nudges here, there; she sits back and watches as the Doctor shrugs off her suggestions: it's a hard decision but it must be taken. But Clara has chimed in ("never picture you") and now chimes again, with the perhaps most important bit of impetus: the name of the Doctor, she reminds him, is a promise after all. Not a big speech just a sad reminder, and I love it that Moffat leaves it at that--a reminder. Sometimes the softest words sink the deepest.

Seems to me we can sum up the two writers who have headed this Whovian resurrection to date: Russell is an idealist with strong political and social opinions, and a darkly pessimistic view (Gallifreyans are essentially evil); Moffat is a witty sophisticate who can on occasion turn melancholy, on occasion turn macabre, but whose worldview is essentially sunnier (Gallifreyans--their children, anyway--are still worth saving). Call this the struggle between dark and sunny and call the Gallifreyans us, then call that the Doctor Who reboot in a nutshell. Which is the truer, more profound sensibility? I wouldn't know, and frankly don't care: what matters is the trip. In any case the solution's been looking at them in the face all this time, screwdrivers and Time Lord art and all (Moffat may be an optimist, but he knows to prepare his solutions with some kind of care), not to mention input from all thirteen Doctors and their respective TARDISes.

Love the clash of acting styles: Smith bouncing off the walls, Tennant romancing the ladies, Hurt sitting in one corner tossing sidelong glances here, there, quietly pocketing every scene he's in and walking away. There's "being drowned out by the louder performer" and then there's "louder performer undermined and outclassed by sublime scene-stealer." It's hugely funny (and a little sad) how the oldest actor playing the youngest Doctor easily outmatches the two younger-older incarnations--so funny, in fact, it Hurts. 


On the look: I don't usually find much to praise in TV directors, but Nick Hurran makes the most of the situation by arranging two sometimes all three Doctors in near-symmetrical arrangements, milking endless variations from the gag which (for me anyway) never gets tired (see topmost pic, and those directly above...and note who tends to be favored most). Yes, we have Star Wars-style effects, but that's the least of the pleasures of this Who--is the least of the pleasures in this whole reboot; sometimes all you need for quality entertainment are three shameless hams (of varying degrees of cunning and experience) jockeying for exposure before a TV camera.

Overall, a lovely time was had, a worthy half-century anniversary, and--oh yes--a brief cameo by an actor who believe it or not makes an even more indelible impression than Hurt: bent and old and still electric, still funny, still not-a-little scary, he comes to give the Doctor (give himself?) assurances, portents, a whole new direction to careen into. What next for the Doctor? Who knows? 

And in that last question we find the width, breadth, depth and duration of the show's timeless (timey-wimey?) appeal. 

11.28.13 (re-edited 12.1.13)

Friday, November 22, 2013

Twelve Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013)

(Warning: story details and plot twists explicitly discussed)

Whip it

You hear it everywhere: Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave--his adaptation of Solomon Northup's autobiographical story--is the frontrunning contender for next year's horse race; is easily the best film of the year; and is the most powerful film ever made on the subject of slavery.

It's powerful, I'll give it that--there's no underestimating the impact of McQueen's direction, or Sean Bobbitt's gorgeous cinematography (McQueen said he looked at Goya's work; you see a similarly earthy palette, a direct connection to horror). Whatever terrible thing happens to Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his fellow slaves the camera never seems to underscore or overreact; it simply records, with an unblinking gaze. 

Being a frontrunner questions are asked, of course; standard practice nowadays, to test the veracity of a 'based-on-a-true-story' Oscar contender. McQueen and his writer John Ridley did add to Northup's narrative--a sexual encounter between Northup and an anonymous fellow captive; cotton plantation owner Edwin Epp (Michael Fassbender) and his slave Patsey's (Lupita Nyong'o) explicitly sexual relationship (only suggested in the book); Patsey's later plea for Northup to kill her (which might actually be a misunderstanding of the source text)--among others. Even Northup's story has undergone close examination: the book was actually written by one David Wilson from Northup's dictation, and follows "certain clear expectations" demanded of most slave narratives (stories of humiliation and torture, an insistence on the righteousness of Abolitionism).

It's an endless quest, historical realism, and to these inexpert eyes a quixotic one; Shakespeare for one probably knew better but couldn't care less when he made Richard III a hunchback, and slandered his character mercilessly.* 

* The cautionary corollary being if you invoke The Shakespeare Defense (who cares if it's true so long as it plays?) it's best to be Shakespeare--or so close to The Bard's skill range the audience is willing to split the difference.

12 Years is well-done; not perfect (a good thing I'd say--perfection in a genre suggests a dead end, with nothing more to be said), and far from the best of its kind. Its problems may be inextricable from its achievements: the intensity in McQueen's film, for one, seems like near-myopia--in choosing Northup's book (setting aside issues of authenticity), McQueen chooses the rare case of an African-American kidnapped and sold into captivity who (rarer still) manages to escape. He chooses the story of a strong intelligent black man blessed with family and freedom who, when fettered, is determined to escape--this as opposed to one raised in slavery, is starved and overworked all his life, and has probably never even entertained the possibility of freedom. As Kubrick put it about another human tragedy: "The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler’s List is about 600 who don't."

McQueen's privilege, of course: what he did was not necessarily wrong or right, just a choice with concomitant opportunities and limitations. 

More serious consequences follow from his decision to focus on an individual--in McQueen's previous film Shame It's All About Brandon (again, Fassbender) All the Time; the other characters were basically foils against which to play off his sexual addiction. Here the attention is on Northup; the slavers are vividly portrayed--most vividly by Fassbender as Epps--but sadly underwritten. Epps you quickly learn is a sadist, but as to why he's  attracted to black women, why Patsey in particular, and why to such an obsessive degree we never really find out. I actually prefer Benedict Cumberbatch's Ford, whose decent nature is in direct conflict with his duties as slaveowner--but McQueen seems to be in too much of a hurry to deliver Northup from Ford's disturbingly civilized company to Epps' garish sadism.

Tempting to call McQueen's style 'impassive' but that's not entirely true; McQueen affects a serene front but betrays a subtle predilection to linger over some of the more grotesque images, usually involving the hapless Patsey: on her back with Epps on top, forcing his way in; or tied to a post with first Northup and later Epps laying the whip heavily into her, as Northup (through Wilson) puts it: "without exaggeration, literally flayed." The rare moment McQueen plays coy it's almost cute: Epps declares that anyone who harvests less than the average weight of cotton a day (around two hundred pounds) will be penalized the difference; McQueen cuts to a beautiful shot of the camera gliding sideways while far in the background, just slightly out of focus, is Northup being whipped for that difference.  

I'll say this about the film compared to one recent attempt at portraying slavery (Tarantino's Django Unchained): McQueen in my book makes a good-faith attempt at sticking to the available facts. He doesn't have pre-Civil War Superfly riding into the Twilight Zone to save the world for all black people; he doesn't teleport characters from other movies (in this case Jules from Pulp Fiction) into his period drama with little modification or apology; and he does show more than sufficient visual talent to be justly called a 'filmmaker,' and not 'photocopier of other people's bravura action sequences.' 

Is this the greatest film ever made about slavery though? I reply with three titles:

The mini-series Roots, from the novel by Alex Haley shares few of the virtues of 12 Years a Slave: its veracity is even more questionable, and it's broadcast TV--the scoring and camerawork melodramatic and flat, the horrors more suggested (clumsily) than shown. Yet Roots does something 12 Years strangely fails to achieve: it shows the passage of time across generations; it shows the ravages of age, the emotional cost of years (12 Years to be frank felt more like twelve months, and Ejiofor looks remarkably well-preserved for someone who's been abused for over a decade).

Richard Fleischer's Mandingo is I submit an even more subversive work: where McQueen dresses up his horrors in tony art-house gloss Fleischer presents them steamy, as if freshly plucked from boiling water; where McQueen's camera assumes a cool disdainful pose (carefully angled to present you the choicest view), Fleischer's takes the frank middle distance, neither shying-away-without-really-shying-away (i.e. that cute gliding shot) nor rubbing our nose in it (i.e. Epp's violation of Patsey). Fleischer's tone is of lurid melodrama, but hidden under the cheap exploitation is a real filmmaker's eye, a real regard for people that allows us to understand how and why the onscreen characters--slave and slavers alike--think and feel and love and hate, make choices, die. 

Then there's Charles Burnett's Nightjohn, produced for The Hallmark Channel and consequently light on blood and mutilations--despite which Burnett (in my book one of America's finest living filmmakers) manages to turn dross into gold and suggest a fairy tale: a faintly magical story told through a child's hungrily imaginative eyes. If the violence is glancingly depicted, why, that may be because the child has looked away; but while a child can be terrorized into flinching she is still basically honest--the cruelty is there, only it happens to conform to the screening guidelines of the Hallmark Channel (and, incidentally, those of most American high school classrooms).  

The sadism may not be as openly vicious but I submit the slavers are as if not more disturbing because we understand them more; Burnett--arguably one of the most empathetic filmmakers this side of Jean Renoir--has us look through their eyes too. As Beau Bridges plays him, Old Man Waller is monstrous partly because he's proud of his heritage (he believes he's a better member of society because he's a slaveowner), partly because his straitened circumstances (he's constantly playing catch-up with his more business-savvy younger brother) drives him to desperation (along the way the film manages the neat trick of sketching the financial and economic dynamics of a slave-driven cotton plantation). 

Burnett evokes a  sense of community, of family among slaves; McQueen's Northup for all his intelligence or perhaps because of it stays aloof from his fellow captives. Patsey is an exception but her relationship with Northup lacks detail, they feel more like mistrustful acquaintances than any one willing to sacrifice for the other (compare them to Nightjohn and Sarny, who share a great affection)--it feels more like the kind of fellowship found between a pair of car-accident victims, not lovers much less friends. 

Burnett evokes not just suffering but love in the face of suffering, and this adds amplitude to the pain, gives us a high point against which we can measure the depths below. McQueen does give us Northup's family but safely cocooned away in his memories; they don't share his pain and danger, and we know little about them beyond idealized flashbacks. When Northup is reunited with his family the scene is moving but it's after the fact; the experience of slavery is his burden alone to remember. When in Nightjohn the love is eventually sundered--the family broken up, sold piecemeal down the river--then you might feel you've witnessed a tragedy.

Am I unfairly beating up a film using others as example? I suppose, but my larger point is this: no one title can cover much less represent such a huge subject matter, just as no one title can cover much less represent something as vast and horrific as the Holocaust; each effort will have something of value to add to the overall narrative, including this one. 12 Years a Slave is well done, and I concede one of the best (if not the best) of the year, but let's not aspire to more than that--a sense of proportion, please. 

11.22.13


Sunday, November 17, 2013

Kagadanan sa banwaan ning mga Engkanto (Death in the Land of Encantos, Lav Diaz, 2007)

(By way of indirect tribute to the victims of Yolanda (Haiyan): an article on a film about survival)

Land of the dead

Lav Diaz's Kagadanan sa banwaan ning mga Engkanto (Death in the Land of Encantos, 2007) might be the possible result if you took Spike Lee's 2006 documentary When the Levees Broke, recast it in Andrei Tarkovsky mode, stretched it to Bela Tarr length, added a dash of Abbas Kiarostami-like meta-cinema, sprinkled it with a few ideas from Mario O'Hara, and set it in the Bicol region. Possible, though I wonder if said bastard offspring will be anywhere near as strange as this.

It's ostensibly the story of one Benjamin Agusan ('Roeder' in the film's credits, full name 'Roeder Camanag'), a famed poet gone into some kind of self-imposed exile in Kaluga, a small town southwest of Moscow (Lav calls it an inside joke on behalf of his father, who was fascinated by Russia; the country's literature and sensibility has seeped into many of his previous films (particularly Serafin Geronimo: Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion (Serafin Geronimo: Criminal of Barrio Concepcion, 1998), his version of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment)). He returns home to the vacation resort of Padang, near Legazpi City, in the wake of the devastation wreaked by Typhoon Reming (international name 'Durian')--a devastation made worse by typhoon-triggered lahar mudslides from nearby Mayon Volcano, burying homes and families alike (Padang was the worse-hit of the towns). He meets his friends Teodoro (Perry Dizon) and Catalina (Angeli Bayani), and is haunted by memories of former loves--Svita, a Russian beauty; Amalia (Sophia Aves), his longtime companion in Padang; his dead father, mother, sister.

It's an often seemingly shapeless, meandering tapestry, but Diaz is working on a vast canvas, five hundred and forty minutes long (his previous film Heremias Book One: The Legend of the Lizard Princess (2006) was about the same length while his Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family, 2004) clocked in at eleven hours). Front and center on that canvas is Benjamin, the latest incarnation of one of Diaz's favorite characters, the restless wanderer--early examples included kidnapper-fugitive Serafin Geronimo (Raymond Bagatsing); cuckolded husband Lauro (Joel Torre) in Hubad sa Ilalim ng Buwan (Naked Under the Moon, 1999); murder victim Hanzel Harana (Yul Servo) in Batang West Side (West Side Avenue, 2001); even Detective Juan Mijares (Joel Torre), the police officer investigating Hanzel's death. Reynaldo was an inscrutable figure entering and walking away from the lives of various families in Ebolusyon; the eponymous character in Heremias traveled in his oxcart full of handicrafts--alone, restless, almost entirely speechless, yet somehow you still got the impression that he was searching for something.

Benjamin though, unlike Reynaldo or Heremias, is a poet as well as a wanderer. With Encantos Diaz has discarded the taciturn probinsyano (hick provincial) protagonist for the more loquacious small-town artist, the creative intellectual who chooses to live outside of Manila while practicing his craft. Which is something of a relief--the Diaz character is prone to long periods of contemplation and in an eleven or nine hour film (such as Heremias, Ebolusyon, and this), where they have little else to say between the long bouts of silence, it can sometimes make for difficult viewing. This time we have not one but three verbose philosophers, able and willing to indulge in the one sport in which Filipinos demonstrate a natural, world-class talent: the freewheeling discourse. Hamin (short for Benjamin), Teodoro, and Catalina gaze at the blasted landscape and hold forth on various subjects--love, art, death, God, the social and political condition of the Philippines, the difference between Filipinos and Russians, mosquitoes; even science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick and horror filmmaker David Cronenberg merit a quick mention. Diaz supplies all the dialogue, presumably; from personal experience I know him to be a world-class raconteur, able to talk to the wee hours of the morning on any subject imaginable. His extemporaneous monologue on pre-colonial Filipino sex in John Torres' Todo Todo Teros (2006) was a both illuminating and hilarious highlight of that film; here the skill provides enough meat to sustain the soul during our long journey through the film's narrative.

It helps that the film is full of poetry. Possibly taking a page from Mario O'Hara's masterpiece Pangarap ng Puso (Demons, 2000), where poetry and monsters haunted the imaginations of the protagonists, Diaz inserts verses here, there, and they function as lyrical commentary on and response to the film's themes and storyline (he had put poetry to memorable use once before, when Joel Lamangan gave an evocative reading of one of Diaz's pieces in Hesus Rebolusyunaryo (Jesus the Revolutionary, 2002)). Diaz at one point even has a kapre (a Filipino ogre) stalking his forest (you could almost imagine the creature wandering off from O'Hara's set and finding its way to Padang).

Sometimes the meandering nature of the discussions makes for surprising turns, creates startling connections. The three friends sitting in front of a lamp in utter darkness (it's night, and there's a brownout) talk about mosquitoes, how sliced raw onions sometimes drive them off, sometimes don't. Talk moves on to patterns in insect behavior, and Hamin tells of how writers and filmmakers seize on these patterns to tell postmodern stories of bizarre human activity (hence the mention of Dick, Cronenberg, and for good measure poet Ted Hughes). Catalina speaks out against such unfeeling fiction; she prefers to dwell in emotion and mystery. Talk shifts on that word to the mysteries of the rosary, and how the Philippines seem to be mired in what rosary holders call a Sorrowful Mystery (the Death and Crucifixion stage, to be exact). Catalina's reply to this is a vow to tell the truth the best she can, through her art; Hamin asks (rather sardonically): is she willing to die for her art? Catalina sits and stares, not answering; the talk, having moved from evening dark to practical considerations to literary and cinematic themes, turns into a broad philosophical debate peaking with a declaration of redemptive action, then with mention of ultimate darkness plunges back into the surrounding gloom (which, of course, is but a reminder of the larger gloom).

Catalina often acts as foil, if not actual opponent, to Hamin's fatalism, her maternal and sexual life force countering his sense of despair. Against his insect behavior she responds with emotion and mystery; against his neglect of Amalia (who loyally cleaned and maintained his studio while he was in Russia, even insisted on speaking of him only in glowing terms) Catalina mischievously suggests that she'll mount an exhibit in tribute to the woman, displaying sculptures of Amalia's body parts, even private parts. There's sarcasm in Catalina's suggestion, but also something affirming: Amalia is gone, and this is a way of remembering her, keeping some portion of her vital, alive.

Against Mayon Catalina is all practical defiance; she acknowledges the volcano's beauty (it's considered the most perfect cone in the world), the same time she condemns the mountain for killing thousands of people over the years--is perhaps poised to kill thousands more (as Hamin notes, only one-fourth of the volcanic mud has been expended; the other three-fourths sits there, waiting for the next powerful typhoon). Knowledge of all that sludge waiting to bury her doesn't faze Catalina one bit; she just goes on working, taking mud from the volcano's slopes and using it for her sculptures, transforming it, taking material for potential death and giving it new life.

But the film's title speaks of death, not life; despite all of Catalina's (and Teodoro's, and Hamin's) artistic and creative powers, they can't stop Mount Mayon, or Typhoon Reming, or the Philippine government's more oppressive policies towards leftists (at one point it's mentioned that over 800 unarmed political activists have been killed since President Macapagal-Arroyo took power, a good portion of them Bicolanos). On a trip to Manila to find out what had happened to his mother (he knew she had died in a mental hospital, but didn't know the exact circumstances), Hamin again meets one of the paramilitary officers that had interrogated him, irrevocably changing his life (or so it seems).

As director Diaz shows more confidence in the black-and-white digital medium than he's ever shown before. He managed with a limited variety of lighting in Ebolusyon; in Heremias he learned to create more expressive lighting schemes, sometimes even in inclement weather (weather he often created himself, using a water truck and fire hose). In this film he has sunlight waxing and waning as Catalina and Hamin talk in her outdoor studio (the light rhyming with the waning and waxing of the discussion); he has the three friends stage an entire debate (the aforementioned insect behavior patterns vs. emotion and mystery controversy) in the light of a single lamp; in Manila he has the camera sit low, like a political prisoner squatting on the floor, while it watches Hamin and his former torturer (their silhouettes vivid against the harsh Manila sunlight) talk about their past, present, future.

The last scene demonstrates an interesting series of directorial choices--why doesn't Diaz give us a clear look at Hamin's tormentor? Why does he allow the officer to play the role so melodramatically, like a low-budget action-movie villain? Was the conversation the event that triggered Hamin's suicidal downward spiral, or was it yet another symptom--a decisive one--of said spiral? Did Hamin imagine the whole encounter, this being his way of putting the blame on someone, his way of evading feelings of anger and grief and guilt at the apparent neglectful death of his mother?

The mother's departure from their home is a defining event in Hamin's life, and Diaz treats it as such with his camerawork. In a single shot the camera follows Hamin from behind as he walks up to a girl and boy playing among the trees, and we recognize the young Hamin playing with his sister Teresa; the man walks to the right, the camera following, till he's facing his childhood home. Suddenly a doctor in white coat emerges from the left of the house, pulling his mother along, walking past him. Hamin walks to the left, the camera panning to follow, just in time to catch both doctor and mother disappearing into the forest, then turns to look back at the home his mother left behind. This is Diaz's second foray into Jose Rizal territory, into the iconographic imagery of Rizal's famed novel Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not), his way in particular of evoking the figure of Sisa, the mother turned madwoman by the disappearance of her children and the tyranny of an unjust government. Diaz made this journey once before, with the story of Reynaldo's mother in Ebolusyon; fellow Filipino filmmakers Mario O'Hara, Lino Brocka, and Gerardo de Leon made the journey before him with their respective films (O'Hara's great Sisa (1998); Brocka's influential Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Judged But Found Wanting, 1974); De Leon's seminal Sisa and definitive Noli Me Tangere (1951 and 1961, respectively)). But where O'Hara, Brocka and de Leon's various Sisas were all helpless hysterics, singing folk songs when they weren't moaning after their missing children, Diaz's is the quieter kind, somehow kin to his gallery of straying loners (you could say mother infected son with her wanderlust). She goes on to meander in and out of her son's consciousness, leading him to his inevitable fate.

Beyond all this, though--beyond the melodrama and dialogue--is Diaz's apparent relationship with the Bicolano landscape. In Ebolusyon and Heremias he seemed to disagree with the landscape, struggle against it, carefully angle his camera to capture the bleakest, least flattering aspect of an undeniably lush vista. Returning to the same region with Encantos (you might say the film is a sequel to the first two) the struggle has been resolved; Diaz's camera gazes at the treeless, houseless, blasted landscape with a sense of propriety, almost a sense of fulfillment. It's as if Diaz has discovered that the desolation left in the wake of Reming (with Mayon collaborating) is the perfect visual metaphor for the political and spiritual wasteland he feels was left in the wake of Philippine society (with the present administration governing) in its downward spiral. This, Diaz seems to be saying to us, is the Philippines, nor are we out of it. One of the best--and most important--films to come out this year.


(First published in Businessworld, 11/27/07)

(This entry was entered in the Contemplative Cinema Blogathon, January 6-13, 2008)

(Winner of a Golden Lion Special Mention at the Orizzonti (Horizons) Documentary Section of this year's Venice Film Festival, the film will have its Philippine premiere at the University of the Philippines Film Center Videotheque, Nov. 29 at 10 a.m. onwards)