Saturday, June 29, 2013

The King and the Bird (Le Roi et l'oiseau, Paul Grimault, 1980)


Poetry under fire

Once there was an actor-animator named Paul Grimault and a screenwriter-poet named Jacques Prevert who became friends, then collaborators. They first appeared on film together, uncredited, in Jean Vigo's L'Atalante (1934); Grimault's next role was in Jean Renoir's Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (The Crime of Monsieur Lange, 1936), which Prevert wrote (he would eventually write the screenplay he was most famous for, Marcel Carne's Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise), in 1945). They did an animated short, Le Petit Soldat (The Little Soldier, 1947, from a Hans Christian Andersen story), the experience of which apparently pleased both artists--Grimault would propose to Prevert that they next adapt Andersen's The Shepherdess and the Chimneysweep for the big screen.


Still unreleased on DVD: Akumulator 1, King and the Bird, Chmes at Midnight, Bakit Bughaw ang Langit?


(An old article, reprinted--call this a reminder that there's still stuff to find out there, somewhere.

Some updates: Akumulator 1 available on PAL; Bakit Bughaw ang Langit is online but unsubtitled here; Chimes at Midnight is on PAL; Killer of Sheep is available (yes!) on DVD; King and the Bird is on French DVD; The Orphan Brother is available in Region 2 DVD; Salo is available on DVD; good luck trying to get the rest)

Ten treasures

Sometimes you don't want what's easily available by the dozens at your local video chain, or in the nearest multiplex; sometimes you want something rare, difficult, even impossible to find.

Here are ten excellent-to-great films in alphabetical order that are either little-known or are not commercially available on video (sometimes both).

Akumulator 1 (Accumulator 1, 1994)

A nicely ominous title. The film, the most expensive Czech production ever at the time, tells the story of Olda, who learns that he's a human battery, an 'accumulator,' able to draw energy from nature, wood, art, sex and other people, with only one Achilles' heel--the television set. Filmmaker Jan Sverak combines striking visuals with a wildly original, deftly applied sense of humor; his film is full of images inspired, as he put it, by Tim Burton and Federico Fellini (nice combination), not to mention dizzyingly sudden shifts of perspective--at one point, he cuts to a high-angle shot of Olda looking at a lightbulb, photographed from inside the bulb looking down; at another Olda hurtles over Prague's gorgeous cityscape like a concentrated bolt of the film's delirious high spirits.


Bakit Bughaw ang Langit? (Why is the Sky Blue? 1981)

Mario O'Hara's small-scale drama, about Nora Aunor as a put-upon young woman forming a bond with Dennis Roldan as a mentally damaged young man, is O'Hara at his most neo-realist--in my opinion as good as if not actually better than anything the better-known Lino Brocka has ever done. The film features finely wrought performances by both Aunor and Roldan, set against the background of a large apartment complex. Occasionally, a scandal will bring the apartment dwellers out in a kind of impromptu "people's trial," where the people involved air their dirty laundry in public; O'Hara's staging of these "trials," his quiet condemnation of them, and his precisely observed portrayal of a teeming community life is just about peerless. 



Batang West Side (West Side Avenue, 2001)

Lav Diaz's five-hour film follows two narrative threads: a Filipino youth's arrival in America and his subsequent shooting, and a Filipino-American detective's investigation of the youth's death. Along the way we are given a sweeping yet intimately detailed view of an entire community, from the poorest working stiff to the wealthiest housewife, from an elderly grandfather to a group of young "shabu" (crystal meth) addicts. Diaz asks hard questions about the Filipino Diaspora and the children that have been born out of that outward movement of individuals and entire families; the picture--comprehensive, comic, surreal and tragic--is in my opinion Diaz's masterpiece (better even than his more ambitious, ten-hour "Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (2004)), and one of the best recent Filipino films ever made.

(No DVD or even commercial theatrical run has been done, though there have been occasional screenings)

Campanadas a medianoche (Chimes of Midnight, 1965)

Orson Welles' adaptation of Henry IV parts 1 and 2, with scenes from Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor thrown in--sixteen or more hours of Shakespeare, boiled down into a hundred and twenty minutes by years of staging and rewriting (Welles had been working on this material since the late 1930s). The film, marred by poor sound synchronization, contains what may be Welles' finest performance, playing Falstaff as a tragicomic figure; includes what may be the single greatest battle sequence ever filmed (the Battle of Shrewsbury); is perhaps one of the finest (if not THE finest) film adaptation of Shakespeare ever; and is considered by a small but growing number of people (including myself) as one of the greatest films ever made. 



Frost (1997)

Fred Kelemen's film moves slowly, for an impossible two hundred minutes. The story is simple enough to follow, even without subtitles: a woman (Anna Schmidt) is beaten by her husband; she leaves him, taking her son with her, and walks through vast wintry landscapes, ending up in a city where she takes up prostitution to support herself and her child. Kelemen shows a stubborn, freakish discipline in drawing out his narrative; at one point the camera following mother and son pans ahead, taking in the hugely empty horizon little by little until it comes back to them--only then do you realize just how much more frozen land they have to walk through, just how much more emptiness they have to endure. Kelemen seems determined to record the minutest details of a human soul that has felt so much pain it's beyond feeling the pain, only an immense, enveloping numbness.

(The director had fought with the producer, so for years there had been only one existing print of the director's cut; they have since reconciled, and a subtitled print is available from the German TV channel ZDF)

Killer of Sheep (1977)

Charles' Burnett's film arguably did for African-Americans in early '70s Los Angeles what Mean Streets did for the Italian Americans in New York: introduce an ethnic community in memorably cinematic terms. Beautifully shot in black and white, I prefer Burnett's debut film to Scorsese's better-known one for at least two reasons: Burnett seems to have a better understanding of the women in his films than Scorsese does, and Burnett is able to tell his story without resorting to the kind of overtly dramatic elements Scorsese does (gang violence, shootings). Burnett's visual style isn't flashy, but he does include the odd surreal image: a shot of clear sky with rooftops at either end, and kids leaping across the empty stretch; shots of a slaughterhouse, where sheep carcasses hang like corpses in a concentration camp.
Le Roi et l'oiseau (The King and the Bird, 1980)

Paul Grimault and Jacques Prevert--better known for his legendary collaborations with Marcel Carne (in particular "Les enfants du paradis" (Children of Paradise, 1945))--collaborated on what was supposed to be the first-ever full-length French animated film. The production fell through; a mangled version was released without permission. Grimault would spend the next thirty years of his life trying to finish the film, with Prevert helping, until his death in 1977. The result, finished in 1979, is perhaps one of the loveliest animated films ever made, about a malevolent king (Charles V + 3 = 8 +8 = 16) who chases a shepherdess he loves and a chimney sweep who loves her up and down and in and out of the vast reaches of his kingdom. The film is as influential as it is beautiful, having inspired images in Hayao Miyazaki's Kariosutoro no shiro (Castle of Cagliostro, 1979) and Tenku no shiro Rapyuta (Laputa, Castle in the Sky, 1986) as well as Brad Bird's Iron Giant (1999).


Anju to zushio-maru (The Orphan Brother, 1961)

Taiji Yabushita's animated adaptation of Ogai Mori's novel Sansho Dayu, about a young woman and her brother taken from their parents and oppressed by a heartlessly powerful government official (the novel is also the basis of Kenji Mizoguchi's 1954 film). Yabushita's images have a distinct Japanese flavor to them--think of Disney animation as drawn by Hiroshige--and he manages to tell the story in fairy-tale terms, at one point implying a character's fate through a magic transformation so sad and enchanting the tragic implications are clear.

(No US release; a Japanese DVD can be found here: http://www.cdjapan.co.jp/detailview.html?KEY=DSTD-2123. No English subtitles)

Salo

Pier Paolo Pasolini's final completed film, based on the Marquise de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom, is "final" in many other ways. It's possibly the final word in shock cinema--highlights of a hundred and twenty days of sexual perversion, torture, and death, set against a luscious background designed by Dante Ferretti, photographed in voluptuous colors by Tonino Delli Colli, and scored to the music of Fredric Chopin, Carl Orff, and Ennio Morricone. It's an unflinching examination of final consequences, of what happens when you allow sexual ennui caused by bourgeoisie oppression to reach unnatural extremes. And it is perhaps a final, fatal work for Pasolini himself, who, despite official word on the subject, was possibly killed for making this film (authorities have only recently re-opened the case on his murder). But even if he wasn't killed for this it's difficult to imagine what else Pasolini can possibly say; in many ways the picture is Pasolini's final word on everything.

Tadhana (1978)

Nonoy Marcelo directed himself and sixty other Filipino artists for three months to create this, arguably the first Filipino animated feature ever, based on a multi-volume history of the Philippines officially written by former president Ferdinand Marcos (unofficially written by a team of historians). While the effort hardly sounds impressive (Disney employs hundreds of animators working for years to produce a feature), it's unheard of in Philippine cinema, and the results are ingenious and passing strange, to say the least. Marcelo takes the production's many limitations--small manpower, limited time, miniscule budget--and turns them into a distinct style, an idiosyncratic interpretation and unabashed satire of official Philippine history. A real head trip.

(As far as I know and as of this time of writing, there is only one VHS copy of the film in all of existence, taped off the original TV broadcast)


(First published in High Life Magazine, August 2005)

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Tribute to Mario O'Hara (1946 - 2012)



The Quiet Man passes

Mario Herrero O'Hara was known, if he was known at all, as legendary filmmaker Lino Brocka's collaborator; more malicious wags called him Brocka's lover (for the record--no, and there's a reason why). He acted in several of Brocka's early films, playing a vivid villain in Tubog sa Ginto (Dipped in Gold, 1971), and a neglected son in Stardoom (1971) opposite actress Lolita Rodriguez; three years later he played Rodriguez's leprous lover in Brocka's seminal film Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Weighed But Found Wanting), having also written the film's screenplay.

O'Hara wrote the teleplay that was the basis for what is arguably Brocka's best work, Insiang (1976); it went on to be the first-ever Filipino film to be screened in the Director's Fortnight, in Cannes. The film--about a slum girl raped by her mother's lover--is often called a masterpiece of realism, and no wonder; O'Hara claimed in an interview that the story happened to his backyard neighbors, in the city of Pasay.

 (It's also claimed--and here you see the state of Filipino film history, that many details are open to contention, or can rarely be definitively documented--that the teleplay was based on a radio script written by actress and scriptwriter Mely Tagasa. Quite possibly both stories are true; that is to say, O'Hara took the premise from Ms. Tagasa's radio script but based details of the characters on his neighbors...)

It was ever so in O'Hara's films and screenplays, his insistence that everything and anything in his works be true, no matter how fantastic. An outre character (a faded movie actress living in a cemetery crypt), an outrageous occurrence (a historical figure falling in love with his literary creation) can be allowed in his films only if they were, by some convoluted definition, true. 

O'Hara was notorious for not using a motorized vehicle--or rather he owned a vehicle, a van really, but drove it only on weekends and film shoots (he had a chauffeur who drove him around that he would also parsimoniously use in bit parts--I once spotted the old man playing Jose Rizal's father). Weekdays he took public utility jeeps and buses, and walked for hours from his house in Bangkal, Makati to Divisoria in Manila (a distance of some five miles),  these marathon walks often being the source of his stories, characters, bits of dialogue, incidents (a particularly torrid film scene involving lovers coupling in a tricycle was inspired, he once, claimed, by something he actually saw happen on Taft Avenue). The joke was that you had to watch yourself when talking to the man--he was liable to put you in a movie someday, sometimes without your permission.

O'Hara would make his directorial debut with Mortal (1975),  his fabulist re-telling of a real-life murder committed by a paranoid schizophrenic; the film was to be one of the first produced by the just-established Cine Manila, under which Brocka had hoped to produce films. The murder victim's family sued and won, unfortunately, and Cine Manila quickly folded.

O'Hara's second film was to be his first with popular singer-actress Nora Aunor. Aunor had been looking for a prestige project to produce and star in and asked for Brocka; Brocka didn't want to have “anything to do with that Superstar!” and passed the project to O'Hara. O'Hara dug up an old script and on a budget of about a million pesos--modest for a World War 2 drama of that scale and ambition--created Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976), about the three years of Japanese Occupation when, as the title suggests, God turned his face away from the Filipino people. The film is possibly the actress-producer's best performance, arguably the director's finest feature, and--possibly, arguably, strictly in my opinion--the finest Filipino film ever made. 
 




First Act

Mario O'Hara was born in Zamboanga City on April 20, 1946, the son of a half Irish-American, half Filipino lawyer named Jaime O'Hara from Antipolo, Rizal and Basilisa Herrero from Ozamis Oriental. Jaime O'Hara's father was a Thomasite teacher, one of the earliest sent to the Philippines, and this fact alone allowed the O'Haras including Mario the chance to immigrate to the United States (Mario turned the offer down).

It was a large family--eight brothers and three sisters--and according to O'Hara a happy one, with a childhood fueled by the imaginative power of night-time radio. His neighborhood--some time after his birth the family had moved to Pasay City--had an unusual layout, rich mansions on either side and a slum directly behind; O'Hara said many of his TV scripts came out of that backyard slum. One of his brother's friends owned a movie theater and they watched films for free--the titles included Michael Curtiz's The Adventures of Robin Hood, and the Flash Gordon serials.

O'Hara planned a practical career--a chemical engineering degree, to be earned at Adamson University--but the call of that childhood night-voice proved too strong. On his sophomore year he auditioned for a part in a Proctor and Gamble radio show at the Manila Broadcasting Corporation; by third year college he dropped out because he couldn't handle the load of both studying and performing on radio.

In 1968 O'Hara met Lino Brocka; Brocka in turn used him as an actor on the big screen and on the theater stage, doing productions for PETA (Philippine Experimental Theater Association). O'Hara came to helm his first feature by criticizing Brocka's style of film direction. “If you know so much, why don't you direct?” Brocka finally asked him. Brocka wanted to do an adaptation of Edgardo Reyes' serialized novel Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (In the Claws of Light), to be produced by Mike de Leon, so he passed on to O'Hara the film Mortal, which he had been slated to direct.

After the career high of Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos followed the career low of Mga Bilanggong Birhen (The Captive Virgins, 1977), yet another period epic. O'Hara was fired after accomplishing ninety-five percent of principal photography (“I couldn't see eye-to-eye with the producer,” he said); the picture was finished by another director. 

We would see this tendency time and time again--a film where the producer started interfering, and O'Hara either abandoning the project or allowing himself to be fired. On set he's described as a diligent, determined worker, but the moment you interfere with control of the picture he was likely to drop matters and simply walk away.

One might try explain this tendency through O'Hara's attitude towards filmmaking, once articulated thusly: "first an actor, second a writer, and lastly a director." The self-confessed lack of commitment to cinema (think of Orson Welles spending four years of his life to finish Othello) can on one hand be considered a fatal flaw, in that O'Hara was often more opportunist than self-starter, his finished features far fewer than they could have been.

On the other hand this gave his work an independent quality, a fearlessness towards fellow filmmakers' (and movie audiences') possibly angry responses to his more eccentric films (in Mortal for example the film proceeds in a fragmentary, hallucinatory manner, only later becoming more coherent--the way the protagonist's schizophrenic mind becomes  clearer as his mind grows gradually saner) 

Mga Bilanggong Birhen helped established a pattern: when O'Hara couldn't direct a film, he directed for television; when he couldn't direct at all, he acted; when he wasn't acting, he wrote. He performed for theater, radio, television, and film; he wrote scripts for Brocka and, at one point, for filmmaker Laurice Guillen's debut feature (Kasal? 1980); he also directed the television soap Flordeluna for a period of one year. 

O'Hara wrote Ang Palayso ni Valentin (The Palace of Valentin), a zarzuela (a form of Filipino musical theater) about a decaying theater's decaying pianist, and his undying love for the theater's beautiful singing star. The play was O'Hara's valentine to the theatrical arts, and won the 1998 Centennial Literary Competition grand prize for drama. In 2002 he reworked his best-known collaboration with Brocka (Insiang) into a stage play, with the action relocated back in Pasay City where he had originally set it (Brocka's film was set in Tondo), adding a hip and funny narrator (much like The Common Man in Robert Bolt's A Man For All Seasons) to comment on and provide context to the drama.




Second Act

In the '80s, O'Hara would hit his stride on the big screen. His Kastilyong Buhangin (Castle of Sand, 1980) was a vehicle for both Aunor's singing talents and stuntman-turned-actor Lito Lapid physical prowess, like a bizarre yet spirited union between George Cukor's A Star is Born and Ringo Lam's Prison on Fire. His Bakit Bughaw ang Langit? (Why is the Sky Blue? 1981), about a shy young woman (Aunor again) who falls in love with a mentally challenged young man, is O'Hara directly challenging mentor and friend Brocka in his own social-realist territory. And then there was what might arguably be called O'Hara's Manila noir trilogy: Condemned (1984), about a brother and sister (Aunor, again) on the run in the streets of Malate from a dollar-smuggling gang; Bulaklak sa City Jail (Flowers of the City Jail, 1984), about a pregnant woman (Aunor yet again) incarcerated in the city's hellish prison system; and Bagong Hari (The New King, 1986), about a man hired to unwittingly assassinate his own father. The three films present a grim portrait of the city of Manila (the last film earning an “X” rating from the censors, for extreme violence), and might arguably be called the zenith of Filipino noir



Pygmalion

If a good proportion of O'Hara's films seemed to feature Aunor there was a reason for this. O'Hara was one of the first filmmakers to recognize her worth as an actress back when she was considered a 'mere' multimedia pop star; both were shy, private people who only when required to do so (in public speaking, or before a  camera) would switch on the thousand-watt bulb of their charisma. This seeming timidity concealing considerable talent is possibly the basis for the rapport between them, a spiritual resonance rarely found in other actress-director collaborations in Philippine cinema; you might even call Aunor the filmmaker's doppelganger, his onscreen expression of inner strength and hidden vulnerability, to be sorely tried and tested by the tortuous narratives of his films. For whatever reason, the titles (Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos, Bakit Bughaw ang Langit? among many others) speak for themselves: O'Hara's work with Aunor  represent some of the best that either artist, or Philippine cinema itself, has to offer.  






Pito-pito Films
 
In 1998 head of Regal Films “Mother” Lily Monteverde with the help of filmmaker/producer Joey Gosiengfiao established Good Harvest, a subdivision of Regal designed to churn out pito-pito pictures, the term (which translates literally into “seven-seven”) referring to the speed with which the films are to be made (seven days of shooting, seven of post-production). The basic premise goes something like this: Mother Lily gives the filmmakers a tiny amount of seed money (two and a half million pesos, or roughly $62,500) and an insanely tight schedule (fourteen days from start of shoot to finished film) with the only stipulation being that the films should have commercial appeal (some violence, some choice eroticism); otherwise, the filmmakers have carte blanche approval to do whatever they want.

The pito-pito system helped newcomers produce their debut features, helped veterans realize old projects; O'Hara shot not one but two pictures in fourteen days. Babae sa Bubungang Lata (Woman on a Tin Roof, 1998) was O'Hara's adaptation of Agapito Joaquin's two-character one-act chamber drama, expanded to become a eulogy to the Filipino film industry; Sisa was O'Hara's tribute to Filipino historical figure and hero Jose Rizal, with the conceit that Rizal did not fashion his most famous literary creation out of whole cloth but actually knew her, as a living, breathing, red-blooded woman (remember O'Hara's oft-repeated assertion, that the most vivid characters come from real life); and that this woman was the love of his life (like Shakespeare in Love, only with a fraction of the production budget and a far more bizarre (read: insanely imaginative) approach). 

 
Final Act

In 2000 O'Hara directed his last pito-pito film: Pangarap ng Puso (Demons), basically a genre-bending retelling of recent Filipino history as horror film, war drama, love story, and celebration of Filipino poetry. In 2003 he did Babae sa Breakwater (Woman of the Breakwater) about the homeless folk who live along Manila's breakwater--again O'Hara straying into Brocka territory (most notably Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag) only with a strong strain of magic realism running throughout, and troubadour Yoyoy Villiame commenting on the onscreen action through song (again, Robert Bolt's The Common Man, this time set to music). His Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio (The Trial of Andres Bonifacio, 2010) uses the actual minutes of the trial of Supremo Andres Bonifacio (much as Carl Theodor Dreyer did in The Passion of Joan of Arc) as basis and occasion to give this neglected contemporary of Jose Rizal the long-delayed, low-budget, magic-realist due he deserves.

O'Hara's reunion with his oft-muse Nora Aunor would prove to be his last major work. Sa Ngalan ng Ina (In the Name of the Mother, 2011), a mini-series retelling recent Filipino politics in teleserye format, turns on the brilliant conceit that much of the melodramatic excesses of contemporary Filipino soap opera (the drama, the betrayals, the sex and violence) reflect the melodramatic excesses of contemporary Filipino politics (the drama, the betrayals, the sex and violence). By this time O'Hara's health may not have been what it used to be; he codirected this tremendous effort (twenty-five hour-long episodes) with Jon Red, who also did all the series' action sequences.  

All that passion, all those sleepless nights, the massive strain on O'Hara's health (at one point shooting Babae sa Bubungang Lata and Sisa back-to-back) must have come at a cost. On June 19, 2012 the report came out over online social media that O'Hara had been rushed to the emergency room due to symptoms of acute leukemia; the family, respectful of his retiring nature, withheld the hospital's name (it was later revealed to be San Juan de Dios). Brother Jerry O'Hara reported that he responded well to chemotherapy. The optimism was premature: on the morning of June 26 word went out that O'Hara had succumbed to cardiac arrest, the quiet man silenced at last.  

 
Curtain Call

O'Hara's significance to Philippine cinema is a challenge to assess. Unlike his more outspoken contemporaries Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal, O'Hara disliked discussing the ideas behind his films; he much preferred to stay in the background, playing cup-bearer to the industry's gaudier princes. 

There's an additional difficulty: if the works of the older generation of Filipino filmmakers are generally not readily available (Brocka's Tubog sa Ginto, for example, exists only as bootleg video), and O'Hara's are even more troublesome to obtain than most, then attempting to view his work can be compared in terms of difficulty and expense to a hunt for the Holy Grail (that may not be too much of an exaggeration, with some titles). I'd say at least four or five of the twenty-five film features he directed have no existing print, and that only five are readily available on DVD--not the clearest of copies, and without subtitles (unless otherwise indicated). His masterpiece Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos is on youtube with subtitles, though I refuse to link to that travesty; the experience is like viewing Velasquez's Las Meninas from the bottom of a septic tank (not a big fan of the translation, either).  In trying to talk about his films you can't help but think of the seven blind men trying to describe an elephant; it's impossible to do justice to the wondrous creature.

Nevertheless--

O'Hara was a crucial collaborator of Brocka's, and it's possible to argue that he introduced a note of moral ambiguity not found in Brocka's other pictures--at the end of Insiang, for example, one couldn't really tell who was the victim, who the victimizer; in Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang the character O'Hara plays (Berto the Leper) is first seen as a possible rapist. He took up Brocka's social-realist mode of storytelling  (Bakit Bughaw ang Langit?) and introduced baroque, even fabulist variations (Mortal, The Fatima Buen Story (1994)); later in his career he managed to fashion a mode of cinema inimitably his--imaginative in both form and content, yet filled with political, sociological and historical concerns (Pangarap ng Puso, Sisa)

Arguably O'Hara was more fluent than Brocka in at least one or two dialects of the language of filmmaking. The prison riot that climaxes Kastilyong Buhangin, the varied and at times elaborate fight sequences in Bagong Hari confirm his status as one of Philippine cinema's finest action filmmakers; his use of pointedly angled shots and distinctly staged mis-en-scene reveal him to be the visual descendant of Gerardo de Leon (and behind de Leon the classicists: Ford, Eisenstein, Griffith). 

O'Hara's early training in radio possibly distinguished him from other Filipino filmmakers of the '70s, who mostly came from  Filipino theater: I submit that this training helped free him (the way it freed another filmmaker active in radio, stage and film) from the tyranny of the proscenium arch, giving one the sense of watching a film film instead of a film recording of a stage performance. Musical cuing (Brocka's weakness, according to O'Hara), sound transitions, overlapping dialogue linked his images, subtly amplified their cumulative emotional power. More, there was a fluidity to his editing (see Pangarap ng Puso, where the montage of photo stills act like the flicker-images of memory), a constant bounding from reality to fantasy and back (the protagonist's schizophrenia in Mortal, the children's view of supernatural creatures in the context of provincial life in Pangarap ng Puso) that suggests not so much a spatial orientation as an aural one, or at least one less limited by the unities of a specific location--a heedless leaping across time and space and emotion, taught to him by the equally fearless transitions (from present to past, reality to fantasy, comedy to drama) found in the radio shows of his childhood. 

Not that he turned his back completely on theatricality. In Bubungang Lata he would present large swathes of Joaquin's play as a play, as two characters moving about in a tiny set with the camera just sitting there, drinking in their performances; the plainness of the approach underlined the plainness of their lives, their aspirations (this in contrast to the film's more fabulist characters, who are shot in a variety of angles and lighting). In Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio, O'Hara's first ever digital feature, O'Hara refrains from taking advantage of digital video's most obvious virtues (the mobility of the equipment, the ease in creating handheld, constantly moving shots) and instead locks down the camera, viewing the actors with an unblinking, dispassionate eye (if anything he takes advantage of digital's other virtue, its ability to record long takes). The stable framing and vivid color palette emphasizes a stylization not inappropriate to a moro-moro (yet another specifically Filipino form of theater) production, one of which is quoted extensively in the film, and serves as unspoken commentary on the politics behind the trial (in the moro-moro, the outcome is settled long before the play begins).



The heart of the matter


O'Hara's cinematic virtuosity would mean little without a moral and philosophical stance--this being possibly the most difficult aspect of all to pin down. His personal reticence, his reluctance to clarify and explicate his thoughts and intentions in real life extends to his films; in his very best work it's near impossible (Who is the victim? Who the victimizer?). O'Hara's films, like those of his friend and mentor Brocka, depict extremes of love, lust, hate, contempt, sadism, tenderness; unlike Brocka, you sense a distance between O'Hara and his subjects. The  immediacy, the urgency, the white-hot anger that pulses through Brocka's films is missing in O'Hara's, the same time there are emotional hues found in O'Hara that are missing in Brocka (cynicism (the finale of Condemned); a sardonic sense of humor (the severed head in Bagong Hari)). The title of Brocka's breakthrough film summarizes his attitude towards his characters: he judges them, constantly and thoroughly, and can be an unforgiving justice with near-impossible standards.

O'Hara doesn't; there's a vast, yawning cavern of silence where his attitude towards characters should be. He doesn't seem to hate his villains (the Japanese rapist in Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos), doesn't seem to particularly love his heroes (the hapless stuntman in Babae sa Bubungang Lata). His camera has that unblinking quality found in more contemplative Filipino filmmakers (Mike de Leon and Ishmael Bernal, to name contemporaries; Lav Diaz to name a more recent example). On occasion you find him cutting to a shot  from high up looking down--the point of view of a deity, or superior being, or observing scientist, gazing down on its worshipers, inferiors, test subjects.

But if you look and listen closely--again, that aural element--if you pay close attention to his framing, to the timing of his cuts, to the choices made in staging and line readings and even actual words used in dialogue, there is the whisper, hint, suggestion of an attitude. The blind man carrying his palsied brother past the religious procession in Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos; Babette saying goodbye in Bakit Bughaw ang Langit?--the first sequence is entirely wordless (one is struck by the size of the gigantic float swaying past the two brothers); the second nothing but words (it's less the words--mostly bits of practical advice--than Aunor's delicately shaded delivery of them that reveals Babette's true state of mind). O'Hara keeps the lamp-flame indicating his scenes' emotional temperature burning low, low, low...until you realize what the scene is really about, and the full meaning explodes in your face. Where Brocka was a full-on revolutionary raising a fist in the air and demanding change, O'Hara was a subversive, smuggling hidden contraband right under your nose, to detonate deep in your head where no defense is possible. 

O'Hara's distance is no assumed pose; he's far too clear-eyed about the perversity of human nature to think we're just misunderstanding each other, or instinctively inflicting our own inner pain on each other. He understands that there is a keen pleasure to be found in imposing pain (again, the Japanese rapist in Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos), and that there are those among us who crave that pleasure in regular doses (the police officer in Babae sa Breakwater, Rex in Bagong Hari). At the same time you hear a whisper from the cavern's yawning silence; when O'Hara's films are working full-on you feel the hairs rising on your arms and back of your neck as you sense--the way a sensitive senses a presence supernatural--that O'Hara does care about his characters, cares for them deeply, but is too much of an artist to let this concern speak out too loudly. Understanding of this contradictory pull of forces between the impassive and empathic in O'Hara, this double-vision if you will, is possibly key to understanding his cinema. 

What to say, finally, of O'Hara the filmmaker? Frankly I could write for years and it wouldn't be enough. But a few words might help: he is, I believe, Philippine cinema's wayward spirit, its silent wanderer-observer (especially around the Makati-Malate-Quiapo-Divisoria area), its whispered yet insistent conscience. He is its reluctant poet, its low-key fabulist, its (to borrow a phrase from Manny Farber) termite artist, toiling away in the mud and filth to build something that isn't intended to be anything beautiful, perhaps doesn't even presume to become anything near beautiful, but which somehow, in some way, almost by accident if you will (though this random quality may be a hallmark of its authenticity) achieves a wayward, reluctant beauty. 

He is (again, strictly in my opinion) the Philippine's finest filmmaker, and his death does our cinema an irretrievable, irrecoverable harm--not just for the life's worth of recognition owed to him, but for the works he might have given us, if he lived but a year longer (I once spent an evening listening to him talk of the scripts he has squirreled away, one more fabulous than the next). The world is a quieter place with this man gone, not necessarily a better one. We do well to mourn our loss.


Encore

Whatever this article managed to cobble together about O'Hara the filmmaker is likely but a fraction of what the man has done, a fraction (a tiny one) of the regard and affection the man has inspired. 

A lovely tribute from a collaborator (she was involved with the production of Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio) and confidante of the family. 

Fellow filmmaker Joey Reyes' impassioned piece on the man (Reyes will hopefully forgive me for saying that this is possibly the best single thing he's ever written, but that's how I feel about it).


Friend and fellow actor/filmmaker Dennis Marasigan's memories of Mario O'Hara.


Versatile writer/editor Gibbs Cadiz gives a more thorough (though again, hardly comprehensive) overview of O'Hara's theater career.

As said, much has been written about the films, but the subject is hardly exhausted--here is a discussion of the sociopolitical meaning of three O'Hara films.

Premiere Filipino film critic Oggs Cruz's writeup (his last few lines are a great favorite). 

A brief citation by Jessica Zafra.

An account of the wake.


Friends give their reaction.

Mell T. Navarro's pictures from the wake


Jude Bautista's photos of the Cinema One tribute. One of the rare times O'Hara was recognized (kudos to the festival for doing so). 


Vladimir Bunoan's Essential O'Hara: 10 films you should watch.



A mini-retrospective of his work at this year's Cinemalaya.


TV5's obituary.

First published in Businessworld, 6.28.12

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Man of Steel (Zack Snyder); This is the End (Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen); Stoker (Park Chan wook)

Man and superman

If Zack Snyder's Man of Steel taught me anything it's to appreciate the Richard Donner/Richard Lester/Christopher Reeve Superman movies more. Especially Reeve--you know everything you need to know about his performance, you learn the key to his interpretation of Superman, from his stance.  

Reeve is tall; don't know if it's just his stature, or if the filmmakers built the sets/angled the camera to emphasize his prominence, or if fellow actors were cast to be markedly shorter than he is, but he's tall. When talking to someone (Lois, or Perry, or even the run-of-the-mill evil Kryptonian) he seems to look down from a position of moral authority--he's that tall.

It's more than just height, though--Reeve's performance works;  works at a glance, works for the length of the film, and the secret to the performance is, irreducibly, that aforementioned stance. You see Superman standing there, you're bewildered by the bright red-and-blue suit and intimidating height, you notice the slight stoop--and relax. He's  one of us (or if not exactly one of us at least believably on our side), and it's that stoop (he never seems comfortable in a room; his head bows forward, as if to avoid scraping the ceiling) that marks him as okay, the humanizing flaw in his godlike demeanor.  

Reeve's Superman is impressive and reassuring at the same time, but his Kent is a comic wonder--with those ridiculously thick plastic-frame spectacles for a disguise Reeves really comes into his own. He looks about helplessly, as if seeking directions; he sticks his limbs out stiffly at awkward angles as if unsure what to do with them, afraid he'll hurt someone (conversely he's constantly jostled by others, even if his elbows are nearly level with their faces); he stutters like Woody Allen on steroids, his handsomeness obviated by his harmlessness (perhaps a tribute to the character's Jewish creators?).

That's the character at a glance--or stance, if you like: Jerry Seigel and Joe Schuster in combining the qualities of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and Harold Lloyd for their hero hit upon the essential magic formula, a mix of the quotidian and quixotic. Without the Fairbanks Kent would be just another adult Jughead; without the Lloyd Superman would be emotionally remote (if unfailingly noble) and dull. It's a balancing act that must be--but isn't always--maintained.

The Fleischer animated shorts hinted at this, though there was more Superman than Kent onscreen (their main virtues were the clean graphic lines, the sleek futuristic '40s design, the almost limitless possibilities available to animation that haven't really been matched, much less surpassed, even in this digital age). The George Reeve live-action TV show betrayed a glimmer of Kent's affability, set in low-budget surroundings (his foes were mainly gangsters and crime lords). In 1978 Alexander and Ilya Salkind managed to hire the perfect incarnation, an ubermensch with curvature of the spine, a hero with a built-in sense of humor. More than the grandiose John Williams score or (largely outdated though still impressive) special effects or huge production budget, Christopher Reeve got Superman to speak to us, made the Kryptonian superhero connect with our weak, imperfect selves.

Coming to the remake you see the problem right off. Superman Returns tried to make do with the unfunny Brandon Routh; Man of Steel has to settle for the even more muscular (and even less funny) Henry Cavill and, just to emphasize the break from Reeve, plays the young Kent as angry rebel, wandering the outskirts of America in search for meaning in his life. 

The results are kind of, well, eh. First time Kent is pushed to the ground and forced to swallow his anger it's compelling, but Snyder has to shove the allegory at our faces again and again and again. This isn't the Kent we know or love--it's a James Dean youth visibly apart from society, struggling to find his role in it. Speaking for myself if I wanted to see James Dean I'd watch James Dean; if I wanted to see Clark Kent, I'd watch Reeve shuffle two left feet. Cavill's painfully solemn transformation from disaffected youth to transcendent hero is about as interesting to watch as drying concrete.

A word on the rest of the movie, special effects, whatever: not a big fan of Richard Donner who, in spite of Reeve, creates your standard-issue Hollywood superproduction. Still Donner had his moments: when Superman takes leave of Lois Lane (Margot Kidder, a funnier and harder-edged Lois than either Kate Bosworth or Amy Adams) on her outdoor patio he floats away to the left; a pause of maybe a minute, then a knock on the front door--it's Clark in suit and tie, clutching an armful of flowers. Nowadays you just push a button and any number of Kents pop up onscreen beside their super alter-ego; back then you either failed to notice or scratched your head and asked "how did they do that?"

Likewise with Richard Lester, who with the second (and even, I'd argue, third film) brings a sly sense of fun to the proceedings. When Superman and General Zod (the inimitable Terence Stamp, who looks like he could take Michael Shannon out from between his teeth with dental floss) squared off entire buses are flung about, and we see those buses, the flash of their chrome trimmings as they fly across the huge sets. When Superman faces Zod in this installment the vehicles being tossed are ostensibly more photorealistic but there's a weightlessness, an insubstantiality to them that is, to be frank, depressing.

Mind you, I'm not saying the Donner/Lester Superman movies are great films--give me Del Toro's Hellboy or Altman's Popeye or Burton's Batman Returns any day (or even, if you like, Whedon's The Avengers or (better yet) Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog). But they're not bad, with Lester's Superman 2 as the character's big-screen apotheosis--an earthbound god with comfortingly clay feet.

As for the movie's ending (please skip the next three paragraphs if you plan to watch the movie, which I don't recommend doing): thousands maybe millions of people have just died and Superman cries over one cranky psychopath? True he's a fellow Kryptonian and our hero had just snapped his neck and likely feels all broken up for doing it...but it also feels wrong. 

Of course people have died; it would be complete idiocy for the movie to pretend otherwise, though what they do here is more interesting, a trend we've been seeing since Heath Ledger made a pencil disappear in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, continuing over to a starship plowing into San Francisco in Star Trek Into Darkness: they glide over the fact, with Superman ostensibly too busy to feel grief (or so we're supposed to think). 

Actually we're not supposed to be thinking at all--we see the pencil go up the man's eye socket in Nolan's Batman movie, we see the hurtling ship crush thousands of bystanders in Abrams' Star Trek movie, we watch thousands maybe millions more flattened by falling debris in this movie (which Nolan produced) and the act happens too fast to register properly or the camera cuts away at the last second or the steel and rock and glass fall out of frame, snuffing out innocent bystanders safely offscreen. No blood, no mess hey, no consequences, at least none you need worry about.

Getting back to the ending--so Kal-El kills, and he's upset about it? He should've been shocked at the first mangled dead body that fell to his feet (and shame on the filmmakers for not including that bit), numbed beyond emotion by the time he's up to his eyeballs in (indirectly, inadvertently shed) innocent blood. That he isn't, that despite his super hearing and super vision he reacts as if this is the first death in this whole borderline coherent affair is the single most dishonest moment in the movie. It's the new aesthetic, violence without the viciousness, having your R-rated cake and eating it in the PG-approved manner and I don't like it; it feels like I'm being pandered to and censored at the same time.

The End of the World News

Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen's This is the End is possibly the greatest twenty minute comedy ever made and what makes it great is a shot early in the movie: James Franco and his houseguests rush out of his multimilliondollar home, cut to reverse shot and all of Hollywood is in flames. I'd pay good money to see that.

Problem with the picture is that it isn't twenty minutes long; it goes on for another eighty-seven wearying minutes. And we get into the venality and cluelessness of the Hollywood elite (hold on--celebrities venal and clueless? Stop the presses!), we get Satan with a hilariously large phallus (well, that much was funny), we get Franco and Danny McBride threatening to spray their spunk all over the residence (that's funny too, and that's it, I promise). In between we get a lot of brotherly love (which you may or may not like, depending on how much you like Rogen and I don't), and cheap jabs at Rogen's phoned-in performance in Michel Gondry's The Green Hornet (which I actually liked, maybe precisely because he phoned it in and Gondry ran with it).

Otherwise--why does this movie even exist? I don't know; still trying to figure why Rogen has a career. Maybe Goldberg and Rogen felt the need to make some kind of meta-statement, their ultimate declaration of what really matters in life (your bro, and perhaps some quality weed); perhaps Rogen sensed the cold wind of mortality breathing down the back of his neck, and felt he had to stray a little into surreal comedy, toss a sop to those who polish the statues of cinematic greats. It's not much of a stretch (I'll probably be more likely to remember him for Pineapple Express); time and time again at the picture's grossest and most outrageous, I kept thinking "Monty Python did this better." Get back to me when Rogen is served his after-dinner mint.

Family ties

Park Chan-wook is off and on for me; didn't like his Vengeance trilogy much and particularly disliked Oldboy (despite moments of bravura directing), but did think Thirst was one of the better vampire movies out there.

And now this, his first English-language feature--basically Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt transplanted to Nashville, Tennessee (Matthew Goode's character is actually named Uncle Charlie). Scriptwriter Wentworth Miller improves on Hitchcock's film a little, adding that element of incestuous frisson that I felt the original needed (and probably wasn't ready to deliver at the time).

It's not Hitchcock or anywhere near as good as that; I wouldn't go that far. But Park yoked to a script that actually takes the effort to convey psychological realism or at least plausibility (whether or not it succeeds is a whole other issue) seems freer, more able to do bits of visual mischief (see photo above; the first shot of the film, of India (Mia Wasikowska) silhouetted in the horizon, in an apparently ecstatic moment; an all-too-brief glimpse of the contents of a freezer) while he trusts the storyline to make more and more sense as it unravels.

Wasikowska is wonderful; she sleepwalks her way through the picture (not necessarily a bad thing in a film that feels like a waking nightmare) and you read your own dawning comprehension of her and the film's true nature on her face as the story progresses. Matching her look for deadpan look is Matthew Goode. He made for an overobvious Ozymandias in Zack Snyder's wretched Watchmen (yet another comic book classic ruined by the man); here his creepiness is nicely balanced by a quiet charisma, and a sense of play about his role that you never got from Snyder's solemn train wreck, a hell of a lot more enticing than any mere act of seduction ("c'mon, try this--it'll be fun"). Only Nicole Kidman as India's mother is disappointing--she's basically playing Gertrude to India's feminine Hamlet, and you badly need a scene between them that clarifies or develops their relationship or at least India's feelings about her mother further (incestuous attraction don't seem right in this case--perhaps weary contempt? Patience stretched to the point of snapping?).

Some folks complain of predictability--I like to think what the picture has is inevitability, that sense that things will come into fruition and there's nothing you can do about it (which again reinforces that sense of nightmare). Will India fall under the spell of her uncle's homicidal influence? This is a Park Chan-wook film; take a wild freaking guess. 

Love the restraint--how Park withholds the crucial moment and keeps withholding it like a practiced onanist (see the aforementioned first shot, and later and even better, the shower sequence--which evokes Hitchcock, then trumps him for outrageousness). Love the gorgeous camerawork, which manages to be luscious and austere both. I'm almost wishing Park directed his own remake to Oldboy; he seems to do just fine this side of the Pacific Ocean. 

6.20.13 
 

Monday, June 10, 2013

Now You See Me (Louis Leterrier); Dr. Who Season 7 Part 2 (Bells of St. John, Rings of Akhaten, Nightmare in Silver, The Name of the Doctor)

(Warning: plot twists and surprises discussed in detail)

Slight of hand

Louis Leterrier's Now You See Me starts off intriguingly enough--four talented young magicians/escape artists/confidence men are recruited to become the Four Horsemen, with all the ominous and apocalyptic connotations deliberately (though not very effectively) evoked.

The four announce a series of crimes; Mark Ruffalo's FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes declares his intention to stop them. The four are constantly a step ahead of Agent Rhodes, and ultimately disappear in a flash of light and puff of hard currency.

On Leterrier--seems to me he's a stylish filmmaker of the Luc Besson school of filmmaking (lots of gliding camerawork, lots of bright lights and loud explosions) doing not very much at all. His Incredible Hulk was a dully conventional disappointment, having followed Ang Lee's nuttily unconventional take (easily the best work of Lee's career); his Clash of the Titans is a glossy digital bore, the monsters uninspired  thuds with only a fraction of the personality and charm of the Ray Harryhausen originals.

Along the way Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman briefly step onstage to essay amusing character roles--one a ruthless multimillionaire, the other a sleazy debunker of magic tricks. Frankly if the movie had focused on these two sly veterans then maybe it would have something, but no--

Is the movie about the four youths? Not really; we follow their exploits, we don't really get to know them, or how they achieve their tricks. Is it about Rhodes? Better guess, but the plot twist at the end reveals how little we know about what's really going on (and as it turns out, what's really going on is disappointingly conventional Hollywood showmanship: a twist of Harry Potter's wand, and the promise of revelations ends with some rock-concert spotlight choreography and a boring dollop of digital effects).

Takes some time--almost the end of the picture, in fact--to realize that the whole movie is a scam--you'd just been watching the scriptwriter jerk you off, pretending to present a story when all along it's just distracting patter to direct your eye away from the real trick: making you waste a hundred and fifteen minutes of your time watching not much of anything. Nice hustle, folks.


Ding ding ding went the bell

I can barely remember any of The Bells of St. John; can't believe I'm saying that of a Steven Moffat episode.

I can remember the prequel, a sad little vignette featuring the Doctor on a swing with a child--nicely features Matt Smith's easy charm with children, who he likes and who seem to like him. The episode itself starts scattershot: man pleads for help through a computer screen; Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) has trouble logging on to the internet; the Doctor is meditating the loss of his companions in a 13th century monastery. The script ties it all together with the use of a single phone call: Clara calls for customer support and gets the Doctor instead, just as she's about to be swallowed up by the internet herself...and then the episodes slides from "huh!" into "eh."

Part of the problem I think are the spoonheads: yes the idea of being physically kidnapped by the net is a disturbing concept, yes the sight of these figures (with most of their head scooped out, as if for dessert) is unsettling; problem is it's hardly fresh territory--Joss Whedon's Dollhouse suggests a faster, far less clumsier way to upload and download a human soul; Kurosawa Kiyoshi's Pulse suggest far more disturbing implications behind all the disappearing people. 

Coleman is a lovely girl and makes for a lively companion, but she's basically playing a cipher, and a confusing one at that; she's easy on the eyes and easy to get along with (unlike most other companions when she's ordered to stay put, she actually stays put), but without much more to go on, she's in danger of becoming deadly dull. 

The episode itself is a lively enough affair, leaping from TARDIS to plummeting airplane to motorbike running up the side of a building. I don't know what more to say--less bike running, more story plotting? Unlike say The Eleventh Hour, which is another elaborate setup for another elaborate story arc, Bells promises to be as if not more elaborate (who is Clara and why does she keep dying on us?) without delivering the wit and magic  found in the Doctor and Amy's first meeting (fish fingers and custard anyone?).


Sing a song

Looked at The Rings of Akhaten again and it really comes together for me the second time.

What ties it together is the opening sequence, summarized thusly by the dad: that this leaf hit that face, creating this girl. The story is neatly reprised by the Doctor later in the episode, when he talks of atoms from supernovae coming together in random combinations to create young Merry--basically Clara's story (which the Doctor witnessed firsthand), from a more cosmic perspective.

Then the showdown. The Doctor told one story (the supernova atoms) to persuade Merry to save herself; tells another to explain what the God was all about--basically, an eater of souls or stories, which to the Doctor are equivalent. Then he offers up his story, in an effort to bust the God's gut (how to deal with someone's bite on one's arm? Feed the bite).

It's not enough. Up steps Clara with her solution--the story of the leaf that starts the episode, only she gives her interpretation: that the leaf represents not one story already told (Clara's mom), but the countless stories that could have been told but were not. She's offering infinity, in effect, which if you listen closely to the Doctor is what he was really talking about all along.

Love doesn't save the world in this episode, stories do;  the struggle involves differing interpretations of stories, differing versions of what's really happening. The Doctor in this episode talks the God to death, yes, with help from Clara's crucial input, but all this is to affirm the importance of controlling the narrative.

Pretty good, actually and, I'm surprised to say this, better than Moffat's own starting episode.


The cloud in every silver lining

It's been a relatively lackluster half-season so far with Moffat delivering a weak beginning episode (The Bells of St. Mary), then episodes long on suspense and sensation (Cold War, Hide) and short on--I don't know what to call it: Moffatism? Timey-wimey? Inventiveness? The voice of a distinct sensibility?

I'll welcome the season's penultimate episode, Neil Gaiman's Nightmare in Silver, as being the best response to date to that last complaint. The Cybermen truth be told are for me the dullest villains in the Whoniverse: emotionless and rather clunky (at least the Daleks are allowed to be surprised, terrified, display anger by waving their plungers and rolling around in brief, agitated arcs), they moved so damned slow you're thinking even a tortoise would run circles round them.

Moffat did something about that in The Pandorica Opens: suggested that a Cyberman's arms and head could move independently of the body, show that "upgrading" a human can be a grisly process. Gaiman's attempt at scarifying this overfamiliar monster is if anything even more effective: now there are Cybermites that can suck the humanity out of you like metallic leeches, and a process of upgrading that afflicts half your face with a silvered rash.

Maybe even more frightening is the fact that these armored cyborgs--always-eerie parodies of the human figure--replicate the human condition even more closely by evolving at an even faster pace than their biological models. Hit a Cyberman once, and you slow him down; hit him a second time and he has adapted to your weapon and moved on. This episode captures the unstoppable feel of a wave of Cybermen invading a castle (at a relatively small budget at that)--a feel that makes your skin do that unmistakable crawl. Whovian history records a number of cries that remain in memory, including "Geronimo!" Allons-y!" "Exterminate!" Add to this illustrious if modest collection the latest Gaiman contribution: "Upgrade in progress!"

Gaiman gave us a great Whovian character in Idris, or Sexy, or the TARDIS incarnated in fetchingly human form ("Did you wish really hard?") and as a result nearly brought us to tears; this time he doesn't make us weep but does give us a great Whovian villain--and who could be more villainous or more brilliant than the Doctor himself, upgraded into a Cyberplanner? What I love is that upgrading doesn't drain the Doctor of his emotions; if anything it lifts the Cyberman's rather soulless manner to the same manic high as the Doctor's--Mr. Clever (as the Doctor calls himself) is a mad, marvelous wonder, who gets giddy at the brilliance of his own mentalworks, the same time he chortles at the malevolence of his machinations. He's the Doctor's dark side, able to articulate the buried attraction he has always had for Clara (which is, of course, a giveaway: the real Doctor would rather die than admit to any such attraction), and a chilling addition to the select gallery of great Whovian villains.


A rose by any other name

I'd written before that it wouldn't be such a bad thing to put an end to the Doctor--and, mind you, 'put an end' as opposed to simply 'ending' the Doctor are two totally different concepts. 

Seems I'd written more presciently than I thought I did, a season too early.

Moffat finally tackles the Doctor's demise in The Name of the Doctor; typical of Moffat to throw in a few clever conceits of his own: that the Doctor for instance wouldn't just be a dead body lying in a bier but a gaping wound in time he calls "the tracks of my tears"("Less poetry, Doctor. Just tell them"). Cleverest thing about it is that it is less poetry--it's literally the gashes he rips open in the fabric of time when traveling--and yet more. Time travel (Moffat suggests) causes pain and suffering and doesn't really, definitively resolve anything; on the contrary it leaves everything open, vulnerable, subject to interference and change. 

This is where Moffat puts paid to all the naysayers, Michael Corleone style: Clara useless and incomprehensible? Now she's The Impossible Girl, Born to Save the Doctor. The episodes seem mostly like fillers, marking time till the '50th anniversary special? Now we know when and where the Doctor dies, and who the real villain is. The Great Intelligence relegated to background figure, a mostly useless one? Now he's The Doctor's greatest threat--determined not just to kill him (remember, the Doctor's already dead) but destroy him; again two markedly difference concepts. 

Love the moments which for once (Moffat's mojo really working now) come on strong and plenty, not so much a snowfall as asnowstorm--

Madame Vastra, Strax, and Jenny brought back, with Jenny saying: "Sorry, ma'am, so sorry, so sorry, so sorry--I think I've been murdered." 

The Whisper Men hissing, their Moray Eel fangs bared like a formidable knitting needle collection.

The giant TARDIS. "When a TARDIS is dying sometimes the dimension dams start breaking down," the Doctor explains. "They used to call it a size leak--all the bigger-on-the-inside starts leaking to the outside...when I say that's the TARDIS I don't mean it looks like the TARDIS, I mean it actually is the TARDIS."  

The Victorian trio confronted with the Doctor's remains: "It's beautiful..." "Should I destroy it?" "Shut up, Strax!"

River Song's computer-generated image, meeting the Doctor one last time: "Why didn't you speak to me?" "Because I thought it would hurt too much." "I believe I could have coped." "No, I thought it would hurt me. And I was right."

...a moment please while we brood over River Song. I'd mentioned before how Moffat seems to have taken a page from the relationship between Arthur and Merlin in T.H. White's The Once and Future King (Merlin weeps when they first meet because this is the last he'll see of his dear friend). Don't think much of Silence in the Library/The Forest of the Dead except for River--she'd not only given her life to save the Doctor but actually knew his name! Who was she? Why was she? It was an intriguing way to introduce a character, and I got the sense that Moffat himself didn't know all the answers.

Flesh and Stone/Time of Angels was a less satisfying sequel to Moffat's brilliant Blink only again Dr. Song kept dropping all sorts of fascinating hints--for one she could operate the TARDIS even better than the Doctor can ("Of course we've landed. I just landed her." "But it didn't make the noise!" "What noise?" "You know the 'wooOOOoughfff! wooOOOough! OOOough!'" "It's not supposed to make that noise. You leave the brakes on." "Yeah, well it's a brilliant noise. I love that noise"). For another she does have a heedless love for the Doctor ("Now if he's dead back there, I'll never forgive myself. And if he's alive, I'll never forgive him. And--Doctor, you're standing right behind me aren't you?" "Yeah." "I hate you.").

She always seems to be teasing, and Moffat can never resist encouraging her ("Are you married, River?" "Are you asking?" "Yes--?" "Yes." "No--hang on. Did you think I was asking you to marry me or asking if you were married?" "Yes." "No, but was that yes or yes?" "Yes.").

Apparently even nine-hundred-year-old Time Lords are no good at multitasking. 
 
If I seem to be doing little more than quoting Moffat dialogue to describe Dr. Song's relationship with the Doctor, think about it: is there a better way to do it? She seems to have been created specifically to speak his dialogue (and well golly by gum, when you think about it--she was).
 So on and so forth, up and down the spirals of time to this strangely appropriate, strangely sad farewell. Oh it's possible Moffat'll insert her in a few more episodes down the road--she's that timey-wimey--but basically her story's finished. In the meantime she's done everything from halt reality on its tracks (The Wedding of River Song) to fracturing her own wrist (The Angels Take Manhattan) just to save or please the Doctor. She justifies what she does--sums it all up, really--with three words she learned from her mother ("It's called marriage"), and while the sentiment may seem trite (remember, Moffat once wrote a swinging sexy comedy series called Coupling that ended in a wedding) the length and breadth and depth she will go to affirm that adage is a bit breathtaking, not to mention psychotic. Which I suppose is the point to her. 

So so long, River Song; it feels short (despite all the time travel), but oh so sweet.

The episode, by the way, ends on a cliffhanger shocker--did I in talking about Gaiman's episode mention that the Doctor was  his own best villain...? 

Best single thing in this weak half a season--but strong enough that it can compare with the best of any of the seasons, I think. Now if it were November already... 

6.9.13