Thursday, November 30, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenheim, 2006)

An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenheim, 2006)


Davis Guggenheim's documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" has the force of a high tide, pulling imperceptibly yet irresistibly upwards until you're knee deep in it, you can't ignore it, and the edge is some twenty feet behind where you're standing at the moment.

The film is a 96-minute documentary on a series of what appear to be Power Point presentations given by Al Gore who, as he puts it "used to be the next president of the United States (when the audience laughs, he replies "I don't find that particularly funny.")." Gore uses animation, graphs and anecdotes to make the not-so-easy-to-grasp case that the world's average temperature is rising, that man's--and especially the United States'--technology has been largely responsible, and that the consequences on our weather and water levels are going to be dire.

I won't mince words on this one--it's one of the most frightening recent movies I've seen. Unlike pictures like "Hostel" or the "Saw" franchise, it portrays ordinary horrors, horrors you are likely to meet every day (step outside in any Metro Manila street and take a deep breath), and are likely to choke on (now try hold that breath).

The Hollywoodization of Filipino films

 Nora Aunor in Mario O'Hara's Bakit Bughaw ang Langit (Why is the Sky Blue? 1981)

From pinoydvd, prompted by a 7/22/03 Philippine Daily Inquirer article "The Hollywoodization of Filipino movies:"

How to save the Filipino film industry? I say, tax Hollywood movies.

Japan is resisting okay, same with France, and India. All of these put restrictions on Hollywood films.Regulate those suckers. Down with Hollywood.

Flyderman: Shouldn't we just leave those who have no desire to explore the greatness of cinema to their mindless Hollywood shallowness?

Let the market find its level? Know what'll happen? The local industry sinks out of existence, this including the indies, and hollywood reigns supreme, forever and ever, amen.

I read and talk to people from these industries (Japan, France, India), seen some of em in action, and they work. They work with regulation, not a strict free market.

And it's not as if the local industry is without handicaps. We're taxed 26 to 30 percent--one of the highest rates in the world. The miracle isn't that we do one or two good movies in a few years, the miracle is that we have an industry at all.

av_phile: What is so patently wrong about hollywoodizing Filipino movies? Without a hollywood to ape, would pinoy films have flourished?

Nothing wrong with Hollywood that a tactical nuclear weapon can't fix.

That said, they have their place. Just keep it restricted and heavily taxed, is all I ask.

Flim: With the way filipino movies are going, are you sure we deserve an industry? Maybe a pushcart more like it.

Let's put the pushcart before the horse, if we have to. Kill Hollywood here in Manila, or at least regulate it down to size, then give more money to filmmakers like you...

If we're talking of influences, sure Hollywood is a huge influence, and it steals what it can...Ford Westerns influence Kurosawa who in turn influences Peckinpah...Disney cartoons influence Tezuka's big-eyed heroes, who influence Miyazaki, who influence post Little Mermaid animators to make their heroes big-eyed...

What I'm talking about is business. Hollywood has killed Hong Kong, it's killed Germany, it's killed Japan's live action fare, it's killing cinema all over the world. The only ones that are thriving if at all are tightly regulated--France, India, Iran, to name a few. Let's double the tax on Hollywood films, put a quota on theaters to show more Filipino films, etcetera, etcetera.

Free market? End result is, rich get richer, poor get poorer. How do you think the 1997 Asian crisis and current recession got started? World Bank is reviewing its policies, same with the IMF. Free market is fine for the big picture, but it wouldn't hurt to get Marxist (or at least Castro-ish) on Hollywood.

av_phile: Not if the IMF or the WOrld Bank has anything to say to that. Let's go protectionist in our movie industry. Like Frrance or Italy. I think it has been said that protectionisn breeds lousy products. And all the while i thought the movie industry is already protected.

No, the industry isn't protected; more like exploited.Mind you, I'm not advocating protecting the trapos (TRAditional POliticians) in the industry--I'd like to see them gone myself. But if you kill the establishment I can guess what'll take over, and it's not the indie artist, it's the one with the big multinational bucks.

Protectionism breed lousy products in France and Italy? Check out their protected cheeses and wines and stuff. American cheddar tastes like toothpaste in comparison.

av_phile: I guess it all boils down to attitude, with or without protectionism. How sure are we that protecting the local movie industry will churn out movies that can be nominated for an Oscar best foreign film award? Ok so you don't believe in Oscar. But i think it's a start.

It's chicken and egg, cart and horse. If we protect them, will they do quality product? All I can do is look around me at the cinemas that are successfully resisting Hollywood, have their own vibrant, viable cinemas, and that's France, India, Iran. All of em have protectionist policies.

France has always hated and been suspicious of Hollywood; they've never relented in their restrictive policies. India has always been an economy apart. Japan and Hong Kong used to be unaffected by Hollywood, then the recent blockbusters came, and Hollywood discovered the overseas market, these were the most open ones, and they were the ones that fell (okay, Japan had its problems, but making a live-action Japanese film is harder now than ever, not to mention making a hit that'll outperform Hollywood--anime is a whole other ball of wax).

It's a matter of looking around, seeing what works and what doesn't.

av_phile: Understandable. France is not only anti-Hollywood. It's anti-american and anti-british in general. It seems to be a history-based nationalist angst against english-speaking countries with a national memory of a terrible war with the americans in the 1700s. Latest evidence - their strong resistance against the US/Brit led coalition against Iraq at the UN.

Terrific cinema, innit? Terrific culture too...

av_phile: I think the Hongkong and Chinese cinemas benefitted form Hollowwod incursion when the latter exploited their martial arts traditions to box-office delight, there, in the US and elsewhere. It's sheer commercialization of a culture. But i suppose chinese talents, producers and crew got windfalls in the process too. Did the phenomenon produce art films? Now i don't know if suspending actors on wires flying around in a fight scene is one.

See something by King Hu. Blows Crouching Tiger out of the water.

The Hong Kong film industry never depended on American markets; that was strictly a niche. Their bread and butter was always Taiwan and the Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, including the Philippines. The Philippines in fact was so influential that when distributors found Lian Jie Li's name too boring, they gave him a new moniker, one his Hong Kong studio liked so much they adopted it as his official name. This was how Jet Li was born.

av_phile: The same goes for Japanese films. Hollywood exploited japanese traditions of the ninjas and samurais and the jap military-like discipline to make box office hits worldwide. And while hollywood profited, am sure those jap movie moguls did as well.

True and true. But that was then, this is now. At that time, the foreign market wasn't seen as a major source of income, and Hollywood marketing wasn't geared towards selling to foreign markets. It was easier for foreign cinemas to flourish.

In the '80s, Hollywood discovered the world market, and now more than half their source of income comes from outside of the US. Hollywood NOW is a threat to our industry, and to industries all over the world. That's what happened to Hong Kong, and Japan. Hollywood killed their live action cinema. This happened around ten or less years ago.

av_phile: At this time and age, to me it doesn't seem to make sense to close doors and act as if we can make a viable cinema industry on our own with only the pinoy market as our audience.

By all means, watch other movies from other countries. But in a strictly ghettoized environment. And by all means sell to other countries. We can be open to foreign markets--Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, for starters. the rest of Asia to follow; that's what the Hong Kong cinema did in the '80s. Hollywood? They were never interested in us, and we don't need them to sell our movies. They can knock on our doors if ever they want us, which I doubt will happen.

av_phile: The audience must be the entire world.

Hollywood can stay out of the equation. They're the danger.

av_phile: The product must be world-class.

No problem with this.

av_phile: That's why hollywood and a few european, indian, chinese and jap films became known worlwide and their industry got the windfall because they were shown in many countries and made good box-office returns.

True, and here's the difference: Hollywood is doing it NOW, and to the detriment of every other foreign film--and, in the case of Hong Kong and Japan, to the detriment of THEIR native cinemas.

av_phile: we will remain with low budget films of little remark. The returns simply cannot justify a producer's nvestment.

Bubungang Lata, Pila Balde, even Insiang. They're not sufficient justification?

av_phile: But closing our doors with trade barriers to hollywood films, frankly i have grave doubts such an act willl even gash the knee of hollywwod, much less cut the legs below.

I'm concerned with saving our cinema, not hurting Hollywood. To paraphrase a classic: "To Hell with Hollywood..."

av_phile: And doing so will only incurr the ire of the IMF/World Bank

Not on cinema! That's a small fry industry. I've dealt with IMF and World Bank people. They're concerned with steel, infrastructure, agriculture, not movies.

av_phile: And one result is that our films would get the same treatment in the world markets and not be given a fighting chance out there. I don't see how our cinema can flourish when the country's economy is ruined.

Because we discriminate against Hollywood films? Not going to happen--like I said, movies are strictly small fry. Again, see France, India, Iran. They are doing just fine.

av_phile: To ask Hollywood to stay out of the picture, you might as well ask for the moon. They're too powerful politically and economically to stay on the sides.

We don't ask, we legislate.

av_phile: And there are new developments in all-digital movie production that we will need to revitalize our industry, rather than using or enhancing those old movie recording euipment.

We don't need Hollywood for that. Lav Diaz is doing a digital movie; so is Tikoy.

av_phile: For sure we can't beat 'em. Might as well join 'em.

Lee Tamahori, Geoff Murphy, Roger Donaldson. Sound familiar? Ringo Lam, Tsui Hark, Milos Forman, Roland Emmerich, Wolfgang Petersen. These are people who joined Hollywood, and ended up making Hollywood crap. There's the rare John Woo or Paul Verhoeven who succeeds--somewhat--within the system, but I much prefer their native product.

av_phile: Movies small fry? With each hollywood movie generating box-office returns about the equivalent of a brand-new Boeing 747 jet . I think worldwide, it's even bigger than the aviation industries combined.

Is wrong. The aviation industry is a multibillion dollar industry, you're talking about hundreds of Boeings, not even considering other planes, subsidiary industries, airports.

Movies are strictly small fry, and the Philippines is a small market to Hollywood--Japan is the biggie, and even then Jack Valenti has only so much say over how US should dictate foreign and economic policy to open up the Japanese market.

Oh, I forgot the Chinese. The US is droooooling over that market, but the Chinese are a hard nut to crack. They do pretty good movies too, and it's a successful little industry. Again, by tightly regulating the Hollywood imports.

The ADB, IMF, World Bank don't even look at Filipino movies, or movies in general. I know, I have talked to those people for years. Well, they've done the odd study or so, but that's as far as it goes.

av_phile: How old is the Filipino film industry? I think those post-war films were the toddler years of our cinema. Aping those hollywood movies was like what budding fine arts students do when copying artworks of the masters to sharpen their technical skills before their own individualistic artisitic styles can shine through.

Unfortunately, the aping continued to the 70s and uo to now. The problem is that hollywood has also been evolving in both technical, production, directing and artistic stykes. Starting with those glossy musicals and Greta Garbo films under the studio stable system of the 30s to the 50s, then to the adolescent rebel years of the 60s and 70s starting with those James Dean films and the French Connection-like films. The materials and the neo-realist styles and themes evolved. Along the way, pinoys have been mimicing one change after another, never really finding their own indivdualism or signature.

The first film was shown in the Philippines in 1897; the first Filipino film made by Filipinos was shown in 1919. Before World War 2, we were doing 60 films a year, and was the most advanced moviemaking center in Southeast Asia.

Arguably the greatest Malaysian moviemaker ever was Filipino Ramon Estella, who made films there and taught the Malaysians how to make films. We did musicals, horror, dramas, action, comedies--you name it.

After the war, we were doing neorealism (Anak Dalita (The Ruins)) and noir (48 Oras (48 Hours)). Manuel Conde's Genghis Khan so impressed film critic James Agee (ever read him? Classic volumes on film criticism, the scriptwriter for African Queen and Night of the Hunter, and a Pulitzer Prize winner) that he befriended Conde and championed his film to Venice film festival. Gerardo de Leon continues to dazzle film critics today (ask Pierre Rissient, ask Tony Rayns), and reportedly impressed even David Lean. De Leon was influenced by Ford, admittedly, but also Kurosawa, and he wrapped that great film style of his around subjects that were quintessentially Filipino.

Hollywood has influence--that much I know. But there are filmmakers then, filmmakers in the '70s ((Lino) Brocka, (Ishmael) Bernal, (Mike) de Leon, Celso Ad. Castillo, Mario O'Hara) who resisted that, and learned not from Hollywood but from de Sica and Fellini.

Today, O'Hara, de Leon (Mike, not Gerardo) and Lav Diaz have moved beyond that neorealist style into different directions. De Leon is inspired by Kubrick and Antonioni; Diaz by Tarkovsky and Kurosawa Kiyoshi and Hou Hsiao Hsien--admirable models indeed. O'Hara--well, I don't know where his influences come from. He's never seen a Godard, or Renoir, or Hou Hsiao Hsien or Wong Kar Wai, so I can't tell...but of the three his is possibly the wildest imagination. Check out Sisa or Pangarap ng Puso (Demons).

Tikoy Aguiluz carries on in the neorealist tradition, a la Brocka, but he has a canny commercial sense and sharp nose for a good story that almost helped him break out internationally with Boatman (he sold that to Warner Brothers) and with Segurista (Dead Sure). Still have expectations of him. And who knows, Celso might still surprise us.


This post is a part of andy horbal's Film Criticism Blogathon. Other entries include:

At Lost in Negative Space Peet Gelderblom takes a good, hard look at the film criticism of Armond White and discovers that this famously anti-hipster critic is, in fact, one himself (he must be one of them self-hating hipsters... ) in a fine piece called "The contrarian fallacy: Armond White vs. the Hipsters."
So you want to be a film critic, huh? Please, go to Last Night with Riviera and read Matt Riviera's post about "10 Thoughts on Watching and Appreciating Film." Film criticism cannot be simply about evaluating movies. It must be an active attempt to engage films on their own terms, to understand them and how they work. These ten thoughts describe an approach to film that is prerequisite for good criticism.
At Flickhead (home of the recent Forrest J. Ackerman Blog-a-Thon) you'll find an assortment of delightfully provocative statements about film criticism introduced with a wonderful quote from John Simon. There's potential for a great discussion here: I know I'll be spending time with this post with my morning coffee tomorrow!
Jim Emerson, who's supposedly on vacation, has posted his initial (!) contribution to the 'thon, a piece called "Pearl of the South: A tale of two reviews." This post functions not only as a fine appreciation of the late Robert Altman's masterpiece Nashville (1975), but also as a reminder that a good critic is more than simply someone whose opinion closely mirrors one's own. By accepting two critics' (Bob Strauss and Jonathan Rosenbaum) invitations to look at the new film Bobby (2006) in comparison to Nashville, Mr. Emerson pays tribute to the old idea of historically grounded film criticism (the role of the critic is to place new films in the context of film history) while at the same time exploiting the potential of the internet (by responding immediately and directly to these reviews) and pointing to the future.
Writing at his blog Critic After Dark, film critic Noel Vera shapes a messageboard debate into a fully-realized piece of writing on the state of Filipino film industry, specifically in regards to its relationship with Hollywood, called "The Hollywoodization of Filipino films." Like Jim's piece, this is an example of film criticism that utilizes the unique possibilities of the internet. And also like Mr. Emerson, Noel has suggested that more posts may be forthcoming!
The wonderfully erudite and prolific film writer/critic/blogger (but not necessarily in that order) Peter Nellhaus weighs in from Thailand with his thoughts on the recently-controversial critic and screenwriter Paul Schrader, specifically in regards to Schrader's book Transcendental Style. As Mr. Nellhaus mentions, religion is in in Hollywood these days, and now might be fine time for me to introduce myself to this book...

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Un condamné à mort (A Man Escaped, Robert Bresson 1956)

Escape Plan

(Plot discussed in close detail)

Who'd have thought Bresson, he of the austere aestheticism and rigorous philosophy, could make such an effective thriller as A Man Escaped? That opening sequence of Lt. Fontaine about to attempt a break from a car is as superbly timed and edited--with the suspense stretched out into a thin, taut wire--as anything from Kurosawa or Eisenstein.

Bresson's visual style couldn't be more fitting for the setting--the whole movie is focused on the title character, in a series of tight medium shots and close-ups. The camera is trained on him, and since he operates in such a small space, it rarely strays elsewhere. The impression of claustrophobic confinement is thus emphasized, even magnified--about an hour of the way through you dearly wish for a shot of a tree, of the sky, of something outside the prison walls, which Bresson refuses to grant (the final shots are of more walls, glimpsed through thick fog, and at night). A voiceover keeps you constantly inside Fontaine's head, telling you what he thinks and feels with direct simplicity.

Bressson builds tension here in ways Hitchcock might have approved of--the emphasis on deadlines and time limits, the constant fear of being detected or searched, the treachery of the Nazis (a promise of release is always suspect until you've actually been shown out the door, something we never actually see--or hear--happen). And it isn't just the circumstances--when he's finally ready, with hooks and ropes and all, Fontaine experiences a failure of nerve (a crisis of faith?), and can't seem to bring himself to actually escape.

It's almost all escape, all the time, but Bresson manages to take a moment to speculate about God's role in all this. "Trust in God," a priest says, but Fontaine is more practical: "we have to help him," he says. The prison break might be Bresson's way of dramatizing a spirit being redeemed, but he's not very didactic about ways and means: if anything, his hero is microscopically narrow-minded, focused only on the minutiae of his coming flight. Interesting to compare him to the hero in Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest--Fontaine is more physically restrained, but he has an outward focus, a definite goal he has his eyes trained on that keeps him going; the cure in Diary roams where he pleases, but his soul is trapped, maimed in some fatally hidden manner.

Bresson's sound design is as strong as ever, with tappings on the walls reminding us of neighboring prisoners (potential allies or informers) listening on either side, the loud chatter of the machine gun reminding us of the penalty of being found out. Two moments in the use of sound stand out: when Fontaine first taps on a wall and gets silence as a reply, it turns out the old man on the other side is too frightened to answer. As Fontaine gets to know his neighbor, the old man begins to open up to him, whisper to him from his window, confide in him, at one point (in a rare burst of motion so sudden as to be almost spectacular) tossing him a blanket for making rope.

On the very night of Fontaine's escape, the old man makes a single request: he should knock before he leaves. Fontaine does this, and the reply--the sound of tapping where before there had been fearful silence--is inexpressibly moving, like a baby's long anticipated first words finally uttered.

The second moment comes when Fontaine is on the roof; he's thrown the hook across the gap between two walls, the final obstacle, and stopped; Bresson inserts a fade, possibly the most exasperating in all of cinema, because you realize that time has passed; Fontaine is again experiencing a loss of nerve, and can't bring himself to climb across. The clock strikes, and you count the beats--one, two, three, four.

With the chimes Bresson has indicated just how much time is left, just how close Fontaine is to succeeding (it's the first time we actually hear a clock), and just how close to catastrophic failure (a hundred and twenty minutes more or less--about the length of a motion picture--till sunrise, and capture).

The final scene has Fontaine tightly embracing his escape partner Jost, who murmurs "if only my mother can see me now." One wonders about the gesture: an expression of brotherly affection and friendship in an especially intense moment? Or, as David Thomson channeling Bogart might put it, "the beginning of a beautiful friendship"?


Thursday, November 23, 2006

Bona (Lino Brocka, 1980)

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Bona (Lino Brocka, 1980)


Lino Brocka's Bona is possibly the least-seen of his major works, partly because the two remaining good prints of the picture had been squirreled away abroad (to the Cinematheque Francais and the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art) while Filipinos back home had to content themselves with fading recollections and equally faded Betamax tapes. Everyone remembers how powerful the film was; no one can rightly say they've actually seen it, at least in recent years.

It's exciting news to learn that Cinema One with the help of the Cinematheque is broadcasting a clear new video copy of Bona, one with French subtitles. For a new generation of viewers--one barely able to recognize the name of Brocka--this is a chance to finally see a famed classic; for those who remember the film from its Metro Manila Film Festival run this is a chance to update (and possibly destroy--but that's the risk of any revival) their Beta-assisted memories with freshly minted images. Whichever you are, veteran or innocent, even twenty-six years later there's much in the film that can still shock and appall.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985)

From Forum With No Name:

Saw Brazil again and brooded on the way it didn't quite come together--how Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) and his mother, for one, sit down to dinner, a bomb explodes, and they don't even stop eating (they're even annoyed); it's maybe that one scene that destroys much of one's empathy for Lowry, and if Pryce manages to gain much if not all of it back by film's end, it still seems a pity, how callous he seems early on. Then there's the impression Lowry gives you that he can't seem to get his act together--he panics when Jill parks in front of Information Retrieval, insists on crashing through a checkpoint, and can't even develop the cunning to use what position and influence he has to do what he wants (when he does, finally, it's too little, too late).

More than that, I suppose, is the feeling that this is a dumbed-down version of Orwell's classic dystopia, and that Gilliam was too disorganized or incoherent to maybe borrow effectively from Orwell or keep different elements less jarringly inconsistent (is it a noir? Parody? Action-adventure fantasy?). He pretty much jettisons Orwell's intellectual baggage (from Newspeak to the philosophy of power) and instead fashions a mediocracy barely able to keep itself working, much less effectively reppressive.

That said, Gilliam does take advantage of the decades of hindsight he has over Orwell to be more accurate about the kind of fascism ruling the world today: that "mediocracy" is spot-on, with marketing taking precedence over skill and value, and spin the most valuable commodity of all. And his version of terrorism and the government's tendency to take advantage of it to systematically violate civil rights (in 1984, it's an endless war between three states) is eerily prophetic--what's missing, really, is the revelation that it's the government that's behind the bombings, as a way of preserving its hold on power. The detail, though, of the government actually charging you for your detention and torture (a detail Gilliam reportedly lifted from some 16th century European witch trials)--well, it remains to be seen if that little bit ever comes true, or becomes true again.

Maybe the film's real power lies not so much in the nightmare future it posits--Orwell's vision is more aggressively nightmarish--but the utter impotence of its hero. Gilliam did say he had wanted to make a film where the happy ending is that a man goes insane, but do we need to accept his word on the subject? Isn't Lowry in truth a devastating portrait of a man who could have saved the world but didn't bother? Callous at first, stupid later on, hopelessly escapist by film's end, Lowry just doesn't seem to have either the spine or the balls to do what needs to be done; he seems constantly trapped in a vegetative (and isn't Brazil--the country, not song--just chock full of rain forests?) state of mind caused by humming the title song once too often.

That ending isn't just bleak; it's downright confessional. The ostensible message may be "it's all too much and too powerful for us to really fight (even if it is a watered-down version of Orwell); let's just sit passively and hum a happy tune (it's a conclusion Gilliam arrived at earlier with his colleagues in Life of Brian)." Behind all that, though, he seems to be muttering "I'm just saying this because I'm a lot like Sam--too weak and dumb and disorganized to be really effective." And behind that--behind the struggles he underwent to finish and properly release the film, behind what artistry he does achieve is the hint of a whisper: "it doesn't have to actually be that way, you know." He leaves Lowry humming away in a vast space, but the tune Lowry's humming is, of course, Brazil--just the very tune we're taught throughout the film to resist succumbing to. Possibly it's his one moment of real subtlety, in a film full of unsublte passion and grandeur, that he would use a little ditty to remind us to carry on the struggle, long after Lowry (and he, by implication) has fallen.

rufus christ: Noel, at first blush, my take on Lowry was pretty similar to yours. However, upon seeing it again not long after it was released, it occurred to me that Gilliam was trying to show why people don't act when they can. When this film was released, American culture was reaching a point where it was seen as permissible by many to sacrifice morals for comfort and acquisition of wealth and power.

Lowry was a quisling who could be easily lulled by creature comforts from any horror he might feel. No matter how moved he felt by the heroics of Harry Tuttle, Lowry just didn't have the fortitude to make the sacrifices or engage in the kind of fight that drove Tuttle. Was there ever anything beyond his attraction to Jill that inspired him to act? Maybe a little pang of conscience, but its not enough to even qualify as a still small voice.

The bottom line is that Sam Lowry is a piss-poor hero. It is also a pretty sad fact that there are far more Lowrys around than Tuttles or Jills. This might have been Gilliam's point, which is why I have a hard time writing off Brazil and just as hard a time watching it as I get older.

Hm. From what I read, my view of Lowry is pretty much similar to yours, rufus. It's not a great take on a dystopia, but it's a great take on a failure of a hero--us, in effect.

rufus: I think where we diverge is on Gilliam's intent. You could be right, maybe he does see himself as just another Lowry. Or am I misreading the last couple of paragraphs?

The distinction could be even finer--he's being critical of the liberals' impotence, and including himself in the criticism. Covering both our points, so to speak. It's a mess, but I think it has power despite the mess.

ChrisJ: It's simply a case of it being too ambitious, trying to do a little too much. You create a dull hero and then have to live with what you have done so you allow him to twist and shift a bit and become more interesting which not everyone is going to go along with.

That's probably how he arrived at what he did.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Fe Flores Lacaba (1916-2006), Gary Graver (1938-2006); Robert Altman (1925- 2006)

Fe Flores Lacaba (1916-2006)

Posted on
Plaridel Papers:

Former schoolteacher Fe Flores Lacaba passed away at around 9 a.m. today, Nov. 20, at home in Pateros, Metro Manila, the town where she was born. She was 90.

She suffered a stroke on May 4 and had been bedridden since then, in the process developing bedsores, pneumonia, and diabetes.

She is survived by her children Jose, Henrietta Malillin, Erlinda Echanis, Antonio, and Virgilio. Her third child, Emmanuel, died in 1976, and her husband, World War II veteran Jose Monreal Lacaba Sr., left her widowed in 1958.

A graduate of Philippine Normal College, Mrs. Lacaba taught Pilipino and other subjects at all levels in various schools, including Ateneo de Cagayan (now Xavier University) and Lourdes College in Cagayan de Oro City, and Colegio del Buen Consejo and Pasig Catholic College in Pasig City.

She was a soft-spoken woman who nevertheless raised strong-willed children, four of whom--including award-winning writers Jose (Pete) and Emmanuel (Eman)--were prisoners of conscience during and immediately after martial law.

Eman, who joined the armed resistance during the martial-law dictatorship, was captured alive after an encounter in Davao but “salvaged” later in the day. It was Mrs. Lacaba who, with the help of the late poet Alfrredo Navarro Salanga, recovered Eman's body from a mass grave in Mindanao.

Three of Mrs. Lacaba's children-in- law were also political detainees, and a son-in-law was killed in the early years of martial law.

The wake is at the Garden of Memories memorial park on Kalsadang Bago, Pateros, Metro Manila, near the boundary of Ususan, Taguig City. Interment will be announced later.

(Alay kay Fe Flores Lacaba, 1916-2006)

Ni Jose F. Lacaba

Nang mabalo, hindi na siya muling nag-asawa.
Hindi ko alam kung may lumigaw na ibang lalaki,
o kung inisip man lamang niya ang muling mag-asawa:
bata pa naman siya noon, kung tutuusin, at may bighani.

Pero anim ang kanyang anak: may anim siyang
bungangang pakakainin, katawang bibihisan; anim na utak
na may kanya-kanyang baltik at iba’t ibang antas
ng pang-unawa, pangangailangan at panibugho.

Wala siyang maibigay na anumang layaw o luho,
kaya walang siyang layaw o luhong ibinigay. Tiniyak
niya lamang na may bubong sila laban sa araw at ulan,
may kulambo laban sa lamok, may laman lagi ang tiyan.

At pinabayaan niyang magkapakpak at lumipad
ang anim na malayang utak. Bagamat siya’y guro,
hindi niya sinakal ng pangaral ang kanilang mga pangarap,
hindi niya inipit sa libro ang kanyang mga paruparo.

Alam kong luha ang ipinandilig niya sa kanyang hardin
at ang puso niya’y nagkasugat-sugat dahil matinik
ang mga bunga ng kanyang mapagpalayang paglingap.
Pero alam ko ring ipinagmamalaki niya ang halimuyak.

Ang tulang ito, walang borloloy at walang palabok,
ay para sa aking ina.
Sa pamamagitan man lamang ng tulang ito
ay gusto kong ipaabot ang aking pasasalamat.

By Jose F. Lacaba
Translated into English by Marne Kilates

Widowed, she never married.
I don’t know if any other man wooed her,
Or if she ever thought of marrying again;
She was young, and yes, good-looking.

But she had six children, six
Mouths to feed, six bodies to clothe, whose
Brains had each its own quirks and ways
Of looking at the world, its needs and jealousies.

Of luxury and comfort she had none to give.
But she made sure we had a roof over our heads
Against sun and rain; a net against mosquito
Over our beds; and that we didn’t go hungry.

And then she let our minds go free, grow
Wings and take flight. Though a teacher, she never
Bridled us with advice, or weighed down our dreams,
Or pressed them between book pages like butterflies.

I know that she watered her garden with tears
And her heart bruised, for thorny were the fruits
Of her liberating love. But she watched
Her garden thrive. She was proud.

This poem, without frill or ornament,
Is for my mother.
Only through this poem
Can I thank her.


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Graver, Welles, and Oja Kodar

Gary Graver (1938-2006)

Unfortunately, short of being a Welles scholar it's difficult to see what may be his best work, the unfinished The Other Side of the Wind. Graver was negotiating with Showtime about broadcasting the film when he died.

Orson Welles on Graver:

Gary is an absolutely first-class cinematographer. He has a strong visual sense and the taste to go with it. He commands the highest degree of technical expertise, and I know of nobody who can lead a crew with more authority. His people always like him, and he knows how to get that extra degree of effort, and to maintain an atmosphere of enthusiasm on the set. As a director-producer, I especially prize him for being such an exceptionally fast worker. You are always ahead of schedule with Gary Graver… Above all, he knows how to get it all up on the screen, to make every dollar count. This degree of efficiency and this combination of talent is rare indeed.


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Robert Altman, 1925 to 2006

What else to say about Altman? A bit actually.

An article on Dr. T and the Women

A July '04 debate on The Long Goodbye, held at People's Forum:

Jake Bren: Really, I wasn't expecting literal adaptation. The whole movie felt slapped together, with little unanimity other than Altman's directorial trademarks. And I don't bridle at the casting of Gould as Marlowe. Marlowe was always part schlub. But he also had some kind of compelling air, which Gould lacks entirely here. What struck me most was being reminded that you could get steak and chips for 85¢ at a bar in 1973.

All Altman's films feel slapped together, even something with a relatively tight script like The Player or Streamers. It's what he's all about. And this Marlowe being uncompelling is part of the revision--he's the ultimate fall guy, innocent, what-have-you; even the police know more about the case than he does.

That may well be, but then it doesn't work with the source material. There's always a part of Marlowe that is something to be reckoned with; by the cops, by the baddies, by the women. Altman, Brackett and Gould achieve none of this. And Marlowe being played and left out of back-room proceedings is not so much of a revision.

Well, as someone upthread pointed out, the source material ain't exactly high literature (even the cat gets the better of him). It all works into a final moment of disillusionment and anger, possibly as much towards the genre as towards the 'best friend.' A kind of final gesture towards it all.

edit--I mean, even Chinatown which I like at least as much as this, is still within the genre. This was the movie that pretty much trashed it all when it came to gumshoe detectives.

And it's so very damned odd which I like a lot. All that meandering, it goes against the grain and breaks out of the hardboiled detective plot. Which, after all is said and done, is pretty limiting.

ted fontenot: Altman often comes across as a higher class Michael Moore. He wears thin. They both have this insulting '60's moral superiority they're ready to flash at the drop of frat flag or something. He's often just in for the deriding of a convention, a mindset, a tradition. He's often only "anti". You have to admire the labor he puts into his sophomoric pursuits. His rubbishing the detective genre is amusing, mildly, but it finally wears thin. I mean, the putdown of the heroic detective--even the cops know more about the case than he does--ha, ha. Wow, what an ambition! Next!

Well, ted's pointed out one tendency of Altman's, to sort of skim from one cultural niche to the next--I mean, The Company is lovely, but it's not exactly a very deep look at the world of dance, is it? (edit) And Pret a Porter I can't defend as being any good, only I like it because I think it's what the fashion world deserves. I hear his next film is on art galleries, which makes you think two things, 1) that you're glad someone's doing something on some of the more esoteric corners of modern culture, and 2) that you'd wish he'd spend more time and care exploring that culture a little more deeply, or doing something weightier; one or the other sentiment dominates depending on how much you actually like Altman.

But I don't think The Long Goodbye is a complete trashing of the hardboiled genre--if you look at Marlowe, he's duped and fooled and outwitted, but he's not stupid; it's his basic decency, his tendency to think the best of his friends that makes him so blind. (edit) Might be significant that Altman makes this film and sets it in the 70's, when movies were questioning everything and anything. I suppose you can see Altman feeling superior to the material, but maybe that's part of the spirit of the times and part of the nature of questioning (do we question anything we feel inferior to?). But there's a tone--I don't know if this registers or not--of regret or nostalgia in the film for Marlowe, a kind of fondness and familiarity for him that, sure, breeds some contempt, but also identification, so we're thrown as much as he is by the twists of the plot. And when he finally unravels it, we share in his disillusionment and anger.
You might say Altman's version is really the story of the last good man shedding his last illusions. It's a tragedy, finally, a kind of eulogy to the man that Marlowe used to be.

Gus Sheridan: But Jake nails it- what Altman and company missed is that, when push comes to shove, Marlowe's a fair badass.

When pushed came to shove, Altman's Marlowe had the more radical reaction. Shot into the heart of the genre, so to speak.

I don't think the book's trash; it stands on top of the genre, I agree, and it has its share of observations about LA and life in general and an aging Marlowe (some of it is autobiographical, right?) to make it more than memorable. But I do think the movie's a valid, well, reinterpretation, so that both book and film shouldn't be embarrassed that either exist.

I should qualify what I said about high literature; actually, even literature needs revising when it's adapted; saw Michael Curtiz's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn recently, and while it does a better job of telling the story than the Elijah Wood version, it rearranges and undercuts the book in so many ways that the result is rather toothless. I don't think a more faithful version is what's needed--frankly, the book's ending is a botch--I do think you need to capture at least the tone or spirit of the book, even maybe only a section of it, maybe with an indirect adaptation. Shoeshine, perhaps?

(Going back to The Long Goodbye, I'd say it did capture some of the spirit of a lone knight out of step with a corrupt world--and it's his ethics and loyalty, not any lack of skill or competence, that makes him out of step--only that world is '70s LA and Hollywood looms large in it).

Jake: And all of this leads to why the film doesn't work. The only aspect of the story told in the movie that indicates that Marlowe is the Last Good Man Standing is his refusal to believe that his old friend could have brutally murdered his own wife. So Marlowe the character is deconstructed right out of the picture and replaced with Gould's shambling nebbish. If Altman's point is the revision of the story and genre to fit the times and he sees fit to dramatically alter the plot in order to achieve this, then the experiment is doomed from the start, because it relies on an assumed knowledge of the character of Marlowe on the part of the viewer and then proceeds to hamstring him to the point where he is rendered a dullard and a simp, which makes me wonder why anyone, a client or a cop or a psycho Jewish small-time gangster, would consider him to be worth any of their interest at all.

I'm all for experiments, even failed ones, and there is much of Altman that I admire and greatly enjoy. But The Long Goodbye doesn't work for me on any level at all.

I think Hayden's got a point--a '30s Marlowe and a '70s Marlowe would be fundamentally different, and putting one in the other's setting wouldn't make sense.

And I agree with Phil--this Marlowe isn't dumb, or witless, or without resources; he's innocent. That's what innocence means to Altman, and to the audience of the time, a certain blindness that keeps you from seeing the truth, no matter how tough or brave or smart you are.

So Marlowe the character is deconstructed right out of the picture and replaced with Gould's shambling nebbish.

Maybe the basic problem here is, that shambling nebbish has only selective appeal; I enjoyed him enormously. And yeah, I thought his roundabout way of reacting to things, not quite taking them seriously, passes for wit.

And last (but not least):

An article on A Prairie Home Companion (2006)

Monday, November 20, 2006

Infamous (Douglas McGrath, 2006)

Looked at Douglas McGrath's Infamous and found the differences between this and Bennet Miller's film fascinating.

Toby Jones more closely resembles Capote physically, and I think he has less trouble getting that thin high voice right. We see more of Capote's life in New York, hear more of the famous Capote wit (funny, but that wit was at its best I thought not in New York but in the penitentiary, where Capote manages to dish out as good as he receives from convicts (it always bothered me in Miller's version that Capote wasn't similarly taunted)). The use of so many present-day Hollywood celebrities didn't feel distracting--actually, it was fascinating, all that star power acting as a metaphor for the kind of celebrities Capote gathered around himself then. Bet most people don't know Bogdanovich, or care, but it tickled me pink that McGrath put him on similar footing with the others...

What in Miller's film was subtext and suggestion in McGrath's blooms into outright passion--or at least passion as expressed in an actual kiss. Easy to argue that Miller did better through suggestion (I did think he did very well), but McGrath's path towards that kiss is filled with considerably more electricity--Daniel Craig's Perry Smith is a spikily unapproachable man, and putting the slighter Jones in the same cell with him is like tossing a lamb in a lion cage; you wait for the pounce, and the bloody feeding (Hoffman might have given Craig more of a fight) . That said Jones' Capote displays enough nimble wit and resourcefulness that the situation doesn't seem too lopsided; part of the film's appeal is in seeing how he is able to handle Perry (barely), and how getting what he wants costs him so.

Problem and glory of the film is that kiss; it dissipates the tension, the same time you appreciate just how much was generated in the first half. The rest--well, I won't say McGrath abandons the rest of the picture altogether, but I think you can see that it doesn't hold as much interest for him as the earlier portion. Maybe the truest advantage of Miller's film is that it sustains the tension all the way up to Perry's execution, giving us the full extent of Capote's dilemma (delay the execution of two men he may / may not care about, and he may never finish his long awaited book) and manages to include that nice touch of Capote finishing Perry's breath for him (McGrath has Capote running out of the building before the trapdoor drops).

That said, McGrath's Capote has a fine aftermath, of the writer opening Perry's chest, and looking through the things inside (never thought the sight of a dictionary could be so inexpressibly moving).

Did we need three versions of the same story? What I found fascinating about Capote was that it told a story missing in Brooks' adaptation of the original novel, the story of Capote's role in the whole thing; what I found fascinating about McGrath's version was that it outlined (true or not) the full extent of the feelings that developed between Capote and Perry, and why it mattered so to Capote that he's essentially ignoring a man to death. Equally interesting are the three different Perrys: Clifton Collins is a shy lamb--just the kind of sacrifice Capote would find painful to offer at the altar of his masterpiece; Daniel Craig is a more sexually charismatic creature (despite Hickock's observation that he rarely looks at women, or is willing to share them), more overtly dangerous. The two, however, pale in comparison to Robert Blake--clearly intelligent, clearly sensitive, clearly psychotic.

Someone noted that all three films form a six-hour version of Rashomon, something that of itself is not entirely without value. All that's needed now, though, is a fourth version telling the whole story of Dick Hickock, the jealous, jilted admirer...

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Heremias (Lav Diaz, 2006, permanent link)

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Heremias (Lav Diaz, 2006, permanent link)


Lav Diaz's "Heremias" (2006) is 540 minutes long, an hour shy of the length of "Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino" ("Evolution of a Filipino Family, 2004), presently the record holder of the title "longest single Filipino feature"--but then this picture is only part one, titled, or so I'm told, "Book 1: The Legend of the Lizard Princess." "Ebolusyon" spanned a broad canvas, featuring not just the story of two families (rice farmers in Tarlac, wood gatherers aspiring to become gold miners in the Benguet Province), but the recent history of the Philippines, as represented in a series of documentary footage, from Marcos' declaration of martial law in 1972 to the EDSA Revolt in 1986 to the massacre of the farmers on Mendiola Bridge in 1987; along the way Diaz stuffed the film full of all kinds of conceits, from film critic Gino Dormiendo playing Lino Brocka in a series of televised interviews to a plot to assassinate Brocka (?!) to a series of hilariously melodramatic radio broadcasts that the families listen to religiously, as if they were Sunday Mass. "Heremias" is radically different--it's the odyssey of one man (Ronnie Lazaro) from his village to the city and back; more, it's his journey from a state of absolute innocence to knowledge, disillusionment, guilt.

Diaz had told me once that he was interested in making a film about these people--traveling peasants who pile their covered wagons high with bits of handicrafts (rocking chairs, brooms, baby walkers, and so forth), make their painfully slow way into town, and sell their wares for remarkably low prices (you wonder: if their products are so cheap, how much did these people spend acquiring--or making--them?); here is the film he talked about, in all its implacable glory. For a time we see nothing but Heremias and his wagon, pulled by a carabao (we get to know that carabao quite well), rolling from one end of the screen to another; the road--dirt as often as asphalt, stretching past houses and hills and trees--often forms a diagonal on which the small figure and his wheeled vehicle ambles (slowly, slowly) along. At one point a typhoon rages while the wagon goes down a forest path--diagonally situated, as usual, this time from right to lower left--and we wait for the wagon to reach the path's nearer end before Diaz cuts, as he's done so often before. Suddenly a sapling falls across the way; the path is blocked; the slow and steady motion we have come to expect from so many hours' variation on this particular composition cannot be completed--cannot be fulfilled, if you will. We watch in mounting frustration as Heremias gets off the wagon, chops the sapling up, pushes it out of the way; eventually, he manages to clear the path and move the wagon forward, reaching the lower left corner of the screen; you're almost thrilled at the accomplishment.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Psycho Squared

Janet Leigh as Marion Crane in the 1960 version

Anne Heche in the remake

Psycho squared

(Plot of both films discussed in close detail)

I was involved in a kind of performance piece titled Psycho Squared, where my identical twin brother Joel and I sat down and dissected the original and Van Sant's remake as they played on a pair of video screens. I thought the results were rather illuminating, even if maybe the gimmick with us twins were a bit much.

Some of our observations:

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Coming of age films

I've been tagged by Andy Horbal (on his birthday no less) for this Coming of Age movie meme (along with bloggers Matt Riviera and Teresa).

1. What are 3 movies that exemplify the Coming-of-Age movie genre?

I'm not a big fan of the genre, and I doubt if I'd know what would constitute an "exemplary" coming-of-age film, but if it's youths growing up you want…

Nathan Lopez, Ang Pagdadalaga Ni Maximo Oliveros

Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, 2005) probably comes closest to being "typical" of the genre in this short list of examples, but even then, how many 'blossoming' films do you know feature a gay boy, and how many films show said gay boy living with such a nurturing family, in such an unfussy film? Maximo (Nathan Lopez, in a wonderful performance) acts as surrogate mother to a testosterone-stuffed family of sneak thieves, made up of a widowed father and Maxie's two straight older brothers. The film presents his situation (not as unusual in the Philippine where, despite its fervent Catholicism, homosexuals are accepted to a startling degree--we even have an openly gay senator) as being the most natural thing in the world, and that's the beauty of it. Despite being about a youth, Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros is a delightfully adult film, in the sense that it assumes the fairly best, and procceds to demonstrate that even this fairly happy condition isn't enough to guarantee perfect happpiness. There's more to gay life, the film seems to say, than having to contend with homophobia--first love, for one; the anguish of choosing between family and friend; and the pain of brute disillusionment.

Lolita Rodriguez (Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang)

Lino Brocka's Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Weighed But Found Wanting, 1974) seems inspired by several sources: Federico Fellini's 1953 I Vitelloni, for one (the sensitive youth who leaves town to come back a celebrated artist), and Peter Bogdanovich's 1971 The Last Picture Show (the mysterious older man who turns out to be the catalyst and mentor for the youth's transformation into manhood). Two other sources I should cite: Jose Rizal's social-reform novel Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not), which is the source for the the mother (driven insane by the loss of her child) and her leprous husband, and Brocka's own life--the town where he shot the film was the same one he lived in as a bastard child; he seems to feel no regret in leaving the town nor, apparently, does he feel any coming back to paint such a witheringly satiric portrait of its people.

Actually, I never thought the coming-of-age storyline or the Brocka surrogate at the middle of it (the sensitive youth self-rightously poised to judge the entire community) was very interesting; more memorable is the story of the crazed homeless mother and her disfigured husband--the two lowest figures in the town's heirarchy, presuming to teach (via the example of their humble lives) one of the town's crown princes (the aforementioned youth) a lesson in love and tolerance.
Hilda Koronel, Insiang

Filmmaker Tikoy Aguiluz noted that almost all of Philippine cinema has chosen for its theme the self-sacrificing mother and the importance of the family; Lino Brocka's masterpice Insiang is the rare exception. The eponymous character lives in the slums of Tondo, and what her mother, her mother's lover, and the slum itself has to teach her would not be found in any self-respecting parenting textbook: hate, cynicism, the art of betrayal, and the even subtler art of manipulating people's desires to get what you want from them.

The irony of it is that Insiang learns her lesson too well; she turns into a young, beautiful monster, and sets out to destroy all around her. Brocka presents a world upside down where mothers abuse their children, children respond with bloody revenge, and the audience is left feeling sorrier for the rapist than for the rape victim. It's a great film, but for the sake of our sense of self-worth and relative peace of mind I, for one, am happy it's the only one of its kind.

2. What is your favorite coming of age movie and why?

Lilia Cuntapay, Pangarap ng Puso

Easy--Mario O'Hara's Pangarap ng Puso (Demons, 2000). About a pair of children who grow up near the Negros' enchanted rain forests, fall in love, and are pulled into the tumultuous currents of history. Their growth can be seen in the evolving ways in which the two lovers view the magical creatures that dance about them--as a child's metaphor for the wide, unknown world; as a pubescent's metaphor for emerging sexuality; as a young adult's metaphor for the demonic impulses that drive terrorists and military fascists alike, locked in a never ending cycle of violence and revenge.

And it's more, so much more; the girl's mother (Hilda Koronel) recites Florentino Collantes' "The Gift," part of which I translated (very roughly):

Our love is like the heaven and earth
like the union of mountain and sea.
Too close together to be clearly seen
drinking bitter tears.
I remember my lifelong love
and how he lay ailing
and how I said that if he ever died
I would quickly follow

The daughter would inherit this love of poetry as she grows up. But the times being as troubled as they are, she is drawn to darker, more unsettling fare, such as Amado Hernandez's fiery lines about political prisoners (again, very roughly translated): 

Bright as lightning the guardian’s eye 
on this locked and forbidding gate; 
the convict in the next cell howls 
an animal trapped in a cave. 

Each day passes like a chain dragged 
along the floor by bloody feet 
each night is a mourning shroud draped 
on my place of entombment. 

Sometimes someone's furtive feet pass, 
clink of shackles marking passage; 
the sallow sun blinks, reveals 
countless wraiths spewing from the dark. 

Sometimes the night's peace is shattered 
by alarm--an escape!--gunfire; 
sometimes the old church bell tolls 
and in the courtyard someone dies--

The girl grows up, faces her demons, conquers them (but not entirely; as we shall see in the film, not entirely); she becomes involved in the region's violent politics, though not as deeply as her childhood sweetheart, who has a bounty worth thousands of pesos on his head. Her speeches are admirably progressive, but--in what I find to be a curious reaction to the young man's rebellion, her poetry is more personal than radical (these lines written not by a famous Filipino poet, but by O'Hara's niece--again, a rough and probably incompetent translation):

At the graveside of childhood
in this tract of red-stained and fetid soil
the dying is done.
The final breath was deep
filled with purpose
because the heavens do not mourn a man
and begrudge tears to a garden reserved
for standing, stagnating saints.
Orphans begging by the tombstones of cemeteries.
But the dead understand.
Beneath their burial and putrefaction
is mourning and begging.

Remarkable coming from a young woman--but not her best; her best are recited towards the end of the film, and they are heartbreaking: the story of two lives, captured in a handful of words.

I was asked once, after a screening of this film (by the late Nika Bohinc, if I remember right!), why would children be frightened of the spirits of the forest when all they have known is innocence and joy? I had an answer then, a fairly good one I thought, but having mulled it over, I feel this is how I should have answered: that what children know is so very little compared to what they can see going on about them, and that even with their handful of knowledge (or, rather, because of it--what was Socrates' definition of a truly wise man?) they can sense danger and darkness beyond their small, secure circle. Children can sense, and see, and in this way know (even if they are not sure of the particulars); thus equipped, and not incapable of imagination, they can fear. When they grow up into flawed adults (a budding poetess and crusader, a feared rebel killer), their knowledge increases and the width of their circle widens; but the darkness is never completely dispelled, and the fear never really goes away.

(I suppose I have to do this: I tag girish, The Little Round-Headed Boy, and, uh, Nathaniel R. in The Film Experience)

Monday, November 13, 2006

L'armée des ombres (Army of Shadows, Jean-Pierre Melville) 1969)

I'm amazed I was able to see Jean-Pierre Melville's L'armée des ombres (Army of Shadows, 1969) (long story; suffice to say someone made a last-minute call and allowed me to take the thirty-minute drive in time to catch the very last screening of a weeklong commercial run) and even more amazed--considering that I've already seen it some five or more years ago--to find myself coming out of the theater fairly shaken.

It's a great film, not just because it's a great thriller but because it shows, in incredibly painstaking detail, the increasingly claustrophobic state of mind the film's heroes endure, the vast noose tightening gradually on their collective necks. The pressure on these handful of men and women is enormous--they carry out formidable organizational challenges (monitoring Nazi movements; organizing secret landings and parachute drops; getting downed Allied pilots out of France) under great difficulty and incredible danger (the repair of a faulty radio is a big issue--you can't just send it to a shop). And the slightest slip can be fatal; keeping a picture of your daughter in your wallet can have tremendous consequences. At the same time the Allies never give them enough guns to work with (though they're only too happy to provide the guerillas with more radio transmitters, as if talk was what's really needed (in a Melville film?)). Even the simple act of crossing the channel into England is an elaborate ordeal--the trip starts by rowboat in the dead of night and continues via submarine; the return is via a nighttime parachute drop, flown through anti-aircraft barrage.

Melville ratchets up the suspense with his elegantly spare camera style, unobstrusive yet in many ways adversarial to his characters' objectives and desires. Two men under arrest sit in a waiting room; the camera swings around from beside them to just above and behind the Nazi guard's head, as if measuring the distance between the two captives and freedom (or death). Resistance fighters hatch a dangerous plan to spirit a captured comrade away by disguising themselves as a nurse and her two officer escorts; when the plan fails the camera lingers on their faces, as if daring them to betray even the slightest hint of remorse (no dice; the nurse (a magnificent Simone Signoret) snaps out a brisk "Heil Hitler!" salute and turns away). A man and his fellow captives are led into a vast tunnel, with a machine gun at one end and a wall at the other (make it to that wall, and you win the dubious privilege of staying alive long enough to be included in the next batch of condemned); the camera follows the man's run, as if hoping to capture the moment when he drops dead.

Strangest of all is how closely Melville draws parallels between this group of brave conspirators and the taciturn gangsters he's famous for. A French Resistance fighter, apparently, struggles with much of the same challenges a criminal does--he must carry out activities while evading capture; when captured, he must make every effort to break out of prison. He must change cars while fleeing pursuit, be ruthless in eliminating stool pigeons, and--should the house next door suddenly turn out to be occupied by a family--carry out a murder in as quiet a fashion as possible.

Maybe the crucial difference  is that a gangster is in it mainly for the profit; Resistance fighters are in it because they feel it's right (the most reward they get to enjoy is the aforementioned torturously hazardous trip across the channel for a medal and a brief shopping spree in London)--not much of a difference, but Melville hangs his entire picture on it. God forbid that they talk about their motives, or about why they do it (that's why the offer of more radios is such a funny joke), but the conviction gradually seeps into you, as you watch their determinedly inexpressive faces, that these are no ordinary men--or they used to be ordinary, but their ordeal has transformed them. This cat-and-mouse chase may seem like a game, but it's one they have played for far too long, and for far too high stakes; they're past the point where they can even dare think of stopping. 


Friday, November 10, 2006

Heremias (Lav Diaz, 2006)

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Heremias (Lav Diaz, 2006) article available only until Thursday next week


Lav Diaz's "Heremias" (2006) is 540 minutes long, an hour shy of the length of "Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino" ("Evolution of a Filipino Family, 2004), presently the record holder of the title "longest single Filipino feature"--but then this picture is only part one, titled, or so I'm told, "Book 1: The Legend of the Lizard Princess." "Ebolusyon" spanned a broad canvas, featuring not just the story of two families (rice farmers in Tarlac, wood gatherers aspiring to become gold miners in the Benguet Province), but the recent history of the Philippines, as represented in a series of documentary footage, from Marcos' declaration of martial law in 1972 to the EDSA Revolt in 1986 to the massacre of the farmers on Mendiola Bridge in 1987; along the way Diaz stuffed the film full of all kinds of conceits, from film critic Gino Dormiendo playing Lino Brocka in a series of televised interviews to a plot to assassinate Brocka (?!) to a series of hilariously melodramatic radio broadcasts that the families listen to religiously, as if they were Sunday Mass. "Heremias" is radically different--it's the odyssey of one man (Ronnie Lazaro) from his village to the city and back; more, it's his journey from a state of absolute innocence to knowledge, disillusionment, guilt.

Diaz had told me once that he was interested in making a film about these people--traveling peasants who pile their covered wagons high with bits of handicrafts (rocking chairs, brooms, baby walkers, and so forth), make their painfully slow way into town, and sell their wares for remarkably low prices (you wonder: if their products are so cheap, how much did these people spend acquiring--or making--them?); here is the film he talked about, in all its implacable glory. For a time we see nothing but Heremias and his wagon, pulled by a carabao (we get to know that carabao quite well), rolling from one end of the screen to another; the road--dirt as often as asphalt, stretching past houses and hills and trees--often forms a diagonal on which the small figure and his wheeled vehicle ambles (slowly, slowly) along. At one point a typhoon rages while the wagon goes down a forest path--diagonally situated, as usual, this time from right to lower left--and we wait for the wagon to reach the path's nearer end before Diaz cuts, as he's done so often before. Suddenly a sapling falls across the way; the path is blocked; the slow and steady motion we have come to expect from so many hours' variation on this particular composition cannot be completed--cannot be fulfilled, if you will. We watch in mounting frustration as Heremias gets off the wagon, chops the sapling up, pushes it out of the way; eventually, he manages to clear the path and move the wagon forward, reaching the lower left corner of the screen; you're almost thrilled at the accomplishment.

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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Nora Aunor: actress or robot?

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Something I wrote to the Nora Aunor egroups thread, in reply to the charge that she's eccentric and inconsistent:

I understand where the wish that
Nora Aunor would be more sociable and cooperative is coming from and I sympathize; in a perfect world, we would have Nora with all her passion and volatility wrapped in a perfectly malleable package...just like a lot of actors and actresses out there with proven staying power but just not that much talent, who have careers because they do what their agents tell them to do, say what their agents tell them to say. It's a career...but is it a life worth remembering?

But...let me put it this way: how do you bottle a bolt of lightning? How do you tame an earthquake, or keep the high tide on the shore? Nora is just like any other great artist, she has this incredible talent, and with that talent flaws and foibles just like any other human being; if anything, flaws are worse in a great artist, maybe because they have this power in them that they always (but not always so successfully) have to manage, to control.

So she's eccentric and inconsistent; the way I see it, that comes from her insecurities, from the demons inside her, and I suspect so does her great talent (I'm thinking of her performances in Bona (Lino Brocka, 1980) and Bakit Bughaw ang Langit (Why is the Sky Blue? Mario O'Hara, 1981) among many others; not to mention producing such films as Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, O'Hara, 1976)). Take away the demons, and you probably take away the talent.

I'm not saying my reading of her is true, just that I suspect it is. So what do we want? An inconsistent, eccentric star actress who also happens to have given us some of the greatest performances (and films) in Philippine cinema, or a professional hack who performs like a robot? I don't know, but I personally prefer the actress to the robot.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Lino Brocka: The Heart of Philippine Cinema

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The filmmaker

I could fill this and several pages over with scenes and images, and every Filipino who loves cinema--and perhaps a few foreign film critics--would know exactly what I'm talking about: Ruel Vernal, plunging the dagger in the pig's throat in Insiang; Hilda Koronel in the same film with flat iron in hand, ready to smash it into Mona Lisa's face; Anita Linda pawing drunkenly at her long-lost American lover in "Hello Soldier;" Nora Aunor staring at a pot of boiling water while a carefree Philip Salvador sings in Bona; Bembol Roco, mouth frozen in a silent scream.

Lino Brocka was the first child of Regino Brocka and the woman for whom he left wife and family, Pilar Ortiz. When Regino died (possibly a political killing), Lino was taken to his mother's hometown in San Jose, Nueva Ecija, where he spent an unhappy period of his life. You might say many of the themes found in Brocka's films were sparked in this early moment of deprivation and loss: the scathing view of ossified small-town hierarchies (bastard children having little, if any, status); the protagonist looking in at society from the outside (even when, as in Tubog sa Ginto (Dipped in Gold, 1972), said protagonist is undercover--a business executive who is secretly gay); the simultaneously loved and hated father, or father figure; the eternal wanderer drifting through life in helpless solitude.

This life of crisis may have also sparked Brocka's tendency towards melodrama (his own life would have made an excellent Brocka film). He was an illegitimate child, and for years a closeted homosexual (he reportedly came out in 1975, after staging the play Hanggang Dito na Lamang at Maraming Salamat (Up Until Here and Thank You Very Much)); after being a model student in high school he dropped out and lived a somewhat aimless life; he eventually discovered theater, and beyond theater, filmmaking. From Cecille Guidote of PETA (Philippine Educational Theater Association) he learned how to block actors--a skill he would find invaluable on film, where an actor's position onscreen often declared his significance in the scene, and rather than move the camera to reframe the actors (increasing or decreasing said significance accordingly) he would as often have the actors move. This, of course, under the baleful eye of the film camera, ever quick to pick up any hint of artificiality or awkwardness in a scene's staging (in his best works you rarely found any).

Beyond blocking and directing the performances and often rewriting the dialogue (he wrote the screenplays of his first three films has reportedly rewritten the scripts of most of his films), Brocka didn't really spend that much time worrying about the technical side; for photography he depended on Jose Batac, on Romy Vitug, on the great Conrado 'Carding' Baltazar, or in the case of Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975, easily his best-known and most highly regarded film), on the incomparable eye of cinematographer-producer Mike de Leon; for editing he depended on Augusto Salvador or the Jarlego brothers (Ike and Edgardo). Yet these collaborators, especially the cinematographers, when working for other filmmakers (Celso Ad. Castillo, Mario O'Hara) would give us a different impression, display a different emotional palette. Brocka, despite not being so concerned with the technical aspects of filmmaking, communicated an unmistakable sensibility to the big screen--of footage shot just outside the theater then delivered, raw and bleeding, to the projector for immediate screening.

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Mario O'Hara as Berto the Leper, in Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang

It's this immediacy, this concern for documentarylike realism, this tendency of Brocka's camera to look around him (the drunken idlers in Insiang, the pious mothers in Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Weighed and Found Wanting, 1974) that marked his melodramas and enabled them to transcend their pulpy origins. Tinimbang is the story of a young man discovering his father's dirty secrets (again, that love-hate relationship between the naïve young man (the Brocka figure) and his powerful, charismatic father)) while Insiang is even simpler, about a slum girl raped by her mother's lover (since when did a Filipino film fail to depict or at the very least mention a rape?). But where in the former you're supposed to feel the young man's self-righteous anger, you come away with is an overwhelming sense of pity and tenderness for the town leper (a great performance by Mario O'Hara, who also wrote the screenplay); in the latter, instead of feeling vindication or a sense of justice fulfilled (the rape victim avenged, many times over), you feel horror--the victim has become the victimizer, and the now-hapless rapist actually makes a strong claim for our sympathy. Brocka at his very best--and it must be admitted, of the roughly sixty films he made not all of them totally escaped bathos and sentimentality--at his best stared into the melodramatic heart of the Filipino soul, and found redemption and damnation both.

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Cheesecake poster for Macho Dancer

People often consider Brocka's finest works to be the films he made in the early bloom of his career, from 1974 to 1976 (Tinimbang; Maynila sa Mga Kuko; Insiang); Angela Markado (1980) is often called Brocka's version of Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black, only transposed to the Philippines, and imbued with Brocka's trademark sense of immediacy. Essentially it's a chance for Hilda Koronel (who played the eponymous role in Insiang) to push her femme fatale character further, from surrogate murder to actual murder, and for Brocka and "Carding" Baltazar to play with light, shadow and color according to the conventions of noir--not perhaps first-tier Brocka, but it stands head and shoulders above almost any other attempts at the genre, by almost any Filipino filmmaker. Macho Dancer (1989) is to my mind somewhat better noir, a reworking of the storyline of Maynila sa Mga Kuko, where the innocent provincial boy (played by Allen Paule) arrives in Manila and, instead of looking for his lost love, takes an extended journey into the gay strip joints; more interesting than the erstwhile protagonist is the protagonist's best friend, played with understated intensity by Daniel Fernando. Fernando's character harbors two secret wounds: a sister lost to the city's prostitution rings, and a possible unrequited passion for Paule's character. Much of the film is taken up by frankly homoerotic dance numbers--including a startling number (at least in the uncensored version) where the dancers line up in a row, playing with themselves onstage--but the thread of conflict in the story (a man maybe in love with his best friend and searching for his lost sister) is strong enough to cut through the frankly exploitative footage.

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Gina Alajar and Philip Salvador in Bayan Ko

Of his later films, Bayan Ko (My Country, 1985) is arguably the most courageous. Done during the latter days of the Marcos Administration, when the dictator's hold to power was seriously weakened, it was nevertheless uncertain just how weakened that hold was--and hence considered dangerous to speak out against the regime. Brocka did, loudly and clearly, through Jose F. Lacaba's no-fat, no-nonsense, rigorously developed and brilliantly structured script, laced with only the thinnest trimmings of noir to disguise the politics from the censors (even then this film went through hell and high water for approval). Brocka, through Lacaba's inexorable sense of logic (in a way Lacaba was the voice of the early '80s) demonstrated how a man, cautious and not truly awakened politically, can still be snared by economic and social circumstance into a downward spiral of crime and violence. It would be the last great collaboration between Brocka and 'Carding' Baltazar, the latter giving the film its memorably gritty look--urban noir at its darkest (it was shot mostly at night, because Brocka was busy attending protest rallies in the daytime). It would be one of five Brocka-Lacaba collaborations, each one memorable in its own way (Jaguar (1979), with its wonderful simplicity (and Baltazar-blessed noir look); Orapronobis (Fight for Us, 1989)--perhaps the most intense of Brocka's late works, with its white-hot fury directed against an impotent, chaotic Aquino administration); of the five, Lacaba would consider Bayan Ko his personal favorite.

Fifteen years after Brocka's death (he died in a car accident, a couple of years after Orapronobis came out), the question stands: what is Brocka to Philippine cinema? His shadow as perhaps the Philippines' best-known, most loved, most respected filmmaker looms over all, and many a pretender has stepped up to take the crown--only to see it slip and dangle foolishly around the neck. Ishmael Bernal, easily the best-known Filipino filmmaker besides Brocka, has not survived him (one is tempted to say Bernal died due to the sheer pointlessness of outliving his greatest rival--but his fatal heart attack was a full five years after Brocka's passing). Of Brocka's contemporaries Lupita Aquino-Kashiwahara survives, but beyond a not-so-recent melodrama (Babae (Woman, 1997) starring Nora Aunor) remains relatively inactive; Celso Ad. Castillo continues erratically, on occasion brilliantly (his Lihim ni Madonna (Secrets of Madonna, 1997) was both an eyebrow-raiser and a jawdropper); Mike de Leon continues working in his inimitably brilliant way (his last was Bayaning Third World (Third World Hero, 200) a Jose Rizal film that proves the impossibility of making a definitive Jose Rizal film); Mario O'Hara unfussily continues to make films his own way, both realist (Babae sa Bubungang Lata (Woman on a Tin Roof, 1998); Babae sa Breakwater (Woman of the Breakwater, 2004)) and fabulist (Sisa (1998); Pangarap ng Puso (Demons, 2000)). More recent filmmakers include Jeffrey Jeturian (Pila Balde (Fetch a Pail of Water, 1999); Tuhog (Larger than Life, 2001)) who has carried on in the Brocka tradition, making realist melodramas albeit in a lighter, more comic-satiric vein (Brocka, it must be said, isn't big on humor). Lav Diaz, perhaps the best of the newcomers, has said we must move beyond Brocka (something, come to think of it, Mike De Leon and Mario O'Hara have been doing all along), and proceeded to create both realist (Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion (Criminal of Barrio Concepcion, 1998), Batang West Side (West Side Avenue, 2001)) and fantastic (Burger Boys, 1999, Hesus Rebolusyonaryo, (Jesus the Revolutionary, 2002)) cinema.

What is Brocka to Philippine cinema? Maybe the present state of the industry is the answer. Where Brocka has been forgotten (and it's sad, how thoroughly the young have forgotten him) the films made are futile attempts to mimic Hollywood formula; where Brocka is remembered filmmakers either carry on the good work, or survey what ground Brocka has not covered and forged on ahead. Either way, those who remember the man do the interesting work, those that don't imitate and ossify. And so the industry goes--grows--onwards and upwards, despite daunting odds, carrying on from the heart of Philippine cinema.