Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Laszlo Kovacs, 1933 - 2007

Laszlo Kovacs, 1933 - 2007

Again not a summation of a career, but a short tribute to one of the man's lesser-known works:

Psych-Out was on the flip side of DVD of The Trip that I assumed to be yet another Corman quickie, but it turned out to have been directed by Richard Rush, with Laszlo Kovacs as cinematographer. It was a chance to see the difference between a brilliant producer and cunning director like Corman and a real filmmaking talent like Rush; the imagery is more fluid, the colors (thanks to Kovacs) brighter, more intense. Kovacs notes in the 'making-of' documentary the use of racking focus, to link together a series of images in a single shot--you see this in the scene where a long string of beads is taken up and tangled over the furniture, stairway, everything--hallucinatory imagery with only a minimum of special effects.

Jungfrukallan (The Virgin Spring, Ingmar Bergman, 1960)

Instead of writing about Bergman's death (which I'm sure others have already done far more capably and thoroughly than I ever could), decided I'd offer up a few thoughts on one of his better-known films (please note: plot discussed in close detail)...

Jungfrukallan (The Virgin Spring, 1960) is a strange film; Bergman himself considers it an anomaly in his filmography, and barely mentions it in either of his memoirs. Most other critics dismiss it as simpleminded religious propaganda, with Bergman directing a script he didn't write (Ulla Isaksson did, from an old religious ballad).

It's a mix of the old Bergman (touches from Det Sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal, 1957), use of the high-contrast lighting characteristic of his '50s films, and a more than generous helping of Kurosawa's Rashomon dolloped on top) with hints and intimations of the new (the presence of Sven Nykvist, collaborating for the first time with Bergman as sole cinematographer (but before they have developed the bleak, shadowless light of Såsom i en spegel (Through a Glass Darkly, 1961)), the way pagan nature is in constant struggle with ascending Christianity).

But it's fascinating for all that, not the least for being a transitional film, and for being a film where Bergman teeters the razor's edge between religious faith and secular disbelief. It's also, far as I can see, his most driven film, in the sense that every detail, every gesture and expression, every word uttered is mustered to push forward and intensify a simple narrative, that of a rape and murder and consequent vengeance.

But that's surface; underneath you sense roiling undercurrents. Take the character of the foster sister Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom) contrasted with the favored daughter Karin (Birgitta Pettersson). Ingeri at first glance is miserable, unkempt, morose, swollen both with child and with a seething jealousy of Karin; Karin is beautiful, serene, innocent, charming, happy. Scratch the surface, though, and you notice that charming, innocent Karin is something of a conceited monster, able to turn her doting parents round her pretty little finger, yet too simple to realize what the hungry expressions of the goatherders surrounding her really mean. Ingeri, while envious, is grounded in reality; there's no pretension or delusion to her, she's aware of her disgraced position in life, and of the sometimes beautiful, sometimes threatening world around her, far more acutely aware of this than Karin ever was, or ever will be. One is already soiled; the other, thanks to the way Bergman presents her unclouded self-absorption, is just crying out for soiling.

It's the sign of a master at his peak (or at one of his several peaks), I think, that Bergman uses even secondary traits to amplify his effects. The rape of Karin is hardly explicit, especially in these jaded times, but there's still power to the scene, mainly because of the careful way Bergman prepares it. Her ravishing would not be so upsetting if she were merely a good and obedient child, I submit; by presenting her as a self-indulgent brat, Bergman adds a dimension of psychological plausibility that brings the character to life, makes us believe in her as a person--surely all that love and nurture poured into a youth will not make that youth a saint, but the opposite.

And it results in a more dramatic contrast, that Bergman is able to begin the film with us slightly appalled at just how spoiled Karin is, at just how much we (alongside Ingeri) badly want her pulled off her pedestal, then gradually drawing us into the position of empathizing with her when she is thrown down on the ground and brutalized. It's not a matter of blood spilled or nudity shown or bodily fluids squirted out of this or that orifice, but of strange little details--the stretch of thigh glimpsed as one goatherd mounts her, for example, shockingly erotic in its suddenness; the way her head, its expression of despair absurdly upside down, slides down along a tree trunk, like that of a helpless animal being butchered; the awful silence in which the whole thing happens; the way branches are angled and arranged, so that they look like malevolent hands surrounding her, clutching her, holding her down for our delectation.

As Karin's circumstance changes so does Ingeri's. This fallen woman, already with child and worshipping a strange god (Odin, Norse god of war), realizes that the fate she wishes upon Karin is too awful even for her to contemplate, and tries desperately to make amends. Her situation is almost as pathetic as Karin's as she watches the rape, the rock she raised in Karin's defense dropped uselessly down the bank of the stream to splash in the water (we hear the plop, but not the rock's bumpy drop). Karin, ever the child, finally learns self-pity in her too-short life; Ingeri in turn learns empathy, compassion, remorse for others, and eventually perhaps entertains the possibility of redemption.

Then there're the goatherders. They represent pagan anarchy tramping Christian piety (the candles Karin carried, on her way to church), but they're not a monolithic lot; the child (Ove Porath) in Isaksson's script was complicit with the rape (Bergman had asked her to add psychological depth to the original ballad), is on film directed by Bergman to be a relative innocent--abused by his older brothers, appalled at what he sees them do. If Karin is Christian innocence, the boy is her pagan equivalent, and if we felt sorry for Karin when she was assaulted, we feel equally sorry for the boy when he finds himself forced to enter the house of the girl they had wronged (an unbelievably stupid act only it seems to have an oddly plausible air of effrontery to it, as if the goatherds were daring Karin's parents to suss them out), eat the bread of her parents, listen to the very words of prayer she uttered before she died repeated at the dinner table. His vomiting the food offered to him is his way of rejecting his brothers' violence and hypocrisy, rejecting the foolishness of all adults, rejecting the notion that he deserves any kind of nourishment when the poor girl lies outside, stiffening in the cold ground. His death at the hands of Tore (Max Von Sydow), Karin's father, is perhaps almost as appalling, and elicits a not unsimilar pity, as Karin's.

Tore, of course, is the pagan-Christian tension personified. He's reluctant to pray, but perfectly willing to let his only daughter ride several miles through dark woods to deliver candles to a church (the very hubris of their act--that they allow her to ride with no other escort than Ingeri, who is pregnant--also implies that they, like Karin, are just crying out for punishment). When he learns of his daughter's death he rises up in an unchristian manner, prepares himself samurai-like with purification rituals and a brief wrestling match with a small birch (whipping himself with its branches afterwards), and exacts revenge. This is Old Testament righteousness: an eye for an eye, and no talk of turned cheeks; after killing the boy, though, he expresses ambivalence--he questions God's indifference and incomprehensibility (but not, significantly, his possible non-existence), and arrives at what I see as a near-existential act of penance--God may or may not care, but he'll build a church there, where his daughter died, with his bare hands.

God's response--a spring welling up from where the daughter died--I see as ambiguous as well. Is He saying with the spring "I can live with what you said; peace." Or is he mocking Tore's doubts with a miracle ("You doubt me? Here's a spring; go bottle it and sell it to tourists")? Or is it pagan nature (the same nature Bergman later in his career held in such high regard), responding to Tore's request for forgiveness with a sign of hope and renewal? A simple religious ballad, turned, or so critics of the time thought, into a simple religious film (it was a flop in secular Sweden and skeptical France, but a huge hit in the more religious United States--where it won Bergman an Oscar for Best Foreign Film). Not all that simple, I say (Oscar statue notwithstanding); I think there is something bubbling up from underneath.

Postscript: and like some bleak plot twist straight out of a Bergman (or this director's, or would it be more like Bunuel?) film, Michelangelo Antonioni dies. Have not had the opportunity to write anything substantial on the man, unfortunately, but films like Blow Up (1966) and Il Deserto rosso (The Red Desert, 1964) remain unforgettably hallucinatory memories, and L'Avventura (1960, made the same year as this Bergman film) remains one of the saddest, most moving summations of our age I've ever seen.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Planet Terror (Robert Rodriguez, 2007)

Planet Terror (Robert Rodriguez, 2007)


Robert Rodriguez's latest feature "Planet Terror" (2007) is his attempt to re-create the feel of his (and Tarantino's) much-beloved grindhouse days, when moldering movie theaters with ripped seat cushions and unsavory smells might show a double feature of, oh, say, Gerry de Leon's "Women in Cages" (1971) with Jesus Franco's "Vampyros Lesbos" (same year) (I'm not sure they ever actually did such a pairing, but it makes a nice progression). In American theaters, Rodriguez's movie was paired with Quentin Tarantino's own homage to exploitation films ("Death Proof")), stitched together with a slew of fake trailers (Edgar Wright's "Don't," Eli Roth's "Thanksgiving," and--funniest of all, at least on paper--Rob Zombie's "Werewolf Women of the SS") and released as a three-hour extravaganza, the closest you'll ever get to the sights, sounds, feel and smells of a second-run theater in the glory days of the '70s and '80s.

The movie didn't do well in the United States; apparently audiences liked not smelling urine in the aisles, liked knowing that the stickiness in the seats is caramel and not something altogether less savory; I also suspect that the audiences preferred their movies to clock in at a shorter running time (the latest "Pirates of the Caribbean" and the recent "Transformers" were pushing it, but didn't push too hard). Many didn't get the joke--people were leaving after the end of "Planet Terror" until theater managers had staff posted at the exits reminding people that a second feature was still to come. Splitting the film into two discrete features for Asian--and Filipino--audiences is probably a smart move; we're not familiar with the double-feature concept, and I doubt if we'd sit still for anything longer than two and a half hours.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Indio Nacional (Raya Martin, 2005)

A short film on being Filipino

Raya Martin's Maicling Pelicula Nang Ysang Indio Nacional (O Ang Mahabang Kalungkutan ng Katagalugan) (A Short Film About the Indio Nacional (Or the Prolonged Sorrow of the Filipinos, 2005) is, on its most obvious level, a prolonged exercise in imagination: what if some artist had a movie camera (invented only the year before) and used it during the Philippine Revolution of 1896? The result may not be unlike this--silent images, accompanied by a tinkling, sometimes ominously booming, piano; disjointed vignettes on ordinary life (a boy walking down a dirt road; the same boy sitting on a sidewalk) inserted between dramatic footage of momentous events (the Katipuneros (rebels) tossing a friar into the water; townsfolk running from some calamity).

On a deeper level it's the story of a man (Bodjie Pascua) disturbed from his sleep by a restless wife, asking for a story. The man, sitting up, tells her (and us) the unsettling tale of a boy who encounters an old man with a heavy bundle. The old man, he explains, is the Philippines, the bundle frauds and poisoners; unexplained but implied is the possibility that the boy is the man himself, once upon a time. This introductory segment of man and wife is shot in color, with sound recording capturing the chirp of crickets, the barking of dogs, the ambient sound of a still, vast night; when the rest of the film unfolds it's in silent black-and-white, much like a dream or memory. The man's story--in fact, the entire introduction--acts as a kind of preamble: the woman lies in bed, unable to sleep, obviously unhappy or at least dissatisfied. The story is clearly allegorical--the man himself explains what the figures in the story mean--yet at the same time the intensity with which he narrates the story implies that it has a powerful emotional resonance for him. Martin, in using color and silent black-and-white sequences, in having allegories intensely narrated, seems to be suggesting that the film is both a personal and racial memory; a dream--or nightmare--that the man shares with all Filipinos aware of their history.

Beyond (or below) even that level, the film is Martin's way of retelling a crucial point in Philippine history (the end of four hundred years of Spanish rule, and the beginning of over a hundred years of cultural imperialism) through myths, memories, and a richly allusive storytelling style that draws as much from the Lumiere Brothers, D.W. Griffith, Luis Bunuel, Raymond Red, Kidlat Tahimik as it does from Philippine history, mythology and the novels of Jose Rizal. It's almost too rich a brew, intolerable if it wasn't leavened by a wonderful sense of wit: children look up in the sky at a solar eclipse, mouths agape (are they moaning something, perhaps even singing?)--Martin cuts to a crudely animated sequence where a smirking moon covers an indignant sun; later one of the youths watching the eclipse, now a young man lying in his hut, looks down at his crotch. The sun rises from between his knees, and gives him a wink.

The silent-film segments--three in all--carry their own freight of meaning. The childhood scenes recall in part the willful goofiness of youth (a group of children suddenly deciding to wait for a solar eclipse), in part the marked outcast status of being parentless (the boy is raised by his wizened grandmother and roundly abused by both fellow children and the parish priest). When the boy grows up into a young man, he joins the only game in town, of course--rebellion--only he seems to have difficulty just getting out of bed, much less finding the will to rebel.

The third segment is the most puzzling of all, in that it focuses on a troupe of actors, one of them playing the Filipino mythological figure Bernardo Carpio, a giant trapped between two mountains (he's been struggling ever since, and earthquakes are the result of his frequent attempts to free himself). In Rizal's novel El Filibusterismo (The Filibuster), it's said that when Carpio is finally freed he will lead the Filipinos to revolt against the Spaniards; the revolt begins, and the actor runs around freely. When asked what he'll do with his freedom, he doesn't answer--only stomps around some more.

It's the most perversely casual and offhand depiction of revolution I've ever seen this side of Kidlat Tahimik (possibly it outdoes Tahimik in its offhandedness), and only too apt; when finally granted freedom (by the Americans, who after the Spaniards ruled for forty-plus more years), the Philippines could think of little else to do but squander what financial, educational and physical capital it had either been given or already possessed until circumstances forced upon it the arrival of a new tyranny, that of the Marcoses, who would rule the islands for another twenty years. The film comes full circle, and we remember the film's true ending--the man and his wife, in that little hut, telling each other stories to comfort themselves against the vast, dark night.

Martin is a satirist, allegorist, poet, fabulist, and filmmaker--you can see his eye in images like the boy as sacristan, opening the church doors to a blinding flood of sunlight; you can see it in the way he'll stretch a shot out almost to the point of pointlessness (a woman on a sleeping mat, staring into space), to evoke a sense of intense and inchoate dissatisfaction. He'll use music to drum up a sense of drama, evoke intensity of feeling, and sashay away from the scene of action with witty insouciance. If, say, fellow Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz paints on a lengthy canvas, taking on broad subjects in a grave and unblinking manner, and John Torres creates paranoid scenarios and intense confessionals out of found footage, Martin it seems has found an altogether different angle of attack: playful, oblique, yet sharp enough to draw blood when it suits his purposes (I'm thinking of the friars and their statues, and, harrowingly (albeit in a quiet way), of the children in the town plaza, the parents kneeling over them, weeping). I'm only too pleased to welcome yet another major new voice in the field of Philippine cinema.

First published in Cinemaya Magazine, Vol. 1, Issue 3, in 2006

Friday, July 20, 2007

Dr. Who, Season 2: The Girl in the Fireplace

Dr. Who: Season 2 discs (belatedly available on Netflix), and the standout episode has to be this one, a tale of growing affection between an 18th century French mistress and a whatever century Time Lord, three thousand years and two and a half galaxies apart, linked together by (that cliche symbol of passion!) a burning fireplace.

It's also television writer Steven Moffat's contribution to the David Tennant season, after his oh-so-memorable pair of scripts for Christopher Eccleston (The Empty Child, and The Doctor Dances, 2005, both of which won that year's Hugo Award for Dramatic Presentation, Short Form), and it's one step in a carefully prepared story arc that ends with a once-in-for-all determination of the fate of Rose Tyler, the Doctor's companion for two (2005-2006) seasons.

That fate's been a long time coming. In Season 1's The Parting of Ways Rose learns just how much the Doctor means to her, how traumatic separation--particularly when one believes it's permanent--can be, and how that peculiar ability of the Doctor to regenerate (to in effect replace the actor playing the old Doctor (Eccleston, who left the show) with a new one (Tennant)) can turn all notions of the man upside-down.

In School Reunion Rose meets Sarah Jane Smith (the more-beautiful-than-ever Elisabeth Sladen) and discovers the grim fate of many of the Doctors' companions--that they often get left behind, or worse, abandoned. The Doctor's excuse is a valid one...more or less ("You can spend the rest of your life with me, but I can't spend the rest of mine with you. I have to live on, alone. That's the curse of the Timelords.") but Sarah Jane has a point: the Doctor could at least have said goodbye. Rose, in effect, has been given notice.

The Girl in the Fireplace presents a somewhat different case to Rose: what if the Doctor meets not a former companion--a long-ago, much-beloved memory--but a woman he cares for now, more than her, possibly? Moffat sketches an interesting portrait of the kind of girl that might catch the Doctor's attention: intelligent (of course); beautiful (naturally--with all of time and space to explore he needn't settle for anything less); famous (funny, for all his democratic instincts--picking up a shopgirl for a companion, for example--the Doctor still can't resist the allure of celebrities ("Cleopatra!" "He mentioned her only once!" "He called her Cleo!")). But more than beauty and status, it's possibly the nature of the girl's personality--straightforward, intuitive, perceptive--that the Doctor finds so enchanting.

More, Reinnette Poisson (a.k.a. Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV) is so damned aggressive (it helps, I suppose, that the Doctor's been watching over her since she was seven), and as we learn in this episode that's possibly the crucial quality needed to capture the Doctor's heart. Tennant's Doctor has an elusive charm similar to Cary Grant's: more than good looks it's the reserve that draws women to him. He's always the gentleman, ready with a quick compliment, but never aggressive, never threatening; women find him funny, find themselves intrigued by him, but before they realize they actually have to rise up and do anything about it he's gone, lost to the vast reaches of time and space in his police box ("Does he still stroke bits of the TARDIS?" Sarah Jane asks Rose; "Yeah, yeah, he does!" Rose responds, laughing. "I’m like, 'do you two want to be alone?'").

Rose and Sarah Jane are one of a handful of women able to come out and ask point-blank to come along; Reinette, however, is possibly the only one to reach out and actually grab the Doctor, hold him down long enough for a good, long hard kiss (you can sense all the males all over Britain, all the viewers of the Sci Fi channel, and all belated viewers of the DVD--from sixty to six years old--catch their collective breaths at that kiss). More rewarding than the stolen buss, however, is the mind-meld the Doctor has with Reinette (he's trying to find out why a collection of malevolent clockwork robots are literally after her head). He learns much about her, opening a doorway into her mind, but as Reinette points out, a door opens both ways--one can step out as easily as another can step in. No one's ever thought about it, I suppose, not for the nine hundred plus years the Doctor has been wandering; Reinette does and, interestingly, without much thought or effort (add 'impulsive' to her list of character flaws (or virtues, if you will)). The Doctor, bewildered and not a little delighted, asks "how did you do that?" Silly git--anyone could probably have done it all the time (he admits he doesn't mind-meld often, and most subjects are probably too intimidated by the experience); it just needed someone with the effrontery to go ahead and try.

I'd go on to say The Girl in the Fireplace is essentially a love story, and a heartbreaker (no spoiler here, surely--there are no 18th century courtesans accompanying the Doctor in succeeding episodes (though Tennant (at least I remember it was him) in the video commentary suggests that Reinette, if pulled aboard the TARDIS, would have ended up pairing with one of the next episodes' Cybermen (Rise of the Cybermen)). If the story is at all moving, that's because Reinette and the Doctor spend so little time together, just quick clinches and stolen kisses as the Doctor emerges from behind swinging glass and revolving fireplaces (shades of Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night) to present himself to Ms. Poisson, yet manage to learn a great deal about each other ("Your name," she whispers; "it's more than just a secret--" leaving us wondering "what the hell--?"). Love on the fly, on the run, past spinning stone fireplaces, with a horde of sinister clockwork figures after you threatening to cut it all short--that's the kind of life one can expect, loving a Time Lord; or, as Reinette so memorably puts it "The Doctor is worth the monsters."

Earlier I mentioned that tired old cliche, the burning fireplace as a symbol of love and passion. By episode's end the fire is put out, the cliche drained of all attendant cheesiness, the image of a girl looking through the flames given a new and powerful meaning. Love and passion--and loss and tenderness--indeed.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Five Blogs That Make You

In response to being tagged by The Self-Styled Siren, Gibbs Cadiz, and Last Night With Riviera--five blogs that make me think:


1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think,

2. Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme,
3. Optional: Proudly display the 'Thinking Blogger Award' with a link to the post that you wrote (here is an alternative
silver version if gold doesn't fit your blog).

That was that! Please, remember to tag blogs with real merits, i.e. relative content, and above all - blogs that really get you thinking! It is the first time I am starting something with my blog so I hope it doesn't come back to haunt me.

(Well, leaving out the "duh!" factor--blogs so essential (if you're at all interested in what I find interesting) that you have to include them: Chicago Reader blog (mainly for Jonathan Rosenbaum); Dave Kehr; girish (for practically being at the center of where it's at, filmwise) ; Observations on Film Art (David Bordwell).

Then there are the blogs that add enough color and flavor to the blogverse that I'd definitely miss not having them around to dip in, like a jarful of Halloween treats: Conversations with Ghibli (for the links and for sincerely detailed discussion of all things Ghibli); Elusive Lucidity; The Evening Class; Like Anna Karina's Sweater (partly for the weekly photo quizzes which at times can be fiendishly difficult); Quiet Bubble; Strictly Film School; the Shamus' (aka The Little Round-Headed Boy) Bad for the Glass; and The House Next Door (mainly for the scrappy commentaries in response to the articles), among many others I've probably forgotten or overlooked.

It's a big world out there. To add to the confusion, here are five (okay, six, and two of them have little if any relation to cinema--but I've never been one to follow rules exactly) I'd personally like to spotlight:

1. concentrated nonsense.

Alexis Tioseco's arguably the most intelligent and film-literate film critic residing in the Philippines at the moment; his is one of the rare blogs that paid tribute to the passing of both Edward Yang and Joey Gosiengfiao and keeps tabs on what a Thai film critic has to say about Lav Diaz's Heremias (yes, these links go to his old blog. His new blog can be found in the link above). He also runs Criticine, which I believe is one of the most important websites on Southeast Asian cinema (well, I have a few articles there too so I'm hardly objective--but I stand by my statement).

And sometimes it isn't only about films, or even about ideas. Chris Hall mentioned this site in his blog (not active right now, for some reason), and I've been reading it ever since. Not just for the sex (though yes, that's a good part of why I read it); it's the casual, fluid recording of thoughts, feelings, likes and dislikes--by turns intimate and thoughtful and goofy--of a sexually and emotionally aware young woman. Not a sophisticated prose stylist, much less a literate one far as I can tell, but her voice is so distinctly hers I'm fascinated anyway. Like lying in bed right after lovemaking, listening to a modern-day Scheherazade recount her thousand and one days and nights to you, day after day, night after night. Narcissistic, yes; fascinating--that, too, I submit.

3. The Phil Nugent Experience

I've known the guy for somewhere up to seven years (I think), and never even seen his face. We could walk past each other on the streets of New York and never recognize each other, but let me read one paragraph of his distinct voice on paper (or screen, or whatever) and I suspect I will recognize it immediately. Strange situation.

What isn't strange is how compulsively I can toss down his blog posts, like peanuts. They're either sharp political rants (like this takedown of The New York Times), or intense bits of film criticism (like this assessment of Herzog's Rescue Dawn), or simply hilarious humor pieces (like this imagining of what it must be like to listen to President Bush seek advice).

4. Piling-Piling Pelikula (rough translation: Cream-of-the-crop cinema)

Dodo Dayao's thoughts on films usually come in short, paragraph-length increments--which doesn't necessarily mean they're short on thinking, or insight. He's written about everything from Jean-Pierre Melville to The Transformers to Lav Diaz's Hesus Rebolusyunaryo (Jesus the Revolutionary) and done so with a laser-sharp prose and perceptive mind.

5. Pinoy Penman

Jose 'Butch' Dalisay is a wonderful fiction writer, a memorable dramatist (I remember helping stage his play Pagsabog ng Liwanag (rough translation: Burst of Dawn) years ago, back in college), a very good scriptwriter (the late Filipino film critic Augustin Sotto once cited Ina Ka ng Anak Mo (You're the Mother of Your Child, which Butch wrote) as his favorite Lino Brocka film) in roughly that order--and I've barely scratched his resume.

Once in a blue moon he'll write about films, but mostly he'll do a gem of an article, like this one on written tributes to the city of Manila.

6. Sari-Saring Sineng Pinoy (All Kinds of Filipino Films)

If you ever wondered what sites I visit to learn more about Filipino films, this is one of em. Jojo de Vera is a diehard Noranian and avid film enthusiast who has seen more 70s and 80s era Filipino films (and remembers more details about them) than anyone I know; he also singlehandedly discovered the one and only existing copy of Lino Brocka's first significant gay film Tubog sa Ginto (Dipped in Gold, 1972), the discovery and content of which I briefly discuss (begging your indulgence, it's a few paragraphs in the middle of a very long post; that said, I like to think it's a fairly interesting long post).

The blog is written entirely in Tagalog, which is a pity, but if you want an essential site on Philippine cinema, I think this comes closest to being it.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Live Free or Die Hard (Len Wiseman, 2007)

Live Free or Die Hard (Len Wiseman, 2007)


Never been a big fan of the "Die Hard" movies--well, Alan Rickman in the first made for a memorably witty villain, the outrageous escapes and climactic explosions in the second outstripped the first (at the expense of the first's token attempts at realism, of course), New York City was put to good use in the third (which also had this wonderful idea--fairly well realized--about bombs with riddle-activated detonators)--but no, not a big fan. They're loud, they're obvious, and once in a while they allow the action to grind to a halt while the main character--one John McClane, ostensibly of the NYPD but with training that seems more Delta Force than police academy--grouses about how lousy life and the police department has treated him.

This fourth installment is pretty much more of the same. Willis seems to want to prove that at fifty-two he can still cut it as an action hero when this could have been a wonderful opportunity to show a fifty-two-year-old man cutting it as an action hero--that's what made Sylvester Stallone's "Rocky Balboa" partway affecting, as half of an effective drama on advancing age (the second half being an old (and not in a good way) retread of the Rocky clichés). So: no blood pressure pill jokes, no constipation jokes, no Viagra jokes; maybe one or two lukewarm jabs at McClane's taste in music, but not even a hint or suggestion that maybe the knees aren't bending as readily as before, the ticker beating as steadily as before, or that nervy trigger finger squeezing perhaps a touch slower than before--no siree. The filmmakers have always been proud to present a human-sized protagonist, able to feel pain and not a little suffering, but this guy shrugs off shrapnel and gunshot wounds like water off a duck's back (as Clark Kent might put it when shot with a .38 revolver: "Huh?").

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Eight little things

I've been tagged by Walter at Quiet Bubble and Bob at Forward to Yesterday for a meme about eight things about me people (online, I assume) don't know. Rules are as follows:

I have to post these rules before I give you the facts

I have to start with eight random facts/habits about myself

People who are tagged write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules

At the end of this post, I need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names. Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged, and to read your blog.

Coming up with things people don't know isn't the problem, actually; it's stopping at eight.

But anyway:

1) I'm Roman Catholic. Well, I grew up Roman Catholic, then lost my faith (don't ask) for some, oh, eleven years. Recently got provoked into believing again in the face of burgeoning Christina extremism (not so much that they converted me back into Christianity, as they're so fucking annoying I backed into my Catholicism out of sheer need to freak them out--Christian wingnuts, it seems are almost as suspicious of Catholics as they are of Muslims). Less than noble motives, but it's been such a comfortable fit since I wonder why I ever left.

Not that I agree with the church on everything. They have a neanderthal policy towards homosexuals, and while I personally think abortion is a sad and often avoidable act, with often grevious consequences towards the mother, I don't think the government has a duty to force a woman not to go through with it (Guiliani has a similar stance, I know--what can I say? Man knows how to steal from the best). Plus I think Ratzinger is an inept dolt.

2) I'm left handed. Yep, I'm sinister, sinistra, siniestra, gauche, balfacan, canhoto, cack-handed, what-have-you. We southpaws are supposedly more creative--well, you be the judge.

3) I hate clothes. More, I hate shopping for clothes; I hate it that you have to compare prices, hate it that you're suppose to buy different textiles of different textures, and match them not just to different colors, but also to the weather. I hate it that most clothing stores don't have chairs to sit on (which is why shoe stores are marginally better--you can at least sit. My problem with them is that there's no good reading material onhand to amuse you, unless you're desperate enough to pick up a shoebox). I'm one of the few peole I know who's a fan of Altman's Pret-a-Porter; if it's a stupid, pointless film with plenty of mean caricatures (and I only halfway agree with that--I do love the ending)--I think it's the kind of film the fashion industry deserves. I'd rather walk around naked too, but I'm afraid of being arrested.

4) I nearly died once. Was in a religious drama where I played a demon, and the production went on tour of cities in the Philippines. In one city the theater was on the fourth floor; I had the crazy idea that I'd make my demonic entrance through a window. I looked out, and the ledge was some six inches wide. I needed some kind of safety device, I thought, so I tied a rope on the window sill.

Fifteen minutes before my entrance, I climbed out the window holding on to the rope. When I was outside, I pulled on the rope and it snapped; I lost my balance and fell four stories. I survived (of course), but broke several teeth and had at least one dislocation. Haven't been the same since, physically speaking (not that I was a jocky hunk before the accident).

5) I've had not one, but two freak car accidents. The first one was in Makati, when I was tied up in a traffic jam outside a nightclub. Ahead of me, someone in a van was arguing with someone on the street--the club's doorman, I assumed. I heard three shots; I decided to make a u-turn and head back the way I came. I was two cars away from the intersection, waiting for the green light when this huge collision lifted the rear of my car up in the air. When I look back, the van at the nightclub had rearended my vehicle; the van reversed, roared forward again this time swerving to the right, climbed up to the sidewalk, and ground itself to a halt against a building wall.

I later parked and walked back to the shooting site, and asked a few questions. Turns out the man who drove the van was dead, shot several times through the head. The van was still there, front wheels on the sidewalk, a thick pool of blood with bits of--something--by the driver's door.

The second accident happened when I was driving home one day. The road rose uphill, and I was making my way up the incline when this car suddenly cut across me. I braked, waiting for it to stop, but it didn't; it just mashed my right headlight, and crashed into a parked car to my right. When we (meaning everyone who got hit) looked inside, the car was empty; no one was driving it.

Turns out the car's owner had left the car on parking brake, the brake had given way, and the car had rolled merrily downhill till it plowed through three vehicles. Thankfully no one was hurt, but you can imagine what it felt like, being hit by a driverless car.

6) My dormitory roommate once held a knife to my throat. He was the nicest, most easygoing guy you can imagine, but he drank too much, and he filled the shoe closet with beer bottles (we once carted them all down to the nearest Kroger's, and the total deposite money came to sixty dollars).

One night he seemed upset; I asked him what was the matter. He told me that he'd had news from his hometown in Madras that his entire family had been killed in a bus accident; they had gone out on a family outing and the bus had crashed--not an entirely uncommon occurence in India; I'd read news reports about similar accidents there.

He went back into his own room, and for hours I heard him pacing; at one point I walked into his room and he was standing on his chair, trying to fix a rope to the ceiling lamp; I backed out of the room quick. I keep listening in, wondering what he was going to do, when he called me inside, and asked for sleeping pills. I said I didn't have any; he insisted. Third time I refused him, he pulled out this serrated knife and held it to my throat. Strangely enough, I wasn't scared; I simply pushed down the hand and said "don't be stupid," and left the room.

I could still hear him pacing inside. The incident had a delayed effect on me, or I felt I didn't want to be responsible for what happened next, so I took all the kitchen knives out of the drawers and hid them, then left the apartment to sleep somewhere else (the bedroom doors had no lock).

When I came in the next morning, he acted as if nothing had happened. Word had gone around campus about his family though, and a collection had been made to help him buy a ticket to go home. I went into his room, fished out a phone bill, and called Madras. Turns out his family was just fine.

Never told him what I found out, or told anyone else about it. I never found out why he did it, or what he did with the money (which came up to several hundred dollars, I heard).

7) One of my ex-girlfriends used to model. She's no ditz, though--she's one of the few people I know that I know is smarter than I am (her IQ she once told me (and I believe her) is 158). That was a short and sweet relationship that ended rather badly (basically because I was in Michigan and she was in New York).

Met her again recently, in New York, and we talked a little over coffee. She's gone into theater, has done voiceovers, even has a small part in a daytime soap.

One bit of advice I gave her--try out for Filipino-American films. There are more of them nowadays, she's perfect for the part, and some of them (Lav Diaz, Sari Dalena, Keith Sicat, Neill Dela Llana, Ian Gamazon) are some of the most interesting filmmakers around. It's hard to be remembered, I argued, acting for theater, now more than ever; probably even worse for voiceovers or for modelling (about which I admitted to her I knew next to nothing). With film all you need is one good part, in one good film, and you're immortal.

8) My other ex-girlfriend wrote poetry. Good stuff, too, or so I thought (and a few people thought enough of them to publish them back in Manila). Another sweet relationship that ended badly (basically, I took her for granted).

I'll say one more thing about it--a woman (the last person I expect to know anything about it) walked up to me while I was busy writing a film article and asked me about her. "I heard something about the two of you," this woman said; "I heard you were something of an, well, an asshole to her."

"I was. I admit it. It was completely my fault," I said, and went back to writing. That seemed to take the woman aback, she just walked away after a while, without saying another word.

Last I heard my ex gave up poetry, which is a pity--I really thought her work was good. I believe in what I said about making that one good film, but with literature all you really need is a novel, a short story, a poem, even a just a memorable pair of verses. Unlike with my New Yorker, I haven't talked to her since.

Come to think of it, though, there's different ways of being remembered. When I last saw her, she had very short hair; turns out she had shaved her head, to prove a point. She's teaching a class of high school students, and--I don't remember why, something to do with self-image and the will to do something for the sake of principle or something (I forget the details)--but she showed up one day for class with her head shaven clean, and shocked her students (and the entire school, I'm sure).

The details are hazy, but what I felt about it wasn't; surprise, and not a little awe. She'd always been the quiet, intense type, and while I never thought she'd do anything like this, I also didn't think looking back that doing something like this was beyond her. Scary, but in a way I loved her for doing it. I suspect her students did, too.

I tag (with the proviso that they're under no obligation to do anything whatsoever with my tagging 'em) the following blogs: Brain Freeze, Conversations on Ghibli, Film Experience, Gibbs Cadiz, Tom Sutpen's If Charlie Parker was a Slugger..., Jose Dalisay's Pinoy Penman, Quark Henares' Intrigero, Sari-saring Sineng Pinoy (Different Kinds of Filipino Films).

Friday, July 06, 2007

Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967)

Transcendental discombobulation

Jacques Tati's Playtime is the comic twin brother of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, released months later. Both are unique visions involving years of work and elaborate sets (Tati literally built a small town nicknamed 'Tativille' made up of glass buildings (one of which contained a fully working escalator), roadways, a power plant, a traffic signaling system controlling it all), and both have as theme the at times antagonistic relationship between man and technology (machines and computers for Kubrick, architecture and design for Tati), and eventual human transcendence.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Edward Yang (11/6/47- 6/29/07)

I wished I saw more of his films. Didn't like Mahjong (1996); loved his two best-known works.

Here's a reprint of an old article I wrote about them:

Directed by Edward Yang

You know that you’re in for something when a filmmaker opens his film with a wedding. Movies supposedly end with weddings--it’s the happy finish they all strive for, the neat resolution to all that conflict. Weddings are such large-scale events involving so many people in a complex ritual that when a film begins with one, it sets up the anticipation that the film will deliver even more complexity, on an even larger scale. This is either the mark of a filmmaker who hasn’t the slightest idea what he’s doing or the mark of a filmmaker so supremely confident he can signal his intent to achieve greatness--and deliver on his promise, more or less.

Edward Yang’s Yi-Yi (A One and a Two 2000) is possibly one such film. It has a running time of a hundred and seventy-three minutes--nearly three hours--yet hardly feels as long. It’s an elaborate weave of several different threads involving over a dozen characters, yet after the initial confusion--which, come to think of it, doesn’t feel much different from being the new arrival at a wedding reception--the characters sort themselves out and their stories unfold swiftly to their respective ends. There’s A-Di, the blushing groom--blushing because Xiao Yan, the woman he’s marrying, is several months pregnant; there’s Yun-Yun, the woman A-Di really loves, who crashes his wedding; there’s the groom’s sister Min-Min--and her husband NJ, who during the reception runs into Sherry, his first great love; and there’s their two children--elder sister Ting-Ting, younger son Yang-Yang, the latter being cruelly teased by girls. Finally, there’s the old matriarch who sits in one corner, silently disapproving of her family’s shenanigans.

Yang uses the wedding the way a conductor does his baton, as a signal for everyone to pick up their various instruments and begin the symphony. It’s a discordant piece of art, full of shapeless melodies and random notes, yet played so softly and lightly that you don’t mind the lack of structure. It could be something you hear warbling in the background, like Muzak in an elevator--only Muzak was never so enormously complex, or compelling. Part of the magic of Yang’s film is in the way he pulls the odd vivid image or sudden bit of drama out of that warbling, like a magician plucking flowers and rabbits and coins out of the thin air, or from one’s ear; part of the magic is in how Yang, in the making of this seemingly aimless tapestry, allows certain strands to clearly emerge. NJ represents possibilities exhausted and forever lost--given the chance to renew his affair with Sherry, still he hesitates; his son Yang-Yang represents the unlimited and as yet unrealized possibilities of youth, possibilities he feels the need to share those possiblities in odd ways--by taking, for example, pictures of the back of people’s heads, to show them the other 50% of the world that they never see. A-Di represents the craven, opportunistic Chinese, always fearful of the future, always seeking signs and portents to avoid bad luck and shortcut good luck into his life (ironically his salvation lies in a totally unforeseen knick-knack he happens to pick up); Ota, the Japanese video-game designer NJ is courting for his company, represents the outsider philosopher who serenely accepts life as it is. Ting-Ting’s brush with early love involves a boy named Fatty who’s obsessed with her best friend, Lili; Ting-Ting loves Fatty who loves Lili who loves someone else…as with all love triangles, this one is inherently unstable, with no one left satisfied--a state of being Ting-Ting’s father NJ would find uncomfortably familiar.

In its last twenty minutes, Yang rolls up his sleeve and gives us five climaxes in a row, in so smooth and gentle a manner that we aren’t quite sure just what has happened. The audience is free to go home, only some don’t--they sit and blink for a few minutes, stunned, unbelieving. Perhaps the highest compliment you can pay a film is of experiencing such an intense feeling of life unfolding before your eyes the line between onscreen and offscreen life has blurred; you wonder for a moment if the film is really over, and if ordinary life has begun again. It’s a rare feeling to evoke in people--rare because it’s seldom attempted, and also because it’s difficult to do--which may be why so many have responded so strongly to the film, and why they treasure it so.

It’s instructive comparing Yi-Yi to what many consider his masterpiece, A Brighter Summer Day. The story of Yi-Yi could easily take place in any major city anywhere in the world--its themes of regret and acceptance, obsession and unrequited love, are universal enough to be understood by anyone (the probable reason why this is Yang’s first film to win commercial distribution in the United States). A Brighter Summer Day happens in a specific time and place--Taiwan, 1961, some dozen years after millions of Chinese were forced into exile on this island by the communist takeover of mainland China.

Early on, Yang thrusts you in the middle of things--adolescents milling about, the chanting of a faintly obscene childhood rhyme, a gang rumble. Through snatches of dialogue and sharply sketched scenes, Yang builds a devastating portrait of Taiwan at this point of time. The story of one man’s arrest and interrogation points out the irony of men and women fleeing to Taiwan to escape oppression, where the Taiwanese government, fearful of communist infiltrators, is just as oppressive if not more so; the scenes set in classrooms show how it isn’t just the adults--the schools are also run like prisons, with punishment meted out for the smallest offenses, and expulsion a very real possibility. The adults rarely if ever rebel; you wonder if it’s something in Chinese culture, in their reverence for authority and the aged, that makes them so passive politically. But the youths do, and Yang’s depiction of the gangs and their confrontations are horrifyingly violent, made even more unsettling by the coolly distant manner in which Yang shows us the violence.

Towards the end, Yang piles up the incidents so much that he risks melodrama; his transitions from one climax to another are shaky, not as precisely controlled as the early half of the film--or, for that matter, as the climaxes in Yi-Yi. Yi-Yi shows no such shakiness in the course of its three hour--throughout the film you feel Yang in command of his material. But Yi-Yi also doesn’t have that sense of vast forces on the move, of history captured and brought to thrilling life. “Yi-Yi” doesn’t have the sense of a filmmaker going all or nothing, risking the audience’s trust and his own credibility to play an exciting game of narrative “Chicken”--he wins in A Brighter Summer Day, but it’s not a clear victory. Overall, I tend to prefer the earlier film (this being more a personal preference than a reasoned and logically arrived-at choice). The two pictures do highlight Yang’s range and development as a filmmaker--Yi-Yi being Yang at his most assured and masterful, A Brighter Summer Day being Yang at his most ambitious, exciting, inspired.

A final note: there are critics who have compared Yang to Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu. You can see the similarities--Yang revels in commonplace concerns like Ozu and shares his narrative reticence, not to mention reluctance to give the audience easy melodramatic highlights--yet the analogy may not be entirely appropriate. Ozu’s films are, if anything, even more stringently ordinary, use simpler, even more elliptical narrative strategies than Yang does; Yang sometimes feels the need to resort to grotesqueries, like the massacre alluded to near the end of Yi-Yi (the violence in A Brighter Summer Day is better justified, a symptom of the turbulent times).

Ozu’s editing, despite what people think, is actually quite brisk--he never holds a shot longer than necessary to make his point (unlike certain shots in Yi-Yi, which tend to be long, even pretentiously so). His compositions have a lovely asymmetry to them; he doesn’t presume (or rather, he does presume) to use many other camera angles than his preferred one, that of a man sitting cross-legged on a tatami mat. Yet his visual style is so uninsistent and clear that you can for the most part ignore it, leaving you free to concentrate on the narrative.

And Ozu’s understanding of people is complete. For someone who never married or raised a family, you believe in the children, husbands, wives, girlfriends, mothers, uncles, spinsters in his films; he never strikes a false note, or makes you doubt them for a second.

Yang can be excellent at characterization, but you can’t help but feel that he’s stronger with men than with women. The adolescent males were brilliantly realized in A Brighter Summer Day but the only truly memorable female character, Ming, seems more like a Madonna-whore caricature (rather, a Madonna-disguised-as-whore caricature). In Yi-Yi, the potentially major female characters, the silent matriarch and Min-Min, are relegated to the sidelines--the matriarch suffers a convenient stroke, while Min-Min flees into spiritual retreat in the mountains for most of the film. Daughter Ting-Ting is pivotal, but her storyline is dominated by the love-obsessed Fatty, who seems more vividly realized, more full of unruly life, than Ting-Ting could ever hope to be.

Finally, Ozu’s films appear so conventional that they were never really seen as arthouse films--they had a steady and loyal audience, they consistently made money, and they never ran up to three hours (you feel Ozu would never presume on his audience that way). Yet Ozu is great, with something like fifty films devoted to the details and nuances of the Japanese family. It’s an enormous investment of time, money, effort and imagination on what one might assume is a rather limited subject matter, but watching the films themselves, you don’t see this--Ozu’s close attention, if anything, expands his subject, transforms it, makes it worthy of his masterful examination. You might say Yang needs to do his own fifty or so films before we can even begin to compare him with the likes of Ozu.

Still, Yang has his moments, and he has certainly found his own, just-as-distinct voice--somewhat more nihilistic perhaps, capable of surreal wit, of sudden bursts of violence. And he speaks more clearly to the younger generation, familiar as they are with emotional terrain Ozu with all his films never really covered--alienation, self-destructive despair, the cold regard of a dispassionate eye*. With Yi-Yi and even more with A Brighter Summer Day, Yang is yet another welcome voice to the rapidly expanding panoply of voices that is Asian cinema.

(First published in Menzone Magazine, 2001)

*On careful consideration, I suppose I'm mistaken on this--Ozu's films do have their share of such sentiments. I'm thinking, off the top of my head, of Setsuko Hara in Banshun (Late Spring, 1949): certainly she was isolating herself from the rest of society in order to care for her father; certainly the father felt despair at her leaving him; certainly Ozu's camera can at times take on a distant, even frosty aspect. I do think Ozu has difficulty speaking directly to young Japanese audiences today, and I suspect it's more a failure of the audience's imagination than Ozu's--they'd rather have their daily fix of alienation from a popular manga, or anime series (the otherwise enjoyable Death Note comes to mind)). Postscript added 5.17.08