By Popular Demand Never had much use for boxoffice figures; never thought the approval of the moviegoing public was all that important, or an indicator of a film's quality, or relative lack of. Once in a while, though I find myself in the embarrassing position of agreeing with everyone else. In which case I plead pure coincidence, and point to that old adage--how does it go again? A stopped clock is right twice a day? Well, maybe not that one. But I do suspect that public opinionis smarter than the critical establishment is willing to admit. Case in point: Sam Raimi's Oz the Great and Powerful. Critics describe it as not "knowing its own mind," or "visually overcrammed, empty mega-spectacle"--which is funny, because Raimi has never been known for sticking to one genre, even in his own movies, and was never a believer in visual restraint. The man likes over-the-top comic-book action, and unlike some filmmakers I can think of who can't even do that properly, he is superb at it.
remember seeing Peque Gallaga'sOro,Plata, Mata (Gold,
Silver, Death) on the
big screen back in 1982--an impressive picture, back when our idea of
a Filipino film was Lino Brocka's social-realist melodrama Maynila
sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag
(Manila in the Claws of
Neon), or Ishmael
Bernal's multinarrative tapestry Manila
By Night. Gallaga's
epic was something else entirely: a period piece set in World War 2
full of endless tracking shots, slow motion, and (outside of the
independent films of Kidlat Tahimik, or the occasional surreal
experiment by Bernal) visual poetry for the sake of visual poetry,
never mind that it was rarely justified by the narrative.
movie followed the lives of two upper-class families in the island
province of Negros, the Ojedas and the Lorenzos. The Oro
of the title described the conditions of life at the start of the war
(extravagant parties, mansions full of servants, banquet
tables groaning heavily with food); Plata
describes the Ojedas' visit to the Lorenzo's countryside hacienda to escape the oncoming Japanese (fields
of grain, hordes of water buffalo, a rooftop observatory under the
vast constellated night sky); Mata
goes deep into the war and deep into the rain forest, where the
Lorenzos maintain an airy but relatively modest vacation lodge, and where both families take refuge for the remainder of the war
(chicken coops, hunting trips, regular swims in crystal-clear
streams). More successfully than any other Filipino filmmaker Gallaga
is able to evoke the luxury of the upper-class Negros lifestyle,
possibly because he came from that society (but is not, apparently, a card-carrying member), and paints a broad canvas full of nostalgia
and great affection, and not a little good-natured ribbing
(the Lorenzo scion Miguel (Joel Torre), when faced with the prospect of
free sex, responds with astronomical gibberish; his mother Inday (Fides Cuyugan-Asensio), when faced
with the prospect of Japanese occupation, prays desperately to her
menagerie of plaster saints).
beautifully structured, with the trajectory of the families' fate
described in the title (gold, silver, death); the characters are
fascinatingly conceived, their leisurely ways meant to be seen as too
chivalrous and impractical to survive the ordeal of wartime. In a way
the script takes a page from David O. Selznick's
superproduction--this too is an age gone with the wind. Gallaga
matches Jose Javier Reyes' ambitious script with a style appropriate
to the material: a tracking camera that glides easily, casually from one room to
another, following one guest after another, eavesdropping on one
conversation after another. The shot evokes everything from Orson
Welles' great The
to Bernardo Bertolucci's gigantic if flawed 1900
to Luchino Visconti's tremendous Il
Leopard)--and in fact
at one point the guests start a conga line, evoking the wedding
sequence in the latter film.
Gallaga's picture doesn't quite touch the heights of Il
perhaps because he hasn't developed the layers of metaphor and
symbolism found in Visconti's masterpiece. Visconti's Prince is the
last of his line, painfully conscious of the changing winds of
history and the crumbling of his own exalted class; Miguel in Oro,
Plata is barely
conscious of his own budding sexuality, much less the winds of
change. There's a poignancy to Miguel's own story, a kind of
but the problem is that Miguel's character dwindles instead of
expanding, growing more complex--when confronting sexuality he panics and turns timid
(he has to be coaxed into making love, not once but twice); faced
with opposition and violence he counters with even more violence, an
emotional excess that seems to come out of nowhere (does sexual
repression cause that much neurosis?). Miguel doesn't consider that
perhaps the opposition--embodied mainly by his mother's former
majordomo Melchor (the late Abbo dela Cruz)--may have another point of
view, may have their own justifications for doing what they do.
to perhaps the most troubling aspect of the film--Melchor is clearly
meant to represent the lower classes, and his assault on the Lorenzos
and Ojedas are meant to show us an old war irony: it's not always the
foreign invader that commits the worse abuses, but one's own
countrymen (a point Gallaga may have learned while giving a wonderful performance in an earlier Filipino war film, Mario O'Hara's Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976)). Except Melchor is not just a fellow countryman: he's also
a member of the lower classes, and expresses the resentment and anger
of the lower classes. At one point Melchor asks his son to join him,
an offer his son rejects (like Scarlett O'Hara's servants in Gone
With the Wind, the son
has the mentality of a good slave) to which Melchor replies bitterly:
“all right, be a prisoner, then.”
comes practically out of nowhere to shake the roots of the Lorenzo's
and Ojeda's deeply rooted, long-established balete
tree with a force even the Japanese could not muster; the script's
failure is to capitalize on that tremor, to show us the darker side
of upper-class Negro society as it exploited peonistic servitude to
fund its high-maintenance lifestyle. Abbo dela Cruz is an excellent
actor handicapped by an underwritten role: there are no differing
sides to his villainy, no point or justice to his rebellion other
than as an excuse to depict wartime atrocities inflicted by fellow
countrymen on each other (actually the revenge of the poor inflicted
on the rich--which makes it, of course, a fantasy). This is every
upper-class Filipino's nightmare, and is presented unambiguously as
the characters fail to grow and the narrative fails to develop
layers, the imagery does increase in beauty and complexity--Miguel,
who has finally (after an unconscionable delay) grown a pair finds
nothing will satisfy his newly found manhood save a full-blown
massacre, Wild Bunch
style; Gallaga with the help of production designer Don Escudero and
cinematographer Rody Lacap fashions a ruined-hospital nightmare of
dark hallways and twisted rubble on which to stage the final
shootout; the violence recalls Peckinpah (though without matching his
exuberant poetry) and Francis Coppola's Apocalypse
Now (the deep shadows,
the oranged light), albeit at a fraction of either filmmakers'
I've come down hard on the picture's flaws, I feel it's a needed
corrective to its burnished (and in my book somewhat inflated)
reputation, adding that there is, after all, a happy conclusion to
all this--Gallaga, I suspect, learned from the experience and
addressed his issues not just well but brilliantly in his true
Flimsy characters? Have them shut up and fuck. Simplistic narrative?
Do away with story entirely! Excessive violence and sexuality? Have
them fuck more,
then end the film with a multiple homicide!
it works--the premise (a student and a housewife conduct an affair
under the very nose of her security guard husband) and the tone of
thick sensuality (inspired by Nagisa Oshima's In
the Realm of the Senses,
though I believe Gallaga trumps Oshima here in terms of tension and
are strong political metaphors for life under the fascistic Marcos
administration. The lack of story points to the lovers' need to erase
her oppressive husband, erase the outside world, erase the very
narrative of their lives with sex, constantly aware of the
consequences should the husband ever find out (they are literally
fucking in the face of death). Oh, Gallaga has learned, all
right--instead of turning away from his appetites he faces them
head-on, and the result is one of the greatest Filipino erotic films
the meantime there's this: a masterpiece not of narrative or social
analysis perhaps, but of epic imagery, cinematography, and
production design. I have not viewed the restoration; having seen the
original in all its big-screen glory, I can't imagine the digital
version being superior, no matter how high the definition. But I'm
sure it'll look great.
Amour feels like a film Michael Haneke has been aspiring to do, a Bethlehem he has been slouching towards for years. From the pressure-cooker tactics he applied in Funny Games he has refined his technique to what we see here--two people trapped in a large apartment, struggling to survive. The style in Funny Games was severe, the story confined mostly inside a spacious vacation house with few exterior scenes, a largely unflinching (if often coyly oblique) camera peering into the different rooms with (except for one brief and startling exception of a gimmick) little comment or fuss. The style in Amour is if anything even more spare, the camera locked down for most of a scene, unwilling (unlike the one in Funny Games) to look away, the staging calling for very little camera movement or cutting and (again save for a brief sequence) even less fuss. That exception I feel is unfortunate--Haneke seems to have perfected his grindingly claustrophobic style; to indulge in fantasy no matter how inventive or restrained or even relevant (it's a metaphor for escape, or its impossibility) seems superfluous, even disruptive. The interruption lets us off the hook for a moment, relieves the oppressive atmosphere. This is a horror story, of course; think of a man torturing his captive wife to death and there's really little difference save this: the torture in my example would have gone on far longer. Haneke has finally come around to telling a story about recognizably ordinary (if affluent--that apartment is huge) people, in this case an elderly married couple; aside from the aforementioned brief flight of fantasy the whole film could be happening to your neighbors in the apartment next door. And instead of anger or sadism the driving emotion here is the eponymous one, expressed in the somehow more appropriate French. Much has been written about Emmanuel Riva's performance as Anne, the eloquent depiction of her character's gradually decaying body. I say this is not so much a solo as it is a duet--crucial is Jean-Louis Trintignant's Georges, with his intelligent, all-too-aware eyes. He knows what's happening, he knows what is to come, and the knowledge threatens to overwhelm him. Might as well note that Haneke doles out plenty of suffering for both actors--Riva sits in a bathtub naked, scrubbed vigorously by an unpleasant nurse; Trintignant huffs desperately (not to mention suspensefully and hilariously) after an intrusive pigeon. You don't know if he is only acting his arthritic limp, or his excruciating attempt to get up off the floor; you only know that it's almost too much to watch. Is the scene necessary? I think so--it shows Georges still able to care for a living creature, though you wonder if perhaps what he really wants is to twist the bird's neck (with Haneke both are possible, perhaps even inevitable) There is no escape here; no puncturing the plausibility of Haneke's scenario (unlike fellow shockmeister Lars Von Trier, whose scenarios (save in The Idiots) have almost always been implausible, and hence easy to dismiss). This is easily Haneke's most horrifying film because it says that love that isselfless and passionate and enduring is also monstrous. The film shows you (step by step, moment by moment) the how and why of its monstrosity and you can't contradict the case being made, you can only agree with it--perhaps pray it doesn't happen to you. It's Haneke's best work to date, I think; possibly Haneke's terminal work...after a film like this, what else does he have to say, really?
Unlike Amour which lends a kind of stripped-down finality to Haneke's career, Leos Carax's Holy Motors seems more like a thrown-together, extravagantly appointed photo album of all the films he's seen and all the films he's made and all the films he's likely to make--the picture hurls allusions and ideas at you like sparks off a Catherine wheel. It's brilliantly unhinged, liable to go any direction like a runaway horsecart, yet still you sense the presence of the director at the reins, maintaining the illusion of complete abandonment (or is it an illusion of complete control?).
The film can be a metaphor for any number of things: the Shakespearean notion that life is a performance we're always trying to rehearse for (but end up improvising); the conceit that higher powers (Oscar's chauffer Celine (Edith Scob, the mad doctor's disfigured daughter in Franju's Eyes Without a Face) calls a fellow driver "Ectoplasm on wheels!"--are the drivers ghosts or spirits?) manipulate our destiny; the sense that life is a neverending job from which we long to punch out.
Bits seem contradictory, if not confusing--Celine mentions that Mr. Oscar (Denis Lavant) has nine appointments, nine encounters (if you like) in which he participates, responds to or initiates, either alone or with others. I counted thirteen 'episodes,' not nine: man in 'forest;' banker; beggar woman; motion capture; Monsieur Merde and model; father and daughter; entr'acte with accordion; assassin and double; street shooting; dying old man; Jean; home; limo garage.
Celine tells him about the appointments when he's playing a banker so the first two are out;the entr'acte I take to be an entr'acte--outside the narrative; the street shooting is (or so Celine claims) an accident, and so (it's implied) is the encounter with Jean; Oscar confirms that the next appointment after the dying old man is his last, so the garage should not included, which leaves us with--what, seven episodes? Do we consider Monsieur Merde and model two episodes (first half in the cemetery, second in the sewers)? Do we include the entr'acte? Adding to the confusion, the credits have Lavant playing eleven roles (we can take out Mr. Oscar as his meta-persona and the accordion player, but do we count killer and killed?).
Kylie Minogue sings heartrendingly in a vast space that recalls Orson Welles' The Trial and the climax of Jean-Jacques Beineix's Diva, both shot in theGare d'Orsay, both filled with a dark opulence that seems to have inspired this film (her scene was actually shot in the abandoned La Samaritaine department store near the Pont-Neuf bridge, Carax having usedstore and bridge in his previousLes Amants du Pont-Neuf). Minogue calls herself Eva but her real name (as much as we can ascertain anything in this picture is real) is Jean. When the man she is to meet runs up the stairs
he calls out "Jean!"--does this signify that what happens to Jean and her partner is real and not
staged, hence Oscar's anguish?
All very mysterious; doesn't help that one has the nagging feeling Carax is chortling at all the effort being expended on unraveling his tangled web (for the record I believe Oscar's appointment list went something like this: beggar woman; motion capture; Monsieur Merde; father; entr'acte; assassin; assassinated; dying man; home). More profitable, I suspect, to simply sit back and have fun free-associating the metaphors as they flash across the screen--to sit back, in effect, and enjoy the ride.
Perhaps the closest we come to an explanation for everything (an explanation for anything?) is when Michel Piccoli--in a role Carax wanted to (ah-ha!) play himself--asks an obviously exhausted Oscar: "What makes you carry on?" Oscar's answer: "What made me start. The beauty of the act."
"Beauty?" Piccoli's Carax-like figure can't resist musing. "They say it's in the eye of the beholder." Pause. Then in a worried tone: "And if there is no beholder?"
Cinderella man Ramona Diaz's Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey is possibly everything you're afraid it's going to be: an unabashed promotional documentary about the American arena-rock band Journey; a wall-to-wall concert of '80s pop-rock ballads; a retelling of the rags-to-riches story of Arnel Pineda, arguably the most popular of recent Filipino vocalists working in America. Mind you, Diaz doesn't hide the fact that Arnel is actually the second replacement of the band's most famous vocalist, Steve Perry; nor does she hide the fact that many of the most popular songs Arnel sings were written and composed over twenty years ago. To his credit, Arnel doesn't gloss over this either; when during an autograph session he's asked point-blank about Steve Perry, he says "Without him I wouldn't be here." That awareness saves the film from falling into a vat of its own cheesiness. Arnel knows he's not doing entirely original music; he talks about it at length at one point. But he's not bitter--he is and always will be grateful for being chosen to be the band's vocalist, and he sings the songs in Perry's voice and style without a trace of irony, or self-parody. If anything, that's the film's single most unsettling image: Perry's power-belting tenor pouring out of a frail little dark-skinned Asian with flowing long hair (it's like listening to the voice of Pavarotti pour out of Pocahontas). I'd say the film wisely takes its cue from Arnel's attitude: it knows it's an instrument for the glorification of its patrons, but does its work well and refuses to act like an ingrate towards the hand that nourishes it. Along the way it manages to tell Arnel's story in some detail, from his humble beginnings as member of a fractured family eking out a living in the streets of Manila to his career as vocalist in a small-scale rock band. Diaz doesn't gloss over and Arnel doesn't hide the fact that he used drugs, and was at one point alcoholic; unlike some reformed rockers, he doesn't wear the fact on his chest like a hair shirt--perhaps Arnel's most appealing quality is his groundedness, the way he modestly admits to his failings, and casually refers to his achievements without making too much fuss either way (it's a Filipino trait that on one hand keeps slowing down his ascent up the ladder of success, on the other keeps him balanced enough to avoid prematurely falling off that ladder). The film of course ends with its eponymous song, and Diaz manages to play with some of the high-definition digital cameras and swooping crane equipment filmmakers enjoy using when creating documentaries of big-time rock bands (either playing with them or cutting in footage that uses them). Hard to begrudge her, though--like Arnel, she's only too aware of the once-in-a-lifetime chance to play with big toys; the temptation is naturally too much to resist. Is this cause for celebration? Yes, I think so; a kind of gentle applause, that someone with talent has for once landed some kind of happy ending, that Filipinos are somehow inching forward in the vast American media landscape, conquering territory any way they can. (The film will open on March 8 Friday in fifteen cities across the United States) 3.3.13