Thursday, November 28, 2013

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

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

Timey wimey blimey

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

Friday, November 22, 2013

Twelve Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013)

(Warning: story details and plot twists explicitly discussed)

Whip it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, November 17, 2013

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

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

Land of the dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Moises Padilla Story (Gerardo de Leon, 1961)

Thanks to the website Video 48 for the photographs

The passion of the Christ figure

Gerardo De Leon’s The Moises Padilla Story--about an aspiring Negros Occidental mayoral candidate (Leopoldo Salcedo) tortured and killed during election season (a hazard common in Philippine politics, with the violence continuing in Negros even today)--was an unabashed quickie propaganda flick said to have been made on behalf of President Carlos P. Garcia for his re-election run (didn't work--he lost to Diosdado Macapagal). One man’s propaganda, though, may be another’s cinematic near-masterpiece; De Leon’s vivid direction--plus the film’s bullet momentum and intense acting--manages to land this one near the top of his considerable oeuvre.

De Leon keeps a firm rein on Salcedo’s tendency to act larger-than-life; his Padilla is a recognizable human being, vulnerable and charming. The filmmaker turns Salcedo’s rugged handsomeness (not for nothing was he nicknamed The Great Profile) into a heroic icon, and understands that icons achieve full nobility, full grandeur when desecrated--when they are spattered in their own blood. De Leon spatters plenty in Moises: the beating and whipping of Padilla may well be the longest, most intense torture sequence ever put into a Filipino film, a thirteen-stationed Passion of the Christ with (if anything) even worse mutilations and sadism, redeemed by the cool, distant, faintly Fordian beauty of De Leon's visual style.

Padilla may be the Christ figure, but the film's truly interesting performance belongs to its Judas, its Bob Ford--to former Philippine President Joseph Ejercito Estrada, who is both chief of the local police and Padilla’s best friend, and who is ordered to both capture Padilla and supervise his extensive and ultimately fatal excruciation. Estrada--who never quite impressed me as an actor--delivers here with a brooding intensity worthy of James Dean, and injects the pretty much straightforward narrative with a rich dose of anguished ambivalence that elevates the film above similar exercises of sadism (i.e. Gibson's aforementioned snuff flick). At a certain point it's actually impossible to determine who suffers more, the man being tortured or the man inflicting the torture; when by film's end he is cornered, Estrada actually looks relieved to have been caught.

It’s an elaborate and ironic joke on actor, film, and filmmaker: a scandalous killing practically ended Estrada’s career way back when; no producer would touch him, until De Leon asked for him in Moises Padilla with only one condition--that Estrada play the villain. The former president comes through with a performance of uncharacteristic complexity and sensitivity bordering on the miraculous; if only he could have reprised the role for his real-life Presidency...

Meantime we have this, an astonishingly eloquent film despite its strictly practical origins, sadly as mutilated and grievously lacerated as its eponymous hero. Are we to play silent Judas to Philippine cinema's Moises Padilla, standing by in impotence as time eats mercilessly away at its masterworks? Should we?

Reprinted and expanded from its original published version on Businessworld, 2.25.00

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Ender's Game (Gavin Hood); The Counselor (Ridley Scott)

(Warning: plot twists and story of both films discussed in close and explicit detail)

Game over
Gavin Hood's Ender's Game is a surprisingly supple, fairly faithful adaptation of the Orson Scott Card novel; if it fails as a film, I'd say the fault lies as much with the source novel as with the filmmakers. 

It begins well enough--the battle school scenes of both novel and movie are easily their best parts, with strategies and mind games clearly outlined, with the fighting given coherence and variety. The novel allows the training more time to develop: we see and feel the growing intensity, we appreciate the increasingly bewildering impossibilities thrown at Ender (Asa Butterfield). You miss that gradual progression in the movie. 

Friday, November 01, 2013

Day of the Dead (George Romero, 1985)

(George Romero 1940 - 2017)
My contribution to the 31 Days of Zombie at The Projection Booth:

My favorite Dead

The Dead movies aren't so much examples of sophisticated filmmaking as they are powerful metaphors given free rein by a cunning imaginative filmmaker. Night of the Living Dead (1968) was about how a handful of people under siege (Middle-class America faced with the horrors of Vietnam) are able to uphold their standards of decency (not too well unfortunately); Dawn of the Dead (1978) was the same formula set against a large-scale parody of American consumerism (this just a few years before the onset of the materialistic '80s)--even the blandly overbright quality of the film's lights perfectly mimicked mall lighting.

Dawn is of course the critics' favorite for its comic-book flavor relative lightheartedness commentary on consumerism; when the critics went to see Day they expected more of the same. But Romero had moved beyond the satire of Dawn; he was making metaphysical and philosophical statements on the human condition rendered in extremis--soldiers vs. scientists, men vs. women (or woman), pacifists vs. idealists, all cooped up in the hellhole of a pressure-cooker with dial set to 'apocalyptic.' Unpleasant characters and nasty tense dialogue? It's the end of the world; things are falling apart. They haven't sealed themselves off in this series of linked corridors and windowless rooms just to sit down for tea.