Sunday, September 30, 2007

Murder! (Alfred Hitchcock, 1930)


First off, I have to express how much I love this poster (from the film's own Wikipedia page). The hand is reminiscent of that omniscient hand at the end of Lang's M, which was released a year after Murder! This time around, the hand isn't the the hand that connects the mind to the heart, but society's hand that punishes the guilty, even if wrongly.

Unlike the slew of film musicals that were popular during the advent of sound, which focused mainly on the intrigues of backstage life, Murder! incorporates theatre itself, specifically theatricality and how "art criticizes life," according to Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall), a leading actor and playwright who, after being ridden with guilt after sitting in a jury that prosecuted and condemned innocent Diana Baring (Norah Baring) of murder, sought to prove her innocence with the help of fellow actor Ted Markham (Edward Chapman). Menier proves actress/character Baring's innocence by going back to his art and understanding the psychology of guilt that one of the jury members elucidated before being bullied into changing her verdict and justifying what gravitated him to her in the first place: her dainty look of purity, and fragility, a view justified by Menier's stature as an intellectual. (Another jury member that didn't think Baring was guilty came to the same conclusion, only that he wasn't able to justify his connection between innocence and a pretty face other than by invoking his sexual bias.) How Menier exactly makes the connection between theatre/theatricality/acting/artifice and reality/innocence/guilt is not clear to me because the scenes that elucidated the connections were far too talky. They lack Hitchcock's visual flair. Being only the third sound film of a still young Hitchcock, the awkwardness of the plainly straightforward dialog-driven scenes is forgivable, if only because the film's true core is when Hitchcock's visual style flies.

These scenes truly are remarkable. The opening scene contains much promise: a tracking shot of windows, with lights turning on and heads poking out as the camera passes to check the disturbance downstairs. The disturbance of course is a woman's scream, following the murder that sets off the film. From the beginning, Hitchcock already gives us an impression that this isn't a simple crime that involves only a murderer, the murdered, and a few witnesses. Rather, it's a murder that could only be solved if one goes back to the theatrical community that brought it about. When the police--and justice, presumably--got closest to the true killer, they are backstage, interviewing the theater company in which Baring belongs. The scene is an amazing sketch of performed reality, as the interviewed "witnesses," who presumably are being their genuine selves as they tell the police (who are themselves in costume, like th theatrical polices that they are interviewing) what they think really happened, change their dispositions as they get ready to enter the stage. The camera the switches back and forth between the interrogation scene and the play being performed (and presumably the scene that is more real to the filmic audience because it is the scene that they can see and thus prove the existence), critiques the scene that comes before, where a camera travels back and forth between two rooms (obviously studio sets) as two characters discuss the murder as they walk back and forth between the kitchen and the dining room. The performance at the theater emphasizes the performance of the two actresses as they realistically perform their roles for the film.

Just like his experiments with sound in Blackmail (1929), Hitchcock also makes use of sound well, even if they are drowned out by the middle chunk of the film where the film is all talk. The film is driven to action by a shriek. Later, when the dead body is discovered, reality is sucked back in by a loud sigh. In what is known to be one of the first example of an internal monologue, Menier's face deftly registers his guilt and his consciousness, even if his voice is threatened to be drowned out by the orchestral piece (which apparently was being recorded simultaneously from an orchestra playing in the back) that heightens the emotion he conveys with his face. Some of his filmed dialogs aren't necessarily bad either: during the jury deliberation scene, the camera smoothly travels back and forth as the power struggle between the jurors, culminating in a montage of faces as the jurors bully Menier into convicting Baring. Also, when it is Menier's turn to bully the real killer, the scene turns into one of stares and hand gestures, specifically Handel Fane (Esmy Percy) conveying his shock of being found-out with his hands as he simultaneously douses a cigarette butt.

Fane/Esmy is the pivotal character of the film because he is the very definition of performativity. A multiracial man who is also possibly gay, Fane is an actor who specializes in that very English role of a woman--really, a woman who has lost her feminine fragility which to a large extent desexualizes her--played by an effeminate man. His first "appearance" as the murderer has him running down the streets in police costume, which he later substitutes for a dress, and later again for the police costume, and finally for a dress for his final trapeze act. His final scene atop the circus tent is incredible, a portrait of a man who, in front of everybody, is finally laid bare and removed of his disguises. Acting himself finally becomes overbearing, and he enacts the hanging that was reserved for Baring. His act reveals the truth and brings the loop back to the closing scene behind the proscenium arch, where the victorious couple--Menier and Baring, with Menier finally satisfying the sexual attraction that led him to help Baring in the first place--enacts their celebratory kiss.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Lost and Found Box: Rediscovering a Cinematic Tradition


*NOTE: don’t be offended if you think some archivists are already doing the things I outline here: this is mostly me just brainstorming to myself about the ways of discovering Filipino films.

A discovery: Lamberto Avellana’s Sarjan Hassan (1955), a Malaysian film co-directed with filmmaker P. Ramlee, is available on VCD in Malaysia (with English subtitles!). (Sarjan Hassan of course is not only worthy of watching because it was made by Avellana, but also because it was co-directed by one of Malaysia’s greatest filmmakers.) Also, a number of Ramon Estrella’s films in Singapore and Malaysia are available on video as well. They were remnants of a time when Filipino filmmakers, along with Indian filmmakers, traveled all over Asia to develop the art in other countries. Apparently, many of their movies did not resonate as well with the local audience as those made by local filmmakers, possibly because they were more “Filipino” than Malaysian (although I wouldn’t really know what that means). Tinged with American influences, these films reflected a colonial past that was foreign to Malaysia, and an industry that displays affections for Western filmmaking through the numerous co-productions and exploitations that have existed between Hollywood and Philippine movie industry since its inception. I argue that because of this, it is worthy to consider and study these films as part of the Filipino film heritage despite the use of a foreign language.

Of course, finding Filipino movies in foreign places isn’t exactly big news. Many of Lino Brocka’s great works (including Bona) are stashed in Paris, where failed screenings planned for foreign festivals (many due to political reasons) stranded the reels in these archives and ironically, ensured their preservation. In Howie Severino’s search for lost Filipino movies, he documents the discovery of movies in Hong Kong (Gerardo de Leon’s Sanda Wong, in the Shaw Brothers vault I believe) and Thailand (a lost Darna movie and Gerardo de Leon’s Banga ni Zimadar, both dubbed for theatrical release in Thailand), as well as discovery of contemporary (as late as the 70s!) movies in the Anthology Film Archives in New York (I knew I should have tried to work in that damn place).

This should lead us to conceptualize new ways of looking for these films. In truth, missing films could be anywhere and everywhere: Ray Carney did find John Cassavetes’ long lost extended-version of Shadows in, of all places, a box somebody forgot at a New York subway and stashed at the New York Metro’s lost-and-found office. And if there’s any chance of ever finding all three hours of Orson Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons, it would be in some dilapidated old hut in the middle of the Amazon. But in truth, the sources for Filipino movies are probably more straightforward.

Note however, that Avellana may have longer versions of this or Silos has a shorter version of that, but Filipinos really do not have the time or the energy to be preoccupied with looking for director’s versions of their films. Simply, if we use Magnificent Ambersons as a metaphor, were’ still too busy looking for the 88-minute version to be concerned with the three-hour masterpiece. We aren’t concerned with establishing the defining aspects of our auteurs (as the West is), but in having the evidence for their existence in the first place.

First, many Filipino films were shown all over the world in major film festivals. Venice has been thrown about more than a few times, as well as film festivals throughout Asia. Could films have been stashed in those cities as well? Sure, major metropolitan cities such as New York and Paris which also contain very active movie-going audiences may—and do—have Filipino movies, but smaller cities in Europe (such as Nantes), India, China, Japan, even Singapore which may have had film festivals in the past may also have archives of film stocks, dilapidated those archives may be. Tracing the origins of these films, and the way the films changed hands until they landed on the organizers of these smaller film festivals, may be as fruitful as, if not more so than, following the same trail for larger film festivals.

Second, as the Malaysian example show, Filipino films and filmmakers were largely bandied about in Asia during the country’s first cinematic Golden Age, and major studios abroad such as the Shaw Brothers were very influential in buying, dubbing, and distributing Filipino movies abroad. Although there is great preoccupation in trying to force major studios in the Philippines to open their vaults, why not divert some of the attention to foreign studios? One could assume that foreign studios may be no different, but as film preservation in Hong Kong, India, China, and Malaysia show, this may not be the case. (Of course, one could argue that the Indians are probably worse at saving their movies than we are: apparently the government’s archives only contain 4,000 films, out of the 900 or so made every year in Mumbai alone for the past 70 or 80 years. But unlike in the Philippines, the family dynasties that rule over the film industry are more than willing to preserve movies connected to their name, especially the Dutts and the Kapoors.)

Third, with the political content of our films, is it possible that they might have been sent to Latin America, especially with the rise of the influence of ICAIC in the region during the 70s? If the newly aroused political consciousness of European critics led to the “discovery” of the likes of Pasolini, Nelson Pereira dos Santos and Lino Brocka and their films, couldn’t some of the filmmakers and critics who attended the European film festivals that showcased the movies by these auteurs brought back copies to their respective countries? Latin America was (and is) a hotbed of international leftist and Third World defiance as represented in film. Especially for the Cubans, film took centrality in the new political revolutions taking place all over the continent. Have anybody checked the ICAIC archives? The Mexican archives? And to that extent, have anybody checked the former Soviet archives? If Soy Cuba (1964) was unearthed from the depths of Russian archives despite being long buried in memory, can we possibly do the same for such films as Moises Padilla Story (1961) or even Daigdig ng Mga Api (1965)?

The other extreme of Philippine cinema could be of help as well. On the one hand there’s the political consciousness of the films of the 60s through the 80s. On the other there’s the exploitation films not only of the 70s and the 80s where Cleopatra Wong and Weng Weng reigned, or the 60s where Gerardo de Leon and Eddie Romero slummed it with Roger Corman’s exploitation film outfits, but also the “Golden Age of Exploitation,” the 30s and the 40s when films from other countries, especially the “Orient,” were brought to American shores, cut, re-cut, scenes added, even multiple movies merged, and shown in seedy theatres as shocking views of an alien world.

One particular character is Lloyd Friedgen. As an enterprising producer, he traveled to Asia’s more active filmmaking industries—that is, the studios of the Philippines and India—to take films that could possibly attract an audience in the US. Two films he “discovered” that are now known amongst cult film enthusiasts are Forbidden Women (1948) by Eduardo Castro, the mind behind Zamboanga (1937; the print was discovered of all places in Finland) and Outrages of the Orient (1948) by Carlos Vander Tolosa, the man who made Bilanggong Birhen (1960) and Giliw Ko (1939). Of course, these movies were manhandled by Friedgen, cutting dialogue and action continuity and flow, reinserting scenes from other movies or scenes newly filmed by Friedgen to “spice-up” the story. If anything, if not re-done and re-transformed to at least remove scenes that are known to be Friedgen’s and not Castro’s/Tolosa’s, these movies are great windows to what would otherwise remain lost, hidden, and forgotten. Tracking Friedgen’s history, his dealings with other producers like him (especially another producer, Ray Friedgen, although I’m thinking they are the same person or possibly he is Lloyd’s father), and possibly any existing archive of his movies could uncover an interesting goldmine of unseen—but unfortunately molested—Filipino films.

Finally, for a people so defined by emigration as the Filipinos (it is important to note that OCWs, or Overseas Contract Workers, drive the country’s economy, Filipinos are fast becoming the largest Asian group in the US, and the Filipino immigration to Australia is one of the country’s largest), it could be possible that films followed Filipinos wherever there was a large concentration of them. Bollywood for example spread throughout much of Africa and Asia not simply because their simplicity and mindlessness (two elements which are not present in many a good Bollywood film) appealed universally, but because Indians brought their films with them to wherever they went. It’s no surprise that Bollywood is perpetually popular in African countries when one also points out that South Asians—called simply Asians in some countries—migrated in large numbers to the continent, especially during the era of European domination during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and established communities that retained contact with the motherland until today.

For Filipinos, for film, one area that might be worth studying is Hawaii (since I know more about Filipino immigration to the US than anywhere else, I’m going to talk about that). Unlike early Chinese migration to the mainland, early Filipino communities in continental US, especially in the West, were defined by their impermanence. Like the displaced Midwestern poor and the Mexican workers of the teens and 20s, Filipinos were by and large migrant workers, and they moved along with the crops and the available farm jobs. Wherever Filipinos rested, there was a community. This is far from being an ideal situation for establishing a cinema. (More permanent Filipino communities in places such as Stockton near san Francisco, and Southern California did not come about until the late 50s. And even then, it was still under the control of the constantly changing California cityscape. Philippinetown in Downtown Los Angeles for example is not really the historic home of the Filipino community in Los Angeles. The original Philippinetown was first located around Bunker Hill, which was displaced by the development of the Financial District, then later around Union Station, which was later displaced by the construction of the station. In San Francisco, the tenuous nature of the Filipino community is of course most prominently symbolized by the I-Hotel, a building that housed a significant Filipino community until the city government decided to demolish it to make way for urban development.)

Hawaii, on the other hand, had a much more stationary Filipino community. When immigration began in the 20s, Filipinos moved to Hawaii not only to work then move back to the Philippines (like the migrant workers in California then and the OCWs now), but rather to really establish a life in Hawaii. Although the bulk of the Filipino immigration to the US later drifted further east to the US mainland, and the Filipino immigration to Hawaii was not as significant as the second wave of immigration to places such as California and Virginia that took place in the 80s (only a few thousands, compared to hundreds of thousands), their rootedness and permanence nevertheless gives rise to speculation that cinemas catering to a Tagalog-speaking clientele may have existed in Hawaii. Although these films may have been destroyed and disposed as easily as they were back in Manila, it might still be worth seeking Hawaii’s archives to see if Filipino entrepreneurs did indeed bring their films to people who craved a taste of home, and if they did if those films survived at all.

Although the conditions of early migration to California discounts the possibility of films from the era to exist here (outside of private collections, that is), the conditions of the great wave of migration of the 80s did however made possible the spread of film in another format: through video. Whereas film depended on expensive and immobile equipment, video encased the film in a portable plastic box that could be played using another, but only slightly larger, box. Video diminished the quality of the image it displays, but it nevertheless allowed that image to be easily transferred out of the country, viewed thousands of miles away, and keep in a small compartment all the subtle mannerisms and idioms that define the culture where it came from, the culture which the displaced immigrant understands. It allowed the immigrant to keep contact with the land she left, something that is very important for the uber-patriotic Filipino. This is probably why the establishment of a Filipino video store, alongside a glorified sari-sari stores (stores that sold pretty much everything under the sun) and a turo-turo (literally “point-point,” cheap Filipino food a la carte), is enough to announce the establishment of a Filipino community.

The Filipinos who became Americans in the 80s didn’t stay in the Filipino epicenters of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Hawaii. They moved to Virginia, Florida, Washington DC, New York, New Jersey, Las Vegas, Chicago, and even New Orleans, like their 18th century predecessors. And with them came the video collections culled from back home, by the then classic and contemporary masters: Avellana, de Leon, Romero, Bernal, and Brocka. Not only this, film companies from the Philippines followed them too and catered to the community. Regal and Video films transferred many films to video and sold them to individual collectors and video stores. The irony is that since the conditions in the states were more conducive to preservation than back home (where the constant humidity and heat hastened the deterioration of both electronic and film sources), many videos that are scarce in the Philippines outside of Video 48 in Manila are common in more established Filipino communities (Oro, Plata, Mata for example, a film that is scarce in the Philippines, is available in all four of the video stores I frequent in Southern California. But that’s a subject for another post).

The end result of having such an active video scene within the immigrant community is the availability of films that would otherwise be absent. As already mentioned, video stores stock some titles that are rare anywhere else. In other times, the end result could even be the discovery of a film that exists in no other form: Brocka’s Tubog sa Ginto, for example, could now only be viewed because a beta tape was discovered in New York. Of course, I’m sure, like any video, the image quality is far behind of the image that could have been viewed if the actual film stock existed. But as I’ve said before, you take what you can. It’s better to have it in deteriorated state than not have it at all. This beta tape at least proves to us that there is indeed a film called Tubog sa Ginto, and that indeed we can view it for ourselves.

Philippine Racehorse

The Philippines' entry to the Oscars this year is Donsol, a 2006 film by Adolfo Alix, Jr. about the popular diving site where whalesharks are frequently sighted. Unfortunately, no DVD or VCD of it could be seen anywhere. Maybe this Oscars business could spur a company or another to release it, along with other deserving indie films, in a respectable DVD package.

  • Here is the Inquirer article about it.
  • Here is the film's official site. Click "Enter Site"...it's a fucking Twilight Zone.
  • Here is what Oggs' Movie Thoughts thought about the film. Essentially, it's a pretty picture. He compares it to Jeffrey Jeturian's Minsan Pa (2004) which, fortunately, is on video with subtitles to boot.
  • Here's a trailer:

Inang Yaya (Pablo Biglangawa & Veronica Velasco, 2006)

A digital film about the ubiquitous Filipina domestic worker, Inang Yaya is a Filipino reworking of James L. Brooks’ brilliant 2004 melodrama Spanglish, where a recent Mexican immigrant brings her daughter along when she stays with a rich West LA family in Malibu for the summer. In Inang Yaya, Norma (Maricel Soriano), a domestic worker in Manila brings her daughter Ruby (Tala Santos) with her after her mother (Marita Zobel), who was caring for her daughter while she stays in the city to take care of a wealthy couple’s daughter, Louise (Erika Oreta), suddenly dies. Just like in Brooks’ film, drama ensues after class tension forces Norma and Ruby to compromise their relationship for the sake of the family they serve. Directors Biglangawa and Velasco do a great job of translating the story into a new context, despite compromising some of Brooks’ insights for the sake of dramatic tesion.

First, the DVD. I have to say, I feel bad dinging Unico Home Entertainment for their DVD releases for they might just be one of the leading companies when it comes to releasing Filipino movies, both contemporary and classic. They started the trend in transferring Filipino films into digital medium with their Cinefilipino line, and now they are pushing the limits by releasing great but largely unknown classics from Lino Brocka. But the problem is their transfers suck. As I’ve said before, they pretty much botched up the DVD for Ina Kapatid Anak (and I’m not talking about the lengthy, complicated, and expensive process of restoration, but rather the simple and relatively inexpensive act of properly masking the film that is going to be digitized). Manila By Night is a mess. The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros is riddled with combing (which can be fixed by merely removing some of the extra crap they have on the DVD so that there will be more space for the film itself). And judging from the stock they will use for the Insiang DVD (the one used for the New York Film Festival screening, which had the subtitles burned-in), they will probably apply some weird and previously non-existent masking to cover up the burned subtitles. I wish to be proved wrong, but I doubt that that will be the case.

For Inang Yaya, the image looks like it was an internet video stretched out to DVD-sized image. The degree of pixelation makes it look like it was from a bootleg DVD (no, I wasn’t watching bootleg video). The colors were right-on—really, how can you mess up the colors in a digital feature?—but the pixelation was a major enough problem that it distracted from the viewing experience. Some would say that I should just be thankful, but personally this degree of carelessness is a reflection of just how much movies really are undervalued in Filipino society. Looking to make a quick buck, Unico’s DVDs look like something they wiped their ass with. Knowing the demand, they want nothing more but to satisfy the demand without giving anybody quality products.

Translating Spanglish to Tagalog seems to be a surefire way into making a blockbuster. Unlike Americans who cannot relate to the Spanglish’s wealthy families because domestic workers and personal helps remain a privilege of the wealthy, Filipinos in general know the experience of either being served by domestic servants or serving as a domestic help. Filipinos either carry fond memories of their yayas—which, unlike in the West, does not merely translate to “maid,” but rather something more endearing, like a governess who acts as a second mother—or the children they literally raise because of the absence of working parents. I personally was attracted to both Spanglish and Inang Yaya because of my own fond memories of my yaya, whose personal life I was never privy to, and who became a part of the family about the life of whom no one knows. She died of cancer a few years back, but I was not able to be there because we moved to the US. In her absence she became an enigma, much as Norma’s life unfolds before Louise’s eyes as if this woman who is practically her mother is just now introducing herself to Louise.

Inang Yaya and Spanglish’s triumph is in articulating what I have always found odd in having a yaya: the class difference that drives such relationships to exist and the class envy that drives people to enter such relationships fully knowing that they will be in the lower, serving end. What is fully extrapolated in Spanglish but subtly hinted upon in Inang Yaya is the economic gap that keeps the master and the servant from ever fully understanding each other. Inang Yaya’s publicity touts it as a film that explores the nature of motherhood and the ability of a woman to be a mother to a child that is not her own. Thankfully, it never actually does this, instead focusing on the perpetual difference of the servant from the master. The film’s preoccupation with slightly opened doors and windows and frames within frames does not connote a space through which people could meet each other, but rather the frames and entities that separate and prevent. When Ruby slowly forms a friendship with Louise, fade-ins have her move from one door frame to another, until she is sitting next to Louise. But when this connection is made, it is shot so as to revela Norma afar, ironing clothes, framed and separated by multiple door frames. Seeing her separation, we are reminded that Ruby is lured not simply by Louise, but by her toys. It is a companionship formed through class envy. But the most poignant use of these frames within frames is when Norma is helping Ruby and Louise get ready for school. Teased by her classmates for being poor, Ruby runs to the school bus so the other girls in the bus do not see her mother. When she sees that the girls forgot their lunch boxes, Norma runs to the bus to give them their lunch. She barely makes it, and when the door to the bus is closed, Nora’s face is framed by the door window, while in the foreground Ruby ducks her head in shame as the other girls laugh at her. The window emphasizes Norma slowly drifting away from her daughter, and Ruby’s slow destruction due to her difference.

Many viewers complain that the film lacks any sort of dramatic tension, but I think the tension comes in the details, specifically the clothes and the toys that define Louise and Ruby’s relationship. One of Louise’s first interaction with Ruby is when she recognizes Ruby’s shirt as one of her throw-aways that Norma took for her daughter. While Ruby looks on as an observer (behind doors, windows, and thin walls), Norma repeatedly keeps telling Louise to clean up her toys. In one scene, Louise hits Norma with her stuffed toy after Norma scolds her for being messy. As Ruby looks on, Norma looks ashamed, but continues her work simply because she has to. When Ruby asks for something—stationery stickers—what is revealed isn’t merely Ruby’s growing materialistic desire but Norma’s inability to provide for it. When her mistress May (Sunshine Cruz) asks her what’s wrong as she was about to tell Norma to change the sheets in the guest room, the connection is made between May and husband Noel’s (Zoren Legaspi) kindness and Norma’s role as a servant. When May buys Ruby the stickers she wanted, the couple’s “kindness” is laid bare: it isn’t merely kindness, but rather a payment for Norma giving up her role as a mother to her daughter.

It is however in the portrayal of Louise’s family that Inang Yaya failed, and miserably. Whereas it cleanly lifted the class tension and human dynamic in the domestic worker’s perspective from Spanglish, it failed to take that film’s humanist look at the lives of the wealthy. Whereas Brooks’ film delved deep into the damages privilege does to a family’s psyche, May, Noel, Lola/Grandma Toots (Liza Lorena) and Louise are mere witnesses—wooden witnesses, at that—to the drama that is Norma’s life. In its approach to the family’s desire to move to Singapore, we never understand it as anything more than a change in lifestyle, as if the family is just moving down the street. When the family pressures Norma to leave her daughter to move to Singapore with them, we are supposed to understand why exactly the family would do this. But the whole time, my reaction is, “who cares?” The film doesn’t establish this family’s concerns as weighing more than taking care of one’s own child. One could mention Louise’s attachment to Norma, but as the film’s preoccupation with the half-closed windows and doors show, her attachment is at best tenuous, one that remains between a servant and the master-child.

This oversight is also what causes the film’s most dramatic scene to fall flat. When Norma buys Ruby new shoes that look like Louise’s expensive shows only to find that the shoes are “Skeetchers,” not “Sketchers,” Ruby rejects the shoes, and ultimately her mother. The scene is witnessed by Louise, whose presence weighs heavily on the scene even if the camera relegates her to one small corner of the frame. The scene could have been as powerful as Flor (Paz Vega) quitting her job in Spanglish, and Cristina (Shelbie Bruce) voicing out her hatred and rejection of her mother for turning her back to luxury and comfort. In that scene, the resignation is witnessed by the members of the family, whose awakening is charted by the film. But in Inang Yaya, the witness isn’t awakened. Her complications as a character only extend as far as having an emotional attachment to her servant, but never her relationship to a servant. She isn’t awakened as much as she witnesses yet another teary scene between the mother and the daughter. Which is why her effort to reconcile the mother and the daughter (which Lola Toots crassly made explicit later on in the film) seems a little odd. It’s not for the sake of acceptance of self along with the acceptance of the mother, but merely for dramatic reconciliation.

This about face the film took—from a film that chronicles economic difference to one that just wants a smoothly dramatic tying of all elements—is redeemed by the ending that rejected the motherhood theme that its publicity touted over a critical look at salaried-motherhood. When Norma plays with the girls in what seems to be a dream-like, paradise-like setting, she asks if she could ever divide her heart over her daughter by blood and adopted daughter. Ironically, she wears a servant’s uniform. When the maid and her child-master are separated, Louise and her family leaves on a van, while Norma and Ruby leaves through a lowly tricycle. Louise may see her as a mother, but even in their separation are portrayed to be not in equal footing. These elements underline the film’s main tension, even if it still leaves the wealthy family inexplicably wooden.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Digital Goldmine

Bored and sleepless, I did what any self-respecting person does during times like these: go online and watch random videos from YouTube. Here I present you a slew of Ludacris videos I thought were pretty well made.


"Roll Out" (Jeremy Rall, 2001)

With an oversized head matching his oversize ego, oversized rims, and oversized pockets, Ludacris parodies his personality and the media and watchers that admire and loathe the image he peddles. He switches back and forth between pushing back busy bodies while parading the things these curious onlookers are asking about. It's a complicated relationship, underlined by the emphasis on the CGI fakeness of Ludacris' blown-up head. What is lost in the transaction Ludacris points out, as he flashes words on screen reenacting the rhymes coming out of him. It's genius: while tabloid headlines are boringly static, his lyrics jump across the screen, runs around, goes around him, etc. He also makes a counterpoint between the imagery of the words and the images of the words, as the poetic nature of the words battle the baseness of the lifestyle they portray.



"Money Maker" (Melina, 2006)

Although it looks very identical, this video has nothing on Kanye West's "Gold Digger", with its use of pin ups in lieu of stereotypical hip hop images of pretty women and a Kanye West with his back turned towards the camera to emphasize both the women (we only see the back of his head) and the "personal advice" like tone of the song. But its use of lighting, rich colors, and rhythmic editing is I believe equally competent. The relationship may even be intentional: with alternating flashes of booty and money, one can't help but be reminded of West's ode to women and the costly measures he is willing to take to keep them. West's admiration of the Gold Digger and Ludacris' of the said female's Money Maker (admitting both the exploitation of her ass and the ability of that ass to exploit back) presents a less vapid relationship between colored man and colored woman. It's not just between a bitch and a dog, but between two people using each other, both to pay for bills and to please themselves. In addition, the (pseudo) retro touches of frame growing within frames historicizes the sexual struggle as well as West's (inappropriate, to some extent) incorporation of Ray Charles' "I Got a Woman".


"Act a Fool" (Bryan Barber, 2003)

With candy colors whizzing by, Ludacris gives praise to the pop phenomena that are the racing culture and the gaming culture. Coupled with lyrics about materialist rebellion, the anatomy of a racing car, and the pleasures of sitting back and smoking up with your buddies, this video tries to capture and explain the spirit of underground and separatist cultures. The video starts with a motley crew of carts on wheels, be they brightly colored or dilapidated ice cream trucks, giving rise to nostalgic memories of those Twisted Metal games (yes, in existence mere ten years ago, yet that is the nature of the contemporary media landscape). As they race through the streets of Los Angeles (the city never looked so ugly yet so exciting), Ludacris touches upon every ridiculous details put on a lowly racing car: tv sets on the steering wheel, grills, NOS tanks, gigantic speakers...it's funny, yet affirms deep-seated capitalist fantasies. He gives a shout out to these cultures and pays his respect to the extent they have changed culture at large, especially hip hop and the influence hip hop has to American/Western culture.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Nights of Serafina (Joey Gosiengfiao, 1996)

Out of the five Joey Gosiengfiao films I have seen—Secrets of Pura (1989), Iskandalo! (1980), Exploitation, Nights of Serafina (1996), and Babae…Ngayon at Kailanman (1978)—Nights of Serafina is probably the closest to camp-filmmaker as Gosiengfiao got. (I have not seen Temptation Island (1981), so do not fault me for not considering that title.) Not just campy as in Secrets of Pura was, but made with camp aesthetic, with its preoccupation with the decorative and the aesthetic, and the documentation of cultural references through which these decorative elements are given importance. Instead of a focus on the story, Gosiengfiao’s preoccupation is the performance of the narrative and the narrative’s intents, the display of bodies and things rather than the exploration of the world in which bodies and things exist. It’s an ingenious rearranging, since it filters Gosiengfiao’s focus on Filipino provincialism and machismo, bypassing “storytelling” for the sake of getting to the narrative's core.

Nights of Serafina concerns Anton, a wealthy logger and his wife Serafina, a woman from the slums of Manila. They move to Anton’s house in a tropical island where they live with Anton’s domineering and disapproving mother (a staple in Filipino movies), his rebellious brother, his brother’s horny girlfriend (who lives with them so the family can curry favors from her powerful father), a mess of maids and servants, and a group of unhappy loggers working for the family. The workers’ unhappiness, the girlfriend’s dissatisfaction, and a servant girl’s longing for a more fast-paced life are shown parallel to Serafina's, whose unhappiness with Anton is exacerbated when she finds that he is impotent due to a childhood accident where a cut tree fell on his pelvic area. She finds happiness through a strike breaker, who she fell in love with after he forcibly made love with her during a ferry crossing. After the whole clan finds out, things come to a head when Serafina and her new lover try to hide the affair from Anton’s family and the town they control.

The film does have its faults, some major enough to ruin the narrative thrust. First, the soundtrack is too overbearing. The film uses two different tracks to illustrate all of the scenes in the film: a calypso track and an electronic track that sounds too much like porn music. Both do not really work because both promise mere titillation, which the film doesn’t really give. The calypso track I presume was used because Gosiengfiao used a lot of panoramic shot of the tropical island and shots of its aquamarine beaches. But far from merely depicting the beauty of the island, Gosiengfiao meant these shots to be more sinister. I wish I can say that the music emphasized the irony, but it was overused to the point of annoyance. The porn music was there essentially because by and large this movie is a skin flick, but the music made the film merely that, instead of a film that explored the very nature of sex.

Also, this might seem tedious and asinine, but there’s something wrong about the hair. First, continuity-wise, the men’s hairdos change from short to long unexpectedly from scene to scene. It was distracting and made their hair less of a component in a film where hair seems to be such a big symbol. Whereas Serafina’s hair is composed to be wild and seductive (there’s a direct reference to Rita Hayworth, with the way she flings it about), the mother’s was tightly wrapped in an updo and the girlfriend’s hair is free and let down but looks more contrived than Serafina’s. The way the women’s hair fell on their heads and the way their hair looked on close-ups was as important to Gosiengfiao’s framing as the face itself, and it’s a shame that for the men the same was not the case.

The constant image is that of the phallic being torn down, cut off, or useless. Anton's failing logging business lies parallel to his equally failing penis. His brother on the other hand could perform just fine, but his prowess is taxed by his efforts to adhere to tradition, constantly trying to force his promiscuous girlfriend to settle down and start a family. Apparently, the trait runs in the family: the father’s inability to perform also caused his wife to be unfaithful, thus driving the father to commit suicide. One could say that this problematic situation is formulaic and typical of femmes fatales: a woman who, unhappy with what she has, chooses to betray the people around her and cause their demise. But Gosiengfiao portrays it differently: the women are not merely dissatisfied, they are downright deprived. Serafina has nothing to be dissatisfied of. The women, who constantly strike glamour poses (as fetishistic phallic substitutes)—Serafina is introduced as a model standing atop a column—as men around them stare in awe, are collected as if to compensate for what the men lack.

Although Gosiengfiao makes use of the forests and the beaches that dot the island in which the film is based, his intent is neither to make the story more beautiful nor to make sex/love more natural. Whereas a hack filmmaker would have portrayed the jungle as a place where man and woman could be liberated from inhibitions and culture and just do whatever they damn well please, Gosiengfiao takes it a step back and portrayed the jungle and beach scenes as places where culture and morals are more at play than anywhere else. In the jungle—at a place called Forbidden Place—the sex isn’t al fresco, but takes place at a centrally located hut that makes all the sexual conflicts that happen there look like plays on domestic life. Even the very idea of “a place where forbidden things happen” suggests the very mores and laws that make certain things forbidden and not the unspecified “forbidden thing” itself. Even if this is not the case, the attention given to the prying eyes hidden amongst the foliage that watch the forbidden things as they happen—and at the beach, hidden by sunglasses and rocks—underlines less the forbidden act (which, in being performed, liberates) than the act of watching, of safely participating in things forbidden through the protection of the fourth wall.

Opposed to the jungle, the man-as-animal exists in the house and within social functions when man interacts with fellow humans. In a brilliant sequence, when Serafina arrives at Anton’s house, Anton’s mother plans a wedding party for them by bringing in a slew of animals to be killed and eaten. When Anton’s mother finally sees Serafina and rejects her, her rejection is juxtaposed with cuts of animals being slaughtered. The juxtaposition is bridged by Anton’s mother smoothly transitioning between managing the slaughter and managing her rejection of Serafina. Using close ups of the mother and the slaughter, Gosiengfiao emphasizes the barbarism and inhumanity of the mother’s actions. In another sequence, after Anton discovers Serafina’s infidelity and orders his workers to kill her lover and rape her, her rapists are shown hovering over her not as men but as hyenas ready to kill and eat a prey they have pinned. It would have been less effective if it just invoked the image of hyenas eating. Instead, the men literally looked like a gang of cannibals about to mercilessly tear into a prey.

This sounds all too academic, but Nights of Serafina is anything but. The sex isn’t merely metaphorical; it is as erotic as anything that could be shown in theatres. The centrality of the “glamour pose” is made erotic by focusing on the sleekness of the female body as seen from a lower angle, as if looking up at a towering statue. However, it is also made to be funny due to its mere existence. The women kind of just strike poses randomly, as if to constantly remind the men of what the ydo not have. Being a gay filmmaker, Gosiengfiao catches the male body at times when it is half clothed: after taking a shower or right after sex (the woman isn’t treated to the same disrobing. The women are always covered up after sex, and when their clothes are being torn off, strategically placed objects always cover the naughty bits at the expense of revealing their partner’s private areas.) When they cannot be placed in the same context, Gosienfiao makes sure that they are. During a fight scene, after Anton slaps the hell out of his brother’s girlfriend, he proceeds to wrestle with his brother wearing only speedos. It’s Gosiengfiao’s personal paradise, and a commentary on traditional Filipino machismo: man disrobed and fetishized, man deprived of his phallo-ceintric power. But the way he makes his point is so cheeky despite being so destabilizing that one cannot help but take Gosiengfiao's challenge to the very foundation of Filipino society in stride.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Kubrador (Jeffrey Jeturian, 2006)

Jueteng, as Kubrador reminds us, is a numbers game that is as common and popular in the Philippines as lotto is to the Americans. Everybody plays it and a kubrador (bet collector) talking up potential customers is a common sight in villages and neighborhoods across the country. Its ubiquity would have been reason for avoiding it as a movie’s focal point, if not for the fact that it is also illegal in the country and the irony that results creates much tragedy or an illustration thereof. But unlike things illegal in the West, jueteng isn’t sexy. There’s no edgy appeal to playing jueteng. It’s associated less with celebrities than it is with bored grandmothers and corrupt politicians. This lack of mystique allows Jeturian to bare the game naked and use it as an allegory to the contemporary Filipino condition. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but by and large it does well in injecting new blood into the art of Tagalog filmmaking.

Gina Pareño is Amy, a cautious yet bet collector whose desperation drives her to push her luck despite the chances of getting caught by the police. Everyone knows her—everyone calls out her name as she passes by, gives her the latest gossip, and of course, gives her their numbers (and money). As an agent of the popular jueteng, her character traverses the different levels of the hierarchy of Filipino society, from the slums to the local jueteng bosses to the regional cashier, and to the police, who gives her their bets right in their station. She gets very little for her work, and she suffers through long days and stubborn customers unwilling to part with their money. But she still does it, from desperation or some illogical sense of adventure we are never really sure (she’s poor, yes, that in itself never seem to be the only reason for being a bet collector; simply manning their house-front store and devoting her life only on that seems like a boring life relegated to daytime TV and disintegration).

The film is most effective when it “merely” observes. As a digital production, the resulting image could not help but have a very deep depth of focus. However, this is not to the movie’s detriment, as it lends a depth of meaning in allowing the eyes to wander through the milieu that Jeturian records. By avoiding close-ups and blurred backgrounds—and thus shot counter shots and heavy action-reaction editing—Kubrador successfully becomes never a “mere story,” but rather a depiction of a condition and a reality. In addition, the movie’s numerous long takes, especially the opening scene (which felt like a journey to the depths of hell guided by our Virgil-kubrador, appropriately followed by a chase scene filmed atop the tin roofs of the shantytown as if Dante just dug himself out of Hell only to be kicked back into it) and the last scene, adds to the sense of reality merely recorded, and thus the expectant complications that comes therewith. Instead of an “issue”—as it has been treated in popular Filipino media especially during the last seven or eight years—jueteng becomes a tool in sketching experiences and realities, and the intersecting motives and rationales that drive these experiences and realities to come about.

The movie however fails when Jeturian moves away from neorealism to moralism. Amy works because she has a lazy husband. Jeturian never expands the husband’s character to allow us an insight in why he does not work. Simply, he is a Juan Tamad (Lazy John) archetype, and the invocation of that is enough for his marginalization. Worse off, he watches Filipino television. Never mind that he must have reasons for watching this mindless piece of diversion. But all we see is of him in extreme close-up, obviously enjoying the stupid game shows and gyrating half-clad women on “Wowowee” (a local noon-time game show, which recently got involved in a cheating “scandal”). Only that for Jeturian, he abhorrently does. Also, in two potentially effective scenes, Kubrador merely becomes polemic. In one, Amy, busy writing numbers down, wanders off into unknown alleys and becomes lost. Instead of increasing Amy’s—and our—confusion, we are instead reminded of the hopelessness of the slums: “confusion” in air quotes. In another, when Amy goes to a gambling cashier’s house to collect winnings, the cashier (played by Johnny Manahan) goes off into a rant about buwayas (literally alligators, corrupt politicians) and the church, and how they hypocritically benefit from jueteng while they condemn it. The cashier’s speech could have been easily inserted into the narrative, but is instead turned into a lecture on the inner workings of illegal gambling and political corruption. True as these concerns may be, the movie becomes issue-oriented, thus losing the complexity of reality.

I think this same issue is what ultimately made Jeturian’s Tuhog (2001) equally unsatisfying despite being compelling. In Tuhog, where two filmmakers adapt a rape victim’s story only to turn it into a skin flick, Jeturian explores the “divide” between fiction and reality and how maintaining and transgressing this divide fuel Filipino cinephilia. The movie could have been effective, if only Jeturian could have kept himself from being too excited. Once he gets worked up, he acts just like anyone who gets a pulpit. In Tuhog, even though he balances “reality” and the two filmmakers’ rendition of this “reality” quite well, he slips into a condemnation of “fiction,” over-dramatizing the filmmakers’ version of reality to over-emphasize its falsity. The movie thus went from an exploration of the Filipino film industry to a didactic piece about the evils of it.

Despite all these, Tuhog and Kubrador are not bad movies. They are very thoughtful films, and made with an original and irrepressible vision of truth and reality. But if Jeturian doesn't watch it, he might just become the new Gil M. Portes, another Filipino movie maker who makes great films hampered by an inability to resist grandstanding. (His Homecoming (2003), for example, was a great film crippled in the last minute by Portes’ main character’s need to “educate” her fellow Filipinos.) However, unlike Portes, Jeturian at least shows an ability to grow, to develop a trust in his audience’s ability to perceive the reality he submits. In a recent “Maalaala mo kaya?” (Would you remember?) Jeturian-directed episode (which aired on TFC here in Los Angeles on 01 SEP 2007), issues of poverty, family, and international identity are treated to a rendition that both kept the gravity of these issues intact, while at the same time keeping the rendition squarely populist (but not condescending either, using melodrama but not histrionics). This goes to show that Jeturian has the makings of a Vidor or de Sica if only he realizes the inherent intelligence of his “masa.”

Monday, September 10, 2007

Fuck Cinema: the poseur and the artist

The praise for Guy Maddin in general and Cowards Bend The Knee (2003) in particular is both mind-boggling and m/saddening. It is always disappointing and heartbreaking when the term "avante-garde" becomes tainted by usage of critics to praise people like Maddin. It looses its almost mythic aura when you have video amateurs being praised because somehow they come close to how Brakhage, Deren, Jean Epstein, or Claire are in atmosphere but not in spirit. Funny reading many reviews of this movie, one realizes that most critics are actually at a loss for explanation of what exactly is so avante-garde about Maddin's works. In Hoberman's reviews, it is the intertitles, the shaky (also "nervous" and "unstable") camera, and the decaying look of sepia that makes it avante-garde. For Matt Zoller Seitz, it's the Lang-inspired lighting and the use of two-way mirrors which also act as irises. But these are not at all avante-garde. True, Maddin is alone in his eclectic pursuits. But this eclecticism does not qualify as artistic experimentation. It's just that, eclecticism. More than not, Maddin just apes what silent and early sound cinemas have already innovated for camp. The dream-like feel of his movies are less about him doing anything dream-like (applying vaseline on camera lenses to create hazy images does not a dream make) than the invocation of memories of an unexperienced past as told through the ancient history of cinema, now ironically available through videotapes and DVDs. Compare the "dream" of Maddin's ADD jump-cuts and unstill cameras to Tarkovsky's evocative nature scenes and interplay of color and monochromatic film stocks and one discovers how Maddin truly lags behind true artists who understand the closeness of dream, nightmare, and cinema. Compare Eisenstein's montage sequences for Strike or Dovzhenko's editing in Arsenal, and look at Maddin's supposedly comparable editing in Heart of the World and one would understand why anyone would feel like poking their eyes out everyone calls this guy a "master". Wheras Dovzhenko created rhythm, emotion, and energy through the simple act of cutting images together, Maddin merely creates a barage of images that jumble into an incoherent mess, weakly supported by a quasi-Freudian message that imitates Lang's Metropolis (1927) for cheap snigger. I agree with Rosenbaum on one thing: "there's nothing remotely normal about any of the Maddin films." But only in a strictly conformist society does abnormality ever becomes a sign of distinction.

In terms of its exploration of sex, Cowards Bend the Knee is boringly and routinely Freudian. Penises aren't penises but phallic structures. Sex is power struggle. The woman is the mother and the man is the father/son (sorry, there are no daughters). It's not erotic, it's academic. Some artists such as Antonioni and Almodovar manage to make auterist touches seem sexy instead of mechanic; Maddin unfortunately does not have their talent. An uplifted hand, instead of oozing the sexiness of power and the power of sex, manages to convey sex and power separately. A kinky woman dipping her finger in sugar and proceeding to suck the hell out of it is documented without care. No, this isn't a means of conveying sex in a new way. Simply, this is a result of someone conveying sex who couldn't really care any less about it.

Compare this to Laurice Guillen's 1992 Tagalog blockbuster Dahil Mahal Kita ("Because I love you") and Maddin is exposed for the coward filmmaker that he is. Guillen doesn't settle for the Freudian hegemony. Instead, she delves into the very humane urge to fuck. Profanely, Guillen's movie is about a promiscuous woman who is infected with HIV and develops AIDS. Instead of giving up, her will to live and to live on puts her at odds with her caretakers and a country in denial of the truth about AIDS when she becomes the first person to come out with her illness. The movie lacks Maddin's different-ness, focusing instead on rote realism underlined by heavy-handed melodrama. But Guillen's movie makes use of melodrama to give the story emotional credibility, but not to the point of losing its dignity. The best scene has Dolzura describing what she longs after developing AIDS, verbally describing sex without really going into anything blatantly sexual. With her descriptions of ears, legs, hands, and eyes, the scene deftly explores the nature of erotica rather than merely putting it on display. It's simplicity and sincerity lends the scene the eroticism a full-blown sex scene may not have provided. With a filmmaking style more interested in being profound and sincere, Guillen ultimately makes a movie more interesting and interested in sex than Maddin's handjob of a movie.

Dalaga si Misis Binata si Mister (Lino Brocka, 1981)

Is Dalaga si Misis Binata si Mister a complete failure? Not at all. I don’t think masters such as Brocka are ever capable of making anything that is a complete ham, but maybe this is a reflection of the leeway given to Brocka as per his role as the most influential filmmaker in the Philippines, and it may be proven wrong by simply pointing out that I have not seen all, not even most, of Brocka’s pictures. However, even if the technical reality of a certain film project makes it impossible for a movie to be a success, the qualities that define an auteur could nevertheless be taken into account and be used to interpret the movie beyond its technical failures.

In this movie however, it is the other way around: the technical gloss masks Brocka’s perpetual preoccupation with class and social transgression to deliver an entertaining vehicle for Nora Aunor and Christopher De Leon and nothing more. And the movie is entertaining: as a comedy, both actors play the traditional (stereotypical?) battle of the sexes scenario to a hilt, and do not fail to give a sense of dignity in their roles despite the need to make it funny in a conventional and inoffensive manner. In addition, the lengthy opening sequence and the number of scenes here and there within the movie displays Aunor’s singing, a diversion the inclusion of which to the narrative will be discussed later on.


But as portrait of domestic dysfunction, this is a second-rate attempt by Brocka to do something in which Bernal specializes. Not just marital discord, but rather in dramatizing social, political, and emotional distress as revealed through the breakdown of the family, the base of the Filipino’s (mythical) sense of self. In Bernal’s films however, the use of marriage as social metaphor is taken further by never really focusing on the destruction of the heterosexual relationship (unlike Brocka, queer reality was never a concern for Bernal, who I guess found enough solidarity in the equally marginalized image of the woman and also found that focusing on the relationship between a man and a woman to be more bankable), but rather on the ravages this destruction wreaks on the woman, both bearer and protector of patriarchal values and the primary victim of it. Bernal’s female image is Vilma Santos, whose (despite being known for her histrionics) use of a brand of subtle acting (one of small flutters of mannerisms that would fit well in a John Cassavetes flick) made the damage less ideological and more personal, and thus more devastating.


Aunor on the other hand isn’t meant for such a role. Whereas Santos specializes in personifying internalized and normalized social mores and the damages done thereof, Aunor’s image isn’t as “everyday woman.” Her very being is one of defiance: short, dark, and very strong eyes, Aunor cannot do “damaged woman” because of the passivity it implies in part of the woman. Although Santos’ characters, although suffering the havoc of patriarchy, never becomes a mere victim, Aunor’s image already assumes liberation, one whose defiance is not a product of oppression but of the character’s innate rebellion (ironically, since she is always portrayed as being more “traditional”). Even in a movie such as Brocka’s Nakaw na Pag-Ibig (“Stolen Love,” 1980), where Aunor played the role of a poor woman whose lover’s class envy caused him to leave her for a richer woman, Aunor’s oppressed wife never seems so “oppressed.” Even if her lover left her, her small efforts to win him back still betrays a sense of dignity, of a woman who wasn’t going to take anything lying down in the first place. (Which also made her character’s demise a little predictable, but not in a bad way.)


In the case of Dalaga si Misis Binata si Mister, this image of liberation translated into irresponsibility. The notion of “play” that is associated with love, sex, and youth that Bernal complicated in Dalawang Pugad Isang Ibon (“A bird and two nests,” 1977) in here is literally just play: when Aunor tells de Leon that they need to separate so they can be singles again without having to think of each other, it literally sounded as just that. There is no sense of a complicated relationship one has to marriage (freedom vs. companionship; the freedom in companionship and the oppression of loneliness). When Aunor gives de Leon the limitations on his “visits,” there’s no sense of a woman in control. Rather, it sounds like a couple of kids just messing around. Mind you, “a couple of kids messing around” itself could mean a million of things, as we’ve seen in Peter Pan (PJ Hogan, 2003). But in this case, Brocka never decides to treat play as anything more than messing around (as opposed to "messing around").


De Leon’s character could have been one of those pathetic yet pitiable male characters who, despite their execrable behavior (Dado in Insiang), were forgivable for their destructive imperfection. Or, even if we’re not willing to go that far (Dado we should remember was a rapist who fucked the mother to get to the daughter, de Leon a mere boy who couldn't keep his pants on), he could have been like Jay Ilagan’s character in Maging Akin Ka Lamang (1987), pitifully bound to his lust for a woman (in De Leon’s case, women). But played for pure comedy, De Leon was a buffoon. The sleeping around, the regretting it, the sleeping around some more…it was a little tiring.


The one narrative strand that I thought Brocka could have exploited well was the one that opened the movie: Nora Aunor as character-actress. Mid-way through the movie, we see De Leon spying on Nora through a telescope from across the street. Later we find that De Leon’s new girlfriend who was a model at his advertising agency. The movie ends with Aunor returning the gaze, looking at a sleeping De Leon. There’s all these layers of competing gazes—of alternating looking and being looked-at—that could have been the basis for the film’s battle of the sexes, and something that could have given this film a credible link to Brocka’s other works, with his preoccupation with having/lacking power and oppressing/being oppressed by others. As it is, this movie’s only link to Brocka’s ouvre is the clunky way it incorporated the “battle” part without looking at how it complicated the “of the sexes” part.


I know I know: “Filipinos are simpler, our stories simpler, our attack simpler.” But as the best filmmakers have demonstrated, “simplicity” is relative. As Brocka already demonstrated in Hello, Young Lovers, there’s a lot of ways to subvert the conventional story one is forced to tell. But I guess for a master filmmaker like him, it’s excusable. Maybe he was just tired…he did have three years prior where he churned out multiple masterpieces every year, three just in 1980 (Bona, Angela Markado, Nakaw na Pag-Ibig). Maybe he was just tired. In that case a little trip like this movie is forgivable.

May Lalaki sa Ilalim ng Kama Ko ("There's a man under my bed," Fely Crisostomo, 1978)

Just look at the framing for the title frame: balanced, with the bedroom (with one side of the bed empty) framed by a round wall on the foreground as if the film is a "peek" into her world. Unfortunately, the promise of the film's first images never amounted to much. Oh, and the title doesn't really make any sense either. Most of the men were on top of her bed, not under. On top of her even.

There have been very few movies where its concept just goes nowhere. Not just a limpid ending, an effort to dramatic tension that doesn't work, character development that didn't seem believable, or a turn of events that is too improbable. No. Simply, that the movie literally went nowhere. Things happened and the characters went through whatever happened, but the characters didn't change nor did their situation evolved. It's a stillness that carries with it no crises, drama, or meaning. It's a stillness that betrays nothing but the sincerest meaninglessness and vapidity. May Lalaki sa Ilalim ng Kama Ko carries with it a story, but a story only in a sense that a bunch of things go on. But nothing more.

The movie's concept is interesting: a philandering husband sleeps around while his wife stays home and takes care of their five children. When his wife gets tired of him, she reveals that none of their five children are his. Out of spite and jealousy, he hires somebody to make have sex with his wife (I don’t really know why). It fails. He goes blind. He realizes the evil of his ways. Wife and husband reconcile, not before the husband reveals that his illness is just a hoax. Movie ends with a dance party (literally). In the myriad ways Filipinos have twisted the concept of marital discord and extramarital affairs around, it's a little surprising that this movie is literally just about the extramarital affair. Even if the concept fails, such as in Dalaga si Misis Binata si Mister, the mad attempt to fix something impossible to mend is in itself more than not a fascinating thing to watch. And for a female filmmaker such as Crisostomo, it's a little odd that she gives no new or fresh way of looking at infidelity. (It doesn't mean that women have a different view of it, only that the industry, one would expect, would have been male-dominated enough that a woman's perspective would seem--even if it just sounds--fresh, even if it is truly the same.)

To salvage the whole thing, Crisostomo throws in everything and anything she could to make the whole thing seem interesting: eye candy in the form of half naked women, especially Amalia Fuentes; a singing Nino Mulach (!); fist fights; slap-stick comedy; annoyingly high-pitched maid who hits on the handsome hired help; and the handsome help's fat boyfriend. And Crisostomo, by and large, is a competent filmmaker. One could see that she is an editor and not a director by trade, utilizing more daring juxtapositions to represent the husband's horniness, and use shot-counter shots, which oddly enough I don't see much of in Filipino cinema (it's a very Hollywood technique, and Crisostomo did edit a Hollywood film directed by Monte Hellman). She also uses wild colors and lighting in certain scenes, especially in the scene where the husband goes to a Mrs. Robinson's house to...well, what else does a horny and philandering married man do in a house owned by a woman named "Mrs. Robinson"? She also has a lot of interesting framings, such as when the husband returns to his wife and he sees her waiting for him at the top of the stairs smoking, that if allowed to take flight would have been interesting. Maybe if left to her own devices, she would have made a movie that if not totally successful, at the very least not genuinely pointless. The movie would have been the sophisticated comedy of errors that it could have been, if she wasn't forced to essentially make a skin flick-child star-family picture-slapstick-melodrama-action hybrid (see, the last four categories would have worked. But with the first two...ay...).

In terms of acting, there are two basic emotions: resignation and surprise. Amalia Fuentes is basically just tired and has given up trying to change her husband. Her husband on the other hand is always surprised of the women around him. His trademark is a look of stun, almost as if slapped by the reality of female sexuality as power. The maid is always surprised by her boss, and the hired help is resigned of his role as paid seducer. This being the limitation of the film’s emotional pendulum, my reaction becomes limited as well: resigned that this shit movie will never do anything more than plod along, surprised that I am still watching. It’s like being back in school, where my eyes move but my brain, recognizing the vapidity, turns off. Other than the film’s complete pointlessness, this is its other achievement: making a film about sex unsexy, unexciting, and unengaging.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Tatlong Bulaklak ("Three flowers," Danny Zialcita, 1979)

Tatlong Bulaklak is Danny Zialcita’s take on Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema, a film about the awakening of a bourgeois family and their maid after a stranger invades their home and makes love with all of them. Through sexual provocation, Pasolini examines the nature of the bourgeoisie and exposes its rotten core, revealed when it comes in contact with the purity of carnal desire. Whereas the maid, a poor woman from the countryside who goes back home after her epiphanic interaction with the strange seducer, literally becomes a saint, the bourgeois family self-destructs. The father’s combustion is especially portrayed in the apocalyptic isolation of a volcanic landscape, a scene that is now one of the most iconic scenes of Italian cinema, fitting for the very embodiment of the patriarchal system and values that the “family” represents.

Zialcita’s version however is much “lighter” and thus more deceptive. Being a popular filmmaker whose oeuvre tends to skew towards women’s weepies and melodramas, the flowers to which the title refers are women with relatable issues that are portrayed and exploited to the fullest melodramatic effect. Never aspiring to “art,” Zialcita strips the story of its Freudian and Marxist roots, the issues being “mere issues,” with no adjectives to academically describe them. But as it were, Zialcita’s simplicity lends it the complexity and political ambiguity that Pasolini’s work lacked due to its diatribe.

The film opens with Tony Carreon*, a motorcyclist who lies unconscious by the side of the road after a presumed accident threw him off the road. A lawyer and his secretary save him and refer him to a crippled rich man, who then hires him as a chauffeur. Through many plot twist and turns, Carreon becomes involved with Pinky de Leon, the crippled man’s trophy wife; Lorna Tolentino, de Leon’s sister and an actress forced by her mother and director to progressively “lose her top” on screen; and Gloria Romero, a country lass who patiently waits for her jealous husband’s release from jail, despite the village—including her mother-in-law—accusing her of being unfaithful. Carreon challenges the assumptions these three women have of their roles in society: de Leon as a faithful trophy wife, Tolentino as a sex symbol, and Romero as the self-sacrificing wife. In the process these women also break down Carreon’s image as a macho savior, revealing that indeed the change the occurs are of their own growth as human beings, and that Carreon remains still a being whose agency is reliant upon the women his libido desires.

Zialcita depicts all the characters’ entrapment visually as well as thematically. Whereas de Leon often struts around with as little clothing as possible, her first few scenes (frames 1 & 3) also depict her as either a framed image of herself (an image that is followed by a zoom-in into her husband’s reflection in the same mirror, suggesting that he only lives with her image and not with her) or sitting aside a framed photograph of herself. Romero is portrayed as either a cut-up body (frame 6 shows her as a headless tits-and-ass woman) or a woman trapped behind bars (frame 7). Tolentino is literally a whore, her director, producer, and mother/manager her pimps. In her “filming” scenes she is always hounded by her pimp and customers/audience. In one scene (frame 8), the director even crosses the third wall and sells his actress to us/audience himself. This transgression not only emphasizes the theatricality of the film-within-the-film and Zialcita’s film itself, but also Tolentino’s disembodied-ness, of her lack of existence outside the four sides of the movie frame.

Unlike the women, the men are deemed by Zialcita as unworthy of transcending their on-screen frame-prisons. De Leon’s husband, although thematically castrated by his wheelchair, is further imprisoned by Zialcita’s tight close-ups and frame-within-frames (frame 2). Romero’s husband is, except for the last scene, is always associated with being a prison and being imprisoned, and one scene with his mother where he promises to leave Romero to come back home with his parents reveals him an oedipal case. Carreon however has the worst of luck. Most of the time, he just looks tired and disheveled, as if exhausted from being the middleman in helping these women find themselves. In one climactic scene, all three women show up in his place one right after the other to tell him that he—the strongman, the hero—is indeed not part of their future. The scene is heightened by the film’s score, and Zialcita plays the whole scene into full effect by making Carreon out to be a total loser, both to be laughed at and be pitied. One right after another the women reveal themselves, with one right about to knock at Tony’s door just before the other opens it.

This being a Filipino movie, there is of course a happy ending. The women find themselves, and the men get what they want, which is fulfillment sexual or otherwise. Zialcita is a popular filmmaker. He cannot afford the brazen political effrontery that the likes of Pasolini or Godard may have been allowed. But being a populist auteur, he nevertheless subtly sneaks in a point or two. Although the end is happy, the women nevertheless seem unsatisfied. Romero’s face as she walks away with her husband could only be compared with Beauty’s face when she finds Beast’s true identity in Cocteau’s version of the fairy tale. Tolentino becomes pure and innocent, but despite her efforts her mother is still making money off of her name by blackmailing her producer and director. de Leon ends-up with Tony, but not only does she lose her spunk which made her appealing, her acceptance of Tony is just that. She kind of just…takes him.

To some extent, it is Zialcita’s—and Gosiengfiao’s, and Bernal’s, and Brocka’s, and the old Celso ad. Castillo’s—irreverence that is lacking in the industry today. Of course, irreverence isn’t lacking in Filipino filmmaking. In how it looks like, much of the indie scene contains these voices and maintains a monopoly on them. As of right now, O’Hara is silenced and the most irreverent movies made in the past few years were Crying Ladies and La Visa Loca which, despite being fun and different, lacked the social consciousness of the aforementioned auteurs (in La Visa Loca, the movie’s “epiphany” was that immigration was a result of lack of national identity, never examining if it is the nation itself that is pushing its citizens out of its borders). Heck, one cannot even make the bourgeois and elitist argument that it is the “increasing” catering to the “Bakya” crowd that’s leading to the degradation of Filipino movies. Let us remember that even the lowly FPJ action films and in our case, weepies, had some sort of a finger in character—that is Filipino character—development and growth. Even Nora’s very image as “the little brown girl” had so much social and political connotations. Seeing Hollywood domination, Filipinos couldn’t see any choice other than to acquiesce. In addition, since Hollywood has a tendency of shipping out only the most banal and formulaic of its movies, Filipinos are thus not even acquiescing to the best of American cinema. Thus, not only did Filipinos absorbed the worse exploitation of the most American of all methods of filmmaking—that is, genre filmmaking—we also absorbed the worse of how it conducts business—that is, see the profit and the numbers as the only indication of a cinema’s health.

I must stop before this rant turns into a deadly spark of outrage. Watching Zialcita’s film—or any other Filipino movie made before the 90s, for that matter—right after watching O’Hara’s Babae sa Bubungang Lata (“Woman on the Tin Roof”) will never result in optimism or hope…

*NOTE: I use actors' names because it is a pain in the ass to get character names. Having to either remember them or listen through the faded audio track on the tape, I decided to say fuck it and just use actors' names.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Ina, Kapatid, Anak ("Mother, sister, daughter," Lino Brocka, 1979)

The movie starts with scenes of a Filipino small town from inside a car, with a woman riding inside and slowly taking everything in through the automobile’s dirty lenses, as if back from a long absence. Later, we find that the woman is Pura, a woman coming back to her town after twenty years living in the US, but unhappily welcomed by her sister Emilia. Pura's return brings back old baggage, from past love affairs to sibling rivalry. All this in a backdrop defined by their father's impending death and the stagnation and hopelessness that define small town provincialism.

First off, something really needs to be said of the Cinefilipino DVD quality and the movie/video's image quality in general. Although I am very glad that Cinefilipino has taken the time to put many Filipino classics on DVD so that everyone can enjoy them, they really need to spend a little bit more time transferring their movies. In this particular one for example, although the image is surprisingly crystal clear, heads are constantly cut off. I suspect it is because they have a print where the subtitles are burned into the stock, and the only way to hide them is to apply masks where none existed before. For a movie so heavily invested on framing and portraiture, it really ruins much of it. The movie's color too suggests something is incredibly off: the color has a sepia tone, giving an antique feel to the movie, thus giving much importance and centrality to the family's old house and the aging patriarch that lives in it. Now, Brocka may have intended things to be this way, or this color may be as a result of neglect, but it is quite shocking how that seemingly minor change could change the whole film's outlook.

In the center of the movie is a family feud coupled with the slowness and futility of life in the small town. Emilia's anger and Pura's detachment are both products of how these women responded to the stunting grip the town has on them. Emilia, played with such gusto by Charito Solis, lashes out for being stuck with a husband, daughter, and father that do not love her. It is irritating and grating to watch, yet also very heartbreaking. Her desperation is shown in a face that, if not angry and shouting, is half hidden, a depiction of seething rage waiting but unable to get out I last saw done well in Bergman’s Cries and Whispers. Pura on the other hand, played with icy reserve by Lolita Rodriguez, is disassociated, her connection to the town reduced to numbers and facts, the town only of importance to her in how it could serve her needs as a capitalist. It is not only a competition between two very different human beings, but two very different strains of Filipino acting: Nora’s restraint and Vilma’s histrionics. (To an extent, one can argue that in film, human beings and the systems of portraying them are one and the same.) The movie could only come to a head, between a woman desperate for an escape and another whose escape has left her empty and cold.

Ina, Kapatid, Anak demonstrates Brocka's skill with the camera, giving us enigmatic portraits of Pura and Emilia and depictions of actions taking place in multiple planes tied together by a soft shallow focus that both blurs the world around the characters and ultimately grounds the characters—their idiosyncrasies and dilemmas—to this world. Brocka again quotes Bergman by turning heads in a 3/4-1/4 angle from each other, ready to either turn away from or turn towards each other. This set-up gives an impression of an impending reconciliation, which only makes the conflict more heartbreaking. He also seemed to have taken queue from Dreyer vis a vis Godard, Especially with Pura's head shot in medium shot and off-center, against a solid background (usually black), looking out to the distance with extreme either to her left or right. Although the aforementioned masking kept many of the shots from giving their full effect due to cut-off chins or cut-off heads, more than not they are still powerful enough to convey the desperation for a connection and the loneliness of disconnection and detachment brought upon by displacement, economic, social or emotional. Ina, Kapatid, Anak is a powerful application of European modes of humanism in a Filipino context that does justice to both the mode and the context. For a lesser filmmaker, this balancing act would have resulted in a work of schizophrenia, the film being reduced to “art vs. pop” clichés that ruin much of the “indie” films made by Filipinos today. For Brocka, pop is art and vice versa. To argue for abandoning the “bakya and tsinelas” crowd for sophistication and intelligence could only lead to a Pura syndrome.

Here's the entire film online