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3.23.2014

IN THE SUPER AVILYN OF YOUR LOVE




"Every mixtape tells a story. Put them together and they add up the story of a life." - Rob Sheffield, Love Is A Mixtape


I am a tiny master of mixtapes with battle plans and The Distance Between Us was my ground zero. It had a Fra Lippo Lippi title track and the songs ran out of air on Side B. Corny, melodramatic, unremarkable but primordial. And a hit. Also, I got better at it.

I came to mixtapes with no guru nor method. I just knew to make them and what to make them for. I thought myself alone in the endeavor, a lonesome freak. And it wasn't until much later that the point of making one veered away from the romantic and that I would meet others with passions just like mine. But back then, everybody else around me just bought greeting cards. Some took the trouble to write love letters. I wrote some of my own, too, and ghost-wrote a few. But I couldn't help myself. Mixtapes verged on the sort of social deficit that makes ordinary people give bedroom shut-ins like me odd looks. And I do have some way with words. But there are spots they can't hit that words with a tune under it can.

" . . . that's how you tell (someone) you like them, you make them tapes of songs that are secretly about how you feel . . ." - Mary Jane Watson, Sensatonial Spiderman Annual 1 : To Have And To Hold

I make mixtapes for the world, old friends, new friends, future friends. With toil and trouble. And a programmers' zeal. But it's the type Mary Jane talks about that's my original bill of goods, my kung fu . This type of mixtape is the shared conspiracy of the tongue-tied and terrified, smoke signals to possible lovers, coveting your attention if nothing else but can I carry your books and walk you home and can we talk from time to time and maybe dance a little and how did you like the third song on Side B? I was born with benign stage fright, the quintessentially and at times painfully shy guy with a slightly overdeveloped mush gland. I came to mixtapes naturally. I never figured Mary Jane to be the sort who would,though.

That bit with the mixtape's from when she and Peter Parker were still teenagers stumbling into each other. She overcame her shyness, Peter never quite did. But in tracing their invincible history Matt Fraction and Salvador Larocca's To Have And To Hold nails their dynamic - - -and makes me believe in the social anomaly of their union more than Douglas Sirk can: headstrong movie star who can have anyone she wants marrying her nerdy high school science teacher childhood friend. I've re-read this too many times to count and not only does it still get all swoony but it still leaves no shred of doubt that the title would have been better off had Joe Quesada not put the marriage asunder.

Fraction milks everything J.Michael Straczynski believed in one last time here and gives it throb. And the throb will have to do until the next status quo. "I'll be back," Peter tells himself as he says goodbye to Mary Jane in one of many flashback sequences. "I swear. For you, I'll always be back." Leaving is chickenshit and staying takes guts. Superhero guts.

Rob Sheffield and his wife Renee in Love Is A Mixtape had the same dynamic as Peter and Mary Jane. Like me and like Peter, Sheffield's a semi-reformed bedroom shut-in prone to backslide, too. And Renee was the girl whose lust for life lured and kept him out of it. Tornado and her wallflower. It's the same . . . no, it's the only dynamic I can aspire to.


"Girls take up a lot of room. I had a lot of room for this one." - Rob Sheffield (Love Is A Mixtape)

" . . .there was nothing about her that promised to be easy but I couldn't keep away . . maybe that's why she fascinated me so much,I couldn't explain her, that girl confused me to the core . . ." (Peter Parker on Mary Jane Watson, Sensational Spiderman Annual 1:To Have And To Hold)

Rob saw Renee from a distance. That's how it almost always starts. With a sighting and the minutest tic that means nothing to anybody else but is the world to you and throws your chemistries slightly out of whack right before matters get worse. "The bartender put on Big Star's Radio City. Renee was the only one who perked up." Not to say that liking the same music foolproofs a relationship or that it should matter, really, but even the littlest overlap tends to fuel-inject it. And it isn't as hell on the mixtapes.

"I don't know what your type is. I don’t know what your deal is. I don't even know if you have a boyfriend. I know I like you and I want to be in your life, that's it, and if you have any room for a boyfriend, I would like to be your boyfriend, and if you don't have any room, I would like to be your friend. Any room you have for me in your life is great. If you would like me to start out in one room and move to another, I could do that." - Rob to Renee

Rob and Renee had more than a little overlap. They had the same favorite band (Pavement) , the same favorite Meat Puppets album and the same favorite songs as kids (Andy Gibb's I Just Wanna Be Your Everything). And they constantly spoke their love through the mixtapes they made for each other during their brief 5 year marriage. Love Is A Mixtape is like some wish-fulfillment fantasy for me, if only for that part. But, unlike Peter and Mary Jane, Rob and Renee are real people. And it's no secret that halfway through, Renee dies of a pulmonary embolism.

Love Is A Mixtape is a long goodbye that hurts terrible bad near the end with a hurt that gets sticky and gains weight long after. Like To Have And To Hold, it's all about the gravities of the past, how you cling to it for oxygen, how you sometimes have to discard it for diesel. But as you reel from the wallop of its immense sadness, it's easy to overlook the positivity it exudes. Five years, five days,five minutes,who cares. True love found Rob and Renee in the end , like Daniel Johnston predicted, and 'til death did they part, singing songs until the last last minute. I find that . . .well, beautiful. And not a little comforting. Cynicism is society's cop-out. It's too easy. And you're no less lost anyway. "I'm scared . . . " Renee tells Rob the first night they come together and aren't we all? Love Is A Mixtape doesn't let you off the hook, it raises the stakes and makes it scarier. I used to snicker at exes and their beloved chick flicks. But I sort of get them now when I re-read this and it restores my perhaps naive faith in the second (third?fourth?) coming of a perhaps false god: the tornado that loves you and the perfect mixtape you can' wait to make for her.

3.18.2014

ALL TOMORROW'S SIRENS







Daniel Faraday called it a constant. Daniel Faraday being the jittery physicist from Lost. And the reason he was so jittery may well be Desmond, who’s about to go back in time, and run the risk of getting lost in it. Unless, of course, he has a constant, a recurring event perhaps, or better yet a recurring person to whom he had an emotional attachment of such ferocity it acts as hook, as coordinate, as way back. In Terry Gillam’s grandiose remake, Twelve Monkeys, her name was Kathryn Reilly, but in Chris Marker’s original La Jetee (The Pier) from 1962, she had no name, but the woman Helene Chatelain played was quite possibly the first constant. And consequently, my top pick for science-fiction cinema siren.

My picks are highly subjective, of course. Some you can see coming, because how can you not slot Jane Fonda’s Barbarella in for quintessence,  not to mention Sigourney Weaver’s entire run as Ripley in the Alien quadrilogy  for will to power,  and the eponymous troika of superwomen from The Heroic Trio played by Michelle Yeoh and Anita Mui and Maggie Cheung, for sheer resplendence? All draw from my own tastes in women and from how high I regard the work said women appear in, guided by how a siren is defined by her specific effect on men. And Chatelain only seems like an outlier choice until we start going by how one dictionary definition boils that effect down to “beguiling”. La Jetee  may well be the greatest science fiction film full stop and Chatelain’s crucial function may have been to keep the time-travelling soldier from going insane. But that’s only if you don’t count the burning love that drove him to return to the past and save the future again and again and again as a sort of insanity, too.  It’s the same effect Kate Winslet’s Clementine has on Jim Carrey in Michel Gondry’s (and Charlie Kaufman’s) mesmerizing grafting of Philip K. Dick with Alain Resnais, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, that is, the desire to repeatedly go through any strait no matter how dire with someone. Both feature, too, a man whose destiny is ultimately shaped by a woman. No other definition of beguilement holds a candle.

And this is really the prevailing dynamic for most of the more obvious choices, even Elsa Lanchester’s Bride of Frankenstein, undisputedly the first siren of science-fiction cinema, who did sooth the savage beast.  Despite the dominance of the male hormone in science-fiction and despite that dominance verging on obsolescence, the presence of a woman in a piece of science-fiction cinema can still be wonderfully disruptive. Grace Park’s feisty engineer Boomer in Ronald Moore’s gritty re-jig of Battlestar Galactica had several men wriggling under her thumb. Megumi Hayashibara’s Faye Valentine from Cowboy Bebop, Diana Rigg’s Mrs. Peel from The Avengers and Karen Gillen’s Amelia Pond from the last two seasons of Doctor Who all had a habit of constantly upstaging the men they were supposed to be mere foils to, and those men would include a bounty hunter, a crack secret agent and a Time Lord, respectively. And no amount of new age gibberish would’ve sold Neo into entering The Matrix had Trinity been any less alluring.

Trinity, of course, is a mash-up built from parts of Ghost in the Shell’s Major Kusanagi and Peter Chung’s Aeon Flux and Molly from William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Selina Kyle from the Batman comics and Irma Vep from Louis Feuillade’s epic proto-noir serial Les Vampires. But she's also the embodiment of that other genre’s archetype. The femme fatale of noir is “a mysterious alluring woman who leads men into dangerous situations”. And when Trinity goes acrobat all over those cops and agents and buildings at the start of The Matrix, like a two-gun fetish-wear wu xia angel of doom, your first impulse may be a hormonal swoon, but the next and more fatal one, is to follow her wherever she leads.







1. Helene Chatelain as The Woman from La Jetee (Chris Marker): She had no name, she said nothing, but not only was she a time traveler’s object of desire but eventually the shaper of his destiny, which is essentially what all women are.

2. Megumi Hayashibara as Faye Valentine from Cowboy Bebop (Shinichiro Watanabe): She’s a cartoon, deal with it. And futuristic bounty hunters don’t come any spunkier or sexier.

3. Diana Rigg as Mrs. Emma Peel from The Avengers (Brian Clemens): The proto-Scully no less. First and fairer. Sorry Gillian, but we are talking about the only woman James Bond saw fit to marry.

4. Karen Gillen as Amelia Pond from Doctor Who (Series 5-6) (Steven Moffatt): No companion of the Doctor made me swoon so bad it broke my heart the way Amy did.

5. Sigourney Weaver as Ripley from Alien (Ridley Scott): Not just for the fact that she fought the eponymous nasty in nothing but her underwear but I’d be lying if I said that had no bearing.

6. Kate Winslet as Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry): The damaged girlfriend we all know and we all would probably go through recurring cycles of relationship hell. even in a future where romantic bliss was within reach. 

7. Michelle Yeoh, Anita Mui and Maggie Cheung as the Heroic Trio from The Heroic Trio (Johnnie To) :  The first ladies of HK cinema together in one film as wu xia superheroes saving a pulpy HK of the future. It had me at “the first ladies of HK cinema in one film”.

8. Jane Fonda as Barbarella from Barbarella (Roger Vadim): Nobody outside of the Europeans could touch Jane Fonda in the 60s. Strap her into a skimpy superhero costume and it’s game over.

9. Carrie Anne Moss as Trinity from The Matrix (The Wachowski Brothers):  The sci-fic/noir mashup that is cyberpunk doesn’t have a deep bench in terms of cinema but Trinity is hands down its sovereign femme fatale.

10. Grace Park as Boomer from Battlestar Galactica (Ronald Moore): Excuse the gushing but she did tend to light up the darkest, nastiest longform sci-fic series so far. That has got to count. 


11. Elsa Lanchester as The Bride from The Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale):  The first science-fiction cinema siren, no less. Stupid to omit lest you want her “husband” on your case.



*originally published in Vault

1.05.2014

CRAWLING BACK TO YOU: MY 2013 IN MUSIC

Turns out, despite promises to the contrary, this year's disclaimer is last year's disclaimer but then, you don't even have to scroll down the page to parse that: nope, there are still no annotations to the songs, that's two years in a row and my excuse is similarly, embarrassingly, boringly the same. But hey, at least there's a list of albums, which I didn't have last year and which I've never annotated and only recently ranked, and which demands a disclaimer all its own pertaining to how mutable said ranking is. That's out of how I listened to a lot of them late in the year and often casually at that. Without intending to, for instance, I ignored Yeesuz for months. I'm still listening to the bottom five now and I'm fighting the urge to shuffle the order. I stand by my love for all 13, though, as I do the others that didn't quite make the cut but I now feel should have (Nick Cave, Foxygen, Ariana Grande), and as I do, too, the 40 tracks (not singles, though some of them are) in the list that follows.

Both lists, incidentally, are dominated by one band. That's another significant alteration of the rules, the spilling over from one list to the next, which I disallowed from the get-go, and which, up until the first draft of this year's list, I stringently adhered to. The Monkeys' AM prowls familiar ground lyrically but the teenage kicks have been superseded by an after-party melancholia (more than half the songs are love songs) even as the music surges with libido and swagger. Bowie, in all his permutations, is its spiritual gunk, but fed through the urgent tropes of hip hop, although it's really not as simple as that. And as ardent a fan as I am, and as high as my hopes were, I never saw the record coming and certainly couldn’t ignore Knee Socks. The push and pull between the lyric’s romantic/sexual confusion/ frustration and the slinky guile of the music is really the perfect distillation of what may well be the record’s overriding theme: the yearning for intimacy against a backdrop of perpetual nightlife.

Having the Monkeys on my list is a no-brainer. If memory serves, I’ve had them on every list I’ve made. That’s another disclaimer for this year though. I lacked the time and energy, and really, the enthusiasm, for my usual modes of adventurism, relying entirely on a system not too far removed from the Similar Artist feature of music sites, which should account for the smattering of R&B inversions (Autre Ne Veut, Blood Orance, Inc) and girls with synths (Kate Boy, ChVrches). I also threw back a lot, literally. A larger chunk of last year's listening were old records I only recently stumbled onto for the first time, with this year's highlights being Van Morrison's Veedon Fleece, Bill Withers' +Justments, Townes Van Zandt's High LowAnd In Between  and everything by Jedi Mind Tricks.  But then again, save perhaps for PSY and Kanye and Beyonce and These New Puritans, nearly everything on this year’s list, and nearly everything I listened to, seemed, if not staunchly retro, then willfully derivative and referential. 2013 really was the year pop music threw back, too.

Bored Nothing's Shit For Brains wafts through like the ghost of a lost Alex Chilton single. Fitz and the Tantrums at last discarded their retro-soul preoccupations and full-hogged the mantle of this generation's Hall & Oates in terms of kitchen-sink pop gene-splicing.  Ducktails and Pure Bathing Culture were channeling Prefab Sprout with enough acumen and eloquence to seal the year but then Prefab Sprout itself emerged seemingly out of nowhere, and with a spring in its step, too. God bless you, Paddy MacAloon. Ariana Grande was similarly referencing pre-Emancipation Mariah and matching her early slew of singles strength for strength, until Mariah herself threw back to the days when she had no street cred and pretty much didn't need any, and the ecstatic result is quite possibly her most joyous single since Dreamlover.  And much as the laser-precise hubris of one coinage called Haim a mash-up of Fleetwood Mac and En Vogue, it was when they tapped instead into Long Run-era Eagles, right down to the bombastic drum figure that gave Heartache Tonight balls, that they had their catchiest, most sublime moment, which was also the second catchiest, most sublime, moment in all of last year's pop music. The first, of course, belonged to last year's queen of pop sleaze and who doesn't nearly deserve half the grief she's been getting from media pussies.   For the record, and for my money, Bangerz was solid. But We Can't Stop, overt drug references and hedonistic will to power and all, is a stone classic. Hang in there, Miley. And no, that wasn't a Wrecking Ball pun.


1. Arctic Monkeys, AM
2. John Murry, THE GRACELESS AGE
3. These New Puritans, FIELD OF REEDS
4. Yo La Tengo, FADE
5. Beyonce, BEYONCE
6. Blood Orange, CUPID DELUXE
7. The National, TROUBLE WILL FIND ME
8. Ducktails, THE FLOWER LANE
9. Justin Timberlake, THE 20/20 EXPERIENCE
10. Mayer Hawthorne, WHERE DOES THIS DOOR GO?
11. Kanye West, YEESUZ
12. My Bloody Valentine, MBV
13. Fitz And The Tantrums, MORE THAN JUST A DREAM







1. Arctic Monkeys, Knee Socks

2. Suede, It Starts And Ends With You

3. PSY, Gentleman

4. John Murry, ¿No Te Da Ganas De Reir

5. Summer Camp, Pink Summer

6. Bored Nothing, Shit for Brains

7. Ducktails, Letter of Intent

8. Justin Timberlake, Blue Ocean Floor 

9. Prefab Sprout, Billy

10. Phosphorescent, Ride On Right On

11. Miley Cyrus, We Can't Stop 

12. ChVrches, Gun

13. The National, Don't Swallow The Cap

14. Beyonce, XO

15. Kanye West, Blood on the Leaves

16. Okkervil River, Pink Slips

17. Mariah Carey with Miguel, Beautiful

18. Fitz And The Tantrums, Fool's Gold

19. Rose Elinor Dougall, Strange Warnings

20. Daughter, Smother

21. Daft Punk, Giorgio By Moroder

22. Let's Buy Happiness, Run

23. Tegan And Sara, I Was A Fool

24. Pure Bathing Culture, Pendulum

25. Ariana Grande, Almost Is Never Enough

26. Haim, The Wire

27. Autre Ne Veut, World War

28. Mayer Hawthorne, Wine Glass Woman

29. Blood Orange, It Is What It Is

30. Majical Cloudz, Turns Turns Turns

31. Kate Boy, The Way You Are

32. Foxygen, No Destruction

33. AlunaGeorge, Best Be Believing

34. Yo La Tengo, Ohm

35. Savages, Shut Up

36. Pearl Jam, Sirens

37. These New Puritans, Fragment Two

38. Dawn Richards, 86

39. Matt Berry, Medicine

40. Inc.,Angel

11.18.2013

CINEMA ONE ORIGINALS 2013: THE LOWDOWN I

Islands
Directed by Whammy Alcazaren
Written by Whammy Alcazaren and Giancarlo Abrahan

Kabisera
Directed by Borgy Torre
Written by Vicente Garcia Groyon

Sitio
Directed and Written by Mes De Guzman



*Warning: Reviews are slightly spoiler-y.





Islands: Beloved by many, and understandably so, Whammy’s second feature is every bit as ambitious as his first, and it’s an ambition attuned both to the limits of its reach and to the imperatives of ignoring and overstepping those limits, which he thankfully indulges. A spaceship becomes a metaphor for the inarticulate speech of the heart that threads the crushing solitudes of a widow, a primeval hunter and an astronaut into something of a cosmic equivalence. All hangs brightly, sometimes even poignantly, until the astronaut inexplicably breaks into Moonstar 88's worst hit, disrupting the tone. And in revealing how everything is a mere figment of a director’s grandiose imagination, its lofty vision feels, if not entirely trivialized, then obfuscated, held back, reduced even, and all we have is the banal fumble of a conversation between two friends who can't quite admit their feelings for each other. For all its reliance on words, though, on navel-gazing elucidation and mumblecore whimsy, on epic poetry and corny pop song lyrics, the film is, if nothing else, a parade of intoxicating images, and for the most part, they articulate its longings with more brunt and potency, not least of which is that breath-taking shot of the astronaut’s helmet fogging up as he sighs, realizing perhaps that the world outside his spaceship is no different from the world inside it, only more desolate and more endless, reminding us, too, of how far the film wanted to go and how close it got before it's stranded by its own hesitations in speaking its love.

Kabisera: A fisherman stumbles on what can only be described as a motherlode of premium-grade meth and, with a prod from his enterprising wife, goes into business with his unstable childhood friend and things, naturally, fuck up, albeit slowly. A logline like that makes the Breaking Bad parallels almost a given, except that this was written four years ago before the show became a glimmer in the public consciousness. Not only that, but our history with meth runs long enough and deep enough to argue for its endemism. Dibs, then.  Not that it gets as hopped-up as a meth high. Its deliberate languor may lag some in the second act but is consistent with the coiled simmer of noir, which is what this is, given how it's as much about the frailty of men, and how the two at its center are undone by a woman, as it is about the patriarchal tyranny that is how we are wired as a culture and the monstrous shapes it can take. The disquieting coda, shot in appropriately excruciating slow motion that forces us to linger on the ramifications,  gets under the skin and takes its time leaving.

Sitio: At some point, a character holds up a bootleg DVD of  Straw Dogs. That's Mes giving you a nudge and a wink. Because that's what this essentially is, a bootleg cover of Straw Dogs, rough-hewn and low-fi, but not in the way Funny Games was, which is to say that it doesn't bother with either the postmodern interrogation, nor the gratuitous display, of cinematic violence, and more a straight-up transplanting of its skin and bones to our rural boondocks, which oddly makes sense. The city folk under siege are not a nerdish mathematician and his inexplicably gorgeous wife but rather a washed-up and paranoid coward and his two very shrill, and possibly very dim, and definitely very annoying, younger sisters, repairing to their derelict country house after he loses everything. And you're never quite sure if the four men who work for them and eventually, insidiously,  take over the place pose any serious danger, not when all they seem to want to do is cook food for everyone and videoke all night, even after one of them allegedly dies by the brother's unwitting hand. Taken purely on its self-imposed genre terms, it lacks the necessary threat and constriction, it's too listless, too loose. Come to this as if it were a black comic inversion of the power structure, though, and the drawn-out ambivalence of their upended class dynamic comes to life in spurts.

11.16.2013

ALL THE BOYS THINK SHE'S A SPY






"Ideologically, none of us should like the Bond films. They are sexist, heterosexist, xenophobic, everything that is not politically correct." (Professor James Chapman)

He was the flamboyant antithesis to the sober, conflicted British real world working class spooks embodied by Harry Palmer and George Smiley and Tom Quinn. Bond, that is. James Bond. Not so much a spy but a superspy, but really, The Superspy.  With an iconography that has exploded and calcified into its own self-contained rubric. Every James Bond film had a status quo to safeguard, from the voluptuous tremolo of its theme music to the softcore chic of its credit sequences, but it would also include at some point an ungainly, often unfortunate fondness for silly sight gags and sillier tech. At some point, Bond had become this jokey anachronism, a cash cow still but coasting on nostalgia more than anything else. Johnny English was having a go at James Bond, of course.  But Bond, at least in the films, eventually became his own Johnny English, a caricature of what was vaguely one already.

Dean Martin’s Matt Helm was having a go at Bond, too.  Having a go, specifically, at the lothario in him.  Bond slept around, sure. That singular trait almost superseded every other facet of his character. But much as the Bond films did objectify women to a point, one can argue that it isn't any more sexist than that laptop wallpaper of Ryan Gosling with his shirt off. Kingsley Amis generously described Bond's attitude toward women as “Protective, not dominating or combative.”  But Alan Moore, who appropriated the Bond character under a thinly-veiled disguise in his League of Extraordinary Gentleman comics, says otherwise:  “The overriding factor in James Bond's psychological makeup is his utter hatred and contempt for women.” And there is a sinister thrill in re-visiting the series with a firm grasp of this particular, and rather subversive, kink in his persona. Bond Girl is the collective by which these women are known, and they have in common, if nothing else, a latent exotica and a double entendre name, with Honor Blackman’s Pussy Galore from Goldfinger being the juiciest of them all. “My name is Pussy Galore.” she tells Bond, who retorts “I must be dreaming.”

But it’s Ursula Andres’ Amazonian Honey Ryder from Dr. No whom the world regards as the sovereign Bond Girl. And there’s no denying the charge of that first time we see her, emerging from the ocean in nothing but a white bikini. “What are you doing here, looking for shells?” she asks Bond. “No” , Bond quips, “Just looking.” Oddly enough, the Bond Girl never did adhere to this look. In the next film, From Russia With Love, Danielle Bianchi‘s Tatyana Romanova was neither as robust or statuesque, and was in fact, almost aggressively feminine, her strength being her demeanor, less of a co-dependent damsel in distress but more a pro-active ally.

The films pulled back on the history of sexual violence the Bond Girls shared in Ian Fleming’s novels. Pulled back almost to the point of ignoring it, their film counterparts having less turbulent backstories.   Significantly, too, in the first two films, both the swashbuckle and the promiscuity were also pulled back, not yet succumbing to the pulp tendencies and the tongue-in-cheek, outlandish vibe, nor to the alleged misogyny and xenophobia and sexism. The clause we sometimes unwittingly invoke to take pleasure in the Bond films without qualifiers was that they were espionage fantasies as fetish cartoons, that they were not to be taken that seriously. Because, seen one way, the Professor was right.  And so was Paul Johnson, whose scathing review of the Dr. No novel, boiled Bond down to “the sadism of a schoolboy bully, the mechanical two-dimensional sex-longings of a frustrated adolescent, and the crude snob-cravings of a suburban adult.” Still. Drives fancy cars, has a battery of science-fiction gadgets at his disposal, sleeps with every beautiful woman he happens to run into. Being Bond, even for a day, is the ultimate male power fantasy.

But if we persist in the argument that he was a remorseless Casanova, who only saw women as a means to an end, as necessary collateral damage to getting the job done, then we can break the Bond Girl down to two types.  Those who succumb to his wiles and often seal their doom when they do, like Solange from Casino Royale or Shirley Eaton in Goldfinger or Andrea Anders from The Man With The Golden Gun.  And those whose wiles he succumbs to or the ones where he meets his match, like Michele Yeoh’s Wai Lin from Tomorrow Never Dies , who not once felt she needed Bond’s help to save the day.

There are gray areas, the Bond Girls that are neither one or the other, and are consequently  the least interesting ones, if only because they were passive, a little ditzy at times and amounted to little more than eye candy, with Denise Richards’ Christmas Jones from The World Is Not Enough being the most vacuous of the lot. Jane Seymour’s mysterious Solitaire from Live And Let Die  does tend to fall into this limbo but she gets a reprieve out of how she seemed to genuinely throw Bond on a loop.  Grace Jones’ May Day in A View To A Kill  started  out as a foe, one who could power lift a grown man and parachute off the Eiffel Tower, and finished up on Bond’s side but suffering for it, becoming quite possibly the only Bond Girl to embody both types. Like Pussy Galore, except Pussy Galore managed to get out unscathed. They were both, of course, henchwomen. Sophie Marceau’s Elektra King from The World Is Not Enough was, significantly, the one calling the shots, the first, and so far only, female evil mastermind in the entire franchise, and canny enough to know what would break a man like Bond and almost did.

Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale was the bolt from the blue, the smite of no return for Bond. The Daniel Craig reboot was revisionism by risk management, sure, but it also meant to prop the sag in the franchise by realigning it with the real world, with its powderkeg urgency, with its existential angst, with its apocalyptic melancholia. With its Jason Bournes and Jack Ryans, really. Gone was the suavity of Connery , the cheekiness of Moore, the earnestness of Brosnan, and in its place was something a little darker, a little wounded, a little more vulnerable. Craig played Bond as brash, brutish, and verging on everything they tried to pin on him all these years. And the chink in the armors of men as fortified as he is here is always love  At one point, he tells Vesper “I have no armour left. You’ve stripped it from me. Whatever is left of me, whatever I am, I’m yours.” and that he intends to quit and run away with her. She, of course, sees to it that it never happens.

If we go by the chronology of the films, rather than the novels, Vesper is not the first girl Bond falls in love with. That honor belongs to Diana Rigg’s Teresa Draco in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the only girl Bond went so far as to marry.  Their wedding is quite possibly the most joyous sequence in a Bond film ever.  And in the penultimate scene that comes after, as the newlyweds drive off to their ever after, you get to feel something you rarely feel in a Bond film, a genuine sense of empathy and a genuine sense of threat. Here is Bond. The misogynist, the xenophobe, the heterosexist,  the superspy.  Rehabilitated by love but also made impervious to harm by it,  just before he is ultimately destroyed by the only thing that could: a heart broken in half by true love and an assassin's bullet.

*Originally published in Vault

10.24.2013

CATHOLIC GIRLS





Giuseppe Tornatore’s Malena was, in hindsight, far less than its reputation would have you believe, and whose exaltation I’ve always regarded with mild bewilderment and pin on whatever residual goodwill there was left for its auteur, who claimed the world as his oyster 12 years before, after Cinema Paradiso somehow nudged Italian cinema back into the spotlight, becoming the universally-beloved arthouse film for people who don’t like arthouse films. Prey as it was to a gnawing sentimentality, Cinema Paradiso was nevertheless seized by this confluence of mischief and wonderment that gave it a litheness and buoyancy that was nowhere to be found in the middling, ham-fisted predictability of Malena. You can argue, of course, and to be fair, Malena has retained a coterie of die-hards to this day, but the only aspect of it that’s resistant to argument, or indeed, to dissent, was, and still is, the intoxicating smolder of its star , Monica Bellucci.

The consensus reality among cineastes was that, after WWII, neo-realism begun to progressively exhaust its surplus. Vittorio De Sica’s 1952 Umberto D. was sort of its last bow and more or less the point when Italian cinema began to splinter and diversify, into pink neo-realism, into Spaghetti Westerns, into giallos, into the vibrant climate under which the hormonal phenomenon known as the Italian Goddess would emerge and hold sway, tapering off in the 1980s and becoming, in 2000,  little more than remaindered exotica many times re-purposed by advertising into pop cultural iconicity. But here was Monica, on the screen, in the now, a few years before she posed on the cover of an American magazine wearing nothing but Iranian caviar, embodying its quintessence, rekindling its fervor, evoking on one hand, the earthy sultriness of Anna Magnani in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Mamma Roma and on the other, the robust sensuality of Daniela Silverio in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Identification of a Woman.

Movie stars, of course, routinely undergo being clustered, some would say objectified, into collective, and predominantly physical, stereotypes. It’s branding. Boil it down and the Italian Goddess comes from the same fetishizing impulses that infect us today with Manic Pixie Dream Girls. Or, to bring it to closer and less annoying iterations, the Hitchcock Blonde and the French ingénue, both of which proliferated in pretty much the same 50s/60s period of overlap. But where the Hitchcock Blonde was all about icy mystery and the French ingénue about swoony obliviousness, the Italian Goddess was about a sharpness of feature so fierce it refused to succumb to either enigma or doubt, statuesque glories but leavened by vulnerability, feeding a fantasy of indomitable yet attainable beauty, navigating their way in a world sticky with the wiles of men. You think of Claudia Cardinale’s tragic bride being engulfed by the town in her first masterful sequence in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West, of Elsa Martinelli’s wildlife photographer turning the jaunty safari she joins on its head, and softening crusty old John Wayne while she’s at it, in Howard Hawks’  Hatari!. You think, too, of  Asia Argento’s call girl brokering a dangerous defection in Abel Ferrara’s New Rose Hotel, and of Isabela Rosellini’s torch singer embroiled in the prickly suburban malaise of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.

Asia and Isabella were the other two Italian actresses in the first glimmers of the noughties that had achieved similar measures of profile as Monica. Coincidentally, both were legacies, daughters of Italian cinema’s two most ubiquitous auteurs. Between the three of them, they managed to represent the various permutations that fall under the Italian Goddess subgenus.  Asia came on like a feisty iteration of her father’s giallo damsels in distress. And the parallels drawn between Isabella and Giulietta Masina, the waifish prostitute in Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria and his eventual wife and muse, more than make continual sense. And Monica, you trace her back to the Italian Goddess of Italian Goddesses: Sophia Loren, Italian cinema’s crossover superstar, whose allure managed to upstage even the shadowy elegance of Carol Reed’s optics in his criminally under-seen The Key.  Resplendent, ominous, heartbreaking Sophia.

But Italian Goddess  pre-eminence is something I ultimately reserve for and cede to the impossibly beautiful Monica Vitti, if only for the work she did with Michelangelo Antonioni. In Il Deserto Rosso, their fourth film together, the suffocation of human connection, the slow poisoning of whatever tenuous interstices transpire between its characters, is poeticized through blasted images of encroaching industrialization: a sudden shout of color turning out to be a small flower in an indifferent field of grey waste, a cargo ship passing through a line of trees, two men dwarfed by a gigantic and seemingly sentient plume of smoke. The fragile beauty overwhelmed by her surroundings and forced to burn through it is, in many ways, the précis of the Italian Goddess journey. And centering things here is the spectacle of Monica as a lonely housewife seemingly spiraling into madness. But is she really going mad? Or is she, in her colossal frustration from fighting a losing battle against this consensual deadening of emotions, the only one coming to her senses? In the film’s quasi-famous "orgy" scene, where everybody can't/won't/don't know how to articulate their hard-ons, Monica is the only one who opposes the torpor and pops those allegedly aphrodisiac eggs. She rolls them in her mouth, savoring it, before turning around to face everyone else and proclaiming ,with equal parts sarcasm and seduction, disgust and defiance: "I feel like making love." 


*originally published in Vault


SUICIDE BLONDE








Consider the Blonde. In the context of American beauty, specifically Hollywood beauty, the Blonde has always laid claim to the uppermost tier in the hierarchy, its fabled mystique perpetually holding sway, if only because the misguided perception of eternal youth it summons is the sole grist for the myth mill of Absolute Celebrity, and never mind the connotations of dimness and cruelty that go with the hair. Blondes, dumb or not, not only have more shelf life, but they do have more fun in the eyes of the world, more so in its far-out post-colonial Third World corners where blondes do not exist without liberal amounts of hair dye and therefore gain a sense of the exotic, of the ungraspable. And Old Hollywood had its own deep bench of Blondes, from Jean Harlow to Mae West to Veronica Lake to Marlene Dietrich to Jayne Mansfield to Hitchcock’s own little mini-pantheon, Kim Novak and Janet Leigh and Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman and Tippi Hedren, whom he collectively described to Francois Truffaut, in that epic interview book of theirs, as “the drawing-room type, the real ladies, who become whores once they’re in the bedroom.” 

None, though, had quite the singular ferocity of presence Marilyn Monroe had, what Billy Wilder called that “certain indefinable magic”. And , as it is with any star of similarly iconic charge, the James Deans and Bruce Lees, that is often enough. You can, of course, mine just the bookends of her short career and strike enough ore to justify the way she embodies the icon of the Hollywood Blonde. Her first role, in John Huston’s terse heist thriller The Asphalt Jungle, may have been tiny but it nearly upset the film’s balance of predominantly male energies. Her last , as a wayward divorcee in Arthur Miller’s misunderstood Western The Misfits  (see picture), was shot while she was in the ballistic throes of her raging addictions, mostly to alcohol and barbiturates, looking a little filled out and more than a little lived-in. And yet, even as the glare of her impossible prettiness had significantly weakened to expose some of her damage and most of her vulnerabilities, there she was still, at her most beautiful. You can make a case for the rest of her work as an actress, really, something that’s been undervalued and overlooked in the immense shadow of her fame.

Only Marilyn died a year after The Misfits came out, in 1962. And the icon she had become has since grown so colossal and so distant, so pervasive and so co-opted into the pop cultural parlance, that it’s been leeched of meaning, of nuance , of anything to do with who she really was or even what she really did, fetishized so thoroughly as to verge almost on caricature, on anachronism. Sure, everybody knows that shot of her standing over a subway grate with her white dress billowing, but how many have actually sat through Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch let alone know that’s where the scene came from? And yes, everybody remembers she sang Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend but are we remembering Madonna paying hommage in her Material Girl video or the original number from Howard Hawks’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes? This is what happens when stars get supernova-bright that they eclipse themselves.

Everybody recognizes Marilyn. But which Marilyn do they recognize? The little orphan who got bounced from foster home to foster home? The feisty ingénue who took it upon herself to rescue the dumb blonde from its stereotype by refusing to play any? The sex symbol who not only challenged whatever prudish conceits about sexuality prevailed in her time but turned them on their heads? The country girl who made her fallibility a facet of her persona? The global superstar inevitably beset and eventually damaged by the usual confluence of demons that come with being famous? The sultry temptress? The ditzy comedienne? The fashion icon? The brand? Because that’s what Marilyn has always been, at the height of her career and decades into the commodification of her myth. A brand that represented, superficially, an over-romanticized ideal of glamour, but also and ultimately empowerment and self-worth.

JFK was apparently the last person Marilyn called before her fatal overdose. And rumors that she was put to death, some say by Kennedy minions, some say by the mob, have always swirled around her death. Outrageous as the conspiracy theories tend to get, they do have a darkly poetic tingle to them, as if she were this fire who had raged too wildly and had to be snuffed. Whether it was assassination or accident or whether it was self-inflicted, her claim to the icon was sealed on that August day. Just as dying her brown hair blonde was a canny way to spin her career into motion, dying in the heat of her moment was an unwittingly canny way to end it, ceding her the one thing any of Hollywood Blondes never had: relief from obsolescence and with it, immortality.



*Originally published in Vault.

9.09.2013

CRIME AND THE CITY SOLUTION

On The Job
Directed by Erik Matti 
Written by Michiko Yamamoto and Erik Matti




There is that prosaic title and the way its lack of macho swagger can be taken as Erik Matti deliberately being coy. OTJ  did go by a slightly more playful name, OJT, a colloquial acronym for “on-the-job training” and an example of how a mere transposing of letters can spell a galaxy of difference. OJT is active, a working towards something, a baptism of fire. OTJ is more passive, more rudimentary. It also clicks into place contextually. The four men around which its murky soup swirls, two cops and two killers, are, after all, disgruntled professionals and work is their vortex, giving their dead-end lives a scrap of meaning but sucking them in and slowly corroding them in the process. OTJ is essentially about the four walls of the work and the slow death from the ways it closes in on you. Its undertow of conspiracy may insinuate a malaise that creeps far beyond its confines, to lowlifes in high places even, but everything boils down to an organization merely cleaning house.

There's a world-weary pessimism snaking throughout  that makes it almost misleading to front-load the hard-sell with the promise of gunporn and all the swashbuckle and catharsis it implies. The elaborate gun battle that starts in a network of alleyways, moves to a crumbling hospital, before splintering into a subway train and a dock warehouse is cramped, brutish, graceless. Erik Matti has never been anyone’s go-to for fethisizing violence and OTJ is not so much a love letter to the domestic action film but rather an emasculation. Like the crime films of Jean Pierre Melville and Johnnie To, of which it's most kindred, it undercuts the romanticized masculinity of its noble rogues. With nihilism, with desperation, with nowhere to go and nothing to live for. But where Melville and To often saw these as conduits to an existential apotheosis, sometimes to a grudging redemption, Matti sees it more as a fatalistic cul-de-sac. There is no working towards something here, except maybe a downward spiral.  Bereft of heroes as it is of hope, it's closer, really, in temperament , in worldview, in its spatial confusions, in the harsh economy of its combat, in the blighted void that passes for its world, to a less recombinant, far purer iteration of noir. 

The contours of the characters bear that out. Joey Marquez, he’s “real po-lice”, paying the price for playing by the rules by languishing in the lower rungs of bureaucratic obscurity. His career is a stupor, and the one case that pries him from it has to get taken over by someone above his pay grade, Piolo Pascual's bright young NBI over-achiever. Joel Torre, meanwhile, is role-playing the weathered guru to brash protégé Gerald Anderson, both are doing hard time but moonlighting as hatchet men, working hard for the money, voguing on the thrill. Cops and killers, and all the things they are to each other, may be the coin of its realm but OTJ refuses to mine their propensity for symbiosis and overlap, that old Holmes slash Moriarty schism. These four men don't mirror each other. They're chess pieces, stacked on opposite sides. And the pulp tropes from which they're hewn are as familiar as the polarities that impel them: the friction when the new school rubs up against the old, the siege mentality of mis-matched partners, the Oedipal tensions between father figure and pretender to the throne. All of these get hinted at, none of which get belabored, leaving all four with enough room to shape-shift their stereotypes away from cliche.

The kids are alright, sure. But Marquez is a knockout, and he doesn't even bother reining in the comic persona that has become his stock. He is, in many ways, the same well-meaning buffoon he played in, say, Bobocop, but locates, underneath the wise-cracks and the bluster, a rumpled melancholia, a casual sense of his own doom. And Torre, perhaps aware that he's such a shoo-in for the part as to be almost typecast and predictable, falls back, doesn't hurry, let's us snipe him as he slowly and subtly tinges his wizened composure with a dolorous solemnity that becomes his ascension. The man not only wears gravity well, he fucking defies it, too.

8.03.2013

CINEMALAYA 2013: THE LOWDOWN PART I

Quick Change
Directed and Written by Eduardo Roy Jr.

Rekorder 
Directed by Mikhail Red 
Written by MIkhail Red and Ian Victoriano

Transit 
Directed by Hannah Espia 
Written by Hannah Espia and Giancarlo Abrahan


Quick Change: Aren't all stories found? Props, then, for stumbling on a genuine, and genuinely deviant, alternative milieu, thickened into a rancid consistency by the sumptuous cinematography. The parts that work here are the parts that immerse itself in the work, that is, bootleg plastic surgery. The desperate tinge of cul-de-sac lives circling their eventual oblivions, the insidious threat of body horror, which this essentially is. Even if we only get to see what happens when a procedure goes horribly wrong once, the discomfort over what these transgenders are doing to their bodies worms away, all icky and squeamish, at the back of my head through the parts that don't work. That would be the parts in-between, where it gropes for back story to fill in the gaps and starts favoring plot and melodrama over texture and verisimilitude.







Rekorder: Everything it wants to say below the surface, about voyeurism and the film/video schism and how the lines between reality and the perception of reality are blurring, Mikh has said more poetically in his short Kamera. And why is it that every time someone pontificates about how wondrous and unattainable the second Golden Age of Philippine Cinema is, it sounds more and more like the death howls of dinosaurs? The exhausted aura does make odd sense given the conditions of its universe.  And Ronnie Quizon has enough presence to center everything as a man for whom time has all but stopped, which the obsolete camcorder he uses to bootleg films semiotically reinforces. The scuzz-noir textures that swaddle his downward spiral never quite tip the film over into the mindfuck you hope it would, but the empathic tug of his displaced, taciturn cameraman is sufficient enough to at least make the reveal at the end hit a nerve.


Transit: Diaspora and the ways in which it impacts the lives of OFWs is a rich vein to tap but often falls prey to over-exalting the sacrifices they make as something that practically warrants sainthood. That the OFWs here are ordinary people eking out a living, who actually find some measure of contentment and happiness in their work and their adopted country, is a unique wrinkle in and of itself for the way it avoids the usual tropes of misplaced heroism, of oppression, of homesickness. It's another form of separation anxiety that shadows the migrant family at its heart: the threat of their children being deported as ordained by Israeli law, a fact that the extraneous coda reiterates with factoids. A
s if we needed reminding. As if it didn't trust the emotional brunt of its own narrative, really, which, by splintering itself into six POVs and by refusing to reduce the structure to serve yet another haggard Rashomon riff, gains a plangent rhythm. Repetitive, cyclical, not unlike the digging of a hole,  but aptly closing in on its own claustrophobia as its characters' small world gets even smaller and smaller until there's little left near the end but a chokehold. 

7.18.2013

TEMPORARY CAST MEMBERS IN A PLAY CALLED FLEETING

Before Midnight
Directed by Richard Linklater
Written by Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke











The next book Ethan Hawkes' Jesse wants to write teases connections between a random group of people separated by decades and afflicted with the oddest mental disorders: one is in a perpetual state of deja vu, another recognizes everybody, another fixates on what something becomes when it stops being the thing that it is, characters that are not so much lost in time but in perceptions of time. Later on, Julie Delpy’s Celine tells the story of a friend who attains clarity and purpose when he’s told he has nine months to live. She might as well be talking about the first time she and Jesse met cute, wandering around Vienna nearly two decades ago, all the time in the world condensed into one day, lives unmapped with no line on the horizon, everything heightened by the limits that constrict them. And Jesse might as well be talking about the two of them now, older and misshapen and unkempt and haggard and confused, living together with twin daughters in tow, on holiday in resplendent Greece, trapped by their routines and anxieties and displacements and by the collapse of time around them. Time has always wormed its way inside their love story, but here, in its third, possibly final, or at least penultimate, act, time is less tactile and more diffuse, a lot of it has been lost and even more is running out.

Conversation is the ether of the Before films. And in this one, a lot of it orbits around death: emotional death, metaphorical death, physical death. How all we have in the end are ghosts. And how the world takes glee in blowing them to smoke. The impossibility of staying together crops up and there’s such nonchalance and pragmatism, such contingency and rationale, every time it gets talked about that when Jesse remembers how his grandparents stayed together for 74 years and died one year apart as if impatient to be with each other again, it's as if he's articulating his own emotional revolt, and the emotional conscience of the film, and ushering in a specter to hover over everything in mutual defiance."You have to be a little deluded to keep being motivated" Jesse is talking about his writing but, at this point, who's he kidding?

We’ve been here before, of course. Before Sunset only seemed to leave everything wide open when it faded to black, but a part of you knew Jesse missing his plane was the likelier outcome, and a part of you knew their coming together would come to this. This is the familiarity breeding contempt, the cabin fever downside of intimacy, the part where things get messy. And Before Midnight is giddy with pattern recognition for anyone who’s ever been, or still is, in a long-haul relationship. The spar and volley of their bickering, if not the snark and venom but maybe that too, is bound to ring with the authenticity of experience, break some skin, force sides to be taken. But we’ve been here before in another way, too. Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine and Abbas Kiarostami’s Copie Conforme have both strip-mined this lode and taken its ore to places far bleaker, far more obtuse. Before Midnight, tends to resonate entirely within the folds of its own universe. A universe in which Jesse and Celine have become our avatars for a love that defies the odds and are now entwined in the banalities that beset the rest of us and make it harder to believe in such things without thinking one's self foolish for doing so . But this is a universe, too, that has always been sustained by its own foolish beliefs, one of which is that love, if it will not conquer all, will at least delude you that it will.  When Jesse gives winning Celine back one last and desperate go by pretending he’s a time traveler with a letter from her future self, he could well be undoing the collapse of time that does all of us in. The hopeless romantic has been grossly mis-represented as a legalist who foolishly takes "ever after" literally. Jesse is obviously one and he obviously isn't that much of a fool.  He is, in all likelihood, pushing his luck but maybe all "ever after" is is the energy to persist in playing the hand you've been dealt.  And sometimes leaving is the cop-out. It's not that simple, perhaps, but it sort of also is.

7.12.2013

JAEGERMEISTER

Pacific Rim
Directed by Guillermo Del Toro 
Written by Travis Beacham and Guillermo Del Toro





You can boil the essence of Pacific Rim down to two scenes. The first (see top picture) happens less than an hour into matters when a father and son's metal detector treasure hunt on a snowy beach is gate-crashed by a battle-damaged robot (called jaegers) stumbling out of the wintry mists and toppling on the ground in a heap of scrap. The second happens much later when a robot (that is, jaeger) fist in mid-combat punches through an office building and slides across the cheap carpeting, smashing through cubicles as it does.  Both scenes couldn't be more divergent from each other in terms of form and tone. The first is a frankly awesome extreme wide shot, momentous and grave, given its implications. The second is in close-up, extraneous almost but puckish and jokey. Both give you that crucial sense of scale that is god in kaiju as it is in mecha, the sub-genres being slavishly co-opted here and whose shared rubric is to make visceral the enormity of both the threat and the response. It becomes a leitmotif almost, this dissonance between sizes, not to mention the film's brightest moments, specially given the uncanny aptitude for detail that has made Guillermo Del Toro such a steadfast go-to when your dopey geek enterprises need leveling up: massive pincers slicing through a bridge, a section of HK that's called the Bone Slums out of how it's built around the ribcage of a decomposed monster, a glimpse of a cathedral built from a monster skull, a robot (again, jaeger) using a cargo ship in a tussle as if it were a baseball bat. 

Spiritually, philosophically, texturally, it's more Godzilla Versus Mechagodzilla than Neon Genesis Evangelion. Even then, there is far less fertile protein to build blockbuster cartilage from, toy lines for instance. The film wisely insulates itself within its B Film strictures, its lived-in density, resisting even an inch of deviation, matching it instead almost beat for beat, from the pulpy dialogue to the pseudo-science to the wartime gloom to the endtime metaphors, then pumping it up at all junctures, and with such a determined endgame that it becomes disingenuous to call it out for not going far enough with its characters, keeping nearly all of them, except perhaps Idris Elba's embattled leader Stacker Pentecost and  Ron Perlman's flamboyant war profiteer Hannibal Chau, within the tethers of their Hawksian archetypes and their Kirbyesque nomenclature.

Del Toro understands all too well how the heart can sweet-talk the head into succumbing to anything and, if nothing else,  he plays the inner child slash nostalgia card like a hustler. Come to this, then, purely on propulsion and the re-awakening of all your fancies as a boy and its dividends can be generous. It's a drag how the escalation in categories never manifests in the monsters' physiology, sure.  And a trifle distressing how the inside of the dimensional rift looks like a bad Uriah Heep album cover. Worst of all is how incoherent and sloppy the underwater climax is.  But, as with all the Ishiro Honda films it's obviously channeling, everything yields to the glorious skirmish between meat and machine that is what you and your inner Koji Kabuto really came here for.

6.18.2013

WHAT IF GOD WAS ONE OF US?

Man of Steel
Directed by Zack Snyder
Screenplay by David Goyer 
Story by David Goyer and Christopher Nolan 








Superman is not one of us. That's the bit we take for granted. That's the bit we get profusely re-acquainted with here. That's the bit that may cause a lot of fanboy disgruntlement. Curb your devotions, then, if not totally abandon them, and with it, disregard continuity as well and lose whatever territorial claim you have on the character, which it to say that it might help not to come to this with your version of the character in your back pocket, which may well be the version of its creators, of its parent company, of the rest of the world, but is not necessarily the version Nolan/ Goyer/ Snyder have in mind. Let's move on, too, from Christopher Reeve, who was and is the quintessential Superman, may he rest in peace. And the Salkinds. And Brandon Routh and Dean Cain and Tom Welling, too.

Granted, the icon comes with a lot of puritan baggage, messianic gravities , mythic resonance. But all of these have no place in the ground zero parameters the film has set for itself. It's not like they've been stripped away, more like they don't exist yet.  This may not be demeanor befitting a superhero, except that in the world of Man of Steel, superheroes don't exist yet either. We can safely assume that the only Superman this world knows is Nietzche's (or Shaw's).  And all Clark Kent is, at this point,  is someone(thing?) from another world that hides in plain sight without a green card and under a false identity. He has all the circumstance of an illegal alien, really, pun intended. And is every bit as potentially against us as he is with us as a sleeper agent. He does have a compulsion for decency, but that can often be dangerous to misconstrue as a heroic impetus. He rescues people from bus accidents and oil rig fires, but you don't see him roughing up mobsters or swooping in on muggers. Fighting crime isn't exactly his calling. He's an orphan in a world he doesn't belong to. And he's lived a life repressing his true nature for its good. Also, he's got a lot on his mind. He's been outed. In the congested, intergalactic, multi-dimensional melting pot that is a comic book company's shared universe, he at least has the tactical advantage of looking more like us than, say, the man in black dressed like a bat, meaning his disguise doesn't look like one. In a world where he's the only extraterrestrial in town, though, it doesn't have quite the same cloaking effect.

The fundamental hubris of the comic books is in how a world in which Superman exists remains very much, if not exactly, like a world in which he doesn't, that is, like ours, with no severe re-structuring of belief systems and social structures,  and with no systematic and wholesale reprieve from such banal calamities as disease and famine and war, all of which Superman has, given his immense capabilities, and in isolated episodes throughout his seventy plus year run, either eradicated or quelled. This is essentially the anomaly Man of Steel is seeking to rehabilitate. It's not as if we see Superman intervening in Syria, not yet at least.  It still, for the most part, strip-mines the mythos for surplus, getting as many things right (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as the Kents, Russell Crowe as Jor-el) as it does wrong (Krypton, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Russell Crowe as a Jor-El AI that's equal parts expository mouthpiece and  guardian angel and deus ex machina) and it falters horribly when the Kryptonian characters stop to explain themselves, which is often and clumsily staged each time, halting everything in its tracks, undermining the efficiency of its time-jumping structure. But then, who cares what geek beats it hits and misses?  That gets boring after a while. It's the ramifications of having Superman exist in the real world that packs more voltage. And this, it gets right, too, mostly by co-opting Alan Moore's penultimate Miracleman issue (#15) in the third act and having Kryptonian insurgents, led by Michael Shannon as General Zod, lay waste to an entire metropolis in the hopes of terra-forming the Earth into the new Krypton.

The genocidal wave of carnage in the wake of the Kryptonian face-off is both overwrought and gloriously unhinged. The death toll, and Superman's callous disregard when it comes to preventing it, is almost nihilistic in its severity.  One can always argue that it's out of being weaponized without being honed. That the sun may have made him a god but didn't give him combat skills and moral wherewithal. And that if you take that away, he really is just as conflicted, as fallible, as the rest of us. Regardless, and flawed as he is, this is what it's like to have a god walk among us. This is the apocalyptic degree of the havoc he can wreak. And this is how helpless we are if he decides to lift a finger against us. A superhero movie about what a bad idea a superhero is.

6.02.2013

DANCE ME TO THE END OF LOVE*














DANTE PEREZ
1956-2013




"Lithium we know as a medication but one can misread it as a mediation and still nail it. The way it stabilizes frenzies that violently push and pull from both sides of the pole is a form of mediation, a truce of chaoses." (Notes on Lithium, Dodo Dayao)


He built a little village from the ground up, on a bluff in Zambales, then later burned it down, with gasoline and a makeshift torch. This was my first glimpse of Dante Perez’s prowess as a production designer. A potent image, for sure, but I’m resisting the urge to milk it for poetic effect as I don’t want to cloud this with anything less than forthright. Nor lay anything on too thick. One thing you probably won’t hear much mention of, in the flurry of well-wishing and reminisces, is how funny Dante Perez (Ka Dante to us) can be. And if this gets a little too maudlin, he’d probably crack a joke or two just to lighten the mood.

What this is exactly I’m not sure, though. A eulogy to a dead star. A valentine to a friend. A celebration of an artist. All of these, perhaps. But more than that, a way to make sense of someone leaving too soon. I realize it’s arrogant to assume one is privy to the caprices of the cosmos when it comes to comings and goings. I realize, too, that everybody ultimately gets a lifetime. And Ka Dante had one that was packed to the gills.

The tiny inferno in Zambales was also my first glimpse of the synergy he shared with Lav Diaz. Ka Dante was Lav’s collaborator and production designer and eventually actor, from Heremias up to Florentina Hubaldo CTE. It is, without argument, one of the most vital and robust collaborations in domestic independent cinema, of world cinema even. And yet it remained a largely unsung one. Which is how Ka Dante would have wanted it, I suppose. He was never a man drawn to the blare of the spotlight. He was always about the work. And he worked incessantly. He got restless when he wasn’t working. He drew comics, including an unfinished, wordless one about a Japanese straggler that he was going to show to me. He acted for other filmmakers, including Khavn De La Cruz in Mondomanila and Rico Ilarde in Pridyider. He made his own films, and his unflinching and often poignant feature-length documentary on Soliman Cruz, The Actor, has a raw, almost uncomfortable, honesty that makes its obscurity almost criminal. Before all this, of course, he painted. And had anyone known he wasn’t going to have another one-man show, the melancholia that permeated through his last, Lithium, would have seemed less residual and more prescient. The way Ka Dante explained it to me was that the new work was his means of grasping at transcendence. And much as the stark monochrome felt at first leeched of his usual color, his usual vibrancy, you do feel, in its place, a soothing sense of grace.

A couple of weeks before the opening of Lithium, Ka Dante and I were having a few beers at a Cubao X that seemed to be leeched of its vibrancy and color as well. It was a vibrancy and color we were familiar with and we missed. Six years ago, give or take, this was where our every night led us, talking about art and love and hope, all of us who were part of that ragtag community of like-minded friends who made films and wrote about films and worked on films and dreamed of films, and the future of the cinema we loved and the future of our lives as well was still fulsome, incandescent. That night, we talked instead about other things, about cycles running its course, about the parsimony of fate, about the infinite relief of art. But we talked about it in an oddly hopeful way, knowing full well we could easily rebuild that little village from the ashes anyway. And before he left us, Ka Dante, in many ways, did. “Sparkle”, apparently, was the last word he uttered. He was referring to the soft drink. But I prefer to think of it instead as an exhortation to all of us he left behind. Thank you and shine on yourself, Ka Dante. Shine on and live forever.



 *Lyric by Leonard Cohen
**This article originally appeared in the June 2, 2013 edition of PhilStar Sunday Lifestyle

5.01.2013

JUST PLAY ME TWO BARS OF STARDUST


Sir (Chabet) and I hardly talked about art. I was in his class for only a semester. But we've been hanging out since. We did talk a tremendous amount about cinema though, maybe because I was the only one among us who was sort of into it to the degree that I was. But I was a misguided Hollywood nerd and he took it upon himself to set me right. He was like my de facto cinema guru slash pimp. And he schooled me. Every time we saw each other, all these years, at drink-ups, at parties, at exhibits, he always had some filmmaker I had no idea about that he wanted me to seek out : Bernal, Zialcita , Godard, Buñuel, Elaine May, Mike Nichols, Howard Hawks, Alain Resnais. And like any good student, I did. And subsequently got hooked. 

He pushed this Antonioni film on me years ago, raving about the ending. I have since fallen in love with it hard and seen it many times. And in its own odd way, that desolate and beautiful finale makes the most fitting of codas for the occasion. 

Thank you, sir. 

RIP.

1.12.2013

POINTLESS NOSTALGIC: MY 2012 AT THE MOVIES

"There is something heroic in a movie director who grasps his vision of the world and takes it, scorning compromise, to its irrevocable limit" (Anthony Lane on Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse)

There was quite a number of people who came to the Batang West Side screening at 2012's leaner and arguably meaner Cinemanila. Some were watching it for the first time. It was my second. And it had been so long, and I've been used to Lav's immersive long films, I’d forgotten how steeped it was in the ostensible rigidity of film school fundaments. Lav did have tenure at Mowelfund and made his first films under the studio system. But even before the film got a fifth of the way into its terse five hours, you could already feel him pulling away, defiant of the form. Batang West Side was, in many ways, the primordial jolt of our independent cinema, and here it was, 11 years after its premiere in the same festival, unwittingly re-acquainting us with the qualities that made the phenomenon such an intoxicating crucible when it first emerged, primarily the D.I.Y. aesthetic that was a game-changing “fuck you” to the studio way of making films, with its ruthless disregard for protocol, its insatiable curiosity for new modes of narrative, its restless tendency to go out on limbs. Its odd that I should get nostalgic about something that isn't even into its 20th year but 2012 was the year independent cinema crossed over, or attempted to cross over, and made 2001 seem like ages ago. In consorting with the mainstream, these qualities were marginalized even further, if not outright discouraged. A national cinema is healthiest if it can metabolize all disciplines of film.  But any whiff of art in the context of independent cinema tended to be scoffed at, by the public, by the producers, by the filmmaking community itself sometimes. And by art, I mean anything that aspired beyond the slim, and myopic, purview that entertainment is the end-all be-all of films.  What seemed to be exalted more was the ability of filmmakers to manage compromise more than their ferocity of will to either ignore or even obliterate it. Filmmakers with lofty ambitions or unorthodox processes were routinely dismissed as pretentious and impractical and wankers. Oh, we do uphold Lav Diaz and Kidlat Tahimik for their stubborn and tireless pursuit of art in their work, but our tributes mostly reek of tokenism and misplaced respect because we never go see their films anyway.

Having said that, and with at least three corporations giving grants, 2012 was, for what it’s worth, a year of plenty, and as anybody will remember the Cinemalaya brouhaha, a year of controversy. And the volume of output alone was cause to rejoice, particularly for those of us disheartened on a yearly basis by the aesthetic inertia of Hollywood and Star Cinema. There were so many films that my yearly sins of omission, those films I simply lacked the time and the resources to catch, doubled in number. I only saw one MMFF entry as of this writing, two from Cinemanila's Digital Lokal, both here, and none of the FDCP Sineng Pambansa films. But there was also, at some point, a danger of misconstruing quantity with quality. As well-made as many of last year’s films were, there was also a sense of pulling its punches, of coloring inside the lines, of  thinking inside the box,  of revoking its license to confuse,  for most of them. Prudish, conservative, safe. This is borne perhaps from a premature settling into its fickle comfort zones and a misguided desire to expand their demographic, a demographic that remained staunch in its indifference, in its determination to not show up. At least five independently-produced films got a brief, suspense-filled theatrical run in 2012. Suspense-filled because of how there was a daily threat of being pulled out of theaters from lack of traffic hovering over nearly every film, particularly, and oddly, the ones that were aggressively user-friendly, the ones that sold out their festival runs, the ones that gained a fervid cult following, the ones aided and abetted by an over-enthusiastic task force of hype.  2012 was the year in which persisted the folly that the only way for independent cinema to thrive was not only to compete head-on with The Dark Knight Rises and No Other Woman, but also on their playing fields and by their rules, not to mention that other folly that the masses, whose collective wisdom about movies is that they don't want to think while watching them, was somehow within reach. And nary a rustle of developing a viable and sustainable alternative venue system for independent cinema, and nurturing its current audience, was heard in the mad scramble to get into the malls.

The encouraging news amidst the slow mainstreaming of indie, if you will,  was that films continued to be made under the same envelope-pushing, anti-traditional , non-conformist, sometimes defiantly no-budget aegis independent cinema used to operate under. Not too surprisingly, some of those creative spurts were shorts: Jon Lazam's Nang Gabing Sinlaki Ng Puso Ang Bato Ni Darna, Victor Villanueva's Saranghae My Tutor, Erik Matti's Vesuvius, Khavn's Solar Syokoy, Carl Papa’s Ang Prinsesa, Prinsipe At Malborita. As a concession to the productivity that distinguished 2012, and also as a concession to loosening up a little, my yearend list has been expanded to 13. I left no room for films seen through means other than a public screening, which means all of the films I picked were all shown publicly here,  regardless of nature of venue and how long it ran. Which also means that, delightful as they were, you won't find mention of Leos Carax's Holy Motors or Johnnie To's Life Without Principle beyond this sentence. I also didn't separate the domestic from the foreign because I've always found that a little pointless.  And, lastly, after discarding honorable mentions years back, I must also holler empathic shout-outs to the following, the other films I liked a lot but simply did not have enough room for:  Joss Whedon's Avengers, Steven Soderbergh's Haywire, Ridley Scott's Prometheus, Michael Haneke's Amour, Rico Ilarde's Pridyider, Erik Matti's Rigodon,  Emerson Reyes' MNL 143, Gym Lumbera's Anak Araw,  Richard Somes' Mariposa (Sa Hawla Ng Gabi),   Whammy Alcazaren's Colossal,  Benito Bautista's Harana and Brillante Mendoza's Thy Womb. All of these were flawed, some even terribly so, but then again, the most exciting cinema always is.





1. Florentina Hubaldo CTE (Lav Diaz, Philippines, Cinemanila):
If  Siglo Ng Pagluluwal (Century of Birthing), the first film Lav completed in the four years after Melancholia and the one that came before this, had a palpably transitory aura, a sense that he was severing ties with his old aesthetic, and that he was, at times,  fumbling for a new one, this feels like he'd at last stumbled on it and that it has come to a fiery bloom. At some point, you sense that the desperate men digging for desperate treasure and the eponymous young woman sold into prostitution by her own malefic father and spiraling into insanity are meant to embody the blunt force trauma suffered by a country that is inexorably cannibalizing itself.  It is, but the assumption comes more from a familiarity with the way Lav writes rather than any didacticism on his part. His politics remain fulsome and robust, sure, but his poetry has become intensely given over to a renewed faith in the eloquence of restraint and silences.










2. Kalayaan (Adolfo Borinaga Alix Jr., Philippines, Cinemalaya): If nothing else, this was the year we contemplated, however blithely or flippantly, the possibility, if not the imminence,  of our own wholesale extinction and there was no film quite as attuned to such apocalyptic tenor as Adolf's slow burning meditation on the existential isolation that besets us all, set ironically enough in the recent past, and in the Spratly Islands at that,  a politicized tract of land as barren of its impositions as it is haunted by its implications. And this ravishing fragment of paradise on earth comes at a price : the damning ennui of disconnectedness and the slow descent into hallucination that is the only way out of it.










3. This Is Not A Film (Jafar Panahi, Iran, Active Vista) : Here is Jafar's sly, often funny riposte against the regime that placed him under house arrest with a gag order from making films hanging over his head. Given the circumstances of its inception and its eventual distribution, though, shot  in the house he was prohibited to leave and smuggled to Cannes inside a USB drive hidden in a cake, here, too, is a stripping down to the cogs of the independent filmmaking process, the pushing against limits, the indomitable ferocity of spirit, the prevailing against adversities, the triumph of the will. 










4. Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico, Cinemanila):  Is Reygadas an emperor wearing new clothes? Or a street magician engaged in some deliberately obtuse arthouse sleight of hand? And is the illusion compromised if he was one or the other?Part rebus, part hubris, family is the organizing principle in what is his most abstract work, maddening for the way it not only risks the befuddlement we are wired to resist, but somehow twists that very befuddlement into its source of catharsis. No matter what theories you derive out of  the images lashed together here, this semblance of clarity, this made-up order, will ultimately lack the visceral satisfaction of the exquisite confusion you're better off embracing instead.









5. In Another Country (Hong Sang Soo, Korea, Cinemanila): Each and every film in Hong's entire ouevre is a variation on themes, those themes being the ways in which relationships constantly shapeshift yet somehow remain the same, and also the ways in which the men in these relationships, Korean men in particular, can be such douches. Here he throws a Caucasian into the mix, several ones really but all played by Isabelle Huppert, and each one unversed in Korean,  and touches, with his usual lithe playfulness, with his sprightly grasp of the surreal, on the lopsided interplay that occurs between Asians and Westerners, the way they grope around the language barriers, their desperation to communicate, and the new language that emerges from the dissonance and misunderstanding.









6. Ang Paglalakbay Ng Bituin Sa Gabing Madilim (Arnel Mardoquio, Philippines, Cinema One Originals/ Cinemanila):  The revolutionary as zealot can be a reductive misnomer, and in attempting to untwine the intricacies of the Bangsamoro conflict, Arnel dismantles the image by training his contemplative, minimalist gaze instead on the relationship troubles of a rebel couple who also happen to be lesbians, and who also happen to be exhausted by the struggle, as they attempt to evade soldiers who are after the hot cache of ransom money they lug around. Their striking out for friendlier territory is languid and fractious and digressive, but also sometimes becalmed and hopeful, mirroring not only their own malfunctioning determination to stay together, but their own yearning to escape both the demands of their cause and the strictures of their faith.











7. Mamay Umeng (Dwein Tarhata Baltazar, Philippines, Cinema One Originals): A film about a man who can't wait to die,  about the slow action of a life unbothered by incident, about tedium, really, is bound to be, well, tedious, and  any chance it has at being emotionally involving, let alone being funny or poignant, neutered by its very nature. In theory. But there's a sense of space and  minutiae and quietude to this that is more bemusing than it is boring, and somehow defies all that, possessed as it is of a frail grace that is kept from dissipating into banality by the wry passivity of  the man outliving himself at the heart of it.











8. Jungle Love (Sherad Anthony Sanchez. Philippines, Cinemanila): Pleasure is the last thing you expect to take away from a work by Sherad, whose ethnographic reveries always seemed in the grip of some sober, enigmatic gravity. Not that this  piece of semiotic erotica abandons the veil of mystery entirely but it's more ornamental than forbidding, its uncharacteristic playfulness coming from how this is really a tone poem about seduction and disappearance but wearing the ghostly skin of a pop song about love and salvation and liking how it feels better.









9. Taglish (Gym Lumbera, Philippines, Cinemanila): Language, specifically Tagalog, the dialect of Gym’s native Batangas, and the duplicities and entropies visited on it that the title hints at, illuminates the duplicities and entropies of his film. The second half (Tagalog) is a dark, rueful love story and the first half (English) is what happened after the actual film got damaged in a flood. Mashed up, it's a narrative, in many ways, of wounded longing, for a love forever tainted by infidelity,  for a simpler life that's a stone's throw away yet out of reach. But it lingers more as a subtext on how much art is an Other that is never fully subservient to the control of its artist.










10, Pascalina (Pam Miras, Philippines, Cinema One Originals): Essentially the travails of a small girl in a big city but fed through the jittery muck you attain from shooting on a Digital Harinezumi,which comes off less as an outlaw impulse, and goes beyond mere mood-setting into the more aggressively contextual utility of peeling the skin off the titular fuckup's mundane history to reveal how everybody, from her sisters to her boyfriend to her dying aunt, the only person who has the temerity to tell her "I love you", has fangs sheathed inside them and the only way for her to make it through the eternal, grotty night that has become her so-called life is to dance with the devil she knows and spring the catch on her own secret monstrosity.









11. Argo (Ben Affleck, USA, Domestic Release): Funny how we fall back on aphorisms like 'old school' when we talk about this, and by ‘old school’ we mean the 70s when Hollywood had not quite mastered the fluency with which it now speaks the language of theme parks.  
Not to say that the deliberate lack of flash and spectacle is its only achievement, of course, but the piston driving it is really its back-handed spoof on that whole period when Hollywood was metamorphosing into an event movie factory, cinema as rollercoaster.You do get dubious about its textural authenticity given how it has the tone and energy and the manipulative wiles of a pop thriller,  except that its preposterous, albeit true to life, conceit practically demands that specific immediacy and tautness to ground it.





12. Give Up Tomorrow (Michael Collins and Marty Syjuco, USA-Philippines, Domestic Release): The title swings both ways, as a tweak on that exhortation to procrastinate your surrender or a handing over of your future to someone else. For Paco Larrañaga, it's his mantra of resolve, languishing in jail these past 14 years for the infamous murder of the Chiong Sisters, a crime he vehemently claims he didn't commit, a claim that's bulletproof with corroboration but, to a corrupt justice system, has become as flimsy as a shield cut out of cardboard. It doesn't exactly let us forget that at the other end of its subject's wrongful incarceration, and the Kafkaesque conspiracy that swirls around it, are two dead girls and their devastated parents, and it may all be a function of our own instincts for narrative, but that we somehow do forget, even briefly, is also where the film derives its current of dangerous, harrowing ambivalence.










13. Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, USA, Domestic Release): Soderbergh has been on such a streak of win, his last six films have all but  overturned my lingering reservations about him, to the point that this is the second year in a row wherein his work earned a slot in the compendium. Brazenly heterosexual and leeched of danger, there's obviously a rosy tint to his vision of the male stripper lifestyle that, while it docks no points for veracity, has that wildly abandoned flavor of zest that befits a swoony valentine to hedonism.