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12.24.2010

VJ

Beating a path to my own forthcoming surge of yearend listmaking, despite fluctuating server malfunction, and taking a page from Richard Bolisay but picking only five plus one picked despite the potential nepotism, as I haven't been scrounging about and I find the whole MTV aesthetic a little annoying to begin with. I do regret having little in the way of Asian work but here be my favorite music videos from the year that was, mercifully free of those loathsome music video mannerisms, and ranked ,as ranking has become my new fetish but prone, as always, to changing, possibly even as soon as I've hit "publish" on this post.The songs kill,too, if you must know. Click on the titles to watch.


1. Lovely Bloodflow, Baths (directed by Alex Takacs and Joe Nankin)


2. Cold War, Janelle Monae (directed by Wendy Morgan)


3. Stick To My Side, Pantha Du Prince (directed by Amaury Agier-Aurel)


4.Window Seat, Erykah Badu (directed by Coodie)


5. Marching Song, Ebsen and the Witch (directed by Peter King and David Procter)

and


6. Where Are You My River? , Vigo (directed by Dante Perez)

11.25.2010

ELEVEN GALLOWS ON YOUR SLEEVE



"Try to win and suit your needs, speak out sometimes but try to win" (REM, Perfect Circle)

"Sometimes a good exit is all you can ask for" (William "Dead"Kennedy, Firecracker)


Sean Stewart's Firecracker has a weariness in its bones from all the past that bears down on it - - -an overlap of memories, of ghosts actual and metaphoric. It's a weariness brokedown with a cathartic sadness, though, shot through with languid quietude and, in spasms , tenderized with something that's so close to grace that it hardly matters if it isn't. William (a.ka. "Dead") Kennedy is a man in both deep hurt and deep surrender, not so much lived-in as lived out - - - "these bullets of loneliness used to get me all the time . . .you just learn to let the feeling roll by you . . .wait until you can breathe again." He also sees dead things , talks with them, incurs their wrath. But the vortex of his cul-de-sac life is the one dead thing he hopes to, but cannot, resurrect - - - his failed marriage to a woman he still loves : "You love someone,they're in you like a fishhook. Can't just pull them out. "

The supernatural here is ambient,imminent,dangerous - - - Stewart's grasp of scary is cunning. But the beautiful noise picks up more in the tender exchanges between fathers and daughters, ex-husbands and ex-wives, mothers and sons, and in their hopeful but dangerously fragile resolutions to conflict. Not merely about the strangeness that converges around a lost man worn down by his pathos but more about the pathos wearing him down , genre stalwart Stewart is pulsing an emotive throb that might seem beyond the ken of the ghetto- - - a ghost story about the virtues of family, true love's slippery grasp and the futility of second chances at making first impressions. Haunted, haunting, heartbreaking.

11.03.2010

THERE IS A BOY WHO NEVER GOES OUT

The Social Network
Directed by David Fincher
Written by Aaron Sorkin










Dating you is like dating a Stairmaster!” the girl, who is named Erica, in a pique, tells the boy she’s about to dump, at the start of things. Acidic in its exasperation and all the funnier for it, the retort makes me laugh a little but it makes me cheer her under my breath more, as if she just threw a mean left hook in a prize fight which in some ways she did, and makes me secretly hope, too, that the force of what she said would break a little skin, as the boy, given the brief time I’ve heard him talk, is not only obnoxious and exhausting but also seems peevishly oblivious to his own profound lack of charm.

"You're going to go through life thinking that girls don't like you because you're a nerd,” Erica says, “And I want you to know from the bottom of my heart that that won't be true. It'll be because you're an asshole." It does hit him like a clout of trauma, much like any rejection, only the scar it leaves runs a little deeper. The boy, you see, is also supposed to be Mark Zuckerberg, prodigious inventor of Facebook, not so much a nerd as a hyper-nerd, hopped-up on his own adrenaline of precociousness. And the breakup, with its toxic fallout of scorn and vendetta and maybe a couple of beers too much and one spiteful blog entry, is also supposed to be the loam from which his ubiquitous billion dollar brainchild would rise. Erica may have all but disappeared after she walks out on Mark, but she soaks into the fabric of the piece, becomes ambient almost. David Fincher has flippantly referred to The Social Network as “the Citizen Kane of John Hughes movies” and If we’re to indulge him, then Erica is Rosebud.

Facebook, then: bane or boon? Hoary debates revolving around its ramifications on social conduct and modes of communication have long emerged and trended, as they always do each time something new tucks itself into the folds of the zeitgeist so deeply as to become equal measures infrastructure and default setting. It’s a little tiresome, to be honest, and a little impertinent, too. The Social Network is not about Facebook per se. It’s speculative fiction, but pickled in the conspirational anxieties that shadow the platform, only it’s less about the conspiracy as it is about the conspiracy theory. The Kane referencing is fun but what the sub-machinegun velocity of Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue and the sinister melancholia that underpins it and gives the piece its torque and throb, hews closer to is Preston Sturges, albeit a Preston Sturges so feverish with paranoia and malice it deters the comedy of manners a little for something closer to noir. The Rashomon parallels make even more sense, mostly out of how the three-way legal tumult-- between Zuckerberg, his best friend and CFO Eduardo Saverin, and the Winklevoss twins who claim they thought of it first-- is mapped out, a fractured whole pieced together from opponent sides of the story, stingy about its truths, like a mystery that closes in on itself. Obviously, getting to the bottom of matters is not the main thrust. And neither, it seems, is getting to the bottom of the man who centers everything.

Jesse Eisenberg, sidling at last out of the shadow Michael Cera casts over him unfairly because it really should have been the other way around, allows his Mark Zuckerberg to break his armor some, with little tics of remorse that soften him and also surges of awe when he comes into the presence of the devil himself, who is supposed to be Napster overlord Sean Parker and is played with a fiendish glee by Justin Timberlake. But for the most part, he is the quintessence of the nerd-- abnormally brainy, profoundly isolated and possessed of both supernatural tunnel vision and a debilitating social deficit. A little after the beta version of his social network detonates on campus and makes him a rockstar-in-small, Mark sees Erica in a restaurant. He walks over and rather than apologize for his online spew of vitriol, among others, he tries to impress her with his new website. This is the currency of his world, the main prop of his cockiness. This is also the crucial truth nerds never learn when it comes to women who are not nerds: never try to impress a girl as if you were trying to impress yourself because nerd things mean little to people who are not nerds. Except that, at last, this nerd thing of his means something to people who aren’t nerds. And it hasn’t changed a thing. It’s heartbreaking. And if you can trace from his feigned contempt for Harvard’s exclusive Finals Clubs that won’t let him join, how he secretly wants to be part of one, and how his cocky self-regard is ultimately beholden to the hierarchies, then you know that heartbreak must come with extra crush. After this, when the Beatles’ Baby You’re A Rich Man starts playing at the end of it all, the line that goes “ . . .how does it feel to be one of the beautiful people? Now that you know who you are . . . ” can’t help but gain a measure of snark.

“Good luck with your video game” is Erica’s caustic rebuke in the restaurant, her killer blow, and the last we see of her until we sort of circle back one last time in the end. Rosebud, remember? “You’re not an asshole. You’re just trying so hard to be one.” The benign, almost angelic paralegal and slightly corny expository mouthpiece, and one of the few bum notes here, tells Zuckerberg after the deposition and before leaving him alone in the empty conference room. It’s a line freighted with redemptive balm. But Zuckerberg is still too lost in his own orbit for it to have any brunt. That penultimate image of him sitting alone at his laptop, though, sending a friend request to the one that got away, is the very condition of our online selves: everywhere at once and nowhere at all. And The Social Network is a dark fable about this condition, the fundamental disconnect of a hyper-connected generation and the loneliness that comes from it. The last shot of Zuckerberg hitting the refresh button every few seconds, awaiting the confirmation that will most likely never come, is an epistle to that loneliness: the creator in the coils of his creation, fulfilling his cosmic destiny as a nowhere man.


*Originally published at Philippine Online Chronicles

9.17.2010

EKRAN TRANSLATED



I remember the first time I heard of Ekran was also the first time I heard of Slovenia and the first time I heard of Nika Bohinc and was introduced to her. The year was 2008 and I was co-editing the .MOV programme and helping moderate some of the workshops, not the one Nika was giving, no, but she was there for the others as well, in the audience with Alexis Tioseco. Nika was editor-in-chief of Ekran, the youngest to land the gig it turns out, and it was in prepping her profile that the name caught my eye. It’s Russian for “screen”. And I remember thinking how it was almost too obvious a word to name a film magazine with. But it also had that evocative roll off the tongue that Russian words tend to have, this arcane hum, if only phonetically. I nurse a mild fetish for Russian words and names so that added exotic weight is semi-automatic and a signal no one else is likely to receive. It nailed the same arcane hum that other cinema had, though, that other cinema the magazine pursued, that other cinema I pursued - - - the non-Hollywood, non-commercial, non-conformist, non-mainstream sort. Call it the inflated and enthusiastic wont to (over)romanticize that is my quirk as a so-called film buff and maybe as a person, too, but in my head, there was a clicking into place, parts matching.

Ekran was/is the sovereign film magazine of Slovenia, born in 1962, reborn in 1997. It was the Slovenian Cahiers Du Cinema, no less. That there was a country called Slovenia was not what threw me the most. That they had their own robust version of Cahiers Du Cinema, and with it their own robust history of film writing and film theory, was what did. Here was a country of roughly 3 million with a cinema proportionate to that population (that is, tiny) as opposed to our 92 million with a proprietorship to a film culture and industry that was, at one point, among the largest on the planet, and we don’t even have a recurring column in a newspaper, let alone a film magazine that has made it whole through an entire year. It was like a calling out. I remember this brief prickle of embarrassment tinged with not a little melancholy run through me. Oh, Ekran did temporarily close shop. The aftermath of some editorial crisis apparently, as it always is. But it didn’t stay in limbo for long. The Slovenian Cinematheque took it under its wing eventually. Yes, Slovenia cared enough to have its own Cinematheque,too.

More than the aesthetic rethink that did transpire, though, the thrust of Nika’s mission as editor, picking up where Simon Popek and contributing editor Jurij Meden, her predecessors, left off, was really to throw its arms around the world. There was cinema outside of Slovenia, cinema outside of Hollywood, cinema thriving in the festival circuit, cinema made for no money, cinema no one’s heard of. Nika was curious about all of it and Ekran fed that curiosity with vigor. Up until then, Ekran had been written in Slovene except for that one issue that had a piece on Lav Diaz in English. But Nika started to rope in film critics and film writers and film programmers and even filmmakers from all over, John Gianvito and Neel Chaudhuri and Ben Slater and Benjamin McKay and Olaf Möller and Albert Serra, among others, as if they were field agents, phoning in dispatches from the frontlines, to fill the magazine’s regular columns Cinema Postcards and Mirror in their native tongues.

This is where I came to Ekran, as everyone outside of Slovenia most likely did. Its international online iteration, Eklan Untranslated, curated those multiracial, multilingual column pieces, among others, in one place. Those of us who fancy ourselves film buffs habitually look under the skirts of the rigid canons for cause to blaspheme and it comes with a benign greed for more. Ekran Untranslated was one more rabbit hole that led to places where we could find more of that more. As a resource to that other cinema I was talking about back there, it was invaluable. And is its own embarrassment of riches if we go by film writing alone.

Film writing is something I tend to approach with a measure of caution. I find most of it arid, didactic, scholarly. I find most of it hard to qualify as writing,too. Alexis was the one who said that the first impulse of a film critic is love and his approach to film writing was to come to it the way one would a love letter. It was an approach after my own heart. And there was something to the writing dynamic on Ekran Untranslated - - -be it discourse or theory or diary - - - that dovetailed into that, given over as it was to language and tone, shot through with subjectivity and possessed of a peculiar intimacy and warmth but never at the expense of the dialectic urge and of genuine insight. It felt wet and alive. And above all that, belying its polyglot diversity, it exuded this sense of community. And that may be its most crucial attribute and its most lasting gift. In wanting to bring a vast new other world of cinema to light, Ekran, under Nika, showed us how small that world really is. And how everything and everyone in it is more connected than it seems.

*first published in UNO September 2010

9.06.2010

SEA OF PERDITION

Halaw (Ways of the Sea)
Directed and Written by Sheron Dayoc











It's a sort of porn, too, the valorizing that domestic cinema makes OFWs undergo, much like the way they valorize the poor. Let's truss it up, then, and pelt it with ridicule like we do poverty porn, but then again let's not as that's petty and a bore. Not to say that there's nothing to exalt about OFWs but when a demographic becomes too profitable to upset, the patronizing tends to get laid on a little too thick even for melodramas. And as a trope, all those films - - - Caregiver and Anak and Dubai- - - say little about working away from your family in another country other than that it takes a tremendous sacrifice and that it can get terribly lonely and that it's heroic almost. 


Sheron Dayoc's Halaw taps a bleaker, richer vein. The grist that feeds his film may be the rampant people smuggling that sneaks out of Zamboanga and into the back door of Sabah, but it's really about the desperation and banality of the Faustian bargains that are as much at the heart of the OFW experience as the heroism and the melancholia. And how deep they run into the systemic malfunction of a country that fails time and again to sustain its workforce and into the seductive glamor of anywhere but here.

Following a motley group of stragglers that include a returning and bejeweled middle-aged whore (Maria Isabel Lopez, hilarious), a brother and sister (Arnalyn Ismael, a little pushy but a grace note regardless) hoping to reunite with their mother and John Arcilla, who threatens to center a piece that doesn't want for one but calms his trademark seethe down into a fitful languor before he does, Halaw only looks like an ensemble piece but doesn't behave like one. Working abroad under any conditions, but moreso under these conditions, is a last resort without coordinates. And it is this random and aimless meander to the way Halaw denies its characters any room to bond into a group dynamic, nor milks them for anything more than a passing empathy, and to the way it picks up strands of plot and subplot it doesn't pursue and parses everything in loose ends and half-measures, that nails the interior rhythm of what every OFW goes through, the numbing tedium of waiting under which anxiously simmers threat.

Less than a third of the way in, though, as night falls and the rickety outrigger sets out to sea, Halaw lapses into montage - - - anxious faces, blackened tides, maudlin ballad playing over it all. It's wistful,sure, but not a little at odds tonally and also not a little corny and not a little phony, too. It's a freak burst of weakness and a mere nit I wouldn't have picked if the suspiscion that the film has been cut against its will didn't get more and more persistent after this. If there's anything Halaw needs, it's at least another half-hour to breathe, not to have more room for more things to happen but rather to have more room for more things not to happen. Tedium and threat, right. 


And much as every scene seems determined to acquiesce to this necessary torpor, something curtails it before it gets to do so, cuts it short, hurries it up, hews it to a shape. Its unfortunate English title (Ways of The Sea) may come off like some drab tourism AVP but Halaw does benefit from not having the temperament of your average Cinemalaya film: that would be earnest and cushy and prudent and no coloring outside the lines. And I wouldn't necessarily mind truncation if it didn't have the worrying nag that much of it is done to fold the film into the weary comfort zones of the Cinemalaya house style it's been evading and doing a valiant job of it, too.

But it's the last shot nearly everyone piles on,though - - -the outrigger disappearing into a dark grove and the series of expository title cards telling us nothing, at least nothing the literal translation of the title (deportee) hadn't told us already. It's the loosest of loose ends, all unease and displacement and with the severity of a stump where a hand should be. I have no idea if the Halaw we have is a Faustian bargain struck with the forces that be, right down to the terrible subtitling, all I go by is how tough it is to shake the sense that the ending came out of some reverting back to carte blanche. Not only is it the film's most triumphant moment, aesthetically, but as a singular, damning epitome of the pointlessness in it all, it is also its truest.

9.02.2010

EGOTRIPPING AT THE GATES OF HECK










Indulge me this bit of narcissism if you will. Below is a cross-publishing of a brief interview Michael Gullen of The Evening Class and Twitch conducted with me via email for a Brocka retrospective held in San Francisco early this year, posted out of how it nails the way I see not only Brocka but Philippine cinema as a whole then but most specially now, and of film writing as well. It's shorter than Michael expected but that only means it's less of a slog, too.

What do you want San Francisco audiences to understand about Filipino cinema?

That it's not all social realism and exoticized poverty. That it is multi-colored and many-flavored and more often than not--especially these days--goes on adventures. And that there's more where all this came from.

What do you want San Francisco audiences to understand about Lino Brocka?

That Brocka made around 65 movies and only around 10 of them have been elevated to the canon. And that the films that didn't make it to the canon--the melodramas, the comedies, the pop films--demand as much investigation, possibly even more, than those that did. Canons are moldy and rigid and play it safe and are no fun at parties anyway. I always thought cinema should be the opposite of all these (especially the part about being fun at parties).

How do you situate yourself within Filipino cinema and Filipino film criticism?

I'm a fan first, a writer second and a critic a distant third. I abandon myself to tone and voice and color, to energy of language and blood in the pulse and the beating to a pulp of all anonymity and objectivity. Cinema is all about wading knee-deep in the mud and getting your feet dirty and sometimes your heart broken. And I always thought film writing--or any kind of writing for that matter--should be as vivid and fervent and as misbehaved and as given over to the moment, not dry like a dissertation. Also, would-be film reviewers should at least know basic grammar. But there should be more film writers, if only to amp the volume of discourse. There are very few of us and the ones that are doing good work--and there are a good number of these already, mind--are either people I know or have met. I want to someday be swept off my feet with awe and envy by a complete stranger's piece. All this, of course, most likely situates me in the margins--which is really where I prefer to be.

If there is one Filipino film that you don't think gets enough attention, what would it be?

A trick question, as there can never be just one. But for now, let me just say that Joey Gosiengfiao's masterpiece is not Temptation Island (1980) as the world seems to think; it's Bomba Star (1980).

8.05.2010

I LOVE YOU BUT I CHOOSE OBLIVION

Possible Lovers
Directed by Raya Martin
Sound Design by Teresa Barozzo






There's almost only one shot in the whole of Possible Lovers. That shot is a static single take of a young man staring longingly at another fast asleep on a couch. They are dressed semiotically, commoner and bourgeoise. You come to that from the found footage of 1919 Manila that came before it, as if grasping for echoes, or straws. It is not acting they do, these two on the couch, not really. It's performance art, almost. It's an endurance test, certainly. Possible Lovers is an experimental film. It's even more experimental than Raya's Next Attraction. But it's not bullish about its experimentalism, Raya's experimental films never really are. The label on the tape says, cheekily, Autohystoria 2. And like Autohystoria, there is an inertia and passivity about it. Unlike Autohystoria, it doesn't build up to anything but rather folds in on its own inertia and passivity. That can be terribly frustating for most people. It's the way an installation piece behaves and at first, it makes sense to come to it as if it were one, but not really. It fails as video art in that, notwithstanding a disregard for structuralist rigor, it's like a James Benning landscape film, and sound is where what little story it's telling is being told, making it co-dependent on the immersive properties of the cinema setting, demanding at some point that you close your eyes and prick up your ears. That may seem like a peculiar demand for a movie to make but it's not as if it hasn't been asked before. There are five ways you can react to Possible Lovers. You can be bored. You can be pissed. You can be at a loss. You can be heartbroken. You can be spellbound. You can go through all five, like I did. You have 95 minutes. There's enough time to run the gamut and back again. Every reaction is valid. Every reaction is correct. It is, in varying degrees, both conceptual hubris and avant mindfuck. It is also a love letter, not a valentine as the love is unrequited, and like all love letters, only one copy of it exists. That copy is on a haggard MiniDV. Every time it gets played, the image remains pristine as it can be but the sound goes to seed. This is the third time it's been played. And the rot is already a lot more profuse. The dropouts and glitches, they're almost like atmospheric conditions, ghosts. Break the title down and that's what this is about. The finitude of love and the cruel ecstasy of possibility and all the ghosts that flit in and out of that dreadful suspension between the two. I wonder how many more times the film will get played. And I think about how one day there will be almost no sound left at all. Almost no story, no love, no possibility. Only that pristine image of longing. And the empty, futile stasis that comes with it.

7.17.2010

THE DREAM SYNDICATE

Inception
Directed and Written by Christopher Nolan







Memento had a glint, a loony glee, a grasp of the long con. A movie played backwards is bound to test anybody's threshold for gimmicky,sure, if not wear it down, but Christopher Nolan used to love playing us like this and I used to love him for it. That was before those lumbering, humorless, overpraised, frankly awful superhero farragoes swallowed him and his sense of mischief whole. His oneiric and spry new piece of high pulp, Inception, is his attempt to rescue his aesthetic ethos, his DNA signature as a filmmaker, from the shadow of the Bat, from the Ninth Circle of A-list anonymity. He revisits his old tropes - - - the persistence of memory,the illusory fabric of reality - - - and reheats others that aren't his - - - idea-as-virus memetics is nothing new to anyone who's ever answered an internet meme or read Grant Morrison - - -then reverse-engineers nearly everything that's taken on similar modes of dreamwalk and mindfuck, from Philip K. Dick to Jorge Luis Borges to Alain Resnais to Charlie Kaufman to, more tellingly, Shinya Tsukamoto's Nightmare Detective and Satoshi Kon's Paprika not to mention the exploding sequence in Antonioni's Zabriskie Point and the encrypted character-naming the Wachowskis were so fond of (Mal, Eames, Robert Fischer and a girl named Ariadne who draws mazes (get it?)), then metastasizes his influences and makes it wear an oldish suit but sharpened and buffed to a newish sheen. Inception is where Nolan gets to show the world what he can do when more or less left to his own devices with a trustfund to dip into. It is also where he possibly regains a little bit of his soul.

Leonardo DiCaprio is like a high-end corporate spook slash cat burglar here but it's people's dreams he breaks into and it's their vital secrets he steals. His murky backstory - - - he's the only one with a backstory,murky or otherwise - - - involves a bounty on his head, estranged children whose faces he can't remember and a dead wife who keeps dropping in while he's at work and whose ghost he really needs to give up because it's starting to become hell on the career. And he's assembling a team - - -and recruiting a new member so he can have someone to bounce exposition off and possibly mediate his secret turmoil - - - to take on that old saw The One Last Job which,of course,comes with a catch: this time, he has to break into someone's dream and put something in. That something would be to stop world domination by market share - - -the mark is the heir of an energy empire. Inception is essentially, and quintessentially,a caper film with all the givens and a lot on its mind, a REM-sleep Rififi but on a cocktail of placebo smart drugs: more clever than intelligent, more mechanism than fugue, more prudish than diabolical.

And like all caper films, it's all about the team dynamics and the precision planning. The first half is almost pure crackle. And this is where Inception comes most to life, in the recruitment and the debriefing, in the architecture and the walk-through, in the build-up and the prep, and with an almost fetishistic ardor for geometry and clockwork and a visual energy you're not used to from Nolan at that - - - that hallucinogenic city folding into itself and that Escher by way of Tati office building are trumped only by that maddeningly disorienting zero gravity set piece that comes much later. Also, there's a tiny scene tucked into a shadowy corner of the plot inside an opium den for dreamers that's not only a tantalizing germ of an idea in and of itself but the pivot point to a possible alternate ending. Oh, you knew there would at least be one of these. Like Memento, Inception is a puzzle nerd's sex toy, playing into the seeing of things that aren't there and the poring for clues on its surface, and Nolan has custom-built his contraption to provoke that specific misdirection, layering in red-herring teases in the already hectic matrix of its surface, except that what all these will augur if pursued is merely that at some point the real world ends and the dream world begins and it's not where you think it does. All this is juicy enough over a few rounds of beer but isn't particularly complicated nor profound nor even necessary. Who's incepting who? Good question. But don't ask. Nolan's not telling anyway.

The ability to dream within a dream within a dream within a dream is a wondrous conceit and the editing is so fiendish and crisp in the multi-leveled second half it enables that it would do Nolan and his editor Lee Smith, not to mention your own brain, a disservice to be confused. It's RPG gameplay, no more ,no less. And with none of the team nor its mark nor the world in any real danger and with its de facto enemy being a figment of the imagination, it has the fundamental empathic and emotional disconnect of an RPG,too. See, nobody dies in a dream. You die in one you just wake up. Go deeper,though, and dying means you get trapped in your dream and lapse into a semi-vegetative state in the real world for what could be years, meaning your body may be in a coma but in your head you could be having the time of your life, and that's closer to bliss than doom. Perception is reality, after all. Choose your own adventure. Right there is everything Nolan wants to say here. And in the push-pull between art film and event movie, he gets to choose his own adventure,too. By blowing things up. But he gets feverish with the propulsion and viscera of fulfilling his vision on the scale with which he gets to do it that his enthusiasm bleeds all over the propulsion and viscera of the spectacle he straps it on. And much as it isn't as terribly mysterious nor as terribly cerebral as head trips go, as no-brainer theme park mission movie, Inception rides. Like a dream.

7.16.2010

I CAN SEE SO CLEARLY WHEN YOUR SMOKE GETS IN MY EYES














“Punk - or pop, or life - isn't always about keeping the promises you make, but daring to make them in the first place. Despite knowing what's at stake. Maybe even making them because you know what's at stake.” (People Who Died, Jonathan Lethem)

This is a love letter you hold in your hands, a meta valentine. A love letter about love letters disguised as one disguised as something else. Not a fan letter, no. I was never that hardcore into Shonen Knife anyway, so it couldn’t be. This is about them, sure, and about that one muggy night they came here to play, like some artifact emerged from a time capsule, head-banging to cartoon punk rock in matching Mondrian dresses and bearing day-glo shimmers of an aging and maudlin music nerd’s misplaced nostalgia. This is about a hole in my heart. And the revolutions we think we’re staging in our impetuous youths tanked up on the belief we were going to live forever and the debris we sift through when they crumble after realizing we won’t. But mostly this is about how I’ve always wanted to meet the Most Beautiful Girl In The World while reaching for the same CD in a record store. And how I’d all but given up I ever will.

The connections we make with music and the connections music will make between us.

Beatlemania was that hole in my heart. Beatlemania, not really the Beatles. I had the Beatles, even if it wasn’t the way I wanted to have them, which was as current event, as a drop in the zeitgeist. But I was born too late and grew up odd, in the spin cycle of a swiftly tilting planet made from other older people’s pop, swirling around me in manic overlap, the wonky chronology thwarting me from pinpointing when the exact moment was that I fell in love with pop music for life and from pinpointing, too, with what. I stumbled on the Beatles this way. I stumbled on a lot of the music that changed my life this way. As heirloom, as hand-me-down, as stray bullet, as osmosis. It was a task to miss the Beatles, anyway. I liked them. I was partial to the tearjerkers. Eleanor Rigby cut me open even before I had gone through enough life to understand why.

And I wanted to cup them in my hands, tuck them under my pillow, hang them on my bedroom wall. But they were too gigantic and too everywhere and too removed. They were on the car radio. They were embedded in the wallpaper. They were in the atmosphere like vitamins. And they were someone else’s. And my heart longed for a Beatlemania to call my own. Beatlemania may have been some other generation’s frenzy but it was the voluptuous template for a frenzy that could be mine to claim. I owe my Dad and my hippie uncles for encoding me with music,sure. But I was through with the blind dates. I wanted music for a girlfriend but I wanted to fall in love all on my own. I wanted a banner to fall under and colors to fly. I wanted to froth in anticipation over album release dates. I wanted to hoard B sides and I wanted to know all of them by heart. I wanted to be taken over by a fervid piety that could almost pass for church. All these, of course, are the shallower iterations of what it’s like to be a music nerd. But it was also our puberty, the hormonal propellant that would vault my adolescent postures of worship and emulation someplace more promising.

“Pop music will never be , for me, the way it is to most people- - -aromatherapy, furniture, entertainment. It's all that, sure, but it's also a lot more.

Food, meth, fetish, toy, code, love.

Pop , simply put, conjugates my emotional language. The death metal powerchords of my temper flares, the weepy country ballads when love breaks down, the ebullient powerpop of when it sweeps me off my feet, the grim and grotty swamp blues when my hissy fits blacken. That’s how it works, like biology almost.”
(excerpt from Wow And Flutter)

I smashed into the years I went avid as a music nerd with a curious lack of omen, with a cassette of Nevermind, really, bought blind before Nirvana detonated, bought because the cover made me laugh and because the title reminded me of the Replacements but not because a radar in me flared up that I was about to take home pop’s next big thing. It was covert to the point of nonchalant. The irony, of course, is that I kept grunge at a distance after that. Nirvana I swore by. And I always liked the thud that came out of Soundgarden. But I thought the rest of the Seattle brouhaha a little misbegotten, overly glum and in need of a party gene. But that cassette of Nevermind was like a bomb had gone off in me. Hell, the 90s was like a bomb had gone off everywhere musically. There were all these other noises to cling to all over and cling I did. Sugar and My Bloody Valentine were heroic, transcendent, all that. Primal Scream, too, at the cusp of the decade when they taught me not to fear the disco inside me and near the end when they cranked things up into a din of glory. Manic Street Preachers before and even after Richey James vanished into the ether of rock and roll myth. There were the first two Suede albums and that one mighty Posies album Don Fleming produced and the Lemonheads album with Rudderless in it and the self-titled Magnapop album I thought no one else in the republic owned or even knew about. Mazzy Star. The Stone Roses. Matthew Sweet. The Magnetic Fields. Beautiful South. Garbage. Beastie Boys. Sleater-Kinney. Beck. Pavement. Teenage Fanclub. Juliana Hatfield. That exquisite Costello-Bacharach hook-up. Everything and anything signed to Sarah Records. And later, moseying down the pike, this tiny uprising called Britpop. Pulp. Radiohead. Elastica. Gene. Paul Weller. And those two. Oasis. Blur. It was a heady time. Where were you while we were getting high?

I remember standing outside an HMV in Hong Kong one morning, waiting for it to open on the day a new Supergrass album was coming out. That morning was to be the height of my Britpop fervor. And I overromanticize it not just out of how I overromanticize everything but also out of how it was the height of my Beatlemania, too. I had come full circle. I had done what I came here for. I had engaged with music with fire and venom and gristle and blood and hurt and lust and love and I had engaged in it as it was happening. The chronology was bang-on. Music is my girlfriend and I had fallen in love with her on my own. That morning was as good as it would ever get. It’s a small thing to make something out of, sure. And few will get it. You’d have to be severely retarded to want for that these days. But, back then, it meant so much to me, much more than merely having a finger on the pulse. Haters tend to piss on Britpop these days for being little more than reductive nostalgia. I’d probably agree in principle. But, if there was anything the 90s, and more particularly the Britpop years, drilled in me, it was a grasp for living in the moment. And even if it didn’t leave me with that, it would be a bitch, and not a little bit dishonest, to be cynical about a time when I was, musically at least, irrevocably happy.

“This is the first day of the future and all I want is you . . .” (Love me Like The World Is Ending, Ben Lee)










I listen to Ben Lee as I walk to the Shonen Knife gig. Weirdly, it’s not 90s Ben Lee I’m listening to. It’s Ben Lee in the new millennium, a little older and a lot less precocious. It’s Ben Lee closer to who I am, really. Love Me Like The World Is Ending is the sort of mildly optimistic bit of mush I’d write if I knew how. Ben Lee,of course, like Shonen Knife, was a marginal presence in the 90s but I don’t think there’s any serendipity here. The song just happens to be how I feel at the moment.

Shonen Knife came into my life by way of the tribute album, Every Band Has A Shonen Knife That Loves It. I sort of dug their songs and I sort of dug around. I came to Let’s Knife soon enough and, really, stopped with that. Oh, I liked them. But Shonen Knife are a cartoon band. Not in a Josie and the Pussycats way, more like in an escapist J-pop way. They played punk rock without the sneer, without the vitriol, without the ideology, without the danger, without the rebel yell. Punk as pure form and filtered through primary-colored rockabilly and girl group pop. And they sang about sushi bars and banana chips and parallel women and flying jellies that attack people. I liked them back then for being like the Ramones, only perkier and poppier and prettier. But I liked them more, I guess, for how they were like taking little zero gravity holidays from meaning anything.

But I’m not sure if I was there that night because I wanted to hear Twist Barbie and Burning Farm live so bad. I’m not sure if I was there just to prove they were actually there and close enough to touch. Maybe I was there for some other reason altogether, one that had nothing to do with Shonen Knife but also one that had,in a way, everything to do with them.

The 90s were a time keening with possibility and fulfillment, not just popwise. I remember walking tightropes day in day out, clinging to schemes with the guts of a commando and the conviction of a penitent and the brio of a revolutionary. And there was no rebuke too damaging, no heartbreak too crippling, that I couldn’t just dust myself off every time I hit a snag. The 90s are gone, of course. And with it, maybe a little of the guts and conviction and brio to go for the things with your name on it. And maybe a little of the belief in my own immortality. Cobain’s dead. Oasis is a bore. The Most Beautiful Girl In The World I was supposed to meet and go off on adventures with is more than likely married with children. The world has moved on to other things. And so have I. I’m also a little older and a little more defeated and a little out of revolutions.

“ . . .maybe you’re the same as me, we see things they’ll never see, you and I are gonna live forever. . .” (Live Forever, Oasis)

But that night, as I stood close enough to Shonen Knife I could touch them if I wanted,I felt a familiar surge. And it’s not at all peculiar nor discouraging that it’s not Liam Gallagher or Damon Albarn singing when this happens. That would have amounted to little more than a pang of nostalgia. But Shonen Knife were never really a part of my past in the same way and their singing songs I never liked enough to call love and hitting a nerve and bringing me back smacked of something palpably now. Time melts and somehow it makes sense that Ben Lee sang to me coming here.

I remembered standing outside that HMV in HK and nursing this feeble hope that maybe, as I reach for a copy of that Supergrass album, the Most Beautiful Girl In The World would reach for the exact same copy, too. She didn’t. And I gave up on what seemed back then a trite, infantile folly. But maybe that morning and all the wild hope it held was this night, too. And the gig was like the last record store at the end of the world. The last stone left unturned in my catalogue of beautiful failures. And it wasn’t trite and infantile to wish for these. Not when I had enough courage and conviction and brio. And maybe I shouldn’t have given up on many things. And maybe it’s not too late.

The connections we make with music and the connections music will make between us, right.

I tell myself this is not 1995 anymore and that maybe I’m too old for this shit. But I’m not very convincing. Not when the stalwart Naoko and statuesque Ritsuko and smoldering Etsuko are singing song after song after song until they melt into each other and into a single joyous racket of possibility and fulfillment. It was like taking a little zero gravity holiday but this time from meaninglessness. By the time they sing " . . .I'm on the top of the world . . .", it’s as if I was. Over the moon and under the influence. What did I tell you back there? It was magic. Man, it was love.


*pictures by Meg Cabanes
*first published in Philippine Free Press

6.03.2010

COLOSSAL YOUTH


Duckie didn’t get Andie at the end of Pretty In Pink . . .and it felt at first like high treason. John Hughes' teenage movies were like fight songs for the high school underclass, tapping as they did into those overfamiliar dichotomies - - - popular versus unpopular, jock versus nerd, all that - - -and always coming out in favor of the ones who never got to sit at the cool table, the freaks and geeks and dorks and misfits, that entire strata of outcasts. He had our backs.

I don’t remember there being such dichotomies in my high school, though, nor jocks or nerds but rather a curious mixture of both, nor was there a cool table. There was the usual obsession with girls and the usual trouble with them and I’m not sure what strand of empathy I was picking up from Duckie - - -the social retard or the hopeless romantic or maybe both - - -but I rooted for him nonetheless. And the original ending of Pretty In Pink - - - scripted, filmed, not used - - -would have been the ultimate revenge of the nerd. But the one the world saw felt like a test screening cop-out, given over to wishful thinking . . .except maybe it wasn’t too wishful.

John Hughes' teenage movies had the temperament of fairy tales but all that groggy optimism was always undercut by this gnawing anxiety, this creeping melancholia. Duckie and Andie felt like a mortal lock,sure. His fidelity to her was hardcore - - -he was that into her. And when he did that sublime Otis Redding lipsynch, well. . . wasn’t it almost heroic? Try a little tenderness, Andie - - -what's not to love? Looking back, though, Duckie ending up with Andie was wishful thinking and Andie ending up with Blaine was probably the purest hit of reality in the entire Hughes ouevre. . .unless Duckie ended up with Blaine, which is another story and another Brat Pack filmmaker. Giving Duckie a hot girl as consolation prize was sort of the cop-out. What was a boy in love going to do with a bombshell? Well . . plenty, really, but you know what I mean,fellow boys in love. Still. The petty,percevied betrayal turned out to be just that - - petty and perceived.

There was no going back after that for me,though. The spell had been broken, the gauze lifted ,the cycle ground to a halt. There was no going back after that for John Hughes either - - -his lapse into the immensely lucrative blandness of safe as milk adult comedies and preteen slapstick came almost immediately after, followed by semiretirement, and sadly, his untimely, albeit serene, passing. That the six high school movies he left behind - - - -of which Ferris Bueller is what the world upholds as the height of his powers but I'm more partial to the hormonal anarchy of Weird Science - - - have become touchstones of several generations comes as no surprise: youth movies tend to have that totemic charge. 400 Blows, Napoleon Dynamite, Dazed and Confused, Battle Royale, Linda Linda Linda. All these pivot thematically on the knotty interior politics of a specific time in your life, but they also had this exuberant cockiness, this finite surge of invincibility that's almost empowering even if it often mixes with a resentful sense of loss and even if it lasts only a little while and mostly in your head.

Not so odd ,then, that I'm remembering John Hughes' death just now, a little belatedly. The birthday is around the pike and I get a little more maudlin than usual this time of year. And there's also been a lot of disquiet and vertigo lately, the repercussions of too much happening too fast still- - too many conversations cut short, too many status quos shifting, too many disappearing acts,too many irreversible goodbyes. A part of it has to do with receding into the warm corners of nostalgia, looking for places to hide for a little bit. But mostly I'm harnessing that exuberant cockiness. God knows how much time I've got left on my side but I'm thinking this empowering surge will prop me up long enough to ask that pretty girl in pink for a last dance. And maybe the movie ends differently. Maybe. Just this once.

5.12.2010

AVIATION'S RETURN

Ang Himpapawid (The Heavens)
Directed by Raymond Red
Written by Raymond Red and Ian Victorino


NOTE: The real Ang Himpapawid was to be Raymond Red's first feature. It is to this day unmade and exists in two forms. One as the short film A Study for the Skies. And the other as a glimmer in the filmmaker's eye. The following speculates on how the film might have been had it been made the way it was intended. The piece was originally published in the UNO April 2010 fiction issue.




“Poetry is nearer to vital truths than history.” – Plato

History’s always been more toy and maybe riddle to Raymond Red, something to play with and crack, to ransack and suspect, to bother and tweak. The doyens of the mainstream always come to history as if it were plutonium or dogma, that is, with wariness and reverence, and the fallout is blah, wimpy, cushy, safe - - - Jose Rizal, right. Raymond’s three historical fictions run less on set design and textbook exactness but more on dialectical fumes, not buying into the perceived truths of the subjects it hones in on, cross-examining the scuttlebutt, inventing wild theories. And each one feels, in varying degrees, like some aesthetic cage match between the budding classicist and the berserker experimentalist in him. Granted, Sakay (1992) was a stalemate. And the avant-garde tingles in Bayani (Hero) (1991) will crank up empathically, Raymond tells us, in the new cut he’s readying. It’s his obscure first feature, Ang Himpapawid (The Heavens) (1990) - - - the one that almost never got made, the one that Roman Coppola came this close to producing, the one that started life as an aborted fairy tale installation piece made up of slides - - - that fully realizes this delightful frisson. Conceived in embryo as a Super8 feature and at first given over to the organic tangents that specific pairing of form and format anticipated, Raymond shot it finally on 16mm, perhaps to save himself a few headaches, but without sedating its fevered exoticism.

In thumbnail a historical fantasy, but envisioned with a finicky verisimilitude, Ang Himpapawid, set in the twilight of the Philippine-American war and sheathed in dreamy expressionist tangles, is centered by two childhood friends turned freedom fighters - - - Julian (Rene Aquitania) with his head in the clouds and Pedro (Jeffrey Tigora) with his hand on the rifle trigger. Both have a vivid dream of freedom and an even more vivid dream of taking flight to attain it. And in lulls between the spurts of gorgeously-realized conflict, both conspire to jerry-build - - - with little more than a gusto verging on the naïve and spilling over into the nutty and whatever spoils and detritus they can amass - - - an aeroplane that can fly them away to the freedom of their dreams. As one flying contraption after another fails, their obsession turns fevered and combative , embroiling themselves unwittingly in a secret war of their own making against the enemy. Less a historical pastiche as it is an allusive parable on the mechanisms of beautiful failure, Ang Himpapawid could well be Raymond’s sneaky allegorization of his filmmaking process and the turbulent backstory of his film .

No work from the birth pangs of indie seemed to cry for a second look more. Or a third. And a third of many, at that. The noise the critics made was enthusiastic, but sparse for something as freighted with expectancy, with pedigree. But I missed this one in its first run out of having neither the age nor the will nor the curiosity. All that would come later but by then it had flown under the radar, and into a cultural fog, and I would finish up infatuated, for years, with a ghost.

The good news, of course, is that the centerpiece of the new Raymond Red retrospective, which swings from his first battery of shorts to his sinewy new Himpapawid (Manila Skies) is the belated return of Ang Himpapawid ,out of mothballs and back into the light at last. A film this loaded with vulnerabilities, it might help to leverage expectations a little before going to see it, undo the ribbons of fabulous rumor that has since mummified the piece, but not really by much, and I know this because that’s as far as I get. I was still dosed up coming in, prone to letdown. And I kept waiting for it to drop. And it wouldn’t. Not with the pulpy arcana of its parade of aeronautic malfunctions. Not with the stumblebum band of guerillas. Not with the way you can’t tell the corporal from the corporeal. Not with that coup de grace sleepwalking sequence that it turns out wasn’t in the script. It feels like one long mysterious and beautiful and maddening surge of cognitive dissonance. It also feels like his masterpiece.

Ang Himpapawid folds itself into a wrinkle in time with as much speculative fervor as Ang Magpakailanman (Eternity) (1983). And more than Raymond’s later, more sober historical fictions, it is this meta-textual and meta-textural faux-antique, predating Guy Maddin and equal parts Brakhage and Murnau and apparition, and more historical science-fiction than anything, that Ang Himpapawid feels of a piece with, trembling, as it does with the same metaphysical solemnity, the same aesthetic nerve, the same puckish mischief. In its sublime final shot, where everything is explained and nothing is, the film opens up a brand new universe of possibility and in the gap between two worlds - - - classical and experimental, mainstream and independent, fact and fiction, captivity and emancipation - - - crosses over from the wounded lie of history into the vital truth of poetry.

*
First published in UNO April 2010

4.28.2010

LET'S GET LOST







You asked me if I planned all this, I could sense a hum of worry in your voice, as if regretting the question even before you finished asking it. This was when I could still sense things like that. I meant it when I said no. And maybe you felt that I meant it. I hope you did. You kissed me before you went to sleep. Pink neon as a kind of mint with murmurs of nicotine was how it tasted. Also, relief. It was a kiss that would have taken us to such great heights if the timing had been different, timing being everything. But that night in Chungking, that night I lay awake until morning listening to you breathe, that would be the whole of our brief encounter, that would be the first and last time I went there, that would be the last time I saw you. I always thought I’d see you again. And no, I didn’t mean it to be that way either.

Sinatra was wrong. HK, not NY, is the city that doesn’t sleep - - -and doesn’t let you get much either. I sleep light when I’m there, so light that it doesn’t really count as sleep anymore. I’m not sure why that is and how much of it is merely my biology reacting to the telemetry of a foreign city nor why it happens every time I’m there nor why it only happens there. Everywhere else, I drift into baby sleep. Here, I sometimes don't sleep at all. All the foreign cities I’ve been to tend to activate some measure of displacement in me and that comes, of course, with some measure of giddiness. But this is special. Could be it’s the constant blare of neon like some rogue filament of caffeine in my blood. Could be it’s the tumult of endorphin all of us get from going to places we haven’t been before only I’ve been here too many times and every time it’s the same. Could be radiations of a collective pre-millennial anxiety except little seemed to change during my post-millennial trips. Could be I’m over-romanticizing matters. Could be it’s all in my head. Whatever it is, this groggy and vibrant out-of-body wake state has become my default setting for HK. But I am, I suspect, alone in this. My HK is not likely everybody else’s HK. But it is, in many ways, the same HK as Wong Kar Wai’s. This groggy and vibrant out-of-body wake state is the climate and tenor of his lovelorn cinema.

The bleed between the two HKs was eventual and the reasons for that are more banal than anything else. I came to both at roughly the same time and under roughly the same emotional weather. I stayed, more by accident than design, at Chungking Mansions my first time there and a few weeks later, I saw my first Wong, Chungking Express, which was set in Chungking Mansions. The equivalences, if not cosmic, are quintessential Wong. I was heartbroken my first trip to HK and through some divine arrangement, or divine cruelty if you will, I would be in a heightened emotional state, not necessarily heartbreak but some permutation of it, every time I came back. The converging of opponent sensations until they taste the same - - rapture and agony, ecstasy and despair - - - has always been the sumptuous tang of Wong’s cinema and the sumptuous tang of every trip I take to HK. The overlap could be mere coincidence. But things are never as simple as mere coincidence in Wong’s HK.

Wong’s HK isn’t the HK of Johnnie To and Fruit Chan, no. I love their HKs, too. As much, sometimes more. But Wong’s HK is a skittish organism all its own, a city that seems perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown, amok with dilapidated lovelifes, persistent with memory, translucent with melancholia, hopelessly devoted to the frantic pursuit of fugitive and maddening and slippery love and where the random collision of strangers is not as random as you think and sometimes it can be a bitch to tell where happenstance ends and fate begins or if there’s any difference between the two.

HK is perpetually alive with a siege of ghosts , coloring the aura, configuring the atmosphere.

Foreign cities emit sensations of getaway and bewilderment. I get that from HK,too. But pickled with a rarefied quality by the sensations I associate with these ghosts : a kind of heightened catharsis that invigorates even the most melancholic of situations. I've come here twice, deep in romantic harm ,and HK always had a way to make it hurt so good.

HK is ,simply put, my hot zone for all the colours of romance : metaphoric and abstract, specific and displaced, wistful and heartbroken.(excerpt from Episode of China Blonde)


“Do you believe in love?”

Not as simple to answer as you think as it falls prey too easily to cynicism. It’s a cop-out but it’s not as if you can blame anyone who succumbs. Love isn’t exactly making it easy for anyone to believe in it, and it doesn’t seem to give much of a shit either, which might be the whole point. I do, of course. And that’s about as defiant of fashion these days as the allegiance I pledge to Wong Kar Wai’s cinema. Wong seems to believe in it, too. Every regret is just a stopover, muses the forlorn hitman in Fallen Angels, and everybody needs a partner. That this sentiment prevails as the sovereign locus of Wong’s work outs me more than it does him,though. There’s an exquisite sadness to his endings, sure - - -the serenely devastating Angkor Wat sequence from In The Mood for Love milks me dry every time. But the malfunctioning desire he traps has always, for the most part, evoked inexorability more than futility for me. Everybody’s lost in space in his movies, fumbling to master that inarticulate speech of the heart, waiting for some emotional rescue or the other, and when it comes, if it comes, you get this sense that it’s fated even if it gets hurtful and confusing and messy. After all, Bacharach did say that " . . . true love never runs smooth". And the loveliest things in life are the ones that are a bit of a mess. And his bad-hair-day lovefools, his wistful bittersweethearts, his romantic depressive misfits - - - if they weren’t so beautiful, I could be one of them.

Somewhere between the Sarah Records compilation There and Back Again Lane and the Magnetic Fields’ The Wayward Bus-Distant Plastic Trees twofer, the speed takes hold and dim sum breakfast thoughts slide into oblivion, my vertigo decompresses.

I should’ve known better. I should've seen it coming. Hong Kong was my favorite piece of geography on the planet, second only to my mother's hometown in Lipa. I made love to three women in Hong Kong. Three women who would break my heart. Three women equal in my desire for, fealty to, fear of. Three women whose gunk had seeped into the cracks. And the last of them was still radioactive. Stepping out of the Causeway Bay subway terminal, I was hit with that gush of bodies, a gush she had felt weirdly comforting. I was feeling the exact opposite right now, a pang swelling doughlike in my gut, but not hunger, no. I knew. Stranded during a weekend lunchtime in Tsimtshatsui last time we were here, it had taken nearly three hours for us to find a place to eat and not the Chinese she wanted. She was simmering to a boil that wouldn't rise throughout the meal. Coming home hours later,exhausted from walking and from settling for so-so Japanese, we spot this little noodleshop next door to the guest house in Fu Kuong, and laugh ourselves silly. We never got the chance to try it, though. Waking up this morning with a craving for sharksfin dumplings and beef wanton noodles and almond jelly, I remembered the place. I was voguing on what to eat on the train ride from Mongkok. And I was starving even before my stop. This pang was on top of that. A more bullheaded, a more ruthless, a more indomitable pang to quell. Clairvoyance would help, time travel, amnesia. This pang, this distress signal, this spider sense warning me about the nearness of things going dogshit, of the ghosts about to whack me with flashback of that weekend, the happiest weekend of my life. the foregone conclusion of for keeps. Then, despite all the warnings, it hits me, without warning, like a prizefighter’s mean hook. Mentally, my teeth rattle.

I took out an old film canister from my jacket pocket. Inside were four capsules of prescription speed. I swallow one dry and take refuge in the nearest HMV I could spot. (excerpt from the unpublished short story A Song For Whoever)

For a time, the ceiling of my movie love would be everything Wong Kar Wai did. The groovy ellipses, the jittery swoon. There was something narcotic in the manner of the way it sucked me in but little to do with the way Chris Doyle could light a scene so it attains this benign psychedelic sexiness, which would make my drug allusions a little trite. No, it had more to do with the mechanisms of addiction, the way I would voraciously consume and re-consume the works, as if trying to crack an uncrackable code. His is a cinema devoted to the mesh and magnetism of stories, to the pattern recognitions of love and heartbreak, to the poetry of people. His is a cinema after my own heart and after my own heartbreak. And I’ve seen and loved nearly everything Wong has made - - - I uphold even his erratic 2046 and his much-reviled My Blueberry Nights but not so much his BMW ad- - - and in a mildly blasphemous inversion, it was his work that brokered my love for Jean Luc Godard and Michelangelo Antonioni and Alain Resnais, rather than the other way around. But it’s Chungking Expressthat I’ve seen more than 12 times. At least. Not only is it my favorite Wong Kar Wai movie, it’s my favorite movie full stop and who knows for sure why that is. Others supersede it time and again with as much fervor and as much love - - -Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Blissfully Yours, Jacques Tati’s Playtime, Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Tsai Ming Liang’s What Time is It There? , Godard’s Band of Outsiders, Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour, Antonioni’s L’Ecclise- - - and all of these seem to converge on the same playful surrealism, the same wistful melancholia and for at least three of them, a guarded but won-over optimism about the nearness of happiness. But that’s as close as I can get to parsing my love for it and it’s not as if you can actually parse the mad, unstable love you feel for anything. I keep coming back to Chungking out of loving it just a little bit more than the others, though. Equal parts Godard and guerilla, it hangs brightly in some pre-millennial HK of the heart, it’s the most kinetic movie about stasis and the most romantic movie about breaking up, a love letter to the tiny spaces that connect and disconnect people. It orbits around two cops navigating the tailend of a jilt. Cop 223 finds fleeting solace in a henchwoman wearing a blonde wig out of John Cassavetes’ Gloria. And Cop 663, in the girl he buys his ex’s dinner from, embodied luminously by Faye Wong.

I fell in love with Faye at first sight just as she did when she first sees Tony Leung’s cop, which is the first time we see him, too, through her smitten eyes. Faye may have something to do with my Chungking devotion. Not Faye herself but the way her arc articulates the romantic confusion that is the story of my life. Chungking is almost a romantic comedy but one untethered to the protocols of dating and the rules of attraction and all that social drudgery that makes chick flicks and modern day big city romance such a drag. It's surrendered instead to the machinations of a grander design. More poetic, more cosmic. After Cop 663 comes to his senses that she’s in love with him, he asks her out on the date she can't wait for him to ask her out on. Faye promptly stands him up and goes off to see the world, leaving behind a boarding pass drawn on a table napkin. When she returns a year later , the napkin is soggy and the pass unreadable that she has to write him a new ticket. “Where do you want to go?” she asks him. “Wherever you want to take me.” Wow and flutter.

I haven’t been back there in a long while. Someday, someway, I will. And maybe I’ll see you there, whoever you are, whoever you will be. And maybe this time you’ll leave with me. We can go deep into the city, with its din of color, where the ghosts and the stories are. We go there without a map. And without a plan. And maybe this time, we get so lost, we’ll never have to say goodbye.


*First published in Philippine Free Press

YOU DON'T LOVE ME YET














Anna Karina, all she had to do was run through the Louvre to take my breath away, steal my heart. She didn't have to dance , but when she did, it was too much and my heart sort of broke a little. She broke Jean Luc Godard's heart,too. That's what exes do. And sometimes muses.

Anna K's a fantasy of mine. Not that sort, but that'll do, too - - -the woman is digable , I'm not blind. I do prefer Yoko, in principle, for standing by her man, never leaving. I'd rather have a Yoko ,all told. I heart the long haul. Jean-Luc, he may have had Jean Seberg in A Bout De Souffle , Brigitte Bardot in Le Mepris, Chantal Goya in Masculin Feminin but Anna K had this perilous radiance none of them had and, with or without knowing the backstory, you get this sense of a lot more at stake, which is how it should be with muses. And Anna K was the proper, righteous, consummate muse. Jean-Luc never stood a chance.

True story taken from Garrison Keillor by way of Jonathan Carroll - -"Robert Louis Stevenson was passing by the window of a house one night in France when he looked inside and fell instantly in love with a woman he saw eating dinner with a group of her friends. Stevenson stared at her for what seemed like hours, and then opened the window and leapt inside. The guests were shocked, but Stevenson just bowed and introduced himself. The woman was an American named Fanny Osborne. They fell in love and got married a few years later."

I saw Vivre Sa Vie some time back and it will become the Godard closest to my heart. The resident awe for Anna K's face, parts of it, if not most of it, like some porno of that visage. Everything begins with a face you can't escape. Even before the first word is spoken. Even before the first transfer of energies. Even before the parts match. The longing to connect. The urge to pursue. The thundering desire for love. The face reduces you to tongue-tied, sniveling, social deficiency. The face makes you palpitate like a caffeine drip. I have a wobbly theory that none of us are ever sucked in by a fat chance, none of us crush for longshots. There's no empirical evidence - - - how can there be? But it hasn't failed me yet so maybe I'm on to something. Love at first sight is not some wayward phenomenon, it's the standard. I don't know you. But I want you. All the more for that. Right.

She was the kind of young that would make me look like a perv, radiant and out of reach but catching no one else's nonchalant gaze but mine.

She was the best kept secret borne from fleeting encounters, remarkable for how the imprint got stickier and stickier with each run-in.

Is that you, my Anna K? Will you run through the Louvre with me? Could you be loved?

Bravado is an also-ran as I think about Anna Karina,about my own first sighting burning holes in my eyes, as I listen to Roky Erickson's You Don't Love Me Yet and Death Cab for Cutie's I Will Possess Your Heart one after the other, which is sort of trite and so is trying to imbibe the courage of its convictions - - - the cock of its bull as it were - - - but I don't care and do so anyway.

Jean-Luc said once that all a movie needs to sell tickets is a girl and a gun - - -a theory that somehow applies to everything.

A girl and a gun, yeah. Shooting at the walls of heartache. Bang bang.



*Previously published in Philippine Free Press and Swank

1.03.2010

AFTER THE FLOOD : A CONVERSATION WITH ROXLEE


It had all the come-on of a museum installation, that random labyrinth in Roxlee’s backyard, made from the junk Typhoon Ondoy made of things. Stacks of laserdiscs, vinyl records, cassettes, DVDs, CDs, all bereft of sleeve, strewn all over. The machineries that would have brought them to life lined an entire wall, meshing into a single sculptural mass of wire and cord and parts, water-damaged beyond usable. Resting against a far corner is an unlabeled can of 35mm film - - - with the film still inside. All this actually makes me cringe a little more than the sight of SUV roofs protruding from black water.

Rox and his wife and kids and his brother Romeo live in this five storey tower block. And Ondoy had laid waste to the whole of the ground floor. At the height of the storm, with power outages and communication breakdown amplifying the anxieties of everyone who knew people in the submerged areas, worried texts from friends asking how they were and had they made contact flew in frantic ricochet from one mobile to the next. But the place is a stronghold. Higher ground was always just one flight of stairs away or two. Virtually everybody who knew the brothers has been here at some point. And hung out on the roof deck that overlooked everything. If the place was under water that would mean the entire city was. So of course it wasn’t. In the thick of the deluge, it even doubled as a refugee ark for their waterlogged neighbors. Rox was, at some point, if you remember, a kind of indie cinema Moses, bearing not 10 but 13 commandments for every aspiring D.I.Y. filmmaker. Picturing him as a kind of monsoon Noah fits.

Rox is giving me a sort of guided tour of the detritus. Here are the tools of his trade - - -a 16mm projector, an 8mm camera, two Handycams - - - all wearing the patina of fatal gunk, beautiful in death. “Wala na ‘yan.” ( “They’re gone.” ) he says. He seems unfazed. Could be he’s had time to get over it. The Mini DV camera he’s been shooting his new films with was spared, after all, along with the Bolex and that warhorse 35mm camera. But then, Rox always wore this aura of unfazed. I’m the one who feels tiny pangs of regret, which spike a bit when he shows me an actual 16mm print of an untitled 11 minute collaboration with his brother Mon, fused into an unplayable wither. I wonder aloud how the film would look if we projected it in this condition. Rox just laughs the laugh of a man who has done that sort of thing before. And, it turns out, he has.

It was this other film, years ago, the title of which escapes him as he tells me the story. He was delivering a 16mm print to UP for a screening and was running a little late when the can of film fell from his bag. The lid came loose un-spooling the print onto the street where it lay, vulnerable as a tongue. Before he could retrieve it, several cars had already ran over it. Ever heard the one about imagining yourself sliding down a banister that suddenly turns into a razor blade midway through? This is the equivalent of that cringe-making joke for filmmakers - - -heavy traffic grinding your film into the asphalt minutes before people see it. But Rox, he just calmly spooled it back into the can, headed for the venue and screened the damaged film. “Mas gumanda pa nga e.” (“It actually looked better.”) he laughs. It’s like something out of Cesar Asar, the sly and absurdist and surreal and immortal comic strip he did with his other brother Mon.

For all its unhinged cheek, Cesar Asar, was a cross-generational touchstone that both boosted his mainstream stock, nestled as it was in the pages of the conservative Manila Bulletin, but also further insulated his cult. Nobody thought to qualify its subversive peculiarities as ahead of its time out of how much of its time it was - - -some rather strange fans at some point even pored regularly over the strips for codes, secreted allegedly in the art, from which to decrypt jai-alai numbers to bet on, numbers which, funnily enough,won. “Hindi man lang ako nakatanggap ng balato” (“I never even got a cut”) Rox laughs.

But here we are in the thick of an indie comic boomlet and that handsome volume curating the Planet of the Noses arc is often blithely passed over for the transliterated superheroes and supernatural mysteries and secondary world tripe (yawn) that excite domestic comic geekdom. “I sell more books in Japan.” Rox says, as he should - - - it’s not much of a reach to imagine Planet of the Noses tickling wild fancies there. Suddenly, though, ahead of it’s time doesn’t ring like the mother of all clichés. “Nobody who could push for it pushed Cesar Asar for syndication back then.” Rox laments the possibility stunted. “I think it had a strong chance of being picked up. It’s universal because it’s very visual.” I agree. Dialogue would be the downfall of the film Rox made of it. He tinkers with it from time to time, hoping to find a way to make it work a little better. But it’s the rest of the Cesar Asar oeuvre I’m interested in. I mention anthologizing it but Rox fears most of the strips have been waylaid in the chaos of moving house. Shame. Hands down the mightiest local comic strip ever, then and now, Cesar Asar deserves a full-hog anthology, if only to trap a moment in his career that Rox looks back to with a giddy fondness.

An exhaustive - - - albeit incomplete unless he agrees to play that soggy print - - - film retrospective is more promising, as future prospects go. Two years ago, Rox was one of the objects of tribute at the .MOV film festival. And a handful of his films were screened - - - including the out-there Lizard: Or How To Perform In Front of a Reptile, which I saw for the first time then and was a brand on my brain since. But his corpus is vast. Animation has always been Rox’s métier and his irreverent, evocative, hand-drawn shorts are mostly glorious. But I’m more partial to his films - - -the experimental brio, the wry looseness, the vigorous glee. And the way some of them got under my skin. Like Lizard. And like Juan Gapang (Johnny Crawl), which was my first blast of Roxlee’s non-animated cinema. Pre-indie, pre-digital, pre-everything, it was made under his own steam with a little help from his friends. D.I.Y. filmmaking was , even back then, fortified by such communal ramparts. For a time, the only filmmaker who owned a 16mm camera was Kidlat Tahimik, and everyone borrowed it to make films they would later watch in some basement, projected on a sheet - - - a literal underground cinema. What I would’ve given to see Juan Gapang for the first time under those conditions. But no, I saw it in college. But it was still full-on synaptic broil.

What Juan Gapang meant to me at first was being fed through the disorienting crackle of some alien voltage, a sensation I would eventually associate with every experience of stumbling into a hitherto unseen mode of cinema. Experimental cinema of any make and model was zero footprint to me back then. Lynch and Brakhage and Warhol would come into my life much,much later. And to someone with a headful of nothing but the crassest Hollywood pop, Juan Gapang was like a hit from some truly arcane opiate stash. I honestly didn’t know what to make of it at first. Nor how to feel after. Creeped-out, amused, a little seasick. It is, to this day, my favorite work of Rox’s.

What Juan Gapang meant to me later, along with Kidlat Tahimik’s Sino’ng Lumikha Ng Yoyo? Sino’ng Lumikha Ng Moon Buggy? (Who Invented The Yoyo? Who Invented The Moon Buggy?) and Raymond Red’s Ang Magpakailanman (The Eternal) - - - both of which I remember seeing for the first time within that same year - - - was my first glimmer of an Other in Philippine cinema, the height of which for me, at that time, was a handful of comedies and maybe one or two pop Brockas. It was a seminal moment.

There’s always been a schism between mainstream and independent. But is blurring the divide the point? Or are we better off sharpening it, instead , into relief? The mainstream will always have its insurgents, the independents its fence-jumpers. But overlap is a utopia in need of a reality check. And the presence of an Other in art is almost necessary. Kicking against the pricks, spanner in the works, ghost in the machine, all that. Not that I get confirmation but I’m sure Rox would agree. His Sinekalye seemed to pivot from this stance, ripening an exclusive environment for filmmakers to cook their work and make it sing without intrusion and qualifiers. Much as they’re welcome to crash the party, I’m not sure his 13 commandments were aimed at anyone looking to be careerist teleserye directors and would unlikely sway them anyway.

Rox beams a little when he talks about younger filmmaker friends who have struck out on their own,as if they were charges, or sons - - -Brillante Mendoza,who was his PD for a few of his early films, Lav Diaz, whom he’s known as far back as their days at Jingle when Lav hadn’t even shot a single second of footage, Khavn de la Cruz, who was an acolyte and whose aesthetic hews closest to Rox’s.

Rox himself continues to work, imbibe his ethos. He tells me he’s finished a new and better cut of Romeo Must Rock, his valentine to brother Romeo. And he plans on tinkering with 35mm Man next. His experimental documentary on Juan Baybayin, Green Rocking Chair , fresh off a stint at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival a few months back, may be a kinder, gentler universe removed from,say, Juan Gapang or Lizard , but it is a warm and funny and in parts even touching piece. More than that, he made it in 2008.

The day I swung by to visit, it’s been almost a month since Ondoy and the house has been wiped clean of all its traces - - - no more mud on the walls, no more refugee neighbors. Rox is reclining on one of the many hammocks hung all over the place. Fatherhood and domesticity may have warmed Rox, but I’m not sure the old saw of how these twin poisons bring aesthetic ruin to artists applies to him. Go by the way he howls as Akira Brocka in the noisepop un-band the Brockas and the wild man peg is easy to come by. But brother Romeo is the wild thing in the family and even then, not by as much as you might think. Passive nonchalance has always been Rox’s default setting. On one hand, it’s the purest iteration of cool I’ve seen. But it’s also the nexus of his aesthetic - - - Rox is a man who doesn’t try too hard. And it colors his work to a refreshing degree.

He’s shooting his next film in Lubang and he’s shooting it in January and according to him, “Maganda doon pag ganung buwan.” (“It’s lovely there that time of year.”) He’s not sure where he’ll get the funding but no ripple of worry mars his visible eagerness at the prospect. It’s the way Rox is. And this is what filmmakers do. And more than his 13 commandments, it is this unwritten 14th commandment that matters above all: thou shalt shut up and make films.



*originally published in Phil. Free Press