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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

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