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5.31.2012

CANDY-COATED STEAMPUNK

Hugo
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by John Logan
Based on the Book by Brian Selznick








George Melies was a master showman, equal parts magician and fabulist, man-child and sentimental git, the cushy candyman as opposed to the young punks the Lumieres were, much like a close friend of Scorsese's. And if you're going to embody any rose-tinted love for cinema, it's hard to go awry with the proto-Spielberg, Melies being as fanatic a believer in cinema as a dream portal. Which is merely one of its many iterations, verging on the corny and susceptible to narcissism, but with sufficient mass-market traction. It only gets troublesome if you temper it with the object of Melies' pathos.

The first world war visited the real Melies with bankruptcy.  All it visits on this fictionalized and over-romanticized Melies is a cutting short of his winning streak at the box office. But that's enough of a tipping point for him to shutter up his studio, burn all his props and retreat into the oblivion of a train station toyshop to mope forever. Pardon the snark but  . . .what an epic diva!  And what a chore to rally behind as an embodiment of why we make films or why we love them. If Hugo is a love letter to filmmaking, it's to a specific mode of filmmaking perhaps, one whose impetus and bedrock is profit and entitlement. More than the proto-Spielberg, Melies here is like the proto-A Lister, his doldrums relieved in the end by the returning blare of the spotlight and the swaddle of public adoration, not to mention serious ROI. And if you buy into the hubris that this candy-coated steampunk behemoth magically clicked into place all because Scorsese's daughter wanted him to make a film for her, then it doubles as its own meta shadow, an ostentatious monolith to how overprivileged Hollywood directors have become.

JJ Abrams' Super 8,  in which precocious children gambol and grouse making amateur films and fight extraterrestrials while they're at it, is a love letter to filmmaking, too, and if its glittery promise is squandered by the glee with which it gives in to Hollywood's pathological need to reduce everything to spectacle, there is at least an eloquence to its first ten minutes that underpins all this preteen magic realism with emotional turmoil,  achieving a purer catharsis also because it envisions filmmaking as more liminal joy than lucrative career, more a means to process the world than a retreat from it. The eponymous orphan of Hugo is not without his own existential mulch to sift through, his own bewilderment of loss, and when Scorsese traces his arc, with its missing fathers and surrogate sons, its machine dreams and weird science,  its secret mean streets made of clockwork, the vague antipathies between auteur and source dissipate. Not that it reaches the wondrous heights you'd hoped, it lacks the full-bore quirk and sense of abandon for that, lacks the earnestness really, but it does gain sustainable emotional gristle, and becomes something else, something that hews it closer to the film Super 8 was essentially remaking, Joe Dante's modest and goofy Bradbury riff Explorers. That is, a love letter still, or half a love letter at least, but this time to the mad, impetuous spirit of invention.

5.26.2012

A MURDEROUS DESIRE FOR LOVE






In the dream, I was watching the Smiths sing a song I hadn't heard before and will never hear again but was beautiful nonetheless, and crying the sort of tears you cry at revival meetings, that suspension between ruinous and lifted that I merely imagine it to be given that I've never been to a revival meeting, nor  to a Smiths gig. It was an odd dream out of how, one, I dreamt it in the 90s after the Smiths had parted ways to become a constantly metamorphosing back catalogue, and two, I've never had much of a hard-on for gigs, an indifference I pin on the 90s as well, as the thought of the bands that mattered to me coming to Manila back then was beyond the ken of logic as to be impossible, forcing the pragmatic in me to take measures by throttling down any residual enthusiasm I might have originally nursed. The Smiths were my Beatles almost. They certainly were my Byrds, at least. And, hackneyed as it seems given the subject of the piece, they were the only band I literally dreamed of watching.

We all trace it back to Morrissey and Marr, of course, and whatever it was they had between them, that rarefied push and pull that transpires between frontman and guitarist, only with them it was more exacting, with no room for graying the area, for overlap. Morrissey took care of the morose wit and the erudite melodrama and Marr the ebullient melodicism and that way he had with his Rickenbacker that few could touch. It was the most fundamental division of labor between a frontman and guitarist, mirroring the stringent classicism of their repertoire: here was a band that never had a dance phase, a hip hop phase, an electronic phase, any kind of phase. A curious dynamic, sure, but one with a particular elegance. Once their alliance was severed, though, iffiness set in.  Marr tended to disappear inside every band he was eventual member of, becoming more rampart than color, never as exuberant nor as vivid.  But Morrissey was going out on sonic limbs, stumbling at first from the lack of a melodic crutch to prop him up, but eventually finding his sea legs. That's why I only have Electronic albums but have everything Morrissey put out since leaving the Smiths. And why May 13 was a date I would physically punish myself for missing.

But my tenacity was almost thwarted by the usual galore of deterrents: there was the excruciating lack of funds, the false rumors of tickets selling out, the eleventh hour scheduling of a shoot on the day of the gig and lastly, the lack of company to go with.  I had friends in the crowd, sure, but I didn't want to move from my place to go looking for them.  I would, later on, move around that is, looking for vantage points for each number. But before that, I just diligently nursed my overpriced vodka, waiting for the endorphin of anticipation to spike. It did but it didn't last. The sirens blared. And the band stepped out.

No measure of sobriety could dampen the euphoric surge of the opening song. How Soon Is Now? was both almost a given and out of left field at the same time. The effect of hearing its' colossal, ominous tremble pushed to 11 like that was physiological. Louder than bombs, right. My body couldn't make up its mind if it would pee in my pants or bawl in ecstasy. I did neither, thank god, but my knees were shaking as I screamed myself hoarse:"I am human and I need to be loved."  Alma Matters was the next song, quite possibly my second or third favorite Morrissey song, and the only one on that short list he sang that night, and was like my own bullish tantrum slash tenet:  " . . it's my life to ruin my way. . ."  Our angsts diverged many ways and it's not like his music put up a mirror to my own index of failures, my own ineptitude at happiness, but the songs always felt like fistbumps of solidarity, and almost comforting in how overblown and funny they most of the time got."This is not pop music. This  is opera!" he would proclaim later.

There's no way to parse a gig on paper that will make it meaningful to anyone else outside of enthusiastic reportage, it's bound to be different for everybody, and there was an immeidate spate of disappointments among people I knew, conspiracy theories even, of sets cut short, and of over-privileged brat hecklers in the front row. Admittedly, I came in there hopeful for a revue: The Best of Morrissey and the Smiths. I didn't get that, of course. But I was singing along to every song anyway, and he was working the table so fiercely, hearing First of the Gang To Die amplified by power chords or  Shoplifters of the World Unite raised to its anthemic rafters or Meat Is Murder with inappropriately, and therefore appropriately,  distressing images of animal torture, made me not mind the absence of The More You Ignore Me or Interesting Drug or I Want The One I Can't Have or Frankly Mr.Shankly. But I was still waiting for the last button to be pushed that would tip this over into the eternal. I started tearing up halfway through the first verse of the penultimate song: "Oh mother, I feel the soil falling over my head . . . " I Know It's Over was magnificent but tears were not enough, it turns out.

But  then Morrissey reclaimed There Is A Light That Never Goes Out  from Zooey Deschanel, and honed his encore, and the gig with it, to near-perfection. There are days I envy his resolute belief in the hopelessness of matters, and long for the force of will to surrender myself to the lassitude it brings.  But I am cursed with an innate optimism and an immense capacity for waiting. And mine has always been a blind, dumb hope in that light that never goes out never going out. In being reminded how desperately, how literally, I take that title, how I clasp its implications to my chest, and how I probably will until the day I die, I felt the night tip over into the eternal at last. I felt a  prickle of rapture appropriately tinged with sorrow.  I felt, in fact, both ruinous and lifted.

5.22.2012

THE CITY IS HERE FOR YOU TO USE

Mondomanila
Directed  by Khavn De La Cruz
Written by Khavn De La Cruz and Norman Wilwayco
Based on the Novel by Norman Wilwayco









It had me with the thalidomide anti-drug hip-hop number and there was no doubling back after that. Nearly every Khavn (not a) film draws a non-negotiable line in the sand, either you’re in or you’re out and half-assed gets you nowhere. And this is the one with the outsize myth. The one that gestated anxiously for five years, which, for someone like Khavn, counts as a lifetime, given how the unifying mean of his diverse, divisive ouevre is its velocity and volume and how they tend to exhaust both the word and paradigm of prolific. Mondomanila is the one, really, that almost got away.

Blame the vagaries of fate, as these things happen. But who knows if fate was pulling a few strings in its favor, given how the sense that Khavn's deceptively brash and reckless filmography was building up precisely to this point becomes tougher and tougher to ignore, not so much in the way that it feels like everything he’s done before while also feeling nothing like it, but more in its sense of culmination, in its vibrant throwing down of favorite tropes: the sociopolitical rebuke, the blackly-comic ultraviolence, the freaks on parade, the unabashed sentimentality,  the deviant sex, that would be the dwarf orgy and goose porn, the bubbly pop sing-a-longs, particularly its climactic production number. Even the magisterial last bow of Palito feels serendipitous if not orchestrated.

This is not the first time Khavn has staked out Everyslum, of course, except that in severely condensing the dense sprawl of its source code, Norman Wilwayco’s prize-winning cult novel, everything gets heightened even more than Squatterpunk, heightened into polemic, into poetry, into opera, into shock-pop, coming on like some exploded depression musical slash dysfunctional family comedy, obnoxious and color-mad and surreal. And the more it reaches its own boiling points of surrealism, the more it one-ups the earnest social realism of the poverty porn you can mistake it for at first blush, uncannily nailing, too, the genuine throb of its milieu, which has nothing to do with the exoticized despair that has become a haggard trope but this lust for life anyone who’s been to Anyslum can parse off the bat, and will recognize through the cartoon sheen. It's a joyful defiance almost, or a defiant joy if you will, the sort that comes from living a life with nothing to lose.

5.21.2012

DIASPORA IS SUCH A LONELY WORD

Lawas Kan Pinabli (Forever Loved)
Directed and Written by Christopher Gozum







That melancholia of displacement running like a hum of current through Lawas Kan Pinabli (Forever Loved) poeticizes the OFW experience partially as a maddeningly obtuse but gorgeously dreamlike reverie of transience and separation anxiety and the longing that comes from it: a man, nameless and fictional, searches aimlessly, possibly fruitlessly, for his missing OFW wife in a foreign country tellingly fraught with secret perils, the very same foreign country, it turns out, that Christopher Gozum has been working in all these years as an OFW.

Rising above one’s station is the aspirational default of the Filipino have-not, and working abroad their go-to golden ticket, the Middle East their Canaan. And the way we ritually valorize OFWs as unsung, working class heroes is not just out of how they significantly boost the economy like a periodic sugar rush but also, and mostly, for the backstory of tremendous sacrifice they go through to get where they are. Rags-to-riches is the true opiate of the masses and everybody loves a melodrama of struggle that pays off in dividends.

The bruising subversion here is in the way it dispiritingly, and shockingly, lays bare how steep the cost of that sacrifice can get, and how they often are each other’s worst enemies. It's not all blight, no. The sequence with the transplanted rockhound is, if nothing else, soothing.  And there is a bracing loveliness to everything. But, give or take one or two, the real-life OFWs in the numbing, revealing interviews that intersperse the cul-de-sac detective story, and meld ghostly narrative with brooding documentary until the joins dissolve into each other, are, in varying degrees, victims: of workplace mishap, of mistaken identity, of abandonment, of treachery, of the malfunctions in our cultural psyche. This is not the public face of the OFW-as-hero, with his head held high all robust with hope and friends with the future, but rather its evil twin, slinking in the shadows, looking away if you gaze at it too closely. Diaspora is such a lonely word and Lawas Kan Pinabli is at turns a begrudging valentine to that loneliness. Diaspora is also a necessary evil, or at least an evil we have made necessary. And the ruination of these OFWs, as well as their desperation in the face of it, is the horribly disfigured face it refuses to show the world.