Monday, December 17, 2012

Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)

(Dedicated to Dr. Lily Rose Tope, who cheerfully began last semester's Asian Lit course by asking a Murakami-reading classmate, "Ahh, but do you know how to read him?" I had since revisited this author - being a long-time closet fan - and had indeed better appreciated the Japanese-ness of his text, the better to salvage him from the Western morass that most of his [young] readers unfairly subject him to.)

And so, at the risk of essentializing, will venture to say that Spirited Away is "so Japanese" (Tope, circa-all the time). It is difficult to sustain this reading at length and in all fronts, but it is also from this, I think, that any universalist framing can and should depart. To cite, in the laying out of the status quo that the narrative is set to (predictably) break, there is a detail that might escape a Western viewer (yes, we had become pagoda-worshipping Asia-centric hippies in that class). In the car on their way to the new house, ten-year-old Chihiro and her parents debate on the merits of moving to the new place. Chihiro, who is obviously a brat, is the least happy about the decision. She whines, holding some flowers: "My first bouquet - and it's spoiled."

Of course, the Japanese do not have the monopoly on making use of flora's (and nature's) ephemera to make a point. Here, we assume that the text comes from a strong Japanese sensibility and is therefore aware of these archetypes, these semiotic clues. Flowers are particularly resonant of Japanese aesthetics; ikebana is as concerned about the beauty of the arrangement as it is about the knowledge - the happy certainty - that such will not last, that it will eventually wither.

More ephemera: the abundance, the deluge of water in Spirited Away. The main enterprise in the middle of the adventure is a bathhouse, surrounded by a river. The train tracks that service it is beautifully submerged in shallow waters. Haku, Chihiro's first and staunchest ally, used to be a river spirit himself. "There's so much water it looks like the sea," Chihiro says at some point. Here we must remember that water, as an element, is as much an invocation of cleansing as it is of adaptability, of the need to change, of the change that occurs in Chihiro. Water: that which sculpts gorges and canyons over millenia, here witnesses and occasions the transformation in the ten-year-old.

And so it is here, in this constant ephemera (odd phase, surely?), in this liminal, elemental space where Chihiro's rite of passage takes place. The movie had been compared, both justly and unfairly, to other tales of "coming into one's own." Justly, for a portal clearly demarcates the passage; labor is rendered an utter necessity; and at one point, Chihiro is forced to forget her name as a means of giving up control (as if the point is not clear enough, Yubaba, the witch who runs the bathhouse, magically lifts off the text of Chihiro's name from parchment). But unfairly, for the similarities end there, and Spirited Away draws heavily on a culture that had seen the confluence - indeed the constant tug-of-war - of old and new, of paying homage to a dear heritage and needing to survive in a quick-changing world (Japan's post-war aesthetics and art movements all leaning on this ambivalence).

More: work seems to be a fundamental fixation that undergirds Chihiro's quest. On one hand, it is too easy to ascribe an anti-capitalist, anti-industrialist bent here; easy, too, for Japan's increasingly consumerist society to be dragged on to the picture. In fact, one of the first tests for Chihiro was serving a hulking stink spirit. Aside from another allusion to water and nature (and its degradation, which loops us back to Japan's post-war industrialist boom), this sequence alerts us to yet another fixation of Spirited Away: olfaction, the sense of smell.

The Japanese are no stranger to such attention. Kodo, or "the way of fragrance," is practically unheard of compared to ikebana and the tea ceremony. In the film, not only is Yubaba's nose extremely prominent, two of the film's most striking motiffs, food and memory, are closely linked with smell. Often admired for its stunning visuals, Spirited Away's narrative provokes much more than glitzy Hollywood animation because it invokes a sense that is often more visceral - be it pleasurable or agonizing - than sight. And so we recall that it was the aroma of food that attracted Chihiro's parents to the feast that would turn them into pigs. It was her ability - and willingness - to bath a stink spirit without covering her nose that earned her the respect of her colleagues.

As for hunger, explored in stunning complexity in Spirited Away, it elevates the film twofold: it is no longer just a Japanese opus and it is no longer just a movie for children.

Which leads us to: No-Face! This extremely needy spirit is one of the most brilliantly conceptualized and emotionally resonant characters in any feature I have ever seen, animated or otherwise. Lurking around the bathhouse for god knows how long, he gains entry when Chihiro, in a simple act of benevolence, lets him in. This act of kindness destroys him.

His desire awakened, No-Face follows Chihiro and offers her copious gifts, from bath tokens to gold. Denied of Chihiro's affection, he turns to others, first luring a frog-attendant with gold and swallowing him, before turning the whole bathhouse upside down by eating every food in the premises in exchange for gold. He becomes insatiable. He loves.

For what is love but a hunger, a desire to feast? In Spirited Away, there is a thin line between sustenance and destruction, between seeking completeness and enlarging the inherent void. If love is able to assuage hunger, where does it stop? The movie deems sincerity (Chihiro) more meaningful than ill-motivated quantity (the other attendants), but what of the supposed unconditionality of loving? Of the erasure of the self in the act? Was No-Face better off surveying such locus of hunger and desire as an outsider? Was I better off not meeting up with that 18-year-old nursing student in Seattle's Best SM Manila nine years ago, which had set off this horrible, horrible lovelorn-lovesick cycle? After all, Chihiro said, "something in here is making him (No-Face) crazy."

I don't know: clearly, no amount of poorly argued exposition can capture the journey of No-Face in this film, and so I will stop (plus, I'm getting emotional na, especially recalling that train ride when he travels with Chihiro to Zeniba's house, where all the passengers are profiles, shadows "on the verge of being erased," trudging on to unnamed, unimportant stations).

In the end, of course, everything is Japan (Tope, circa-all the time): the journey to a "new" world (possibly urban to rural), the inter-generation antagonism (the child knowing intuitively that it is an incursion), the primacy of roles (capitalist, gender, filial), the comment on nature and greed (cleansing for a price), the value of perseverance (Chihiro's stubbornness), and the double-edged sword of memory (recalling one's name as a means of salvation vis-a-vis an admonition to not look back and the submerged train tracks that, it is stressed, goes only in one direction).

If I have learned something from Spirited Away, it is this: that kindness transforms, and it doesn't matter how monstrous we've become; we only need to let it. Kindness is not the offer of entry or a feast, it is the ardent desire to partake in the humanity that Borges posits: in feeling that "we are all voices of the same poverty." Apologies to Dr. Tope if this is not "so Japanese." But maybe it is, because it is all.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Breath (Kim Ki-duk, 2003)

(I have asthma, and so I know - not just theoretically - how essential air is, how, during attacks, your mind flails and flutters, and your lungs feel as if they're underwater, and reaching for that next breath is a sisyphean task until it is not. We saw Breath because Om, who stayed up for about half of the film, liked the DVD cover. I was mesmerized.)

Kita-kits sa basement ng Makati Med.
For the drowning, yes, there is always panic.
Or peace.
- Rickey Laurentiis, "You Are Not Christ"

After watching Breath again, I triumphantly nudged Christian and told him I have unlocked the mystery in the Kim Ki Duk opus. "No one talks," I said, and he looked at me the way a father eyed his most needy child. "Yes, distrust of language," he summarized for my benefit, "evident in all his films," and he may or may not have patted me on the head to tell me to keep on trying, who knows, a sliver of wisdom might someday peek in from behind the cumulonimbus of my confusion.

But it is inescapable: because it is the pervading silences in the film that power the gestures, the choreography, the semiotics, and the few heartfelt times that Yeon (Park Ji-ah) actually talks. The housewife, besieged by the infidelity of her husband Baron Geisler Ha Jung-woo, becomes fixated with a death row prisoner who has repeatedly tried to commit suicide. With a zombie-like resilience so typical of Korean female protagonists, she hails a taxi one night and asks the driver to take her to the penitentiary (in a dream-like journey to the city's outskirts that may very well resemble her own turning inward), where she pretends to be an ex-girlfriend of the prisoner, Jang Jin's (Chang Chen), so she can see him.

In this way it begins. A ghost in her home, Yeon visits Jang with a vitality that we reserve for our dearest routines; and when they finally come face to face, it is unlike any between prisoner and visitor. Complete with wallpaper and props, the visits begin with a whimsical production number that quickly descends into a death row-type confession, complete with childhood anecdotes about death and dying, and how it is really not so bad.

It is here, during these visits, these transactions, that Breath gains currency as mainly a depiction of an exchange, perhaps symbiotic, like breathing: whereas Jang benefits from the visits in the way of precious feminine, maybe maternal, contact (understandably inured to the masculine, though itself tender, relationship he has with his three cellmates) and an experience of the "outside", Yeon, for her part, heals, or at least begins to heal, chooses to heal, in accelerated fashion, even, dictated by the quick change in "seasons." The final "blow" that Yeon administers, while not premeditated, I would argue, cements this reading, that when it comes, it is breathtaking (if you know what I mean).

That the visits are themed according to the four seasons (with "Winter" perhaps needing no demonstration as it unfolds outside) reveals a preoccupation with time - its relentless passage - and the exterior - in Yeon's attempts to bring it inside. There is something being said here about continuity and enduring and, consequently, death and entropy. There is a comment here, too, about the artificiality of things, about aesthetics, the "interventions" - necessarily cosmetic, undergirded with a little looniness - clearly gesturing toward a powergrab, as if to say, Look, here's how flimsy time is, how interior and exterior are not necessarily diametric. The shots of "outdoors" behind bars and Yeon's emphatic ripping of the wallpaper and burning of everything at the end of each "performance" point toward this ambivalence.

Jang's response is pure elation. From a consuming desire to end his life, he gains something to look forward to, which is saying much if one is in the throes of death. He also stops trying to kill himself (his chosen method, a sharpened toothbrush at the throat, yet another strike against speech). For her part, Yeon is energized even as each visit leaves her visibly enervated. Perhaps it is simplistic to look at it as mere distraction, or rechanneling, but the ways we bring about and seek catharsis are many, and in the end the route to it scarcely makes a difference.

But what sort of transformation exactly has this catharsis ushered in in Yeon's mind? It is at this point that Breath becomes uncharacteristically legible, due mostly to her talkative, dramatic husband. After he breaks it off with his mistress (in shots that cut, quickly, from him being slapped by a disembodied hand; to Yeon looking on, forlorn; to Jang back in his cell intently peering at a polaroid of Yeon), things unravel and appear to be resolved by a think-about-the-kids pronouncement from the prodigal husband. And so when she smashes a clay sculpture (of a woman with a hole in her chest) she had freshly taken out of a kiln, or hand-washes a piece of linen she had intentionally dropped from the balcony, you know there is something else she is breaking, there is something else she is cleansing.

Bawal sa Lovapalooza
The final act, therefore, is a belated decision on the part of Yeon (sorry, feminists). She is jolted into a sense of compassion - the need for release instead of trudging on - and it is easy to draw a parallel between this and her own realization about her marriage. As for Jang, the "attack" surprises him, but back in his cell, as the finality of his circumstance dawns on him, he relishes the final merciful act from his cellmates, whom he had increasingly ignored during the visits. There may have been physiological resistance, but we know that those tears fell in a combination of gratitude and tender acceptance. The song for "winter," which Yeon sings with her husband on their drive back from prison, is a funeral hymn. "As I get hit by the white snow," they croon, "seeing you walk away, even though I call with sorrow, only the white snow falls." In his cell, Jang finally gets his freedom, the superior variety.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about circularity, which is to say, oneness. For one jolting moment, for instance, heat is indistinguishable from cold. It is just a sensation. In Breath, freedom and imprisonment, grief and joy, intake and release, all seem to operate in the same manner. There is something to be said of a countenance that reveals all that we need to know. In Jang's final flinch and narrowing of eyes, we see, simultaneously, all these things. Here is a man whose crime, it is later revealed, was muder. He killed his wife and kids then lay with the dead bodies. Say what you want about mortal justice, about hanging on. When one flimsy breath separates everything, you realize how delicate the divides really are.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011)

(Shame is an important film to Christian and me.)

First, spoiler alert: not even a generous view of Michael Fassbender's (famed) penduluming semi-flaccidity can rescue Shame from being the most un-erotic film (tangentially) about sex. To be sure, for the casual porn viewer, there are scenes here to which you can jack off (with satisfying results), but at the end of it, your libido would have undergone the most rigorous examination it had ever had the misfortune of going through. And in its wake: shame.

Or should there be? The film seems to be adamant in its distant, almost clinical treatment of sexual addiction, taking great pains to show that it is complex (it doesn't only happen to hideous pariahs), that the "normal people" against which it is premised is as precarious a classification as the fiction of our everyday performances. In fact, left on his own, Brandon (Fassbender) would have lived through life a happy, functional man: filling his office hard drive with porn, jacking off every chance he gets, and fucking with whores like they're going to be contraband tomorrow. Chances are, Brandon's last breathe is going to coincide with the stirring convulsion of orgasm. Show me a luckier man. Hmm? Show me. Absent any moralizing gaze or institutional expectations, anyone will be hardpressed to ascribe any inherent tragedy in such a life.

"I want your love. I want your love." Weh.
But childhood has a way of sneaking up on you. Enter his sister Sissy (Carrie Mulligan), whose presence we first encounter as a languid voice trapped in Brandon's answering machine, one which he readily, habitually switches off. When she finally materializes inside Brandon's cold, sterile bachelor's pad, he senses an intruder (with a penchant for 70s disco music) and grabs a baseball bat. He finds Sissy bathing in the comfort room, a hitherto private space where much of the film's pivotal sequences will occur. The anthem that scores their first encounter is almost, well, naked in its point:

(These diegetic commentaries litter the film. Early on, as Brandon stares absentmindedly during a meeting, his boss rattles off, "I find you disgusting. I find you inconsolable," while quoting "cynics" for a marketing pitch. In the immortal words of Dr. Tope, there you go.)

Cum face, in porn parlance.
The narrative will eventually hint at an unhappy, perhaps abusive childhood for the two. In a message to Brandon before another suicide attempt, Sissy's recorded voice reminds him that they are not "bad people," they just came from a "bad place," while the screen explodes with a cacophony of bouncing flesh - Brandon's and two prostitutes' - in a rumbunctious bout of sad, desperate lovemaking. Cut to Brandon's face, broken, on the verge of a breakdown, in so much pain.

Sissy's most naked long shot, meanwhile, finds her fully clothed and onstage, singing a slow, gut-wrenching version of the typically exuberant New York, New York. There's no escaping the vulnerability and nostalgia in Sissy's voice, successfully communicating, to my mind, a lifetime's worth of ache. Toward the end, when the shot cuts to Brandon's face as he tries to blink back tears, it is clear that she is talking to him, that New York, where the film is set, is as much a place where they now find themselves in as a place, really, of escape.

Not Cubao.

This private language, at times unarticulated, would peek in between the cussing and seeming disregard, the cariño brutal school of lovin'. On the night she first arrives, he finds her discarded boa and sniffs it. While waiting for the train in the subway, he plays around with her "vintage" hat and admonishes her to stop, quite literally, teetering on the edge. Finally, the level of nudity this relationship endures suggests a kind of superlative, if not uneasy, intimacy.

And so we realize, as we ought to, when dealing with addictions, that these people are damaged, that they have wounds that they are constantly dousing with the balm of sex, for Brandon, and love, for Sissy. This is psychology at its most simplistic, but it is also the tightrope on which Shame's rationale rests, and attempts to cross. The nuance here comes in the acting of both Fassbender and Mulligan, in the liminal vacuum that their childhoods have left, in their respective attempts to confront it.

This  sequence, for instance, caps off Brandon's downward spiral, an unraveling that came - that indeed was pushed - by a thwarted attempt at a "normal" sex life, when he purged his pad of all pornography and went out with a co-worker. From harmless masturbation and business-like arrangements with whores, he sheds all manner of subtlety and tries to pick up a woman with lewd language. He even finds himself in a gay club (a dangerous trick, however, correlating the space with the final alarming straw).

He discovers Sissy's suicide attempt the morning after his sex binge, a punctuation that shakes his previously unflinching foundation. The level of control Brandon has over things at this point has been a contentious topic for Christian and me. It's true that he drops to the ground in a heap of sobs, a scene that rings with absolutely no triumphalist note; that the ending mirrors the opening, pointing toward a cyclic incarnation of events; that Shame successfully explains why there ought to be no Shame, for people have reasons and there is nothing that requires them to explain themselves.

I would've ended the film at a more ambiguous point, but it seems as if Shame wishes to be decisive, about pain and our powerlessness in its wake. There is an accounting here of reasons and stories: from the resonance of childhood to an adult claim at goodness. For Brandon at least, to demand correction at this point is not only futile and unfair, it would  negate all his attempts at humanity, at living, which in itself is a strike at the sad, debilitating incapacity, and reason enough to not feel shame.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Whisky (Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll, 2004)

(Whisky is one of those films. It is one of those days.)

Pa'no tayo umabot sa ganito?
Whisky begins when things are over. Lives had been lived. Chances, wasted. Opportunities, attempted. What's left to do is witness the austere aftermath, admire the absurdity, maybe even laugh, nervously, with a guarded thinning of the lips, at the sort of people we have become, at the series of events that had lead to here and now.

Perpetually hunched and pinched, Jacobo (Andres Pazos) owns a crumbling sock factory in Montevideo. There is a quiet dignity in his movements, a result, we surmise, of years upon years of overseeing an impersonal but reliable assembly line (there's a commentary here, too, on industrialist alienation, typified by talks on labor issues whilst picking colorful pastries). His languid stupor is broken when his brother Herman (Jorge Bolani) goes home from Brazil to visit. To put up a semblance of success in his life, Jacobo asks his assistant Marta (Mirella Pascual) to pretend to be his wife. Marta, as constant (and old) as the gears and pinions that animate the sock factory, agrees.

When Herman comes and Jacobo and Marta commence their performance, the everyday becomes the realm of fiction. Inevitably, we are made to notice the minutiae of living, of lying: the half-meant things we say, the little acts we perform. And so when someone at the hotel in Piriapolis comments, in reference to Iguazu Falls, the site of their fictional honeymoon, that "It's very beautiful there," "there" doesn't actually exist. "There" is nowhere. (There is an almost facile cue here that marked the start of the performance: when Jacobo presses an "Emergency Stop" button - a suspension of the daily mechanics - and the scene cuts to Marta, made up and smoking, appearing self-conscious of her newfond glamor).

How Jacobo and Marta treated this charade is for me the most articulate, satisfying facet to Whisky, how their response to an opportunity for escape eloquently defined who they are, what they have lost, and what they will do (if any) to regain it.

Easily the more transformed, Marta easily becomes invested on the role. She gets her hair done, applies makeup, and fixates on tiny details that will improve the performance (including the saddest couple portrait in perhaps all of cinema). She utters lines that are expected of her, and when a woman calls while Jacobo is out, she hangs up the phone, protective. From reserved and apathetic, she slowly opens up. In Piriapolis, she reveals to Herman that she can spell backwards. Clearly, this reversing of words and sentences, while the camera pans to sceneries, gestures toward a desire to turn back time. The final sentence she reverses is "Jacobo is exasperated."

On the other hand, Jacobo always insists on the transactional nature of the performance. He is adamant about paying all the expenses, carefully keeping the charade to a minimum. For the most part, he is dead. His only vulnerable spot is his brother, and his desire to prove himself to him. To cite, the only time he holds Marta is during a game of table hockey. The only time he becomes alive is during football, sharing willingly in vicarious triumphs and catastrophes, with nothing, really, to call his own. When he realizes that Herman might have a thing for his pretend wife, he relishes the possibility. For the first time, he feels as if he has the upper hand.

We learn so much of the dynamic between the brothers when Herman offers Jacobo a wad of cash as "compensation" for having looked after their dying mother. What is unsaid here, of course, is that the money is compensation for a life wasted. While Herman has long moved on to a better place with a family of his own, Jacobo was just released from the burden and, in true Bona fashion, has nothing to look forward to now except a life of a barely discernible point. Too late comes to mind. And so the message undergirding the refusal was, too late; no thanks, fuck you.

It's over.
Then it's over. It's over.

This film's blatant fixation on mirrors tells me that these characters may all along have been self-reflexive in performing their roles. Jacobo knows he had become a zombie who has learned to reject any interruption of a routine that he has, for all intents and purposes, grown to love. Marta recognizes the charade as her only shot at escape, short-lived and fake it may be (she loves going to the movies, Christian would point out). Throughout the film, shots would cut their bodies in strange halves and shapes: while fixing the window (Jacobo, lower), hauling the oxygen tank (Marta, lower), crowding the tiny elevator window (the two's morose eyebrows and creased foreheads). Here are people, incomplete and stoic, trudging on.

Persistent, too, is a caller dialing the wrong number. "These things happen," Marta assures Jacobo, and us. These things happen. What exactly happens? By rendering the everyday as a confluence of fictions and myths, we wonder just how much of a performance lives are; just how many desires and whims are soothed by a superficial show of tenderness; if there is a tyranny that cannot be assuaged by an enthusiastic mouthing of a word that would physically arrange your facial muscle into a semblance of smile; if we, knowing this, can ask for more.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Hable con Ella (Pedro Almodóvar, 2002)

(When I saw Kieślowski's Heaven with Alaysa, I unwittingly committed the worst crime in this relationship. You see, Christian and I appointed that film to be our first as a couple, and the transgression, free of malice as it was, just goes to show how utterly discursive things are here. And so we come to Talk to Her, one of the candidates to play second fiddle, along with Edge of Heaven and Silent Light. But things are always unpredictable, and one fine June afternoon, we saw Kimmy Dora and the Temple of Kyeme in SM Calamba, our first and, some would argue, a slight demotion from Almodóvar.)

Before you read on, play this. Now read on.

There is a question that anyone who sees Talk to Her will ask a beloved, existent or otherwise: if I fall into a coma, will you leave me? Will your love persist? This is a prosaic way to put it, and the discerning lover can easily ask back, Is that still you, somewhere in that vegetative body, peeking in between the automatic operations of your biology? Isn't life, after all, kinetic, and to proclaim a thing lifeless is to comment on its inactivity?

Precisely why Talk to Her is so fixated on the body, graceful and sensuos, limiting and yet boundless to he who persists and insists on an alternative. The two ladies in a coma are both corporeal creatures: a ballerina (Alicia) and a bullfighter (Lydia). The film takes great pain in illustrating this alertness to this phenomenon, in showing, to cite, how the two are dressed: lifeless Alicia in fine, virginal hospital linen and Lydia in rigid, ornate torero attire.

Skinny jeans ang peg.
And so this beautiful attention: to the body, its contours and definitions, its supposedly imperious limitations. At one point, Alicia's eyes open, jolting the nurse attending to her. You see, bodily functions, even the most primeval ones, are not necessarily animated by that tricky judgment called life. Thus we return to the narrative's central dillema: what does one do when confronted with a comatosed object of affection?

Benigno is Alicia's private nurse of four years who is revealed to have shown a creepy-endearing obsession toward her when she was still, well, alive. On the other hand, Marco, Lydia's boyfriend of a few months, is a hard-nosed journalist who cannot even look at her limp, bruised body. In classic Almodóvar fashion (-Christian), the two form a strange friendship over their shared misery. "Talk to her," Benigno tells an incredulous Marco, who predictably doesn't listen.

Things take an interesting turn when Alicia becomes pregnant (foreshadowed, I thought, by that otherwise just revolting cleaning-up-the-regla scene in the beginning). Benigno, whose "rape" of Alicia - an almost incommunicable event - is dramatized in congruently stunning fashion, claims that their love for each other is superior to those of law-abiding humans. Interesting: I, for one, believe him.

Nope, that's not a hirsute cardboard wall.
To begin, it is the "miracle" that wakes Alicia up, and if Benigno - blameless, benign - deems it an act of love more than transgression, what of it? If the body is the text on which the film's universe stands, can Benigno be justly crucified for the consummation that, in his mind, was not only natural and essential, but emancipatory? For in invoking the corporeal, you necessarily invoke the spiritual that powers every flexing of muscle and hinging and unhinging of joints. Alicia's dance teacher Katerina talks about this "ghost" - the ethereal, the imperceptible. Can one love a ghost?

Outside the discourse (and this blog's tenacious overreading), the two's friendship is tender in its unlikelihood. "I have hugged very few people in my life," an incarcerated Benigno tells Marco across a glass pane. He describes the four years of attending to a near-corpose the "most complete years" of his life. His final act of love is as inevitable as it is logical.

For his part, Marco, who, after his divorce, couldn't sleep on the matrimonial bed and had to buy a new one, all too willingly took residence in Benigno's sad, haunted apartment. From someone who doesn't understand, Marco has called Benigno "the only friend" he has (transformation, as always, being the hallmark of truly fruitful human relationships). And if the fading "subtitle" were to be trusted, a story seems to be in the offing for Marco and the recovering Alicia, who gets a glimpse, just like Benigno, of a grown-up man crying over something so beautiful.

So what is the tragedy here? That Benigno's love for Alicia has to transpire in an alternate plane, where bodies are not prisons and appearances do not constrict? That it has to manifest in ways that are unethical and criminal, in noctural transgressions and secret monologues. No: that this kind of love, in its purity, is deemed to have no place in the waking, cruel world.

Now play this.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Bona (Lino Brocka, 1980)

(When Christian and I saw Bona, I had been in Los Baños for five days running, and my mother had not been subtle with her threats of physical violence. So a ready parallel,  although I haven't been fetching Christian water, doing his toenails, fixing the leak on his roof, etc. I think I am Bona in this relationship; lovelorn, dramatic, though not, obviously,  petite.)

Bona: definition of "done for"

The least that can be said of Bona is that it asks (though never fully answers) age-old questions: about the nature of fanaticism and celebrity worship; about our penchant, our capacity for self-destruction and martyrdom; about the inevitability of and the need for a final reckoning, an accounting of things, and what we are left with in its aftermath.

That the film opened with almost documentary-like scenes from the Black Nazarene procession is an almost naked admonition to see the upcoming narrative in such light: religious, devotional, undergirded by faith. The camera, godlike, then finds Bona (Nora Aunor) among the throng, before cutting into another plane of adulation, consecration, and mythmaking: a movie set. Again, a ready parallel, and in the juxtaposition, we see not only points of similarity but opportunities for one to inform the other and, consequently, subvert each other's values.

Which is to say, in the laid out framework, we see Bona's worship of Gardo (Philip Salvador) as all too human; only in this case, Bona has religion, while everyone else are good-for-nothing atheists. What of this human need, then? Ostracized by her family and relentlessly questioned of her motivation, Bona is not the one deprived here; it is us, who don't understand.

Fixing his roof? Time to reexamine things. Maybe.
For Bona and Gardo took on their roles with such willingness and ease that any questioning can be rebuffed by the sheer bluster and, barring that, "nature:" another familiar operation in religion, especially in light of recent discovery of a "God gene." It is perhaps too much to claim that serving Gardo is hardwired in Bona's brain, although we are made to believe that leaving him had never been option, in the same way that the attraction was never fully accounted for, as the film began with things already in full precarious bloom. (Christian notes that the film takes pains to show that Bona is "sane" by virtue of her interaction with her neighbors. I agree. How crucial is it to rule out madness, though, really, how is the act of loving not madness? Jume-J. Neil!)

Much has been said about the maternal resonance of Bona's doting and the clear infantilism of Gardo's receptiveness; here I think there is ample chance to examine the power relations that govern the uneasy (but also easy) relationship. Who, really, possesses power here? Is it Gardo, the object of adulation, the beneficiary of a beck-and-call servility? Or is it Bona, bringer of sustenance (food), heater of bathwater (cleansing), and steadfast guard of the house from intruders (that is, other women)?

Gardo: he of the sensitive skin and weak lungs
In the final, cathartic scene, we get our answer: how tenderness can be weaponized, how devotion empowers the devotee much more than the devoted upon, how the one who loves is the one who lives.

But even outside the entanglement, we know that their capacities for humanity are oceans apart. Bona is solicitous, whereas Gardo is self-centered. Bona feeds stray puppies on a movie set, while Gardo kicks a lolling cat he encounters on the street. Bona quickly gets along with her new neighbors, while Gardo at one point rips a neighbor's door apart after he is mocked for being forever a bit player. Whereas Gardo can do no more than momentary flings and short-lived pipedreams, Bona looks forward to a life; Bona loves. (It is not as if Bona is unaware of such faults, Christian says; in several scenes, we witness her witnessing Gardo make a fool of himself).

"Gusto ko eh," she tells Nilo (Nanding Josef), one of the many voices of so-called reason in the film (a stand-in, too, I suppose, for the viewers; and, decades later, would play an old doctor in the Yam Laranas horror flick Patient X, which we saw the previous day). "Hindi ako napapagod. Hindi ako nagpapaalila." 

Fine, if you say so, Bona. But during Nilo’s wedding, when her happiness becomes visible for the first time, we get a glimpse of her without Gardo, and she is at her most radiant. More radiant, even, than in that lovely scene when she talks about an apocalyptic dream of fire while bathed in the glow of Manila Bay's sunset. Drunk and clutching a bottle of San Miguel, Bona dances in absolute reverie around a bonfire, to the creepy taunting of singing male neighbors. The "losing" of oneself to love is clearly paradoxical.

So there you go: fire, intoxication, dance. There is little to gain in accusing Bona of being intoxicated with love, of being consumed by fire, of going through the motions. As with most things, our weakness is also our greatest strength. Deprived of everything, Bona's final act of contrition (Christian may have a problem with this word) is an affirmation – not a repudiation – of everything that she did. Here is a love that aspires to endure, razing anything that will block its way; even, as we have seen, the beloved. And we realize it is not about him. The beloved has not been, will never be, the point.

PS. To be sure, a conflation is at work here. Did she really love him? And what of this essentializing? Doesn't love feed off specificities? On this note, love you, Christian!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas, 2007)

(A word on the "point" of this blog. The point, which is to say, the difference, this space aspires for, aside from the obvious assessment and cataloging for posterity, is to problematize the import of a romance-tinged but discursive movie-watching experience on the appreciation of film; whether the banter, sometimes digressive but necessarily gesturing toward articulation and therefore processing, shapes the formation of opinion; whether the occasional hand-holding, by way of heightening sensory awareness, amplifies and/or distracts from the material currently under perusal. Joke! We just enjoy watching movies.)

Peace is stronger than love.
The supreme achievement first: my attention span, which runs all but 17 seconds, survived this film, a 140-minute Everest of long shots and minute, glacial movements, where the unfolding of things is austere and laborious. Christian lists Carlos Reygadas' Silent Light as among one of his top five favorite films of all time, so obviously, I cannot dislike it. (I can debate him until kingdome come and I will still sound like an idiot). With that in mind, this display of cinematic bravura couched in alternately cosmic and domestic plains is, surprisingly, a pleasure to watch: a phrase one doesn't normally ascribe to movies that subject viewers to two-, three-minute shots of rain pummeling on windshield or cows' udders being milked.

Such is astounding precisely because the premise of the film is old hat: the head of a Mennonite family is besieged with a crisis of love, the "source" of which, a friend counsels, might be "sacred." In short, he's married and falls in love with another woman. But what is old hat is stripped off to its naked sinew: outside the agitation of moralistic finger-wagging, in the calm, bare space of rural Mexico, the question on the fallibility of what we think is love is distilled to its painfully ambiguous core.

Which is to say, everyone suffers in the love triangle, which maybe a separate, wholly disapproving point on romantic love. Most striking is the behavior of the "other woman," whose deadpan post-coitus pronouncement - "Peace is stronger than love." - is the most breathtaking line I may have heard in any movie, coming at a point in the narrative where the toll of the infidelity is starting to manifest, in subtle, though well-acted, fashion. (The film utilized non-actors, Christian volunteered).

And in the film's climax, a transaction between the long-suffering wife and the tortured mistress takes place, defying all realistic expectations. In preparation for such an ending, Christian had offered copious warnings. But when it comes, the unfolding is exhilarating and poignant (the type of cinematic moment when one couldn't help but hold your boyfriend's idle hand). And what rescues it is a theistic, or at least cosmological, framework under which the film operates.

There is no overstating the centrality of such a spirit in looking at Silent Light. Watching the lengthy opening sequence, Christian had to admonish me several times to pay attention, a curt tsk-tsk if I was being particularly listless. It was all done in one take, he said, while remarking on the allusion to the beginning of time itself, of darkness giving way, in agonizing pace, to light, to scenery, then, finally, to the human space where the drama is set to unfold.

The evocation of the Genesis at this juncture is beneficial, for as early as here it absolves the formalist ruckus that this film will likely generate for its frequent violations of editorial handling in the narrative mold. The long shots, for one, are saved from the predictable accusation of cosmetic and existential inanity: superficially, an act that merely admonishes viewers to, you know, stop and consider the rain drops, consider the udders. To what end? the impatient viewer will ask. Once on a theistic framework, that question becomes almost moot.

For in Silent Light, there are frequent demonstrations of a quiet order against which the transgression is set. There is suggestion of an omnipresence in terms of camera work, an austere and demanding attention to scenery. There is frequent interplay between light and darkness, alluding to an age-old dichotomy. There is an insistence on the immutability and irreversibility of time, on the sequential order of things, that life proceeds in this manner and you cannot undo things. There is a treatment to people that is almost condescending: they hardly move, staring into space, tortured in the most private of spheres.

And so, when the final scene comes, and the viewer recognizes that it’s the exact reversal of the opening sequence, the framing of the story is all but too obvious: our world is a stage, in transcendentally huge proportions, and the final act of redemption, once one recognizes its inadequacy, indeed its humanity, is paradoxically still love, for peace and love are one. Cue: holding hands.