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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.


Wednesday, October 19, 2016

entry arrow7:43 AM | No One Cares About Murder

I've been watching and reading a lot of Agatha Christie lately, for entertainment and for research. They're delightful detective stories -- but I also know they're really just expertly handled contrivances.

I'm remembering Raymond Chandler's old complaint about the classic detective story in his essay "The Simple Art of Murder," where he wrote: "If the situation is false, you cannot even accept it as a light novel, for there is no story for the light novel to be about. If the problem does not contain the elements of truth and plausibility, it is no problem; if the logic is an illusion, there is nothing to deduce. If the impersonation is impossible once the reader is told the conditions it must fulfill, then the whole thing is a fraud... There is one by Dorothy Sayers in which a man is murdered alone at night in his house by a mechanically released weight which works because he always turns the radio on at just such a moment, always stands in just such a position in front of it, and always bends over just so far. A couple of inches either way and the customers would get a rain check." [More here.]

Nonetheless, it is a difficult kind of story to write -- all that plotting, all that meticulous use of "logic," deduction, and red herrings -- and I've been meaning to write one for the longest time. But I think the most difficult challenge of writing in this genre is going beyond my own culture: British detective fiction works because it is founded on the basic assumption that their justice system works and the perpetrator of a crime will be made to pay.

Not true for the culture I come from: justice doesn't work here and most murderers get away -- or get elected to office. Life is cheap in the Philippines, and any local Hercule Poirot will be out of his depths pursuing a useless crusade, because nobody cares.

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[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Thursday, October 13, 2016

entry arrow12:01 AM | Women in Peril: Cujo, The Bad Seed, The Witch, Lady in a Cage, Sudden Fear, and the 1975/2004 Versions of The Stepford Wives

Every year since 2010, I've devoted the month of October to watching horror movies of all kinds, from slasher films to psychological thrillers to haunted house movies, from the classic to the contemporary. (Except torture porn. I draw the line there.) This year, I've decided to do "Women in Peril" as a theme. It is an intirguing subgenre of horror, and I intend to catch a full range of its varieties. I'll try to stay away from the "final girl" trope, however. So, no Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween for me. If you have any suggestions, drop me a line in the comments.

[6] Lewis Teague’s Cujo (1983), the now cult adaptation of Stephen King’s tenth novel is remarkable for its capability to heighten and embellish the plain conceit of its horror: it is simply a rabid dog story. That King managed to conjure an entire novel out of that premise really does tell me that structure is all, that perhaps a man vs. wild animal narrative could be a true source of terror if you invest it with something to root for. Who we root for is Dee Wallace’s Donna Trenton, a likeable, if harried, housewife whose life is made more complicated by three things: she is having an affair with her ex-boyfriend from high school, her husband’s advertising campaign for a cereal commercial is failing, and her young boy is exhibiting disturbing signs of being a little too sensitive. Apparently, domestic difficulties get their resolution by an encounter with the diabolical: a good-natured St. Bernard has been bitten by a rabid bat, and has become a lunging mass of droopy murderousness. Away in the city from their little town to salvage his cereal campaign, he tells his wife their car needs servicing. She goes to the town mechanic with her son, and before she could even say, “This is a good parking spot,” the dog has lunged after them, trapping mother and son in the car, whose battery has died. The film’s prototypical set-up is complete: our helpless protagonist is trapped, the geography of the trap is laid out well, and the monstrous creature is circling around the trap. What follows is truly a surprisingly nerve-wracking unfolding of the dog’s uncanny mercilessness, underlined of course by Dee Wallace’s wrenching performance and the growing problems she encounters in a closed car without food or water, the sun making its interiors a frightful oven. Throughout the ordeal, the boy weakens with a deadly swiftness – and tests the mother’s resolve. I like the film, I like its pace, I like its haunting score, I like how it handles atmosphere, and I like that I’m genuinely bedevilled by this dog.

[7] Melvyn LeRoy’s The Bad Seed (1956) is a peculiar horror film that for me becomes a perfect snapshot of its time: the 1950s. By contemporary standards, it fails as a horror film – but taking into context the time it was produced in, it becomes a beguiling artefact. It was a popular film, a major hit for its studio during its release, and subsequently earned four Oscar nominations, three of them for its cast. Only those performances remain indelible, the production not much so – because the immediate thing one notices about it is how stagey it is directed and rendered by LeRoy, which may spring from the fact that it honors more the 1954 stage adaptation of the story rather than the breathtaking novel by William March, which was nominated for the National Book Award. Thus, the story never leaves its primary location, the house of housewife Christine Penmark, which she shares with her husband Kenneth, a colonel, and her precocious and lovely little daughter Rhoda, and which she rents from the lovely landlady Monica, who lives upstairs. The only time it leaves the house is at the end with the scene at the lake, a coda that was added to the film to satisfy the Hollywood Code censors, and provided a marked departure from the more cynical original ending of the play and the novel. That meant most of the vital turns of the plot – in particular, the three murders of the story, as well as the mother’s backstory – are staged off-screen, reported over radio news, narrated by visitors, or unfolding solely through the reaction shots of witnesses. It is a strange filmic device, perfect for theatre but fatal for cinema. That theatrical borrowing is even taken further, with the actors exiting and bowing at the end, like in a curtain call. It left me cold and uninvolved, the very thesis of the excesses of exposition. But the story does posit interesting questions. Can evil be inherited genetically? And if so, if you are a blood relation of someone evil, can you do something about it? Those questions haunt Nancy Kelly’s Christine Penmark, who begins to suspect her perfect daughter, played with such sweet malevolence by Patty McCormack, may in fact be a sociopath (in a time when the term had yet to be invented). When she also finds out that she has been adopted and that her real mother was in fact a serial killer, she recoils from the full implication of her genetic inheritance – that her mother’s killing instincts had skipped a generation but has it passed it on to her daughter. What’s a mother to do? Do you turn over your daughter to the police? Do you do something distract? How do you exactly fight a monster if the monster is your own blood and genes? LeRoy employs a clumsy Deux ex machina to solve the dilemma, which diminishes this adaptation further – but even that is a sign of 1950s social imperatives. While the end credits roll, Nancy Kelly playfully spanks Patty McCormack, in a hopeful suggestion to 1950s audiences that all they had seen so far is just fiction, that they are just actors playing roles. It is a timid comforting hug, and it robs the film of its possible powers to truly terrify.

[8] Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015) makes no pretense at all to make you think that the witch of the title is metaphorical, or that he has made a film where the supernatural darkness is an allegory for human depravity and the abuse of superstition and religion. (In Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, for example, the “witches” are liars, and whole Salem debacle is an allegory for the McCarthy political witch hunts of the 1950s.) The witch is real in Egger’s film, and we encounter her immediately before the ten-minute mark, coating herself in the pulped flesh, blood, and fat of an abducted and subsequently murdered baby. (Ack.) With that abrupt end to Act 1, the film then ushers into completely unexpected territory: the terrors that bedevil the Puritan family we are following, as they try to work new farm away from the settlement they have been banished from because of religious differences, are real – and the Devil himself taunts them through visions and the demonic possession of assorted animals, including a creepy rabbit and a creepier goat. The family has made the crucial mistake of setting up a farm beside a forest that now has revealed itself to be truly forbidding, its dark innards the encampment of diabolical beings. First the baby disappears, then the young twins start to act strange, then the older boy gets sick after a seductive encounter with evil and then dies, but not before spewing out a fervid litany addressed in cold terror to the Divine. All throughout, we see the Puritan stranglehold on the family adding further to the devilish stew, with mother and father now becoming holy inquisitors. The malevolence surrounds young Thomasin, the family’s teenage girl whose burgeoning sexuality may be attracting the very evil now taunting them. The twins accuse her of witchcraft, and the mother and father – fervent in their puritanism – now must decide how exactly to resolve this losing skirmish with the diabolical. It is Thomasin’s viewpoint we follow, as she sees everything around her – her life, her family, her home – getting demolished bit by bit into madness. The film works as a study in tone and mood, as well as its astonishing embrace of historical detail, helped tremendously by all the actors who are outstanding in their embrace of their characters. It is a film almost without a false note – although it leaves us with a conclusion, concerning Thomasin’s final fateful decision, that doesn’t seem organic to the rest of the unfolding. It is a film that is slow in its scares, which may put off the most pedestrian of horror aficionados, but it is best enjoyed in the cumulative experience of its terrors.

[9] In the 1960s, there was a brief trend of Hollywood queenly royalty reacting to the dissolution of the studio system by doing macabre horror. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). Joan Crawford in Strait-Jacket (1964). Bette Davis in The Nanny (1965). In Walter Grauman’s Lady in a Cage (1964), Olivia de Havilland – with Ann Sothern in a supporting role as an ageing prostitute – does extra time in that trend of horror movies in a home invasion story that would have been truly terrifying were it not for its obvious, hilarious leaning towards Republican conservatism in panic mode. Ostensibly, it’s the story of a wealthy old widow played by De Havilland and one unfortunate day in her life. She has been incapacitated by a fall, breaking her hip, and thus must walk around with a cane and must use a newly-installed elevator to access the bedrooms in the second floor of her big house. On the weekend the film opens with, her only son (who’s a closeted gay man) leaves for a trip (with a plan to commit suicide later). A power failure occurs just as she is riding her elevator, trapping her. She pushes the alarm, which attracts only a wino, and later, Sothern’s prostitute, and much later, a murderous trio of hoodlums (two white trash and a dimwit Latino) who proceed to trash the house, burgle it, and unleash bloody terror. All the while, De Havilland is trapped in the cage of the elevator, shouting “Help! Help! Help!” And all the while, the film makes broad editorial comments about the undertow it wants highlighted: how this is really a parable of the best of American [white] society dying, terrorised by new 1960s realities with its liberal progress. We know this because the film is intercut by images of the outside world – rallies, technology, traffic, etc. – that indicate the symptoms of contemporary madness. And we know this because De Havilland’s character makes both voice-over narrations and monologues where she decries the evil and the indifference of the new world. And we also know this because, in response to James Caan’s hoodlum taunting her, she spats at him: “You’re one of the bits of offal produced by the welfare state… You’re what so many of my tax dollars go into the care and feeding of!” So, in sum: white privilege gets terrorised, gay man commits suicide, the welfare state produces hoodlums, and Latinos are dimwits. It’s a film begging to be Trump’s favourite movie.

[10] David Miller’s Sudden Fear (1952) is a thriller that warns us never to fall in love. In this curiously engrossing film noir, Joan Crawford plays an heiress who also happens to be a very successful playwright. (Which renders the story pure fantasy, of course.) In an audition for her new play, she dismisses an actor [played by Jack Palance] who seems to know how to get to the meat of the character, but alas – according to Ms. Crawford – lacks the physical rightness of the part. She tells Palance he just doesn’t look like a romantic lead. (She should have followed her initial instinct.) On a train tip to California a few months later, she encounters the actor again – and what do you know, romance develops. He sweeps her off her feet and the film seems destined for a melodramatic romance about second chances when it suddenly makes a left turn: we find that he is in fact in cahoots with another girl, and they are planning to steal her fortune after killing her off. Of course, Ms. Crawford soon stumbles on the plan, and finding no other possible recourse [the film makes painstakingly lays out the impossibilities of her situation], she pretends not to know, but is aware that a deadline is looming that is actually quite literal. The film is a showcase of Crawford’s luminousnesss, and her smart, lovelorn woman is rendered quite beautifully that we genuinely fear for her danger, and at the same time, her confusion about what to do when you find out that the love you’ve found is actually quite a dangerous thing.

[11/12] Ira Levin’s 1972 novel, The Stepford Wives, is about a Connecticut town where the men has conspired to turn their wives into preening, submissive robots, and has since entered popular parlance to describe people who have surrendered to dull conformism. It follows the travails of a metropolitan woman newly transferred to the town, and slowly comes to realise that something is not right with all these displays of domestic perfection. The story has been filmed twice over the years -- in Bryan Forbes’ 1975 version, which imbibed the pure horror of the book, and in Frank Oz’s 2004 version, which turned it into comic camp. In all versions, just as in Levin’s other popular novels -- which include Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys From Brazil, and Sliver -- we get a good transfer and exploration of Levin’s theme of paranoia, this time centered around domesticity and the feminism that was quite a big deal in the progressive spirit of the early 1970s. I like both film versions of The Stepford Wives, although none of them are exactly perfect. The 1975 version is more critically acclaimed because it sticks to the gritty feminism of the book, and does delve into the horror of the story with a shattering clarity. The frothier 2004 version is truer to the colour palette of the novel, but gets no respect for its candy-colorer comedy, with its zings and wit and pop cultural references and unexpected role-reversals and the happy ending. And let’s face it, Oz’s film was also quite a mess, with inconsistencies everywhere, it becomes harder to forgive its flaws as it unspools. William Goldman’s 1975 script is actually quite a chore, and is never really able to give us a good and thorough introduction to the town of Stepford, and is also quite averse to showing us much of the “wives,” save for the creepy end at the supermarket. Rudnick’s 2004 script maps out Stepford with zany precision and gives us the “wives” immediately in a tight cluster (performing aerobics that’s based on household chores!), it is impossible not to see the robotic in them -- but it doesn’t gel together, and the horror is totally gone, rubbed away by an avalanche of pastels. Maybe in the future a better version could be had, but I’d rather they film instead Levin’s A Perfect Day.

#2016HalloweenMarathon #WomenInPeril

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[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

entry arrow1:46 AM | Women in Peril: The Witness

Every year since 2010, I've devoted the month of October to watching horror movies of all kinds, from slasher films to psychological thrillers to haunted house movies, from the classic to the contemporary. (Except torture porn. I draw the line there.) This year, I've decided to do "Women in Peril" as a theme. It is an intirguing subgenre of horror, and I intend to catch a full range of its varieties. I'll try to stay away from the "final girl" trope, however. So, no Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween for me. If you have any suggestions, drop me a line in the comments.

[5] Here is a documentary that runs like an unconventional horror movie of the true crime variety -- with a coda in the end that horrifies and curdles the senses for its depiction of the desperate reach we sometimes have to do to grasp the “closure” we think we deserve. It springs from a murder that has now become almost mythological -- partly sociological parable and partly urban legend.

In 1964, a young woman by the name of Kitty Genovese came home from her work as manager in a neighbourhood bar in Queens, New York when she was accosted by a man named Winston Moseley. She is our woman in peril for this series. Moseley knifed her in the open air, along the quiet sidewalk only a corner way from her apartment. Her terrified screams for help alerted several people in the neighbourhood, and she frightened her assailant just enough that he immediately walked away. Bloodied, she carried on slowly towards the front door of her apartment building -- only to find that the assailant had come back to rape her and finally finish her off. According to the newspaper accounts at that time, with the venerable New York Times leading the charge in reporting, about 38 people heard her scream and watched her die, and did nothing, most of them reporting later on the same mantra: “I didn’t want to get involved.”

The news story proved a sensation, spurred people into action, and seized the wider cultural imagination: it has since given birth to the term “bystander syndrome,” which describes the apathy of people in stopping a crime they’re witnessing, and also allowed the installation of the 911 system of calling the police.

But James D. Solomon’s The Witness (2015) is more than just mere true crime sensational retelling. For me, at its basic level, the film is a thorough and powerful examination of the subconscious biases we bring and even nurture in order to tell the stories we need to tell. Its title then is a perfect capsule of its [unintended?] theme: we are only witnesses to the truth we are comfortable with, and from that springs our versions of the tale.

Ostensibly, the documentary follows the investigations of Kitty Genovese’s younger brother Bill, who was closest to his sister and was a very young boy when she was murdered. Now much older, legless, and ambling around in a wheelchair, he feels a consuming need to find out what exactly happened that fateful night on March 13, 1964. Did 38 people really turn away as his sister was being assaulted? What explains this psychologically? All his life, this murder and this knowledge of what was now being called “bystander syndrome” have singularly defined every choice he has made -- including signing up for the Marines at the height of the Vietnam War. In a culture where young men like him were finding ways to shirk from the war, he had volunteered -- because he didn’t want to become one of those “38.”

And yet the questions remained, and his family was not much help either: Kitty’s death also murdered her memory within the family itself, with most of its members having since refused to talk about her, preferring instead the comfortable silence. Perfectly understandable, given that the murder totally devastated everyone, leading soon to the deaths by stroke of Kitty’s mother and then father. As a much-younger niece recounts in the film: “I first read about the story in my high school class. I was deep into reading it when I finally realised it was actually about my aunt.”

Thus begins Bill’s decades-long investigation: first, he pursued leads and compiled the names of the 38 witnesses, and interviewed those willing to meet with him. Many of them had since died, complicating the filling out of the narrative, but for some of those who are still alive, a significant detail soon comes out from their telling of what they remember: some of the witnesses actually did try to help, and some actually called the police.

The first version of the story then is the newspaper version, as well as the prosecutor’s version: that 38 saw and did not help.

But now a second version comes out: only a very few of the 38 saw the assault, most only heard screams, and almost all did not know a murder was being committed.

Bill tracks down the legendary journalist Abe Rosenthal, who was City Editor of the Times who had given the green light to publish what was now clearly erroneous reporting. The third version of the story now emerges. In hindsight, for Rosenthal, the details of the report were flawed and not entirely factual, but he insists on the “power” of the story: it is now a story discussed in classes, in books, in films. Its implications have become important sociological theory which has in turn done much good, including the implementation of 911 and the better policing of tough neighbourhoods.

But for other critics, there is a fourth version of the story, a shadow narrative of Rosenthal’s insistent one: Kitty’s murder and the 38 have became a metaphor for “big city indifference,” for the soullessness of metropolitan living. It transformed New York into a dangerous place of the imagination.

The inconsistencies in the original reporting leads Bill to find out that his sister was not a “bar maid” as reported, but actually the bar manager -- and then he stumbles on Kitty’s secret life as a lesbian. He tracks down an old lover, and from her he gets his fifth version of the story: about young women in the closet in 1960s America, and the perils of having to identify the body of a murdered secret lover.

Further in his investigation, Bill finds his interest slowly leading to the murderer himself. Upon arrest on an unrelated case of robbery, Winston Moseley had confessed to police about an earlier murder of another woman, and later on also the murder of Kitty Genovese, which was brought about apparently by another psychopathic hankering to randomly kill another woman. That’s the sixth version of the story: the original confession of the killer.

The seventh version came some years later: in an earlier bid for parole [since denied], Moseley wrote an editorial for the Times where he proclaimed himself reformed, and now ready to become “an asset to society.” This is no longer the story of Kitty Genovese but the story of a poor man who had lost his way, and now was ready to make amends to the world.

Bill approaches prison authorities to arrange a meeting with the convicted murderer. Later on he learns that Moseley has denied the request, feeling that the media has already “exploited” him much too much for a good number of years; being filmed in conversation for a documentary with the brother of the woman he had killed was not something he wanted to do.

Undaunted, Bill seeks out Moseley’s grown-up son, now apparently a minister. The conversation that happens is fraught with tension, and here an eighth version of the story comes out: the son obliquely accuses Bill Genovese of belonging to an Italian crime family [not true], and tells him that his father Winston had suggested that Kitty had been killed because she had verbally attacked him, calling him racist epithets, and he had snapped.

Later, learning that Bill had talked to his son, Winston finally writes him from prison, and in the letter, a ninth version of the story comes out: Winston now claims he never killed Kitty, that he was just the getaway driver for the true murderer who had warned him never to tell the real story.

Bill Genovese responds with what for me is the truest line in the documentary: “It’s kind of like the human condition,” he wearily tells his wife who read the letter with him. “One believes their own bullshit in evolving stories.”

Now fully cognisant of the fact that he can never really truly get to the truth, he turns to one device that makes the film a perfect real-life turn for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo: he stages a “reenactment” of the crime in the very neighbourhood his sister was killed. He requests a friend, a young woman, to go to the Kew Gardens neighbourhood with him, and in the exact locations of the unfolding of that 1964 murder, he instructs her to do the exact same screams.

From the opposite side of the road, Bill becomes the titular witness -- the young woman follows Kitty’s haunted footsteps, how she had walked from the nearby parking lot where Kitty had parked her car, on to the sidewalk where she first encountered the shadowy form of Winston Moseley, on to the first screams she made upon being knifed, on to the pained walk she struggled through as she sought her apartment building door after the assailant had run away, on to the second screams she made when she found out he had come back to finish her off. The screams curdle as the night wears on.

Are we witnessing catharsis for Bill? Did the reenactment give him the closure he needed? The tenth and final version of the story, after all, is the personal legacy of that night, and it involved him: in not wanting to become one of the “38,” he had gone to Vietnam, and in the middle of the hell of that senseless war, he became seriously injured and he lost his legs.

In the end, he confesses to the futility of his obsession to find out the truth of that night. There is no truth, only versions of the “truth,” and every witness has a bias to skew it for a story that best fits them.

And so, in the light of the tumult in our ongoing political tribulation that seems to have no end, we must remember that we have accused everyone of bias -- particularly the media. Is media biased? Of course it is; to tell a good story it can sell. But then so is everyone, including you. We all trumpet the story we want to hear because we love the smell of our own bullshit.

And everything in the world, in fact, is bullshit.

#2016HalloweenMarathon #WomenInPeril

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[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

entry arrow10:33 PM | Women in Peril: The Neon Demon, The Shallows, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, and Elle

Every year since 2010, I've devoted the month of October to watching horror movies of all kinds, from slasher films to psychological thrillers to haunted house movies, from the classic to the contemporary. (Except torture porn. I draw the line there.) This year, I've decided to do "Women in Peril" as a theme. It is an intirguing subgenre of horror, and I intend to catch a full range of its varieties. I'll try to stay away from the "final girl" trope, however. So, no Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween for me. If you have any suggestions, drop me a line in the comments.

[1] It is easy to dismiss Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon (2016) as being all-surface and no substance -- which is understandable, given that the director’s work thus far, including Drive (2011) and Only God Forgives (2013), are intricate mood pieces made distinctive by a sharp consideration of “style is everything.” I admired Drive and had no patience for Only God Forgives, eventually finding them both a gilded kind of shallow. And yet perhaps the auterial drive that informs much of Refn’s filmmaking instincts has finally met its perfect subject matter in The Neon Demon. It is after all a kind of tragic parable about a young almost innocent model (played by Elle Fanning) who is drawn to a cutthroat fashion industry in Los Angeles, and there finding her natural unbecoming beauty becoming a consuming muse for many of its creatives (agents, photographers, fashion designers) and a consuming target of jealousy for other models. In that simple premise we see Refn construct a glossy horror story that is kind of like a sombre, Prada-clad version of Dario Argento schlock. There’s blood, there’s cannibalism, there’s vampirism galore -- all done up to showcase a parable about beauty and shallowness and the extent to which our desperation allows us to become murderous animals. I’m sure I’ll never want to see this movie again, but for what it’s worth it’s intriguing, and it’s beautiful to look at, and its depravities glisten like blood under neon light.

[2] There is much to admire in Jaume Collet-Serra’s shark attack film, The Shallows (2016), but it is also not surprising to note that its critical consensus has downplayed the film’s success as being that of pure B-movie variety – meaning that it may genuinely thrill audiences, but the thrill is … cheap. It is certainly not the 2010s’ version of Steven Spielberg’s seminal Jaws (1975), but I’m not sure either if its thrills are indeed cheap. For me, they are perfectly earned in a movie that knows how to keep its thrilling sequences well-paced, with everything else perfectly anchored by a star-turn by Blake Lively. She invests considerable emotionality and physical bravado to her role as a surfer who finds herself in a beautiful but secret Mexican beach, where unfortunate circumstances lead her to do battle with a gigantic, very hungry shark. Sure, it’s not perfect, and sure we can see, even predict, the obvious clockwork mechanism of the plot – from the sick mother backstory, to the geographic clarity of the woman vs. shark struggle, to the introduction of the totemic stranger who must become the film’s first sacrifice to demonstrate the awesome terror of being shark snacks. But most of the film somehow work in a kind of cinematic organic unity, and gives us enough reason to root for Lively’s damsel in distress. Plus the cinematography by Flavio Martínez Labiano is gorgeous to look at, there are scenes where sometimes you cannot decide whether to scream or to go “awwww” in admiration of the images.

[3] It has been a while since I saw Curtis Hanson’s nanny thriller The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, but I figured that it was about time I revisited this film given the beloved director’s recent death. I also remember this film as having pretty much scared everyone when it was released in 1992. It was a surprise sleeper hit that for a while it seemed poised to make Rebecca DeMornay – the film’s deranged villain – a huge star. (It didn’t happen. She had one or two high profile roles in big productions right after, but they didn’t climb the same reaches as Cradle.) There is a reason why it is DeMornay we remember most from this film rather than the top-billed Annabella Sciorra, who plays the witless mother and wife who slowly grows to realise that the ever-efficient nanny she has hired is actually a vengeful madwoman bent on undermining her, in a crazy plan to steal her family. DeMornay plays her nanny with a steely sheen we can recognise immediately as the iciness of a psychopath, but she subsumes it with an effortless sexiness and charm that undoes us. We are party to her plans right from the very beginning, but even when she pretends to be good, we readily believe her. DeMornay owned this role so much it has become an iconic turn of late 20th century villainous actressing, up there right beside Sharon Stone’s in Basic Instinct and Glenn Close’s in Fatal Attraction. Sciorra, on the other hand, is given the largely colorless role of unknowing victim; she knows instinctively that something is not right, but the screenplay refuses her agency – even her bravura final act that saves them all becomes perfectly perfunctory. It is of course Sciorra’s emotional battles (and her constant attacks of asthma) that become the lynchpin in our navigation of the brewing domestic horror, but it is DeMornay’s evil manipulations that finally prove delicious.

[4] Is there such a thing as a feminist comedy of manners about rape? The idea alone appalls, and seems perfectly impossible to execute – but apparently there is one, and it comes from director Paul Verhoeven (who gave us Basic Instinct and Showgirls), and it … works. The film is Elle (2016), and it follows the intimate goings on in the life of a resourceful and steely French businesswoman who has founded her very own successful video-gaming empire. Right at the very beginning of the film, we are thrust into witnessing something brutal and shocking: her rape by a masked assailant. In the immediate aftermath, the rapist leaves the scene quickly, and she gathers her nerves and her self, sweeps away the broken shards of glass and vase that are evidence of the intrusion, throws her torn dress to the trash, and then takes a long bath. Blood from her vagina coats the suds, and she brushes it away and prepares to relax. The next day, she goes to work like nothing happened, confesses to her friends and her ex-husband about the assault nonchalantly over dinner, and proceeds to nurse a strange fascination over the identity of her assailant. She somehow knows instinctively that it could only be one of the men that surrounds her life: her ex-husband who used to beat her, her best friend’s husband with whom she is ending a short affair, one of her video game designers who makes no effort to hide his hatred for his boss, her married neighbour with whom she has started a dangerous flirtation, her aging mother’s new and very young paramour, and even her good-for-nothing twenty-something son. She navigates these suspicions in a cat-and-mouse story that has her past as a shady backdrop: her father is a convicted serial killer who slaughtered 27 people in their neighbourhood one fine afternoon when she was a young girl. As played by the great French actress Isabelle Huppert, who made us wholeheartedly accept the dark titillation of sadomasochism in The Piano Teacher in 2001, the character of Michèle Leblanc is a fascinating cipher, one who charms us with subterfuges of comedy as she goes about her life clearly having decided that she cannot be a victim of anything, and that she is indeed the captain of her own fate. I cannot exactly explain how this manages to work as a narrative that is empowering, compelling, and transgressive all at the same time – because in theory, it shouldn’t – but Huppert makes it work, and Verhoeven, working from a screenplay by David Birke based on the novel Oh… by Philippe Djian, provides just the exact amount of imagistic sharpness, and depth in psychological knowledge to lift the material above the easy sinkhole of the sensational. Huppert’s Michèle Leblanc is a woman in peril, yes – but she turns that peril into her playground, where she eventually becomes its boss.


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entry arrow5:31 AM | The Terrifying 13th

I can't sleep. Currently watching 13th, Ava Duvernay's new documentary on the problem and phenomenon of mass incarceration happening right now in America. But it's not just about that: it's a powerfully made thesis about race, the unfortunate legacy of D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, modern slavery, crime-mongering as political strategy, media manipulation, insidious corporate lobbying, the commercialization of prison, and guess what -- the use of the "war on drugs" as a political tool. Apparently Nixon invented that rhetoric, and Reagan made it literal, and Clinton actually aggravated it -- and thirty years later, many of the supporters of that "war" (even Republican stalwart Newt Gingrich!) are saying that the "war" did not work, and that it was in fact a lie. F*q this sh*t, I can't sleep.

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Sunday, October 09, 2016

entry arrow11:16 PM | Bingeing on 'Friends'

I have no idea what drove me to do it, but I found myself bingeing on all ten seasons of Friends -- that's ten years worth of shows -- starting about three weeks ago, on and off. Was it needful nostalgia, a longing for my youth in the 90s when things seemed ... simpler? Was it escape from the madness of today? Who the hell knows. But I laughed, and sometimes cringed at the now-dated sexism and body-shaming and homophobia, but mostly had a good time. There's an emotional accessibility to the show that renders it an instant classic, and it has something to do with the generally good writing (except for some horrible misfires like the Rachel/Joey storyline) and cast chemistry. But nostalgia has its limits. At the end of the escape, you have no choice but to turn back to the real world and everything's reality TV sitcom called Enemies. Bummer.

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Saturday, October 08, 2016

entry arrow11:24 PM | Food Roundup Dumaguete 2016: Kiyosuke

I am an accidental foodie: I used to write a food column for a local paper and have written extensively about the Dumaguete food scene for national magazines and newspapers -- until I decided to discontinue the enterprise about four years ago. Still, people I know who visit Dumaguete keep asking me about the best places to go to eat, and I've found I no longer quite know the scene. A lot can change in half a decade. So I've decided to try a new approach this year and go about sampling the local food culture once more and document everything online in the course of twelve months. The city has grown and expanded enough in the years since 2011, and a significant part of what's happening food-wise has become unfamiliar to me. Consider this a personal adventure.

We swung by Kiyosuke a few weeks ago because we heard from some friends about it: how it was small and intimate and how they have traditional Japanese clothes you could put on for photo ops and such. “Yeah, but do they have ramen?” I asked. It turns out they did not, but I was immediately taken by the place nonetheless. It’s not your typical restaurant: it’s just a small two-room thing, an apartment really, its living room fitted out for a three-table affair, with a small adjoining room done up with tatami and low tables. On the walls of both rooms, the proprietors have painted cherry trees in bloom. The effect is, well, kawaii. The menu does not exactly offer a wide variety of choices, but I liked what I ordered: teriyaki and sushi for dinner and korumitsu for dessert, all delicious, all lovingly prepared. The place is a bit off the beaten path, along West Aldecoa Drive right after the highway, and it could be tough to spot, given that it’s situated behind a garage. Its lived-in/DIY feel might not be for some people, but it does grow on you. I am certainly going back for more. We ordered at 7 PM. Order received at 7:20 PM.


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Wednesday, October 05, 2016

entry arrow9:42 PM | Food Roundup Dumaguete 2016: J Restaurant

I am an accidental foodie: I used to write a food column for a local paper and have written extensively about the Dumaguete food scene for national magazines and newspapers -- until I decided to discontinue the enterprise about four years ago. Still, people I know who visit Dumaguete keep asking me about the best places to go to eat, and I've found I no longer quite know the scene. A lot can change in half a decade. So I've decided to try a new approach this year and go about sampling the local food culture once more and document everything online in the course of twelve months. The city has grown and expanded enough in the years since 2011, and a significant part of what's happening food-wise has become unfamiliar to me. Consider this a personal adventure.

It is by no means a place to marvel at, or to unwind and claim comfort in. The tables and chairs are tight, for one thing, which is understandable for a place occupying what used to be the garage of the old Medina sugar house. The tarpaulin sign outside — “New Open / Japanese Restaurant” — does not exactly excite the grammatically fastidious. (“Perhaps it’s a transliteration of ‘Bagong Bukas’?” a friend of mine helpfully suggested. EDIT: “New open” [ニューオープン] is actually a popular Japanese phrase.) The name of the place itself — billed only as “J,” as in “Japanese” — indeed does have instant recall, but a lazy one that has no claim to imagination. And going in, I had wished very much to be greeted by a high-pitched “Irashaimase!” just to complete the illusion, but that was also a no-go. And yet, in the final estimation, I liked very much this new ramen place in Dumaguete, situated along the Rizal Boulevard in the shadows of Honeycomb. J felt very much like one of those ramen shops I used to frequent in in Musashisakai, in Tokyo, when I used to live there. That recall of “authenticity” — a dangerous word — was enough to banish away my minor quibbles regarding the place. Plus there was this: I had been hankering for ramen for many months now, and couldn’t get my fix anywhere. Certainly not in Mifune, where my one-time search for the dish was squashed by a surprisingly rude waitress that made me walk out. And certainly not in Kiyosuke, where charm seems more paramount and the menu alas is lacking. (Is Wakagi still around? I really have no idea.) J’s menu, on quick glance, offers four distinct kinds of food: sushi, tempura, ramen, and something the menu spells out as “don kach,” but I have a feeling is really katsudon. We started with gyoza, Japanese dumplings filled with ground meat and vegetables and wrapped in a thin dough — which certainly made for a good appetiser. It paved the way for a generous bowl of the chashu pork ramen (“chashoyu ramen” on the menu), good for two (at P500), which transported me quickly to old Kyoto memories. (They also have four other varieties of ramen, ranging from P350 to P400.) The sushi on the menu is strictly platter-based (at P400), and includes eight pieces of assorted ingredients, each one a delight. Definitely not cheap, but the meal was worth it. On the way home, I settled with the plain joy of knowing there was finally a ramen place to go to, and that it was good. We ordered at 7:45 PM. Order received at 8:00 PM.


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Friday, September 23, 2016

entry arrow6:54 PM | InstaSugo!

I promised a review and I finally tried out the new concierge service in town because it was a lazy Sunday yesterday, and my spirit was not exactly willing to leave the comforts of the bed in search for something to eat. So I called up InstaSugo [Facebook here | Mobile: 09274223901 | Landline: 522 1872 / 419 5887] who promised in their page that they can deliver anything in less than 45 minutes. They have a variety of services, including Food Delivery, and for PHP18/km, you can “name the food you want as long as it can be found anywhere in Negros Oriental and we deliver it to you in less than 45 minutes.” Sounded good to me. For the same sum per distance, they also do your gasoline needs, your document errands, your personal gifts/flower delivery services, and your grocery needs. They can also do your medicine delivery for PHP70 per 1k worth of meds, and your utilities/bills payment, free for the first month and then P150/month for 5 bills/utilities. (All rates from their page.) I called them and a polite lady answered. I told them I wanted some food from Neva’s -- my test site since it’s nearest to me. I couldn’t give them my address because my pad has no distinct landmarks around it, so we decided to chat over Facebook. I gave them a sketch with directions to where I lived, and they gave me several snapshots of Neva’s menu. I asked for Hawaiian kuripot pizza and herbed pork chop. They calculated the sum, and gave me a courier charge of P40. I said okay. “It will take Neva’s some time to prepare your order though,” she said. “Can you give us 40 minutes?” I said sure. I waited. They got lost, and so they called me. I waited by the sidewalk. Soon, there was a nice man alighting from a nice car bearing my order. It was all so strange. But it’s very much good service for anyone like me who live very independently, and sometimes wants a courier service to do their bidding—like when you’re feeling sick or lazy on a Sunday. I’d very much recommend the service. I wish they gave me a receipt from Neva’s though. And I still can’t figure out how they billed me P40 for a distance that’s not really even a kilometre. But I can’t wait for another lazy Sunday. I’ve already paid my bills this month.

From InstaSugo: "Thank you for your honest review and thank you for your recommendation. We at InstaSugo are very happy to see someone like you appreciate our service. We would just like to inform you that our minimum callout fee is P40 for 2km and below. We are very open for suggestions to help us improve our services as we are the first in Dumaguete to offer this kind of business. Next time, we will make sure to provide you with a receipt which we forgot to give you yesterday. Our goal is to help people connect with local businesses around the City and also let the community experience what is available in big cities all over the world in the advancement of technology. We are working hard to make it as easy as possible for our customers to access what they need in less than 45 minutes. Once again, thank you, sir!"

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Thursday, September 22, 2016

entry arrow12:31 AM | Curtis Hanson, 71

Curtis Hanson's passing today breaks my heart. Wonder Boys is probably the best film ever made about writers, and was one of the best films of 2000. I love, love, love that film, which contains Michael Douglas's best performance ever. I also loved how Hanson transcended genre, directing with such panache a gritty hiphop musical in 8 Mile, the film noir in L.A. Confidential, psychological horror in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, outdoorsy action thriller in The River Wild, sexy thriller in Bad Influence, and the chick flick in In Her Shoes. That output is awesome, is underrated. Rest in peace, Mr. Hanson.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

entry arrow8:39 PM | The Fate of ‘Bias’ Media, Courtesy of Hugo Chavez

All this talk about media being biased, being “dilaw,” being a force of destabilization may have a purpose after all. They set the grounds and the mind-set for a possible eventual erasure, or at least diminishment, of freedom of speech -- and the formula may be old. It is Hugo Chavez’s Venezuelan media adventure. In the book The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy by William J. Dobson, we first get a glimpse of the Televison Chavez, a man with a rambling TV show where he rants and lambasts and make bold pronouncements... We don’t have a current national equivalent for that yet, but it pays to remember that Davao would know of a similar TV show for years, something called Gikan sa Masa, Para sa Masa. Now there’s talk of making that a nationwide show.

Is Venezuela’s past our future?

Read the excerpt from the book:

The centerpiece of Chavez's media universe is his unscripted Sunday afternoon television show, Aló, Presidente (Hello, President). Here, each week, Chavez sings, dances, rams, raves, shouts, jokes, questions, reports, prays, and — sometimes — calls Fidel Castro on the telephone. The show has no precise running time, although it averages a little less than five hours. It is a rambling program that resembles a telethon with a heavy dose of politics — a cross between Jerry Lewis and Glenn Beck but with an emphasis on “the socialism of the twenty-first century.” (For the show’s tenth anniversary, he aired a four-day special episode.) Chavez will often use the show to visit government projects, lambaste his opponents, or denounce the United States. As he downs one cup of coffee after another, he unveils new policies and makes bold announcements. Famously, during one episode, he ordered the head of the military to send ten tank battalions to the Venezuelan-Colombian border. Special guests have included Danny Glover, Diego Maradona, and, of course, Fidel.

Although the showman never acts like a head of state, one of the program's more important elements is the picture it gives of Chavez governing. Amid his monologues and impromptu tirades, Chavez will quiz his ministers — whose attendance is mandatory — often berating them for their failings. The Comandante has even been known to fire a minister live on television. The whole lot of them sit among the audience, wearing socialist red, their heads tilted down, praying that they are not called out on a whim. Chavez dressing down a hapless minister for the pleasure of the viewing audience on national television is what passes for accountability in Venezuela today. It is also a vital part of the image making that keeps him blameless for the country's mounting troubles. The message is clear: if the incompetent ministers and bureaucrats would only do what Chavez told them to do, everything would be fine.

If Chavez's antics are unrehearsed, his creation of a media state is anything but spontaneous. It began in the wake of the April 2002 coup. When Chavez came to power, the Venezuelan government operated one state television channel and two radio stations, and Chavez had done surprisingly little to change that in the early years of his presidency. After the coup, Chavez saw the crucial role the media played in shaping events and, in his view, encouraging his ouster. He referred to the four private television channels as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. "[Chavez's government] saw how weak they were after April 11, 2002," says Canizalez, referring to the short-lived coup. "They realized they were a communication minority, so they developed a strategy to create a strong media infrastructure."

In 2004, the National Assembly provided the government with the legal framework to control the media. The government was given broad discretionary powers to punish slander and disrespect of public officials. Defamation of the president can lead to thirty months in prison, and the government has the right to impose hefty fines on any media company for "offending" public authorities. Two of the major television channels — Venevision and Televen — soon changed their editorial stance to fall in line with the government's wishes. Politically objectionable shows were canceled, and the channels’ focus shifted to entertainment. In one telling example, a popular political talk show was replaced with a program on astrology and tarot readings. A third channel, RCTV, was closed, and the fourth, Globovision, remains in a bitter struggle with the government, always under the threat of sanctions. (In October 2011, for example, Globovision was fined $2 million for reporting on deadly prison riots a few months earlier.) Meanwhile, Chavez has poured millions into creating his own pro-government media conglomerate. Today, there are six government television channels, two national radio stations, three thousand community radio stations, three print media companies, and a growing presence on the Internet. “These channels are clearly a propaganda machine of the state,” Cañizález told me. “It is sort of what you would think of the official state TV of Cuba.”

Perhaps the regime's most sophisticated tool has simply been uncertainty. In August 2009, Chavez shuttered 34 radio stations for alleged “administrative infractions.” At the same time, the government announced that it was investigating 240 other stations for similar violations. However, it never specified which stations were under its microscope, nor did it intend to notify them. With the threat of closure already made real, the government knew the stations would do its censorship for it. In such an environment, any story that comes too close to the edge is either watered down or killed. “Their strategy is to keep them on their heels,” says Cañizález. “This is a way that media critical of the government can exist, but always under threat and at a high cost. Because the government doesn't give a clear set of rules, it puts independent media in a constant state of uncertainty.”

Get the book here.

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Sunday, September 18, 2016

entry arrow6:46 PM | A Singleton Finds a Good Ending

I watched Sharon Maguire's Bridget Jones's Baby (2016) because I thought it was going to be nostalgia fodder, and nothing more, for my 20s. Has it been that long? Yes. But the film proved to be funny and witty, and also a gentle reassurance, especially for people my age, that life deepens and starts, really, in your 40s. It is a worthy successor to the 2001 original and the 1996 Helen Fielding novel, and makes the brilliant choice to wilfully forget the 2004 sequel (that one helmed by Beeban Kidron) and the last two Fielding novels (where she kills off Darcy). There is great satisfaction watching Renée Zellweger return to an iconic role with cheerful humility and gusto, and flaunting the wrinkly truths about getting older with comic panache. All the hijinks of the original -- the earnest chronicling of a singleton's shenanigans, the bumbling presentation that derails Bridget's professional life, the mischief of good friends and the quirkiness of parents, the comical duel of the men in Bridget's life -- return but sharpened with 40-something reality: people are having babies, the biological clock is ticking, life is unsensational beyond the glowing ending of a romance story, and Emma Thompson makes for a great gynaecologist. The titular baby itself -- with the question of whether Colin Firth's Mark Darcy or Patrick Dempsey's Jack Qwant is the father being the plot's driving conflict -- serves more or less as a device for this eternal truth: the heart wants what it wants. I hope people get to watch this movie. It's not everyday we get romantic comedy this good. It's a difficult genre to pull off, and most directors muck it up, plus it doesn't get the same critical consideration of manlier subject matters. I laughed so hard from beginning to end. It was more than worth it.

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entry arrow6:33 PM | Searching for Silence

My missives of late have been, invariably, a plea for silence beyond the noise of the online world.

On September 13, Monday at 5:46 PM, I began it by posting in Facebook: “My body and my soul are aching for silence. A silence that begets productivity. Have deleted three apps so far in my phone.” Alas, there are certainly apps out there that demand our earnest, if haphazard and occasional attention, and yet bring us nothing concrete really to the business of life. Like Tinder. Why do we even have Tinder? Deleted.

I was longing for productivity. I was longing to create, and yet every ounce of me is being seduced by the eternal lure of the Internet. Life has become a business of trying to temper this lure, and find an offline reality that finally sates, because tangible. Every day is a battle to do the right thing, offline. And so, with all the irony that this line can muster, I report that on September 14, Tuesday at 10:34 AM, I posted again on Facebook: “Trying to do and start this day right by getting a proper breakfast at Le Chalet.” And then at 8:44 PM, I posted on Twitter: “Eyes on the ball”—as I found myself in a café where the wifi had conked out, and in the bliss of that disconnection, I found myself writing a story, and finishing certain things I had been meaning to accomplish. And then later that night, at 1:09 AM, finally back home in my apartment, I wrote in Facebook: “One major dragon tamed. Finally. Now, to rest for the meantime. More battles ahead.”

On September 15, I Instagrammed a page from Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like an Artist, which I have been trying to read again. The photo bore the following text: “Quick picking fights and go make something.” Later that day, I posted: “I’m trying to ease myself into meditative quiet via Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Exhaling the world, inhaling sweet surrender.”

It has been a battle to find the best terms of that surrender.

It didn’t use to be so alarming. Only a few years ago, our online lives were representations of the personal, if curated. People talked about the travels they did, the books they read, the movies they watched. They food-porned their dinners for Instagram. They quarreled over dresses that looked white-and-gold for some, and blue-and-black for others. Now it is all political noise and murders and suspicions, not just in the Philippines, but also Europe (Brexit), and America (the Trump machine)—making 2016 the most contentious year, ever, since social media took over the world.

And there is no winning any of these arguments at all. I’ve realized that the best argument I can give against EJKs for otherwise good people who cheer for it is to tell them this: “The only way you can convince me about its rightness is when you can honestly see your own hand picking up a gun and shooting these people yourself, without any qualms. Don’t let some anonymous ‘vigilante’ do it for you, if you have conviction for it. I’ll give you a name. Can you pick up that gun? Can you shoot this ‘cancerous’ element of society yourself? And if not, why?” It’s meant to bring the issue to the realm of the personal, away from the abstraction that arises from media reports and Facebook debates.

I can only wish it ends the argument.

It doesn’t.

Sometimes I blame September. It is the month, after all, that catches Dumaguete’s hangover after the festivities of August—and augurs bitterly for students who suddenly find an accelerated return to academic demands after a long, party-filled vacation. September also brings with it the shock of realization that the year is soon ending. It is the official beginning of the Christmas season for the country, and the Christmas songs blaring everywhere does not bring tidings of good cheer at all but a taunt that says: “It’s almost the end of the year. Time flies by so fast. What have you done with your year?”

And September finally brings with it the memory of two historical horrors: Martial Law and 9/11. September 11, also Marcos’ birthday, is still a day I can never forget. It was the day I first got the surge of feeling of much foreboding, that the future was going to be bleak and more people were going to die. (And I’m feeling this now about our country, frankly speaking.) I was 26 when the towers of the World Trade Center fell, and that was the day the last vestiges of my innocence faded away.

In the Philippines, this month is also when the shadows of a bitter past give us some reckoning again. I traipsed through the literature of the Period of the Republic (roughly 1946-1966) in my Philippine literature classes last Friday—using poems and stories by Rogelio Sicat, Nick Joaquin, Rolando Tinio, and Edith Tiempo as samples to explore post-American colonial literary concerns and developments, especially in the early years of the Republic—but I knew full well that I would have to steel myself for a heady lecture on Martial Law literature by the next week. Which was also perfect, if morbid, timing.

The Martial Law years needed remembering.

The plan for Martial Law, now known as Oplan Sagittarius, was leaked on September 13, 44 years ago. But Marcos was smart enough to provide the mechanism for identifying the leak. Here’s an excerpts from the book The Conjugal Dictatorship by Primitivo Mijares [who was later killed by Marcos]: “One of the best kept secrets of the martial law planning of Marcos was that, when he had finalized the plan and he had come to a decision to impose it, he distributed the copies of the plan in sealed envelopes to the military officials and leaders of the intelligence community. He took great care and caution to assign different Zodiac code-names to the copies he handed out to the would-be martial law enforcers. The first letter of each code-name corresponded to the first letter of the surname of the recipient. The copy that code-named ‘Sagittarius’ went to Gen. Marcos Soliman, a Pampango who was the chief of the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA). It was so easy and convenient then to pinpoint Soliman as the source of Aquino. Thus, ranking officers of the armed forces did not have to commit mental dishonesty when they denied the existence of ‘Oplan Sagittarius.’ They were not aware of any game plan by that code-name. However, they did acknowledge to newsmen that the contingency plan was the martial law plan itself.”

Soliman himself died shortly after the leak, ostensibly of a heart attack.

TV4’s InterAksyon has a good archive online that gives us testimonies of some of the people during Martial Law, which lasted from 1972 until 1983—but really continued in an unofficial form even much later. Of Etta Rosales, they wrote: “There was nothing safe about the ‘safehouse’ in Pasig where during the early Martial Law years, then teacher Loretta Ann Rosales and her five companions were brought to. It was in this place where Rosales, who would later head the Commission on Human Rights, was interrogated and tortured for a month by her captors—military agents who turned out to be her students at the Jose Rizal College. Rosales was electrocuted and sexually abused. Hot candle wax was also poured on her skin and a wet cloth was used to suffocate her. Despite her anguish, Rosales says she never thought that it would already be her end: ‘I wasn’t thinking of dying, I was fighting for life.’”

Of Domiciano Amparo, they wrote: “Amparo was one of five persons arrested by government troops in the Mountain Province town of Sagada in 1984. Buried up to his chest in the ground, his captors stomped on him, kicked his face until he lost all feeling there, rode him like a horse, made ashtrays of his shoulders until, feeling he would no longer make it, he was advised to ‘pray, pray all the prayers you know, your time has come…’”

And yet, also last week, we had Imee Marcos pronouncing the unexpected. In some forum, she spoke about how her father may have done things that were wrong, but that he was only human, and he should be forgiven. It shocked me. But somehow, I could actually take that in good faith. It’s not yet enough, but this could be the start of a dialogue. I remember the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the 1990s, which was a successful experiment in dealing with historical atrocities (and in South Africa’s case, the long years of the apartheid). It was based on this premise: admit your sin, confront your legacy of bloodshed with everything put on record ... and you will be given amnesty. “Forgive my father,” a Marcos family member finally told us. That’s a kind of admittance that he did do something wrong. It’s a start. Let’s begin.

September is full of noise.

In Maria Popova’s wonderful blog, Brain Pickings, I came across a reminder: “‘There are many fine things which we cannot say if we have to shout,’ Henry David Thoreau observed in contemplating how silence ennobles speech. A year earlier, he had written in his journal: ‘I wish to hear the silence of the night, for the silence is something positive and to be heard.’ It’s a sentiment of almost unbearable bittersweetness today, a century and a half later, as we find ourselves immersed in a culture that increasingly mistakes loudness for authority, vociferousness for voice, screaming for substance. We seem to have forgotten what Susan Sontag reminded us half a century ago—that ‘silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech,’ that it has its own aesthetic, and that learning to wield it is among the great arts of living.”

I am still searching for it, this silence. I hope in the bowels of September, a semblance of it can somehow be found.

Art by Julia Kuo

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Saturday, September 10, 2016

entry arrow3:12 PM | The Ides of the Retrograde

Late night conversations with cat.


“No, I’m not letting you out.”


“No, no, no. Plus it rained a while ago—”


“—I know but I let you out last night. I can’t have you out every night.”


“Oh, come on. Don’t tell me that. No.”




“Like I said, no.”

* * *

I read somewhere that a cat’s meow is singularly tailored to its human; every sound that a cat makes evolves to a pattern that corresponds to particularities of meaning, which, over time, a cat owner absorbs, learns, and understands. There’s a meow for I’m hungry. There’s a meow for Stop caressing me now, I want to be alone. There’s a meow for Open the door, and let me out, I need to see my beau. And the human perfectly gets each one, apparently. Cat owners know exactly what their cats are saying. But it is a non-transferable privilege. A cat’s meow apparently will never be understood by another human.

I think of this sometimes whenever I want to marvel at the bond that happens when communication between people is pure, unhindered, and clear. To have the need to pour out your soul, and to find someone willing to listen, that is a measure of a blessed life. But it is not always easy to listen, even if we seem to find ourselves to be a well-spring of expressiveness. We gossip, we use our electronic devices for an endlessness of chat, we throw our unsolicited opinions to the air where they land as explosive posts in our social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram are a morass of so much talking—and people hear without really listening.

The world has become a model of iron-clad irony: in an age of so much information at out fingertips, we have learned to be suspicious of facts; in an age of so much interconnection, we have learned to be distrustful of our friends; and in an age where the means of communicating with each other have become ubiquitous, miscommunication often seems to be the rule rather than the exception. Read YouTube comments and Facebook posts, and feel the ragged viciousness that has come to define our humanity. They are enough to make anyone recoil.

* * *

It doesn’t help either that sometimes the stars are in cahoots with the demons of miscommunication, disrupting our efforts at being perfectly understood. This year, there are three instances of Mercury going into retrograde, and we are currently living through the final one, between August 30 and September 22. The Old Farmer’s Almanac explains that “sometimes the planets appear to be traveling backward through the zodiac; this is an illusion. We call this illusion retrograde motion.” When the planet Mercury goes into retrograde, communication apparently goes haywire. This is because Mercury rules communication, clear thinking, truthfulness, and travel, and so when the planet goes into this spin, all these things go backwards, they get tangled up. Your travel plans go kaput. Truth becomes obscured. Confusion reigns. And miscommunication happens: your cellphone dies on you, your important email goes into the bulk folder, your letters get lost in the post office.

My friend, the eminent writer Krip Yuson, experienced his retrograde quite early on. Even before August came to an end, his iPhone sputtered to death—which didn’t stop him from ranting about the retrograde in Facebook.

But it pays to be extra careful these days about the things we say and announce. The Duterte government—if this can be an excuse—has been, thus far, a veritable victim of the retrograde devils: every pronouncement of the President has been broadcast, interpreted, and quarreled over. More recently, even before landing in Laos for the ASEAN Summit, his words, always “colorful,” have ignited diplomatic firebombs—particularly the “putang ina” he allegedly lobbied at President Obama. It was unfortunate dirty language that was heard around the world, the perfect soundbyte for a scandal-hungry world. Some people say he has been very disrespectful, unstatesmanlike. Some people say he was grossly misunderstood—“It wasn’t a personal attack!” Reports later came that President Duterte had expressed regret for his choice of words. But later reports also came that his speech during the summit again managed to insult Obama. And even much later reports say Obama did not take any of it personally. And while Philippine traditional media and social media tossed and turned over the nuances of words, Stephen Colbert and other American TV comics suddenly made “Duterte” a familiar name in their comedy routines. The uproar continues.

Welcome to the crazier side of the retrograde.

It doesn’t have to be political, too. The retrograde can be personal, and it is best to anticipate it. We were having a birthday party at one of the swankier night spots in town for one of our American friends. Nalingaw ko sa minor cultural debate namo that night:

“Amerikano bertdey ni or Pinoy bertdey?”

“Amerikano bertdey ni.”

“Hala, sige, bayad ta.”

But you don’t have to take the retrograde seriously. For most people, it is astrological mumbo-jumbo that has no bearing on anyone’s lives at all. Phones die all the time. Emails get unread all the time. Fights flare out all the time. And this: after two months of refusing to turn on, my iPad suddenly whirred back to life today. On the fourth day of the retrograde. Which is not bad at all.

* * *

One cause for misunderstanding is, of course, the opinions we hurl at each other in the nonstop debate chambers of Facebook. I was reading The Guardian online, and I came across this quote by the playwright David Hare: “In an internet age it is, at first glance, democratic to say that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. That is surely true. It is however a fatal step to then claim that all opinions are equal. Some opinions are backed by fact. Others are not. And those that are not backed by fact are worth considerably less than those that are.”

Hare is apparently writing the screenplay of the film about the 2000 litigation brought about by historian David Irving against author Deborah Lipstadt for her description of him as a Holocaust denier. In this article for The Guardian, Hare evokes the timeliness of the subject matter in an age where historical revisionism is everywhere.

And I’m thinking, if anyone can historically revise the horrors of the Holocaust and make an interpretation of history that is sympathetic to Hitler, what more the Marcoses and Martial Law? The revisionism began on that some time ago, and many Filipinos have drank the Kool-Aid. Hare writes: “We are entering, in politics especially, a post-factual era in which it is apparently permissible for public figures to assert things without evidence, and then to justify their assertions by adding ‘Well, that’s my opinion’ – as though that in itself was some kind of justification. It isn’t. And such charlatans need to learn it isn’t.” The people who We are entering, in politics especially, a post-factual era in which it is apparently permissible for public figures to assert things without evidence, and then to justify their assertions by adding “Well, that’s my opinion” – as though that in itself was some kind of justification. It isn’t. And such charlatans need to learn it isn’t.”

These are precarious times indeed. The people who speak for Marcos are charlatans. Let them know it.

* * *

I have been grappling about what to do with my Facebook lately. It has become the most unhealthy of things: the venom that spews from it every second is foul, and it has poisoned, generally-speaking, my relationship with many friends, which is spilling out to real life. Every day I’m tempted to deactivate, but much of my work as a writer and as a teacher is bundled with the platform, and so I cannot. But I know I have to somehow find a compromise.

RACHEL LAW EMERY: I hope you can find a happy medium. I’ve seen snippets of the negativity and it is sometimes surprising to me to see the sources.

LORD ALLEN HERNANDEZ (computer programmer): You can start by fighting the urge to log in.

ME: My compromise now involves just parking on my profile page, and never going into the homepage.

SHAKIRA SISON (writer): Wow, this is my struggle now too. Really tempted to delete my mobile social media apps. I might give it a shot.

MAIA RAYMUNDO (biologist): That’s why I made this new one. For exactly that reason. My home feed is so refreshingly positive. #facebookdetox

JAMES NEISH (artist): I struggle with this issue a lot. I hope you don’t mind my two cents: block or unfollow people who just complain and post upsetting things; limit people’s access to your personal stuff; never ‘post to public’ unless you expect a couple of trolls; and limit your usage to just twice a day, 15 minutes at a time, maximum. Oh, and don’t use Facebook as a news source or a place to have intellectual discourse unless it’s with very good friends.

* * *

I came across this article about Facebook freakout and envy at the NPR. The writer Jon Brooks gives his own freakout as an example: “I experienced an emotional flip-flop myself around Thanksgiving of 2008, when I first joined up. For a week or so, I marveled at Facebook’s ability to connect me to people who had long ago faded into the remotest recesses of memory. But by Christmas, I was in the midst of a full-fledged metaphysical breakdown. Those scrolls [sic] down memory lane were killing me... It was the collapse of that natural partition between past and present that I found upsetting, and a few months in, after noting the male-pattern baldness of yet another long-lost pal, I figured out why: Facebook punctured the intransigently juvenile aspect of my personality that had refused to recognize the passage of time. And that, of course, provided yet another piece of evidence for the harshest reality of life: We are all going to die. OK, that was my Facebook freak-out — how about yours?”

Mine is this: some of my friends, and many of them I still love, are “monsters.”

* * *

The apocalypse doesn’t come with mountains trembling and hordes trampling the streets in a spectacle. It comes with sly slowness, baring its fangs intermittently you’d mistake it for a regular smile.

The people of Pompeii were going about an ordinary day with the earth slightly trembling now and then, thinking it was just one of those ordinary murmurs—and then the hot ashes came.

The Jews of Europe dutifully lined up to register when the Nazis took power in the early 1930s, hoping that obeying the anti-Semitic edicts would spare them future indignities. (The list of names would eventually be used systematically to obliterate them in the Holocaust.)

When the Bolsheviks finally seized power in Russia in October 1917, it was through a very quiet coup. The revolution that had gotten rid of the czar was actually begun by other people and had occurred early that year in February, leading to an interim government. But people tried to go about as usual, ignoring the signs of the coming systematic and wholesale bloodletting that would last from Lenin in 1917, to Stalin in the 1940s. “On the evening of October 25 [in 1917], Princess Meshchervsky went to the opera in Petrograd,” Douglas Smith writes in Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy. “She noticed some trouble with the lights and a strange atmosphere in the theatre, but nothing out of the ordinary. Her experiences accord with most others in the city that night, for whom life, though chaotic and unpredictable, was uneventful.”

That made me pause. People went to the opera when the apocalypse came.

FLOY QUINTOS (playwright): Thank you for this. A quiet warning. The princess going to the opera...

ME: She refused to leave Russia, Floy. She even castigated her son who managed to escape.

BEN S. MALAYANG III (Silliman President): Facts. Disturbing. Truth. Now and always?

ME: Now and always, Sir Ben. It really pays to study—and remember—history.

MALAYANG: … And perchance not to repeat its evils.

ME: Pero, sir, nobody believes in history repeating. One begins to feel like a Cassandra in Greek mythology.

MALAYANG: History itself is not a repeating recurrence. It is its edifying and evil moments that are, crafted by its repeating confluence of virtues and vices.

ANA CENIZA MONTEBON (designer): As I read your post, this popped into my head and thus I share, from John Donne: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

MALAYANG: Very nice, An!

MONTEBON: Thanks, Ben. Actually here also is the first line na wala na apil diay nako na apil copy.

MALAYANG: Bitaw. Thank you.

MONTEBON: Ako lang pud ni i-share kay so significant for our present times. [Here’s] the accompanying write up to the verse: “In the Catholic tradition, all humanity is connected in the Body of Christ, and all are equal before God; in the Afterlife, there is no more male or female, Jew or Greek. The Bible states that ‘we are many parts, but we are all part of one body in Christ’ and that ‘there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.” The implication for the individual living on Earth is that he is part of a greater whole, such that the death-bell has deep and significant meaning for everyone who hears it. We are all in this life together and part of the same divine plan, so the bell does toll for the sake of all who have ears to hear it.

MALAYANG: Creatures with life—however they differ in form, vices or virtues—have one thing in common: it is their having the phenomenon of life (the “thing” called life) and life—in whichever creature it resides or occurs—is the breath of God. Snuffing out life, it seems to me, is akin to snuffing out God.

SOL CORONG (cultural worker): That’s why nakakatakot din ang listahan ngayon sa atin. Baka gamitin sa masama.

* * *

I have been mulling over Department of Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade’s statement for hours now. “A state of mind adds to the problem of traffic. Let’s stop blaming traffic. If you’re late, that’s that.” I still don’t know what it means. It’s a sentence so opaquely constructed, it’s practically begging for misinterpretation.

What does it mean? “A state of mind.” That refers to individual psychology, right? Hence, the individual? Hence, you? So you and your mindset adds to the problem of traffic. “Let’s stop blaming traffic.” That means, traffic is not at fault. “If you’re late, that’s that.” That means, it’s your fault. Hence: the traffic is fine, you’re the problem.

Still doesn’t sound right in many levels.

MACKY CALO (businessman): Tumpak! Tagalog na lang kaya!

ORLANDO RONCESVALLES (economist): I think [Tugade] understands that traffic is a Tragedy of the Commons, which is a problem of unrealized expectations. In the classic tragedy, every farmer (motorist) thinks he can fatten his cow (drive fast), but, since everyone else has the same state of mind, the cows get thin (traffic grinds). Of course, the solution is to make the “victims” behave better. For the commons, it is to give or sell to individual farmers their own land. For traffic, it would be to charge motorists a fair price to drive, i.e. tolls and higher car registration fees. Singapore, Hong Kong, London, the greater L.A. area have already implemented this, with varying success. ERIKA PERALTA (writer): State of mind... Hmm, let’s say we shift our thinking/belief and turn to the opposite, which is “traffic” is not a problem. What would a person with this kind of belief do? He will leave [home] as usual, use the usual routes, get a job even if it’s relatively far from his residence, does not blame train delays, road works, etc. He takes responsibility and adjusts. Even so, he will observe that his external reality would [only] still get in the way: hours wasted on the road, pollution, commitments compromised, and so on. The individual could always adjust. But again, it can only do so much. This state of mind “works” on some levels by making us more aware of how much control we have, e.g., not giving in to road rage, making ways to travel more conveniently. But the immense beauty of good transportation system should never be reduced to a far-off “national wish.”

MONTEBON: Alicia Keys. We should perhaps ask her.

MALAYANG: Interesting read on this: Mr. Boo Chanco’s column in today’s Star.

TINA CUYUGAN (writer): I would take Tugade’s words in a better spirit if the Duterte propaganda machine had not spewed millions of tweets blaming Aquino and Roxas for the traffic and claiming that Great God Duterte would wave a magic wand and all would be well on the highways and byways.

JUSTINE CAMACHO TAJONERA (writer): You’re right. His bottom line was: it’s the commuter’s fault that he’s late. If you allotted 2.5 hours to make it to work and traffic got you there in 3 hours, you must adjust your life. Clearly, Tugade has no empathy for the Filipino commuter. CUYUGAN: Possibly because he now has a government car assigned for his use.

RONCESVALLES: But that car would also suffer traffic.

CUYUGAN: He doesn’t have to line up, though.

RONCESVALLES: Just wait till they make personal drones. We can buy them using intel funds.

CORONG: May sayad ‘ata.

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Thursday, September 08, 2016

entry arrow8:55 AM | The Apocalypse is Molasses

The apocalypse doesn't come with mountains trembling and hordes trampling the streets in a spectacle. It comes with sly slowness, baring its fangs intermittently you'd mistake it for a regular smile. The people of Pompeii were going about an ordinary day with the earth slightly trembling now and then, thinking it was just one of those ordinary murmurs -- and then the hot ashes came. The Jews of Europe dutifully lined up to register when the Nazis took power in the early 1930s, hoping that obeying the anti-Semitic edicts would spare them future indignities. (The list of names would eventually be used systematically to obliterate them in the Holocaust.) When the Bolsheviks finally seized power in Russia in October 1917, it was through a very quiet coup. The revolution that had gotten rid of the czar was actually begun by other people and had occurred early that year in February, leading to an interim government. But people tried to go about as usual, ignoring the signs of the coming systematic and wholesale bloodletting that would last from Lenin in 1917, to Stalin in the 1940s. "On the evening of October 25 [in 1917], Princess Meshchervsky went to the opera in Petrograd," Douglas Smith writes in Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy. "She noticed some trouble with the lights and a strange atmosphere in the theatre, but nothing out of the ordinary. Her experiences accord with most others in the city that night, for whom life, though chaotic and unpredictable, was uneventful." That made me pause. People went to the opera when the apocalypse came.

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Tuesday, September 06, 2016

entry arrow9:14 PM | "I Feel Nothing"

Artists can be vampires, and writers most of all. And sometimes the surging ego of genius dictates that people in their lives must be consumed, and then discarded. (This was a running theme in Dean Alfar's novel Salamanca.) I know some writers who are exactly like this. In Genius (2016), Michael Grandage's respectable -- if plodding -- exploration of the relationship between the writer Thomas Wolfe and the editor Maxwell Perkins, we see the illustration of such a man. Not only does Wolfe treat Perkins, the man who championed his work when no one else would, with such vampiric discard, he did the same with other people who dared to love him -- most especially the artist and writer Aline Bernstein, who took care of him while he wrote Look Homeward, Angel. In this scene, Aline finally closes the door between them, in what for me is the most resonant scene in the film.

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Thursday, September 01, 2016

entry arrow9:11 PM | David Villalva's 3 Ways to Create a Villain Who Audiences Want and Heroes Need

Maybe Marvel Studios should take note of this, because their villains regularly suck.

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Monday, August 29, 2016

entry arrow7:37 PM | Archiving and Preservation

This ["The Race to Save the Films We Love"] is a fantastic, if sobering, article by Manohla Dargis for The New York Times on film archiving and preservation. The article tackles for the most part the race to save old silent American films, a significant percentage of which are now gone or lost -- often destroyed by their own creators who never found value in storing them. That rejoinder is also something the article touches on, and provokes a look at our very own present circumstances. What are the things you are throwing away now that might in fact have historical value in the future?

The article reads: "The studios can afford to safeguard their new and old titles, but an estimated 75 percent of movies in American theaters are made by independents. A few years ago, the Library of Congress and the academy released 'Digital Dilemma 2,' a report on the digital preservation issues facing independent filmmakers and nonprofit audiovisual archives. 'Most of the filmmakers surveyed for this report have given little thought to what happens to their work once it is completed,' the study found. Most were also not aware of 'the perishable nature of digital content.'”

My own awakening regarding the value of archiving happened in 2013 during a consolidated research to chronicle the history of the culture and the arts in Silliman University. We found the subject sorely unchronicled, with many of the relevant documents and materials lost, thrown away, or destroyed. It became for the most part a chronicling of oral history, because that was what was left -- although we were also aware that many of the principals have died. (We interviewed Eddie Romero only a few months before he passed away.) The one bright spot in our search was the archival collection of Rudy Juan who made an effort to collect every single program of university shows since 1975. In a sense, a well-organised "pack rat" saved us and gave us invaluable material for our research. In my current research on Negros Oriental literature, I am dismayed to find out for example that the entire collection of The Sillimanian from the 1930s -- a decade that saw the editorships of Edilberto K. Tiempo and Ricardo Demetillo -- is missing, perhaps destroyed by World War II. I shudder at the idea of what we've lost.

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Thursday, August 25, 2016

entry arrow9:36 PM | Leaving Omelas

I've been quiet of late about everything happening in the news. Because I've realised there really is no discourse anymore, no debate -- only vitriol and guys named Warren. My high school best friend who died recently was already on her death bed, and she had always been critical of the things that were happening, but even then a former classmate had been berating her so hard about being "unsupportive," that classmate had to be blocked ultimately in FB. "Mao pa ning gasakit na 'ta, awayon pa jud ko," was my best friend's lament amidst tears. The incivility has risen to that level: even the sick are not spared the vitriol. I realised some time ago that we are debating with people -- many of them our friends -- who have more or less crossed the moral line Ursula K. Le Guin illustrated with such sadness in "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas." I hear it in the refrain, "It's a necessary evil" and its various permutations. I do see where they're coming from, and I see their point, and it's really all about middle class frustrations over systems na forever bulok -- but in the long run, I cannot participate in the crossing of that line, because once I do, I think that's it for me. I'll just be one of those na lang who will walk away.

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Monday, August 22, 2016

entry arrow6:25 PM | The Aftermath of Shopping

I think it's very much like shopping and a denial of buyer's remorse.

"I swear this shirt is cool. I didn't actually really notice these prints were animal prints -- but you know, be an environmentalist and stuff, right?"

"It's not that tight. [Catches breath.]"

"Let's just say na lang this pair of pants will motivate me to go to gym. It's, ummm, cool."

"The children who made this sweater in that Cambodian sweatshop are at least earning for their family. You know."

I've come to realise this: let people wear what they want to wear. But do Instagram it, and make that your Throwback Thursday years from now.

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