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


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

entry arrow9:17 PM | Searching for Christmas

I have been desperately looking for Christmas.

I looked for it in a Christmas party, a sparsely attended affair held together by an unconvincing sense of obligation. The tree in the middle of the room, which was made of a variety of green strings tacked on one end to a spot in the ceiling, was sad and mournful. As sad and mournful as the empty boxes beneath it wrapped up as display presents. Christmas wasn’t there.

I looked for it in a Christmas movie, hoping the sight of New York draped in snow and tinsel, at least on film, would evoke something. It wasn’t there.

Nor was it in the marathon of Christmas albums by The Carpenters. For a brief moment, over YouTube, a cover of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” made me wistful—but it wasn’t there either. A well-meaning friend offered unsolicited counsel during a small gathering, where there was plenty of cake and pastries all dolled up in holiday colors: “But you’re looking for it in the wrong places, my friend,“ he said. “You have to remember the real reason for Christmas.” I looked at him with a poker face, ate the head of the icing Santa in my hand, and slowly backed away. Christmas wasn’t in the Santa head either.

Somebody tweeted today: “We have eight days till Christmas, folks!” The merry tweet came complete with emojis of snowmen and fir trees—but it only left me in unbelieving shock, because I hadn’t realized it was that close. It takes a kind of emotional preparation to face the holidays, and as far as I was concerned, this was still June, and December was still the hazy gloriously far-away lump in the horizon.

I’ve considered this for some time now. The days before Christmas are a jittery sort, composed of hours suspended in the limbo of expectations, sugarcoated only by what meager cheer is brought by the elusive signs of the holidays. Christmas is the portal to year’s end—and I think this is where my anxiety lies for the most part. On one hand, many of us are not completely ready to let go of things in the current year, because most of these have yet to reach appropriate completions. We have sworn we cannot end on a note of things undone. But all we can do is half-remember the broken promises of our previous New Year’s resolutions, and think about the uncanny ways life unhappens.

On the other hand, most of us can’t wait for the year to end either—there is a sweetness to the prospect of saying goodbye to all that, to jump on the idea of the fresh start.

But we forget about the flow of days. We forget about how short they can be, how treacherous their seeming elasticity. When we hear the first Christmas song in the first –ber month of the year, we laugh at the absurdity of how early we take in Christmas in this country. The next four months are long, we think, dismissing the frivolity of that first sign of the year ending. And so we slug on, valiantly attempting to make right the unfolding days and night that resist our frail, human designs.

And so when Christmas happens, it always comes as a complete surprise.

Eight more days? You have got to be kidding me.

I suppose I was waiting for furtive changes in the air to tell me Christmas was coming fast. Perhaps some welcome chill in the air to indicate this was December and that the winter solstice has come with the relief of a cold snap for tropical skin. Perhaps some bright, twinkling lights stringed everywhere downtown, embracing buildings and trees and lampposts. Perhaps a ubiquity of holiday music—the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, or just even some Jose Mari Chan. Or just Mariah Carey whistling out what she wants for Christmas. But they have largely been sporadic, almost half-hearted in coming.

We have not gotten these reminders, and not for lack of trying by some of us. Notwithstanding the brief erratic snap of cold brought in by magnificent storms barreling from the tumultuous Pacific, there has been no elegant sweater weather, the kind that forces us to exhume from the recesses of our wardrobe the thick, long-sleeved attire for forgotten colder days. It has been a muggy, summery December, and it has become a stretch of the imagination to associate the unspooling season with the imagery of Winter Wonderland.

But I roll my eyes as I read this useless rant. I am just being sadly nostalgic, I tell myself. It is the dominant preoccupation of people in their late 30s, I tell myself. What you want for Christmas, Ian, is the innocent, youthful yearning for the holidays, I tell myself. You know it will never come back again. Yet, still. The last time I felt Dumaguete really going for the Christmas thing was 1999. Back then, the street posts were decked in lights shaped like angels, and business establishments spruced up their facades with holiday displays to rival each other. The Asian crisis killed much of that in degrees, and the city hasn’t recovered since then. It has been fifteen long years.

So I was surprised to see Silliman University’s Christmas tree at the Eastern Quadrangle actually being a quite nice-looking experiment in material and elevation, elegant and minimalist all at once. And the Dumaguete City Christmas tree over at Quezon Park looks equally great decked up the way it is. Last year’s tree was such an epic fail—so this one was a definite improvement. I caught a bit of the lighting ceremony a few nights ago, and they had a boy’s choir sing Christmas songs, a good touch.

So I was surprised to feel stirrings of joy when I spent the last few nights being in mostly unplanned dinners with old college friends. We were older now, and considered the holidays as just another bump in our regular rush of days. But as we laughed and shared memories and drank various flavored chupitos, everything felt right again.

And so I was surprised to consider it didn’t have to take giant signs for Christmas to happen. Last December 12, I trooped to the Luce to catch a concert of handbell ringers, their repertoire shining with staples from the Christmas songbook. It was an attempt to recapture the past. The last time I heard handbells in concert, it was years ago when I was younger and was out in the world for my bit of adventure, and the concert was in a small church and there was snow outside while evening fell, and Christmas colors glistened everywhere. But the past was not recaptured, and I went home amused by how desperately I was searching for the elusive Christmas spirit.

And I thought about it, and it finally didn’t matter. Christmas for now is all about the small, unexpected things—and time with busy old friends who know you’re mad as a hatter, but love you anyway.

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Monday, December 08, 2014

entry arrow8:24 PM | Ang Pinaka in Dumaguete

I meant for this to be my Dumaguete fiesta post last November 25, but uploading it to YouTube took forever. It's a major blast from the past, from 2008 to be exact, when Rovilson Fernandez and the whole Ang Pinaka... team came to do their top ten must-see's and must-do's in Dumaguete. I looked a bit different then, hahaha.

Belated happy fiesta, Dumaguete.

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Sunday, December 07, 2014

entry arrow8:46 AM | Stay Amnesiac, Nicole

Rowan Joffé's Before I Go to Sleep (2014), starring Nicole Kidman as a housewife with retrograde amnesia who wakes up every day beside a man she can't recall but who claims to be her husband, is a wasted exercise in the mystery thriller narrative that somehow skims our memories of Kidman's powerful performance in John Cameron Mitchell's Rabbit Hole (2010) but does that great disservice by giving us instead the hammy convolutions of Harold Becker's Malice (1993). Remember that travesty? This new film follows exactly the same ponderous twists as that misfire.


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entry arrow7:00 AM | Waiting for the Storm

As I write this, Thursday is edging close to sunset, and by all accounts, it is a beautiful day. In the café I am in, students are poring over their books and the baristas are busy making a pyramid approximating a Christmas tree, which they assemble from the plastic tumblers they use for frappes, each cup containing an ornamental ball with its glistening sheen set off by the incessant twinkling of Christmas lights. The place itself is bustling with bodies energized by the taste and smell of expensive coffee, and outside, life continues. The pedicabs, the pedestrians stream on.

And yet my friend Ginny writes with some trepidation in her Facebook timeline: “It feels very much like the calm before the storm,” and it very well may be. I know this deceptive calmness—it is a devilish silence I do not trust. All I know is, this week began quite fine—and then for some reason that defies explaining, it “unraveled”—like there was an invisible static in the air quickly surrounding us, a suffocating warning of dire days. Ron tells me over chat that it must be a kind of premonition—“They don’t call it being ‘under the weather’ for nothing,” he writes. Still I tell him: “I feel fine—physically. I don’t feel sick. But everything else feels off.” Does anyone else get that feeling? I can be very sensitive to these things. What I don’t tell Ron is that the sensation felt familiar—it was the same “off-ness” I felt when the earthquake of three years ago came, the one that devastated Bohol, the one that created panic in Cebu, the one that sent hapless Dumagueteños running to the foothills of Valencia thinking that a tsunami was coming and the world was coming to an end.

And so the day goes, all of us pinging this and that in the comfortable blanket of Facebook. Offline, the city bustles on.

Behind me, the sea beyond Dumaguete’s Rizal Boulevard has the look of pristine bluish sameness, the waves rippling gently under the glare of the afternoon sun, while kilometers away, farther farther east, Ruby barrels straight towards us from the Pacific with the ferocity of a super typhoon. That’s what the meteorologists tell us. We have seen the projection maps. We have read the warnings from media people about having to be on standby, “to be vigilant,” while others still decry the need to filter out misinformation, to tap down the fear-mongering. The proper agencies are on guard, we are told. The emergency contact numbers have been posted, the evacuation plans in place. And all we can do now is to wait out the next few hours, to endure what remains of the deceptive calmness, or to do our last-minute shopping for provisions—the candles, the batteries, the bottles of water, the loaves of bread.

All we can acknowledge is that we do not know what future holds in the coming days. That is one of only two certainties, the other one being the memories of recent painful devastations—last year’s Yolanda and the ruin in its wake. We know for sure how super typhoons wreck havoc. We muse painfully that we have not yet erased the brokenness of that devastation and that we have not yet fully recovered from it—“we are still rebuilding, for God’s sake!” we say—and yet here we are once more contemplating another climate emergency.

How prepared are we? Perhaps as much as we can prepare for the regularity of disasters, given all our recent history of flooding and typhoons from Ondoy to Pablo to Sendong to Yolanda. Many of us have since gone on to try to make our world environmentally-invested. We have fought our battles—because problems still continue to rear their ugly heads despite everything—and sometimes we win, and sometimes we lose. But often I think: can we really do anything about climate change anymore? The extremities in weather are only going to get worse, and perhaps all our efforts to turn back the clock are in vain. The climate deniers hold sway still, governments and businesses continue to turn a blind eye to the causes, and the rest are still living in the fog of ignorance. I remember last August, I was buying some ukay-ukay for a concert we were going to stage at the Luce, and I found myself at the cashier where a customer before me was complaining about the fact that the clothes she was buying were being wrapped in newspaper sheets.

“Don’t you have a plastic bag?” she complained.

The attendant said, “We’re not allowed to use plastic bags per city ordinance.”

“But Lee Plaza is still using plastic bags.”

“Well, we paid a huge fine once when we continued to use plastic bags.”

“Why are you not allowed to use plastic bags?”

“I have no idea. I hate having to wrap things in newspapers, too.”

And I realized these people were the ordinary majority. The message is not getting to them. We are all doomed. And perhaps we all deserve to be.

When you read this piece on Sunday morning—if Sunday comes at all—you will have already known what Friday and Saturday were like, and what the projected rainfall and wind speed turned out to be. Perhaps the storm veered away—let’s hope this was the case—and there was nothing.

But perhaps it was the nightmare you thought it could become, and the memory of the gale howling down the deserted city streets is still fresh, and you can still recall your house creaking and quivering uncertainly against the ballast of debris and the wind-swept uprootings of relics from the vanished normalcy.

On the other hand, perhaps you are also thanking some divinity for having been spared the worst. You always wake up in the aftermath of these devastations thanking the fates that you have lived through the bad, and thanking even the higher powers for how the worst of the storm have missed the city where you live in by pure accident of geography or by the pure whim of a typhoon’s trajectory. Know that it is wrong to do even the slightest sort of thanksgiving: there are other people in other places who are living through the nightmares you have been miraculously spared from. Did your divinity play dice with the storm? What do you thank for really? Silence is the only appropriate response.

So perhaps you are now turning on the television or the radio or the Internet, and are beholding the full horror of what has happened during the weekend—a mounting flow of information in graphic news clips and sound bites and social media links. The statistics and the pictures do not lie, and perhaps you are now left to ponder once more the incessant questions about the fleeting nature of life and the helplessness you feel in the glare of natural monstrosities.

How do you deal? How do you escape the glare of deaths and destruction everywhere and still remain human?

How do you help?

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entry arrow5:50 AM | Goodbye, SIM

Sunday Inquirer Magazine is ending its long, illustrious run -- and I'm sad because this rag was a huge part in my growing up years. I remember its comics section by Jess Abrera fondly, and the amazing longform stories by Lorna Kalaw Tirol, Ceres Doyo, and Constantino Tejero, whose series on censorship in Philippine movies was the lynchpin source for my research paper on the subject in high school, and later on in college. Then there was the long-running annual series on Palanca winners by Ruel De Vera, perhaps the only magazine at that time to take Filipino writers seriously. (Yep, it was that kind of magazine.) This was the publication we aspired to write for when I was a Mass Communication student in Silliman University, and the first time my byline saw print in its pages was in 1999, right after I graduated, and thanks largely to one of its editors Alya. Honasan, who I met backstage at the Luce Auditorium where she was performing in Floy Quintos' And St. Louis Loves Dem Filipinos where we quickly established rapport over some astonishment. I would consider that my first break in national publication -- which just goes to show opportunity happens when you allow it to happen. Here's Ruey with his message regarding SIM's last issue: "Thank you for believing that there is still a place in the Philippine publishing landscape for the lovely longform story. It has been a privilege to tell these stories for you. There will never be anything like the Sunday Inquirer Magazine—and that’s really the way it should be. Accept no substitutes."

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Saturday, December 06, 2014

entry arrow7:08 PM | Low Budget Sci-Fi

Somebody ought to invent a fitting term, something nice and cozy, for sci-fi films that are undeniably low-budget but have an immense imagination to them they go beyond their monetary restrictions. I'm talking about something in the caliber of Shane Carruth's Primer (2004), a wonderful film which literally took the idea of time travel to the driveway, and ran away with our imagination. Has there been anything else like it? Perhaps Vincenzo Natali's Cube (1997), which brought a thriller quality to mathematics? Perhaps, to some mystical extent, Darren Aronofsky's Pi (1998)? There's Neill Blomkamp's mysteriously overpraised District 9 (2009) -- but this odious film is less sci-fi than just a monster movie featuring aliens from outer space becoming a lazy allegory for apartheid. Perhaps Christopher Nolan's Interstellar (2014) is a perfect example of what I'm looking for, but this film explores its science with a hefty Hollywood budget so it's almost a given that we get a huge return in terms of pictorial spectacle. But what about those filmmakers who barely have enough to cover craft services? I'm talking about small films that dare to play around scientific mysteries, and somehow manage to bring spectacle for a much lesser price tag.

I'm thinking about this because, for some reason, today was spent watching films released in 2014 that somehow managed to do this. I'm quite surprised at the bounty.

There's Charlie McDowell's The One I Love, which is really a domestic drama with a Twilight Zone twist involving familial dopplegangers. A husband and a wife are going through a rocky patch -- they don't communicate well and the passion is virtually gone -- and so, upon the recommendation of their therapist, they go on a vacation in a country cabin, where soon each one encounters a completely realised version of their partner's better self. Its Solaris meets Scenes From a Marriage, and McDowell -- after a fashion -- manages to stretch the conceit well enough towards an unexpected ending. The narrative juggling act veers dangerously close to tedium sometimes, but the film manages to catch itself in time with every swerve.

Which is what exactly happens as well in James Ward Byrkit's Coherence. This one ostensibly begins as a story of eight friends gathering together for dinner on a night when a comet just happens to graze the earth's atmosphere. Dinner talk soon turns to convoluted terror and madness as the friends realise that their neighbourhood -- perhaps an effect of the comes passing -- has suddenly become a patchwork of the same house where alternate versions of themselves go through the exact same dinner in parallel timelines but with divergent details. The comings and goings of the characters, as each one seeks answers to the puzzle they find themselves living in, are an act of cinematic narrative chaos -- but for some reason, it works. It made me consider its most tantalising thought experiment: if you stumble on an alternate world, and your alternate self is enjoying the dream life you never had, would you be willing to kill your alternate self to take its place?

There is nothing neat and ordered in William Eubank's The Signal as well -- but not exactly for the same reasons. This one is a genre-bender that goes from a road trip movie involving a couple and their best guy friend, but then swerves towards horror film territory without warning, and then, in equal measure, swerves to another kind of film: a sci-fi mystery involving aliens and robot technology, set in a sketchy laboratory somewhere in the wasteland of Area 51. Or so it seems. And then it ends with the same majestic and mysterious power as Alex Proyas' Dark City (1998). The way I have described it now seems to make the film senseless -- but it is surprising in the way it makes sense and in the chances it takes with its stakes. Its genre-bending seems almost organic.

All in all, a splendid, unexpected day spent in science fiction. I wonder what other movies from this year, and of this persuasion, that I've missed out on...

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