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


Monday, November 17, 2014

entry arrow7:00 AM | Heartbreak Season

First published in Esquire Philippines, July 2014.

I have cursed Dean Francis Alfar, author of Salamanca, a few times in my life. Once, when he sent me a very short story— “Packing for the Moon”—to read, which led me to a dramatic whirlwind involving a book, a list, a sick child, and her father. When I got to the end, I burst into tears, and promptly texted him: “I hate you.”

Another time, it was another story, a longer one titled “The Kite of Stars,” which told of another young girl named Maria Isabelle d’ul Cielo who has become besotted with a handsome astronomer who, unfortunately for our plucky heroine, only has eyes for the stars. And so she spends the rest of the story—in the company of a faithful young man she only knows as Butcher Boy—gathering for close to forty years the magical materials, gleaned from across a tumultuous archipelago, to make a kite strong enough to fly her to the stars where she hopes to finally be seen by her beloved. But the story has a cruel twist, and what we get from the tale is an invocation of desires thwarted and hearts perpetually broken. Mr. Alfar, I was convinced, is a connoisseur of heartbreak, and I texted him: “What the heck are you doing to my poor heart?”

And yet, in that story, it isn’t even the lovestruck girl who evokes so much sympathy: it is the nameless young man who faithfully accompanies her on her willful quest to gain what she thinks is true love. For four decades, he fought pirates and various monsters, sailed rough seas, and endured the whimsies of magic and fortune, to help a woman he had come to love deeply, but who only knew him as Butcher Boy. Near the end, when he says goodbye to her as she goes off with her painstakingly collected materials towards the house of the kitemaker, the reader who has known the vagaries of loving cannot help but think: I have been that person. I have known what it is like to love and not to be loved in return.

Heartbreak stories, especially those penned by Filipino authors, have always been my secret cup of tea, my guilty pleasure. While there are similar stories told by foreign storytellers—there’s David Lean’s Brief Encounter, Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars—when it is told in the atmosphere and milieu of the familiar, the pleasurable pain we get from the text throbs even more.

And so, between April and May, when I teach Philippine literature for my summer classes at Silliman University in Dumaguete City, I go away from the usual syllabus I do in the regular term, and plunge my students into an exploration of heartbreak in Filipino writings. My fascination of this seems endless. To quote Barbra Streisand in The Mirror Has Two Faces: “The question is, why do we buy [love stories]? Because, myth or manipulation, we all want to fall in love. That experience makes us feel completely alive. Our everyday reality is shattered, and we are flung into the heavens. lt may only last a moment, an hour, but that doesn’t diminish its value. We’re left with memories we treasure for the rest of our lives. l read, ‘When we fall in love, we hear Puccini in our heads.’ l love that. His music expresses our need for passion and romantic love. We listen to La Bóheme or Turandot, or read Wuthering Heights, or watch Casablanca, and a little of that love lives in us, too. So the final question is: Why do people want to fall in love when it can have such a short run and be so painful?
... l think it’s because, as some of you may already know, while it does last, it feels f—g great.”

Heartbreak as a theme has found a comfortable niche in our national narrative, anyway: our popular paperback novels, sold cheap, are awash in it; our movies and teleseryes celebrate it.

In literature, our earliest novels share this theme as a common point for its heroines. In Zoilo M. Galang’s A Child of Sorrow, our first novel in English, Rosa, trapped in a loveless marriage and separated from her beloved Lucio Soliman, dies of heartbreak. In Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, our first novels in Spanish, Maria Clara—upon learning of Crisostomo Ibarra’s “death”—retires to the nunnery where she is raped by Father Salvi, and—although Rizal is vague in penning the specific circumstances—seems to invariably die from heartbreak. In Pedro Paterno’s Ninay, our first Tagalog novel, the title character has unrequited love for Carlos Mabagsic, is forced to separate from her beloved, and later dies of cholera—but I dare say it might as well be from heartbreak. The women always seems to die from heartbreak; perhaps there is nothing more wrenching in our imagination than the image of a beloved female character bare the wounds of her heart, and succumb finally to its frailties. In today’s popular narratives, they don’t necessarily die, of course—but they do cry and beg: “Pwede ako na lang ulit? (Can you please choose me, again?),” which was Basha’s plea to Popoy in Cathy Garcia- Molina’s seminal One More Chance.

Every summer, we read Mr. Alfar’s Salamanca, Gerry Alanguilan’s Wasted, and Carlo Vergara’s One Night in Purgatory—three long works that give different evocations of the heartbroken: a wife makes a painful deal with a philandering husband who left her once after only eleven days of marriage; a young man runs amok after his girlfriend leaves him for another man; and another young man, this one gay, nurtures a secret longing for his best friend, a desire which finally gets tested during that titular night.

Of course, there’s also the delusions we mistake for love in Paz Marquez Benitez’s “Dead Stars,” the seemingly unfair tribal demands on a childless marriage in Amador Daguio’s “Wedding Dance,” the memory of a loss reflected in a sunset in Carlos Angeles’ “Landscape II,” the loneliness of a long-distance love in Ronald Baytan’s “Distance,” the imagistic description of the heartbreak in Alfred Yuson’s “Falling Out,” a mother’s silent lament for a child who has grown up too quickly in Benilda Santos “Ang Pagbabay ni Atong,” and the various domestic fallouts in Jaime An Lim’s “Relative Distance,” Nick Joaquin’s “May Day Eve,” Edith Lopez Tiempo’s “Lament for the Littlest Fellow,” Angelo Suarez’s “Moms Baking Cats,” and Corazon Almerino’s “Unsaon Paggisa sa Bana nga Manghulga sa Asawang Dili Kahibalong Moluto.” Our literature is a well-spring of stories that limn these secret aches.

Why do we like these heartbreak stories? Is there a historical or cultural explanation for this, and if so, what is it? Do we like them because we are Filipino, or because the material is Filipino, or does being Filipino have anything to do with a fascination with heartbreak? But how is heartbreak “constructed” exactly? Did “heartbreak” literature come with our introduction to the Western ideas of literature: drama, melodrama, tragedy, comedy, etc.? If so, is post- colonialism at work here, and in what ways?

I have no ready answers to these questions yet. But I do know that by the end of my reading of Mr. Alfar’s Salamanca, when I read Jacinta’s final letter to her husband Gaudencio, I cried once more, much to my dismay. I don’t cry, I berated myself. But Jacinta’s words, simple and short, was a stake through my heart: they seemed to be the embodiment of the sweet futility we all feel for the sometimes unworthy people in our lives our hearts seem to beat foolishly for. And so I texted Mr. Alfar once more: “I really hate you, my friend. But thanks for everything.”

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Sunday, November 16, 2014

entry arrow10:35 PM | Breaking News

Watching Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler (2014) reminded me -- in a very painful way -- why I never pursued journalism as a career, although it was my major in college. I graduated in 1999 with a mass communication degree with some Latin honours attached to it, and promptly got the job -- I knew it was going to be a temporary thing -- as editor-in-chief of a regional newspaper. Around the time, I was also fielding offers to work in a Makati bank (I still wonder how they got my resume), among others. This included an offer to become the regional news director for The Manila Times, which was going through a terrible reshuffling at that time -- which was perhaps they were willing to take on a greenhorn like me. The job meant I had to be based in Cebu City, and then pursue and direct hard stories in the name of news. For some reason, I just could not see myself doing it. I turned it down. Back in journalism school, I hated the grind of covering the police beat, and I hated having to run after politicians, criminals, and other newsmakers to get my sound byte in order to beat the 3 p.m. deadline. Watching this new film reminded me about that pursuit. But it was also something else quite entirely. Nightcrawler is a mindfucker of a movie, and by the end of it, I found myself delirious and uneasy over what it wanted to say.

What exactly is Nightcrawler? Is it a contemporary film noir, living off the muck of Los Angeles urban crime? Is it a diatribe against tabloid journalism and its blurring of morality in newsmaking? Is it a procedural over how to be ingenious and crafty enough to get the footage you want that's "fit" for the morning news and primed for ratings bonanza? Is it a study of sociopathic behaviour? Is it an illustration over how to build a business from the ground up, throwing in chutzpah and business school rhetoric as major ingredients for success? Is it the perfect embodiment of what Austin Kleon once said about how to make it as an artist: "Fake it till you make it"?

I guess this is all of that. Jake Gyllenhaal -- who is incredibly wiry and scarecrowy as the sociopathic Lou Bloom -- plays a "nightcrawler," which is industry lingo for those independent "news gatherers" that hover over police scanner dispatches to get to scenes of crime just in time to capture graphic footage of what's happening. These they serve up to directors of TV news, who pay them piecemeal -- and more if the footage happens to be bloodier, or more exclusive, than the rest. The interesting about Lou Bloom is that he stumbles into this career quite by accident. He starts out as some petty thief, and chances upon Bill Paxton's nightcrawler in an accident -- and gets fascinated by what he sees. He is intrepid and smart, he is business-savvy, he is hungry for relevance, and he learns fast. And soon he starts making a name for himself as the topnotch go-to guy in his field, with much thanks to Rene Russo's Nina, a news director of a lowly TV station who recognises in Lou a kindred spirit, and who shares a preponderancy for brushing aside moral dilemmas for the sake of a story. This is basically a rags-to-success story for Lou Bloom, but it's a film that has none of that Horatio Alger sentimentality. We are asked to sympathise with a conniving, cold-blooded creature who will sacrifice anything and anyone to be good at his job. What unsettles is that we actually find everything that Lou does to be logical and honest. He is good.

But is that ever enough?

I'm glad I quit the news job before it could ensnare me into this kind of dilemma. It's hyperbolic, of course, but with the news the way it is right now, I'm not sure the hyperbole in the film is even unreal anymore.

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entry arrow9:30 AM | This Week in Culture in Dumaguete: MMCO’s Gershwin Plus Features Pianist Cristine Coyiuto

Pianist Cristine Coyiuto and conductor Josefino “Chino” Toledo of the Metro Manila Concert Orchestra (MMCO) will collaborate once again in Gershwin Plus, a concert that features George Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F, plus works by other composers such as Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and Anton Dvorak.

The concert makes its national premiere in Dumaguete City at the Claire Isabel McGill Luce Auditorium on 21 November 2014, Friday at 8 p.m. The company will do two more shows on November 22, Saturday, with a matinee at 3 p.m. and a gala at 8 p.m.

Coyiuto says the spirited melodies of the late American composer inspired her to select the piece for the concert. “After having performed the Khachaturian Concerto last year and the Mozart K488 this past July, I thought it would be quite interesting and fun to do a different genre this time with the MMCO—the Gershwin Concerto in F,” she says.

“What attracted me most to this piece was its exciting rhythms, with a touch of Charleston dance and blues, the unique combination of jazz and classical elements, interjected with a bit of the American Broadway theater, ” she adds. Ms. Coyiuto is considered as one of the country’s most outstanding and admired pianists. She continues to enjoy overwhelmingly critical acclaim. Her concerts have earned her such titles as Pianist’s Pianist and Poetess of the Piano. She has been hailed a “virtuoso” for “carving out singing tones.”

A recipient of a Master of Music degree from the Juilliard School, New York, Coyiuto was a lauréate of the Académie Internationale de Musique “Maurice Ravel” in St. Jean-de-Luz, France, and Genève Conservatoire in Switzerland. She has given numerous recitals and appeared as an orchestral soloist in the US, Canada, United Kingdom, France, Switzerland, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and the Philippines.

Mr. Toledo, meanwhile, is founding music director and conductor of the MMCO. He has been given the Outstanding Young Man award. He is noted for premiering works of Filipino and Asian composers. As conductor of the MMCO, he has led orchestra in 14 concert seasons, all to critical acclaim. In September 2013, his work, Mga Sulyap sa Simbahan ng Quiapo mula sa Kalye Echague for 18 instruments was premiered by the New Juilliard Ensemble at the Juilliard’s Peter Sharp Theatre in New York City.

Completing the Gershwin Plus program are Bernstein’s Overture from Candide, Copland’s Rodeo, and Dvorák’s American Suite, plus selections from John Williams’ Harry Potter Suite and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera.

Joining the MMCO in the Dumaguete concerts are flutist Crystal Rodis, who will be performing Griffes’ Poem, and violinist Kristine Claire Uchi-Galano, who will be performing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto Third Movement.

The concert is presented by the Silliman University Cultural Affairs Committee (CAC) as the first show in its second semester roster of its 52nd Cultural Season, with the support of Prudential Guarantee, CocoGrande Hotel, PGA Cars, Antulang Beach Resort, Bethel Guest House, OrientWind Travel and Tours, Air 21, Cebu Pacific, Lyric Piano, and Lettered L.

Tickets are available at P200, P300, and P500. All tickets and season passes for Luce Auditorium shows are available for sale at the CAC Office at the College of Performing and Visual Arts Building II, and at the theater lobby before the show begins. For ticket reservations and other inquiries, call (035) 422-4365 or 09173235953.

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Saturday, November 15, 2014

entry arrow5:05 PM | Fiction, Games, and the Web as Adventures: An Appreciation of R.A. Montgomery

R.A. Montgomery died today. And with his death went away one of the last living remnants of the childhood I've had. Who was he? Truth to tell, I didn't even know much about him -- his name didn't even register -- until news of his death started popping up my timeline today from people who must have had the same childhood as mine. And the news was the same: the founder, publisher, and editor of the Choose Your Own Adventures series from Bantam Books has died at the age of 78. I discovered these books when I was a grade school student at the Special Education (Fast Learners) Program of the West City Elementary School. I am forever thankful for getting into that program, for getting plucked out of the regular classes going into my third year and into a special one where I had the same teachers from Grade 3 to 6, where we were taught high school level English, Math, and Science, and where we were exposed to other special learners -- the blind (with whom I learned a little bit of Braille), the deaf (with whom I learned a little bit of sign language), and the mentally-challenged (with whom I learned a little bit more about how to be patient and understanding about the specific challenges of other people) -- which I think provided me with a good liberal education about living life. We had our own library, which was ran with effortless charm by Mrs. Ricardo, and it was stocked with the best books a child learning to be voracious of the written word could appreciate. As far as I can remember, there was no wall separating the library and the classroom ran by Ms. Concepcion, who taught me how to read and write better. It was just one big room ingeniously sectioned off into two parts, and in my mind's eye, there was no divide between the time for learning and the time for reading: when recess came every day, I'd get up from my desk, my home-prepared snacks on hand, and saunter towards the shelves at the library, take out a book, and read it at one of those puzzle-piece-multi-colored tables (which you could combine into assorted geometric ensembles -- how very Math-like). I devoured children's book. I discovered Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys and the Bobbsey Twins and Tom Swift. I found that we had a whole encyclopaedia series that summarised with some thoroughness every single Great Book in existence -- which led me to read the classics at a very young age. Best of all, I discovered the Choose Your Own Adventure books. They were Bantam Books paperbacks, and a number of them were housed in one shelf at the library. I don't remember much about specific titles now, but I think I must have picked out The Cave of Time, which led to more titles. I remember just devouring these books, although I can't quite remember any of the titles. (I remember one though about a mysterious island, and a boy who goes there.) The books had a fascinating conceit that appealed to me (and I think so many other kids my age): the reader is the adventurer of the story he is reading, and as he follows the narrative, he is given choices which would take the story one way or another. The adventurer's fate lies in the decisions he makes with the unfolding narratives. (It felt horrible to make a choice, and then end up dead. But it was always nice to go back and make another choice, and see where that took us.) I think this must have laid the germ of fiction-writing in me. But beyond that obvious influence, I think these books also helped my own generation prepare for a future life in complex game theory and hyperlinks. We were the generation that first stepped into the endless adventures of the Internet. We were the first generation to immerse ourselves in digital role-playing games. And we are the only generation which has seen the Internet and computer gaming evolve from very simple beginnings (Web 1.0 and Pong!) to the complicated wonders they have become right now.

I guess we owe it all to R.A. Montgomery.

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Friday, November 14, 2014

entry arrow1:21 AM | The Desperate Limits of History According to Norte's Lav Diaz

Part 7 and Finale of a Series

I hope this article is not too late. It took me forever to articulate what I feel about something we did weeks ago. It has been almost two months since we screened, for one night only, Lav Diaz’s demanding four-hour Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan at Robinson’s Movieworld Dumaguete—his Dostoevsky-ish epic story of crime, punishment, and the unforgiving and blind damnations, all rooted in the historical, that we live with in this godforsaken country. Here, the just is often punished, for whatever reason, and the unjust are often left to play some more because of the absence of consequences for their crimes.

What are the limits of history? the film’s subtitle, if we are careful enough to consider its significance, asks of us. And the answer may be this: that we forget—and so we are condemned to repeat it, as George Santayana once warned. Or perhaps that we turn a blind eye to the pervasive evil that surrounds us, courting it with our good intentions to mollify it—to our detriment, of course. Or perthaps that we no longer hold meaning to the word “justice” at all, because life is unfair, and it is useless to fight the inevitable.

All of these things come into play in the interconnecting stories of two men—Fabian (Sid Lucero) and Joaquin (Archie Alemania), as well as Joaquin’s wife Eliza (Angeli Bayani). Fabian, the jaded philosopher and would-be lawyer, commits a crime to prove a philosophical point, and Joaquin gets the rap. From that twist of fate comes a detailed look into the consequences into the lives of these people as well as the others that surround them. The four hours of this movie are the essential unfolding of the minutiae of their relentless drama. I often thought of how a shorter movie could have done justice to this story—but right now, I cannot. One needless edit would paralyze the power of this film that lies very much in the fact that everything about it has a cumulative effect. By the time you finish the film, you realize that it might have been long, but also that all those minutes counted, and all those scenes were essential in the setting up of the drama of the consequences. We feel with the film a long roller coaster ride through varying emotions—from objective distance to a surprising gravity of immersion in the fates of these characters, from pity to horror, from glimmering hope for redemption to despair and total oblivion.

This is not a film that will make you happy. It will crush your heart—but for some reason, you are thankful that it does so. Any more optimistic would have been more cruel because untruthful.

Given all of that, I am still reeling from the fact that we—Paul Benzi Florendo and I—actually pulled it off, that screening at the end of September. I certainly didn’t think we could. Moira Lang, one of its producers (who also produced Zombadings, and wrote In My Life for Star Cinema back in 2009) and one of my good friends in the film industry, had been hounding me since the film’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013 to have a screening in Dumaguete. And in Facebook, Liryc de la Cruz and Kristine Kintana—two members of Lav’s filmmaking team—were asking me about the possibility as well. And all I could think of was this: could I summon at least 200 people in Dumaguete to shell out P300 for a four-hour movie about the dark recesses of the human soul? I told them, month after month, that I’d look into it—and said it halfheartedly, even though all of me screamed the want—the need!—to watch this acclaimed film.

It took getting Benzi into the plan to finally get things moving, and for that I am thankful. He designed the ticket, he talked to the local theater manager, and together we managed to—surprise, surprise—sell out the whole screening. And going into the screening, we were still fielding queries for ticket sales. By the end of the evening, I felt proud about the turnout in Dumaguete. This was one city hungry for films like this.

The conversations that stemmed post-screening were interesting. A fourteen-year-old high school student by the name of Alfred Fleischer was equally moved and disturbed by the film, he made it a point to text Benzi with this thought: “I really think Jose Rizal’s [words, that] ‘the youth is the hope of the nation,’ is a true one. [From the film, we hear one of the characters responding to that by saying:] ‘Maybe that’s why he died early. So that he could be a hope.’ This was one of the lines from the movie I most remember…. This 4-hour indie film had very little camera movement—which makes it really dragging for the impatient—but the photography was excellent! [It is] spectacular, long, and depressing. [But] four hours and 10 minutes are not enough [to tell the story].”

Those words, from a very perceptive kid!

I asked my students to watch the film, too—and I was floored by the conversations they were having with each other in Facebook about it. One of them, Nikko Paolo Calledo, wrote in his timeline: “At first, I [was hesitant about] watching a four-hour film in Rob last night.… I [had] other important things [to do] that was due the next day. I thought it would be a ‘waste’ [of my time] sitting in a cinema for four hours but thank God [I stayed] because I had just seen one of the most perpetually disturbing, mind-blowing films, [and one] that actually made a lot of sense from start to finish. I’m not good in writing reviews and I have not seen enough movies to justifiably compare it with the others, but I know that a film, like any other form of art, is good enough when it leaves you thinking. It has been 24 hours (almost) since I stepped out from the cinema, and up until now, I am still thinking about Lav Diaz’s Norte. More of these films please! I’d rather spend my money for underground films like this than watch an over-rated teen love team doing the same old [film] plot over and over again and telling us it’s a ‘love story you’ve never seen before.’”

Many film critics from the world over has given lavish praise for the film’s ambitions—Time Out New York called it “the summer movie equivalent of the World Cup final,” Variety hailed it “[one of] the best films of 2014 so far, a mammoth achievement, long but immensely rewarding,” the New York Times’ A.O. Scott described it “a tour de force… a triumph… a true work of art,” and UK’s The Guardian called it “gigantic, euphoric, and extraordinarily moving, absolutely unlike anything else around”—but these are professional film arbiters who cut their teeth watching cinematic rarities like this. To hear ordinary Filipinos try to articulate their admiration for a film that has both challenged and astounded them seems more than rewarding.

Norte is now the Philippines’ official entry to the Oscars. May it prevail.

Norte producer Moira Lang with members of the Cultural Affairs Committee at dinner in Casablanca.

Moira with Benzi, Larissa, and me at dinner in Hayahay.

Post-screening dinner and chitchat with  Moira and Benzi in Qyosko.


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Thursday, November 13, 2014

entry arrow11:40 PM | Encounters

Et Al Books just announced the titles for its Encounters series -- essentially its first lineup for a new series of fiction chapbooks -- and it includes something by me! My new book is titled First Sight of Snow and Other Stories. Publishers Dean Francis Alfar and Sarge Lacuesta announced the titles during their recent talk at the 5th Philippine International Literary Festival and Book Industry Summit. The first wave also includes books by Gilda Cordero-Fernando, Jose Dalisay, Eliza Victoria, and Luis Katigbak, as well as works from Dean and Sarge themselves. Such company!




The covers are designed by acclaimed artist Annie Cabigting. They will be available by December, which should make them perfect Christmas presents! Also this reminds me to finish my new collection as soon as possible. Blessings should beget more blessings.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

entry arrow11:23 PM | Fathers Who Lie

Two weeks ago, in one of my current depression's pendulum swing towards the dark side, I found myself dealing with the ongoing search for recuperation (and some urgent things-to-do) in the relative comfort of the old family home somewhere in Bantayan, away from my own apartment in Tubod, which I had abandoned for a week or so, all unplanned. Self-eviction seemed the wisest choice at the time. I spent a night at a hotel, and then found myself drifting back to live with my mother, who couldn't be happier: she had not seen me in two months, and she was complaining. Well, I thought, here's me: you'll have all of me for a few days. Just spending all those hours and days away from the rest of the world, alone in my old perfectly air-conditioned bedroom -- with no cellphone, with no social media, with no wifi -- seemed necessary, I thought then, if I were to stay any saner. Days like that, one turns to books and to movies to occupy one's mind, after it has run the full gamut of introspection and has had enough of self-psychoanalysis. I found myself reading Alison Bechdel's seminal Fun Home.

I've met Ms. Bechdel during a talk she gave in Iowa City a few years ago. While I have always loved her art, I surprised myself for not having read any of her books. And Fun Home is her acclaimed sophomore graphic novel effort which detailed her coming out as a lesbian -- which, she found out, was somehow intricately linked to her growing up in a funeral home (the "fun home" of the title, which is also deliciously ambiguous in symbolism, given how the story unspools) in a Midwestern town that bordered a forest. Growing up in that home meant living under the tortured although gilded lie of a life her own father lived. He was an exacting, not exactly warm figure, who challenged young Alison's intellect -- and who was curiously fastidious about cultivating a lifestyle that made their house look like a page from an interior design magazine -- all antique, all intricate. And thus she begins to tell her father's story, which finally would involve an admission from her own mother that she had been living with a closeted gay man all those years -- a broken man whose death by being run over by a truck might not truly be "accidental."

I love Ms. Bechdel's intricately told tale that combines stories of small town life with stories about the love for books, while going over such issues as homosexuality, suicide, and pedophilia. And for some reason, without meaning to at all (there was no design!), I found myself watching Andrew Jarecki's powerful documentary Capturing the Friedmans (2003) right after.

Here was another tale of a broken American family, although one that goes even darker than Ms. Bechdel's own confessions. Compared to what happens to the Friedman family, Ms. Bechdel's story would seem so vanilla. Consider Jarecki's account. On the surface, the Friedmans seemed to be a perfect upper-middle-class Jewish family living in posh Long Island. The father, Arnold, is a respected teacher in the community who is known to give private computer lessons at home with his son Jesse. There are two other sons, and the mother is the typical American housewife -- if somewhat excluded from the bond her husband makes with her sons. And then their lives are turned upside down when a chance arrest of Mr. Friedman over the possession of child pornography leads to a bigger charge: that he and his son Jesse has been molesting generations of young boys in their computer classes in the basement.

The documentary is a gimlet-eyed consideration of the madness that ensued and that soon engulfed their town. Jarecki takes to task, without somehow blatantly editorialising, the unbelievable clumsiness of police procedures, the unfairness of the trial that followed, and the crucifixion by the media that further stirred things to a tempest that proved irrevocably destructive. In the face of all these, we get a family bent on videotaping everything -- filming their lives seemed to be their grand project -- and so we have a film that is somehow "enriched" with factual footage, including that of relationships blowing apart as the family witnesses the inevitability of it being torn to pieces.

All families have secrets. Not all fathers are saints.

I thought about my own family, and quietly acknowledge the skeletons in our closets we have not even begun to excavate.

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Monday, November 10, 2014

entry arrow8:41 PM | Writers Are Assholes

Alex Ross Perry's Listen Up, Philip (2014) is strange charmer. I laughed with this film, found many things about it quite truthful -- although I have yet to meet a writer as insufferably assholic as Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman) or Jonathan Pryce's Ike Zimmerman (which is said to be modelled on Philip Roth). Maybe the literary circles I orbit around are too small, or maybe I don't know enough writers. Sure, I know one or two writers who are complete assholes, but none with the dramatic heft Schwartzman's invention has. And the attempt seems so deliciously contrived (the first two sequences in the film -- where Philip berates an ex-girlfriend, and then a fellow writer in a wheelchair -- underline what we are supposed to have from the get-go: Philip is an asshole. Now just settle down and enjoy where his assholeness will take him) that the effect is one of likability. We like this asshole.

I enjoy movies about writers. And there are many of them, which FlavorWire has ranked with some gusto. What is fascinating to me is how writers in cinema are often depicted the way Philip and Ike are caricatured as. Sure, there are the crusading ones like Sean Connery's William Forrester in Gus Van Sant's well-meaning Finding Forrester (2000) -- but mostly, they are assholes. Let's take a quick tour through some of the more popular depictions. Jack Nicholson's Jack Torrance in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980). Leonardo DiCaprio's Arthur Rimbaud in Agnieszka Holland's Total Eclipse (1995). Charlize Theron's Mavis Gary in Jason Reitman's Young Adult (2011). Michael Caine's Sidney Bruhl in Sidney Lumet's Deathtrap (1982). John Gielgud's Clive Langham in Alain Resnais' Providence (1977). Glenn Close's Jenny Fields in George Roy Hill's The World According to Garp (1982). Charlotte Rampling's Sarah Morton in François Ozon's Swimming Pool (2003). Emma Roberts' Amy in Scott Coffey's Adult World (2013). Jeff Bridges' Ted Cole in Tod Williams' The Door in the Floor (2004). Woody Allen's Harry Block in his own Deconstructing Harry (1997). Many of them are the acidic types I'd understandably stay clear of. Some are crazy, some are murderous, some are glorious psychopaths that manipulate you to feed their craft. I know writers who are like that.

Of course, there are also movies that feature writers as dreamers, loveable losers, or afflicted souls needing understanding (especially the biographical ones). But the trope that seems to be enduring is the writer as a mean soul, often calculating, always debased. I wonder why this is so? Maybe it is the darkness that's twin to this talent we unconsciously think of when we explore the writer's soul? I am reminded of Robert De Niro's quip in the 2014 Oscars: “The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing. Isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination, consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing, and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day.”

The one film that I love that seems to go beyond cardboard cutouts is Curtis Hanson's Wonder Boys (2000), based on the novel by Michael Chabon. While Michael Douglas' Grady Tripp is the novelist we follow in this story, the film is chockfull of writerly types -- Tobey Maguire's tortured soul, Robert Downey Jr.'s loveable predator, Katie Holmes' vixen, Rip Torn's popular hack, and Richard Thomas' hapless nerd -- but Chabon and Hanson invests in all of them a complexity that humanises them beyond the labels, and makes them all true (or truthful). But Douglas' journey is the story that centres all of the drama, and his character is such a rich cipher I see all of a writer's common strengths and weaknesses in him. He is a human mirror to the writer as cinematic character. I wish there were more films about writers exactly like this movie.

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Friday, November 07, 2014

entry arrow10:51 PM | Noteworthy Dialogue: From Christopher Nolan's Interstellar (2014)

Professor Brand tries to convince Cooper about the necessity of interstellar travel, to save humanity from a dying earth by finding a world somewhere out there in another solar system that can support life.

Brand: We need the bravest humans to finds us a new home.

Cooper: But the nearest star is over thousand years away.

Doyle: Hence the bravery.

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Thursday, November 06, 2014

entry arrow10:05 PM | Noteworthy Dialogue: From Don Hall and Chris Williams' Big Hero 6 (2014)

Hiro finally unleashes his pent-up want for vengeance. Baymax tries to calm him down, and in a reflective moment mentions the name that can heal, and the unacknowledged reality that can change everything...

Baymax: Tadashi is here.

Then Baymax's screen whirrs to life, and there is Tadashi.

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Wednesday, November 05, 2014

entry arrow7:43 PM | Design Needs a Strong and Clear Vision

Freida Lee Mock's Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision (1994) won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 1995 -- roughly around the time I was a sophomore in college and was becoming aware of strong, critically-acclaimed, and often un-commercial movies in my midst, and also of the awards hoopla that showcases them in a kind of circus. This means that I was very much aware of Maya Lin's win that year, but I was not particularly interested in seeing it. Nonfiction film was a distant country for which I held no visa, and I was quite fine with that. (Oh, the stupid snobbishness of the young.)

What I knew of the film was that it was about the design selection and the making of the now iconic Vietnam Veterans Memorial at the mall in Washington, D.C. The choice of Maya Lin's design was inspired -- and I knew she beat other more established designers and architects for the job. What I didn't know was how controversial the choice of her design was. What I also wasn't aware of was how powerful her design was in reality. In 2010, while on a brief visit to the American capital, I found myself inexplicably drawn to the monument. I am going to use the word "inexplicable" because I didn't go to the area to visit it in particular. Instead, I went to see the gigantic statue of Lincoln sitting. But in the morning of my visit, I found myself strolling around the mall and I turned one corner and then saw Lin's black slabs nearby -- and knew I had to see it, to touch some of the names, to see just how special this design was in service of memory. What I did not foresee was how embracing the whole monument was. I sat on the grass that fronted the slabs in a spirit of contemplation, and was overwhelmed by the immenseness of its significance: all those names gone in the service of a senseless war.

I had the experience of the monument first before I saw the film. Very much an afterthought, the film was a fascinating footnote of origins for me, but truth to tell, Mock's film isn't exactly groundbreaking cinema, nor something soundly directed or constructed. Lin and her supporters' struggle (and eventual compromise) to bring to fruition their vision of the memorial is the ultimate drama of the film, but it deflates in its half-hearted and often unsure expansion towards non-Memorial tidbits. In the light of the elegance of more recent nonfiction cinematic efforts, this film feels and looks dated -- it feels like an amateurish cobbling together of visual data -- and I have become aware of how more contemporary documentarians have indeed learned to augment their craft to have a zing in pictorial narrative.

But its weaknesses do not distract from the richness of its subject matter. There are many things to take away from this film -- the ludicrousness of the arguments of the memorial's early critics (many of them Republicans), for example. But I took away two specific things closest to my heart.

One is the subject of design. Early in the film, we get a montage of the many submissions the commission assigned the task of overseeing the design selection received. And what we get are a slew of terrible ideas that are connected by two characteristics: first, the fussiness of needless details, and second, the lack of a clear vision to telegraph simply a complex idea. Take a look at some of these misfires...

Soaring above these efforts is Maya Lin's minimalist design: just a recess on a grassy embankment that embraces two perpendicular slabs containing names of the war dead. Its sheer simplicity is poetry. Less is more.

But the film also strikes me as being such a strong reminder about being steadfast in one's artistic vision despite the mean-spirited naysayers and the crippling politics that often hold sway.

"We were fighting against standards, we were fighting against traditional viewpoints -- and I think that's what art does to a certain degree, and that's pushing the envelope, you're pushing it past its known definitions, and you are going to get a lot of people who are going to fight it. I think that's one of the prices you pay," Lin says in reflection.

Noted. There will always be resistance. The trick is to stay strong and clear.

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Sunday, November 02, 2014

entry arrow12:00 PM | Bipolar Dreams

It just came to me that I have two other dreams that keep recurring -- aside from the other two I always recollect with sharp details, which are the stuff of my constant nightmares. In these two other remembered dreams, I find a strange connection. One dream is all about me learning to swim through the air, which is basically a kind of flying. I'd wade with my arms through the corpuscles of air, and I'd move forward in complete and breathless freedom, with the sky as my everlasting pool. The other dream is of me suddenly losing control of the muscles of my legs. I'd be walking down some road, and suddenly, my legs give way, and I almost collapse. Then I force every inch of me to gather what else is left of my decaying strength to push forward towards where I am headed. One dream is my sleeping mind's reflection of control, and the other the loss of that control. My bipolar dreams.


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Friday, October 31, 2014

entry arrow8:12 PM | The Dead in Riverdale

Like with many staples of childhood, the love for Archie Comics is something I think of fondly when I do remember it, but know that it is an artifact from more innocent days you don't really mourn for when you learn to let go. Sure, all those double digests were fun digressions in a teenager's life, and sure, we did learn to somehow sketch out with the ease of over-familiarity the outlines of Archie's orange top (with those strange hashtags for sideburns), Betty's blonde ponytail, Veronica's brunette mane, and Judghead's iconic crown (cap?). But when we let go, we let go. We only returned, once in a while, when we were trapped in some waiting room at the dentist's, and the only reading material handy was a well-worn squarish issue of Archie. In those occasions, we dipped into the old pleasures, often chuckling to ourselves what made us think these storylines were funny. I think the publishers know this, and so it has tried in recent years to put some edge into Archie. They have taken our beloved characters from Riverdale and make them go through some new spin. And the latest is Afterlife with Archie, wherein Hot Dog dies in the very first page, then Sabrina brings him back to life for the heartbroken Jughead -- and unwittingly unleashes a curse where bringing back the dead truly meant that: the undead in Riverdale, in the form of zombies. I heard about this series early this year, but never felt compelled to check it out. Because, like I said, relic from childhood you abandon without much guilt. But for some reason, this week, I found myself reading the first six issues, which completes the first arc of the story, and leads us to the second one that begins with Sabrina in limbo. And yet the first arc was delightful enough, if only to see many of our favorite characters -- Jughead, Ethel, Moose, Midge, Mrs. Grundy, Prof. Weatherbee, Coach Clayton, etc. -- turn to ravenous living dead, devouring everyone during a Halloween dance. But what I liked the best was the scrubbing of humor: this is a serious comics story, almost rivaling the dread of The Walking Dead, although we have yet to turn to the part where the living would prove to be more monstrous than the dead. And the flashbacks, and the back stories, and the first-person narratives from such unlikely sources like Smithers. Archie Comics has grown up, and does it so via a horror trope we least expect it to embrace. It's perfect Halloween reading, and has much to do with teenage nostalgia, and pricking that nostalgia, and welcoming it with perverse delight.

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Thursday, October 30, 2014

entry arrow7:42 PM | Horror Hits and Misses

I get asked this all the time: What are my favorite horror movies? I don't know how to answer, because I hate such questions, and because my choices are pretty personal -- all marked by a certain appeal that speaks only to me. I think of Todd Haynes' Safe (1995) as a very effective horror movie, for example, but for most people it won't be. There are no monsters in it, after all. And if there is one, it is the mind of our protagonist/victim. And yet nothing is more horrific to me than a bewildering affliction of the mind -- I think of Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965), which I first saw as a 21-year-old living in an alienating city like Tokyo. And so I saw that movie as more than just careful, frightening study of the descent into madness; I saw it as a depraved, gothic articulation for alienation, a kind of warning for my own existence then. Julianne Moore's Carol White in Safe, a prototypical suburban housewife who's starting to feel allergic to the world around her, has so much in common with Catherine Deneuve's Carol (coincidence in names?) in Repulsion, a beautiful but repressed French beautician living in London who's starting to mentally crack from what she perceives to be horrific advances by men who hound her. Polanski's film vocabulary fleshes out the horror elements more than Haynes does, but they're effectively the same movie. Horror is often mistaken for its tropes, which becomes problematic when you consider Arthur Penn's The Miracle Worker (1962), which basically tells the otherwise heartwarming story of how Helen Keller gets saved from crippling blindness by her tutor Anne Sullivan -- but Penn films the story like a horror movie. It feels and looks like a horror movie, but it's not.

Which is why I hate answering the question above. I get defensive, and I become long-winded in my explanation of choices.

But every year, around Halloween, I do take time to almost exclusively watch horror films, taking note of the cult status and the iconic contribution each title has given the horror genre. In other words, I ransack the whole horror canon, an ongoing project that I doubt will ever end.

Last year, I started with six horror classics in black and white that have eluded me for so long. When I finally saw Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961), what I couldn’t believe was how I’d missed out on this film in all those years. It being a Deborah Kerr starrer should have already recommended it, but I took my time getting to this film. It turned out that I loved it, so much so that a year later, I still remember its haunting set pieces, its incredible atmosphere. It is a taut, psychological thriller based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, where we don’t exactly know the boundaries between sanity and madness, the ghosts and the living, the victim and the victimizer. It is, without doubt, a great horror film.

Then there was Lewis Allen’s The Uninvited (1944). Its iconic for being the first film to take the haunted house genre very seriously, and not played for laughs or ridicule as was the practice before this. (Think of Scooby-Doo unmasking the human culprit behind the horror — that’s how it was usually played.) It won't play well for those seeking out a bloodcurling tale, and certainly not for a crowd inured by the torture porn of such films as Hostel or Funny Games or A Serbian Film. Its horror is more subtle, which I admired, and in consideration of its place in horror film history, it proved quite educational, like you were seeing the genesis of a genre being played out in front of you, one trope being invented after another.

Jacques Tourneur’ Cat People (1942), on the other hand, does a good job of dramatizing, in tantalizing black and white shadows, what everyone who has had their heart broken has been through: rage, jealousy, lust. And the feeling of having a dark monster within us that threatens to come out because of those provocations. Here, Simone Simon’s cursed woman marries a man who loves her unquestionably, but she begs off from more intimate contact, because even a kiss will unleash some ancient evil in her. She turns into a predatory cat, and she can devour. But it’s not just lust that can consume her and make her transform — jealousy, too, and rage. She is, in a sense the grandmother of both Edward Cullen and Jacob Black. (Hahaha.) I love this film. I love the perfectly staged fright pieces that involve nothing more but shadows, sound, and the darkness of our imagination.

And sometimes, there's poetry in a horror movie. There is no denying the sheer poetry of Tourneur’s other horror classic, I Walked with a Zombie (1943), which is a film scintillating with lines written by Inez Wallace, Curt Siodmak, and Ardel Wray — things like: “Everything good dies here … even the stars." I have a soft heart for this movie, about a good-hearted nurse who loves her married boss so much, she tries everything to cure his ill wife, the titular zombie. But a horror movie this is not. It’s a love story every which way. It’s a romanticized tale of life in the tropics, voodoo and all. Heck, even the zombie in this movie walks about in flowing gowns.

There was also Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), a curious film peopled by circus people of various sorts of deformities (the bearded lady, the Siamese twins, the dwarf, and so on and so forth…). But the one that’s crucial to the story’s tension — an evil deformity of the soul — is embodied in the film’s central villain: a beautiful, very normal-looking, but wily trapeze artist who uses her charms to seduce the circus’ dwarf who just happened to come into a great fortune. The film has been touted as an influential horror movie, a pre-Code artifact that has more in relation to German Expressionism that anything else. True enough, the assault in the end is chilling — but we are incredibly on the side of the freaks. In the end, there’s nothing horrific about this film. It’s a warm and fuzzy love story.

I now understand perfectly the cult status attained by Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962), which has reportedly influenced the aesthetics of David Lynch and George A. Romero. It’s quite an effective independent horror film, even counting the obvious ticks brought about by its low budget. (Then again, the low budget was what made many horror films — particularly Sam Raimi’s original Evil Dead (1981) or Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) — effective. There’s something about the enterprising crudeness of the filmmaking that adds to the sense of the horrifying.) Even then, the pacing of its story — about the sole female survivor of a car crashing into a river, now suddenly being haunted by a pale-faced ghoul — keeps the tension tight, and the final reveal is worth it. I love how this predates the ghostly dimension of Christopher Gans’ atmospheric Silent Hill (2006). And that visceral organ score! A chiller to the bone.

And then there are the more contemporary ones, and even some of them defy our expectations of a horror movie. Take Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947). This gorgeously shot, intricately mannered drama about five nuns battling temptation and altitude sickness in 1940s Himalayas is only a kind of horror story: Deborah Kerr’s uptight and emotionally broken Sister Clodagh is the central character, but the growing malevolence focuses on Kathleen Byron’s Sister Ruth, a psychologically disturbed woman pushed to the edge (hahaha, I made a pun) by carnal desires. The above shot of her is the most chilling image from the movie. It took me a while to get to this film, but now that I have, I can very well understand Martin Scorsese’s fascination over Michael Powell. I loved The Red Shoes and Peeping Tom — and Black Narcissus just cemented for me Powell’s genius.

Then there is Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964), for example. It is a visual feast above all. An anthology of traditional Japanese ghost stories, the film disregards conventional narrative for the most part (the last unfinished segment is a prime example) but never shies away from its attempts to seduce our senses while terrifying us with that kind of dread and unease only Japanese cinema can do: a face reflected on the liquid inside a teacup, or the slightly open smile of a wintry ghost to reveal a sinister ohaguro (blackened teeth) inside. This is not Wes Craven or Shirley Jackson territory of horror. It is of the sublimated kind many might even find tedious. But the pace is made more unworldly by set pieces that borders with the surreal. Once you allow yourself to succumb to its tentacles, however, it will render you breathless.

And then there is Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Kairo (Pulse, 2001), which I watched because it landed on Time Out London's list of 100 Best Horror Films of All Time, a comprehensive enough list that had me admiring the thoroughness of the editorial choices. It beat out so many other titles from the huge pantheon of Asian horror that was churned with so much horrific regularity in the last decade. But watching it only underscored for me how so many of those films — and there were a lot of good ones — really were just run-of-the-mill productions that tried to make dreadful presences of everything in our ordinary lives, from cellphones to acacia trees to dating. In Pulse’s case, it’s the entire Internet, and how our online lives make ghosts of us all. It makes a good point — heck, the online world is full of zombies whose lives are all Facebooked and Twittered and Instagrammed and so on and so forth — but the years have not been kind to this kind of movies. They’re suddenly so silly now, and Pulse above all.

Haynes’ Safe (1995) is a horror movie of a completely different sort: the monster is the world, especially if you suddenly develop an allergy towards it. The film calls it “environmental illness,” and I know how that feels like. I saw this film way back in my cinephiliac college days, and it scared the hell out of me then — the slow descent to allergy hell of Julianne Moore’s pampered housewife, the slow buzzing score that underscores the dread, the insight into a world overrun by toxins… It gets didactic, at times — especially in the last act set in a desert retreat, but everything feels real. The horror becomes the realization that this could happen to you.

And finally, there is the story of the tragic prom girl turned fire-starter, a horror classic I turn to once in a few years. What I love about Brian de Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie (1976), is how the movie’s titular monster is not the evil presence in the story at all. It’s other people, the so-called “normal” ones. They’re the ones who are truly monstrous. Which is of course a horror movie staple. Take a look at James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), or Browning’s Freaks, or just about any of King’s greatest tomes, like The Shining. It’s ordinary people we should be most scared of. I revisited this classic last year before I set out to watch the critically-reviled remake by Kimberly Peirce. And the horror has not lessened over the years — although I’ve observed that the telekinesis, strangely enough, doesn’t really figure so well in the film, save for the moving of ashtrays, the bursting of lightbulbs, and the bumping of kids in bikes. Until the massacre at the gym, of course. The central horror lies in the figure of the evangelical mom, whose godly pronouncements still send chills down my spine.

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