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


Tuesday, November 29, 2016

entry arrow8:12 PM | Dasmariñas Dreaming

We were watching an old Gerardo de Leon movie from the 1960s, its beautiful masterly compositions marred forever — like an abundance of celluloid scars — by neglect and unlove. It was enough to make a cineast’s heart bleed. So, immediately following the post-screening dinner, we decided to catch a breather. “To see the town,” we said.

From the university entrance along Congressional Road in Dasmariñas, Cavite, we decided to follow our feet. It was really the best way to get around an unfamiliar place, to take in what we could of the local scene, and to be in the thick of things beyond the usual tourist claptrap. This was Katipunan country, after all. This was the birthplace of Emilio Aguinaldo. This was a place teeming with names straight off history books. That way to Imus. This way to Trece Martires. Further down is Silang.

I’ve only been here once before, but only in the most pedestrian manner, staying briefly with friends before heading off to Tagaytay nearby. This time, there was more opportunity to explore, and Dasmariñas beckoned like an adventure. “Let’s go to SM City,” Hobart said. “Let’s just take the jeepney and ask our way around” — which apparently had always been the modus all his life: I, on the other hand, lived in a fragile bubble that couldn’t see beyond a block away from my hotel room, but I was always willing to follow someone else’s lead in a blind rush to things unknown. SM City sounded like a foreign jungle, and so I said, “Let’s go.”

The traffic officer in the small island of the highway we came to told us we had to take a jeepney bound “this way” — and he indicated the direction with a wave of his hand, although we weren’t sure in the most particular way whether that was north or south or east or west. It was difficult to tell from the usual signs, the sun having long set. It was 7 PM, and we were feeling the thrill of Cavite’s equivalent of rush-hour traffic. We only knew that further down one direction of Congressional Avenue was a turn towards Aguinaldo St., leading to our hotel, the Volets, which sounded more like a robot, or a merry call to action, or a species of rare African flower. A woman in Maranao dress on the sidewalk with us told us we had to take the jeepney bound for Pala-pala and helpfully told us the fare going there (P12) — and on that eventual jeepney ride we took, I breathed in up-close, for the first time since I arrived, the interesting and teeming humanity of Dasmariñas — their looks, their gestures, their smells.

We soon got off some corner because the jeepney driver said so, and found the mall we came for to be a well-lit replica of every other SM we knew. Still, it was meant to be the start for an evening’s flaneuring adventure, and what better way to do that but make a commercial mecca the commencing step? We asked a boy in a red shirt: “What and where is the center of town, and are there bars there?” He said, “Bayan,” and yes, there were a few bars there, but he said we could do well with that where we were already: in this juncture of Dasmariñas where SM met Robinson’s Place.

But, nonetheless, we wanted to go to Bayan — which sounded so lovely to our ears. (“Taga saan ka?” one might ask, and the answer would be: “Taga-Bayan.” We giggled.) The boy told us that it was best to take a jeepney ride to Bayan (P7) from a corner near SM that had an old 7-Eleven. We went on our way, singing a mash-up of all the songs we knew that had “bayan” in its lyrics — from “Bayan Ko” to “Bayan Muna.”

Later that night, in the middle of Bayan — a quaint stretch that immediately felt like home — we would end up drinking beer in a place called Thai, and eating bucayo and calamay from a street vendor near a bridge we couldn’t bring ourselves to cross, and befriending in a jeepney a locquacious local girl named Pearl and her Japanese-Filipino friend named Maria, and watching a bunch of local boys play evening basketball on a court off City Hall, and watching a bevy of pretty twirlers practice a mean routine on a court off the Capital ng Dasmariñas, perhaps in preparation for the upcoming Paru-paro Festival.

The church itself took my breath away. To behold that old church in the evening light felt like a ghostly visit through a piece of history: people staked out a revolution against the Spanish from the confines of its stone walls, we read this from an inscription outside. And people also died there in the hands of the Japanese in the dark days of the Second World War. The front door of the church was an intricate work in wood, its sprawling surface — browned deeply — showcasing a carved narrative, with tableaus of scenes from both the Advent and Lent. And as we trailed our fingers across the impressions of those carved images, a family came: a mother, a father, their two very young children.

They came and strode quickly to the door in the dim light, and began earnestly touching its carved images like a fervent want of a blessing: the mother was touching each panel with such devotion and using those same hands to touch the head and face of her little child now being carried aloft by its father. She did that many times, and finally settled on one image, to which she brought the weight of all her prayers. I thought the scene touching, but also unreal: I had never seen such a personal ritual before, and I envied the mother’s belief in divine providence, whatever it was she was in earnest prayers for.

Was this how it was to get away from the routine of being a stranger in another town? To see things like this?

Only a few minutes later, we heard from across the courtyard the trills of orchestral music — something at once surprising, beautiful, mysterious, intriguing. An orchestra was playing from the open-air second floor of an old building right across the old church. From the porch, a bunch of women were looking out to the evening sky, and then they saw us approach.

“Can we listen to the music?” we asked.

They smiled, and gestured for us to come up the side staircase. Upstairs, filling up the entire floor, the Citizen’s Brigade Band of Dasmariñas — all of them various ages of young, from little tykes working the violin to preteen boys working the trombone and the flute — was rehearsing a piece titled “Ode to Music” under the watchful gaze of a portly, middle-aged maestro bearing his baton with a fatherly forcefulness. Once in a while, he’d tweak a bit, here and there, the playing by some of the instrumentalists. Then they finally came together in the end, reaching for their music to soar towards the Cavite stars.

It was a beautiful thing, that sensation of being embraced by music you only came across by accident of fate.

And in that space, on a balcony, watching both these children play music and the streets of Bayan below throb and flow with traffic of people and cars, I realized how it was to properly visit a place and make it familiar: get lost, get intimate with its rhythms, ask around. A hotel room is not the world.

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Saturday, November 26, 2016

entry arrow8:33 PM | Notes From the 2016 Cebu LitFest

A Conversation With Resil Mojares

I was told by the Cebu LitFest organizer Hendri Go, "One of your panels today is a one-on-one conversation with Resil Mojares about Cebuano theatre." My insides turned to knots. Not because I know virtually next to nothing about Cebuano drama; I could easily draw on scholarship and some stock knowledge about regional theatre for that. But because the prospect of interviewing a great man was quite intimidating for me. Sir Resil is one of only a few people I most admire in Philippine literary circles; I love his fiction; his essays are ones I find myself constantly being in awe of; and his continuing historical research on local literature has become a necessary template -- and the standard to be measured against -- for my own. We talked about the development of Philippine drama, and then settled on a discussion about the zarzuela. I learned a lot in that thirty minute talk.

A Reckoning With a Willful Voice

Novelist Rogelio ("Ogie") Braga and I treaded dangerous waters paneling Protest Literature for the festival. I loved Rogelio's measured calm especially when a pro-Duterte person -- a random shopper in Ayala -- stormed the open forum after our pannel, delivered an impassioned spiel, practically dropped mic, and walked off without listening to our responses. Ogie said, "We need now the grace to listen to that voice. That is part of the process."

What Ogie said about practicing dissent in a public space still remains with me after that panel. He encouraged everyone listening to be opinionated and know that you're backed up by history and data. Study and know where you stand, he said, and when people ask -- around the dinner table, in a classroom, in a busy Ayala mall with a mic with hundreds of people staring at you [which we experienced, Ogie and I] -- speak up and learn to swallow fear and intimidation. Practice feeling the angry stares of everyone who disagrees with you, know how to embrace their loud voices, listen carefully and with patience.

And then calmly reply.

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Thursday, November 24, 2016

entry arrow2:07 PM | The Fiesta Storm

They've canceled all Cebu-bound ferries today. The makeshift plastic billboard outside the Cokaliong ticketing office at the Boulevard declares so in not too many words: "NO TRIP" -- all capital letters scrawled on a piece of paper inserted into a groove of the small billboard. And just to emphasize the sincerity of such terse pronouncement, the ticketing windows are closed, too, effectively telling you there is no one to talk to, to bargain with, to inquire things from. Questions like, "Will you resume operations tomorrow?" Or, "What do I do if I've already bought a ticket?" Or, "Does love exist, and if so, can the rain cure it?" There is no one around. Beside Cokaliong, the George & Peter Lines ticketing office, equally shabby-looking, was shuttered as well. And so it goes. There was definitely no getting off this island for now. A tropical depression was fast approaching from the east, and the projections of its rainy path predict a swathing through the heart of Central Visayas, eventually going towards Palawan. The storm lands squarely upon Dumaguete on the 25th, and right on the nose of the city's fiesta. Already, the skies above the sea off the Boulevard are prophet to the impending cold front: everything in the horizon, including a sketch of Siquijor in the distance, are in various shades of sombre blue-green -- dark turquoise, dark cyan, teal. You couldn't tell though from the quiet waves washing ashore. Nor from the weight of humidity still hanging in the air. And in the next block, down Silliman Avenue to the crossing of Hibbard Avenue, downtown has become a beehive of a parade about to begin. The people are milling about, filling out the sidewalks in anticipation of the start of the annual fiesta parade. The school bands are practice-playing their marching music. The young majorettes and minorettes -- little girls in skimpy twirler costumes and boots -- are looking lost in their makeup and tight buns, while they're ushered about the crowded streets by their frantic mothers, looking for the right assembly point to meet the others. No one at all takes heed of the coming rain. The fiesta is upon us -- and in the name of St. Catherine of Alexandria, who does not exist, let the revelry begin.

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Saturday, November 19, 2016

entry arrow11:49 PM | The Story and the Sounds of Nicky Dumapit for Paghimamat 2016

Earlier today, consummate storyteller Nicky Dumapit rounds up the Paghimamat -- Cebuano for "to come together" -- an event which traditionally opens the annual Sandurot Festival, a celebration of the Dumaguete fiesta, at the Rizal Boulevard. Dumapit, easily Dumaguete's own version of Garrison Keillor, gives an extemporaneous oral tale of Dumaguete life in "tagning nga Cebuano," using many indigenous sound instruments he has created from found objects in nature. I've decided he is going to be the narrator for the musical about Dumaguete I am currently writing. [Video by Hersley-Ven Casero.]


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entry arrow10:19 PM | Saturday Night Downpour

Once I found myself downtown, the sudden downpour earlier in the evening finally proved it wasn't so bad after all. The world was extremely wet, but that was all. When my tricycle passed by the Rizal Boulevard on the way home to Tubod, I could see that the Saturday night people were already marking territory in Allegre and the earnest trio of belters at Coco Amigos were going about their little streetside stage in their usual musical dervish, owning a spirited rendition of Madonna's "La Isla Bonita." Farther on turning left at the corner of Aldecoa Drive, I could see that the axis of Tubod -- a regular impassable caldera of rain water -- was devoid of the usual flooding, so the rain must have been light in this side of town. It wasn't so when I was at the mall, where I had decided earlier to get a quick dinner in my attempt to avoid my usual routine for a weekend day. I was already drinking cappuccino at The Bean when the rains came -- a short temperamental torrent that bewildered the people at the mall for its unexpected ferocity. By one mall entrance, I could see a man having a heart attack, and an usyoso crowd had quickly gathered around to commiserate with the man's frantic daughter, all of them waiting for an ambulance that was yet to come. It must have gotten stuck in the traffic just outside the mall. The stretch was a furious mix of honking automobiles, and masses of people suddenly and inexplicably pouring from everywhere, and of course the surprise of the gorging flood. In that part of Calindagan, there was no road at all; there was a river in its place, a stream of cruddy brown water in a race towards the Ceres terminal, which had by then become a very deep lake. I was lucky I had flagged down an empty tricycle just in time, which rescued me from the surging waters. Later, for a moment, while stuck in that tricycle as we waited for the traffic to clear a little, the world to me looked like it was having a little apocalypse -- but even so, the voices from the nearby cockpit were loud and throaty with their sabong bets, never mind the rain. I decided quickly that the world might soon end, but cockfighting was forever.

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entry arrow9:48 AM | “Mub On” / “Move On”

Nikatawa’g hilom ang kawatan
Sa pagkadungog niya,
Mintras nanago s’ya sa kangitngit
Sa ilalum sa balay,
Pag-ingon ni Manang Bugok
Kadto ni Virginia nga gahilak:
“Mub on na, ‘day.
Kawat ra na.”

“Unsa’y mub on, Manang Bugok?”
Ni-tubag sab si Virginia.
“Akong mga sanina gikawat,
Ang akong mga panty,
Ang mga brip sa akong asawa,
Bisag busloton, gikawat.
Wala na mi masuot!”

“Mub on na, ‘day,”
Ingon ra gihapon si Manang Bugok.

“Unsa’y mub on?”
Ni-tubag na sab si Virginia.
“Akong rice cooker gikawat pud.
Mukaon na lang ko’g hilaw nga humay?”

“Mub on na, ‘day,”
Ingon ra gihapon si Manang Bugok.

“Hasta gani ang humay, gikawat!”
Naglagot na jud si Virginia.
“Ang akong sardinas,
Ang Ma-Ling,
Ang munggos,
Ang bulad,
Ang gatas para sa bata!”

“Mub on na, ‘day,”
Ingon ra gihapon si Manang Bugok.

“Unsa’y mub on?”
Ni-tubag na sab si Virginia.
“Wala na sad ang mga tokador namo!
Ang kabinet,
Ang mga silya,
Ang lamisa nga gigama ni Junior
Kadtong bata pa siya!
Bungbong ug salog na lang
Ang nabilin namo,
Ug bisan ang tiles sa salog,
Gikawat pa jud!”

“Mub on na, ‘day,”
Ingon ra gihapon si Manang Bugok.

Ug ni tindog si Virginia,
Gi-lampaso, gi-mudmud
Ang nawong ni Manang Bugok
Sa bahong inudoro
Nga puno ug tae nga wala gikawat.
Niyagak ang tigulang.

“Mub on na, ‘nang,”
Ingon pa si Virginia.
“Tae ra na.”

Ug nahadlok ang kawatan,
Naghilom-hilom ug lingkawat
Sa dakong kangitngit
Ngadto sa gabi-i.

19 Nobyembre 2016


“Move On”

The thief quietly laughed
When he heard,
From where he hid in the darkness
Of the bowels of the house he was in,
Mrs. Bugok haughtily telling
Virginia, who was a crying mess:
“Move on, my dear.
That’s just robbery.”

“What’s ‘move on,’ Mrs. Bugok?”
Virginia replied.
“All my clothes have been stolen,
Even my panties,
Even my husband’s briefs,
Which were full of holes, were taken!
We have nothing to wear!”

“Just move on, my dear,”
Mrs. Bugok insisted.

“What’s ‘move on’?”
Virginia replied once more.
“Even my rice cooker was stolen.
Shall I eat uncooked rice now?”

“Just move on, my dear,”
Mrs. Bugok insisted still.

“Even my sack of rice was stolen!”
Virginia became even angrier.
“My cans of sardines,
My cans of Ma-Ling,
The mung beans,
The salted fish,
The formula for the baby!”

“Just move on, my dear,”
Mrs. Bugok insisted still.

“What’s ‘move on’?”
Virginia replied once more.
“All our furnitures are gone.
The cabinets,
The chairs,
The table Junior made
When he was a boy!
All we have left
Are these walls and our floor —
And even the floor tiles
Have been stolen!”

“Just move on, my dear,”
Mrs. Bugok insisted nonetheless.

And that’s when Virginia stood up,
And took Mrs. Bugok’s face
And rubbed it good and rough
Inside the dirty toilet bowl
Full of feces the thief forgot to steal.
The old woman cried out.

“Oh, move on, old woman,”
Virginia spat.
“That’s just feces on your face.”

And the hidden thief suddenly got scared,
And quietly slunk away
Into the bigger darkness
Of the night falling everywhere.

16 November 2016

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entry arrow8:39 AM | The Dumaguete Rock Musical That Could

Published as "In ‘Scharon Mani,’ Dumaguete Finds Its Own ‘Rak of Aegis’" in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on 19 November 2016. Link here.

One of the powers of literature—which includes drama, of course—is recognition. When you pore over the pages of a book, or behold the unfolding scenes of a play, and then there it is: that story, that character, that milieu—that’s you, that’s the place you come from, that’s the story of your life.

A wise writer once said that such recognition very much feels like a friendly hand coming out of the page, or the scene on the stage, which then pats you on the back and tells you, with the comfort of words, that you are not alone. One learns to live for that recognition, and when it happens it is the very definition of boundless joy.

The same thing could be said about a rock musical that is returning to the Claire Isabel McGill Luce Auditorium stage in Dumaguete City this weekend. Scharon Mani, a musical that utilizes the songs of The Bell Tower Project, with a book by Junsly Kitay under the direction of Dessa Quesada-Palm and Earnest Hope Tinambacan, is Dumaguete’s answer to PETA’s Rak of Aegis. Beyond that immediate comparison, it is also the stirring story of what life is like in this vibrant seaside city in Negros Oriental in the Visayas.

And for that, it becomes a recognizable story, a mosaic of the lives that Dumagueteños celebrate and also endure.

When the play premiered a year ago on the same stage, no one was ready for the tremendous power of its story and its songs. It stirred tremendous word of mouth, but it had a quick run and then disappeared, given the logistics of theatrical productions in Dumaguete. (Any production lasts, at most, three successive days.) But clamor is a thing not to be ignored, and now it’s back, and we find ourselves once more following the story of a girl with dreams who can sing.

Charlene (played with gusto by Annika Pasague) is a young girl from the shanty district of Lo-oc whose father Nelo sells chicharon and mani—“scharon mani” or pork rind and peanuts—while her washes laundry for a living. A talent show is coming to town to scout for singers, and suddenly her dreams seem to be within reach. Her journey towards auditioning—overwhelmed by obstacles, set in Dumaguete’s recognizable locales, and peopled with assorted locals who like her also have impossible dreams to live for—becomes the conduit for a relentlessly joyful adventure in songs.

These songs are important to take note of, because they are the very inspiration for the creation of the jukebox musical itself. Taken from a series of albums put out by The Bell Tower Project—the collective of Dumaguete bands and singers who have successfully launched several annual anthologies of music that have come to define Dumaguete musicality—each song, weaved seamlessly into a story by the talented young playwright Mr. Kitay, becomes a masterpiece of evocation. Altogether, they create a sumptuous banquet of sound, and it is not very hard to go out of the theatre humming for the life of us.

Director Quesada-Palm has said of the play, which is produced by the Youth Advocates Through Theatre Arts for the Silliman University Culture and Arts Council: “It is a tapestry of young people’s dreams, [the] search for meaning in [their lives], their struggles and triumphs. It brings fragments of reality and senses which are distinctly Dumaguete—its settings, characters peopling the streets, its brand of music. And then it is about a girl, compelled to help her family augment their income, unwittingly threading through these seeming disparate lives, connecting her love for singing to the community’s sense of purpose. Amidst their individual brokenness, they find their voice, they build their strength, they emerge resilient.”

Yes, but it works above all as one hallelujah of sheer theatrical entertainment.

Scharon Mani is directed by Dessa Quesada-Palm and Earnest Hope Tinambacan. Book by Junsly Kitay. Music by The Bell Tower Project. Musical direction by Juni Jay Tinambacan. Choreography by Nikki Cimafranca. Production design by Aziza Daksla. The play opens on November 18 at 8 PM, with play dates on November 19 at 10 AM and 8 PM, and November 21 at 3 PM and 8 PM. Season passes and tickets at P100, P300, and P500 are available at the Culture and Arts Council Office at the College of Performing and Visual Arts Building II, Silliman University. For reservations, call (035) 422-4365 or 0917-323-5953.

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Friday, November 18, 2016

entry arrow11:18 PM | Bury Those Bones Deep

By R. Torres Pandan

Bury those bones
Deep into the bowels
Of the earth.
Let no scrap remain
For dogs. Break
And scatter those bones
Into the hurried grave,
So when the ferryman
Waits for the dark fiend,
Greedy for its coined mouth,
He will slump off in vain,
As this black thing,
Long dead before
Its surreptitious burial,
Is thrown away
Into that unmarked pit.
Now, Lord, we commend
To you this unrepentant soul.
Grant it uneasy rest
Among its restless victims.

18 November 2016

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Sunday, November 13, 2016

entry arrow7:55 PM | The Story of My Life Begins Here

I go about my days more purposefully now. I try to make little allowance for frivolity but I do recognize I’d need it once in a while. The mantra in my head says, “There’s work to do, there’s work to do.” There’s a strange spring to my steps and I see the world a little differently. It is a battlefield but oh how lovely it looks in the sunset.


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entry arrow7:00 AM | Why We Fight, Why We Write

They came. Professor Rosalind Ablir brought the megaphone. (That was the first time I have ever held a megaphone in my life.) Lawyer Golda Benjamin and author David Ryan Quimpo gave rousing heartfelt speeches. Theologian Karl James Villarmea and journalist Maya Angelique Jajalla started and ended everything with prayers for the country, one a note of despair and the other one a note of hope. Activist John Lumapay led everyone to a chant. HOPIA lead singer and theatre actor Earnest Hope Tinambacan made everyone sing “Bayan Ko.” Students volunteered. Reyman Krystoffer King Sy helped around. Alyana Krystine Adasa and her friends helped light everyone’s candles. And Shamah Silvosa Bulangis and Renz Torres kept the ball rolling with their stump speeches.

It was an impromptu program organized by no group—except random people who just felt something had to be done. They came together—more than the number than we anticipated—because the events of November 8 were a little too shocking to merit silence. Like I told a friend recently, “These days are not for silence anymore, you have to make your voice count.”

We came because we felt the betrayal of the Supreme Court paving the way for a thief and a murderer to be buried and honored a hero. We came to mark voices of dissent. We came because we had to.

When the news from the Supreme Court blew up on social media, I felt small and bewildered. There was a moment earlier today when I sat in some cafe and just quietly cried. In Manila, friends were hastily organizing an indignation rally in various points in the metro. One of them point-blank told me: “What are you guys doing there? Do something?”

In that café, challenged by that, I had to pause. And I realized that I’ve been mostly an armchair activist, spewing out rallying words on the Internet but never once taking to the streets to make my voice really count. But what did I know about organizing an indignation assembly? And could we gather people? And could we find a good spot? Logistics are always a fascinating nightmare—but I knew that if I didn’t do anything, my fighting words online don’t mean squat. And so I began to text people, began to ask permission from this and that, not really knowing what should happen or if people would respond. Shamah mobilized things. Renz, too. Reyman as well. People started messaging me encouraging notes: “We’re going, we’re joining you.”

Still I told a former student: “This is not about numbers. If there are only five of us around that flagpole, so be it. The important thing is to try. The important thing is to be out there, to show our public face, to make a public mark.”

But many, many people came. Later on, from Davao where he was visiting, Silliman President Ben S. Malayang III would text me: “When virtue seems to have lost meaning and value almost everywhere, it is most important to keep it and live it where we can, like a gem getting rarer in our world.” It was a fitting reminder for our times. And for that, thank you very much, Sir Ben.

A reporter asked me that night: “So, what’s next?”

A fascinating question, because what is dissent without action? Later on, it became clear to me the best way to do my fight is to look at my life, and see what I honestly could do. Me, I’m going to write—it’s what I’m good at. To quote the writer Nicola Yoon: “To all my fellow writer friends: let yourself feel the hurt and the pain, but when you’re ready, write. Write like all our lives depend on it.”

And I’m going to teach, because people forget if they’re not taught.

And I’m going to fight. And I’m going to stay healthy for that fight.

I know apathy sounds more delicious—some of my friends actually make fun of my “activism” —but I’ve made my peace with that: I am not built to be spineless and not care.

All I know is that almost everything we enjoy and take for granted today people in history had to fight for, sometimes even die for. Your being able to vote, your being gay, your being free in your country after years of colonization, your having a weekend away from work, your not having to work while still a child, your working conditions, your basic salary, your ability to breathe clean air, your legal rights, your right to get basic education, your freedom to worship your God, your right to rant in Facebook and Twitter.

If no one fought for any of these, you wouldn’t have the leisure to be apathetic about the world.

A few months ago, I began an online magazine titled The Kill List Chronicles to archive and feature literary pieces that I called the new protest literature—a space for writers to be able to say through fiction and poems and essays, what they feel and what they know about the overwhelming darkness of the present, the evil we sense is growing.

There are three things that have slowly become apparent as we live out the current days with their quotidian tremors that often signal—at least to those people who are sensitive to them—an unending arrival of apocalypse:

First, that Jean-Paul Sartre is right: hell is other people.

Second, that Hannah Arendt is right: the great cover of evil is banality.

And third, that Umberto Eco is right: a very good way to fight evil in the world is to persist in writing about it.

Evil is a curious thing. We tend to think of it as a dreadful embodiment of metaphysical darkness—a demonic possession, for example, or the bloody body count of serial killers, or the social havoc that is unleashed in the wake of psychopaths. In these instances, often graphically illustrated by the purveyors of our popular culture through movies and books, evil as a thing is banished to the realm of fantasy. It has become a malevolence that lurks mostly in the fringes of our imagination. We can be screening The Exorcist on our laptop screens, for example, cowering from its perfectly modulated jump scares—but we can just as easily turn the whole thing off, and then proceed to draw the curtains of our closed-off rooms, and suddenly the daylight of the “real” comes crashing in, saving us from a further sense of dread. Real evil, alas, is not so easily pigeonholed, and doesn’t usually come with bells and whistles.

What is often missing in the simplistic consideration of evil is the real thing that lurks in the human heart which, once in a while, jumps into abominable turns of history that allowed Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, Marcos, and many of others of their ilk to happen. Hitler impassioned many Germans—who were understandably feeling defeated by the ruinous end of the First World War—and he did so with his dreams of National Socialism. He triggered with it another great war, as well as the systematic elimination of “undesirable people” through a program we now call the Holocaust. (For Hitler, it was just called the “Final Solution.”) Stalin built on the communist ideals of Lenin before him—but soon realized that a “revolution” ceased to be a revolution when it had no enemies to fight, and so he unleashed a never-ending search for “counter-revolutionaries” that ended up as several cycles of murderous purges in Russia, sparing no one. Pol Pot dreamed of a return to a pure peasant society for Cambodia, and unleashed a program he called “Year Zero,” which soon systematically brutalized his people through years of making them toil in the so-called “killing fields.” Mao dreamed of an empowered China and ushered in a plan he called “The Great Leap Forward,” a catastrophic program that led to 18 to 46 million dead Chinese—perhaps the greatest genocide in history. Marcos dreamed of a “New Society,” and armed it to the teeth with martial rule.

What is often amazing to consider in these experiments in terror is that they were often carried out at the behest and in the name of those that these dictators ruled. “I want you to know that everything I did, I did for my country,” Pol Pot once said. All the others felt the same way, too. In many cases, these despots often unleashed their worst tendencies with the approval of many. Hitler was beloved in Germany, and his policies—obviously wrong and evil in retrospect—resonated with the German masses. In their eyes, Nazism was a chance for Germany to become great again, and Hitler could do no wrong. Today, we ask a question that cannot be truly answered: how could so many be deceived? How could so many give tacit permission for atrocities to happen? And the answer may be this: human nature. Jean Renoir perfectly sums it up with this line in his film The Rules of the Game: “The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.” Which makes Sartre right. Hell is other people—especially those people who have learned not to see anymore the moral imperatives of decent living.

I made this observation not too long ago: “When the bodies started piling up a few days ago in what appeared to be a growing rage for vigilantism, emboldened by a strongman’s battle cry for a war on drugs, the manner of the deaths and the manner of the disposal horrified me—as they should any right-minded human being. The anonymity of the hits. The crude fact of packaging tape sometimes covering the corpses, mummifying them in despairing positions. The cardboard signs that declare the dead a criminal—’Pusher, ‘wag tularan,’ ‘Snatcher, ‘wag tularan,’ etc.—justifying the murder. Inside, I scream: ‘What happened to due process?’ These days those two words—bedrocks of a functioning democracy—are being laughed at. And I could not understand how people could shrug off the sinister implications.

“There has been a quiet acceptance by almost everyone of these things happening. And also waves of violent mocking by a mob if you issue dissent.

“It is not an entirely new thing. A sense of history would attest that these things have happened before, in exactly the same manner, give or take a culturally specific difference. I am going to use right now the most frightful of historical correlations. Because now I totally get what life was like for ordinary Germans in Nazi Germany, especially in the contentious pre-war decade. You see, seeing and reading about the horrors of World War II—in particular, the unbelievable death machine of the Holocaust—I used to ask myself: How come nobody did anything? Why were ordinary Germans so quiet, so passively (or aggressively) supportive of the programs of Hitler’s regime? Couldn’t a civilized people recognize a evil in their midst?”

That acceptance, that silence make evil the most ordinary thing in the world. All these murders have become so ordinary, we are not even moved by every new reportage anymore. We have learned to shrug away all these things, and we have even learned to make excuses for them. “Para sa bayan ‘to,” some of us have learned to say, without the slightest hint of irony—and thus Arendt is right: evil can become so banal.

Our ultimate hope lies in a suggestion Eco once proposed, especially for those facing a moral crisis in a society that is slowly embracing evil as a necessity: “To survive, we must tell stories.”
That was the imperative I went when I decided to put The Kill List Chronicles in June, ostensibly to collect and archive the many literary works that started appearing, all of them protesting the new culture of impunity in the Philippines. In my introductory essay to that archive, I wrote: “Many Filipino writers…have slowly come out of the shadows of overwhelming public approval of the ongoing purge, to register dissent, to call for a process of justice that also respects human life and dignity, to strive for a country that recognizes that indeed crime must pay but this must be done in the only way that makes our democracy a functioning one. Anything else is a form of fascism.

“The rise of Rodrigo Duterte to the presidency, and his unorthodox methods of dealing with some of the country’s problems has currently inspired — if that is the right word at all — a few of our writers to take to the literary to express their grief and their horror, all in all registering a dissent that is still forming, that has yet to be studied. Some of the works take their cue from the bloody reports from television news and broadsheets. Some from the unexpected deaths — the new ‘collateral damage’ — of friends and people they know….

“This…is an attempt to archive the new literature of protest that is now beginning to be written. Only the future can tell how this literature, as a prospective tool for change, can impact what is going on at present. Protest literature are almost always considered only in the aftermath; perhaps this project can change that, and can demonstrate, once and for all, the power of literature as a social tool.”

One of the many writers who responded to that call was Carljoe Javier, who started to churn out little stories to document, in fiction, various scenarios, which would have been paranoid fantasies only a few months ago, but now have become painfully realistic.

He started out with a poem titled “Cardboard Villanelle,” which rendered to playful lyricism the realization of growing horror at the status quo. Not satisfied with that, he turned to the essay—and produced “#PosiblengAdik,” a short rumination about the vicious randomness of the killings, where he makes this plea: that drug addicts and drug users—which are not the same things—must be seen as human who are capable of rehabilitation. He uses his own life as evidence of that, and writes: “We want to protect ourselves, protect our families. But every single time I see one of these people who are dead, I think, that could’ve been me. If I made different decisions in my life, I could have turned out that way. If I hadn’t been lucky enough to go to school, I can imagine being driven to do whatever it takes.”

That sentiment becomes the very theme that animates the short stories that quickly followed, each one suddenly pieces of a whole that gave us a sad geography of injustice.

“At the Door” shows us a young musician answering the frenetic knocks of raiding policemen, bent on arresting—or even killing—him, even though he has cleaned up his act for some time now. That doesn’t matter to the raiders. His name is on “the list,” and that was enough for police to harass him. That same dynamics—the fear of “the list”—puts the two characters of “On the List” in an existential crisis. Should they answer the summons or not? All the alternatives prove ultimately deadly.

“Past Buendia” follows a man on an innocent leisurely stroll in an old neighborhood—and gets mistaken for a pusher, and nearly dies because of that mistake. “In the Street” underlines the innocence that has become compromised in the new culture of impunity: a group of young girls—a barkada—decide to have a food trip in Maginhawa Street in Quezon City, and they become witness to an actual extrajudicial killing. Their confrontation with the killer in the end marks the very end of their innocence—and signal a world that has gone absolutely upside-down. That blooms to paranoia, eventually—which becomes the focus of “At the Hood,” where a group of friends—formerly a rock band—consider attending the funeral of one of their members. But attendance at what cost? One of them demures—”It’s like those movies where people go to a funeral of a mob boss, and so there are cops all over taking picture of everyone go goes to the funeral. Then they use those photos to track down the people who went”—painting once and for all the compromises of a new age of paranoia.

“In an Uber” takes that paranoia and makes it the center point of conflict in what should be a normal social interaction between strangers: an Uber driver and his passenger. One approves of the killings, the other does not. Tension mounts.

And in “Nagda-drama Lang,” Javier chooses to occupy the consciousness of the bereaved—a woman cradling the dead body of her lover gunned down on the streets. It is inspired by a real life incident that became an iconic piece of photojournalism—a measure of grief that President Duterte later dismissed as “nagda-drama lang.” Which finally underlines the unemotional inhumanity behind all of these.

Why does Javier continue to write stories like this? They couldn’t possibly be a hoot to write; these sad stories only immerse us—the writer and the reader—in a flood of despair that seems, for the moment, unstoppable.

I think the answer is this: our anger has to be sustained, although that itself is an undertaking fraught with difficulty. How does one sustain anger? It is often easier to give up, and then to spout out such lines of “wisdom” like: “People deserve the politicians they vote for.” It is so much easier to surrender to the prevailing darkness—much like the Germans did at the height of Nazism, or Filipinos in the first five years of Martial Law. Protest and the literature that advocates it are not something that is embraced or favored by many people especially in the immediate aftermath of disastrous things. We are often told to “shut up”—and just embrace the status quo.

Nonetheless, we write.

In his recent visit to the Philippines, the Peruvian writer and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa made it perfectly clear that reading and writing are subversive acts: “Dictators [and] dictatorships are right in being suspicious of this kind of activity, because I think this activity develops in societies a critical spirit about the world as it is,” he said.

And its effects are not in the immediately apparent; it is in the cumulative.

So Carljoe Javier and others like him write on, because we must survive. Because we must document and dramatize the unspeakable. Because the future demands it. Because when good finally triumphs over evil—as it always does—it needs to see where its seeds began, and it might as well begin in the stories we chose to tell today.

To end, it’s good to echo what Sophie Scholl once said, which is a perfect reminder of our times: “The real damage is done by those millions who want to ‘survive.’ The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves—or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honor, truth, and principles are only literature. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.”

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Friday, November 11, 2016

entry arrow5:33 AM | Choose My Own Way to Burn

“The real damage is done by those millions who want to 'survive.' The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves—or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honor, truth, and principles are only literature. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.”

~ Sophie Scholl


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Sunday, November 06, 2016

entry arrow7:00 AM | Remembering the Dead

There is a slightly confusing sight when you come further south of Dalaguete town in the southern tip of Cebu that jars your idea of what is and what is not.

You’re in a bus, or you’re in a car, and when you turn the bend of the highway going west towards Tañon Strait, you see spread right from the very edges of the road towards the low hills a sprinkling of small houses that seem immediately peculiar for anyone with a sharp eye: nothing stirs in and among them, not the shadows of the living, not the mundane machineries of what makes a life. But there they are, these small houses constituting what could be a barangay all its own, an address inviting the idea of lived lives. And yet, there you go: nothing stirs.

Then your eyes come to a sharp focus, and your mind begin to put two and two together, and you come to realize that these houses are not at all for the living: they have been built as pantheons for the dead. It’s a barangay for the departed, a whole vista of a cemetery occupying quite an acreage of landscape.

It never bothers me, this village of the dead in Dalaguete, every time I see it; although it does startle for a few seconds upon its beholding, and simply because it sits right there on the landscape and blends so well with the living world that does pulsate around it. Across the road, the land dives steeply towards the beach and people are milling about the sand preparing for a swim while in the distance the small island of Sumilon winks and beckons. There are fishermen in their bancas casting their nets in the depths, or coming home with the day’s catch. There are the houses—the living ones—that dot the rest of the Dalaguete landscape, a beehive of a small town where people do stir about in the regular business of their lives. The road itself can surge with traffic. In the midst of all these, the hillside housing the dead sits comfortably, quietly, bearing like a feather all intentions of blending.

The last time I saw this landscape, it made me think about that idea of blending, how life itself is really a continuum of death, and how borderless the two can seem.

As binaries, they inform and shape each other—and those who get a full glimpse of the exquisite structure of their beautiful oppositions, which is rare, are perhaps the ones who seem to know how to embrace both fully. (I know people who are not afraid of death simply because they have come to an understanding that their lives have been full and happy, and they can let go because there are no regrets. I know people who have had brushes with dying, and having been given a second chance, rush to an embrace of life because they are suddenly equipped with the realization that life’s not to be wasted.)

As biblical truth, life is the paradoxical and beautiful aftermath of death, and, echoing Matthew 10:39, we are taught that in order to live, we must first learn to die.

As a measure of the philosophical, one might consider those among us who are breathing still, but might as well be dead in their subjugation to awful surrender—to grief, to apathy, to depression. And then there are those who are already dead but still remain alive in the hearts and memories of many. I had a friend named Luis Joaquin Katigbak, one of the best writers of my generation, who passed away early this year, and there are moments in the present—when I read a good book, when I eat a good piece of silvanas, when I encounter a good article about typefaces, when I hear a really good pop song—when I find myself saying, “I should tell Luis about this,” only to realize half-a-second later that my good friend has gone.

Luis’s was one of too many deaths I had to bear this year. I lost my cousin Lulu Moncal-Pineda to cancer, too, early this year—a death in the family that felt the most intimate, because it seemed so bizarre, because one always thinks our loved ones will be with us forever—and then suddenly we are made to realize death touches everyone. Manang Lulu was a kind soul, one I remember most for her easy laughter, and the type whose passing makes you question the Divine playing dice with our fates with such unkind randomness. But she would have been the first to disabuse me of that notion.

I lost my high school best friend, too. When Jacqueline Piñero-Torres died, it as not a surprise for all of us in our high school class: she had been suffering from a lingering illness, and while we always hoped for the best, we were nevertheless resigned to the fact that the only thing that could save her was a miracle. But even that never prepares you for the inevitable: I felt dumbstruck by her passing, and a selfish part of me felt betrayed—but by what? I had no idea. Perhaps betrayed by circumstances—because here was this life cut short in its prime, here was promise still largely unfulfilled, here was a young mother now rendered unable to see her two young children grow up to the potential she dreamed for them. When I finally found the courage to visit her wake, it was her birthday. It had to be her birthday, that strange paradox.

Later, I wrote of that visit: “Today would have been your 40th birthday. When we were younger and full of life—the world still a breathless space aching for discovery—did we ever talk about growing older, about mortality? I’m not sure we did. We were busy reading Sweet Valley High and those new Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries and the books of Enid Blyton and those sci-fi novels, usually the ones about teenagers colonizing Mars that your brother Marlon would hoist on us every time I visited your old house in Lo-oc, which was always; your mom and your dad would feed us as we played board games, from Cluedo to Boggle to Monopoly. You were the smartest one in class—and our whole high school batch absolutely went nuts when Silliman High proclaimed you our valedictorian, because you deserved it. You deserved the accolades, given the fact that we would all wait for you to come to our first class in the afternoon on the grounds of Channon Hall where we could copy your Math homework. And you would only let Wendell and me (and perhaps Chloe and Rachel) copy—so all the Rizal boys had to wait for me to finish copying all those formulas so that they could copy from me, too. Oh, but I was absolutely cruel to you too, the way boys are to girls who were dear to them. I would tie the straps of your bag to your chair and silly things like that, and in all the dramas I wrote for class, I’d make sure you had the top role. Once I wrote a short play for Values Education class about a brothel, and you were the top kitten—but oh how you slayed that role. You were so good, the class loved how surprisingly vampish you could be. So many high school memories, and so many of them involved you. You would have turned forty today. Life’s silly like that. I was angry when I heard the news. I was angry at God because He lets good people go and mediocre people... —let’s not talk about mediocre people. Because you were never mediocre. You were brilliant, honest, and loyal. We love you, Jacq. I still don’t understand why you had to go, but perhaps someday I will. Rest in peace, high school best friend. I promise to keep an eye on my godson.”

Someday I will learn the trick of a happy life and a happy death. A passage from a long poem by Walt Whitman reminds me it can be possible. From “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” we get this lovely invitation to think of death as a delicate thing to welcome: “Come lovely and soothing death, / Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving, / In the day, in the night, to all, to each, / Sooner or later, delicate death.”

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Thursday, November 03, 2016

entry arrow7:29 PM | I Used To Be Romantic About the Rain

I thought I'd stay out tonight to do some much-needed dragon-taming, a.k.a. striking things off the long to-do list, but no. The weather made me desire the warmth of home. It has been raining steadily since early evening, and the rains have come with punctual regularity every night for the past four or five. I used to be romantic about the rain until Ondoy happened, and then other monsters like it came after. 

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entry arrow4:31 AM | Frauds and Lies as Mirrors of History

I'm reading Michael Salman's fascinating chapter for Alfred W. McCoy and Francisco A. Scarano's Colonial Crucible: Empire in the Making of the Modern American State (University of Wisconsin Press, 2009). It's titled "Confabulating American Colonial Knowledge of the Philippines," where he examines the purveyors of fake documents/testimonies and their relationship to the makers/shapers of empires/nations. He focuses specifically on Jose E. Marco’s forgeries and Ahmed Chalabi's lies that led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and posits this possibility: leaders [be it in the academe or in politics] often are in "secret" need of purveyors of "lies" to help shape a grand narrative that make possible their ardent beliefs or policies. And right away, I'm thinking: Mocha Uson. Lies and frauds have tremendous staying power: many Filipinos still believe, for example, in the so-called Code of Kalantiaw, and we are still feeling the impact of Chalabi's misdirections. It's easy to call out these lies and dismiss the purveyors, like what William H. Scott did in his grand unmasking of Marco as a fraud in the late 1960s. But Salman also writes that the scholar Akbar Abbas once suggested that “[t]he Fake is a symptom that enables us to address, rather than dismiss, some of the discrepancies of a rapidly developing and ineluctable global order.” Mocha Uson, I guess, is a symptom and must not be dismissed. We will need her as key to understand, one of these days, why our country is the way it is right now. Fake news is aggravating -- but I guess it can tell us something ironically truthful about the way we live now, which Paul Morrow in his blog manages to sum up succinctly: "Walang manloloko kung walang magpapaloko."

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Tuesday, November 01, 2016

entry arrow1:21 PM | 8List's Halloween Horror Fiction Marathon 2016

8List's Karl R. De Mesa​ invited a bunch of writers to contribute to their Halloween fiction marathon stretched for several days. All stories are in, and here's the final roundup! Thanks, Karl, for the opportunity, and it has been an honor to be part of this roster of brilliant fictionists...

Eliza Victoria​: Blessed Are Those Who Suffer
Vince Torres: Goto Paradise
Joseph Nacino​: The Last Midnight Game
Yvette Tan​: Demon Summoning Made Easy: Introduction
Dean Francis Alfar​: Brother and Sister
Gabriela Lee​: Dog Gone Days
Ian Rosales Casocot​: The Bodies
Timothy James Dimacali​: Torn

Enjoy the scares!

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entry arrow8:00 AM | Sound

Some sorts of quiet are holy, like the hush of mornings for days of mandatory rest. Today is November 1, and I am reminded by the stillness outside of this room that while the occasional things stir, people are in bed for All Saints' Day. It is already a little past seven, and Dumaguete refuses to wake up. There are the sounds of lonely tricycles plying the streets which come in ungenerous intervals, the otherwise familiar whirr of engines suddenly, refreshingly, alien. There is the meowing of my cat, a plaintive sound marinated in the letter "m" that indicates displeasure, and I know that it is protest over the fact that I am adamant in keeping him inside, the outside -- where his lovers await -- off-limits to him, at least for now. The slow register of other sounds is an echo of the big rain from last night. While I write this, I play the mournful orchestral music of Max Richter, which strikes me as appropriate for the stillness that pervades: his music do not invade the quiet, they underline it. But I have been awake for some hours now. To be precise since midnight. The medicine I am taking for the current tumble with the coughing and the sniffling have rendered my hours virtually in chaos for several days now. My mind does not follow the regular hours, and my body more so; only the day before the other day, I had gone to bed for what should have been a quick early afternoon nap, and woke up to the sight of blue-dimmed darkness outside my windows; I checked the clock, and saw that it was 5, enough for me to be convinced that I had slept so thoroughly, I had woken up to the last of the day's sunlight -- only to realise that what I was seeing were not the blue shadows of dusk but the blue fingers of dawn. Yesterday, I had fallen asleep at 6 PM, and had been roused to wakefulness by a dream that even my unconscious deemed was fit for fiction. I woke up quickly to grab the plot my sleep was giving me, only to find it quickly dissipating in the midnight minutes of my wakefulness. All I remember from the dream is that there was a he, and there was a she, and there was a cat, and a gun, and some frenetic unspecified hunger -- and as to why my unconscious was convinced this random set of things would make for tantalising fiction, I have no idea. By 3 AM, fully awake by then, I figured it was time to eat, and I found myself in the bright interiors of the Jollibee downtown, where I finished finally Noelle Q. de Jesus' Blood Collected Stories, took notes for the review I planned on doing -- and when that was done, the day had already started, and the dusky blue that began to show convinced me perhaps it was time I strolled down the Rizal Boulevard only two blocks away. I had not done that for God knows how long. I missed the sight of the sea particularly in the brightness of early morning, but it was the sunrise coming off the horizon that I really wanted to see. I wanted to hear the sound of the waves breaking on the shore. And I listed to that for a while, convinced once more that all the universe wanted us to be is to be attendant in listening to its breathing. Standing there, in the brick-and-cement breakwater, I breathed in the small stirrings of a day beginning. And if I were capable of synesthesia, I perhaps would say that in that instance, I felt the sky meow as it blended the hazy blue of early early morning with the golden earnestness of breaking day; that the sunlight liberated from the horizon suddenly whooshed everywhere in bell-like clangs and suddenly bathed earth and pavement still wet from last night's rain with the prickling promise of drying. But all I could hear were the waves breaking quietly on the shore. I suddenly realised how much I missed that sound, that cycle of washing over as water met sand and stone, and it took me back to all the instances in my life where all I had were moments in time bundled up with me lying on some beach basking in the soothing gentleness of that sound of breaking surf. I am a boy again of 8, and today I am spending the morning getting dark from too much sun in Silliman Beach. I am a man of 33, and today I am going to spend all of my hours just contemplating the quiet of Sugar Beach in Sipalay. And so on and so forth. It amazes me how memory knows no space and knows no time, and perhaps memory is the fifth dimension the universe is built with. Wouldn't that be something to discover? That all of the world, that all of life, is just a figment of collective memory? Perhaps that is what God is: the memories of all humankind coming together in a gel, oozing with this secret: that if we wanted to know the Divine, it is in all of us, and the first step to finding it is to listen to each other's breathing, to catch the sound of the sea breaking on the shore, to discern the hum of the universe and realise it is the very pulse our hearts dance to.


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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

entry arrow8:00 PM | Wednesday.

A bunch of us friends have this belief that the devil's ears float in the air, always eavesdropping on our articulated good intentions. And so most of the time, when I make concrete plans and resolve to make tomorrow count, something always happens to derail everything, which is why lately I've made a lifestyle of not committing. Went to bed early last night with a glorious plan to get enough sleep -- this from an insomniac -- and to make this Wednesday matter. Woke up seven hours later with the driest of throats, a harbinger of colds festering. (Where dafuq did I get this virus from? I've made myself a hermit the past three weeks.) Fighting the whole thing with Neozep, liquids, naps, green tea, calamansi, Berocca, and virgin sacrifices. Even then, I made my self plow through my calendar for the day: endless chores through the heat of late morning, a chance consultation with a student I've failed (who cried in front of me, oh dear god), and then a luncheon meeting. Ended it by catching the 3 PM screening of Doctor Strange, which is not as dazzling as the reviews make it to be, but it was a fair enough an okay origins story, and it very much satisfied. I had to fight my Neozep-induced drowsiness throughout the movie, which means that I will have to watch this again over the weekend to enjoy it better. An observation: why do most audiences leave the theater before the credits roll? Don't they know this is a Marvel movie? (There were two post-credits sequences, if you must know.) 


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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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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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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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