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

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Thursday, October 07, 2004

entry arrow10:58 AM | Life Lessons

I was texting Robert the other day. I don't even know his last name, except that he is a lean young man given to wearing a brownish baseball cap; he used to be from Iloilo, but now makes Manila home. We met in Friendster, like one of those strange connections that seem to sprout from somewhere and can take you anywhere, and we have never really met face-to-face just as yet, although he studies in Dumaguete and I teach in Silliman. It's amazing how, in a small city where there is only one street for everything, there are still strangers to give names to; and there are still souls and small little corners to get familiar with.

We got to talking about Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and how One Hundred Years of Solitude was one novel that -- although complex in its plot and serpentine in its use of magic realism and genealogy -- seemed to be anchored by a passionate regard for things happening. I told him there was one more Garcia Marquez novel I liked, something I read recently for my Latin American literature class with Prof. Philip Van Peel: the tragic, but beautiful Chronicle of a Death Foretold, all of its reportorial prose rendering murder in its various facets and sides, Rashomon-style.

It was one of those "getting to know you" conversations. How one hops, for example, through a litany of likes and dislikes to gather momentum towards the connection of similar favorite things. "I've always thought of Steven Spielberg as an underrated genius, undermined by his commercial success," one might say. Or: "Wakagi is a terrible restaurant, not because of the food, which is more than passable, but because of its incredibly inept waiters who also just happens to be exceptionally rude," one could also say. It's a ping-pong of ideas and explications, all measured to create a semblance of character for people whom we have just met, and are interested in knowing. Everybody has been through those.

But there was one movie Robert mentioned -- "a favorite," he said -- which made my soul skip, because I thought I was the only one in Dumaguete (save perhaps for Bing Valbuena and Marge Udarbe, who were the first ones to make me pay full attention to the title I am to reveal in a moment) who bought it and really liked it.

The movie is Audrey Wells' Under the Tuscan Sun, based on the autobiographical novel by the renowned travel writer Frances Mayes, and which stars the infinitely beautiful Diane Lane.

I've read the good reviews of the movie when it first came out in the United States about a year and a half ago, but I was never really interested. Because -- although I am a big fan of Oprah Winfrey -- movies with smarmy, Oprah-ish inspirationalism makes me sick with their Hallmark greeting cards approach to life. Not to sound like a gnarled pessimist, but I've always thought of life as something that went beyond cheap spiritual mantras and easy fixes a la Dr. Phil, or Steven Covey, The Celestine Prophecy, or The Purpose-Driven Life.

And then, of course, I had to first see a copy of Well's film as a pirated DVD over at the local barter trade with a picture of Diane Lane dressed in an Italian linen white shirt, leaning against an open window which overlooks the sun-drenched Tuscany countryside. There are red flowers in the trellis above her, and she is being handed a bouquet of yellow sunflowers by a disembodied male hand. How Oprah, I thought. And decided never to buy it, even for the cheap price of P85.

But Bing and Marge managed to convince me somehow to try it out. What I got was an uplifting story, which did not insult intelligence. I'm not quite sure why, but it must have been the combination of the believable (and sometimes quaint) characters, the plausibility of things happening, and a story that strikes deep into our urban anxieties without giving us sugar-coated resolutions. It was, needless to say, a movie with a smart heart.

Diane Lane plays Frances Mayes, a writer broken by a crippling divorce, forced to sell her house in San Francisco over to her philandering husband. In the middle of depression, she is handed by her friends a plane ticket to a "gay tour of romantic Tuscany" ("No one would be there to hit on you. So you could concentrate and listen to your inner voice," says Patti, her lesbian friend, who is played by the always-delightful Sandrah Oh). After a brief hesitation, off to Tuscany she goes and during one of the guided tours felt compelled to buy Bramasole, a small and run-down villa in need of much repair. The story involves the quintessential journey of transformation, both of the house itself and Frances, who learns many things from a motley crew of lovable supporting characters, including a beautiful, aging English woman who lives a Federico Fellini fantasy, a remodeling team of Polish workers, and a sweet Italian lawyer with a yen for ladies in distress.

One gets, for example, that life is always full of fantastic, terrible ideas: "Terrible ideas are like playground scapegoats. Given the right encouragement, they grow up to be geniuses." That seems to be the spirit of the movie, and also that life will always resolve itself -- so one should just go and lie down somewhere, and soon one will be covered with ladybugs. (Ladybugs? You have to rent or buy the DVD to find out what that means.)

Sometimes, it takes a movie like Under the Tuscan Sun to get us out of a rut.

Books can do that, too. On my bedside table right now, there's this novel by Brian Morton, something called Starting Out in the Evening, which I found in one of those glorious second-hand bins over at Lee Super Plaza (a section, by the way, which is apparently under-appreciated by management; how many times do they have to move that section all over the second floor like an unwanted department?).

The book, which was nominated for the Pen/Faulkner Award, is that "rare event," says Elle, "a finely tuned serious novel that conjures a fully formed and vibrant sense of life in all its complexity and eccentric character." It is about an aging New York writer whose literary legacy has become forgotten, a young graduate student -- "a miniskirted biographer" -- who wants to resurrect his reputation with her master's thesis on his novels, and his forlorn and tattered forty-year old daughter who is always looking for love beyond the ticking of her slowing biological clock. Somehow, their chemistry, their interactions seem so real as to give us a panoramic view of life in its various stages: old and becoming insignificant, middle-aged and plateauing, and young and full of life and promise, but also full of an inchoateness that handicaps a fuller understanding of what life really is all about.

Again, the novel is about life, and about the choices that we make when we are young and when we are old. I've taken to underlining many of the insightful poetry that leaps out of the pages. For example: "You seize your freedom in a spirit of rebelliousness, exuberance, defiant joy. But to live that choice -- over the weeks and months and years to come -- requires different qualities. It requires that you turn hard, turn rigid. Because it isn't a choice that the world encourages, you have to wear a suit of armor to defend it." And I think that speaks for most of us, especially those who are brave enough to make one defining stance in life: the choice is dramatic, but to live it everyday... it requires a kind of dying.

But always, after I turn the DVD off, or turn the last page of any book, there is that sad acknowledgment of a return to real life, which is teeming with real heartaches and real struggles. There is, of course, a starkness to this that belies the ordered narratives of movies and books. But we need these, I guess -- books, movies, art, music -- to reaffirm our understanding of everything and readjust our perspective of life after the distortions of having to live moment to moment the draining seconds.

[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich