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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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Friday, September 25, 2009

entry arrow10:39 AM | Reel Love

These days, I am thinking deeply about movies again.

I can’t help it.

Because after a few years of not doing so, I am once again teaching a course in film in Silliman University’s College of Mass Communication—and there’s nothing like a teacherly preparation factor to revive an old passion. (My students’ final project is to individually direct a short film, which I have told them to mount in a mini-film festival of their own making at the end of the semester. It’s a big challenge, and they are all scared by the idea—but I always tell them to invoke Luc Goddard’s famous plea, that the only way to critique or appreciate a film is to make one.)

Because I have suddenly found myself writing a new screenplay, for a movie set in Dumaguete, after years of fits and starts. (My poet friend J. Neil C. Garcia once quipped to me recently, “Literature is dead. The future’s in the movies.”)

And because only a few months ago, the Cinemalaya Organizing Committee invited me to sit in a panel for the Cinemalaya Film Congress scheduled later this month where I am to talk about “Indie Filmmaking in Dumaguete.” (And the first question that came to my head was, “Is there any?”)

But I have always loved the movies.

Yet you can also always say, “Who doesn’t?” Quite honestly, I know there’s truth in that retort. Because film may be the truest democratic art form today: it is, after all, a painstakingly-wrought symphony of many other art forms (from performance to design to music), and finally it also tends to level all sorts of human barriers—from class to language—and everybody everywhere else in the world can subscribe to it the way the opera cannot, or a painting cannot. Everybody has their favorite movies, and movies, for the most part, become portal to our deepest fantasies. As Edward Behr once famously said, “Films are our unlived lives unfolding in front of a magic mirror.”

I have always loved the movies. Truth to tell, it was my first love. Before I even deigned to become a teacher or a writer, and before I had that first pragmatic childhood wish of ending up a medical doctor, all I really wanted to do was the movies. My best childhood memories, first in Bayawan and later on in Dumaguete, often consist of separate flights of fancies in the darkness of various movie theaters, the only thing constant being the feeling of being enraptured by the flickering, moving lights set before my eyes. I don’t exactly remember the face of the person I had my first kiss with—I think it was with a girl named Kate, who lived in the apartment next to ours in my old neighborhood along Sta. Rosa Street, and I was only six years old—but I still remember, down to the details, my first movie experience. It was Irwin Allen’s The Swarm, in 1978, and I was only three years old. I can still vividly recreate that atmosphere of terror and ecstatic joy which I felt in equal measure in the middle of a small theater, an affair called Oriente, in Bayawan, which is now only a faded shadow of its former self.

Later, still in grade school and high school, I made myself a cineaste, a self-educated one, and I voraciously read up on books on film technique, film history, and film theory. I began reading the intelligent criticism of Roger Ebert and Paulene Kael and David Bordwell when I was thirteen. I picked apart screenplays and montage techniques. I studied auteur theory. I began watching the Oscars earnestly the year when Kathy Bates won Best Actress for Misery and Jeremy Irons won Best Actor for Reversal of Fortune.

I became a mad borrower of obscure film titles—first in Betamax, and then in VHS—in an unassuming video store near the Dumaguete public market called Good Luck Store, from which I learned to carefully watch movies made by Martin Scorsese, Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino, Neil LaBute, and other directors whose films you won’t see displayed today in VideoCity. (I’m not sure the Chinese owner of Good Luck Store knew he had all those titles—most of them terribly great but also terribly uncommercial. I mean, who would rent Kevin Smith’s Clerks? Larry Clark’s Kids? Steve James’ Hoop Dreams? Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb? David O. Russell’s Spanking the Monkey? Gregg Araki’s Doom Generation? Save maybe me?)

I swallowed movies day and night. When I was finally in college, I became president of Société de Cinephiles, the only film society (now defunct) in Silliman University, and we invited the Japan Foundation to stage Eiga Sai in Dumaguete, where we introduced locals to Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies. We invited the French Embassy to do a François Truffaut mini-film fest in AVT1. We screened films from Iran and Vietnam and China and HongKong before anyone in Dumaguete heard of Majid Mahidi’s Children of Heaven or Tran Anh Hung’s Scent of Green Papaya or Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern or Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express. We studied films by Lino Brocka, and Ishmael Bernal, and Mike de Leon. We dissected Hollywood film noir. We had weekly film screenings in my old apartment in Bantayan, where we watched all sorts of weird movies like James Bidgood’s Pink Narcissus and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo. In retrospect, I think we gave the country the first ever gay and lesbian film festival, in 1995, before anyone else did. (We were always pushing the envelope. Once we had to fight a teacher who complained that Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine was pornographic. It isn’t.)

Finally, I directed my first short film—a hysterical drama titled Trahedya sa Kabila ng Liwanag—which can only be found in VHS, and hopefully rot away to mold heaven.

Sometimes I would wonder, where did I find all that time to do all of those? Chalk it up to the irrepressible energy and defiance of youth.

And then I stopped. Because life happened.

... But there is finally no getting away from the old enchantment of childhood. The truth of the matter is, once one becomes a cineaste, one will always remain a cineaste.

And yet one must admit, however, a scaling down of old passions: adulthood, after all, requires such sacrifices—which may be its greatest tragedy. The wanton days of hunting down obscure movie titles in even more obscure outlets and video rental stores, the sleepless nights devouring cinematic gems (and busts)—all that must wane a bit in the light of adult responsibilities. The consuming life becomes work, and cinema becomes the abandoned mistress. It is something we nevertheless revisit once in a while, on weekends and sick days. Sometimes we have gloriously rebellious days when we just want to do a staring down contest versus an avalanche of work and what-not, and we turn on the DVD for the now impossible march towards a fuller film education. (“There is that Bergman, that Altman, that Brocka, that Kurosawa I have not watched yet! That Buñuel, that Sirk, that Gosiengfiao!,” we scream, sometimes, in defiance.)

Sometimes it pays to get a broader picture of the source of this obsession. Film, barely a hundred years old, is said to be the youngest artform—but it is also the one that most defines the sensibilities of this century (and the last).

It is also the most popular: by far, compared to literature or the fine arts or the performing arts, it enjoys a privileged status as a medium of entertainment that has tickled the fancy of most people from all walks of life. Was it Nicanor Tiongson who once said that the true Filipino religion is the cinema? He wrote that immortal line in the 1980s, when mainstream Filipino cinema was at its most popular. Today, that devotion has largely given way to teleseryes, but there is more than a grain of truth in what Tiongson had to observe. And to pay attention to that is also to heed the fact that film is also a communication medium where ideas and concepts can ferment, and in this regard, has become a tool of influence the power of which cannot be denied.

In the first weeks of my film class in Silliman University, I introduced my students to two films—one short (Albert Lamorisse’s ecstatic The Red Balloon) and the other feature-length (Giuseppe Tornatore’s celebratory Cinema Paradiso)—which for me strongly demonstrate the power of film.

Two of my best students (from the College of Mass Communication) wrote of both films’ power to enchant in our group blog, and as a delighted teacher, I want to quote both of them verbatim. Eliora Eunice Bernedo wrote:

Good movies don’t need a complicated plot. Cinema Paradiso and The Red Balloon are excellent examples of simplicity. Balloon was a wonderful ageless story that contained a universe within itself—it brought life to a normally inanimate object. I see it as an authentic vision of childhood retreat into an inner world that is free of bullies, mean parents, and scornful teachers. The last scene was my favorite—it showed a great symbol for the escape from the loneliness and pain of growing up that many children experience. It’s evident that even adults can empathize with the little boy in the story as he tries to make his way in the world that seems so cruel. For the most part, I love the innocence of the story and the purity in which it is told. It clearly didn’t need dialogue to capture its beauty. It was moving, evocative, and ceaselessly charming. The cinematography was amazing, and it continues to fascinate.

Cinema Paradiso is also one of those rare motion pictures that speak of something remarkably meaningful, but to me, it succeeds by any measure. It mainly played a world of memory and evoked a study of life—from romance, drama, to humor. My favorite bit would have to be beginning, when it focused on the life of little Salvador (Toto). Somehow it reminded me of the main character in The Red Balloon, who was very curious and persistent. The film operated in three periods of time: Salvador’s childhood, adolescence, and middle age. Each is manifested by a different quality to the memories, and the nostalgia they invoke; as it kept on emphasizing the redemptive role played by the movies. Unlike The Red Balloon, the story was told through flashbacks. It was sometimes poignant, sometimes funny, yet it gave a sense of fulfillment. Although it was medieval in its symbolism, to me its conclusions are uncompromisingly postmodern.

Anthony Gerard Odtohan wrote:

The Red Balloon, though it was produced in the 1950s, to me, is a classic masterpiece that uses minimal dialogue as it transcends the language barrier. The story is told effectively as a narrative by the use of imagery and crafty editing (which to me is a step beyond its time). The power of this film lies not only in the technical prowess undertaken to create the illusion of a red balloon with a life of its own but also in the deliberate sequence of events. Lamorisse is a masterful storyteller who anthropomorphizes an otherwise mundane object and portrays it as the little boy’s best friend. Rarely do we see such a friendship in actuality; instead we can associate to some extent when we look back to our own childhood years when we held dearly to our toys as if they were real people.

Technically, it was amazing to notice how the red balloon, as a prop, was realistically and artistically maneuvered. The balloon’s movement looked natural and believable. The balloon not only interacted with the boy, but also with the other characters in the film and even with the environment itself. The climactic chase scene with the mob of little boys attempting to steal the balloon from the boy, and eventually attempting to destroy it, showed an expert handing in camera angles and editing. The balloon seemed to have a mind of its own and the scene in the end of its slow death mimicked the death of a person in actuality. The final scene of redemption for the child featuring all of the balloons clustering together and taking the boy to heights unknown required technical skill. Although it went against the natural laws of physics, the final scene invites us to ‘fly’ with the boy to the realm of fantasy.

Cinema Paradiso was a powerful narrative film: a story that begins in the present and flashes in and out of the past. The power of this film is that it invites is on a personal journey through time. This centers around an unlikely friendship between Alberto, the film operator, and Toto, a little boy with passion and immense curiosity. A turning point occurs, a reversal of roles in fact, when Toto rescues Alberto from a fire that breaks out in the cinema. Alberto sustains life-crippling injury to his eyes which make him blind for life. Alberto, who has also become Toto’s father figure, still continues to mentor the little boy. Eventually, Toto grows up and falls in love and dares the unthinkable: to win her heart. Elena, however, eventually doesn’t show up in a critical time just before Toto leaves for conscription and it shatters his hopes of consummating his love for her. Nearing the end, Alberto tells Toto to leave and never return after urging him that a better life awaits Toto outside their town. In hindsight, this is a coming of age movie. It is filled with a full range of emotions and a compelling narrative. The final gift, left by Alberto for Toto in present time, is a montage that, to me, represents an explosion of love that eluded him. He never got to marry Elena. In the end, in front of his eyes, Alberto left a reminder of that which was once forbidden (censored by the town priest) could have been his.

Both films succeed in presenting compelling stories. Both involve powerful friendships. One was between a boy and his balloon. The other was between a boy and a man who was like a second father to him.

And I listen to both, and I realize that love for film -- reel love, I call it -- is something of a sweet infection. And that made me happy.

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