If I were really serious about making this blog a virtual corkboard of all the fine -- and not so fine -- little things I've come across, then I've been unforgivably remiss in not including Shungiko Nakamura's Junjō Romanchica in my musings here. Looking back, maybe I was a bit of a coward. Perhaps I did not want to admit to liking an extremely melodramatic anime TV series, a yaoi at that. I mean, come on. I'm in my thirties, for God's sake. But I went through the two seasons of this TV series based on the popular manga by Nakamura. There was just something about the unfolding romance between Misaki Takahashi and Akihiko Usami that got to me. Maybe its very familiarity? (Ehem.) But by God, I bawled at every episode of this show, it was almost ridiculous. The story line, worthy of any teleserye, is convoluted and involves a host of other characters, each of them commanding their own full-length treatment -- but perhaps I can summarize the series in one sentence: it is the story of a boy who learns to accept that he loves who he loves, beyond all reservations. Writing that, the description strikes me as maudlin. But it's not. The series is funny and witty and exquisitely drawn, and when it reaches for the stars to make you cry, it doesn't feel like a cheat. Perhaps because its creators have crafted a tale with careful consideration to its characters, we actually empathize with all of them. Plus, the whole thing reminds me about how I miss Tokyo. And I'd give my right arm to be in Tokyo right now.
From the very start of Marco Filiberti's taut Il Compleanno [David's Birthday, 2009], you know things will not end well. This is contrary to what we see in the beginning: two couples, Diego and Francesca (Alessandro Gassman and Maria de Medeiros) and Mateo and Shary (Massimo Poggio and Michela Cescon), engage in warm and friendly banter as the camera observes them watching a performance of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, while on the other side of the opera house, in another box, Shary's brother Leonard (Christo Jivkov) sits transfixed through the "Liebestod" aria. So does Diego, who becomes oblivious to the others around him. Later on, at the very end of the film, you will realize what will finally tie this two men together -- and how much this famous aria about love and death becomes the perfect soundtrack for their tragedies. The metaphorical shorthand is obvious and can be cloying, but I found myself becoming grateful for the way Filiberti tries to tie these couples' story to more universal (and classic) themes of lust and the tragedy that can come when we fall in such irrational passion for temptation. Especially if temptation comes in the form of David (Thyago Alves) -- Matteo and Shary's smoldering teenage son who comes in from New York, joining the two couples in a caloric summer by the Italian Riviera. (And yes, the film does have a scene where the legend of Circe and her temptations are discussed, just in case we miss the point.) The tension grows in increments throughout the film as Diego finds himself slowly becoming more than infatuated by his best friend's son -- much to his own surprise. It contains both the promises of sexual and violent release, and it is to the filmmaker's credit that this is sustained throughout the film. It feels right. But the outcome that comes still manages to surprise us, although in the end we realize we have been thoroughly prepared for it. I like this film. This is what Sam Mendes' American Beauty  would have been like, if it crossed path with Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and dismissed all Hollywood conventions of redemption. When the credits rolled, I found that I have held my breath in for much too long.
I always like it when I see a film and I recognize significant parts of it as mirrors of my own life. When it also happens to be a well-crafted film, it enters my personal pantheon of cinematic favorites, titles unforgotten and frequently visited. This mirroring reach is not simply an exercise in narcissism nor a search for validation of one's life in the lofty region of high art; I think it is just a recognition that the best kind of art really somehow illuminates the realities of the world we live in, that it gives a spark of recognition of the universal condition.
This is why I responded so much to Québécoi filmmaker Xavier Dolan's sophomore effort, Les Amours Imaginaires [Heartbeats, 2010]. It is far from a perfect film. It is in fact indulgent, but nevertheless. So much of it strikes me as familiar -- although I have never ever been a French Canadian, nor involved in what Dolan has called "a love duel" with a female friend for the affection of an Adonis. But I have been in love, and I have been reckless in some of my passionate pursuits, and I have friends who are exactly like this neurotic, self-centered threesome. Still, the film is basically my life set to saturated primary colors, in slow motion, moving through Dalida's infectious and campy "Bang Bang" cover -- and all in French.
Dolan, who directs and stars in this film, does a creative departure from his searing and angst-ridding directorial debut J'ai tué ma mère [I Killed My Mother, 2009]. It is funny and borrows a lot of the stylistics of Pedro Almodovar and Wong Kar-Wai, which can prove disastrous in the hands of a less nimble filmmaker. But Dolan succeeds, which may be because he drapes his pursuit of a style on a very simple storyline, and peoples his frames with actors (which include himself) who embody with a rawness and rightness the ennui and the narcissism necessary for the characters they portray. The blonde and curly-haired Niels Schneider is Nicolas, the common object of desire. His is the hardest role to play in the film but the actor manages to do something concrete to his cipher of a character, someone without much of a personality but whose drawing power is understood as a given. I had a harder time warming up to Monia Chokri as the vintage-wearing and dour Marie -- which may be because she reminds me so much of a frenemy who is similarly calculating and vicious, but hides all of that behind fake big smiles and much show of friendly concern. Dolan as the gay and sensitive Francis comes off as the more sympathetic one in the trio. But I could not help but ask -- why stay friends when you're so much better off without the other? I could also ask myself the same thing with many people I know.
I don't know what to say about Cathy Garcia-Molina's My Amnesia Girl , her latest romcom romp starring John Lloyd Cruz and Toni Gonzaga, except that I must be honest: I seriously liked it.
While a claim has to be made that this has to be the cheesiest film ever put into production, and apparently by design -- something about it makes it works marvelously. Is it its surprisingly deft juggling act of comic zing and romantic earnestness? Or the fact that it unapologetically wears its heart on its proverbial sleeve, but does it with a dose of warm and earthly charm that shield us from the cringe-worthy assortments of its many fairy tale segments?
What seems important is that our enjoyment is earned. In the theater I was in, I could feel the pulsating energy of the people responding to it in fits of laughter and cycles of Kleenex-muffled tears. (When Noel Cabangon's rendition of "Di Na Natuto" came in midway through the film, it proved to be the final straw. The sniffles became epidemic.) I was right there along with them, having surrendered easily to the film's conceit: a young woman pretends to have an amnesia as she deals with the return of the man who has jilted her at the altar.
Before its release, the film drew comparisons to Peter Segal's 50 First Dates  and Jae-Young Kwak's My Sassy Girl  -- but it surprises us by finally not being a rip-off of either, and instead charges its way to our hearts with its heedless deluge of cinematic confectionary. I cannot say, however, that is completely original: you see traces of "inspiration" culled from beloved movies past, including the ones mentioned earlier and then some -- like the string-on-finger sequence from Chris Columbus's Stepmom . Nor is it unpredictable: I could guess the kind of ending it would come to from miles away. (Then again, the films from Star Cinema have never been known for their good endings.)
Still we are forgiving of its borrowings in particular because it does so in a fresh way that redeems the act and elevates the final product to new light. We are also actually delighted by the sugar rush it induces. Why is that? For the most part, it helps that the characters are ably played by actors with such undeniable depth. Ms. Gonzaga has a quirky likability to her that makes her roster of movie roles shine with a note of the plausible, even when she seems to go all-out for the cutesy all of the time; her impeccable comic timing, however, is what draws us in. And she has her little moments, too -- those telling shifts in acting tones that are subtle, difficult to achieve, and easily ruined by sheer lack of talent. (Take note of the derisive laughter that greeted Kris Aquino's frightened face in the trailer for Dalaw.)
But it is Mr. Cruz who commands our attention. What can be said about an actor who basically plays an asshole -- but makes us root for him nonetheless? Already the unlikely matinee idol of contemporary Filipino cinema, he can do no wrong these days: he has a seasoned thespian's gravity and star power that reminds me of Meryl Streep, but it is a power that he wields by not drowning out and outshining the efforts of the others around him; instead, he reinforces the ensemble effort in scenes that call for it. Consider for example the fact that the chorus of supporting characters that surrounds Mr. Cruz is still indelible in our immediate memories of the film -- particularly the comic antics of Joross Gamboa and JM de Guzman, both of whom were revelations.
What I cannot forgive, however, is the uneven command that Ms. Molina has for the technical aspects of this otherwise winning film, considering the tremendous resources that must be at her disposal as her studio's primary directorial talent. The film simply does not look polished, even from the first frame when the Star Cinema logo comes out. The cinematography is awful, the editing is blah.
What finally saves it is the acting, and the nimble screenplay by Carmi Raymundo, Jade Castro, and Miguel Sevilla who do the fantastic job of concentrating all the cheesy "kilig" love jokes ever made -- and make them work without straining our patience and our anti-diabetic buffers.
Danish filmmaker Christian Tafdrup’s En Forelskelse [Awakening, 2008] works and does not work at the same time. It is moving and tense in parts and in the proper places, and the actors are very affecting and persuasive in the roles they are made to inhabit — but for a film that dares to tackle a most controversial twist in a relationship, it is never daring enough and leaves us with only the hopeful hints of possibilities without the rigorous finish that the story demands from the filmmaker. Young Carlsen, a teenage boy, has just started seeing a girl named Melissa, and she soon introduces him to her parents Stig and Brigitte, a down-to-earth couple who seems to show genuine liking for their daughter’s boyfriend. They treat him instantly as part of the family, and even takes him on a family weekend trip to their country house. But in the middle of that trip, Carlsen finds himself falling for the father, much to his surprise and confusion. That’s a recipe for stimulating queer cinema, but. But. That’s it. It resolves itself with such softness that it feels like a half-baked effort, redeemed only by the restraint of the actors. Then again, this is a short film. The subject perhaps requires the rigorous exploration possible in a feature film.
Singapore's O Thiam Chin had the brilliant idea of doing a short documentary of the 2010 writers-in-residence of the International Writing Program of the University of Iowa. He roped in the brilliantly talented young Chinese filmmaker Lewis Zhao to direct it — and then later roped me in to help supervise the editing/post-production since he was going to New York for the marathon over the weekend. Two sleepless nights later, here is the result.
I haven't had much sleep lately. I'm tired, I'm sleepy, the days are cold. But there are so many things to accomplish in these last days -- and so many things are inexplicably coming to head just about right at the same time. A whirlwind of packed schedules. Two things I need to remind myself of constantly: (1) that I will get through this, (2) that I will make peace with returning, and (3) that a little patience with most of everything can go a long, long way.
It is unfair to do a criticism of Christophe Honoré’s Les chansons d’amour [Love Songs, 2007] via a comparison with Jacques Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg [The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964] solely because both are love stories set to songs, with characters suddenly breaking into love-soaked melodies. Yes, they’re both musicals. French musicals. Demy’s beloved film has already become an icon for romantic cinephiles, and while we can probably say that Honoré pays homage to that film with his, Love Songs has its own gravity that is totally different from the older film. It’s rougher, for instance, and a little drab from its washed out winter light — certainly a far cry from the technicolor madness of Umbrellas. And Love Songs is about the fluidity of loving: boy loves girl, girl dies in the first thirty minutes of film, boy finds love with another boy, plus all its attendant complications with other people. The thing about musicals is that the body of songs ultimately take away precious minutes that would have been used for clarifying expositions in an ordinary movie — and so we are left for the most part to surmise the emotional turns of the story via song lyrics and whatever non-sung segments there are that constitute drama. And so we try. Love Songs is not entirely a successful film, but in places, it has its charms, aided for the most part by the engrossing, bewitchingly watchable Louis Garrel, whose brave turns in French films in the past few years have been wrenching and, well, lust-inducing. But the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman once said that cinema is all about the human face. We look at Garrel, and we know very very well what Bergman is talking about.
Aaron Kim's Hello, My Love  is a cruel film, a hysterical embarrassment of the kind that comes from a panicked consideration of homosexuality. Which may be understandable, considering this is a Korean film. In that context then, one may be able to understand this film as a product of a culture still in the beginning stages of dealing with an issue which it is traditionally silent about. This does not exactly mean homosexuality is non-existent in Korean culture; it is just a taboo topic nobody talks about in the open, much less depict it in something as explicit as film. I think of two other Korean films dealing with the issue, and you can see a culture's almost pained struggle with it. Yu Ha's Frozen Flower , a historical romp about a Korean monarch in love with his bodyguard, treats homosexuality almost as an afterthought, and the filmmakers in fact pepper the story with generous amounts of heterosexual love scenes that the choices almost become curious. Leesong Hee-il’s No Regrets , the troubled love story between a hustler and his rich lover, is tender in many places, but feels the need to bracket their relationship with surprising violence, one that involves burying somebody alive. Kim's film is cut from the same sensibility. It tells the story of a sweet-natured woman, a deejay who gives saccharine love advise over the radio, who is jilted by her boyfriend of ten years who leaves her for another man. Her discovery of his secret life leads her to hysterics of the broken china kind, and finally leads her to demand that her ex-boyfriend give her a second chance to claim him back: date her for a month, see how it goes, and if he doesn't agree, she is going to tell his mother. This also leads her to seduce her ex-boyfriend's current boyfriend, believing that she can change his sexual preference with the premise that he has "not met the right girl."
I rolled my eyes.
And yet, if I have to be absolutely honest about the strange overtures of human nature, her actions are perfectly understandable. Because if I were a straight woman -- and the film is told from the point of view of a heartbroken heterosexual woman -- I would probably believe this bullshit, and do the exact same bullshitty things. Still, what it does goes beyond an acknowledgment of that impulse, and goes straight to fantasia somewhere midway in the film. This is its flaw. (Trust me, no gay man will ever succumb to female wiles just like that, not even after several bottles of red wine.) As a gay man, I have never been insulted this way by a movie since Danny Zialcita's ill-advised Si Malakas, Si Maganda, Si Mahinhin , where a lesbian and a gay man suddenly become a straight couple after a drunken episode of sex. Oh, please. And then there is its muddled effort towards some kind of resolution, involving mistaken assumptions, a jilted boss, a jilted Frenchman/former lover, a party that turns chaotic, a surprise coming out on air, and an exorcism of sorts. Nothing works. This film has no heart.
At least Joel Lamangan and Eric Quizon's Pusong Mamon  was more honest in its depiction of a male-male-female threesome storyline. See? I'm so upset I actually have a nice word to say about a Joel Lamangan film.
I strangely find it difficult to articulate what I feel after seeing Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein’s Howl  tonight. I came out of the Bijou knowing perfectly well what I felt about it: that I loved it. But why exactly? For most movies, it’s easy to give a reason for one’s liking or disliking its story, its themes, or its craftsmanship, opinions that ultimately boil down to the film’s handling of its formalistic elements. But the film is not like any other movie. It is not a typical narrative film told in a straight, conventional manner. In fact has the feel of a documentary. (Then again, the directors are primarily documentary filmmakers; both are responsible for what I consider to be the best chronicle about gayness in the history of film, The Celluloud Closet.) Its structure is interesting bricolage. And its subject matter is quite unusual for a feature film. Perhaps it tickled my literary or intellectual fancy — this is a film that will be devoured by any creative writing and literary criticism major. I know that sounds snobbish, but in an age of filmmaking that is inundated by Transformers movies and their ilk, Howl becomes a breath of fresh air. Of course, there is a reason why the film takes its title from the pathbreaking poem by Allen Ginsberg, the beat writer who has become a generational icon and who is brilliantly portrayed in this film by James Franco. The reason is because it is a film of and about the poem, perhaps the first feature film that actually tries to do a cinematic treatment of a poem. (Is there any other poem that has gotten this cinematic treatment?) One may easily be led to believe though, from what we hear about the film in the grapevine, that this is a biopic. It is not. We do get generous snippets episodes (as well as psychoanalysis) of Ginsberg’s life, but these episodes are in the service of telling the story of the poem “Howl”. It is a film about its creation and about the furor of the obscenity case that was leveled against its publication by City Lights in San Francisco. It is also a film about its utterance — in a sense, a reading of the poem set to a visual rendition. And according to Stanley Fish, this is also the first film to do a thorough depiction of the act of literary criticism. I love the film. It is unusual, especially in terms of structure. There are four acts here that weave together in a kind of documentary finish: Ginsberg being interviewed about the poem, Ginsberg’s first reading of the poem at Six Gallery in San Francisco in 1955, the 1957 obscenity trial against its publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the entire poem read and set in animation. Each thread comment and enlighten each other, and so in a sense Fish is right: the film becomes an act of close-reading, the first of its kind I see rendered in cinema. This will not be everybody’s cup of tea —but for those who are receptive for films that talk about literature, its creative process, its interpretative strategies, and its eventual reach for relevance or impact to society in general, this is the film to devour and watch, again and again and again.
it is perhaps because one way or the other we keep this distance closeness will tug as apart in many directions in absolute din how we love the same trivial pursuits and insignificant gewgaws spoken or inert claw at the same straws pore over the same jigsaws trying to make heads or tails you take the edges i take the center keeping fancy guard loving beyond what is there you sling at the stars i bedeck the weeds straining in song or profanities towards some fabled meeting apart from what dreams read and suns dismantle we have been all the hapless lovers in this wayward world in almost all kinds of ways except we never really meet but for this kind of burning.
Restraint is the most blessed thing in Haim Tabakman's debut film Einayim Pkuhot [Eyes Wide Open, 2009]. You can see it in the way he directs the flow of movement, sound, and images in this brave Israeli film about a tzaddik ("a righteous man"), a family man named Aaron who one day, amidst a downpour, takes in a stranger named Ezri and hires him to help run the butcher shop he inherits from his newly-deceased father. At first, this hesitant invitation is doled out of charity and compassion, something that comes naturally to this quiet man who has been, for years and years, seemingly content in the trappings of his life in a conservative Hassidic Jewish community in Jerusalem. But friendship with Ezri deepens into something else, and the community starts to rally, in subtle mechanisms as well as outright ostracism, to expunge what they feel is "evil" invading their neighborhood. This is the stuff of fireworks, but Tabakman chooses his path well: he tells the story quietly, aided with just the right kind of mood music to assert the melancholy air of Aaron's life, which is now beginning to lighten up a bit as he finds a strange awakening he welcomes, despite all looming threats. "I feel alive. I need him," he tells the rabbi who comes to advise him for one last time before the neighborhood's morality brigade, composed mostly of young Torah students, comes back to inflict serious harm on his business or his person. That Zohar Strauss, who plays Aaron, says this without sentimentality is a hallmark of the film's beautiful restraint, which Ran Danker, who plays Ezri, also inhabits in his downplaying of his character's youthful virility, his rebel status. There is so much about this film that I can take to, the repressive mechanisms of closed-off communities, the ambivalence of desire, the need to understand the people we love despite the pain that can come with that understanding, the struggles of holding on to tradition and what the tenets of our faiths tell us to do against what feels right and true within our very souls. It is a quiet, nuanced film that many people will not get, most probably. That will be the sad reality for these people of such shallow understanding of human nature.
There is almost always something subversive at play in the films of Joselito Altarejós in the way he circumvents common expectations and gives us something else, either through unexpected insight or in forcing us to confront our base instincts and show us for what we really are beneath all these masks. Often, what we see reflected is harsh rebuke, but nonetheless.
It is easy to mistake, for example, his new film Laruang Lalake to be just another run-of-the-mill title from the exploding factory of explicit gay filmmaking. This is a trend that is nearing complete saturation that nothing on screen these days can shock us anymore, the way it had when Altarejós’ Ang Lalake sa Parola and Ang Lihim ni Antonio first came out, along with Cris Pablo’s pathbreaking Duda/Doubt, Brillante Mendoza’s Masahista, and Auraeus Solito’s Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros—to mention only four of this new wave of directors who have helped shape much of contemporary filmmaking.
Of course, after the deluge, there is always the requisite coming-to-terms with what one has helped wrought. This is such a film.
This film could only be made by a director in a kind of crisis of creation, not in being prolific but in being boxed in by a recognizable niche. While the result may be rough around the edges, it achieves a kind of poignancy that can only be perceived by those who will see this film for what it really is, and not for what it markets itself to be. Because Laruang Lalake is certainly not a flesh feast, despite the fact that this is a movie about the making of movies that are in fact “flesh feasts,” and despite the casting of Marco Morales, known in pink film circles as the guy to go for frontal nudity. We already know this kind of meditative and self-reflective filmmaking can be done with Raya Martin’s somber and very experimental Next Attraction, but while that film glories in pushing the boundaries of form, Laruang Lalake gets to the task with minimal stylistic flourish.
We get more than a hint of what it wants us to know near its end, when the character of Wilfredo Ligas, the film director played by Richard Quan, confesses to what seems to be a camera documenting the making of his film: “Gay film director… I don’t think kontrolado ko kung ano ang itatawag nila sa akin, you know. Tag lang ‘yun. I know for a fact kung anong klaseng direktor ako, so be it. As long as seryoso ako, I remain true sa mga ginagawa kong trabaho, I’m happy with that.”
But there is a tad of bitterness and sadness to how Ligas describes his work and his niche. The whole film finds us in a real-time journey with him as he begins the task of casting his new film, and then going about the thankless job of troubleshooting every aspect of production, which is essentially what a director does. The cashflow is drying up. The producer is endlessly flirting with cast and crew. The managers of his actors are pushing him to various compromises. The famous character actress they were banking on for a strong supporting role quits at the last minute. Beyond production delays, the director finds his own life in upheaval as he tries to juggle his personal finances, the success of this film the only way he could scrape by. And then, of course, there is the purgatory of getting the film past the MTRCB and its ridiculous “rating” system.
One can’t help but feel that Altarejós may be giving us a very specific autobiography, in the way he mined his childhood in Masbate in the beautiful and underrated Pink Halo-halo. The great French director François Truffaut after all famously ransacked his own experience of filmmaking with Day for Night, his movie about making movies—and in fact cast himself in the role of the film director in the story, giving us subterfuges of references that continue to fascinate us. (Altarejós’ casting of director Cris Pablo as a fussy gay talent manager is part of the film’s own self-referencing.)
But while Day for Night was from a filmmaker telling a story about the joy and foibles of what he does, Laruang Lalake runs like a cautionary tale. Altarejós has always come off as a director reluctant in his role as the storyteller of gay lives in Philippine movies, especially given that many movies of this ilk are always expected by its target audience to contain just enough suitable drama as fillers between scenes of ribald depictions of gay sex. The narrative is supposed to rescue the effort beyond the mere titillating, give the film the false label of “art” when in fact it is just soft porn. Laruang Lalake recognizes that duplicity as well, as we learn that the producer—played to perfection by the incandescent Mon Confiado—is in fact a gay bar owner lamenting the decline in patronage of gay bars, and so has turned to “indie filmmaking” instead.
Since breaking out of the mold with Ang Lalake sa Parola, an unexpected moneymaker in the niche of pink cinema that at least tried to give more than two dimensions to the story of local gay lives, Altarejós seems to have been in constant pressure to up the ante. He did exactly that with what can be considered as the first full blossoming in his oeuvre—the coming-of-age tale of Ang Lihim ni Antonio, a sexy and deeply-felt film that also seemed to reflect something universal in the lives of many Filipino gay men. He peppered it with scenes of incredible sex—only to dash expectations with an ending that unfurled like a brutal anti-climax. But in repeat viewings, one soon understands that this is Altarejós’ way of subtly questioning our expectations—he gives us what we want, and at the height of all that, pulls the rug beneath our feet, reminding us that we are hypocrites: we tolerate the seriousness of the overall narrative, if only to get to the salacious parts we know are coming our way. But he won’t have that.
In Laruang Lalake, we are misled to believe that this is the story of Samuel, a wannabe actor played by an underwhelming Arjay Carreon. We begin the film, after all, waking up with him, seeing him go through the process of auditioning for a part in a film titled “Laruang Lalake.” On set, he meets many of the characters whose little stories we follow—but soon the film becomes the director’s story. Quan’s Ligas is, in fact, the “laruang lalake” of the title, the man who has been played by life. (The fact that the title can also be translated as “Boy Toy” adds to the many levels of self-awareness.)
In the film, this progression of the director’s damnation is bracketed by two other characters, each one an embodiment of stages in a downhill life: there is the elderly Zaldy, played by Ces Aldaba, once an award-winning director now in the grips of a fiscal meltdown; and there is Marc, played by Mark Fabillar, as the young film student and production assistant who dreams of becoming a director himself. Fabillar’s Marc is the story’s naïve and romantic hero, who falls in love with Samuel, senses the existential decay the movie set represents, and makes the only cathartic move in the film. As the totally unexpected and subtle soul that moves it and thus is the one we most feel for, Fabillar runs away with this film with a subtle but deeply emotional performance. In the end, he makes this film his character’s story, as the only man who refuses to be played.
James Bolton’s film adaptation of Dream Boy  is equal parts harrowing domestic horror and tender drama. Almost every scene, aided by a great musical score, is exquisite that I’m moved to pause the film once in a while to either recoil from the tension or to consider the dreamy sweetness of the lead characters’ gestures. I read the popular book by Jim Grimsley years ago, when I was younger, in college, and still coming to terms with what I was, who I was, feeling about the world around me for what’s it’s like. The book didn’t exactly ring with immediacy for me: I was more into David Leavitt and his picture of a more metropolitan life. Grimsley’s drama set in the Deep South just did not register for me, although I did find his prose quite muscular and lyrical at the same time. But now that I’m older, I’ve seen so much more, learned so much more. I can understand the sensitive undercurrents of abuse and bullying, especially in the light of the recent suicides by young men who must have gone through variations of this very real theme. The film is strong and urgent but does not pander. And yet it still packs quite an emotional wallop. I am simply moved by it. I also like Diana Scarwid’s Vivian, the boy’s mother, and her quiet struggle as she tries to battle with the white elephant in the room — that her husband is a molester of his own child. In the middle of all that horror, we also have a love story brewing between Roy and Nathan, something unexpected but completely real. There is no false note to their regard for each other, and that sleigh of dramatic hand is owed to the performances of Stephan Bender and Maximillian Bender, who embody their characters so well it is difficult to see the acting. To juggle all these requires a cinematic magician. I guess director Bolton is one. This is a fine film that should be seen by everybody.
How much of the Brazilian film Do Começo Ao Fim [From Beginning to End, 2009] do I find fascinating because of its taboo storyline? Directed by Aluizio Abranches, the film without its scandalous premise looks like an ordinary glossy love story, and runs like one, feels like one, and is photographed like one. Except for that intriguing, scandalous fact that this is about incest. Which gets me thinking: the ordinary becomes something else, something charged, solely because of context. Images are nothing except what we bring to it. We create our own tension, our own moral outrage, and project them on what are just essentially blank slates. Am I trying to say that all art is innocent then, and meaning ultimately becomes the province of the beholder? Perhaps. It’s a thought I’m processing, still wholly unconvinced by my own idea — but it’s a thought. [I also kept expecting the film to go in the route of tragedy, as the history of narrative has taught me to expect, to “punish” the characters for their “amorality” by assigning appropriate violence and redemption. A lot of films, and books, do that. Joselito Altarejos’ Ang Lihim ni Antonio, for example. But the fact that it didn’t felt both like a cheat, and like a gratifying upending of my own own curious expectations.]
I am a little ambivalent about Korean director Leesong Hee-il’s debut film No Regrets , only because the film seems to fall apart spectacularly midway through its running time when the romance finally blooms between orphan hustler Sum-in and angst-ridden rich boy Jaemin. If an erstwhile love story follows that broken arc, and then swerves unexpectedly into Chan-wook Park territory when jilted lover tries to bury alive the other — what can you finally say? Is this the height of originality, taking the queer love story into a path never been taken before? Or is this just about a filmmaker fumbling for a story that does not calculate? I’m not sure. Then again, Takashi Miike followed this route in Audition  when what had started to be an ornery story about a career man looking for love suddenly swerved halfway through the film into an intense horror movie, the likes of which had never been seen before. But I could accept Audition’s audacity because of the electricity the actors emanated. The lovers in No Regrets, while intense in their own ways, do not seem to generate anything between them, and what happens to them just happens to them, without any of us invested in their story. I want to like this film. Revise that: I want to like this film more than what I feel right now. But I can’t, for some reason.
Mexican director Julián Hernández’s El Cieldo Dividido [Broken Sky, 2006] has got to be one of the most emotionally painful films I have ever seen. It examines love and brokenness with a surfeit of visual detail but great minimalism in terms of dialogue (which is virtually nonexistent in this almost silent film — the dialogue here is all about body language: hands, lips, eyes, the thousand ways we register the rawness of feeling on the canvas of our bodies and faces). It delves into the arc of meeting, loving, separating, and remembering, as well as its attendant obsessions, lies, recriminations, validation, and all-too-foolish hopes. It reminds me, to be honest, about me. It dawned on me that I was wishing and rooting for Gerardo the strength of logic and self-preservation in his losing battle for the affections of an alienated Jonas — but knew that, in my own circumstances, I’d also be doing the same unthinking overtures again and again and again. What utter fools we all are. You and me and everybody else.
It's the last Sunday of November. I have been feeling rather down today -- perhaps I am just tired from the previous night's frenzied partying -- that not even a splendid hay ride in a beautiful Iowan farmhouse can mitigate it, and everything to me now seems to run with forbidding shadows. Some things are even hateful in varying degrees. The full capacity of this cafe, for example, when on ordinary days I delighted in seeing the constant traffic of interesting faces. And the fact that it's cold outside. There's also my use of the word "mitigate," which I find utterly pretentious, and I hate it. So is my use of the word "utterly." It seems that in this down time, I have learned how to perfectly cannibalize myself with little irritations.
I use a lot of excuses, don't I.
The real reason is the fact that there is something inevitable that stares me at me now: going home. How do you go home after Iowa? After the International Writing Program? But I am, all of us are. We are leaving in barely three weeks, and I don't think I'm ready to go back to my old life just yet. And yet, there are already missives from and of home that are like reminders of this inevitability: emails from family and friends, announcements from work, and the constant moans by O Thiam Chin every single day that this is his "last Friday in Iowa City," his "last Saturday in Iowa City," his "last Sunday in Iowa City." I keep mum, always in that posture of denial, but in my head I tell him: "I am counting out my last days, too, and I am sad."
Amilcar is already gone So is Najwan. You can see how sad most of us are. We try to hide this silly sentimentality, of course, with smiles and small talk and good cheer and drunken parties -- and sometimes, for some of our men here in the IWP, with a slinky black dress or women's lingerie for a Halloween night's excuse to let our hair down. Last night, at the ghoulish gathering at the Merinos', you could feel that pull for camaraderie among many of the writers in the IWP. There was an acknowledgment in the air that we were indeed counting out our days, that we were saying our drawn out goodbyes in whatever form we want them to take, that we were probably not going to see each other again but that we were glad that, for more than two months, we were blessed with their friendships, their capacity for taking us into their lives and making us part of them.
I will miss Ghada's smile, for example, and her constant protests about her cheerfulness. I will miss Pola's wildfire presence, the way she comes into every room and commands everybody's attention. I will miss Touche's playful gravity, and his conviction that he is always the most beautiful person in the room. I will miss Andrea's sudden bouts of laughter, and his mission to photograph himself in every single spot in the United States. I will miss Mr. Kim's quiet and calming presence -- and his totally terrifying Jigsaw Halloween mask. I will miss Edgar and the way he walks around with the security blanket that is his bag. I will miss Coco's quiet air, the way she talks to you like you are the only person in the room. I will miss Solvi's tallness -- and his wig and lingerie. I will miss Christopher's anecdotes, and the animated way he tells them. I will miss Chandrahas' impeccable sartorial sense and his capacity for elegantly working the room. I will miss Milosz's secret rock star wish and his electric guitar. I will miss being a visitor in Marjia's universe, and the way she can belt out every single song in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I will miss Laura's delightful accent, and her Gabriel. I will miss Turusbek's dancing, and his booming voice. I will miss Billy’s hand gestures when he talks passionately about something. I will miss Farhad's Cambridge accent, and the whiplashing wit he carries around with him like a weapon of mass distraction. I will miss Michael's giggles and his mission to see birds, of all sorts. I will miss Thiam Chin's hyper nature and his pickiness. I will miss Phoenix's gushing about film. I will miss H.M.'s swagger, and his allergy to the afternoon sun. (Or just the sun, period.) I will miss Amilcar's silence, the way his smile seems to just say everything. I will miss Hinemoana's quirkiness and deep soul and Halloweena costume. I will certainly not miss Ismail's milkshake addiction, and his obsessive fascination for Twinkies and bookstores. I will miss Albana's groundedness, the way she makes you feel at ease around her instantly. I will miss everything about David, that darling man.
There are the other writers, of course, all thirty-eight of us, each with a piece of memory of each other. Truth to tell, we only have these scant impressions of each other to work with, because two and a half months are never really enough to know anybody. But it is enough to say that given the little time that we've had, we gave the world to each other -- and made Iowa City in the beautiful autumn of 2010 an impossible place and time to forget in all our lifetimes.