“… [T]he first step to the knowledge of the wonder and mystery of life is the recognition of the monstrous nature of the earthly human realm as well as its glory, the realization that this is just how it is and that it cannot and will not be changed. Those who think they know how the universe could have been had they created it, without pain, without sorrow, without time, without death, are unfit for illumination.”
The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism went to the streets of Manila to ask college students what they know about the 1986 People Power revolt. Here's the video of what they found out:
I think it's true for any struggle. One fights for a cause -- and sometimes is even killed -- to secure the future of the next generation -- who will never ever remember, much less appreciate, the pain you had to undergo to give them that freedom to be ... complacent and forgetful.
That's one of life's biggest ironies.
Here's a true story. Once, many years ago, after my Philippine literature class, after giving my students homework to read up on specific poems by Emmanuel Lacaba, Merlie Alunan, and Ruben Cuevas (Pete Lacaba) in preparation for our discussion on Martial Law literature, a student approached me and asked: "Sir, who's Marshall, and why does he have a law?" To say that my heart sank is understating the impact of my realization: people forget their history fast.
Here's another true story from the mid-1990s. This was during the Final Question Round of a famous -- and very prestigious -- university pageant. The girls were smart, most of them beautiful. I was there that night in the audience, and the question was about Ninoy Aquino. The well-coifed candidate from Mass Communication looked around the venue and finally said: "I'm sorry but I don't know who Ninoy is." Then the host -- another girl, a former beauty titlist herself -- also looked around, and said, "I don't know either." And both stood there, in the middle of the stage, for what seemed like forever, while the entire place gasped at the unexpected spectacle, until finally one of the pageant advisers -- Kuya Moe to all of us -- rushed to the stage and gave the girls, and everyone else, a quick history lesson.
Let's all quote George Santayana now: "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat their mistakes."
2:49 AM |
Calling for the Great Condom Buy-In of 2011
There’s a way to respond to the ridiculousness that is Ayala Alabang’s condom debacle. (For those not in the know, the neighborhood just made it a requirement that all buyers of condoms must register.) The answer: respond with equal ridiculousness. So they want registration every time one buys condoms? Pwes. Calling for the Great Condom Buy-in of 2011! All RH Bill supporters — all the thousands of you — go march right now to the neighborhood Mercury Drug and buy condoms at the same time, clamor to be served and fast, and crowd the place out to limit other traffic to the store — and proceed to watch the the entire store frantically list down everybody.
When I was in high school, I dreamed of becoming a medical doctor one day. It wasn't mainly because I was seized with the missionary fervor of being physician to the world's sick, and it wasn't because many of the doctors I knew were people of some standing -- and wealth -- in the community, although these were very good parts of the appeal.
It was because I read Erich Segal's Doctors one day, and the novel romanticized for me the almost heroic efforts of getting through medical school. In my head, I was Barney Livingston and Harvard Medical School was my Mecca. Later on, in old Ever Theater downtown, I watched Marisa Silver's medical school drama Vital Signs , starring Diane Lane, Jimmy Smits, and Adrian Pasdar -- and my silly high school crush on Mr. Pasdar cemented more of my romanticism. Medical school looked so glamorous to me. By the time senior year came around, I was one of those who took the UPCAT in Silliman High, bent on applying for the University of the Philippines' notoriously hard INTARMED program. Of course, I didn't get in -- and the school guidance counselor later advised me that based on my aptitude scores, I was more suited for a degree in the humanities.
But did I listen to Dr. Aguilan's advice? No way.
And so in college, I made myself choose between two options, which I thought would lead me closer to my goals of becoming a doctor: it was either nursing or physical therapy. But the latter, in 1993, was all the rage and most of us incoming freshmen packed into the course attracted by our romance of the medical field -- and the green bucks Physical Therapy promised then. Much later, junior year found me despondent: my heart wasn't in the course. I hated it. My first hospital duty as a student physical therapist came, and I was told to get the vital signs of a patient assigned to me. I went in: I found an old woman on the obese side, and she was glaring at me while I fumbled with my stethoscope and my BP monitor. Her obesity made it impossible for me to get a good pulse -- but I pumped on, anyway, embarrassed and feeling spectacularly lost. When I got out of that patient's room, I remember standing for the longest time in that seemingly never-ending, fluorescent-lit corridor of the hospital, experiencing a sad -- but exhilarating -- epiphany. Can I actually see myself working in a place, like a hospital, forever? And the answer was clear: no.
In the middle of the semester, I told all my teachers I was quitting Physical Therapy, sold all my books, and waited for the term to end. I still went to my classes, still took the exams, still managed to go through the practical demonstrations in Kinesiology. But it was with a heady knowledge that I was through with the charade. I was happy.
But I never planned to be a teacher, either. I remember once telling my best friend in college to shoot me if she finds me grinding away at a classroom. But it was a profession that fell on my lap, and I couldn't say no. That I enjoy the best parts of it -- and I don't mean the paper checking and the grade crunching -- is also something I can't deny. But like my romanticization of a career in medicine, I also know that whatever has pushed me into teaching and whatever I do as a teacher have also been touched by the movies I've seen.
Watch me in the classroom, and you will see traces of what I do in the following clips.
This is Barbra Streisand's Prof. Rose Morgan in her film The Mirror Has Two Faces , in a scene where she teaches a rather large literature class in Columbia University on archetypes and the place of sex and love in literature. This is my ideal: a conversation with an engaged classroom, talking about things I love...
This is Robin Williams' Prof. John Keating in Peter Weir's Dead Poets Society , in a scene where he teaches his high school literature class about constantly looking at things in a different way. My EL 33 student will find this scene quite familiar. This is my ideal: the classroom as a form of theater, with teachers as actors playing a part. Another ideal: the essence of what we do as essentially challenging our students to always try to think outside of the box they've grown up in. (You have no idea how many deeply-ingrained prejudices we have to challenge in our students -- biases and narrow thinking they've inherited from parents or friends. How do you exactly battle that?)
This is Julia Roberts' Katherine Anne Watson in Mike Newell's Mona Lisa Smile , in a scene where, in her art class in Wellesly College, she confronts the expectations of women's roles prevalent in 1950s society. Again, like Williams' Keating, this is about challenging the students about the norms they -- we -- accept without thinking.
And finally, this is the very thesis of what the teaching profession is all about, found in Jerold Tarog's very powerful Faculty . In this acclaimed short film, two college teachers battle it out about what their vocation is really all about. What do we teach our kids? Where do you draw the line? Must lines be drawn?
There are other films that tackle the teacher in the classroom -- John N. Smith's Dangerous Minds  or Ramón Menéndez's Stand and Deliver  or John Singleton's Higher Learning  -- but the four I've discussed above are the ones that have shaped me the most as a teacher. This is me at work teaching Manuel Arguilla's "Midsummer" a couple of years ago in summer school, captured on film by a former student:
God help me, but a month or so has passed since I last saw Brillante Mendoza's Kinatay , and yet the memory of that visceral journey through Manila's dark underbelly has stayed with me with a malevolent power I can't exactly define -- it is a prickling under my skin, a kind of labored breathing, a haunted voice that plagues the consciousness. It comes and goes, and when it does descend, it unsettles -- as it must. Last night, near midnight, I was bored and had nothing to do, and so I wandered the empty city streets in search for something, anything. That was how I found myself in a wayside eatery, a place I usually go to only after a full night's drunken debauchery, and always with friends. This time, I was alone, and I was hungry. The bored-looking waitress lazily considered my presence and barely made an effort to conceal an undefined irritation. She asked, "What do you want?" Or to be more exact, she gave me a look, her silence more than enough to convey that query. I said, "One order of tocilog, and a bottle of mineral water."
That instantly brought me back to the last few scenes in Mr. Mendoza's film when the men, straight off their fresh butchery of the prostitute Madonna, find themselves back in the streets of Manila and with such unsettling nonchalance, they go back to the ordinary rhythms of life: it is early morning and they enter a karinderia, quite similar to the one I ventured in last night, and they tell the woman who waits on them, "Isang tocilog..." In the foreground of that scene, a pork dish is being chopped, while the woman intones brightly: "Magandang umaga po, may lechon kawali po kami." The juxtaposition of butchered pig as delicacy and butchered woman, of course, is intended, and is meant to unsettle. Coco Martin, playing the rookie cop whose descent into hell is the story of this film, excuses himself from the murderous group and goes to the lavatory, where he retches.
His night and my night are not necessarily far apart. Of course, the crucial difference comes with the fact that he has participated in a murder and I didn't -- but what's to stop with that glaring difference if I had on my own stumbled on the same sort of evil, and like him, did nothing? His day began as ordinarily as I usually begin mine -- or you with yours. And this is the story of most evils. They are completely ordinary. They come to us not with the warning sound of trumpets or the blaring screech of eerie synthesizers, but in quiet, in insidious entrance. And sometimes when we finally realize we have gone past the invisible portals and evil now requires our participation or our indifference, I bet most of us will become accomplices, willing or not. Film critic Roger Ebert, writing about Claude Lanzmann's Shoah , a 9-hour documentary about the Holocaust, tackled that idea of the ordinariness that often cloaks great evil in our midst:
Some of the strangest passages in the film are the interviews with the officials who were actually responsible for running the camps and making the "Final Solution" work smoothly and efficiently. None of them, at least by their testimony, seem to have witnessed the whole picture. They only participated in a small part of it, doing their little jobs in their little corners; if they are to be believed, they didn't personally kill anybody, they just did small portions of larger tasks, and somehow all of the tasks, when added up and completed, resulted in people dying.
And that is how we participate in evil, when we somehow know what's going on, and yet we excuse ourselves by saying, "I was just doing my job," or "I was just being told what to do." Many ordinary people in Nazi Germany knew what was going on -- and yet did not do anything about it.
There are two clinical studies that explain the possibilities of evil that reside within every human being. One is the now-famous Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971 where one set of participants (the "prison guards") started exercising their sadistic impulses on another set of participants (the "prisoners") without inhibition the moment they were "permitted" to do so by a "higher authority." The other famous attempt is the Milgram Experiment of 1961, where participants perplexingly allowed themselves to "electrocute" an unseen subject to certain fatality -- even when they protest -- as long as a "higher authority" orders them to do so. The men in Kinatay perfectly captured that. Acting on the orders of Kap -- a captain in the police force who is also (not so ironically) a crime kingpin -- they extort from roadside vendors, and they kill. And they do so without protest. It is "just" a job.
I quote Mr. Ebert's appraisal above because it is ironic that he would see a fine film in Lanzmann's effort, and not see the same in Mr. Mendoza's. When Kinatay was shown in Cannes in 2009 (where it won Mr. Mendoza the Best Director prize), Mr. Ebert was one of its most vocal critics, calling it the worst film ever presented in the august festival. He decries its abuse of idée fixe, its murky darkness, its incessant noise -- and then wisely puts up an armor to deflect the coming criticism:
You mark my words. There will be critics who fancy themselves theoreticians, who will defend this unbearable experience, and lecture those plebians like me who missed the whole Idea. I will remain serene while my ignorance is excoriated. I am a human being with relatively reasonable tastes. And in that role, not in the role of film critic, I declare that there may not be ten people in the world who will buy a ticket to this movie and feel the money was well spent.
I am a great fan of Mr. Ebert -- but I found that all-encompassing dismissiveness a little appalling. But I will be one of those critics. The murk? It's the perfect atmosphere for this story about the descent, this long journey, to hell. The incessant noise? That's the ordinary, bone-reaching sounds of the streets of Manila -- alien perhaps to Western ears, but perfectly common to ours. (The ambient sounds, compounded with the sheer tension of Teresa Barrozo's music, is the apt soundtrack this kind of story demands.) Was my money well-spent? I am also a human being with relatively reasonable taste -- and you bet it was. Yes, it is a discomforting film about a wretched story, and its aesthetics, as far as I am concerned, is what the story demands -- because how else to handle such a story? Certainly not with subtlety, something so prized by Western critics; we are beyond subtlety in this regard; what we need is art that is also a slap to our face. And this is certainly a slap. I don't think I can watch this film a second time, but that is a testament of its power. It is already so heavily imprinted in my brain, anyway, so I don't need to.
You see, Mr. Ebert, I watch the film and I see it as a dark but painfully true reflection of my sad country. Ordinary evil like this exists -- persists -- in my midst. The politicians are corrupt. The cops are murderers. The religious men are charlatans. And the common tao knows, and has reached the point of no longer caring.
Last week, for example, a six-year old girl in Cebu was kidnapped -- and later her battered body was found in a dirty sack thrown off a cliff. (What kind of people would do that?) Two years ago, a massacre of journalists exploded in a province called Maguindanao, a barbarity apparently sanctioned by its governor. There are a thousand other similar tales, but I don't want this post to become an encyclopedia of these dark things. The thing to realize is that these atrocities happen so often in my country, Mr. Ebert, that most of us have learned not to be shocked anymore. We have lost that crucial capacity for real outrage, because evil has become so pervasive, it has become ordinary. And most of us have learned to look away, to ignore that these things do happen. These people who have chosen to ignore these things are people one might even call God-fearing, even decent. But what they do not know is that by sheer indifference, by looking away, they participate in evil as well.
What I do know is that we need movies like Kinatay, if only to act as unwanted but needed reminders. When the film was shown in Dumaguete a few months back, the opinions were sharply divided. In the Silliman University Cultural Affairs Committee Facebook page, a certain Cereu Romero commented: "A grues0me,h0rribLE, ridicUL0Us, w0rst m0viE EvER pr0dUcE." (I have retained the original spelling and grammar for a reason.) And there you go. Such ignorant sentiment underlies the importance of films such as this. For these people perhaps, films are to be thought of as "for entertainment only." Which is sad, and largely myopic about the role of art in our lives. But not all films, not all great art, are meant simply to entertain. Sometimes they are meant to unsettle, especially when they show a true and hard reflection of what's happening in the society that surrounds us. What we see will most likely repulse many of us, make us retch the way Coco Martin's character did in the end. But retch all you want. That's an important reaction -- it marks you as human still capable of shock.
But don't look away.
And do acknowledge that these things really happen. Most of all, however you can, do something about them. Don't just look away.
[This is not a review of Kinatay. If you want a great review, read Francis Cruz's take on it in his blog Lessons From the School of Inattention.]
The ritual for dressing up or for pampering men's style, in Hollywood movies, has always fascinated me. Two great examples of golden boys -- metrosexuals? -- preparing for the day immediately come to mind. Here is the glorious Richard Gere, a high-rolling Hollywood call boy, meticulously putting together his wardrobe for the day in Paul Schrader's difficult and often misunderstood American Gigolo ...
... and here is its twin: Christian Bale's Patrick Bateman, Wall Street Master of the Universe by day and serial killer by night, narrating and explaining his bodily rituals in Mary Harron's brilliantly conceived adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho , also difficult and also misunderstood.
Two decades apart, but they seem to be apt mirror-images that scour the dark landscape of machismo in the limbo of Western materialism. (That both films proclaim themselves "American" in their titles also makes one wonder.)
A formula for cracking the American literary market? Hmmm. The New York Times' Nathaniel Rich writes:
Foreign-language novelists who have success in the American market tend to have one trait in common: a veneration of American pop culture. Stieg Larsson is fond of gangster films; Umberto Eco opines about comic books, “Starsky & Hutch” and pornography; Roberto Bolaño plumps for Mark Twain, David Lynch and “Easy Rider”; and Haruki Murakami drops the Lovin’ Spoonful, Cream, Duke Ellington, Herb Alpert, Burt Bacharach, J. D. Salinger, Raymond Carver and several thousand other proper nouns.
It would appear that Ryu Murakami has cracked the formula. Born in 1952, he is Haruki Murakami’s contemporary (though not kin), a child of the ’60s with an unabashed affection for American rock music, jazz and sitcoms. His autobiographical novel, “69,” is about a student uprising he led during high school inspired by the Beats, Eldridge Cleaver and the lyrics of Lou Reed.
Christina Aguilera bungling The Star Spangled Banner in the Super Bowl is proof of what’s wrong with much of pop music today: it’s all about the riffing, and to hell with good lyrics. In The Huffington Post, John Eskow writes: “It’s called melisma — the bending of syllables for bluesy or soulful effect — and what’s especially creepy about the way it’s used now is that it perverts America’s true genius for song, as evinced by its creators in the world of gospel and R&B, like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. You will hear more of this tonsil-twisting insincerity — to your eternal sorrow — if you watch any episode of American Idol.” Read more here.
Now let's take a look at the more iconic take on the song from the same event: Whitney Houston's now-famous rendition...
Granted, this was pre-recorded, but listen to the possibilities when you pay respect to the song and not the riffing...
Swedish filmmaker Håkon Liu's short film Lucky Blue  is lovely to look at. (Take a look, for example, at its palette of muted pastels, or the shimmering effect of the mass of incandescent bulbs in the highlight of its production design...) If only that were the only criteria to enjoying cinema. As it is, this film -- about an introverted boy in a camping site who struggles with newfound strange feelings for the new boy, who seems content with merely playing around with him -- would have been a joy to behold. But it is bogged down with a fairly unengaging narrative we have already seen numerous times before. Or perhaps it is the utterly distracting awkwardness of its flimsy supporting cast? Or perhaps it is the utter lack of chemistry between its two leads which does not lend this film its appropriate gravity? This despite director Liu's clear intentions to render something as simple a story as two boys falling in love. And this despite the clarity that Tobias Bengtsson brings to his character Olle -- something that becomes almost painful to bear when he sings F.R. David's "Words" in a karaoke scene. Short films are a genre of filmmaking that, for the sheer limits of length, demands in the level of craft a specific kind of poetry suited for cinema -- because it simply cannot be a feature-length film, and do what feature films do: take its time to tell a story. The problem with Lucky Blue is that it tries to be the latter and forgets its poetic requirements entirely. Thus it comes off stilted and hollow, in spite of itself.
Lynn Shelton's Humpday  is a film that runs on the engines of an intriguing idea but falls short on delivery: it is a timid, half-hearted film filled with big speeches about art and the decisions that make our lives -- but mouthed off by actors who are equally timid and half-hearted you don't believe in any of their motivations. (The only true moment comes when the wife recalls a tryst she had once and tells the story to her husband -- but that may be because it reminded me of the similar crucial moment of confession in James Joyce's "The Dead".) I don't even know why I bothered finishing it, but I did. I was hopeful all the way through, even when its clumsy cinematography overplayed its cinema vérité look and resulted only in making dizziness an excuse to play with the pause button on this one. What was I hoping for? A tight finish the way Jonathan Demme did in Rachel Getting Married , the look of which this film tried to emulate? Or perhaps, a searing exchange of dialogue to end the film? Because that was the only way this film -- about two best friends, both straight men, who proceed on a dare to make a gay porn video as an art film to be submitted to a film festival -- could be saved. There are traces of that salvation in the end, but the effort felt as if the filmmaker did not exactly know what she wanted to do, or to say, about the material, except half-heartedly pontificate about the real people we hide behind our every day masks (e.g., liberal people can be prudes, and squares can have surprising inner lives, etc.), the nature of art, and the demands of friendship. It didn't work. Nothing is as exasperating as a piece of work of such great potential squandered into meaninglessness like this crap.
"I happen to hate New Year’s celebrations. Everybody desperate to have fun. Trying to celebrate in some pathetic little way. Celebrate what? A step closer to the grave? That’s why I can’t say enough times, whatever love you can get and give, whatever happiness you can filch or provide, every temporary measure of grace, whatever works. And don’t kid yourself. Because it's by no means up to your own human ingenuity. A bigger part of your existence is luck than you’d like to admit. Christ, you know the odds of your father's one sperm from the billions finding the single egg that made you. Don’t think about it, you’ll have a panic attack."
~ Larry David in Woody Allen’s Whatever Works 
"Well, you know, nothing lasts forever, you know. Not even Shakespeare … or Michaelangelo, or … Greek … people. Even as we’re standing here talkin’ right now, we’re just flying apart in unimaginable speed…"
~ Evan Rachel Wood to Henry Cavill in Woody Allen’s Whatever Works 
I don't know what possessed Gregg Araki to make Smiley Face , which he directed from a screenplay by Dylan Haggerty. This film, at least aesthetically, does not belong to the body of work Araki is known for, and it comes off as a half-hearted/stilted effort, a mainstreamimg Araki that flounders in every which way. In this story of a stoner actress [played with delirious, if unfunny, wackiness by the otherwise always dependable Anna Faris] going through a really bad day, he goes for Romy and Michele's High School Reunion  and Dude, Where's My Car?  territory, but unleashes a comic effort that will never be iconic as these titles. An argument can be given about the film being an exact response to its stoner story, but that's a little too lazy an excuse for this wasteland of a film. Given all the talents involved in this travesty, this became almost too painful to watch. It's an Araki film you can just pass over. No need to be completist with this one. You will be forgiven.
We know the best years of our lives always in retrospect and relativity, it seems. When I was 33 turning on 34, I lived through hell, or a version of it. But oh what beautiful hellishness that was. It was full of drama and occasional despair, but it was also an unparalleled adventure, a year of my life that can't be repeated. I remember I was most sad, and I was most happy.
A few weeks ago, I broke another coffee pot. It slipped from my hands, and shattered on the floor. This is catastrophe for a coffee addict like me. I resorted to Nescafe instant coffee for a few weeks while I made some effort in having the glass pot replaced with a new one by the brand distributor. (I was all about diminishing my carbon footprint...) But finally, I got too tired from  waiting for those lazy asses at the distributor's to finally make an order for a new pot for me, and from  drinking daily the unimaginative slush of instant coffee -- a side of hell I can't begin to describe. And so I bought a new Dowell coffee maker -- a stainless steel one this time around -- and a new Krups coffee bean grinder.
Which leads me to this moment: a freshly brewed pot of Colombia Finca Buena Vista coffee, courtesy of a friend. It's a great gift because this coffee is quite rarely stocked. It sells out too often everywhere in the world.
From the label, it says [with a little editing]: "This coffee came from the lot of Carlos Imbachi, [which] won First Place at the SCAA Coffee of the Year at the 2009 Conference... The very pricey and famous Panama Esmeralda Especial Gesha coffeee came only second to this 290 lb. Carlos Imbachi lot. The farm is located in Colombia's San Agustin area of Huila at 1,753 meters altitude. The dry fragrance of this coffee is cake-like, with a ready sweetness, with honey, plum, tropical fruits, raisin, and floral notes. The light roast fragrance is intoxicatingly sweet. Add hot water, and there is guayaba tropical fruit essences and a cane sugar note. In the cup, it is juicy and bright, the lighter roasts having a slight hazelnut roast tone; it is also sweet, so well-graced with clean fruit flavors and floral suggestions. For darker roasts, expect a chocolate-covered raisin character -- but not too exotic as the light roast flavor profile. Yet as the dark roast cools, the coffee distinguishes itself from the ordinary, with rose floral notes and plum peaking out from behind the bittersweet chocolate."
Tonight, I watched Gregg Araki's Totally Fucked Up  again. (See above a clip.) This is a film from my youth, and I am totally struck by how beautiful the young James Duval was. Look at him. He's absolutely translucent. He's about three years older than me, and when I first saw him in Araki's The Doom Generation , my heart skipped a bit.
This is how he looks now...
Not bad at all, but the translucence — possible only with youth — is gone. And that reminds me how fleeting youth — and good looks — really is. The poet Cesar Ruiz Aquino told us today in class:, “The sweetest folly of youth is that you think you will be young forever.” He said that with more than a touch of melancholy, straight — as he says it — from someone who is in the twilight of his years, “in the borders of a coming annihilation.” That made me sad. And reflective.
Like James Duval, I was young once. And what a beautiful once upon a time it was.
I recently stumbled on two of Gregg Araki's rare-to-get films, and wasted no time in screening them, being the completist that I am. I've always enjoyed Araki's ouevre. His filmmography consists of a unique cinematic vision that marries quite well apocalyptic madness, black humor, lithesome bisexuality, and generational angst -- and he peoples them with actors that are just on the brighter side of luminous. I've been a fan since college when I first heard of the controversy surrounding his The Living End , which was then being hailed as a pioneer of the New Queer Cinema. My introduction to his films was fortuitous. There used to be this small video shop near the Boulevard in what is now Monterey, at the ground floor of La Residencia. It had an extensive VHS collection for rent, the lot of them composed of obscure independent films you couldn't hope to find in the big screens near you. It was there that I chanced upon my first Araki film, the spellbindingly amoral The Doom Generation , which was nihilistic, beautiful, and skirted the tenuous boundaries of sexuality and sexual identity. For a college boy like myself who was just beginning to become aware of the bigger world out there, it was like a grenade tossed into my comfortable existence in my little town of Dumaguete. I was hooked. I wanted to see more. Of course, there were the other Araki films I've since come to see -- in succession, Nowhere , Totally Fucked Up , Splendor , The Living End, and finally Mysterious Skin . (I'm still in the process of watching Smiley Face .)Some of them I liked, some not so. But I always I admired the way Araki seemed to know so much about the fluidity of human sexuality. He is the connoisseur of tease.
And so when I came across his ill-fated pilot for MTV titled This is How the World Ends , I just had to see it. And sure enough, in its story of a high school boy dealing with zits, a bad day, an unrequited affection for the blondish school slut, a hold-upping midget, a witch-loving lesbian best friend, a control-freak studio boss mother who is sleeping with your other (male, skater) best friend, it contains the expected zaniness of Araki's film world, with some echoes of Bret Easton Ellis. (But funnier.) To understand that, you might as well think of Araki as a kind of Fellini of the queer world. His Los Angeles is a fun and depraved city of neon and lost souls, full of beautiful people and freaks that are just about ready for some kind of annihilation. But the pilot, being something made for television, is essentially a watered-down Araki world.
Which is why I am glad I also found his first film Three Bewildered People in the Night , a story (shot in black-and-white) of three friends -- a video artist, her gay audio artist best friend, and her photographer lover -- as they deal with coffee shop confessionals, the "dead-end" lives they lead as angst-ridden artists in Los Angeles, and the growing uncommon attraction they have for each other. It's a classic Araki menage a trois: girl likes two boys, and the two boys start liking each other...
I always find it fascinating to behold any filmmaker's first film. It almost always holds the keys to the themes that get extended play in future (more well-regarded) films. (Take note, for example, Quentin Tarantino's My Best Friend's Birthday from 1987 and Martin Scorsese'sThe Big Shave from 1967.) In Araki's Three Bewildered People in the Night -- a precursor in theme and metaphor to Ben Stiller's Reality Bites , if there ever was one -- we see his usual themes getting first play, themes he would indulge later on in such works as Splendor. (In fact, you can make an argument that Splendor is a remake -- a poor albeit glossier one -- of this first effort.) There is a slight difference in Three Bewildered People though. For an Araki film, it is actually sweet and does not have the nihilistic tendency we would see demonstrated in later titles. I thoroughly enjoyed it. And its ending, when it comes, is something completely surprising but inevitable.
If you are an Araki completist, this should be a title you should not be missing.