4:04 PM |
Live in the Now Instead of the After-Life
“When my husband died, because he was so famous and known for not being a believer, many people would come up to me—it still sometimes happens—and ask me if Carl changed at the end and converted to a belief in an afterlife. They also frequently ask me if I think I will see him again. Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again. I don’t ever expect to be reunited with Carl. But, the great thing is that when we were together, for nearly twenty years, we lived with a vivid appreciation of how brief and precious life is. We never trivialized the meaning of death by pretending it was anything other than a final parting. Every single moment that we were alive and we were together was miraculous—not miraculous in the sense of inexplicable or supernatural. We knew we were beneficiaries of chance… That pure chance could be so generous and so kind… That we could find each other, as Carl wrote so beautifully in Cosmos, you know, in the vastness of space and the immensity of time… That we could be together for twenty years. That is something which sustains me and it’s much more meaningful… The way he treated me and the way I treated him, the way we took care of each other and our family, while he lived. That is so much more important than the idea I will see him someday. I don’t think I’ll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.”
~ Ann Druyan, talking about the late scientist Carl Sagan
What we have in Yorgos Lanthimos' very unsettling and very strange Κυνόδοντας [Dogtooth, 2010], the Greek film that has just been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, is a story of a kind of Eden. A perverse one at that -- but what's to say about "perversity" when the grammar of things in this isolated world that the film depicts has been turned upside-down to fit the needs of its maker? The maker, of course, is the Father, a master manipulator who, together with the enabler Mother, keeps his three children -- Older Daughter, Younger Daughter, and Son, all in their 20s -- within the confines of a sprawling estate in an isolated Greek countryside. They don't have names, they have no conception of what the outside world looks like, and they play and run around like children secure and uncurious about the world behind the high fences that surround their house. They have been taught all their lives to fear and avoid this outside world: it is a dangerous place where house cats roam and maul people -- including their unfortunate younger brother who dared set foot outside many years ago and finally met a bloody end. When the outside world does occasionally intrude, Father and Mother have built a system of lies consisting of a different grammar for things. The Son, for example, asks what a "zombie" is. And the Mother replies, "It's a small yellow flower." A "telephone" is a "salt shaker." Frank Sinatra singing "My Way" is their grandfather singing, in a foreign tongue that needs translation, about his love for the family. The airplanes that fly overhead are toys that occasionally fall into their garden. Like benevolent caretakers, Father and Mother tell them that they are ready to face the outside world only when they will lose their "dogtooth." When a cat gets into the garden, Son kills it with a pair of garden shears, and soon Father teaches them to protect themselves by getting down on all fours and bark like dogs.
That's the iconic image we get of the universe in this film: the Father and his family bent over like dogs, barking ferociously. It's a self-contained world built by Father's creative manipulation -- and by that count, they are all happy. Why wouldn't they be?
But there are needs to be met. Mother and Father hire an outsider named Christine, a security guard at the factory the father works in, to come and do sexual favors for the Son. She does so without questioning this strange world, even when she has to enter the family compound blindfolded. But her entry to this world proves to be this weird Eden's serpent. One day, after lackluster sex with Son, Christine propositions Older Daughter that she is going to give her a gift -- a "phosphorescent headband" -- if she licks Christine's "keyboard," the children's word for the vagina. In the next visit, Older Daughter rejects Christine's new gift of a hair gel -- and forces her to give what she has found inside Christine's bag: two videocasettes of Jaws and Rocky. Older Daughter watches these films in secret but soon surrenders them to Father -- who proceeds to punish her by whipping her head violently with the videocassettes. Still, the Serpent has been let loose in this Garden. Older Daughter has a new game to play with her siblings -- acting out, complete with memorized dialogue, the scenes from the films she has seen: she does the boxing scenes from Rocky and the hunt for the Great White from Jaws. Later, when she dances for Father and Mother's wedding anniversary celebration, she moves feverishly not to the cadence of Son's guitar-playing, but to an imagined soundtrack from some other film -- Jennifer Beals' audition dance from Flashdance. It is a dance of rebellion, a subtly played revolution for this young woman. For her, the contraband movies are the roots of her eventual enlightenment.
This film is Older Daughter's story, about her awakening and about her escape. (Or is there an escape?)
What an unsettling film this is, and I appreciate it for the wide-ranging allegory that it is. In my use of Eden and the serpent, I obviously see a religious parallel to the story. But it can also be read as a take on real-life monstrosities as the Fritzl case in Austria where a father locks up his daughter in the basement for 23 years and makes her his sex slave. It can be read as a critique of Mediterranean family culture. It can be read as an attack against unquestioning adherence to "the way things are supposed to be." You take what you will from this film -- it is an original, a harsh and unflinching depiction of psychological realism that makes you question what you believe about the world you live in, and how we go about our lives knowing one set of grammar to understand things. But what if all of this is just a lie? What dogtooth must we lose to see things as they are? And are we at all willing to bloody ourselves for that glimpse?
10:13 PM |
Hell is Other People Who Think of You With Such Good Intentions
We know people like Mona Plash, the gossipmonger in the center of Douglas Sirk's sly, subversive melodrama All That Heaven Allows . Her tongue is a well-oiled scarlet machine of titillating tales, and people may publicly censure her for her gossip, but she is allowed to thrive for one reason: to make everybody else feel superior about themselves as they secretly delight in the tales of the fallen around them. Polite society is not so polite -- its cultivated airs are embedded in conformity. You stray, and you become the fodder for malignant stories, a wall of pressure around you that ultimately undoes you and the unpopular stand you have taken. This is what I get from my belated screening of this film, something I've watched on and off for the past two years or so. I find this vacillation strange considering this is perhaps Sirk's most famous film in the tradition of cinema he created with producer Ross Hunter (those slick and saturated melodramas, the so-called "women's weepies," which Universal Pictures churned out in the 1950s), and considering that I've already watched most of his other films, including Imitation of Life , Written on the Wind , and Magnificent Obsession . What took me so long to finish this? I have no clear answers, except to say I've been quite busy dealing with more contemporary titles, and Sirk's masterpiece seemed to have this characteristic of "always being there," something I can return to anytime I wanted. Much has been said about the retroactive critical acclaim Sirk has since received for his previously critically ignored films, and much has been written about his films' subversive nature. (Read the Criterion essay on this here.) I won't add anything to that scholarship. What for? What I can offer now is my personal response to it, as this blog's purpose dictates. And my response is surprisingly didactic and common: in Cary's (Jane Wyman) story, essentially of a beautiful caged bird who sings for love and finds it in an unlikely partner (much to the consternation of the other "proper" birds around her), I uncover a comforting truism. The moment you live your life around the fearful question of "What will people say?" ... that's the moment you become the living dead. I have felt like Cary for most of my life. I am, after all, an outspoken writer and gay man, a teacher in a Protestant university, and sometimes I do feel the fangs of well-intentioned serpents like Mona Plash. There are many of them here. Some even pretend to be my friends. It gets tiring sometimes, battling these petty monsters, but sometimes, when I'm courageous enough, I just ignore them. Because life is too short to live it on the terms centered around pleasing people like these. The trick is to render their poison inutile. "Don't make unimportant thing important," Rock Hudson tells Ms. Wyman in this love story. I suppose we must. It is often very hard to do in practice, but he's right.
What a pretentious film Loo Zihan and Kan Lume's Solos 单  is. The Singaporean film has its poetic aspirations as evident in its aesthetic choices -- the long takes, the lack of dialogue, the pensive atmosphere, the black and white cinematography that bursts into sudden scenes of bright colors, the hallucinatory images of forests and fish and dancers -- but it falls flat on its face for the sluggish mere exercise in form that it is. It has no soul or gravity, it has no wit, and its actors -- including veterans Lim Yu Beng and Goh Guat Kian -- mistake pensive posturing for performance. It is a completely uninteresting piece of cinema that masturbates with its own perceived sense of poetry. Try as they might, the directors are not Kenji Mizoguchi and Tsai Ming-liang.
Many critics have given it praise for some strange reason, but perhaps, coming from strait-laced Singapore, it is the controversial nature of its subject matter that has made them take pause. This is after all about a Mother who rages in depression as her Boy (played by the director Loo) seems to become increasingly cut off from her. More so, this is also about a Man and the same Boy -- a teacher and his student -- who struggle both with a taboo sexual desire and with reaching out to each other in a language they can commonly understand. (I wanted to say, "Try speaking. Stop with the ridiculous body language.")
No one is against the dreamlike narrative some films choose to have. The 2009 Mexican film Rabioso Sol, Rabioso Cielo, written and directed by Julián Hernández, belongs to the same style -- this is a moody gay love story with minimal dialogue, long takes, surrealistic scenes, and black and white cinematography that bursts with color in-between -- but that film worked because there was a certain energy to it, a gravity that consumed. In Solos, we are reduced to the equivalent of watching wall paint dry and we are told that that is art. So leaden is this movie that when the sex scenes finally come in, the raunchiness of their depiction is almost comic, an unnecessary bit tacked on to further the film's transgressive intentions, but the effort only comes off as sad.
Still, I will say this cliche: Loo as director has potential. He has a mind for image, which is the vocabulary of cinema -- although in this film, he squanders that to meaninglessness it sinks his obvious talent. In 2009, he directed another film, Threshold, unseen by me. I hope that with this sophomore effort, something like a watchable film will rise.
11:11 PM |
A Pretty Postcard From Heartbreak But Not Much Else
Time has been butchered, stretched, and experimented on so many times in the movies it has ceased to become an inventive narrative device we can be at awe with. Christopher Nolan's Memento  and Gaspar Noé's Irreversible , for example, notoriously began at the end and ended at the beginning, and subsequently forced us to consider first the darkness of what's to come, only to make the seeming innocence of their beginnings become so fraught with tension and foreboding. Alejandro González Iñárritu's 21 Grams  took the experiment with film time further and presents us with a story so fragmented in chronology that it is to the great service of our brains which actually were able to make sense of all that dramatic muddle.
In Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine , we are presented with the anatomy of a marriage, using scenes from its rosy beginning and its tattering end as complementary bookends, with a scene from one time-frame getting a strange resonance in the other. The middle part of the marriage has purposely been blotted away in the narrative, although its slow disintegration is easily read: all those absent years are there, all in tiny suffocating details that precede the end -- the quiet exasperation on the wife's face, the volcanic desperation in the husband's actions, the loss of a dog, the minefield of the kitchen, the thoughtful car rides, the devastating attempt at intimacy in a cheap "space age" motel room. Man and woman tap dance around each other, first in courtship and then in a spurt of invectives that slash and burn the remains of this marriage -- all captured in postcard-perfect cinematography by Andrij Parekh that serves more as a signal for sadness, that perhaps there is beauty even in loss and heartbreak.
It's a strange counterpoint, but it is not unwelcome. I love the sumptuousness of the film given that it is the only thing that kept me going -- because there is not much else here, really. The acting? Sure, they're perfectly well-rendered. But given a history of marriage in film that has included the razor-sharp observations of Mike Nichols in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , Stanley Donen's Two for the Road , Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage , Woody Allen in Husbands and Wives , John Cassavettes in A Woman Under the Influence , and Ishmael Bernal's Broken Marriage  -- and perhaps even Danny DeVito's black comedy The War of the Roses  -- Blue Valentine does not present an advance. It feels like a derivative effort in new clothes, but oh, what a beautiful-looking derivative it is.
Of course everything in this film is calculated for heartbreak, and sometimes the calculation feels a little too much like ... well, calculation. In courtship, the would-be husband plays the ukelele and serenades the girl with Allan Roberts and Doris Fisher's “You Always Hurt the Ones You Love." But of course.
Alas, there is no slow burn here, no new insight to give the story a sense of tension; there is no real festering volcano that threatens to erupt and finally devastate us -- and when the final confrontation and denouement happen, they do so with a tired inevitability, and one is only too glad to have that in order to move on and finish this movie. In all, it's not really a wasted effort by the two brave actors -- Ryan Gosling as the husband and the now Oscar-nominated Michelle Williams as the wife -- who plumbed the emotional depths of their characters quite well here. They feel real, and they actually invite us to invest in their dilemma (although not by much.) I just wish they were served well by a better screenplay.
2:17 PM |
How to Be an Artist Without Really Trying
Truth to tell, I find myself stumbling all over the place trying to write something coherent about this film I have just seen. In a way, I am struck dumb by it. It is not because the film is bad; it is because it is very good, and perhaps my flailing has every thing to do with a conscious effort to process whatever it is about this documentary that impresses me as a work of genius. It got to me. I think I understand it in a deeply emotional and intellectual level, but it finally comes to me as a treacherous Chinese box: a film of so many layers, that to penetrate one is just gaining entry to another layer that leads to other layers. It playfully winds itself in unexpected ways even as we unravel it. This is the multidimensionality of Christopher Nolan's Inception taken to the heart of the art world and given the attitude of a prankster. Why do I say that? Because in some maniacal level, the film also seems to mock me: So you pretend to get me, eh? it says. What a pretentious ass you are. In many ways, that feeling is exactly like being a visitor to "Barely Legal," Banksy's landmark exhibition of his street art in 2006, and getting a souvenir that says "I Can't Believe You Morons Actually Buy This Shit."
I love Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop  -- but the nagging question remains: what if what I'm buying is just "shit," a high concept joke? No matter. Because, divorced from all other post-modern considerations, it is actually a sincere film that (1) documents quite well the street art scene, but also (2) gives a devastating illustration of how we -- in an effort to be "in" or to be part of "cool" -- are easily taken in by so-called artists whose gifts may lie more in hype and personal showboating than in actual artistry. Pop Art has always been about skewering our unthinking allegiance to consumer culture. But in the ironic twist of eventually becoming part of that consuming culture it mocks (galleries! agents! shows! modern art buyers!), the film shows it is much like seeing a snake eating its own tail.
Consider, for example, the scenes in this documentary where we get the ambush interviews of people who have just witnessed the unveiling of Mr. BrainWash's debut exhibit in Los Angeles. In context, we have just seen the mad hamminess of Mr. BrainWash, his "artistry" nothing more than mere supervised scanning (by other people in his employ) and re-imaging (also by other people in his employ) of iconic works already out there. His works are derivative and uninspired, with none of the wit or the intelligence of the street artists he wants to emulate. (How many times can you rip off Warhol, put a Marilyn Monroe wig on everybody from Spock to Larry King, and still be considered somebody with something worthwhile to say?) But a careless banner story in the L.A. Weekly has already proclaimed him a new artist of grand reckoning -- hype that Mr. BrainWash has engineered himself. And so what do we get from the eventual ambush interviews? Of people fawning, just because they have been "told" to fawn. Most sputter something about the "genius" they have just seen, with some quite unsure about the artistry of most of the works in exhibition yet stammering on to confused conclusions that these works do "say something" about contemporary culture. I realize: we are those people. We do buy shit, especially if it's wrapped in hype and is labeled "cool."
We are these people who see blatant mediocrity jazzed up in some ways in an exhibition (or in a film festival!) -- and just because it just doesn't seem to run like the usual, we immediately proclaim it as a work of utter genius. (Alas, this is much the same way people lauded Francis X. Pasion's terrible Sampaguita, a messy soup of a film from the poverty porn factory that sadly belied his success in Jay.)
Mr. BrainWash -- nom de guerre of the (eventually) exasperating homunculus in the center of Banksy's many-layered documentary -- is either a hoax or a living/breathing symptom of everything that is wrong about pop culture and our unthinking consumption of it. In real life, he is Thierry Guetta, a French transplant to Los Angeles and one-time vintage clothes retailer whose obsession with videotaping every minute of his life has somehow led him to become an unwitting "documentarian" of street art, just as its popularity and mystique are exploding all over the world's metropolitan centers. (Think New York, London, and Paris.) He was on the scene at the right time and the right place, his entry to this world being an accidental footage he captured of his cousin -- the French street artist Invader -- at work gluing characters from the computer game "Space Invaders" (made from colorful square tiles) all over the streets of Paris. This chance glimpse eventually leads to other street artists that Mr. Guetta eventually films -- Seizer, Neck Face, Sweet Toof, Cyclops, Dotmasters, Swoon, Buffmonster, Monsieur André, Zevs, and Shepard Fairey -- big names in this counter-culture art world that works in the shadows, always on the sly, always courting danger and legal wrangling. What fascinates us about them is that they give us works that, first of all, titillate because they work outside the normal structures of the so-called art world, but also because they are witty surprises in paint or stencil that take our ordinary physical world, and gives it a dimension that unnerves or amuses. Consider Banksy's murdered phone booth in a London alley below...
Or Ellis Gallagher's stenciled sneakers at play with shadows in New York...
One figure proves elusive, however: Banksy, the English street artist whose notoriety is exceeded only by both the unalloyed provocation of his genius and his preference to keep his identity (and process) hidden from public scrutiny. But a chance encounter eventually lets Banksy take in Mr. Guetta in confidence, allowing even the Frenchman to videotape him at work, citing the ephemeral nature of his art that cries for documentation. It's graffiti, after all, and like most graffiti, they're eventually effaced. The documentary, we are told, came about because of a challenge: Mr. Guetta has amassed years and years of footage, which he claims he is putting together into a documentary. Now the artists are wondering: when will the film be finished? Mr. Guetta hastily puts together a film he calls Life Remote Control, an unwatchable mess that runs for more than an hour, clearly the work of a person who is not in any way a filmmaker. It is at this point, so we are told, that Banksy takes control of the footage, and turns it on Mr. Guetta. The film starts to take another direction as we follow Mr. Guetta try to become a street artist himself, but as somebody who wants to take the short cut and get right to the top -- culminating in the aforementioned exhibit, his debut Los Angeles show called "Life is Beautiful." We are finally shown the process of how a small man -- utterly talentless in every way but imbued with the implacable sense that he is, or can be, a real artist -- can make it big in the modern art world, given hype and self-promotion.
That was painful to watch. I cringed, and cringed. It all seemed so familiar. Because how many people do we know who are exactly like Mr. BrainWash? People without an eye for composition, but call themselves photographers just because they have a DSLR or know how to Photoshop? People who have no concept of mise-en-scene, but call themselves film directors because they happen to have a camera and a screenplay on standby? People who don't read, but call themselves poets because they have feelings they want to share and they can rhyme? People who have no idea of artistic space and functionality, but call themselves furniture designers because they can cobble wood into slightly interesting shapes? People who dress up in eccentric clothing, wear their hair in strange ways, and call themselves "artistes" -- but are without the slightest discipline to produce anything?
And of course, there are the people who lap all that bullshit up.
This documentary is a great meditation on that, and the artistic process -- but at the same time, it also plays as a kind of mind game knowing Banksy's reputation as a prankster. Is this film for real? Is that hooded man even Banksy? In telling the story of Mr. BrainWash, is he giving us a deep look into the world of street art, or is he mocking us the viewers as the ultimate recipient of this joke? Who knows?
Read an interview with Banksy by All These Wonderful Things' AJ Schnack here.
I am a crying child in my earliest memory. It is evening, my parents have left for some other place, and there are people around cooing to comfort me. "Mama will be back, don't cry now...," one of them says. I don't believe any of them, but I soon fall asleep exhausted from all those tears.
Years later, there's still a part of me that cries from some inexplicable sense of abandonment.
I am here, and you are there. And there's so much distance it hurts.
If ever you do FourSquare, you will quickly find that as of this writing, I am the “mayor” of KRI, a new fusion restaurant along Silliman Avenue that’s creating much talk among culinary adventurers in Dumaguete. There’s a reason for that, and there’s a reason I’m the so-called mayor of it.
FourSquare, of course, is this popular iPhone and iPad app that locates and tags you in places you are currently in—but beyond it being a geography-specific tool for Internet-driven vanity, it is increasingly becoming a helpful tool to locate online, while you are in a particular locality, the best places to go to for various things. Like food.
For the uninitiated, the app works by asking its users to “check in” every time they are in a specific establishment—and if they want, to leave a few helpful tips about the place. (On KRI’s FourSquare profile, I’ve left this tip: “Try everything, but begin with the fish dish.”) When one has checked in a particular place enough times, one becomes its “mayor.” I know it’s all so silly—but it’s a platform in this app-devouring time that I can’t ignore, if I am to remain an updated observer of popular culture that is. It goes without saying that I’ve checked in so many times at KRI that I’ve eventually become its mayor. (Sorry, Ritchie Armogenia.) Why the constant patronage? Simple: I have yet to find a smidgen of disappointment in this restaurant. It’s cheap, it’s near the heart of downtown—and the food is downright delicious.
Ritchie, of course, is its chef and visionary. Many months ago, after studying culinary arts at the Colorado Institute of Arts and after stints in Brown Palace Hotel in Denver and the Peninsula Hotel in Chicago (he also trained briefly under Chef Thanawat Bates in 2008 as part of the James Beard Foundation in New York), he returned to his hometown to make his mark in local cuisine. We have seen his first efforts in Likha, his tapas bar in South Seas Resort. Together with his cousin Kris Zubiri, his sister Kit, his father Rene, and his wife Iris, he launched KRI a few months ago—and judging from its reception, it has become an instant success.
The restaurant’s name is really an acronym sporting the first letters of all their given names, “but if you Google ‘kri,’ it gives you kri-kri, a Greek goat subspecies. So I think we’ve covered all of them,” Ritchie tells me. Is there a goat dish in the menu? I ask. He answers: “Soon. Who knows we might come up with goat dish someday.”
What KRI offers is more of the fusion cuisine that Ritchie has become known for, always working with local ingredients but adding a twist to it. “Really, one can do a lot of things with a tomato,” Ritchie says. “And we want to be as creative as we can get with what we have locally. It is the same with Likha. That one is more on the tapas and tasting menus, smaller portions for those who just want to hang, have a drink, although guests can certainly indulge.” But KRI, he says, is designed more for his own version of “comfort food” cooking, with the healthier option of having to do without grease, and with no masking of flavors. “There is no magic sarap here,” he laughs. “We hope to do honest cooking. We can’t just open cans. Our sauces we make from scratch.”
There is also the surprise in terms of his prices, something that piqued interest right from the very beginning: nothing on the menu is priced above P99—which should be good news for notoriously cheap and very discriminating Dumagueteños. “The goal,” Ritchie says, “was to make good food available and affordable to everyone, especially the student market here in Dumaguete. Healthy options need not put a burden in our budgets, and we have all been there, being students eating on a budget. We, however, hope to expand soon, and maybe we can also offer a different menu for those willing to pay more for a semi-fine dining experience. There have been requests for that already.”
Looking back, I remember making a promise to myself that I had to try KRI the moment I got back from the U.S. because it was all everybody was Twittering and Facebooking about. My first dish was the Negrense Fried Rice, because it promised so much of local flavor—and it was all that I could do to fill my palate with to erase the memory of American food. What I got was comfort food fried rice with tiny bits of carrot, plus some scallions and chorizo, topped with pork belly and then a sunny-side-up egg. It had a texture I found tender and enticing, the taste of the pork somehow lent a surprising softness by the yolky juice that soon covers the dish.
Soon, there were other favorites in my quest to try everything on the menu: the sambal chicken with stir-fried vegetables and later on the herb-crusted chicken breast with lemon caper beurre blanc, the spicy shrimp (sautéed with chili, garlic, and tomatoes) and the marinated tofu, and the oven-braised pork baby back ribs with San Miguel Beer barbecue sauce. I topped most of that, always, with a ginger lemonade, KRI’s specialty drink which has a delicious spicy kick to it.
And then there is the pad thai—perhaps the best one can find in the city—and the KRI burger with Swiss cheese and the turkey on ciabatta and the barbecued pulled pork. Once I had its Chocolate of the Week—a concoction so sinful I swore never to have it again, or at least have it with an intense sense of moderation. But always I turn to a dish that has become a favorite: its Fish of the Week. So far, the revolving recipes for that dish include sautéed tuna with shrimp and chili butter sauce, and later, pan-seared tuna bundled with vegetable rice paper rolls and strips of ham. Those dishes have some sacred succulence marinated in every quick bite, both of them tempting fares that fill us and seduce the tongue without overwhelming it with unnecessary kick.
Of course, I had to return more than once. And that is why I am the mayor of KRI.
The Fish of the Week, with apologies for the crappy camera resolution
There was a time when we tuned in to MTV to find the coolest music videos. There was a time when it really meant what its acronym stands for: "music television." And there were some really cool stuff, like Daria and Beavis and Butthead and the first wave of The Real World and Unplugged. Now you tune in to view the lives of serious losers. There was Snooki, and now there’s Paris Hilton looking for another disposable BFF.
I didn't realize until so much later that something fundamental was bothering me about Disney's Tangled . Mulling a little over it, I knew I was not as moved by the film as I should have been, given the shallow joy I usually have for most of the company's animated fare: I bawled at The Little Mermaid, I sighed with Cinderella, I reached for the mighty roar with The Lion King. So how come I was mostly merely satisfied with Disney's fiftieth animated feature offering? Then it struck me: Tangled's emotional reach was a little too small for me. For a girl with magical hair trapped in a tower for most of her life, all that she could dream about ... was to see a flying lantern show.
Of course, those lanterns may be metaphors for something bigger, like how the green light beckons for F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby. They may be totems for our girl, symbolizing the freedom she wants to have. So I guess the problem lies in the fact that her yearning -- and all Disney princess stories are all about yearning -- is not exactly well-established by the filmmakers, including directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard. They haven't rooted in us that sense of urgency for empathy. That sense of yearning has always been hallmark for Disney's films, and they do it either through a splendid screenplay or through the grammar of song.
Granted, the screenplay has been jazzed up to approximate a modern feel without sounding off-putting for a fairy tale, and so it is quite witty and funny ("You broke my smolder!") -- but it's not all that. The music suffers, too, and I have come to believe that without the driving spirit of that impassioned genius of a lyricist Howard Ashman (who died of complications from AIDS in 1991), composer Alan Menken is just a little better than ho-hum. His songs, with lyrics by Glenn Slater, simply do not work. They do not evoke anything more than the perfunctory. The requisite "I Want" song that all Disney characters sing (Ariel with "Part of Your World" and Aladdin with "One Jump Ahead" and Cinderella with "Someday My Prince Will Come," so called because they sing about the one thing they "want" most in their lives, and thus becomes that emotional theme that embodies all that they dream about) is played here like a pop cliche: Mandy Moore singing "When Will My Life Begin" sounds hallow and does not engage.
Which is too bad because I really like the film and its characters despite its faults. It is charming enough, and Maximus the Horse and Pascal the Chameleon are a delight, and the plucky hero, a thief by the name of Flynn Rider/Eugene Fitzherbert, is a devastatingly charming roue who is somehow taken by our (surprisingly bipolar) "hairy" heroine. And there are set pieces here that take your breathe away. (Take note of the magnificent flying lantern scene. It rivals the ballroom scene in Beauty and the Beast or the stampede in The Lion King.)
In the final analysis however, for Disney's highly-touted 50th animated feature, it lacks a little heart and emotional persuasion, and that's sad.
We wring our best work, sometimes, from the brinks of pain. Long ago, I did not believe in the myth of the tortured artist—surely, I said, one can create art and beauty from a state of bliss. But I was young, I was foolish. I know now that what makes art is province only to those who are most discerning of little horrors and small upheavals, and to those who understand this: something is art because someone has wrenched something sublime from plainness, from the dullness of the ordinary, from the stifling regularity of the everyday, and with words, motion, sound, texture, or color, they are elevated to something else that limns human truths. Writers call it difference. I call it the taming of pain.
I easily fall for charm. But then again, so do most of us. There's something about charm that waylays our natural impulse to protect ourselves: it makes us let go, it makes us vulnerable. But charm is a mask, something that can be cultivated given the right training and time. And when it falls away to reveal the regular monster within, we are flabbergasted by how much we have been taken in, by how much we have allowed ourselves to be fooled, by how much we have fallen in love. Once I was in love with someone whose charm was boyish and calculated to let anyone -- anyone -- fall in love with him. It also helped that he was talented in so many ways, and so it was easy for him to lend credence to that edifice of charm. But I knew there was a heavy darkness behind it. Behind closed doors and far away from other people, he would regularly recite to me a litany of hatred for the rest of the world. I was there for him because I was in love with him once. And I never thought his darkness could touch me. But it did. Once I also fell for a man who made me feel different, or at least he treated me differently. I was used to being the nurturer to people I love, but here's this gentle, soft-spoken man from Manila who treated me in that strange cariñoso way. He would ask me, "Have you eaten? Are you warm enough? Are you comfortable? Can you snuggle closer to me?" I fell for that. And then it turned out it was a farce, a big city man's experiment on a provincial soul. But here's this other one, this boy I love, even until today. He is beautiful in that careless way, and he is the most charming soul to everybody he knows -- except perhaps those who love him. In that respect, he can be cruel and demanding. And I've hung on for the longest time because he knew how to push the right buttons. A few days ago, I finally said enough. Now I go through the withdrawal pains of loving someone hard, but at least I said "Enough."
There is a reason why the first thing we see in Tom Hooper's The King's Speech  is an almost menacing close-up of a microphone. That sets the tone for the film: it will be about speech and the hurdles one had to triumph over in order to find the voice that will inform and connect people. At the time the film is set, which is that decade of troubled peacetime before World War II erupted, this newfangled technology -- really an extension of the human voice -- has become a necessary disruption to the ways that things have always been done. As Prince Albert's dying father King George V wearily tells him, it was no longer enough to just sit on a horse and look like a monarch to rally a nation; with the microphone, one had to speak to them like you were a guest in the hearts of their homes. Alas for Prince Albert, who is played with convincing nobility and frailty by Colin Firth, that reality is the stuff of personal nightmare: he has a bad stutter.
In the beginning scenes of Hooper's film, we view with increasing trepidation a demonstration of that debility: he speaks, in behalf of his father, to a huge crowd gathered for a Commonwealth event at Wembley, and as he begins to deliver the speech to a microphone in front of him, we cringe with pity and mortification. The question becomes: how do you become an effective ruler of a nation if you don't have a voice that your people can rally around?
Fast-forward to a scene in Buckingham Palace, after the coronation of Prince Albert, now renamed King George VI, who becomes an unwilling monarch after the abdication of his brother to pursue love in a divorced woman. The family is watching a film newsreel capturing the coronation ceremonies in Westminster Abbey. When that segment ends, the reel segues quickly to a report of Hitler speaking with such animated oratorical power to the German masses. We see a magician at work: Hitler's forceful words sounds like an opiate, and the crowd responds accordingly. The young Princess Elizabeth turns to her father and asks him: "What's he saying?" And the king replies: "I don't know but ... he seems to be saying it rather well."
And there you have it, the film in its thematic nutshell: the world will be won by one who has the voice. If evil is eloquent and persuasive, and the only one who can stand in its way keeps tripping over his tongue, can evil triumph? Which is why the drama of the film ultimately leads to the king's first wartime speech -- something ornate and persuasive and lasts 10 minutes for full delivery. (Listen to the real thing on the clip below.) He is to deliver it over the radio to the rest of the country, to people hanging on to his words to get a feel, if not comfort, of the challenges to come and the heroism required of them as the dark days of war loom ever closer. It is a formidable task.
But there is Lionel Logue, an Australian actor who has claims for curing people with speech defects, played with such wit by Geoffrey Rush. The film tells the story of his adventures in elocution with the future king, chronicling the unique methods they use to overcome the central debility of the story. The final speech becomes their most dramatic project, and when it comes, you will... But I won't divulge anything more.
One has to see this brilliant film to appreciate this true story, something Mr. Hooper has done great service in the way he has directed it to a film with a heart and a unique musicality, with honors to composer Alexandre Desplat and a fine use of Beethoven's Symphony 7 Allegretto Movement No. 2. Mr. Hooper makes us care for the people whose stories we see here, and Mr. Firth, Mr. Rush, and Ms. Helena Bonham Carter as Queen Elizabeth extend that by embodying the roles with such clear-eyed empathy. We become fully invested in their dilemmas, and so when we get to the end, their triumph becomes our own as well. I have never cheered this way for a speech before, but cheer I did. You will find yourself cheering for the rest of this wonderful film as well.
The munchies. Everybody knows what the munchies feel like. They come around always unanticipated in the late evening, this grand craving of the carnivorous sort that starts at some bottomless pit deep inside you. The target of its unfilled rage being two ginormous orders of finger-licking cheeseburger—never mind the fries—which demand to be devoured. The munchies and cheeseburgers, they go hand in hand. You know what that feels like. You’ve seen Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. You’ve read Haruki Murakami’s “The Second Bakery Attack.” You’ve seen the crazy stretch by which we can go just to feed that craving.
I’ve had the munchies once or twice in any given year, but burger love is forever. There is something about the burger that makes it perfect food architecture. It has everything: moderate carbo loading in the buns, protein in the beef patty, fiber in the tomato and lettuce, and a kick of creaminess in the melted cheese, all neatly arranged in a design so simple it smacks of culinary genius. The inventor of the burger should be declared a saint.
Like any Dumagueteño, my taste for it was awakened, not by the bland plastic-tasting inferiority of Jollibee and McDonald’s, but by the surprise of Taster’s Delight, an old establishment rooted in all our hearts that is now sadly closed. (Getting the same burger at Howyang is somehow just not the same. The burger, churned out by the same family, somehow looks smaller and diminished, which is a sad thing, like a betrayal of a fond memory.) Yes, we now know that burger was all about the strange alchemy of its mayonnaise blend, but it was delicious and we could not get enough of it. But with Taster’s gone, you could feel this burger void in the city, and so we make do with the junk from these fastfood joints all around town.
When I discovered Flamin’ Grill a few weeks ago, it was by virtue of word-of-mouth, which is always a good thing. Still, the first time I went there, I went for their grilled steak and thought nothing of their specialty. What’s another greasy burger? I thought, and didn’t take the bait. The place, smack right in the heart of Tubod along Hibbard Avenue, was comfortable enough, all done in that already predictable Dumaguete alfresco feel complete with loose stone “flooring” and umbrellas draped over the randomly arranged tables. And yet there was a warmth to it that I liked, a rare sense of comfort you only get in certain places—Gabby’s Bistro, for instance, or the old Don Atilano.
When I came back a few days later, it was to fill a curiosity about the burger everybody was talking about. And everybody was right: biting into that first grilled cheese burger was equal to a glimpse of some heaven. It promised an addiction. How do you describe that fluffy bun? How do you describe that succulence in the patty? It was delightfully smoky, tender in all the right places—a sour-sweeetness to it that demands slow and observant mastication. This was a burger.
Its proprietor is Marie Ponce de Leon, a former student of mine, and she would later tell me a familiar story: “My love for burgers started with Taster’ Delight. But over the years, I began to appreciate other burger variations—Carl’s Jr., Burger King, Flame It... I realized then that as much as I wanted my burgers every day, I just couldn’t because there just wasn’t any good burger here in Dumaguete.
“My inspiration came when I went to eat at a burger joint in California, something called In-Out. The place was small—just a ten-by-ten-foot drive-thru kitchenette. And then the idea of having something like that in Dumaguete struck me even though I had no burger recipe to sell at that time. Since I arrived back here, I researched and practiced burger-making for months until I perfected the recipe. For a little more than three months now, Flamin’ Grill Café has been serving flame-grilled burgers to burger lovers like myself. I own and run the place with my boyfriend, and even though it’s crazy at times, it’s fun for us amateur entrepreneurs.”
For Marie, the perfect burger involves a studious combination of the grill, the temperature, the meat quality, the meat and fat ratio, and finally the recipe—which she cannot divulge, but she tells me it is composed of 100% pure beef and a combination of five spices, all prepared without preservatives, MSG, or meat extenders. “Our lettuce and tomatoes are organic, too, and are freshly grown in the hydroponic method,” she says. “I make sure to use the coral lettuce variety because it makes the burger look good and picture perfect.”
The joint, of course, has other things on its menu—there are sausages, barbecued ribs, pork belly, pork steak, and others. “We are in the process of developing new dishes like crepes, pasta, and other burger variations,” Marie says.
That’s well and good, but I’m thankful enough for the burger as it is. It is the perfect answer to all these belated cravings, and so when the munchies come, I’m ready.
Of all the films from last year that I've watched, only two has stayed with me. One is David Fincher's The Social Network, and I admire it for the zing of its screenplay by Aaron Sorkin and the way it demonstrated the possibilities of cinema as an artform well-suited for groundbreaking collaboration -- the acting, the music, the cinematography, the production design, the direction are all top-notch here, and all elements come together like some cinematic magical brew that astounds. This film is our generation's equivalent of, dare I say it, Orson Welles' Citizen Kane . The other film I cannot shake off, without any doubt, is Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right.
Here is a dramedy of such compelling believability and heart, spurred by some of the greatest, most nuanced performances by any Hollywood actor last year. I came away from its screening in the University of Iowa campus with that glowing affirmation that I have just seen greatness -- and it is just a little bit too bad that not a lot of people would be watching it, given its premise. The premise is this: a lesbian couple and their two teenage children, both inseminated from the same sperm donor, deal with the upheaval of his abrupt arrival into their lives. The complications and the drama I would not elaborate in this space, but the minutae of their dilemma and the ways with which they try to seek an impasse are handled with such delicate fluency by director Cholodenko, who clearly knows what she wants to do with this story and how to frame it. There is not one false note in this film, and the necessary chemistry of its stars -- including the slowly tattering connection between Annette Bening and Julianne Moore who play the couple -- are spot-on and subtle. Mark Ruffalo pulls off his role as the gentle, if bumbling, interloper with such fine balance (he makes sloppy decisions, but we can't hate him). He does this with such convincing thoroughness that I know he will be overlooked once again in the race for acting awards this year. Why? His acting is so good, he disappears and just becomes. And Oscar, of course, seems to always bet on the showy. (Think Christian Bale in The Fighter and Natalie Portman in Black Swan.)
Ms. Moore is given a devastating monologue in the end that gives us goosebumps as she tallies the difficulties of love and marriage, but it is Ms. Bening who steals the movie. She steals it in a peculiar way, because while we are watching the film, she seems to come and go in stealth. And yet, when the movie ends, it is her performance you remember the most. Take note of the dinner scene, where she lets her obsessive-compulsive self go with a Joni Mitchell song.
Take note of the sequence right after that -- no words, just silence, and just a close-up of her face as she processes a terrible discovery.
Those few minutes of just her face is a masterclass in acting. She deserves an Oscar for that scene alone.
And yet I seem to paint the entire film as something quite serious. It is. But it is also a very, very funny film, a riot in fact. And it is that perfect juggling act between comedy and drama that makes this film feel true and feel emotionally resonant -- the way The Social Network probably does not do, even with all its technical flourish. This is a film to love, especially for what it says about modern families. And especially for the performances in it that are more than all right, they're golden.
There are three types of film stories I always hesitate to screen: torture porn, westerns, and boxing films. It's just a matter of my preferences/biases, although I know I sometimes surprise myself for liking a few titles from these genres. (Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby and Unforgiven would be perfect examples just from one director.) Well, for the past two days, I've watched the latter two types in the name of being conversant with what are being flouted around to be last year's best of cinema. I've seen David O. Russell's The Fighter, which was all right, but I saw it more as a dysfunctional family movie rather than a boxing one. Tonight, I watched Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit , and I came away with no more love for the western than a resurgent admiration for the cinematography of Roger Deakins.
Because this is essentially a film about sumptuous photography, and that is that. I've always had a fondness for the stylistic quirks of the Coens' brand of filmmaking, but that is largely absent here. None of the ballet of violence, the startling fancy of storytelling. In fact, Roger Ebert praises the film as an exercise of form and genre for the brothers, a departure for them. And so be it. I couldn't bring myself to care for the story though, and that may be due to the fact that Hailee Steinfield, who plays a girl in the Wild West who hires a man with "true grit" to bring in for some justice the fiend who murdered her father, somehow rubs me off the wrong way. She is supposed to be plucky and feisty as Mattie Ross, and she does exactly that with acceptable professionalism others might mistake as genius. But there is no emotional resonance to her performance at all. She does it with a mechanical connect-the-dots effort that may be charming for some, but proves ultimately irritating for me. Oh, look she's trying to be grown-up precocious. Oh, look, how adorable the way she speaks with withering grown-up sense. But it didn't work for me.
And so I settle instead with an admiration for the way Roger Deakins captures the wild lands out west with such beauty. And this is a beautiful film, no doubt. And perhaps that is enough.
11:10 PM |
Two Fragments From Audrey Welles' 'Under the Tuscan Sun'
Since I blogged a little bit of something from Audrey Welles' Under the Tuscan Sun  in the previous post, I've since found myself musing over how this film has stayed emotionally intact for me over the years. Welles' film, loosely based on the memoir of travel writer Frances Mayes, is a beautiful meditation, really, on pain, loss, and letting go, taking second chances, having faith that life's game can get better at the latter stages, and the wonder of ladybugs. (You'll find out what that means if you see the film.) I love this film. It packs an emotional wallop without being saccharine. And it has been a comfort in my own trying times -- and yet it doesn't feel condescending, the way films of this ilk sometimes are wont to be. This is the kind of cinema Ryan Murphy's Eat Pray Love  wanted to be, but couldn't for whatever reason. (That film only succeeded in highlighting a deplorable upper-class white woman selfishness.] I could quote a lot of lines from Under the Tuscan Sun, but here are two of my favorites....
Writing a postcard in a Tuscan piazza, a small gem of travel writing: "Dear Mom. It's market day in Cortona. The piazza is an ongoing party, and everyone is invited. Clichés converge at this navel of the world. You almost want to laugh, but you can't help feeling these Italians know more about having fun than we do. I eat a hot grape from the market, and the violet sweetness breaks open in my mouth. It even smells purple. I wish I could stay longer, but the bell reminds me of time. 'Ding-dang-dong,' the bell says, instead of 'ding-dong.' I wish you were here. Love..."
On impulsively buying a house in Bramasole: "I have bought a house in a foreign country. A house and the land it takes two oxen two days to plow. Not having a plow or an ox, I'll have to take their word on that. Buyer's remorse is a very common affliction among new homeowners. Just because you have a sudden urge to weep, that doesn't mean you've made a mistake. Everybody knows old houses have their quirks. Especially ten-thousand-year-old houses. I have inherited empty wine bottles, one grape, every issue of La Nazione printed in 1958, and assorted previous tenants. The trick to overcoming buyer's remorse is to have a plan. Pick one room and make it yours. Go slowly through the house. Be polite, introduce yourself, so it can introduce itself to you."
I'm in KRI having dinner, and there's this woman in the other table that piques my curiosity. Nothing wrong about her. She looks decent in fact, a normal-looking early 50s woman who must have been a kind of beauty in her youth. But there's something about her that repulses me a bit -- an air of surrender to life? a wardrobe straight from government office chic? a weariness that signals she does not know anything else in this city besides the daily commute between office and home? I may be wrong with these kneejerk judgments of who she is, but I get these feelings sometimes...
Sometimes I meet people I used to know, mostly people my own age, and something about them makes me pause and an unasked question comes to my head: "What happened to you?" Sometimes the lines on their face, the coarseness of their skin, or the weary trudge they carry themselves with are the prompts. Sometimes it comes from how they have faded from the blush of whatever it was that used to be them: their present selves are worse than wallflowers, their getup have that bureaucratic nightmare about them, and their small talk contains the silent horrors of nights spent following mind-numbing teleseryes and silly noontime shows. "What happened to you?" But of course I do not ask. Each of us carry the burdens of our existence our own way, and the paths we choose and the decisions we make essentially mold the way we become.
It reminds me of that line Sandra Oh makes to Diane Lane in the wonderful Under the Tuscan Sun , as she counsels the latter about seizing the capsized life she has been having after a bitter divorce: "You know when you come across one of those empty shell people, and you think 'What the hell happened to you?' Well there came a time in each one of those lives where they are standing at a crossroads... someplace where they had to decide whether to turn left or right..." And I wonder, with these people I see, what turn did they take? Left, or right? And were they happy?
It's rare to find a film where the heart is in the cast of supporting characters and not the lead. But that's exactly what you will find in David O. Russell's boxing drama The Fighter . This is not to begrudge the talent of Mark Wahlberg who has shown us before that he has the acting chops to carry a picture. He was gloriously cocky in Paul Thomas Anderson's porn epic Boogie Nights , and scintillatingly angry in Martin Scorsese's The Departed . His boxer (named Mickey) in Russell's film is of a placid sort, but it provides the necessary blank slate for his character: a man whose life is in control of others around him. And the "others" of course are tornados: there's Amy Adam's feisty girlfriend, Christian Bale's crackhead coach brother, and most of all, Melissa Leo's monstrously controlling mother whose acridity is symbolized by the stiff immovability of her hairdo.
They all want to have the biggest say in Mickey's career choices, and for so long he has followed the harebrained maneuverings of his mother who acts as his manager, and suffers the shenanigans of his unprofessional brother -- who is a boxing genius, a one-time local legend (he reputedly once TKO'd Sugar Ray Leonard), if only he could get away from crack. Disasters follow one after the other, until he gets a forced enlightenment, courtesy of a girl who calls a spade a spade, and sees that Mickey's greatest liability as a boxer is his toxic family. And so now this is the real boxing story of the film: not the fights in the ring, although that's fairly represented, but in the arduous decision of our indecisive hero -- who do you follow? your family who seems blindly bent on your ruin? or other people?
Mr. Bale is a force to be reckoned with in this film, and it might as well be his as a lead role and not Mr. Wahlberg's. His Dicky, in fact, is a co-lead more than anything else. He does his usual physical stunt of thinning himself for a role again -- a yo-yo-ing weight manipulation he has already done numerous times, such as in Brad Anderson's chilling The Machinist , Mary Harron's murderous 80s satire American Psycho , Werner Herzog's Rescue Dawn , as well as in Christopher Nolan's Batman movies. Ms. Adams turns in a performance that defy with delicious wildness the other landmark roles in her resume -- a Disney princess, a doubting nun, a food blogger, a Southern chatterbug. But it is Ms. Leo's mother with whom the screen almost staggers with such malevolent power. She is the undisputed queen of a family that is scary in that loutish, white-trash kind of way. Her monster mom makes me shiver, because I know people just like her: people who are strangely invested in cultivating the failure of people who love them. I cringed in every scene that she was in. To have that kind of screen presence, you had to hand it to Ms. Leo's acting prowess, last glimpsed in Courtney Hunt's powerful Frozen River , for which she was nominated for Best Actress in the Oscars. But how we loath her character. And how wonderful that is.
It took me several days to finish Danny Boyle's 127 Hours , his screen adaptation of the real-life dilemma of Aron Ralston who in 2003 had to cut off his arm in order to free himself from a rock that was pinning him in the belly of a Utah canyon. I was wuss. I went into the film knowing I could not possibly stand the sight (or even the suggestion) of physical torture James Franco had to endure in the role, even if it's jazzed up in that Boyle way we've come to love in Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, A Life Less Ordinary, The Beach, 28 Days Later, Millions, Sunshine, and Slumdog Millionaire, films I've loved in varying degrees (although I always swear by Boyle's earliest efforts more than anything else). Finally, I told myself: "You've watched the despicable Hostel by Eli Roth in one go, why couldn't you do exactly the same for a much worthier effort?" That, plus the fact that I had to free up some space in my hard drive, finally made me sit through the entire film -- and found it nothing short of amazing. One can read it as an adventure story, also a cautionary tale; a lot would come away from this film in that inspirational glow I usually come to suspect.
But here's the deal: it is inspirational, despite its efforts to transcend the tendency. (Still, one can "accuse" Boyle for having a soft spot for such. Think of the kid in Millions.) The film has things to say about individualism, the connection between people, the things we must value above all things, the importance of a Swiss knife... But its engine lies in the emotional truism that sometimes life has a way of reminding us, often in the most heartbreaking (or arm-breaking?) way possible, about what is important. That comes to a clincher when Franco, as Ralston, finally comes to a clear understanding where this tragedy stands in the grand narrative of his life: "You know, I've been thinking. Everything is... just comes together. It's me. I chose this. I chose all this. This rock... this rock has been waiting for me my entire life. It's entire life, ever since it was a bit of meteorite a million, billion years ago. In space. It's been waiting, to come here. Right, right here. I've been moving towards it my entire life. The minute I was born, every breath that I've taken, every action has been leading me to this crack on the out surface." That felt real. I understood that. It made me think of my own metaphorical "rock" in my life, or perhaps the possibility that I still have to meet mine.
I ended the film knowing a certain urgency about the things I need to do, and things I need to put more focus on despite being drowned by so much insignificant noise and my own need to people my world with just me, me, me, divorced from the need of other people. I need to connect.
Ever since I came back, the hunger for everything Filipino cuisine had been constant—it is an endless craving, really. I had dreams of kinilaw and grilled pusit and lechon and ampalaya with bits of egg and budbud with tsokolate all the way flying across the Pacific straight to these shores, quite desperate to erase the months of having to do with American-size pizza and pasta and burgers and, oh dear God, burritos.
I shall never eat burritos again, as long as I live.
And so it was that I found myself rediscovering the culinary delights of my city. And there was much to be, well, delighted about. You see, there used to be a time when dining out was a perennial problem in Dumaguete. The culture—and it is a culture, a lifestyle—simply did not exist, banished for the most part by the air of provincial practicality that fixed the universe in the banal confines of “home.” Not entirely bad this idea of “family togetherness” for every meal, but sometimes we did long for culinary adventures that went beyond malunggay and mung seeds and bulad. But there wasn’t much to be had, and what time in the weekend we had to spare for adventures in tasting was nipped in the bud considering that Sundays in those days were always a closed affair. What coffee culture there was, for another example, was an instant Nescafe concoction, none of those trips to cafes brewing expensive Italian-sounding beverages nobody could distinguish properly for lack of cultural context—what’s a cappuccino, an Americano, a latte, a mocha latter?
It was roughly the same with dining, and not that we lacked for restaurants. Everybody knew the best meal in town was in Lab-as, where you could get mouthwatering seafood dishes already renowned in the rest of the Filipino food world. There was the chicken inato at Jo’s, the staple grilled poultry dish in town long before there was competition in City Burger (where the burger is largely imaginary—I mean, who goes there for the burger?), and later in the lechon manok varieties of Golden Roy’s and San Pedro. For a more dressy fare, you went to North Pole or Don Atilano or Mei Yan, and later to Le Chalet and Casablanca—and if you had a car, all the way to Santa Monica and South Sea. (We used to frequent this delightful little Thai restaurant in Tanjay—which was quaint enough to patronize largely due to the distance and effort, and the food was truly brilliant, never mind the hangers of dreadful RTW crowding out the make-do tables and chairs. Once it made the move to Dumaguete, however, it carried its barriotic eccentricities with it, and was promptly shunned by the AB aspirational crowd that’s the Dumaguete bourgeoisie. Everything in food, you see, rests on reputation, and Chin Loong has had its ups and downs, and CocoAmigos has been in steady decline for the past few years.) For good food with a beer garden ambience, you went to Rosante’s. For a quick burger, you went to Taster’s Delight.
But things have changed. The city has changed. Some of those restaurants have shuttered, or have rebranded, or have burned down. Today, with a mall south of downtown, the choices have become a little more crowded. Not in the same way that Cebu or Manila or Bacolod does it, but nevertheless it’s a stirring of sorts, perhaps a sign of better things to come. There’re already Gabby’s Bistro and Jutz’s Café (formerly Boston Café) and Neva’s and Likha and Mamia’s and Royal Suite in the mix. A fire had razed Rosante’s but this was soon resurrected into the posher Don Roberto’s. Sans Rival expanded from a small pastry shop to become a full-fledged restaurant, open even on Sundays. Mang Inasal, meanwhile, has stolen Jo’s thunder—a perplexing development, considering the blandness of its fare. We still go to City Burger sometimes to have our fix of its sugary sauce on our chicken—but the staff is rude and lazy and the orders take a hundred years to come. It is as if they do not want you to plunk down your money for a taste of their food, and so most of the time I don’t go—until I have a full reserve of masochism, enough to withstand the poker faces they sport as you complain and complain and complain.
In the mall—and hopefully it will be the only mall Dumaguete will ever have—the more popular fare is in Mooon Café, a place I have a love-hate relationship with. It’s a sometimes delightful place, perhaps the best in that egg-shaped promenade that houses Robinson’s small cluster of eating places. The food is passably good, nothing to proclaim heaven with, but it is the service that often irks me. Once I experimented with their sense of service. Ten minutes. That was how long it took for any of the wait staff to take note that I was in a table, waiting for at least the menu. I timed it. Good thing that the Mooon steak, with its good gravy and sizzling smokiness, is an eternal favorite. Then there’s the chimichanga, the quesadilla uno, the nacho de salsa, the campesinos jalapeno—they pass. The meat of their Mexican baby backribs doesn’t exactly fall off the bone, but it, too, passes. Still, I like the place. It has become a familiar haunt.
Let’s go downtown. Before it became known as a weekend hangout where dancing and much beer-drinking happens, Sandpipper Café started off as a fine dining place that offered a wide range of dishes cutting across cultures. I was there right in the beginning, already terribly worried about the possible misspelling of its name. Is the extra P necessary? In the menu, there seemed to have the same problem. You see, they offered a “clam chowber” dish. I pointed that out, and asked the waitress: “Don’t you mean clam chowder? With a D?” She shook her head, and said, “No sir, it’s clam chowber.” Uh-oh. I ordered it anyway. It wasn’t good. Nor was the babyback ribs that I ordered with it. It was quite a chunk of meat—which I initially thought was a blessing—but soon realized it was as bland as mulched paper. I never thought trying to finish an entire rack of babyback ribs could be an ordeal of tragic proportions, but after a while I had to tell myself, “Eating more of this wouldn’t make it any good.” And discard it I did. I went home with such sadness.
But the following are places I like, and I shall perhaps write about them extensively in the coming days.
There’s Sundown, near the intersection that leads to Robinson’s Place—a beautifully landscaped beer garden, complete with the alfresco feel, that transcends whatever image it wants to project to offer some of the most surprising cooking in town. Surprising because you don’t expect so much from such a small place. Still, it has the imprimatur of Santa Monica’s kitchen, which says a lot about the seriousness of its food.
There’s Flaming Grill in Tubod, along Hibbard Avenue. This is where you get what is possibly the best burger in town. If you’re a Dumagueteño and you swear by your memories of Taster’s Delight, your loyalty is actually rooted in that strange alchemy its peculiar Russian dressing makes in the burger. Flaming Grill is different: the sumptuousness is in the patty itself—a smoky, rich, almost creamy munchiness that will leave you craving for more. It is that good.
Then there’s Mifune along Santa Catalina Street, just across Food Net. This is where you get the best Japanese food in town bar none. Do not let its karinderia looks fool you—I consider that part of its understated charm. It has everything, from your regular sashimi and sushi to their sumptuously prepared okonomiyaki. The taste is just right—and the staff contains some of the friendliest I know in town. And they know their menu well, which is a feat.
And finally there’s KRI along Silliman Avenue, across the Hibbard Hall. I have been going to this place almost every day for the past few weeks, judiciously going through its menu in search of another gustatory delight. So far it has not disappointed. Their pad thai has been consistently great, their spicy shrimp and tofu has solid fans among friends I know—but I swear by their fish of the week dish. It has a delicious simplicity to it that tantalizes the palate, and all for less than 99 pesos. A bargain, really. Exactly what discriminating Dumagueteños look for—something cheap, but approximating the fineness of fine dining.
Consider this an appetizer of sorts. Perhaps full praise requires another story.
1:44 AM |
Bloggers By the Light of Dormitory Punditry
I was quite fascinated by Gabriela Herman's photo project Bloggers, which aimed to shed some light -- usually from the glow of laptops, at least literally speaking -- on the human face of much of the chatter that goes on online. She tells Wired's Pete Brook: "I wanted to bring their intimate worlds to the outside public. Ultimately though, Bloggers is more about rethinking the way we experience the world, looking at how we live and spend our time.” (You can read Brook's full "Raw File" article here.) And take a look at some of the more famous denizens of that intimate world of blogging...
I got so fascinated, I finally decided the series begged emulation. And so, here we go...
There is one thing being in America taught me. To speak. To speak my mind, to speak well and with confidence, to speak off the cuff and cut through the ordinary bullshit, to weigh my words and mean them. And then there is another thing. To have a sense of calculated apathy. To cease caring about the small, insignificant stuff other people make molehill-mountains of. I see that here, everywhere, a thousand tired people holding on to their little turf battles and snippy maneuverings, content with the smallness of their world and being very possessive with it. What unbearable air they breathe. They infect, of course. My daily prayers is always for a kind of immunity. It is a constant battle, but I carry on. That is how I still know I am alive.
There is this girl in this cafe. She's white, in her twenties. Her hair is the color of dark chestnut and it brushes past her shoulders, longish enough for it to considerably flow, like a well-brushed cascade. She wears espadrilles, and her short chiffon skirt is a faded pink. Her blouse is purple. And she sits there in her table at the center of the room with a quiet grace that looks familiar. I see her staring past the space in front of her, a slightly bemused look on her face telling me she is content where she is right now, in this present -- an afternoon in a quaint Spanish cafe -- her hint of a smile an affirmation of that inner quiet I envy. Once in a while, she writes down something on the pad she has with her. Is she writing a poem? A journal entry? Some short reflection about where she is in this little place somewhere in this tropical nook this side of the Pacific?
I used to be that figure in Iowa City, solitary, brimming with such assured centeredness. I miss that contentment, that firm grasp of being while sitting in my comfortable corner in Java House.
Does art need context to be perceived as beautiful? In our busy lives, are we capable of recognizing beauty? I read this somewhere in Tumblr...
Washington, D.C. Metro Station on a cold January morning in 2007. The man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, approximately two thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.
Four minutes later. The violinist received his first dollar: a woman threw the money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.
Six minutes. A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.
Ten minutes. A 3-year old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. Every parent, without exception, forced their children to move on quickly.
Forty-five minutes. The musician played continuously. Only six people stopped and listened for a short while. About twenty gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32.
One hour. He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.
No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million. Two days before, Joshua Bell sold out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.
This is a true story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the Metro Station was organized by The Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities.
The questions raised: In a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?
One possible conclusion reached from this experiment could be this: If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made, how many other things are we missing?
I like the choices Sofia Coppola makes in her new film Somewhere : her preference for stillness, for observation. Films that observe people as they do, or not do things, have always fascinated me -- and when they are composed in a mise-en-scene that pulsates, they transcend to a kind of cinematic poetry. Observe, for example, the films of Tsai Ming-Liang or Yasujiro Ozu, where dialogue is minimal, and action, background, and foreground become the story. They are not always easy to admire, and in fact those without a sliver of patience in their bodies would probably brand these films "boring" -- except that they forget that what boredom really is is a reflection of their own lack of density and depth. Coppola's Somewhere observes, allows the viewer access to the minutes and small events that make up a life. This one is the story of an actor [Stephen Dorff], in the drift of time between projects, who goes about a life of such banal but ennui-filled subterfuge in Los Angeles' Chateau Marmont, a hotel famous for housing some legendary film stars, and here stands for the existential displacement his character is undergoing but has scarcely examined. He knows he lacks something, some sort of pull that should be his private gravity -- but knows only to temporarily fill it with little appointments, parties, dancing pole girls, and meaningless sex -- and the compulsion to drive around in furious circles in the desert in his sportscar. Then one day, a young daughter [Elle Fanning] comes to stay with him, perhaps indefinitely, perhaps not -- and something happens to him, in him. What? We don't really know, but it is a decisive act that we get in the end, veiled away from unnecessary explanations the way we don't exactly know what Bill Murray whispered to Scarlett Johanson's ear at the end of Lost in Translation , which this film seems to reflect as a narrative cousin. I like this film. It is not a great one, but it's truthful.
There is something infuriating about J.C. Calciano’s Is It Just Me? , a comedy of errors which mistakes whining for romance, and stupid complications for cinematic tension. I won’t trouble myself in recounting the premise of this waste of a film, but I still can’t believe that after all these years, gay films are still being made in this schlocky tradition — you know the kind where all the conflict will just go away if the protagonists would just stop lying about certain things in the first place. The cast, appealing for the most part, tries its best to salvage this dreck, but no go. And so, for the one-dollar question, the answer is: Yes, it’s you. Now go die.
Something has to be said about a film where awful people in awful circumstances doing awful things still generate a good deal of compassion and kindness despite what darkness overwhelms. Call that darkness what you will -- the winter, the stark poverty, the violence, the drugs that litter this broken landscape. And yet this is as much a story of the good people do for each other in some sly, sometimes belated, way -- a glimmer of humanity that remains when much has been effaced. That is what I get from Debra Granik's painful and beautiful Winter's Bone , the unflinching story of a 17-year-old girl named Ree who lives with two small siblings and an incapacitated mother in the cold, unforgiving poverty of the Ozark Mountains. She may be young, but the gravity of a fifty-year-old lies in undercurrents in her poker face as she goes about taking care of them as much as she can, with some rare help from neighbors who are burdened with problems of their own. But one day, she gets this bad news: her imprisoned father, out on bond, seems to have disappeared and is likely unable to attend his own court hearing. His bond includes the deeds to the house and property, and if he does not show up, Ree and her family will be forced to vacate. "I'll find him," Ree tells the sheriff, with a grimness that speaks volumes. This is her story, a plucky girl who begins to ask uncomfortable questions, stirring the dead and the ones who want to keep their silence. She begins her search, a frightful task that includes meeting up with some unsavory characters, and bearing some bruises that are part and parcel of that search. The film centers its entire universe in the performance of Jennifer Lawrence who plays Ree with a quiet conviction that draws you in with such power. This is such a painful film to watch, and yet I stayed riveted all throughout because of her. I'm not sure I can watch this film again, but I know for sure that I am mighty glad to have seen it.
Todd Graff's Bandslam  and Peter Sollett's Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist  are two recent movies that share the same DNA, and both are equally capable (and effective) in telling what individual stories they do have. And yet, I went away from my viewing of Nick and Nora feeling a little more cinematically filled than I was from Bandslam. Why is that when with both one gets essentially the same story? It's this: there's a lovable geek in a band (Michael Cera in one, and Gaelan Connell in the other) who falls for a beautiful girl (Kat Dennings in one, and Vanessa Hudgens in the other), all to the soundtrack of fierce indie music -- although one story is set in New Jersey (but shot in Austin, Texas) and the other is in New York City.
The difference, I think, is in the actors' appeal. Because no matter how much technically proficient the director is, and no matter how much the screenplay works to have a sound structure, the film rests in the believability of the people acting out the specific roles we see laid out in front of us. Nick and Nora has that in spades. Bandslam, unfortunately, does not
Ms. Hudgens is a perfect example of such irritation: a one-note actress with five basic facial expressions to convey a range of characterization, she tries her best to get away from the sweet girl role she embodied in the High School Musical films, and she does this by being a little morose and edgy -- but she succeeds only in sleepwalking through her role, and even that she does badly. Her hero as played by Mr. Connell looks positively asthmatic that I was already offering various inhalers to the screen. And yet the film is not entirely bad. I liked it. I liked its story. But I could care less about the actors in it, except for the brilliant Alyson Michalka who is the only one cast right for the film. (The rest, including Lisa Kudrow, whose ticks as an actress -- lovable in Friends -- are a little grating here.) You see, there is a certain "brightness" to Mr. Cera and Ms. Dennings that makes them watchable in Nick and Nora, and still at the same time they make themselves completely acceptable to the mold of their characters. Some people call this star power. Perhaps. I just call it talent.
A completist always runs into this dilemma: you love with passion a certain author or filmmaker, and you are compelled to read every book he has written or see every film he has made -- which includes the stinkers, of course. And so you are left in the end with a kind of a broken heart. Noah Baumbach's Greenberg  and Woody Allen's You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger  are certainly not stinkers -- I have a feeling I may have to go over them once more, in the future, to get what subtleties I may have missed -- but both films, made by directors I worship, left me cold.
I love Baumbach's Kicking and Screaming  and The Squid and the Whale , and even to a certain extent Margot at the Wedding . I get his sensibility and his world of middle-class angst quite well, and he writes and shoots his stories with an intimacy that I find fully-formed and human, and we see all this come into play as well in Greenberg, and yet and yet. The film is a perfect condensation of a typical Ben Stiller character -- a wound-up man ready to explode, and here Stiller junks the comedy that usually accompanies such characterization and goes full on with the dramatic mode. His Greenberg is a lost former-would-be rock star, now a carpenter and living for a month in his brother's Los Angeles home where he confronts old ghosts, old loves, and new possibilities -- and we feel for him despite the fact that he is pretty much an unlikable character. It is a brilliantly realized character-study. And yet and yet...
Most of everything Woody Allen has made I have seen, and I love most of them with a passion. In You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, he takes us to London to explore matters of God, faith, fidelity, and the cruel twists that life gives us, and peppers this examination with some of the best thespians from both sides of the Atlantic, all of whom act out scenarios that paint this notion: life has a way of aborting our full expectations of good fortune, and so no one can really ever be happy. It is a serious film with a funny bent, and ends with a tease that becomes more profound because of a certain unfinished feel to it. And yet and yet...
I have no answers to why these two films left me cold. Maybe it's just me expecting a little too much.
I know the low regions of my manic-depression quite well. It does not signal its coming, but you know it always comes at the tail-end of a period of euphoria, or abruptly at the end of a triumphant day. Then it begins like a fog in the brain that refuses to lift, even with so much effort. It paralyzes you. It cannot be moved. You may listen to music you love, you may watch heartwarming films you adore, you may be in great company, you may take a thousand doses of Red Bull, you may go to the gym every day and get that rush of endorphins. The outside world may think you are the same old chap. But nothing works. The fog that paralyzes stays where it is. And you cannot do anything, except breathe, or feed yourself, or pretend all is right with your world. You don't even entertain hope for that ray of sunlight to start peeking through the denseness. You just wait.
An artist friend who is now based in Bali chatted me up today in Facebook. "Have you seen Destricted?" he asked. I said no, and asked him what it was all about. "It's a series of short films by acclaimed directors from all over the world that explores the boundaries between art and pornography," he said. "You'd like it." I don't know why people immediately assume that about me -- because I'm as much a prude as the next guy. (Well, maybe not.) But I do know that I have a taste for the cinematically weird. Maybe that's it. But I swear not all the weird and the sexual are brilliant. I swoon, for example, over John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus  and Franc Roddam's "Liebestod" segment from Aria , and I find the daring of Peque Gallaga's Scorpio Nights  and Nagisa Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses  poetic even in their brutality and frank depiction of sexuality. But I still have nightmares over Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salo  and Gaspar Noé's Irreversible , two lurid films that may be important as pieces of cinema, but I can never bring myself to watch again.
So of course I had to see this omnibus film Destricted [2006 and ongoing], although I had my initial misgivings. The last time a team of directors did a project like this was in Eros , which compiled the efforts of Wong Kar-wai, Michaelangelo Antonioni, and Steven Soderbergh. Even with those masters of the screen, the film fell surprisingly flat, which convinced me that we are all just so frightened of the topic of sex to ever really feel artistic in its depiction, and comfortable about its cinematic possibilities. It is just so familiar and frightening at the same time that most filmmakers feel a need to debase/defuse its treatment, such as in the feminist brutalities of Catherine Breillat [Fat Girl, Romance, Sex is Comedy, Anatomy of Hell, among others] and the deadening third-world suffocation of Brillante Mendoza [Masahista and Pantasya]. When it is not debased, it only serves to obscure, as in Michael Winterbottom's incoherent 9 Songs  -- was that a concert film or a truthful recollection of a relationship in tatters? Only Bernardo Bertolucci, both in Last Tango in Paris  and in The Dreamers , seems to have the best pulse in the whole realm of sexual exploration. His best successor is, of course, Mitchell, whose Shortbus may be the loveliest and most heartwarming look at the ties that bind people, complete with graphic scenes of fornication.
So here comes Destricted. And of all the filmmakers that have contributed to this mess of a film (which include Marina Abramović, Matthew Barney, Marco Brambilla, Gaspar Noé, Richard Prince, and Sam Taylor-Wood), only Larry Clark seems to have succeeded in ever really putting out a frank exploration of sexuality that feels true, that does not feel silly or too experimental just for the sake of having really nothing to say. In Clark's Impaled, we are given a bare look, documentary-style, at the process of auditioning actors for a porn shoot -- and then gives us something more:  how our culture and our ideas of sexuality have largely been shaped (surprise, surprise) by the pornography that has surrounded us since we were aware that such a thing existed, and  how our fantasies are so often incongruent with the real-life debasements that actually people the flesh industry. In that, we also see the story of this young man named Daniel who goes from fantasy, to titillation, to discovery of the often grotesque stories behind people's motivations for getting into porn, to the shitty [both literal and metaphorical, you will find out why] outtakes that are often edited-out in a porn shoot for the sake of maintaining the fantasy. What a dramatic arc he goes through.
In the other films of the series, the filmmakers seem to mistake long shots and frenetic editing exercises and stretches of sound or silence as grand evocations of sexuality. They only resulted to efforts that teeter between the boring and the silly. And the lazy. Prince's House Call is the most problematic in that regard, and is immediately followed by Noé's We Fuck Alone (strobe lighting as metaphor for sexual deviance? forget it) and Taylor-Wood's Death Valley (the desert as metaphor for the futility of self-pleasure? forget it). Barney's Hoist at least pretends to be poetic in its examination of sexuality and natural carnality and their connection with the mechanical, and Abramovic's Balkan Erotic Tales at least shows humor and strangeness in its chronicle of Eastern European sexual customs.