There is a reason why I've chosen the snapshot above from David Michôd's Animal Kingdom , the brilliant crime film from Australia that caused much chatter in last year's cinematic bumper crop. (It won Jackie Weaver, who plays evil matriarch Smurf Cody here with such uncanny sweetness, a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Oscars. I now understand completely the acclaim: this film had me gripping my seat from the unrelenting tension of its unspooling, that even a sequence of a car slowly backing out of a doorway seemed the stuff of utter terror.) This is J Cody [played with virtuoso command by James Frencheville], and he has just discovered something terrible and bloody. In this scene -- set in the toilet of his girlfriend's parents' house -- we witness a breakdown and a transformation: he turns from being the naive teenage boy we have come to know him for most of the film, to a young man suddenly coming to terms with his dawning realization of an encounter with evil. He has been the innocent in this portrait of a family steeped in crime, so innocent in fact that when the film opens we find him nonchalantly watching television, his mother's dead body (from a drug overdose) beside him on the sofa. Alone in the word, he is taken to live with his estranged grandmother Smurf, and he gets re-introduced to his uncles -- all of them criminals with psychopathic tendencies, with the police in the city they live in scrambling to gather evidence to put them away. The film is his story -- and the story is about his loss of innocence. I am not going to say much more about how this film goes, but it is an elegant exercise of film form. There is no needless moment in this gripping narrative; everything is essential. The cinematography by Adam Arkapaw is deliberate in its beautifully rendered tracking shots and mise-en-scene, which reminds of a predatory point-of-view. The music by Antony Partos intensifies the action and the emotional turmoil of its characters with a stalking intensity. But it is the actors who make this devastating. They are the proverbial animals in this murderous kingdom -- all preys and predators in this game where the roles are sometimes interchanged. There are good guys, too, but this is basically an anatomy of evil people. Frencheville has the tricky role here: J's naivete could have been been cloying, and a less-gifted actor would have collapsed from the sheer madness of having to tread the fine line between innocence and a wearying nose-dive to hardness. But he gets the balance right, and there are little dramas constantly erupting on Frencheville's face that assure us he has this character down pat. And then there is Weaver: her Smurf Cody is probably the most evil character I have encountered of late in film, but she embodies it with strange rightness that rivals the intensity of a Meryl Streep or a Tilda Swinton. Hers is a role of utter complexity: nurturing and caring (in a Freudian way that's quite disturbing), the way a lioness can be with her pups -- while underneath lies a dark intelligence that has no qualms with intimations of murder. She makes a kind of Sophie's choice here that shocks -- but the way she still goes on with all sweetness and light and huggable motherliness also shocks us into a recognition that in life evil disguises itself in the mundane. When the devastating ending comes, we realize it is the only way to end a film such as this. It made me cry. It made me weep for how we can be robbed of such things as humanity.
Were it not for Gaspard Ulliel's beautiful face and the strange bewitchment of Melanie Laurent, it could be said that watching Rodolphe Marconi's Le Dernier Jour [The Last Day, 2004] is a complete waste of time. Which is strange to say of a French film. But what else can I say? It is a dour, aimless exploration of a family in tatters and ends with a Deux ex machina so relentless in its own recognition of the sad and the macabre that I was left grasping for meaning, for some foreshadowing. There was none. The story itself is simplicity: a young man named Simon [Ulliel], 18 years old, an artist, makes his way back to the family living in the country and inexplicably brings home with him a beautiful girl named Louise [Laurent], whom he meets in the train, and whom everybody else thinks is his girlfriend. He does not dissuade any of them from making that assumption, but soon we take note that Simon -- always biting and sometimes ferociously sad -- may in fact be pining for his best friend Mathieu [a totally unmemorable Thibault Vinçon, who phones in a performance for an otherwise crucial role as the beloved and the betrayer] who works in the local lighthouse. He watches as Mathieu and Louise become slowly attracted to each other, even as he deals, in an offhand way, with the slow disintegration of his own family -- the sister is morose and cannot wait to get away, the father complains a lot and keeps secrets, and the mother is bored and is suddenly dealing with an unexpected lover from the past. What the film is perhaps trying to say has something to do with how people we love leave us, and how we are always left reeling in their wake. There are more complications, stripped of histrionics and melodrama the way only the French can, but we sit through each one completely uninvolved, and perhaps that may be due to Isabelle Devinck's savage and jarring editing and Marconi's unwise aesthetic choices. Why was this film made? To illustrate the ennui of abandonment? But I didn't care much.
2:32 AM |
Ang Pinaka ... Must Visit Dumaguete Spots
Wondering what to do in Dumaguete for the summer? Wonder no more! I unearthed an old episode of QTV's Ang Pinaka..., with a show on "Must See Dumaguete Spots." Rovilson Fernandez was then the new host, taking over from Pia Guanio. And there I was, twenty or so more pounds ago, with Mark. I can't believe this was already such a long time ago.
Dominic Leclerc's Protect Me From What I Want  is simply told, done in broad strokes that make no attempt at depth other than what is cursorily given, and yet despite that, it is an effective small film. Saleem, a young Pakistani boy, cruises -- despite great personal misgivings and overriding guilt -- the streets of a British city, and catches the eye of Daz. He is given Daz's number after an aborted attempt at street seduction -- and then we segue to a kind of Pygmalion scene: Daz breaking through the barriers, and finally being able to give Saleem the titular thing he wants, but is scared of. The seduction is punctuated by editing that's more disruptive than artistic, giving the sequence a rushed embarrassed feel that betrays the efforts of its actors to stay true to their characters (and what we do get here is some fine acting). It all ends with an emotive plea from one character to another, which gives us ... what, hope? I'm not sure, but I smiled when it ended, and I felt my heart fuller than usual. But what does it all mean? Is this just an exercise in overly rushed erotica? A statement film on culture and deeply-inculcated homophobia? Is this a haphazardly done My Lair Lady a la Skins? The film does not exactly say anything new, but I liked it. That's my own life up there on the screen, all told in 13:32 minutes, so I appreciate its reach via the biographical, the reader-response way. But that's just me.
I like Origins stories. In the tradition of graphic literature (komiks to some of you), they're a staple in the narrative, and most superheroes come barging into our consciousness with an Origin story. There's something about knowing where a hero comes from -- what shaped him to become this something -- that's infinitely intriguing and satisfies a hungry curiosity (we all like asking, "Why?"), and when done right, they provide the meat to the mythos without reducing the hero to a caricature of easy motivations. But that's only one thing that I liked about Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo's third installation in their Trese series. Mass Murders, which gives us the curious and very supernatural childhood of Tan and Baldisimo's kick-ass titular female detective of the uncanny, also gives us a look into the origins of Alexandra Trese's fast and furious sidekicks -- the Kambals, those mask-wearing half-breeds who do Trese's bidding with fierce loyalty and an extreme taste for blood. (The horror writer Yvette Tan finds them extremely hot -- and so do I.) There's also the graphic violence which not only takes off from the gut-wrenching ballets of Alan Moore and Quentin Tarantino, but also has the glorious roughness and tumble of old Filipino action movies. But what impresses me most about this volume (two other volumes precede this one) is not just Tan's tight narrative and Baldisimo's concisely conceived black and white world, but also in how they dip into local gods and fantastic monsters and assorted lower mythology creatures of the pre-Spanish Filipino netherworld. In a kind of an afterword, Tan writes: "The works of Neil Gaiman was a major influence when it came to writing Trese, most especially Sandman and American Gods. In those stories, he asked the question, 'What happened to the gods of old? Where are they now?' And he showed us a goddess of love who found her worshippers in a strip club, gods of death who now run a funeral parlor, and gods of mischief still up to their old tricks. Which made me ask the question, 'Where are the gods that were once worshipped by Filipinos before the Spaniards came? Have they found a new place in the city of Manila?'" Which is how they have come up, in this volume, with the bloodthirsty god of war, Talagbusao, whose bloody rituals and wishes to permanently wreck havoc in the mortal realm leads to this book's main plot, as well as to the explanation for the Kambal's existence. I admire this organic and pulsing attempt to bring back the ancient myths and subject them to the creativity, darkness, and demands of the modern world. It was indeed Gaiman who once told us -- when he first came up with the Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards -- that we have a wealth of local legends and lore that are more than ready-made for explorations in local speculative fiction, and Trese is a good example of that. The last time I was this excited over a similar project was Arnold Arre's The Mythology Class. (Similarly, Dean Francis Alfar and the core LitCritters also have a cycle of stories about a land called Hinirang -- and I have long demanded an anthology of such stories, but only the future can tell whether that project comes to fruition.) And yet, despite the horror and fantasy that make stories like this ghettoed into Genreville, you see reflections of real-life issues and conflicts -- the corruption of civil government and military, the salacious criminality of small-town politicians, the clueless desperation of the law, the mud of chaos that has engulfed the country, which can only be explained through the prism of dark enchantment: this is a land bewitched and cursed, and every malevolent detail that erupts in our lives are the secret explosions of aswangs and duendes and the like. That Trese -- both mandirigma and babaylan rolled into one -- is around with the Kambals in tow gives us relief from our ordinary horrors, at least in these pages. I love this book. I bought it today, and consumed it a few hours later in one go. It is simply begging to be made into a very, very good film that does it more than justice.
9:51 PM |
Some Stories From Fifty Years of Writing
We begin with stories of how things began.
My own love affair with the Silliman University National Writers Workshop in Dumaguete began eleven years ago, when I was one of nine young writers granted a three-week fellowship to a summer of writing and book talk.
It led me to a discovery—in a very big way—to the treasures of Philippine literature. But before that summer, like many other people of that certain age (I was just graduated from college), I knew nothing. Perhaps a tiny bit of Nick Joaquin, maybe a little Kerima Polotan. I remember reading the entirety of Edilberto Tiempo’s A Stream at Dalton Pass and Other Stories when I was 10, because there was a copy of the book in my house, for some reason—and when I was very young, I devoured all books and magazines I could find.
But I knew I liked writing. Some other people discovered that for me. My teachers in West City Elementary School’s SPED Program for Fast Learners were suitably impressed, I guess, by the compositions I churned out for our theme assignments—you know the sort, “How I Spent My Summer Vacation,” “My Best Friend,” “My Most Cherished Memory”—that they made me editor-in-chief for the school organ The Western Star, a mimeographed loose-leaf effort that had an indelible impression on me. I am now extremely sorry that cannot remember the name of the paper adviser, but she taught in the regular sections, and she was a kind woman who told me I could write. I didn’t know what she meant by that.
Later on, spurred by the very thorough language lessons of Ms. Bennie Vic Concepcion in grade school and the gentle goading of Prof. Gina Fontejon and Prof. Alejandra Bañas in Silliman High School, I was possessed with the idea that writing was my vocation. After a not-so-delightful detour through the wrong course, I ended up in a discipline that was all about practical writing and modern communications. Somewhere along the way, my college composition teacher, a fictionist by the name of Timothy Montes, one day wrote in the margins of my BC 12 essay: “You must apply to The Weekly Sillimanian.” And so I did.
Tim writes about this time in his introduction to my forthcoming short story collection Beautiful Accidents (published by the University of the Philippines Press): “In the early ‘90s when I started teaching in Silliman, when I myself was always lassoed by the label ‘a promising young writer,’ I came across an essay in my freshman English class that made me think of my own promise. For here, indeed, was someone who wrote better than I did when I was his age. When I asked the student who wrote the essay to stay after class, I was later confronted by a self-conscious impish smile that tried to hide a nerdiness, and a something-else that only teenagers are capable of exuding: a secret hunger that can only be projected onto the night.
“He was, he said, a Mass Com major, and I thought that unless he was going to have the gumption of a maximalist writer like Tom Wolfe, he was not fit to parse out his sentences for the press. For his kind of writing was more literary than journalistic, and he simply could not hide his style. I exempted him from my cut-and-dried lectures and assigned him books to read instead. In return, he submitted the obligatory expository essays even as I encouraged him to do whatever he wanted as he jazzed around in his reading and writing.
“And just as I predicted, complaints from his readers in the student paper where he wrote a column started coming in. They could not understand him; he was verbose; he was obfuscating. And as consolation, I told him he was writing from a Faulknerian tradition, and it was no use cramping his own style in the ideal of Hemingway. At that time I was reading Nabokov and thought style was all.
“I think he actually sought me out in all his English and literature classes for he was there semester after semester, feeding my teacherly ego in return for a confirmation of talent that was not not mine to bestow. I just knew he had the talent to become a writer; the rest was life and hard work. The way he used language as a supple medium made him one of those writers capable of expressing varied experiences that he would face. He was a film buff and organized the cineaste club in the university, and sometime in his junior year he went to Japan as an exchange student. All these qualities and experiences would seep into his writing…”
By the time I graduated from college, it was again Tim who gently took me aside, and said, “You must apply for a slot in the National Writers Workshop.”
I remember asking him, “Why?” when in fact the question that was in my head was “What is that?” I’ve heard only a little of the workshop when I was in college—but my world was small then, and I really knew nothing, even if, as all young people are wont to think, I thought I knew everything.
Tim told me to prepare three stories. Perhaps those stories I’ve already written for his undergraduate Creative Writing class. There was a deadline. There was the wait. Several days later, I got a letter from Dr. Edith Tiempo. It was graceful in its congratulations, and it gave me the details of the fellowship, and told me to make an appearance on the Monday of the first full week of May of 2000, at nine o’clock sharp, at the Dragon Room of the CAP Building along the Boulevard.
That Monday, at the appointed time, I showed up with Jean Claire Dy, a co-fellow from Silliman. I would soon meet the other writing fellows, of various preoccupations, from all over the Philippines and the world (one was from Hawaii, and one was studying to become a priest)— Vincenz Serrano, Isolde Amante, Alex de los Santos, Elmer Pizo, Gerald Feljandro Ramos, Noel Villaflor, Roberto Salva, Francis Ted Limpoco, Ulysses Navarro, and Wayne Mark Lopez. I would soon notice the “Mount Olympus” in the room—the head table where the writing luminaries were. They were to be our panel of writer-critics, a tableau of faces that changed from week to week.
The faces on that first day were all unfamiliar to me, but Claire seemed to know more. “That’s Ophelia Dimalanta,” she pointed out to one writer at the panelists’ table. “That’s Jimmy Abad, I love him. That’s Krip Yuson. That’s Cesar Ruiz Aquino. And that, my dear, is Mom Edith. Edith Tiempo.”
I kept nodding and nodding, filing away the names to memory.
There would be more names in the coming years—because, after that summer of 2000, I too would return to the workshop, first as an auditor wanting to reconnect with a cherished memory, then later as the unofficial yaya of several batches of fellows, and finally as a member of the organizing team at the Dumaguete Literary Arts group, and later Silliman University, that would help put out the annual editions of this longest-running creative writing workshop in Asia.
I had no idea it was going to be the summer my life changed forever.
The story of the Silliman University National Writers Workshop in Dumaguete—which celebrates its fiftieth year this May—officially begins in 1962. That was the year it was founded by the late Dr. Edilberto K. Tiempo and his wife, the National Artist for Literature Edith L. Tiempo. They became simply Doc Ed and Mom Edith to several generations of Filipino writers, a sort of familiarity that says a lot about the kind of workshop Dumaguete promised.
Its influence is now legendary. The poet Cirilo Bautista once said, “The amount of learning these writers got from this workshop is incalculable, and is measurable only in the way they have contributed to the qualitative and quantitative growth of our literature. Being a pioneer, [it] occupies a premier position in the history of creative writing in the Philippines.”
The Tiempos, together with its first panelists, the National Artists Francisco Arcellana and Nick Joaquin, ushered in a golden age of writing, and Dumaguete in Negros Oriental has somehow become the heart of the country’s literature—everyone’s literary hometown.
But perhaps its true genesis goes even farther back, to the end of World War II.
“In 1946,” Rowena Tiempo-Torrevillas once wrote, “my father was offered a scholarship by the Presbyterian Board of Missions, enabling him to do graduate work in the United States, at Stanford. He was readying himself for the scholarly regimen of the classics, and doing a refresher course in Latin, among his preparations, when my father was asked what area he wanted to specialize in at Stanford. ‘Creative writing,’ he said. ‘There are a number of novels I am going to write, and I need to know if I’m writing them effectively and well.’
“’Oh,’ the Presbyterian Board officer told him, ‘then there’s only one place for you to go. Iowa.’ Dad had to look up Iowa in the encyclopedia, and he was a bit puzzled at what he read. ‘Isn’t that where…they grow corn?’”
Iowa, right smack in the cornfields and silos of the American Midwest, indeed grew corn. But Doc Ed was soon to learn there was a man there, a poet named Paul Engle, and that he ran what was and still is considered the best creative writing workshop in the world: the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. “And that is how my Dad,” Rowena Torrevillas continued, “took a freighter across the Pacific, then a train halfway across the continent from San Francisco to Iowa City. And one morning, carrying his belongings in an Army-issue duffel bag, he crossed the Pentacrest on the campus to find the postwar temporary quarters in the Nissen huts, the quonset building where Paul Engle was holding the Writers’ Workshop.”
By 1947, his wife Edith joined her husband to also take part in the program. When they returned to the Philippines in 1951, Silliman was already abuzz with creative writing. The campus was sprouting literary enthusiasts, among them Aida Rivera-Ford, Rodrigo and Dolores Feria, and Ricaredo Demetillo. The Tiempos made creative writing an area of concentration for English majors in the English Department—and soon that paved the way to preparations in 1961 to hold a workshop similar to the one they attended in Iowa. The following year, it became fully operational.
The years to come would bring future luminaries often at the very beginning of their writing careers, people such as Gregorio Brillantes, Rogelio Sicat, Ninotchka Rosca, Elsie Martinez Cosculluela, Federico Licsi Espino, Salvador Bernal, Rene Estella Amper, Virgilio Almario, Ricky Lee, Conrado de Quiros, Leoncio Deriada, Estrella Alfon, Eric Gamalinda, Marjorie Evasco, Danton Remoto, Vicente Groyon III, Ruel S. De Vera, Miguel Syjuco, Lourd Ernest de Veyra, Lakambini Sitoy, Sarge Lacuesta, Dean Alfar, Naya Valdellon, Angelo Suarez, Adam David, among many others...
Today, the workshop’s alumni number above six hundred. Their memories of three weeks in during a Dumaguete summer remain indelible. Timothy Montes writes: “It was a common story we told: meeting Doc Ed was a turning point in life. I remember him, the first time I joined the workshop, taking me aside and saying, ‘You can write.’ And I began to write seriously.”
The poet Cesar Ruiz Aquino tells the story of being the first workshopper: “We were a very young college boy when we came to Dumaguete for the first time in the summer of 1962... It was a letter from a man named Dr. Edilberto Tiempo that brought it about. The letter was an invitation to join the 1962 Workshop in April… We accepted, of course, full of madness and innocence... [He] met us at the wharf, aboard a tartanilla… It was just after dawn. We can’t recall certain details. For instance, we can’t recall how we knew it was him or how he knew it was us. We rode the tartanilla to town, to the English Department at Hibbard, to the Alumni Hall where the workshoppers would be housed, then to the Cafeteria for breakfast.
“How quiet the town was, how still. Even then it felt like memory. Time, a full, primeval river, moved in eddies... It was the morning of creation and the dawn seemed to cling to everything. In the evening, across from our window, played Vic Damone on the jukebox singing, incredibly, ‘Tender is the Night.’ And in the morning of the next day we met the next to come, Willy Sanchez who looked at us with contempt until, in no time, we began tramping through the campus, Katzenjammered the olds, crossed the hooligans, wrote lines under a cypress tree, befriended inanimate objects. Willy performed, we watched. Nick Joaquin exclaimed at the caf: ‘Franz, I think they’re writers!’”
This year, we add 15 more writers to the august list of fellows: Charmaine Carreon, Evangeline Gubat, Jeffrey Javier, Allen Samsuya, Alyza Taguilaso, Glenn Diaz, Christine Lao, Emmanuel Lava, Andrea Macalino, Marius Monsanto, Philline Donggay, Rogelio Garcia Jr., Miguel Sulangi, Elaine Tobias, and Maria Villaruel.
This year’s panel of critics is composed of Director-in-Residence Rowena Tiempo-Torrevillas and Dumaguete-based writers Myrna Peña Reyes, Bobby Villasis and Cesar Ruiz Aquino, as well as guest panelists Susan Lara, DM Reyes, Dave Genotiva, Ricky de Ungria, Gemino Abad, and Alfred Yuson. For this summer, internationally-acclaimed Singaporean writer Kirpal Singh will also be sitting in with the panel.
The 50th Silliman University National Writers Workshop, scheduled on May 2-20, is sponsored by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and Silliman University, coordinated by its Department of English and Literature.
That hour, I was most myself. I had shrugged my mother slowly off, I lay there taking my first breaths, as if the air of the room was blowing me like a bubble. All I had to do was go out along the line of my gaze and back, feeling gravity, silk, the pressure of the air a caress, smelling on myself her creamy blood. The air was softly touching my skin and mouth, entering me and drawing forth the little sighs I did not know as mine. I was not afraid. I lay in the quiet and looked, and did the wordless thought, my mind was getting its oxygen direct, the rich mix by mouth. I hated no one. I gazed and gazed, and everything was interesting, I was free, not yet in love, I did not belong to anyone, I had drunk no milk yet—no one had my heart. I was not very human. I did not know there was anyone else. I lay like a god, for an hour, then they came for me and took me to my mother.
Grief and sadness are made bearable by beauty. This is why I love sad stories written by the masters: they distill the pain and make it resonate in uncanny loveliness. Jacques Tourner's I Walked With a Zombie  may be a B-movie made in the schlocky tradition we equate with Roger Corman, but listen to those lovely lines. In the film, a young Canadian nurse named Betsy goes to the West Indies to take care of the sick, mentally paralyzed wife of a handsome plantation manager named Paul, whom she eventually falls for, and in her misguided love, uses voodoo to give what she thinks the man wants.
Paul Holland: It's easy enough to read the thoughts of a newcomer. Everything seems beautiful because you don't understand. Those flying fish, they're not leaping for joy, they're jumping in terror. Bigger fish want to eat them. That luminous water, it takes its gleam from millions of tiny dead bodies. The glitter of putrescence. There is no beauty here, only death and decay.
Betsy Connell: You can't really believe that.
Paul Holland: Everything good dies here. Even the stars.