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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

entry arrow5:21 PM | This Article is a Metaphor

Now that the film has become a massive hit (and thereby fair game for potshots), I've noticed a certain thread in the general reception of Josh Boone's adaptation of John Green's popular YA novel The Fault in Our Stars that seem to regard its reputation as a "weepie" as something to scorn about. It even prompted one misguided Salon writer to reprimand adults who love to read YA novels as being, more or less, stunted in their reading preferences. "Read more literary fiction, more adult books," the writer wagged her finger reproachfully.

Then again, reviews are reviews, and it is foolhardy to think that there is a way to just about pleasing everyone. We do need good criticism in a landscape overrun with so much cultural production, but criticism is always a tricky thing to bottle: what can be considered great at the moment may become utterly forgettable in a few years' time -- and then there are things like Joey Gosiengfiao's Temptation Island, or Jim Sheridan's The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Branded as "baduy"/trash cinema when both premiered, they have since attained lofty status among cineasts as films of the best possible camp sensibilities. Taste, I guess, is relative, and only time is the best arbiter for what passes for good.

Yet I think many (certainly not all) people's adverse reactions to The Fault in Our Stars as essentially springing from a never-ending and quite pervasive sense that anything "sentimental" is weak or bad. It is "too female," and does not make for great literature or movies. There may in fact be a widespread allergy to the "sentimental" in popular culture. Unless it's a meme featuring adorable cats.

It is much the same way most people deride "romantic comedies." You can go over the unbelievable critical drubbings the late Nora Ephron used to get for her films like Sleepless in Seattle or You've Got Mail -- but let a man direct her screenplay for When Harry Met Sally... and see them practically fall all over themselves to regard it as an instant classic of its genre.

It is also much the same way with so-called "women's films," most of which have been relegated to the wayside of critical attention contemporary to their release. Take the great films of Douglas Sirk and Ross Hunter -- All That Heaven Allows, for example, or Imitation of Life, or Written on the Wind, or Magnificent Obsession -- attacked upon their releases as "inconsequential melodrama" done up in Technicolor -- but we know what has happened since then: Sirk is now considered an auteur of the first rank, using the genre of the melodrama and a heightened cinematographic palette to slyly comment on the social mores of the stifling 1950s.

This recalls for me the early feminists' cultural fight against the overwhelmingly white/male literary canon, which they charged as basically excluding a lot of women's writings -- "lost" writings, these feminist literary critics called them -- because "they were not important." Because these writings sought to explore the female sphere of living -- and not war or politics or other manly concerns -- they were "not important."

Truth to tell, I like "sentimental." As a Filipino writer, it is hardwired into my literary DNA, considering that I have in my literary tradition the books of Jose Rizal, Zoilo Galang, and Pedro Paterno. This is tempered only by the strictures of American formalism that reward writing that is "muscular" and "restrained." Needless to say, we have been taught too well that "restraint" is what makes good fiction. We are told, and trained, to never wear our hearts on our sleeves when we write, unless, of course, you are Nick Joaquin. (And nobody else can be like the singular Nick Joaquin.) But sentimental, for me, is not the same as being mawkish or cloying. It can be, especially when it's being done by a hack like Stephenie Meyer, whose Twilight series of books limned the execrable in emotionality. Of course sentimental fiction can be done well, especially when they're made to sing. Read Andre Aciman's wonderful and heartbreaking chronicle of longing in Call Me By Your Name, and there you can see how sentimentality can indeed be elevated to art.

There's this line from John Green's novel, for example, that gets me every time. On the page, the charming Augustus Waters tells the more sarcastic Hazel Grace Lancaster: "My thoughts are stars I cannot fathom into constellations." Heightened, yes. Verbose, oh yes. But I think joyfully so. It's right up there with Pablo Neruda declaring in a poem, "Love is so short, forgetting is so long." And I certainly don't want to be part of that uninformed camp that cannot believe today's teenagers can actually talk like this. Have they met any of today's teenagers at all? If they do, they will find that many of them are so articulate, and witty, and knowing -- the perfect product of the Information Age they were born into.

In the Facebook comments of the post I made about these matters, the young writer Patty Verzo commented: "I also dislike how easily people dismiss anything teenage girls (and teenagers, in general) like as shallow and unimportant. These are their experiences; how could you say a person's interests and experiences are unimportant? That isn't fair." Exactly. Who is to say the story of a well-spoken cancer-stricken girl in love is invalid? Who is to say no such girls can be real? (Green's Hazel Grace is said to be partly based on a real-life, very articulate sixteen-year old American girl with cancer named Esther Grace who died in 2010.) Who is to say pathos has no place in teenage lives? And yet, given these, the naysayers seem to be singularly forgiving of authors who write only of the dark themes of adolescence, like the nihilistic middle-finger narrative of Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye -- so nihilistic it spawned real-life murderers. It is a cynical book with a cynical view of the world -- of course critics ate it up. But give them a book that affirms life while not being dismissive of death, that embraces lightness and humour even in the throes of pain, that is, in fact, well-written, and you get scorn. How does one respond to that. I guess with a shrug that reads, "Oh, well."

In the end, I guess, it is a matter of taste. As another young writer remarked: “What about people who simply didn’t like it just because it didn’t appeal to them as much?” It is thus a question of appeal, but I always like to ask from what standpoint that appeal is shaped from. Why doesn’t it appeal to you? I detest action movies like the Transformers films, for example, because the endless action—all CG wizardry and often devoid of humanity—makes me sleepy as hell. I doze off. I find mindless macho demonstrations on film ultimately unappealing, because as a gay man, they have helped define what made me “less a man” growing up. I wasn’t sporty, or manly enough—and sometimes I got called names. My boredom of the same demonstrations, this time on celluloid, is how I repay the past. That’s where I come from.

In the end, I like stories where the emotional stakes are high for the human beings in it, and not because they are trapped in a Michael Bay movie. Perhaps I like films and books like TFIOS because, like what the late Roger Ebert once said, and I paraphrase—he likes to behold stories where good people try to be good and do good, despite the circumstances that surround them. Movies like that appealed to his humanity, and thus moved him. In the dramatic ending of Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society, the dismissed English professor’s former students stand up for their teacher by literally standing up, one by one, on their desks in the classroom, declaring “Oh Captain! My Captain!” When I first saw that scene, I got a lump in my throat.

Fine, I cried.

Mawkish, perhaps, for you? But I guess that says more about you than anything else. I saw that scene, and I wanted to become an English teacher.

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[1] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich