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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, March 30, 2011

entry arrow8:08 PM | A Lot of Things Can Happen in Ten Years.

I leafed through it at first with the detachment of somebody just biding his time. It was there, and my meal was still cooking. I was waiting, and this issue of Vanity Fair was on the magazine stand. It had Tom Cruise on the cover, his hair long, his pose relaxed but studiedly masculine, as if to say, "I am the biggest star of them all, and here you are, picking up this magazine because of me." I did not. I've always liked Vanity Fair, and if it were Adrien Brody on the cover, I'd still pick it up. I glanced at the date. June 2000. I whistled, smiled a bit. How long ago this was. Ten years? A lot of things can happen in ten years. Heck, a lot of things can happen in a year -- and I began to look closely at that. This magazine was a time machine, you can say. Or a snapshot of a moment in popular culture, a little more than a year before things really changed and transformed us all. This issue came out fifteen months before those planes swooped down and flattened the towers -- and changed the world forever. What was I doing in June 2000? Probably starting to get into Graduate School, inching my way into a career in teaching, even as I plotted my way out of my first job as editor of this local newspaper. The plans for the Silliman University centennial celebrations were underway, and Dumaguete was still a quiet town. I looked inside. The pictures inside the pages looked quaint, brushed by some form of innocence in all its brashness and celebration of the commercial and the small. The people in it looked too happy, or too deliriously drugged out. Oblivious. There is an ad with the Sex and the City girls coming off its first season -- all of them still looking buxom and young -- daring us: "Are you ready for more?" In the Hollywood pages, the Vanity Fair post-Oscar party was riddled with pictures of faces that were celebrated as new -- but are now considered vintage, long-gone couplings -- Salma and Edward, Tom and Nicole. (Kidman, apparently, was in Australia filming Moulin Rouge.) Clasping her Oscar, Angeline Jolie is dressed as Morticia Adams, with no hint of the luster that would soon make her the Most Beautiful Woman in the World. The ads for luxury goods come and go, lackluster in appeal, but one ad struck me: Lucky Strikes, and its tag line: "It's Toasted." (Years later, Mad Men would recreate the coining of that line.) The waitress brought me my food, and I began eating, and I turned the pages some more. In one piece, Lance Armstrong chronicles his battle with cancer, and in another, Hillary Clinton takes on Rudy Guiliani. Cameron Crowe interviews Cruise for the issue, and begins with an anecdote about Cruise reading out loud over the phone the lines of Lester Bangs from a movie Crowe is set to direct -- something still called Untitled. (Almost Famous was still a dream.) In the interview, Cruise reflects on the strange reception towards Stanley Kubrick's last film, Eyes Wide Shut. (Kubrick just recently died, his last film a misunderstood masterpiece.) In another story, Helen Gurley Brown gushes about her new book I'm Wild Again, and answers questions about plastic surgery on enhancing the labia. "Does it give girls better orgasm?" she asks. On one editorial fashion spread, Jennifer Lopez, glammed up in a series of scenes, still looks like she is still unscrubbed Jenny from the block -- with none of the incandescence of her American Idol future. (In 2000, there was no American Idol.) So many things. Ten years ago. I finished my food, closed the magazine, and went home.

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entry arrow11:27 AM | A Beastly Love Rampage

Once in a while, when I feel particularly brave, I allow myself to screen a film of such hallucinogenic narrative, absurd premise, or controversial reputation, just to rock my world and see how far I can go in my cinematic experimentations.

Sometimes, the effort is strangely engaging, as in discovering the Italian Mondo documentaries, Nobuhiko Obayashi's House [1977], or Nagisa Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses [1976], or Alejandro Jodorowski's Santa Sangre [1989], or Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now [1973], or Catherine Breillat's Fat Girl [2001], or Roger Corman's The Pit and the Pendulum [1961], or Dario Argento's Two Evil Eyes [1990], or Tinto Brass' La Chiave [1983], or Sam Raimi's Evil Dead [1981], or Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher [2001], or Joey Gosiengfiao's Temptation Island [1980], or Takashi Miike's Audition [1999], or Fruit Chan's Dumplings [2004], or even Jim Sharman's Rocky Horror Picture Show [1975].

And sometimes, it is dreadful and exhausting, as in Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salo [1975], Herschelle Gordon Lewis' Blood Feast [1963], or Eli Roth's Hostel [2005].

As you can see, the constants are these: extremes in both sex and violence, or in absurdity -- and how much the envelope can be pushed, and still be regarded as art (or at least "camp.")

A few hours ago, I allowed myself to finally screen something I've had for years but never bothered to see: Walerian Borowczyk's La Bestia [1975] -- a strange Italian sexual romp on this side of bestiality that is a loose take on the "Beauty and the Beast" fairy tale, which it turns on its head. A beautiful young woman comes to a countryside mansion intent on marrying the son of her father's friend -- but the son has a, well, an animalistic dark secret which she soon discovers as she gets haunted by strange sexual dreams of a nubile woman being chased in the woods -- and then raped (or is it rape?) -- by a rampaging beast that is a cross between a bear and a meerkat. The film's matter-of-fact close-up shots of, ummm, beastly and oozing ... appendages prove to be capable of a combination of amusement and shock. By the end of the film, I chuckle, I eject the DVD, and I wonder for the umpteenth time at the strange provocations exploitation cinema sometimes can bring. Was that art? Perhaps not, but it was at least interesting.


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entry arrow11:27 AM | Anything For Love

I don't know what compelled me to screen Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious [1946] again last night. Maybe it was the after-effect of having seen Spellbound [1945] earlier, and still wanting to see Ingrid Bergman in Hitchcock territory. But I'm glad I did, because with this second viewing, the tension I felt was more taut, the stakes the characters gamble on even higher. Here is a story of a man who dispatches the love of his life to spy on a target, even marry him to be privy to important secrets -- and she does it for her love of him. Maybe I could identify with that strange sacrifice now that I've had my share of love and losing -- and sacrificing? Hahaha. Maybe. But that last rescue scene fraught with both tension and tenderness -- and that long, long, long kiss somewhere in the middle of the film -- I swoon.

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entry arrow11:26 AM | Harsh Milkshake

I don't know why it took me so long to watch Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood [2007], but here it was -- something that I felt I had to watch very early this morning -- and it was terrifying and epic and inexplicably draws you in with so much power and malevolence, you had to wonder why. Is it the sweeping sureness of Anderson's direction, and Robert Elswit's cinematography? Or the no-holds-barred acting of both Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano as antagonists in this story of oil, the Wild West, greed and speculation, the darkness of human nature, and the vapid venom of organized religion? Or the unsettling musical score by Jonny Greenwood? Maybe the exact reason why it took me long to watch it is because I am sometimes made timid by the prospect of beholding something Important and Powerful, the way the raves went in 2007 and 2008, in time for the film to become a serious Oscar contender. But I'm glad I got over that timidity -- and even if I am still shaken by the wrath of Day-Lewis' Daniel Plainview ("I drink your milkshake!"), it was worth the nerves.

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entry arrow11:22 AM | Colorful Claustrophobia

I have yet to see Fantastic Mr. Fox [2009], but why is it that I am beginning to feel that my swooning infatuation with Wes Anderson has come to an end? (God, I hope not.) He piqued my interest, in a minor way, with Bottle Rocket [1996], a strange cinematic tumble with a peculiarity of composition that immediately drew me in; that fascination only strengthened in Rushmore [1998]. But when I saw The Royal Tenenbaums [2001], I was in love. Here was a director with a film syntax all his own, somebody with a curious fascination for elaborate production design [can we call it the vintage New York hotel look?], enhanced color palette, and quirky characters, often very smart people at the end of their ropes hanging only with the bitterest but repressed hopes. [OMGLists has a "Five Signs You're Watching a Wes Anderson Movie" list.] Then The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou [2004] happened, and while the Anderson visual staples and quirks were still evident, it smacked of unribald indulgence. The story, despite having Bill Murray in it, had no heart. And alas, with The Darjeeling Limited [2007], which I saw last night, exactly the same conclusion can be drawn. Why should we care about this trio of brothers traveling across India by rail in both a spiritual quest and a search for the mother who has abandoned them? At the end of it all, I still had no answers. There is no emotional gravity here, and certainly no sense of expansive spirit, just a strange claustrophobia engendered by the cooped up space we had to squeeze into in the title train's corridors and carriages. Which is sad because India -- the country, the people, the culture -- is huge, but here it just becomes an excuse for Anderson to squander his overly saturated production design.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

entry arrow7:42 PM | The God Wife

In light of this article in Discovery News about the "rediscovery" of God's forgotten wife Asherah, whose once prominent standing in divinity is found in amulets, figurines, inscriptions and ancient texts, including the Bible -- and is the focus of the now controversial research of University of Exeter's Francesca Stavrakopoulou -- I am unearthing this old essay by William R. Harwood, which dumbfounded me when I first read it in college many years ago, and which I posted in this blog back in 2004.

Gods, Goddesses, and Bibles: The Canonization of Misogyny

By William R. Harwood

In October 1984, America’s National Council of Chinches issued a new translation of passages of the Judeo-Christian Bible that the Council felt were marred by “male bias.” Words that were masculine gender in the original language were converted to common gender in English (for example: king became ruler; God’s son became God’s child), passages that ignored women were altered to rectify the omission (The God of Abraham became The God of Abraham and Sarah), and references to the head of the Christian pantheon as God the Father were amended to God the Father and Mother. While all but the culturally Schlaflyed [1] applauded the attempt to drag religion into the twentieth century, even at the price of altering “revealed truth,” what nobody seems to have realized is that a translation of the Judeo-Christian Bible that does not offend women is analogous to a translation of Mein Kampf [2] that does not offend Jews.

In a male-dominated world, popes, caliphs, ayatollahs, prophets, messiahs, priests, and rabbis tend to be male; but that was not always so. From humankind’s creation of the first goddess thirty thousand years ago until the retaliatory invention of male gods more than twenty thousand years later, women held the same ruling-caste status presently enjoyed by men. There was a good reason for this: just as Cro-Magnon humans were able to recognize that the cow was their superior because she sustained them with her milk (thus the cow-goddess Hera and the status of cows in Hinduism), so did they recognize that woman was man’s superior because she produced the children who ensured the species’s continued survival.

Almost from their conception, gods were perceived as the givers of life. Since only females could give life, it inevitably followed that the gods must he female. And in a world ruled by female divinities, those humans created in the Mother’s image naturally far outranked the male humans whose prime functions were fighting wars and providing their female overlords with sexual recreation.

As it was in the skies, so it was on earth. Goddesses ruled the metaphysical world; women ruled the physical. Priestesses reigned for life, often accepting homage (the original meaning of worship) as goddesses-on-earth. In an orderly world hatched from the egg of the goddess and run by her mirror image, men accepted that they had no rights and did as they were ordered (just as in the modern world there are women so conditioned to the belief that they are hereditary slaves that they give speeches urging state legislatures to refuse to ratify a constitutional amendment granting full human status to women). It is doubtful, however, that men were ever exploited by women prior to the Male Revolution of 3500 BCE [3] in the manner in which women since that date have been oppressed and dehumanized by men. There was never, for example, a female-absolutist equivalent of the sixth-century CE synod of Macon, at which Christian bishops earnestly debated whether women were human beings, possessed of “souls,” or simply soulless breeding stock whom the chief male god had given man to use as he saw fit.

Men were never private property, owned by one woman and arbitrarily forbidden from providing sexual recreation to any woman but herself. At least, they were not in the days of goddess-rule. Men accept such a designation today (or pretend to) as the price they must pay for imposing similar private ownership on their breeding women; but this, too, is a consequence of the Male Revolution. When the idea began to evolve that monogamy was either right or wrong, the ruling males declared, in effect, “We won’t annul your sexual slavery — but we’ll agree to share your captivity by submitting to the same exclusivity.”

Then came the Big Discovery.

The Big Discovery did not occur everywhere at the same time. Among the Aborigines of Melville Island to the north of Australia, it was not made until the nineteenth century CE. In some places, it may well have taken place much earlier than 3500 BCE, which is the best available estimate of the approximate date at which it became widespread. To persons who have grown up in a society in which such knowledge is taken for granted, it is difficult to convey the tremendous significance for future history of the first discovery by men that the weapon with which they pleasured their mistresses also made babies. The Big Discovery meant that women were no longer the sole purveyors of life—and therefore neither were goddesses! From being the reproducers of life, women found themselves reduced to the level of incubators, of no more relevance to the birth process than the dirt in which an ear of corn grew into an adult plant.

Men were physically stronger than women. That fact had long been known and rationalized to fit a female-dominant theology, and only men’s acceptance of their insignificance in the divine order kept them from taking over the world much sooner. Following the Big Discovery, nothing could stop them and nothing did stop them. However, the takeover did not occur right away. Compared to the Male Revolution, the Industrial Revolution was accomplished overnight. Before the mind could conceive of any change in the social structure of human society, it had first to postulate a similar change in the sky. Thus, before there could be any king reigning on earth, there had to be created a King of Heaven, a God the Father, who was the Mother’s superior and by whose impregnation she produced her children.

Men did gain political power. But power that was not hereditary was meaningless. Just as mothers had always been able to identify their daughters, now fathers wanted to be able to identify their sons. It was for that reason that men imposed upon women a logical extension of the private-property concept, the chattel-slavery that came to be known as marriage. And with marriage came the first sexual taboo: you are not to commit adultery.

Adultery was a crime against property. A woman, owned by one man, who allowed herself to be impregnated by another, thereby robbed her husband’s true heir of the inheritance that could conceivably be usurped by her lover’s “bastard” (another new concept). Had the discovery that sexual recreation causes pregnancy been coupled with the realization that births can be positively traced to those couplings that occurred roughly nine months earlier, the adultery taboo would never have been so severe. As it was, the taboo was based upon the assumption that a woman’s child could have been fathered by any previous lover, regardless of whether the coupling had occurred five months or twenty years before its birth.

Since adultery was a crime against the adulteress’s husband, an attempt to rob him of his right to pass on his property and power to his lawfully conceived sons, it followed that an act of recreation involving an unmarried woman did not constitute adultery. The generalization of adultery to include recreation between married men and unmarried women did not occur until after Siddhartha Gautama’s [4] creation of the belief that abstinence from recreation, deemed a sin by the Talmud (Nazir 19a), could somehow be virtuous in itself.

Adultery was for many centuries the only sexual taboo. Without any concept of wrong-doing, women freely grew up copulating with brothers and cousins and neighbors. At the age of eleven or twelve, those that had not been sold to husbands would take adult lovers, usually their closest relative, and recreate diligently until such time as they could demonstrate their fertility by becoming pregnant. Women who, although nubile, had never produced a live infant, and who therefore were bad breeding risks, were stigmatized by the pejorative label, virgin.

Once a woman had given birth, an event that often did not occur until the age of fifteen or sixteen, her chances of being purchased as a wife increased significantly. Men wanted good breeders, and a woman who had demonstrated not only fertility but also the ability to survive the childbirth could expect a wide range of suitors, all of whom would share her favors until such time as her father accepted the highest bid. The first child of the marriage, regardless of how many years might have elapsed before its birth, being of doubtful parentage, would be sacrificed to Molokh or Baal or Yahweh or Allah or whichever other god had the local baby-burning concession. Following the birth and sacrifice, the wife would observe an adultery taboo. All future children could then be attributed with absolute certainty to her legal owner.

It was the abolition of infant sacrifice that led to the imposition of cradle-to-marriage joy-deprivation on half of the human race. All societies eventually recognized that, with women dying in childbirth faster than men could kill each other m war, live births were too rare to be wasted and infant sacrifice must be abolished. That meant that some new method had to be found whereby a man could be certain that the first child born to his new bride was of his own begetting. The solution was to deny unmarried girls the opportunity to bring to the marriage bed a womb that might already be carrying seed that could one day produce a cuckoo’s chick. [5] Women were informed that henceforth they were to practice total premarital joy-rejection, and that any woman who failed to spill hymenal blood on the marriage blanket could expect to he promptly executed (Deut. 22:13-21). Thus from sheer ignorance concerning the duration of pregnancy and the durability of sperm, men stole from women the basic right to decide for themselves whether an offer of sexual activity should be accepted or rejected—a right that only the recent perfection of dependable contraceptive techniques has enabled them to reclaim.

The final step in the degradation of women was not taken until perhaps two thousand years after their reduction to slave status as men’s “wives” following the Big Discovery. Not content with denying women their ancient role in creation and salvation by making the post-Discovery creator and savior both male, the phallusocracy now came up with the myth that male gods had created a perfect world which women had subsequently rendered imperfect by their culpable inadequacy. In Greek god-mythology, the first woman was Pandora, whom Zeus gave to Prometheus to be his wife as a punishment for giving man fire. Pandora was endowed with a scaled box (the sexual symbolism of which should need no explanation) and warned never to open it. She disobeyed Zeus’s admonition, and out of her box leaped disease, famine, and all of the other evils with which man has since been punished for woman’s crime.

In the Semitic version of the same myth, the humanized goddess Eve first yielded to a serpent goddess’s invitation to worship her by eating the vulva-shaped fruit that was her sacramental body and blood, in defiance of the ruling male god’s instruction to worship him alone. She then corrupted the man she had been created to serve. That only a chronic misogynist could have imposed such a fable is obvious enough. That only a misogynist culture could believe it should be no less obvious.

A religion in which all first- and second-ranking gods are male is misogynous by definition. Christianity, for example, admits females only as third-ranking immortals (“saints”), and many at its third-ranking gods, prior to their pumpkinification, [6] were themselves vicious misogynists. Jerome, translator of the Vulgate, described women as “a tool of Satan and a pathway to Hell,” while Ambrose and Augustine contributed to the world the pious belief that someone as clean as Jesus could not have come out of something as dirty as a female recreational orifice but instead magically appeared outside of third-level goddess Mary’s body without the necessity of utilizing her birth canal. While not even popes claim to he speaking inerrant truth at all times, and otherwise good humans can still he bigots, it is nonetheless significant that the views expressed by those men have never been repudiated by the Church that canonized them.

It is, however, not in the writings of “saints” but in canonized Scriptures that one must look for proof that a religion officially categorizes women as subhuman. Judaism’s position is clearly spelled out in the prayer in the Talmud that reads, “Yahweh, I thank you who have not made me a woman, an idiot, or an infidel.” Christianity’s inspired apologist for misogyny was Paul of Tarsus:

Women, submit yourselves to your men as to his Lordship. For the man is his woman’s head. Just as the community is subject to the Messiah, so are women to their men in all things. (Eph. 5:22— 24)

Women in the community are to remain silent. They are required to be obedient, as even the Torah commands. (I Cor. 14:34)

The man was not created for the woman, but the woman for the man. (I Cor. 11:9)

Paul’s misogyny has begun to he rejected in the secular world, but in Christian churches women’s demands for full membership in the human race continue to be ignored.

The misogyny of Islam’s fanatic present-day leaders is widely known. Less known perhaps is that misogyny is unambiguously endorsed by Muhammad’s Koran:

Has your Lord blessed you with sons and himself adopted daughters from among the angels? A monstrous blasphemy is that which you utter. (17:40)

Men have a status above women. (2:228)

Call in two male witnesses from among you, but if two men cannot he found, then one man and two women. (2:282)

Men have authority over women because Allah has made the one superior to the other.... Good women are obedient.... As for those from whom you fear disobedience... beat them. (4:34)

Not only did Muhammad’s male chauvinist god deem men superior to women, he declared it a blasphemy to suggest otherwise.

And how did the National Council of Churches respond to Paul’s sexism in their common-gender Bible translation? Very easily: they simply left it out.


1. An allusion to Phyllis Schlafly, the anti-women’s-rights activist who opposed the Equal Rights Amendment in the late 1970s.

2. “My Battle” (1924-1926), the book by Adolf Hitler in which he explained Nazi programs and doctrines including Nazi anti-Semitism.

3. Before the common era; same as BC, before Christ. CE signifies “of the common era”; same as AD, anno domini, in the year of the dominion (of Christ).

4. Founder of Buddhism (563—483 BC); also known as Buddha.

5. The cuckoo lays its eggs in the nests of other species of birds, which rear the cuckoo’s young.

6. Harwood seems to be referring here to the fairy tale Cinderella in which a pumpkin is transformed into a golden coach.

From The Humanist, May-June 1985

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entry arrow12:26 PM | How to Eat a Pizza

Slice by Marco Castro on Vimeo. Featuring "Every Time You Go Away" by Paul Young.

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entry arrow6:46 AM | The Lovely Melancholy

"So much has been said about the girls over the years. But we have never found an answer. It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls… but only that we had loved them… and that they hadn’t heard us calling… still do not hear us calling them from out of those rooms… where they went to be alone for all time… and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together.”

~ Giovanni Ribisi as the Narrator in Sofia Coppola’s film adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides [1999]

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entry arrow4:37 AM | Sad Monsters

What a tender and sad film this was, albeit contained within the shell of a formula it knew it was subverting. But James Whale knew what he must have been doing when he made an adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein [1931] -- and Bill Condon's Gods and Monsters [1998], a biopic that tackles Whale's twilight years, gives us a glimpse to a reason why. Whale was gay, and also a working director in the closeted confines of Hollywood in the studio heyday, and in the misunderstood monster of Dr. Frankenstein's creation -- innocent even in bloodshed, and hunted by a terrified mob -- he must have felt a certain kind of kinship. This film is first-rate, and there is no wonder why it is being hailed today as one of cinema's greatest despite its pulp intentions. It has its terrifying moments appropriate for its time, but it does not work for me as the horror movie it describes itself to be, it works more as a melancholic examination of accidental monsters.

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entry arrow4:23 AM | Dear Gregory Peck

I was watching Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound [1945] a few hours ago, his much-derided early work that nevertheless contains traces of themes and motifs that would become full-blown devices in North by Northwest (the pursuit of winged contraptions!), Vertigo and Notorious (the switching of identities!), Psycho (the full psychological accounting!), and Marnie (the splurging of psychoanalysis!). Plus, it has the beautiful Ingrid Bergman, too, a movie star I have always worshipped since I discovered her in high school. (High school! That was how far back I knew about Ingrid Bergman!) But all that did not matter to me as this one realization quickly dawned: Gregory Peck, this young Gregory Peck of the sad eyes and the lean frame. That's him. That's the guy of my dreams. Oh dear God. I'm in love with a dead man's shadow.

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entry arrow4:17 AM | An American Myth of Small Town Hell

I was prepared to hate Lars Von Trier's Dogville [2003] like the cinematic hell it is reputed to be. I've read the scathing reviews, and I have since consigned my DVD copy to the oblivion of my film shelves for half a decade, biding my time before I felt I was prepared enough to watch it. But I've seen The Five Obstructions, his pseudo-sadistic experiment in film directing involving his mentor, the Danish director Jørgen Leth -- and loved it; and I've seen his notorious Anti-Christ [2009] -- and was mesmerized by it. Tonight, for no reason whatsoever, I chose to finally finish Dogville. And I loved it in all its quirkiness and cruelty, even the bracing cathartic end when Nicole Kidman's Grace chooses what must be done to her benefactors-turned-oppressors in this little town in the Rocky Mountains. (Kidman here delivers a brave performance, and cements her reputation as an actress unafraid to take risks as far as I'm concerned.) I won't go so much anymore into the film -- even Von Trier's queer (brilliant?) use of an almost bare sound stage equipped only with chalk marks to make up his vision of what an America town is all about (and this is a film that is bursting with hate for America) -- because this film has been analyzed to bits by critics who have either loved or loathed this film. I must admit it is a cruel one, but like Anti-Christ and his other films in the Dogme tradition, it seems to me very honest in its assessment about the tendencies for torment many of us possess, and which Grace finally makes a decisive nod towards the end. I don't know what that says about me as a human being to identify so much with Grace. It scares me and excites me at the same time, but there you go.


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Monday, March 28, 2011

entry arrow6:04 PM | A Shattering of Memory

“As it was with him, forgetting will begin with your eyes. Then, as with him, it will swallow your voice. Then, as with him, it will swallow you entirely, little by little.”

~ Emmanuelle Riva as She in Alain Resnais’s
Hiroshima, Mon Amour [1959], with screenplay by Marguerite Duras

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entry arrow1:05 AM | A Robert Altman Completist's Checklist

I'm glad I was born the year I was born, in 1975. (That dates me, but who cares? I'm proud of my age.) Imagine having to play catch-up with all of the world (and culture and history) if I were born much later. Yesterday, I watched Robert Altman's A Wedding [1978], and that got me to looking at his filmmography to see what else of what he directed I've missed. It turned out to be a lot, which is a shame, really. And so I've decided to proceed with this goal of watching the rest of his ouevre (minus his television efforts, just to make my objective a reachable one).

And I began by rewatching what is perhaps considered his greatest film -- Nashville, which just happened to be released on the year I was born. And perhaps the stars have much to do with my attraction to Altman films: I find his story-telling technique -- the overlapping dialogues, the huge ensemble casts, the interconnected storylines, the solipsistic tendencies, the epic consideration in minutiae a closed world -- very appealing, and I find that informing much of my long fiction. My novel Sugar Land, for example, is in spirit Nashville, only set in Negros Oriental, with sugar and a serial killer as the pivotal narrative devices instead of country and gospel music and American politics.

When I saw the film again, I noticed several things that I've seen later on expanded in his later films: for example, Geraldine Chaplin's hopelessly lost BBC documentarian Opal is the prototype for Kim Basinger's Kitty Potter in Prêt-à-Porter [Ready to Wear, 1994] and Lauren Hutton's Florence Farmer in A Wedding [1978]. It made me wonder what that these characters revealed about Altman's idea of "journalism." Was it as crackpot or as lost as he made the profession appear to be in his films? It is informative, for example, that he used this device of the documentarian to make sense the cacophony of characters in these films. (In an interview with Roger Ebert, he said that the Hutton character in A Wedding was armed with an album of all the family members in the entourage, to help herself -- and the audience -- in making sense of who's who. In the final cut, however, that never panned out.) Perhaps the documentarian is the stand-in for the audience, in all our loony and lost bit, having completely given up understanding the specific world we have just been observing in all its idiosyncrasies. (Or perhaps the documentarian is Altman himself, reacting to the world he has attempted to document in film?) At the end of Prêt-à-Porter, Basinger's Potter gives up her mic in exasperation over the lunacy of the French high fashion industry. At the end of Nashville, Chaplin's Opal is seen rushing about the crowd after the assassination, asking "What happened? What happened?"

But these are my best scenes from Nashville. This one with songwriter Ronee Blakley as country star Barbara Jean singing and then having a very public nervous breakdown...

And this one with Keith Carradine as Tom Frank singing "I'm Easy" to Lily Tomlin (look at her face -- it explains exactly why she was nominated for an Oscar for this film, a feat she shared with Blakley), and followed by the heartbreaking scene of Gwen Welles as Sueleen Gay, a simple girl who can't sing but dreams of country music stardom, forced to make a striptease for a bunch of men in a political fundraiser...

And here's the director talking about the making of the film...

So, let's see... What other Altman films have I missed?

☐ A Prairie Home Companion [2006]
☑ The Company [2003]
☑ Gosford Park [2001]
☑ Dr. T and the Women [2000]
☐ Cookie's Fortune [1999]
☑ The Gingerbread Man [1998]
☐ Kansas City [1996]
☑ Prêt-à-Porter [1994]
☑ Short Cuts [1993]
☑ The Player [1992]
☐ Vincent & Theo [1990]
☑ Aria (Segment "Les Boréades") [1987]
☐ Beyond Therapy [1987]
☐ Fool for Love [1985]
☐ O.C. and Stiggs [1985]
☐ Secret Honor [1984]
☐ Streamers [1983]
☐ Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean [1982]
☐ Popeye [1980]
☐ HealtH [1980]
☐ A Perfect Couple [1979]
☐ Quintet [1979]
☑ A Wedding [1978]
☑ 3 Women [1977]
☐ Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson [1976]
☑ Nashville [1975]
☐ California Split [1974]
☐ Thieves Like Us [1974]
☐ The Long Goodbye [1973]
☐ Images [1972]
☐ McCabe & Mrs. Miller [1971]
☐ Brewster McCloud [1970]
☐ M*A*S*H [1970]
☐ That Cold Day in the Park [1969]

See my other Completist List: Woody Allen.

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Sunday, March 27, 2011

entry arrow5:16 PM | A Reception of Chaos

There are no laugh-out loud moments in Robert Altman's A Wedding [1978], but it is supposed to be a comedy, and by virtue of its intentions, it is an effective one. I've been looking for a copy of this film for a long time when I decided some time ago that I wanted to be a completist with Altman's filmmography -- a daunting proposition, given his output. Who knew I could find the entire film in YouTube? And this film does delve deep into recognizable Altman territory: the overlapping dialogues, the huge tumbling cast (many of whom are cinematic superstars), the unwieldy narrative that we have to piece together from the whirlpool of strands as characters descend on a singular colorful vortex of a particular world that defines all of them for the time being. We had that in the mashup of politics and country music of Nashville, in the Parisian fashion week fever of Pret-a-Porter, in the British class system examinations via a murder mystery of Gosford Park, in the ballet world of The Company, in the Hollywood dark secrets of The Player, in the Raymond Chandler lives of Short Cuts. I have loved the peculiar flows of those worlds, and in 1978, Altman brought that unique style of story-telling in his examination of a society wedding. Two big families in Illinois -- old money and new money in collision -- descend on a family mansion for a wedding reception complete with its adherence for traditions, and all sorts of merry chaos, untimely deaths, sexual shenanigans, and dark secrets tumble out -- and part of the fun is figuring out how each one is related to whom and what skeleton in the closet they possess. There are many, many speaking lines, but by the end of the film, we somehow know quite intimately each member of the wedding party. I tittered all throughout this film. No big laughs, just small doses of giggles as I recognized in the entanglements of these people the very funny comedy of being human.

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

entry arrow2:18 AM | The World Will Corrupt You

Never judge a book by its cover -- or by its blurbs. A few days ago, I allowed myself some tempting purchases from BookSale, and one of them was this book: Mexican writer Javier Valdes's People Like Us: Short Stories, whose cover art arrested my attention, and whose praise from Like Water for Chocolate's Laura Esquivel declared in bold print from the back cover: "Finally! A Latin American author with a sense of humor!" She also promised "quirky characters, offbeat rhythms, and generous dose of humanity," and I went hmmmm.

She is wrong in all three counts. The characters are not quirky, they're ridiculously flat. The rhythm is not offbeat, it's predictable from beginning to end. The dose of humanity is not generous, because there is no "humanity" here at all, only a macabre skewering of what passes for it, told in a tone that is chillingly gleeful it reminds me of the chuckle of a serial killer. The only saving grace I can think of for this book is that there must have been a mistranslation from the Spanish by Stephen Lytle. But perhaps that is not really the case.

I like its premise, which begins with the sinister simile it offers in its title: these are stories about people like us, like you and me -- and in a sense Valdes is correct: we all possess the tendencies he writes about in these pages. The premise is that the world is a corrupting place that turns even the nicest of people into monsters, given the right (or wrong?) circumstances. In the title story, a couple becomes estranged and consumed by greed and murder after they discover a bloody treasure in a hidden basement of a rented house. In "Neighbors," a perfectly moral family disintegrates into carnality and crime as its members begin to have sexual desires for members of a neigbouring family -- who happen to be all sexy devils. In "Cornelia," a rich man who means well becomes a tragic case of irony after setting up his drunkard of a brother with a perfect prostitute. In "Beat Me to Death," a nice young man becomes an out-of-control vigilante, splattering every paragraph in this story with blood courtesy of knives guns, and baseball bats. In "Flidia," a beautiful young woman is abducted by a family friend and becomes a sexual Stockholm Syndrome case, and once released by her kidnapper, debases herself again and again in order to find her unknown assailant whom she has fallen in love with. In "Orquidea," a young man visits the family of a girl he wants to date, and becomes witness to their grotesquery and their Catholicism.

It's not a funny book at all, and by the time I got to "Flidia," I was on the verge of flinging away this volume of utter filth. And yet I react not because my morals have been affronted. I have loved books about perverse people before, and Vladimir Nabokov's pedophilic masterpiece Lolita is a perfect example of that. So why do I abhor Valdes' book so much? I come to this conclusion: what redeems Lolita (and other books just like it in terms of scandalous subject matter but luminous artistry) is the language. People Like Us is spare in its use of language -- the writer boasts of spinning stories from the gut -- and its narrative oftentimes aspire to frank brutality, but alas it doesn't sing. It's clumsily written, it's filled with cliches, and reading this book is like reading a story by an earnest freshman Creative Writing student who has just discovered "shock value" but does not know subtlety. (The author, by the way, is a dentist in real life, and judging from the gutter-ish nature of his imagination, I wouldn't risk being a patient under his dental care. I've seen Marathon Man, for Pete's sake.)

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

entry arrow3:06 PM | How the Young Breathe, or Some of Them Anyway

I've only begun watching the British version of Skins recently. Belatedly, I know. A TV series takes commitment, time, and devotion, and one cannot serve too many masters at the same time, but here comes summer, and here's a surfeit of all that.

I like Skins, uneven though it is. What it does best is to make its camera become a magnifying glass to study the anguished minutae of its teenage character's lives, in episodes devoted thematically to each one -- the beautiful manipulations of Tony, the pretty frivolity of Michelle, the doormat indecisions of Sid, the spaced-out wisdom of Cassie, the fuck-it freefalls of Chris, the horny Muslim boy dilemmas of Anwar, the tough cookie crumblings of Jal, the emotionally-detached wisdom of Effy, the... wait, do we ever know anything more about Maxxie, its resident gay boy/dancer who longs to leave Bristol to find life in London? Season 2 begins with him, stays with him for a while after unfairly treating him like wallpaper in Season 1, but just as abruptly, he's gone too in Season 2, and brings him back only to connect the loose threads in the end with an afterthought of a "subplot" involving him with a guy named James, who just pops out from somewhere holding Maxxie's hand. And there's the rub. After beautifully chronicling the turmoil in the inner lives of Cassie (especially Cassie), Tony (especially Tony), Chris, and Jal -- and sometimes Sid and Michelle -- it leaves the rest of the characters hanging in no-development hell. Still, the characters got to me, Cassie and Effy especially, but Jesus, do the very young these days really live out like that?

I may have to stop with Season 2 though, just as the first generation -- composed of Nicholas Hoult, Dev Patel, Mike Bailey. Hannah Murray, April Pearson, Joe Dempsie, Larissa Wilson, Mitch Hewer, with some very special participation of Kaya Scodelario -- I'm not good at finishing any TV series, sampling only the first two seasons at most, like Dexter or Weeds. The only one I ever got to finish was Sex and the City, and I still can't bring myself to finish out the last seasons/episodes of Lost, Queer as Folk, Friends, and Six Feet Under for some reason.

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Monday, March 21, 2011

entry arrow2:35 PM | The Irony of Being Human

“Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”

~ The Dalai Lama, when asked what surprised him most about humanity

[swiped from
the tumblr of Jacob Walse-Dominguez]

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Saturday, March 19, 2011

entry arrow2:43 PM | Jagged Little Fifteen Years

Fifteen years ago, at the height of the great early 1990s, you couldn’t turn on the radio and not listen to any of the tracks off Alanis Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill. That album was a phenomenon, and went on to define the music of my generation, along with Nirvana, Pearl Jam, The Smashing Pumpkins, Beck, Blind Melon, Red Hot Chili Peppers, R.E.M., Counting Crows, Third Eye Blind, Green Day, Tori Amos, among many others. (Madonna’s Ray of Light mainstreamed electronica, too. I remember attending the launch of that album in Tokyo.) Now, the Critical Condition blog is going through each of its tracks, reliving the memories and finding if they still have resonance after all these years…

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entry arrow2:00 PM | Fake Criterions Fail

I used to like Fake Criterions. (Well, I still do, but to a lesser degree now.) It gave classy, brilliantly-conceived DVD cover designs to really, really bad films -- which was the point. It was parody of the highest order. It also gave a strong statement about the role of design in the ordering of our lives. This is one of my favorites, for example:

Now, the designs -- mostly culled from the flimsy Photoshop skills of many of its Tumblr followers -- are just as bad as the films themselves, like this one:

The bite of the parody is greatly diminished. So what's the point?

[For the uninitiated, the real Criterion Collection is a premium film brand that chooses titles from a wide-range of great world cinema and puts out excellently restored editions in DVD and Blue-ray, complete with features and a mini-booklet that would make a true cineaste's heart go on overdrive.]

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entry arrow12:18 AM | A Fond Farewell for Mrs. Donut

In this University Town where people come and go like the swiftly changing tides from Tañon Strait, goodbyes are constant we’ve learned to live with hearts perpetually broken.

Dumaguete is a city of beautiful transients. There are all these wonderful people from far-flung places with airy names—Dipolog, Iligan, Cagayan de Oro, Marawi, Cebu, Tacloban, Davao, Dap-dap, Malaybalay, Coron, Quezon City, Los Angeles, New York, Madrid. People come, most of them to study; people gradually find themselves falling in love with the acacia trees and the sunrise off the Boulevard; people stay, for years even; and then, because the city is a cocoon, people go.

Growing up here, that endless cycle of farewells used to bother me acutely, and there came a time when—exhausted from having to say goodbye year in and year out—I simply closed shop, padlocked my heart, and regarded each new wave of people with cautious reach, if I could be bothered at all. But life does not work like that. One meets wonderful people still, and it is a kind of crime not to become part of their lives, and them in yours.

One such is the essence of bubbliness herself. Her name is May Justine Gata-Colburn, and for a better part of the past few years, she was one of “my girls”—that select group of women, all of them fabulous, who have custody of my heart. There is a reason for that.

What I know of her story is this: once upon a time, many years ago, she came from wintry Milwaukee on the way to Siquijor for some break. She passed by Dumaguete, of course, and took what must have been a very long pause—because she went back to the United States, quit her job, packed all her belongings, and took her husband Jonathan and her two children to live here. Why? I asked her once. “It felt like the right thing to do,” she said with that familiar, infectious laugh—a tinkling that borders on some form of flightiness.

They bought a Mister Donut franchise and brought it to Dumaguete. The first time I met her, it was for an article I had to write for MetroPost. We met in what was then a Mister Donut outpost in what used to be Sted’s fronting Silliman University’s Katipunan Hall. It was for an interview. She fed me sandwiches, and we were both playing out our professional roles: she as savvy entrepreneur, me as food writer. That we began like that seems so funny now, a few years and a thousand round of wine-flavored laughter later. God knows how long ago that was—but I’d seen her even before that first encounter. We were both regulars at Chantilly’s then. I would occupy one table to do my academic drudgery, and she would occupy another table interviewing an endless string of people. I remember asking myself, What is that woman doing? Later on, I would learn she was interviewing people for staff positions in her doughnut kingdom.

I don’t recall exactly how we became fast friends. Great friendships are like that. The origins are always hazy. You only know the intricate chemistry involved—but I bet that around that time, we had shed off those initial roles we played for each other and began discovering that we were both capable of the craziest things.

If I try to recall in concentrated form my best memories of Justine, they will almost always involve food. Because we loved to eat—Jonathan is one of the best gourmets this city has seen—and we loved to have elaborately prepared dinners together, always in the company of Arlene Delloso-Uypitching, Wing del Prado, Moses Joshua Atega, Patrick Chua, Antonio Quiogue, and Jeremy Schmoll (sometimes with Edo and Annabelle Lee-Adriano, and when they are in Dumaguete, the visual artists Paul Pfeiffer and Razceljan Salvarita). There are also these: her discovery of a royal bloodline to the Kiram sultanate of Sulu, her devotion to People magazine, our beer-stained gossip sessions in Boston Café and Gabby’s Bistro, lazy stargazing in Mampas, and back rubs. May Justine Gata-Colburn gives the best back rubs this side of the universe. And finally this: she has one of the biggest hearts I know, it fills a room.

For Arlene, her best memory to top all best memories would be that time she asked Justine to find a missing passport. She was already in Manila, the passport was in Dumaguete, and the discovery took place only a few hours before her international flight. “We were relaxing in our hotel in Manila,” she said, “when Don casually went through our travel documents and noticed my mother-in-law’s passport was missing among the lot. I could only think of one person who would not think twice about zooming to our house and combing our files to look for it. And zoom she did. I called Justine who was in the middle of a massage. She immediately got up, pulled over a malong, and with nothing under, flew to the house, grabbed all the passports she could find, zoomed to the airport and fought with the cargo personnel who refused to take the package since the receiving counter was already closed for the last flight of the day to Manila. Still, she had her way. The whole experience sealed my utmost trust and confidence in her. She’s more than family to me.”

The rest of us will remember most her laughter. “I chuckle when I think of Justine,” says Razceljan Salvarita, and lawyer Myrish Cadapan-Antonio says: “What I remember most of her is her infectious laugh and very amiable personality. In any conversation, Justine does not fail to make me smile. She is such a kindred spirit and will surely be missed!”

Antulang Beach Resort’s Annabelle Lee-Adriano remembers this: “At the height of her birthday party, which she had at Antulang, she started talking to me about leaving her two dogs behind—and how that’s going to be one of the hardest things about leaving Dumaguete. Birthday girl was about to cry, and me with her.”

Restaurateur Gabby del Prado says: “Tita Justine is one cool tita! She’s like your best buddy, and there never is a dull moment when you’re around her. One time, she and Tita Arlene were spying on [this famous actor when he was staying in Florentina Homes]. I helped them all the way for them to meet their idol! There were a lot of fun times we’ve had together at the Bistro with her family as well, and I’m surely going to miss the bonding we’ve had.” His mom, Wing, on the other hand, says: “I will remember most her bling-bling sandals and her girlie bags! She’s our chatterbox saling-pusa when Arlene and I paint the walls over at the Bistro!”

KRI’s Ritchie Armogenia says: “Justine has always been one of our favorite customers. The Colburns are. They usually let us know when they come in and we really appreciate that. One favorite memory would have to be that time they went to KRI and started ordering a few items on the menu, and then they ended up ordering almost everything—a chef’s delight!”

We all have these memories because Justine and her family are leaving Dumaguete and going back to the U.S. Why? I asked her not too long ago. “It’s time,” she said—this time a little sad.

We are all a little sad, too. And it’s true what I said once before: What’s my favorite thing about Mr. Donut? It’s the Mrs.

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

entry arrow5:17 PM | For You With the Stars in Your Eyes

You with those stars in your eyes, the same ones which filled with tears bearing my name. I wish I could love you the way you’re meant to be loved, with sacred passion and heartbeat that quickens with sunshine and starlight. Maybe someday. Maybe someday I, too, can give a name to the hollow that’s inside this chest, which rebukes me for squandering what love it has found but did not touch.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

entry arrow11:28 PM | Jealousy*

By Rupert Brooke

When I see you, who were so wise and cool,
Gazing with silly sickness on that fool
You've given your love to, your adoring hands
Touch his so intimately that each understands,
I know, most hidden things; and when I know
Your holiest dreams yield to the stupid bow
Of his red lips, and that the empty grace
Of those strong legs and arms, that rosy face,
Has beaten your heart to such a flame of love,
That you have given him every touch and move,
Wrinkle and secret of you, all your life,
-- Oh! then I know I'm waiting, lover-wife,
For the great time when love is at a close,
And all its fruit's to watch the thickening nose
And sweaty neck and dulling face and eye,
That are yours, and you, most surely, till you die!
Day after day you'll sit with him and note
The greasier tie, the dingy wrinkling coat;
As prettiness turns to pomp, and strength to fat,
And love, love, love to habit!
                                           And after that,
When all that's fine in man is at an end,
And you, that loved young life and clean, must tend
A foul sick fumbling dribbling body and old,
When his rare lips hang flabby and can't hold
Slobber, and you're enduring that worst thing,
Senility's queasy furtive love-making,
And searching those dear eyes for human meaning,
Propping the bald and helpless head, and cleaning
A scrap that life's flung by, and love's forgotten, --
Then you'll be tired; and passion dead and rotten;
And he'll be dirty, dirty!
                                 O lithe and free
And lightfoot, that the poor heart cries to see,
That's how I'll see your man and you! --

                                                   But you
-- Oh, when that time comes, you'll be dirty too!

* Also known as a perfectly good excuse to post the photo of a beautiful poet (above) in this blog. Or as novelist Henry James once remarked: "If he looked like that and was a good poet, too, I do not know what I should do."

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entry arrow3:55 AM | The Existence of Magicians

You may be forgiven for thinking Sylvain Chomet's The Illusionist [2010] is an easy film to take and digest. It's animated after all -- such wonderful, painstaking attention to detail! -- but like the Hayao Miyazaki films it mirrors in style and complex sensibility (albeit with French quirkiness and art nouveau flourish), there is an underlying darkness that embraces it, even if our expectations always seem to propel us to believe that there will be goodness and gaiety after this scene, or that scene, or this scene... Sure, it is a charming film, beautiful to behold even, but it's ultimately a sad film, something that verges on the cynical -- and never once did it make me break into a smile, although once in a while it made me sigh over a few bumbling details that provide the much-needed comic relief. For example, the sight of the clown, sans make-up, devouring a bowl of soup -- after a botched suicide attempt. Or the sight of the fat bunny eating sausages -- after we have been led to believe it has been butchered and stewed for dinner. But I am making this sound more morbid than it really is. Because if there is one thing The Illusionist is not, it's morbid. It's beautiful, it's enchanting. It is the story of a down-and-out magician in Paris -- patterned in mime-like muteness and bumbling dress after the late great French director Jacques Tati whose unproduced screenplay provides the story for this film. He's getting older and can't find bookings, and so he finds himself crossing the English Channel seeking measly work in one theater and the next. In one Scottish town, he comes across a cleaning girl who takes a liking to him as a father-figure who carries with him "real magic" -- magic that can sweep her away from such a humdrum existence into the pulse and energy of the big cities. He pities her and buys her a new pair of shoes, and soon enough she takes that as an invitation and follows him in his travels. Perhaps he is grateful for the company. He is lonely, and has no one else in his sad life. The rest of the film is the roller coaster of their life together spent in hotel rooms. But this is no charmed story about an old magician transformed by a girl who believes in him. No, not at all. This is a story about pretensions, money-grubbing illusions, social climbing, dashed hopes, misguided kindness, and biting bunnies -- but what can we expect from the director who gave us The Triplets of Belleville [2003]? That final note the magician gives the girl is a devastating coda that underlines the ironic tone this beautiful film is really all about. But life goes on, we learn, even if it is stripped of beautiful illusions.

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entry arrow2:51 AM | Unseen Wonders Crowding Around Us

I like the high-concept conceit of Andrew Ruhemann and Shaun Tan's animated short film The Lost Thing [2010]: there are things of utter wonder around us, but the world -- humdrumming to the beat of bureaucracy, the rat race, conventionality, and conformity -- somehow teaches us to become blind to them, to consign them to forgetfulness. We are told this by a mysterious caretaker in a cavernous, forbidding, and bureaucratic Federal Department of Odds and Ends, where strange lost things are encouraged to be deposited: "If you really care about that thing, you shouldn't leave it here. This is a place for forgetting..." That thing is a giant ... uhm, something something, a metallic shell that looks like a diving bell with lively tentacles and a pair of crabby pinchers (with bells!) coming out of its valves. It gets accidentally found one day at the beach by the boy who narrates the story, while foraging for his collection of bottle caps. The lost thing turns out to be a friendly and playful giant, and since he didn't have the heart to leave it behind, he takes it home -- to parents who scarcely care, and to city folk which scarcely notice that there is this thing walking right among them. The film becomes a search to find the lost thing its home. Based on the popular book by Tan, the short film does a great service to the source by staying true to its whimsical pictorial invention. Its animation, too, is top-notch. But it is the universality of its story -- essentially a tale of fading and faded imagination -- that gets to me and breaks my heart. There is a slice at the end of the film where the narrator acknowledges so, and the deadpan acceptance he has of it reminds us that childhood was an Eden we had to leave, and although imagination can still abound beyond those wonder years, we succumb too much into the humdrum we don't even see magic even when it pops its pixie dust right under our noses.

The Lost Thing from AlineLayoun on Vimeo.

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entry arrow2:45 AM | Fruity Metaphors

Two boys figure in a minor accident. Later, spending the day together, they talk about girls ... and kissing. One boy brags about the number of girls he has kissed, and says nonchalantly, "I started early." He asks the other boy how many girls he has kissed -- and the boy demures, and the first boy's eyes widen: "You haven't been kissed?" That's all you need to know about this short film, just enough for you to take an interest and see it. (Watch the film here.) I like Kristian Pithie's Oranges [2004]. It has a simplicity of form to it that hides a knowing greatness. There is great tension here, and also great empathy, and all of this spring out from the careful embodiment of roles our two young actors fill. But what I like most is the way it gives us an acutely sensory metaphor for the intimate act that the film revolves around: the taste of oranges. Just think of that. Just think of that taste. A biting ripeness, juicy, sweet, perhaps with a little sour kick. And then close your eyes.

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Monday, March 14, 2011

entry arrow1:08 AM | Truth-telling

I watched two documentaries recently, both of them highlights of the 2010 nonfiction film slate, both of them a different sort each of "talking head cinema" -- and both essentially different roads going towards the same goal: consummate truth-telling, although one does come off more entertaining than the other. But what can that other one do? It does the dirty task of chronicling recent sins. This one, directed by Charles Ferguson, is the Oscar-winning Inside Job, a brisk expose of the worldwide banking industry's (still unpunished) complicity in bringing about the current recession with hocus-pocus economics. It lays bare, with clear-headed precision, the anatomy of that financial cancer/tumor, tracing its history, baring its often confounding terminologies, and finally going as far as pointing accusing fingers at those who are specifically culpable. Some critics have taken to calling this film as perhaps the ultimate horror movie to define our times -- and I can appreciate it in that sense. Because how many people do we know have had their lives altered in such fundamental ways? The film left me cold though, albeit supremely enlightened. It felt like a Powerpoint lecture done with the earnestness of a classroom exercise, and while we are grateful for the education, what perhaps was needed most was a semblance of heart.

Which is something we get a lot from Martin Scorsese's Public Speaking [2010], his brilliant HBO documentary about the writer and public wit Fran Lebowitz. It seems fitting that Scorsese, an avid chronicler of New York life, should be the one to tell the story of this textbook New Yorker -- a fiercely intelligent, robustly opinionated know-it-all who is also plucky and funny. Someone has called Lebowitz the Dorothy Parker for our age, and I cannot fault the need for the comparison. In this very animated film, essentially a long gab fest of the writer and some unseen interviewers in her table in one of her favorite Manhattan haunts, we get less a biography of Lebowitz than a biography of her mind. What springs from that mind is brilliant and thought-provoking, and much more so because they are delivered as punchlines: she talks about AIDS and the depletion of a whole generation of culture connoiseurs, the Disneyfication of New York, artists and old age, homosexuality and smoking, and so on and so forth, a whole gamut of conversation pieces flowing abstractly the way good conversation goes. And like good conversation, it is highly entertaining and tremendously fascinating, helpfully interjected at times with scenes of Lebowitz doing assorted public addresses and with clips (and discussions) of other famous intellectuals and artists -- Morrison, Picasso, Casal, Parker, Warhol, Baldwin, Thurber, among them -- who have shaped the landscape of her mind and her locquaciousness. By the end of this film, I've come to this foolish hope: that one day I'd be a companion around her dinner table, and just listen to her talk and talk and talk.

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Sunday, March 13, 2011

entry arrow9:43 PM | Existential Lizard Stumbles on a Western

It is perhaps wrong to think of Gore Verbinski's Rango [2011] as a mere cartoon, although it is indeed animated -- and gloriously so. It is a certified Western with a serious bent on the existential (the question "Who am I?" keeps echoing all throughout the story), and the only cartoonish thing to it is its use of talking animals and the deadpan comebacks and witticisms that litter the screenplay by John Logan. Beyond that, this is John Ford meets Clint Eastwood. Which is an astounding thing to claim since this is about a pet lizard (voiced by Johnny Depp) with thespic aspirations, left to fend for his own after being left accidentally in the desert. He finds his way to a troubled town called Dirt, calls himself Rango (from Durango), weaves a legendary story to his name to win the trust of the suspicious (and dangerous-looking) townfolk composed of down-and-out amphibians and moles and turtles and birds and what-not -- and somehow becomes the town's sheriff after accidentally killing the hawk that has plagued the town, which is also plagued by the problem of a drought. Other shenanigans ensue, and hilarity, too -- but the film draws you in with its faithfulness to the genre, with its playing straight man to its subtle comedy, with its quirky characters drawn on a landscape that rivals the breathtaking cinematography of John Ford's films. And of course with its tale of a conflicted (and accidental) hero -- an actor, really -- who has to confront time and again the specter of existential angst. That it is Depp doing the wrangling provides an anchor we can easily sink our teeth into. Of course, it also helps that the film knows its genre so well, it weaves in without straining many iconic images and tropes from the tradition of the Western, from High Noon to Star Wars, from Red River to Unforgiven, from The Quick and the Dead to Chinatown, from The Three Amigos to Shane. This is the first animated film I've seen this year, and with this the rest of this year's slate -- animated or not -- has a high bar to contend with.


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Saturday, March 12, 2011

entry arrow10:12 AM | The End of the World is a Beautiful Day

When the planes struck the towers that fateful September in 2001, it began as a beautiful day in the early autumn. When the tidal waves struck in 2004, it began as a beautiful day right after Christmas. The end of the world is going to be a beautiful day, perhaps with the stars rushing close to us they would seem like the explosion of a million fireworks.


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Monday, March 07, 2011

entry arrow2:19 AM | Ka-poof

Of course you have seen Gregg Araki's Kaboom [2010] before. It's a more glittery rehash of his ill-fated pilot for MTV titled This is How the World Ends, which should have aired in 2000 but got cancelled before we could catch the fate of all those high school kids facing screaming death as their bus falls down a ravine. (It is not as if this has not happened before. Araki's Splendor from 1999 is essentially a glossier photocopy of his first film Three Bewildered People in the Night from 1987.) That Kaboom and This is How the World Ends share a plot point in that plummet underlines other similarities: the lost boy with desire issues, the lesbian best friend with the vengeful witch of a lover, the mother who dispenses familial bond by phone, the Los Angeles in candy-colored vision of the Apocalypse, and so on and so forth. Only in Kaboom's case, we've got the fuller story in feature-length format: the lost boy has father issues, which involves cults, the number 19, magic powers, spiked cookies, a red dumpster, strange dreams slowly coming true, men in animal masks, surfer dude roommates with homoerotic vibes, red-haired women with vomit and disappearance issues, perky girls with wild sex drives, men called Messiah with wild streaks, the whole gamut of Araki's strange universe. Sure, it looks and sounds like the old Araki films which we used to love, after Araki's creative departures inMysterious Skin, which was a success, and in Smiley Face, which was a dismal failure. Sure, it may be familiarly frenetic and deliciously paranoid. But it does not have the sexy off-kilter charm and the sense of teenage existential gravity the old films carried with them. I am horrified to note that this film succeeds only as an experiment in needless regression. Have we outgrown Araki? Perhaps. I am, in fact, already quite irritated by the same empty pleas for sexual "fluidity," his urgent posturing to be "sexually undefined"; here is a gay filmmaker who makes blatantly homoerotic films -- but treats gay sex as both comedy and afterthought even as he peppers his scenes with too many heterosexual couplings of such steamy nature you had to ask yourself: "What's up your butt, Gregg?"

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[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Friday, March 04, 2011

entry arrow10:37 AM | The Search for the Visceral

“Trust me, it’s paradise. This is where the hungry come to feed. For mine is a generation that circles the globe and searches for something we haven’t tried before. So never refuse an invitation, never resist the unfamiliar, never fail to be polite and never outstay the welcome. Just keep your mind open and suck in the experience. And if it hurts, you know what? It’s probably worth it… You hope, and you dream. But you never believe that something’s gonna happen for you. Not like it does in the movies. And when it actually does, you want it to feel different, more visceral, more real. I was waiting for it to hit me…”

~ Leonardo DiCaprio as Richard in Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Alex Garland’s
The Beach [2000]

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[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich