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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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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

entry arrow12:03 PM | Postcard From the Quagmire

I don’t remember much of the past two or three weeks, except that it was a busy time, and I was under much stress trying to crunch out the grades for my classes in the college term that just ended. It is always a time shrouded in conjectures, missed connections, sweat, and desperate silences; one comes out of it like a patient from a coma would. Of course, many teachers will tell you that they love their job with the passion of a martyr but that the only thing excruciating about it is the grading period.

What can I say? It is a kind of hell no sane person will wish on anyone. The lack of sleep, the endless punching of the calculator keys, the attention to detail demanded, the will to withstand (with humor, if that can be conjured) the student papers that swim in muddled thinking, and even more muddled grammar. (That is, if one does not die seething from the obvious and clumsy borrowings from the Internet. The blatant display of intellectual dishonesty can shrivel the hardiest spirit. Copy-pasting 101, and all that.)

All I remember now of that recent time is feeling like a disembodied thing, a specter almost. I felt myself outside my own body, although I also felt, at the same time, the compounded pains of stress that afflict the physical—the aching back, the bloodshot eyes, the headachy brain, the acidic stomach from too much coffee ingested.

Which is why I still cannot understand how I was able to finish Albert Camus’ The Stranger in one go at the height of one stressful morning. I was already grinding away for close to twelve hours overnight, and outside my window I could see the daylight hours seeping into the quiet of my apartment. I was tired. The work was still unfinished.

And on my way to bed hoping to catch some shut-eye, I felt my hands going over my bookshelves and I felt myself taking out Camus’ book. I felt myself noting that it was a slim book. Something fell out of its pages. I found myself looking at an old boat ticket—transit from Tagbilaran to Dumaguete—from 1999. I found myself sleepily musing over the fact that the last time I tried reading this book was more than a decade ago.

Tired, narcoleptic, I climbed into bed with that volume in hand, and proceeded to read the strange story of a curiously detached man in French Algeria, who fails to feel anything for a newly dead mother, and finally fails to comprehend the justice meted him for what seems like a senseless act of a murder that he has committed. He goes through each day like one dispossessed of care would: detached from all sort of emotional wrangling except the logic of the action required of him at the present. This is supposed to be our hero—an existential one, of course, someone who finally rails against a world who misunderstands him.

Which was also a kind of uncanny serendipity because there were two other instances last week where the word “existential” suddenly just sprang up around me: first, during dinner with an older friend, who took to rationalizing facts in his personal life to his embrace of “existentialism”; and second, during accidental coffee time with a former student who started off with a philosophical rant about how existentialism and relativism are virtually meaningless.

(Was it also serendipity that I would also be reading another book at the same time—The Fundamentals of Play, Caitlin Macy’s Generation X/ Whit Stillman-ish retread of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby—where the existential hero proclaims an affinity with Camus’ detached protagonist? Was it also serendipity that I would also be reading still another book at the same time, which is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, his first novel, where the young protagonist is an egoist much in the same vein as the hero of the two other books, only more dapper, a bright young thing from the gilded 1920s? Why am I reading several books at the same time that seem to inform each other in ways I did not foresee? What is the universe telling me? And the universe answered right back: “You are reading too many books when you should be asleep.”)

It was around noontime when I finally put Camus’ tome down, finished. I don’t know how I managed it, or why I even did it. I was quite dog-tired by then, and spent the rest of the day sleeping like the very spectacle of anesthesia. I didn’t dream. Not even of Algerian sands and sensational murders and French prisons and detached young men of strange persuasions. Perhaps, and only perhaps, I only managed to think of one man in my life of similar detachment as Camus’s protagonist. And how sad it all suddenly seemed, but also how heroic in ways only a few can understand.

But one could not care less anymore. One only cared for sleeping, for real, with what hours were left. And then one wakes up.

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[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Friday, October 14, 2011

entry arrow9:51 PM | Boys During the War

The thing about playing catch-up with old films is that you have more than just a suspicion that everything has always been said about them, and that any utterance from your part is at best an echo with a more contemporary ring to it. But still an echo. The weight of an immense tradition of opinion is an immense one.

What else can I say about Louis Malle's Au Revoir les Enfants [1987] and Lacombe Lucien [1974] that have not already been said? Critics such as Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert have given us thorough evaluations of these films.

And so I am left only to share my personal experience with them. I only stumbled onto these titles the past few nights, in my aimless excursion through my library of films -- most of which remain unseen, given the demands adult life has on one's hours. I've done Eric Rohmer's Six Moral Tales earlier in the week, and so I thought it best to follow that up with some of Malle's films. I remember planning to watch Au Revoir and Lacombe a few years ago, promising to do so "as soon as time permitted."

Ah, the lies we tell ourselves.

Yesterday, during an unplanned lull, I knew I had no such time to spare at all, and so I promptly pressed the play button of the DVD player. And thank God for such impulsiveness, because these two films absolutely proved devastating for me. At the end of Au Revoir, I surprised myself by breaking into tears -- something I have not done since ... what? Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies [1988]? I knew I had to find it within myself the reason why the films touched me so.

Although filmmed more than a decade apart from each other, these two titles seem like twin bills in Malle's filmmography involving childhood and the loss of innocence during the Second World War. Lacombe, for me, was more a disturbing psychological study of the banality of evil, and the film gave me a rise in the way it was calculated to do -- its subtle scenes involving Lucien's gradual fall to evil and the expressionless banality he seems to project in his comprehension (or miscomprehension?) of the process proved to me more chilling than any horror film. Kael has written once that the film was all about the actor Pierre Blaise's face -- inscrutable, like a blank slate that contains an undefinable malevolence. That the film -- about a young French boy who unwittingly becomes a collaborator in Nazi-occupied France -- also manages to make us see Lucien's humanity is, I think, a triumph in Malle's skills as one of cinema's giants.

But Au Revoir, also a film about how the war can rob children of their innocence, is something a little different. It is not sentimental or melodramatic. It is just a well-observed tale about two boys who come to a tentative friendship in a boarding school ran by priests, chronicling the heedless joys and tumbles of boyhood, until war's ugly head comes crashing in and it is slowly revealed that one of the two friends have a secret that needed urgent keeping. How wrenching this film is. How gloriously poignant and subtle about its dealings with betrayal, with heroism, with the loss of innocence and the beginnings of immortal sadness. But I think I teared up because the film dared to present to us that betrayal often comes easy for all of us, even with the best of people, given a context that systematically dehumanizes us. There are no saints in this film -- not even the priest whose fiery homily about doing the utmost to save those who are less fortunate ends with a devastating scene where he withholds a boy's communion simply because the boy is not Catholic, even if the act can in fact help preserve him and keep his secret. But the film does not condemn, at least not by much. Anybody who will not come to tears at the end of Au Revoir -- with that final farewell, with that deadpan voice-over narration by Malle himself, and with that long, steady shot of Julien's face as the last of his innocence comes crumbling down -- has to go ahead and grow a heart. Ebert once wrote that at the end of one screening of the film, Malle broke down and said to him, "This film is my story. Now it is told at last." And you can indeed feel the personal heartstrings in this wonderful film, so intense it is it can hold you breathless and bothered.


[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

entry arrow2:11 PM | The Name of Hunger

There is no need for sunsets
When that wavering light, red and dark,
Spins webs tactile like sorrow,
A name for your own darkening hours.

[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Thursday, October 06, 2011

entry arrow6:02 PM | In Celebration of Round Pegs in Square Holes

As I write this, the news is pouring in and tributes are flying everywhere about the passing of Steve Jobs, the co-founder and visionary behind Apple. It wasn’t exactly news that surprised many of us. We had known of his battle with pancreatic cancer for the longest time, and the evidence of the ravages that the illness wrought could be seen in Mr. Job’s gaunt, emaciated look of late. A few months ago, he stepped down as CEO of Apple. And we knew the day would soon come. And it did. But it didn’t make it any less painful.

Truth to tell, I am myself surprised by the level of grief I have found myself indulging in. I have never been an ardent Steve Jobs fan—my friend JB Lim is, and aside from the fact that he owns virtually every gadget Apple has produced of late (JB also used to be the man behind the Genius Bar of Dumaguete’s iStore), he goes around his every day life in signature black wardrobe inspired by the man.

But I am always, always saddened when visionaries and people of distinguished talent pass away, and most often in the prime of their lives. Because these people contribute so much to the world, and yet they die too soon, I think. Pero si Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile—the architect of the Martial Law and a powerful lawmaker whose latest antics in the Senate (the masturbation brouhaha, for example) could be grounds for speculation on his verging towards senile dementia—bakit buhay pa? Of course, Billy Idol once said that “the good die young,” and such may be the irony of life, which I cannot be bothered with trying to understand.

I must admit there was a profound sadness in the way I greeted my day when I woke to this news this morning. Perhaps no one can understand this level of grief unless one has been touched by the kind of technological lifestyle Apple has given to hipsters, creatives, and forward-thinking people this past decade. For many of us, there is a demarcation between a certain past and then the moment when the magic of Apple’s humanized technology touched us. Once you go Mac, so they say, you can’t go back. I write this article, for example, on a MacBook while listening to a movie score by Michael Giacchino for a Pixar film from my iPod. Mac, Pixar, and the iPod. That’s three instances, all at once, with which Jobs can lay claim to an influence on the way I live.

And yet beyond all these marks of influence, it is Mr. Job’s template of having forged unlikely success in a culture of low-minded thinking that captures my imagination. A hipster to the core—his enduring philosophy advises us to “stay hungry, [and to] stay foolish,” something he got from The Whole Earth Catalog from the hippie culture of the 1960s—his success can be traced to a singular drive to strip everything down to a marriage of technology and design informed by taste, which he knew could not be gleaned from the overpowering marketing notion that the consumer is king. From the New York Times tribute to him, John Markoff writes: “When asked what market research went into the iPad, Mr. Jobs replied: ‘None. It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.’”

And to this, I say, Thank you very much. This is something that ABS-CBN and other panderers of the quick-profit philosophy of common taste can learn, if they want to stay relevant in the long run. The antithesis to Steve Jobs would be this masa culture awash in Willie Revillame, the Transformers movies, the Kardashians and reality TV shows of their ilk, FoxNews, the Twilight novels, StarCinema’s No Other Woman, and others of their kind, which follow undying formula and get rewarded by the masa for the comfortable conformity they champion—but do not push human civilization any further at all. Why do you think StarCinema gives us the same kind of movies every single time? Because every single frame has been market-researched to death, destined to give what the consumer wants, and all for profit.

What change the world are often people with vision and drive. These are people who don’t follow rules, who could care less for the status quo, who are often unpopular. Or if not unpopular, these are people who rock the boat and send shivers down the spine of people who only have eyes for the bottom-line. I am reminded of Oprah Winfrey when she decided to chuck the template of daytime talk popularized by Phil Donahue back in the day. These are shows, not unlike Jerry Springer’s, glorifying in trashy topics, which does bring in eyeballs and the eventual ratings and dollars. But no, Oprah said; she wanted to do a show that specialized in “elevating the human spirit”—and that must have made the television moneymen cringe then. Who profits from goody-goody daytime television? But guess who has the last laugh.

Of all things that I want to remember most about Steve Jobs, it is this quote: “Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… They push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

Think about this. Men and women who have broken the rules have shaped world history. Give me a conformist or a rule-follower who has impacted history, and you will most likely draw a blank. Jesus? He angered the religious authorities of his day, which led to his crucifixion. Gandhi? His unquiet revolution of “passive resistance” molded a nation, and cost him his life. Mother Teresa? She abandoned first world comfort to take care of India’s unwanted—not a career shift anybody “practical” would wish for anybody.

Today we live in a world that forces—or even shames us—to conform, to abide by the strict rules, to surrender to hierarchy instead of merit, to give up the pursuit of creative thinking in favor of “the practical.” I get reprimanded for eschewing these reminders all the time; sometimes they even call this “arrogance.” But I don’t mind. I know who I am.

It takes guts to be a Steve Jobs. But if you have the guts, and you have the courage to follow the promise of your potential, you can change the world in your own small ways. Mr. Jobs said it best: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

Farewell, Mr. Jobs. And thank you very much.

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[1] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich