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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, December 30, 2014

entry arrow6:42 PM | The Moments in Memory in Jack Wigley’s Home of the Ashfall

The thing about John Jack Wigley, author of Home of the Ashfall (University of Santo Tomas Press, 2014), is that to read him is to fall under the stealthy spell of a born storyteller. However you are starting out on the whole enterprise of reading, you will inevitably be taken in by that inimitable voice—part dramatic, part humorous—usually reserved for campfire stories, or gossip. That voice has the bewitchment of hooks.

This was also the case with Mr. Wigley’s first book, Falling Into the Manhole, and of which his sophomore effort feels very much like a continuation. And thank God for that, because in that first volume of collected memoir, we got compelling stories about Mr. Wigley growing up only a few meters away from Clark Air Base, where he was the illegitimate offspring of an American G.I., and soon learning to deal with the hardships of biracial existence and growing up being called “mestisong bangus,” among other things. That particular biographical detail was what led him to write in the first place, which means that issues of race is very much a part of his writerly identity. “I have never read any memoir that reflected my own story,” he told me once. That story includes an incisive critique about our collective love affair with everything America—and in “American Visa,” one of Ashfall’s essays, Mr. Wigley sets about anatomizing the desperation we fall into lining up for the titular “prize” in the U.S. Embassy. He brings an earthy awareness to the politics and the humiliation of the whole affair, this impossibly one-sided devotion we have to America.

There is a way of reading his first and second books, which is to think of the volumes as the linked novel of Mr. Wigley’s life, each essay in them a standalone chapter of an unfolding Dickensian existence. Or, if you like your cultural references local, each one an episode in the dramatic teleserye on his life.

Beginning in Manhole, there is, of course, the Miss Saigon-worthy story of Asian mother and American father, a G.I. who soon leaves for America, but not without leaving traces of hopes and resentment in a son he has not seen. There are also the insights—mostly funny, sometimes sad—into the teaching life. Then there are, finally, the loves and consuming passions of Jack’s life: his DVD collection, music, Nora Aunor, Meryl Streep, beauty pageants, and the finally young man who broke Jack’s heart. Much of the first book is about growing up poor but plucky in the concrete maze of Angeles City—with the slight assurance that being the bright boy in class can lead to a brighter future—a theme continued in the second book. “You could be President of the Philippines one day,” his mother tells little Jack in Ashfall’s first essay “Getting Lost.”

Indeed, Ashfall can be said to be an elaboration of the themes of the first book—but this time around, there is a sure hand defining an arc to the narrative. Three essays into the book, and we know that we are getting Philippine literature’s equivalent of Pedro Almodovar’s All About My Mother. The best of the essays is a distillation for the uncommon grace Mr. Wigley’s mother has gone through, and endured—from the harried life of being a single parent, to the painful battles of the dementia that ultimately claimed her life.

These highlights, among others, resonate in Mr. Wigley’s own story, ostensibly the subject of the book. In the title essay, Mr. Wigley’s flagging determination to reach his hometown in the middle of the lahar deluge after Mt. Pinatubo’s eruption is challenged by his mother’s display of nonchalant fierceness at the end of the tale. By the time we get to “Mother’s Passing,” we have come to know Mr. Wigley’s mother so fully, his grief over her death becomes our own.

And yet, the book—while glowing with maternal tribute—is also very much about a search for a father. In “Peering Through the Window,” the tale of a bus trip to the mother’s hometown becomes a quiet contemplation about the unexpected pangs of longing for a father figure. And in “The Fancy Dancer,” the story of an impromptu dance set to the tune of “One Way Ticket” in the rundown streets of Angeles becomes more than an attempt to humanize the surface of the city’s sleaze; it also provides a kind of a coda for the book’s search of a father. We see this theme more acutely in “Departures,” Mr. Wigley’s reflections on the Oscar-winning Japanese film of the same title, which ultimately becomes a meditation on fatherly absence.

One must take note of the narrative whiplash that occurs regularly in his essays. You think Mr. Wigley is talking about one thing specifically—and then you realize he’s actually leading us to a revelation of a different sort. This is clearly demonstrated in “The Admired Classmate,” where Mr. Wigley rhapsodizes the memory of an impeccably dressed, well-spoken classmate in grade school, only for us to be amused by the twist in their shared fate. But this tendency is more subtle in such pieces as “The Choice,” where he seems to recount the joyful occasion of a class excursion—only to spring on us a dark, sad punch coming from out of the blue.

Yet, despite the seriousness of his themes, Mr. Wigley remains a funny storyteller. His punchlines, often punctuating a heart-rending tale, are both deadly and welcome, as if to remind us that there is a certain freedom in choosing bemusement as a stance, and accept life for the cruel comedy that it is.

What Mr. Wigley has accomplished in the end is being a connoisseur of moments in memory. His words are succulent pieces of life’s all-seeing videogram, and the pictures that he takes for us become universal images of our own recollections. How does he know, for example, that many of us usually pretend we are watching a movie when we peer out of bus windows? His unique life becomes, in his telling, the tantalizing mirror to our own experiences—and that’s the very province of immersive literature.

Originally published in the 29 December 2014 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

entry arrow10:17 AM | Noteworthy Dialogue: From Bill Melendez's A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

Lucy: Incidentally, I know how you feel about all this Christmas business, getting depressed and all that. It happens to me every year. I never get what I really want. I always get a lot of stupid toys or a bicycle or clothes or something like that.

Charlie: What is it you want?

Lucy: Real estate.

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entry arrow7:50 AM | Enzo Medel Plays Igor Stravinsky

One of the best young pianists I know, Lorenzo Medel, plays Igor Stravinsky's famously difficult The Firebird. Here, he goes through "Danse Infernale" at 0:01, "Berceuse (Lullaby)" at 4:55, and the "Finale" at 8:36, and does each movement justice.

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Thursday, December 18, 2014

entry arrow5:59 PM | Noteworthy Dialogue: From Richard Linklater's Boyhood (2014)

Mason is leaving for college.

Mom: This is the worst day of my life.

Mason: What are you talking about?

She starts crying.

Mom: I knew this day was coming. I just... I didn't know you were going to be so fucking happy to be leaving.

Mason: I mean it's not that I'm that happy... what do you expect?

Mom: You know what I'm realising? My life is just going to go. Like that. This series of milestones. Getting married. Having kids. Getting divorced. The time that we thought you were dyslexic. When I taught you how to ride a bike. Getting divorced... again. Getting my masters degree. Finally getting the job I wanted. Sending Samantha off to college. Sending you off to college. You know what's next? Huh? It's my fucking funeral! Just go, and leave my picture!

Mason: Aren't you jumping ahead by, like, 40 years or something?

A beat.

Mom: I just thought there would be more.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

entry arrow9:17 PM | Searching for Christmas

I have been desperately looking for Christmas.

I looked for it in a Christmas party, a sparsely attended affair held together by an unconvincing sense of obligation. The tree in the middle of the room, which was made of a variety of green strings tacked on one end to a spot in the ceiling, was sad and mournful. As sad and mournful as the empty boxes beneath it wrapped up as display presents. Christmas wasn’t there.

I looked for it in a Christmas movie, hoping the sight of New York draped in snow and tinsel, at least on film, would evoke something. It wasn’t there.

Nor was it in the marathon of Christmas albums by The Carpenters. For a brief moment, over YouTube, a cover of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” made me wistful—but it wasn’t there either. A well-meaning friend offered unsolicited counsel during a small gathering, where there was plenty of cake and pastries all dolled up in holiday colors: “But you’re looking for it in the wrong places, my friend,“ he said. “You have to remember the real reason for Christmas.” I looked at him with a poker face, ate the head of the icing Santa in my hand, and slowly backed away. Christmas wasn’t in the Santa head either.

Somebody tweeted today: “We have eight days till Christmas, folks!” The merry tweet came complete with emojis of snowmen and fir trees—but it only left me in unbelieving shock, because I hadn’t realized it was that close. It takes a kind of emotional preparation to face the holidays, and as far as I was concerned, this was still June, and December was still the hazy gloriously far-away lump in the horizon.

I’ve considered this for some time now. The days before Christmas are a jittery sort, composed of hours suspended in the limbo of expectations, sugarcoated only by what meager cheer is brought by the elusive signs of the holidays. Christmas is the portal to year’s end—and I think this is where my anxiety lies for the most part. On one hand, many of us are not completely ready to let go of things in the current year, because most of these have yet to reach appropriate completions. We have sworn we cannot end on a note of things undone. But all we can do is half-remember the broken promises of our previous New Year’s resolutions, and think about the uncanny ways life unhappens.

On the other hand, most of us can’t wait for the year to end either—there is a sweetness to the prospect of saying goodbye to all that, to jump on the idea of the fresh start.

But we forget about the flow of days. We forget about how short they can be, how treacherous their seeming elasticity. When we hear the first Christmas song in the first –ber month of the year, we laugh at the absurdity of how early we take in Christmas in this country. The next four months are long, we think, dismissing the frivolity of that first sign of the year ending. And so we slug on, valiantly attempting to make right the unfolding days and night that resist our frail, human designs.

And so when Christmas happens, it always comes as a complete surprise.

Eight more days? You have got to be kidding me.

I suppose I was waiting for furtive changes in the air to tell me Christmas was coming fast. Perhaps some welcome chill in the air to indicate this was December and that the winter solstice has come with the relief of a cold snap for tropical skin. Perhaps some bright, twinkling lights stringed everywhere downtown, embracing buildings and trees and lampposts. Perhaps a ubiquity of holiday music—the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, or just even some Jose Mari Chan. Or just Mariah Carey whistling out what she wants for Christmas. But they have largely been sporadic, almost half-hearted in coming.

We have not gotten these reminders, and not for lack of trying by some of us. Notwithstanding the brief erratic snap of cold brought in by magnificent storms barreling from the tumultuous Pacific, there has been no elegant sweater weather, the kind that forces us to exhume from the recesses of our wardrobe the thick, long-sleeved attire for forgotten colder days. It has been a muggy, summery December, and it has become a stretch of the imagination to associate the unspooling season with the imagery of Winter Wonderland.

But I roll my eyes as I read this useless rant. I am just being sadly nostalgic, I tell myself. It is the dominant preoccupation of people in their late 30s, I tell myself. What you want for Christmas, Ian, is the innocent, youthful yearning for the holidays, I tell myself. You know it will never come back again. Yet, still. The last time I felt Dumaguete really going for the Christmas thing was 1999. Back then, the street posts were decked in lights shaped like angels, and business establishments spruced up their facades with holiday displays to rival each other. The Asian crisis killed much of that in degrees, and the city hasn’t recovered since then. It has been fifteen long years.

So I was surprised to see Silliman University’s Christmas tree at the Eastern Quadrangle actually being a quite nice-looking experiment in material and elevation, elegant and minimalist all at once. And the Dumaguete City Christmas tree over at Quezon Park looks equally great decked up the way it is. Last year’s tree was such an epic fail—so this one was a definite improvement. I caught a bit of the lighting ceremony a few nights ago, and they had a boy’s choir sing Christmas songs, a good touch.

So I was surprised to feel stirrings of joy when I spent the last few nights being in mostly unplanned dinners with old college friends. We were older now, and considered the holidays as just another bump in our regular rush of days. But as we laughed and shared memories and drank various flavored chupitos, everything felt right again.

And so I was surprised to consider it didn’t have to take giant signs for Christmas to happen. Last December 12, I trooped to the Luce to catch a concert of handbell ringers, their repertoire shining with staples from the Christmas songbook. It was an attempt to recapture the past. The last time I heard handbells in concert, it was years ago when I was younger and was out in the world for my bit of adventure, and the concert was in a small church and there was snow outside while evening fell, and Christmas colors glistened everywhere. But the past was not recaptured, and I went home amused by how desperately I was searching for the elusive Christmas spirit.

And I thought about it, and it finally didn’t matter. Christmas for now is all about the small, unexpected things—and time with busy old friends who know you’re mad as a hatter, but love you anyway.

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Monday, December 08, 2014

entry arrow8:24 PM | Ang Pinaka in Dumaguete

I meant for this to be my Dumaguete fiesta post last November 25, but uploading it to YouTube took forever. It's a major blast from the past, from 2008 to be exact, when Rovilson Fernandez and the whole Ang Pinaka... team came to do their top ten must-see's and must-do's in Dumaguete. I looked a bit different then, hahaha.

Belated happy fiesta, Dumaguete.

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Sunday, December 07, 2014

entry arrow8:46 AM | Stay Amnesiac, Nicole

Rowan Joffé's Before I Go to Sleep (2014), starring Nicole Kidman as a housewife with retrograde amnesia who wakes up every day beside a man she can't recall but who claims to be her husband, is a wasted exercise in the mystery thriller narrative that somehow skims our memories of Kidman's powerful performance in John Cameron Mitchell's Rabbit Hole (2010) but does that great disservice by giving us instead the hammy convolutions of Harold Becker's Malice (1993). Remember that travesty? This new film follows exactly the same ponderous twists as that misfire.


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entry arrow7:00 AM | Waiting for the Storm

As I write this, Thursday is edging close to sunset, and by all accounts, it is a beautiful day. In the café I am in, students are poring over their books and the baristas are busy making a pyramid approximating a Christmas tree, which they assemble from the plastic tumblers they use for frappes, each cup containing an ornamental ball with its glistening sheen set off by the incessant twinkling of Christmas lights. The place itself is bustling with bodies energized by the taste and smell of expensive coffee, and outside, life continues. The pedicabs, the pedestrians stream on.

And yet my friend Ginny writes with some trepidation in her Facebook timeline: “It feels very much like the calm before the storm,” and it very well may be. I know this deceptive calmness—it is a devilish silence I do not trust. All I know is, this week began quite fine—and then for some reason that defies explaining, it “unraveled”—like there was an invisible static in the air quickly surrounding us, a suffocating warning of dire days. Ron tells me over chat that it must be a kind of premonition—“They don’t call it being ‘under the weather’ for nothing,” he writes. Still I tell him: “I feel fine—physically. I don’t feel sick. But everything else feels off.” Does anyone else get that feeling? I can be very sensitive to these things. What I don’t tell Ron is that the sensation felt familiar—it was the same “off-ness” I felt when the earthquake of three years ago came, the one that devastated Bohol, the one that created panic in Cebu, the one that sent hapless Dumagueteños running to the foothills of Valencia thinking that a tsunami was coming and the world was coming to an end.

And so the day goes, all of us pinging this and that in the comfortable blanket of Facebook. Offline, the city bustles on.

Behind me, the sea beyond Dumaguete’s Rizal Boulevard has the look of pristine bluish sameness, the waves rippling gently under the glare of the afternoon sun, while kilometers away, farther farther east, Ruby barrels straight towards us from the Pacific with the ferocity of a super typhoon. That’s what the meteorologists tell us. We have seen the projection maps. We have read the warnings from media people about having to be on standby, “to be vigilant,” while others still decry the need to filter out misinformation, to tap down the fear-mongering. The proper agencies are on guard, we are told. The emergency contact numbers have been posted, the evacuation plans in place. And all we can do now is to wait out the next few hours, to endure what remains of the deceptive calmness, or to do our last-minute shopping for provisions—the candles, the batteries, the bottles of water, the loaves of bread.

All we can acknowledge is that we do not know what future holds in the coming days. That is one of only two certainties, the other one being the memories of recent painful devastations—last year’s Yolanda and the ruin in its wake. We know for sure how super typhoons wreck havoc. We muse painfully that we have not yet erased the brokenness of that devastation and that we have not yet fully recovered from it—“we are still rebuilding, for God’s sake!” we say—and yet here we are once more contemplating another climate emergency.

How prepared are we? Perhaps as much as we can prepare for the regularity of disasters, given all our recent history of flooding and typhoons from Ondoy to Pablo to Sendong to Yolanda. Many of us have since gone on to try to make our world environmentally-invested. We have fought our battles—because problems still continue to rear their ugly heads despite everything—and sometimes we win, and sometimes we lose. But often I think: can we really do anything about climate change anymore? The extremities in weather are only going to get worse, and perhaps all our efforts to turn back the clock are in vain. The climate deniers hold sway still, governments and businesses continue to turn a blind eye to the causes, and the rest are still living in the fog of ignorance. I remember last August, I was buying some ukay-ukay for a concert we were going to stage at the Luce, and I found myself at the cashier where a customer before me was complaining about the fact that the clothes she was buying were being wrapped in newspaper sheets.

“Don’t you have a plastic bag?” she complained.

The attendant said, “We’re not allowed to use plastic bags per city ordinance.”

“But Lee Plaza is still using plastic bags.”

“Well, we paid a huge fine once when we continued to use plastic bags.”

“Why are you not allowed to use plastic bags?”

“I have no idea. I hate having to wrap things in newspapers, too.”

And I realized these people were the ordinary majority. The message is not getting to them. We are all doomed. And perhaps we all deserve to be.

When you read this piece on Sunday morning—if Sunday comes at all—you will have already known what Friday and Saturday were like, and what the projected rainfall and wind speed turned out to be. Perhaps the storm veered away—let’s hope this was the case—and there was nothing.

But perhaps it was the nightmare you thought it could become, and the memory of the gale howling down the deserted city streets is still fresh, and you can still recall your house creaking and quivering uncertainly against the ballast of debris and the wind-swept uprootings of relics from the vanished normalcy.

On the other hand, perhaps you are also thanking some divinity for having been spared the worst. You always wake up in the aftermath of these devastations thanking the fates that you have lived through the bad, and thanking even the higher powers for how the worst of the storm have missed the city where you live in by pure accident of geography or by the pure whim of a typhoon’s trajectory. Know that it is wrong to do even the slightest sort of thanksgiving: there are other people in other places who are living through the nightmares you have been miraculously spared from. Did your divinity play dice with the storm? What do you thank for really? Silence is the only appropriate response.

So perhaps you are now turning on the television or the radio or the Internet, and are beholding the full horror of what has happened during the weekend—a mounting flow of information in graphic news clips and sound bites and social media links. The statistics and the pictures do not lie, and perhaps you are now left to ponder once more the incessant questions about the fleeting nature of life and the helplessness you feel in the glare of natural monstrosities.

How do you deal? How do you escape the glare of deaths and destruction everywhere and still remain human?

How do you help?

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entry arrow5:50 AM | Goodbye, SIM

Sunday Inquirer Magazine is ending its long, illustrious run -- and I'm sad because this rag was a huge part in my growing up years. I remember its comics section by Jess Abrera fondly, and the amazing longform stories by Lorna Kalaw Tirol, Ceres Doyo, and Constantino Tejero, whose series on censorship in Philippine movies was the lynchpin source for my research paper on the subject in high school, and later on in college. Then there was the long-running annual series on Palanca winners by Ruel De Vera, perhaps the only magazine at that time to take Filipino writers seriously. (Yep, it was that kind of magazine.) This was the publication we aspired to write for when I was a Mass Communication student in Silliman University, and the first time my byline saw print in its pages was in 1999, right after I graduated, and thanks largely to one of its editors Alya. Honasan, who I met backstage at the Luce Auditorium where she was performing in Floy Quintos' And St. Louis Loves Dem Filipinos where we quickly established rapport over some astonishment. I would consider that my first break in national publication -- which just goes to show opportunity happens when you allow it to happen. Here's Ruey with his message regarding SIM's last issue: "Thank you for believing that there is still a place in the Philippine publishing landscape for the lovely longform story. It has been a privilege to tell these stories for you. There will never be anything like the Sunday Inquirer Magazine—and that’s really the way it should be. Accept no substitutes."

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Saturday, December 06, 2014

entry arrow7:08 PM | Low Budget Sci-Fi

Somebody ought to invent a fitting term, something nice and cozy, for sci-fi films that are undeniably low-budget but have an immense imagination to them they go beyond their monetary restrictions. I'm talking about something in the caliber of Shane Carruth's Primer (2004), a wonderful film which literally took the idea of time travel to the driveway, and ran away with our imagination. Has there been anything else like it? Perhaps Vincenzo Natali's Cube (1997), which brought a thriller quality to mathematics? Perhaps, to some mystical extent, Darren Aronofsky's Pi (1998)? There's Neill Blomkamp's mysteriously overpraised District 9 (2009) -- but this odious film is less sci-fi than just a monster movie featuring aliens from outer space becoming a lazy allegory for apartheid. Perhaps Christopher Nolan's Interstellar (2014) is a perfect example of what I'm looking for, but this film explores its science with a hefty Hollywood budget so it's almost a given that we get a huge return in terms of pictorial spectacle. But what about those filmmakers who barely have enough to cover craft services? I'm talking about small films that dare to play around scientific mysteries, and somehow manage to bring spectacle for a much lesser price tag.

I'm thinking about this because, for some reason, today was spent watching films released in 2014 that somehow managed to do this. I'm quite surprised at the bounty.

There's Charlie McDowell's The One I Love, which is really a domestic drama with a Twilight Zone twist involving familial dopplegangers. A husband and a wife are going through a rocky patch -- they don't communicate well and the passion is virtually gone -- and so, upon the recommendation of their therapist, they go on a vacation in a country cabin, where soon each one encounters a completely realised version of their partner's better self. Its Solaris meets Scenes From a Marriage, and McDowell -- after a fashion -- manages to stretch the conceit well enough towards an unexpected ending. The narrative juggling act veers dangerously close to tedium sometimes, but the film manages to catch itself in time with every swerve.

Which is what exactly happens as well in James Ward Byrkit's Coherence. This one ostensibly begins as a story of eight friends gathering together for dinner on a night when a comet just happens to graze the earth's atmosphere. Dinner talk soon turns to convoluted terror and madness as the friends realise that their neighbourhood -- perhaps an effect of the comes passing -- has suddenly become a patchwork of the same house where alternate versions of themselves go through the exact same dinner in parallel timelines but with divergent details. The comings and goings of the characters, as each one seeks answers to the puzzle they find themselves living in, are an act of cinematic narrative chaos -- but for some reason, it works. It made me consider its most tantalising thought experiment: if you stumble on an alternate world, and your alternate self is enjoying the dream life you never had, would you be willing to kill your alternate self to take its place?

There is nothing neat and ordered in William Eubank's The Signal as well -- but not exactly for the same reasons. This one is a genre-bender that goes from a road trip movie involving a couple and their best guy friend, but then swerves towards horror film territory without warning, and then, in equal measure, swerves to another kind of film: a sci-fi mystery involving aliens and robot technology, set in a sketchy laboratory somewhere in the wasteland of Area 51. Or so it seems. And then it ends with the same majestic and mysterious power as Alex Proyas' Dark City (1998). The way I have described it now seems to make the film senseless -- but it is surprising in the way it makes sense and in the chances it takes with its stakes. Its genre-bending seems almost organic.

All in all, a splendid, unexpected day spent in science fiction. I wonder what other movies from this year, and of this persuasion, that I've missed out on...

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Friday, December 05, 2014

entry arrow7:18 PM | The Slow Decay of Brilliant People

In a pair of 2014 films I've recently watched featuring what most "pundits" are predicting to be front-runners for the lead acting trophies in the current Oscar race, I found a connection in disease: Julianne Moore and Alzheimer's in Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer's Still Alice and Eddie Redmayne and ALS in James Marsh's The Theory of Everything.

Then again, what's new? Oscar attention has been traditionally lavish on the depiction of beautiful and heroic suffering through disease, physical or mental. It is a useless exercise to enumerate the evidence, but -- quickly now -- there's Daniel Day-Lewis' painter with cerebral palsy in Jim Sheridan's My Left Foot (1989), and there's Russell Crowe's mathematician with mental illness in Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind (2001), and there's Geoffrey Rush's pianist also with mental illness in Scott Hicks' Shine (1996). Most recently, there's Matthew McConaughey's AIDS-addled drug activist in Jean-Marc Vallée's Dallas Buyers Club (2013). All these men have won Best Actor in the generous company of other men whose award-winning depictions of characters suffer from other ailments. There's gold, apparently, in suffering -- although comedy is harder.

Amazingly enough, the trend is less likely to occur for Best Actress winners -- with mental breakdown/illness seemingly the common denominator in the list, as in Blue Jasmine's Cate Blanchett, Silver Linings Playbook's Jennifer Lawrence, Black Swan's Natalie Portman, Monster's Charlize Theron, The Hours' Nicole Kidman, Blue Sky's Jessica Lange, Misery's Kathy Bates, and The Three Faces of Eve's Joanne Woodward. Of the nominees, we remember the most the glowing demise of Debra Winger in both Terms of Endearment and Shadowlands, Meryl Streep in One True Thing, and notoriously, Ali MacGraw in Love Story. Only Emmanuelle Riva's dementia in Amour and Ellen Burstyn's drug addiction in Requiem for a Dream seemed truly horrific in the lot -- nothing beautiful at all in their suffering, which might have been too painful for Oscar voters to consider.

I liked Still Alice and The Theory of Everything, but of the two, the former seemed more humanly invested in tracking true frailty in the face of physical degeneration -- which is surprising, considering the fictionality of Still Alice as opposed to the true-to-life chronicle of Theory.

But Julianne Moore is absolutely devastating as a brilliant and pathbreaking linguistics professor who gets diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's. She brings an uncanny subtlety to the role that makes us see more her character's quiet engagement with disease rather than a showy performance that becomes a mere checklist of dramatised symptoms. Her slow descent to forgetfulness becomes even more terrifying, and yet still remain incredibly human. That scene where she forgets where the bathroom is in their house, for example, has a sharp unsettling sense of familiarity to it, as if to underline the fact that this could happen to anyone, to us. And the whole sequence where she gives a speech, and wields a yellow marker to battle the seemingly random and sudden erasures in her memory is fraught with so much tension, and so much warmth, that we vacillate between being moved by terror or by well-earned sentimentality. Ms. Moore, in this role, deserves the Oscar everybody believes she is due for.

Eddie Redmayne's depiction of the great Stephen Hawking, on the other hand, also seems equally brave. And by the looks of it, doing it seemed technically difficult -- hence the whole performance easily becomes an effort in actorly bravura. But there's a sense about the film that makes it too much like a color-by-number exercise in Oscar-baiting biography, and that safe and almost predictable earnestness somehow undermines the performances of both Mr. Redmayne and Felicity Jones who plays Mrs. Hawking. Marsh's film -- unlike his superb Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire (2008) -- just did not draw me in as much as I'd like to, although a lot of it is very much admired.

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Thursday, December 04, 2014

entry arrow11:09 AM | The Delicious Horror of Children's Books in Film

Jennifer Kent's The Babadook (2014) is perhaps the year's most interesting horror movie, a tantalising amalgam of common unspeakable horrors that even William Friendkin, the director of The Exorcist, tweeted that it scared him. And that's a commendation above all commendations. It is ostensibly about a haunted book, gloriously unexplained by the movie, that hides a monster -- but it is also about post-traumatic nightmares, the horrors of single-parenthood, the stress of a wilful child, the embracing awfulness of popular television programming, the despair of having uncaring family, and the dank darkness of insomnia. Going through the film, it struck me that there are many moments in the life of the harassed single mother in the story -- alone, lacking sleep -- that veered so close to the zombie days I've had when there's too much work and the hours pass by so quickly we don't even have time for much-needed slumber. There are zombies among us, and it's us.

And there's the book. Forget Annabelle and demon-infested dolls. Children's books are scarier, and Mister Babadook most of all.

In the film, the monster from the book comes to life cloaked always in convenient darkness, which is understandable considering the low-budget nature of this enterprise. I'm not sure much CGI went into the making of this movie, perhaps just practical effects -- and thank God for that because all the more it makes the film effective. Because the clever use of shadows, slow-burning sound effects ("baaa-baaa-dooook!"), quick cuts, and misdirection -- which was last used so effectively in Alejandro Amenábar's The Others (2001) -- make the terror more gripping and slithery. The monster has a nice "two-dimensionality" to it that makes its transition from the book's pages seamless.

And now, apparently they're trying to make the book real, with illustrations done by Alex Juhasz, the same artist in the film. I love the idea of a real book, but I'm not sure I'd get one. The whole thing's honestly too creepy.

There's a certain relish to the idea of dark fictional children's books depicted in movies. The only other one I can think of right now is The Door in the Floor, the children's book featured in Tod Williams's 2014 same-titled adaptation of one chapter from John Irving's novel A Widow for One Year. The book, written by one of the story's flawed protagonists, the children's book author Ted Cole (who is played in the film with such gravitas by Jeff Bridges), is about the horrors of childbirth, told from the point of view of the unborn child. And they actually made the book real, with illustrations by Jeff Bridges himself. (How meta is that. Also, I've blogged about this before, here.)

And here's the entire story...

There was a little boy who didn’t know if he wanted to be born. His mommy didn’t know if she wanted him to be born either. This was because they lived in a cabin in the woods, on an island, in a lake—and there was no one else around.
And in the cabin, there was a door in the floor.

The little boy was afraid of what was under the door in the floor and the mommy was afraid, too.
Once, long ago, other children had come to visit the cabin for Christmas, but the children had opened the door in the floor and they had disappeared down the hole.
The mommy had tried to look for the children, but when she opened the door in the floor she heard such an awful sound that her hair turned completely white, like the hair of a ghost.
And the mommy had also seen some things, things so horrible that you can’t imagine them.

And so the mommy wondered if she wanted to have a little boy—especially because of everything that might be under the door in the floor.
Then she thought: “Why not? I’ll just tell him not to open the door in the floor!”
Yet the little boy still didn’t know if he wanted to be born into a world where there was a door in the floor.

But there were also some beautiful things in the woods, and on the island, and in the lake.
“Why not take a chance?” the little boy thought.

So he was born, and he was very happy.
And his mommy was happy again too, although she told the boy at least once every day, “Don’t you ever, not ever—never, never, never open the door in the floor!”
But of course he was only a little boy.
If you were that boy, wouldn’t you want to open that door in the floor?

So would you?

But my favourite one from the film is still "The Mouse Crawling Between the Walls," a very simple children's story that has the exact same devastating power as Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree and Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. It goes...

Tom woke up, but Tim did not.
And Tom woke up his father... and asked him, “Did you hear that sound?”
“There’s the sound again,” Tom whispered to his Father.
“It’s a monster!” he cried.
“It’s just a mouse... crawling between the walls,” his father said, and thumped the wall hard with his hand.
And the mouse... scurried away.
“It’s just a mouse. That’s all,” Tom said.
And he quickly fell asleep.
But Tim, he stayed awake all night long.
And every time that thing crawling between the walls came crawling back, he’d hit the wall, and he’d listen to the monster... scurry away, dragging his thick, wet fur, and no arms and no legs with it.

I told you. Children's books are scary...

UPDATE: The Babadook just got nominated for Best Film in the AACTA Awards, which is the Australian Oscars. Good for Jennifer Kent, who also got nominated for Best Director. And here's the scary short film, Monster, that started the whole thing. Watching it now made the underlying themes of The Babadook much clearer. I get it, I get it...

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Wednesday, December 03, 2014

entry arrow8:27 AM | Science and Capitalism

Capitalist short-sightedness. Must everything we do -- especially in pursuit of forming new knowledge -- have profit motive? I'm currently watching the documentary Particle Fever (2014), directed with gusto by Mark Levinson -- which has sadly been left out of the short list of documentaries vying for the Oscar this year -- and this particular scene struck me as the answer to many of our dilemmas. And why unflinching capitalism, which asks how we can profit above all, is the secret problem hindering progress.

The film follows the scientists of the Large Hadron Collider and their search for the Higgs Particle. In one scene, scientist David E. Kaplan is asked this question in a conference: "Let's assume you're successful, and everything comes out okay. What do we gain from it? What's the economic return? How do you justify all this? By the way, I am an economist."

Dr. Kaplan replies: "I don't hold that against you." Much laughter from the conference. Then he goes on: "The question was, what is the financial gain in running an experiment like this, and the discoveries that we will make in this experiment. And it is a very, very simple answer: I have no idea. We have no idea. When radio waves were discovered, they weren't called 'radio waves' because there were no radios. They were discovered as some sort of radiation. Basic science for big breakthroughs needs to occur at a level where you're not asking what is the economic gain, but you are asking: what do we not know, and where can we make progress. So what [is this experiment] good for? Could be nothing -- other than just understanding everything."

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Monday, December 01, 2014

entry arrow1:12 PM | Priscilla and the Visayan Folk Song

I still can't get Priscilla Magdamo's lecture on "The Art of the Visayan Song" out of my mind. It went beyond awesome. And such a rare talk it was. There she was, one of Silliman University's -- nay, the Philippines' -- greatest cultural treasures, talking about her passion, and doing it with gusto. The venue of her talk was quite full, but I wish more people heard her speak. In the 1950s, armed with a grant from Ford Foundation, she scoured all of Visayas and Mindanao to collect endangered Visayan folk songs -- and later arranged and recorded them, and published several books as well. "Necessity is the mother of invention," she told us this morning. "I loved these folk songs. I wanted to sing them, but I could not find anything. And so I collected and arranged them myself." When she began her lecture by singing a duet with Melody Enero culled from the forgotten Valencia folk song "Inday Kamingaw" -- a song done in echoes that demonstrates how women in the cold hills of Valencia sang and talked to each other through snippets of music, demonstrating how lonely they were -- we were hooked.

When National Artist for Music Lucrecia Kasilag celebrated one of her anniversaries here at the Luce Auditorium some years ago (I remember this, because I was there), she was given full honors in a program dedicated to her. When she spoke, she told the crowd that she owed her work in ethnomusicology to the one person who paved the way before her. "She deserves the title of National Artist for Music," Ms. Kasilag said, and then asked Ma'am Prescy -- who was in the audience -- to stand and be recognized. Alas, technicalities count in recognising cultural treasures. Ma'am Prescy, long an immigrant to Vermont, is a naturalized American citizen.

I'm suddenly thinking: we should make this musical lecture a full-blown concert featuring the best of Visayan folk songs next cultural season!

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entry arrow4:01 AM | Ethnomusicologist Priscilla Magdamo-Abraham on The Art of the Visayan Song

Renowned ethnomusicologist Priscilla Magdamo is slated to lecture on “The Art of the Visayan Song” for the Albert Faurot Lecture Series for Culture and the Arts this 1 December 2014, Monday at 10 AM at the College of Performing and Visual Arts Music Sala in Silliman University, Dumaguete City.

Ms. Magdamo completed Bachelor’s degrees in biology and music at Silliman University, and her Masters in voice and ethnomusicology at Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. She is a Certified McClosky Voice Technician. As an active professional musician, she has performed, recorded, and toured nationally and internationally with professional choral and chamber ensembles such as The Gregg Smith Singers, The New York Vocal Ensemble, and the John Biggs Consort, and various other groups.

Her extensive collection of Philippine Visayan folk songs and traditional music of ethnic groups of southern Philippines is a source for performers, composers, and arrangers. As a performer, she introduced this music as well as Philippine folk tales and myths to schoolchildren in the United States and abroad. Her arrangements of folk songs have been included in the international touring repertoire of several Philippine choral ensembles.

She has returned to the Philippines several times to hold workshops in singing and promoting traditional music in public schools, private colleges, church organisations, and teachers’ conferences. She and husband, Frederick Abraham, live in Vermont where she teaches privately, continues to arrange Visayan songs, and occasionally performs traditional music at schools and community gatherings.

The lecture series, named after Dr. Albert Faurot, is a regular offering of the Silliman University Cultural Affairs Committee, and is open to the public for free!

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