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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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Friday, October 28, 2016

entry arrow8:12 PM | Dasmariñas Dreaming

We were watching an old Gerardo de Leon movie from the 1960s, its beautiful masterly compositions marred forever — like an abundance of celluloid scars — by neglect and unlove. It was enough to make a cineast’s heart bleed. So, immediately following the post-screening dinner, we decided to catch a breather. “To see the town,” we said.

From the university entrance along Congressional Road in Dasmariñas, Cavite, we decided to follow our feet. It was really the best way to get around an unfamiliar place, to take in what we could of the local scene, and to be in the thick of things beyond the usual tourist claptrap. This was Katipunan country, after all. This was the birthplace of Emilio Aguinaldo. This was a place teeming with names straight off history books. That way to Imus. This way to Trece Martires. Further down is Silang.

I’ve only been here once before, but only in the most pedestrian manner, staying briefly with friends before heading off to Tagaytay nearby. This time, there was more opportunity to explore, and Dasmariñas beckoned like an adventure. “Let’s go to SM City,” Hobart said. “Let’s just take the jeepney and ask our way around” — which apparently had always been the modus all his life: I, on the other hand, lived in a fragile bubble that couldn’t see beyond a block away from my hotel room, but I was always willing to follow someone else’s lead in a blind rush to things unknown. SM City sounded like a foreign jungle, and so I said, “Let’s go.”

The traffic officer in the small island of the highway we came to told us we had to take a jeepney bound “this way” — and he indicated the direction with a wave of his hand, although we weren’t sure in the most particular way whether that was north or south or east or west. It was difficult to tell from the usual signs, the sun having long set. It was 7 PM, and we were feeling the thrill of Cavite’s equivalent of rush-hour traffic. We only knew that further down one direction of Congressional Avenue was a turn towards Aguinaldo St., leading to our hotel, the Volets, which sounded more like a robot, or a merry call to action, or a species of rare African flower. A woman in Maranao dress on the sidewalk with us told us we had to take the jeepney bound for Pala-pala and helpfully told us the fare going there (P12) — and on that eventual jeepney ride we took, I breathed in up-close, for the first time since I arrived, the interesting and teeming humanity of Dasmariñas — their looks, their gestures, their smells.

We soon got off some corner because the jeepney driver said so, and found the mall we came for to be a well-lit replica of every other SM we knew. Still, it was meant to be the start for an evening’s flaneuring adventure, and what better way to do that but make a commercial mecca the commencing step? We asked a boy in a red shirt: “What and where is the center of town, and are there bars there?” He said, “Bayan,” and yes, there were a few bars there, but he said we could do well with that where we were already: in this juncture of Dasmariñas where SM met Robinson’s Place.

But, nonetheless, we wanted to go to Bayan — which sounded so lovely to our ears. (“Taga saan ka?” one might ask, and the answer would be: “Taga-Bayan.” We giggled.) The boy told us that it was best to take a jeepney ride to Bayan (P7) from a corner near SM that had an old 7-Eleven. We went on our way, singing a mash-up of all the songs we knew that had “bayan” in its lyrics — from “Bayan Ko” to “Bayan Muna.”

Later that night, in the middle of Bayan — a quaint stretch that immediately felt like home — we would end up drinking beer in a place called Thai, and eating bucayo and calamay from a street vendor near a bridge we couldn’t bring ourselves to cross, and befriending in a jeepney a locquacious local girl named Pearl and her Japanese-Filipino friend named Maria, and watching a bunch of local boys play evening basketball on a court off City Hall, and watching a bevy of pretty twirlers practice a mean routine on a court off the Capital ng Dasmariñas, perhaps in preparation for the upcoming Paru-paro Festival.

The church itself took my breath away. To behold that old church in the evening light felt like a ghostly visit through a piece of history: people staked out a revolution against the Spanish from the confines of its stone walls, we read this from an inscription outside. And people also died there in the hands of the Japanese in the dark days of the Second World War. The front door of the church was an intricate work in wood, its sprawling surface — browned deeply — showcasing a carved narrative, with tableaus of scenes from both the Advent and Lent. And as we trailed our fingers across the impressions of those carved images, a family came: a mother, a father, their two very young children.

They came and strode quickly to the door in the dim light, and began earnestly touching its carved images like a fervent want of a blessing: the mother was touching each panel with such devotion and using those same hands to touch the head and face of her little child now being carried aloft by its father. She did that many times, and finally settled on one image, to which she brought the weight of all her prayers. I thought the scene touching, but also unreal: I had never seen such a personal ritual before, and I envied the mother’s belief in divine providence, whatever it was she was in earnest prayers for.

Was this how it was to get away from the routine of being a stranger in another town? To see things like this?

Only a few minutes later, we heard from across the courtyard the trills of orchestral music — something at once surprising, beautiful, mysterious, intriguing. An orchestra was playing from the open-air second floor of an old building right across the old church. From the porch, a bunch of women were looking out to the evening sky, and then they saw us approach.

“Can we listen to the music?” we asked.

They smiled, and gestured for us to come up the side staircase. Upstairs, filling up the entire floor, the Citizen’s Brigade Band of Dasmariñas — all of them various ages of young, from little tykes working the violin to preteen boys working the trombone and the flute — was rehearsing a piece titled “Ode to Music” under the watchful gaze of a portly, middle-aged maestro bearing his baton with a fatherly forcefulness. Once in a while, he’d tweak a bit, here and there, the playing by some of the instrumentalists. Then they finally came together in the end, reaching for their music to soar towards the Cavite stars.

It was a beautiful thing, that sensation of being embraced by music you only came across by accident of fate.

And in that space, on a balcony, watching both these children play music and the streets of Bayan below throb and flow with traffic of people and cars, I realized how it was to properly visit a place and make it familiar: get lost, get intimate with its rhythms, ask around. A hotel room is not the world.

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entry arrow1:25 AM | The Bodies

8List commissioned me and several other writers to write new horror stories in time for Halloween. Contemporary events inspired me to write about a new kind of monster, something that seeks to destroy us by pitting us against each other...


What is left of the small city is awful quiet: it is a wreck of forbidding silence, the streets appearing abandoned, the low buildings ominous in their hush. Along Alfonso Trese, its main strip, the emptiness howls, and Teresa swears you can hear the silence. Silence has an invisible ringing sound, like a tinnitus of the soul, and enough of it can make you go mad. And so you quickly learn to strain to catch any stray sound, enough of which can keep your sanity; the possibility of crickets, for example, or the possibility of tires burning rubber on distant asphalt streets. The worst are the phantom sounds, Teresa realizes, because they quicken your pulse, only to give you in the end a terrible nothingness deadlier than dashed hopes. But so far, in the past few days, there has been nothing; or nothing at least near this house along Alfonso Trese St., an apartment that squats atop a small downtown grocery store near the corner of Hibbard Avenue—a life-saving convenience, Teresa had quickly realized not too long ago. On rare moments when Teresa finds herself complaining, everyone else in the apartment with her shushes her in panicked whispers: “Paghilom! Paghilom!”—said in registers so low, it proved not impossible the descent close to silence that voices could go to: what comes out of their mouths aren’t words to Teresa’s ears, but fear-stained whiffs that sound like cat farts. Only Lola Dolores understands, and hugs Teresa or her sister tight when the silence becomes unbearable. “Don’t mind them,” lola says, wiping the perspiration on Teresa’s forehead with handkerchief now pungent with old sweat. They know—they assume—that people like them have barricaded themselves in their apartments and houses all over the city. And like them are probably alternating troubled sleeping with a wakefulness attended to by listening with baited breaths for the occasional distant wails of strange siren sounds. They have no idea what the sirens are for, except that it comes around dusk-time, and not always every day. Now and then they’ll look out the slats of their barricaded windows to the street below, always in a vigil, always waiting for something. Teresa closes her eyes as she feels herself sinking in her lola’s embrace. This is the only safe place she knew, even her fourteen-year-old self knows that.

[More at 8List]

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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

entry arrow8:00 PM | Wednesday.

A bunch of us friends have this belief that the devil's ears float in the air, always eavesdropping on our articulated good intentions. And so most of the time, when I make concrete plans and resolve to make tomorrow count, something always happens to derail everything, which is why lately I've made a lifestyle of not committing. Went to bed early last night with a glorious plan to get enough sleep -- this from an insomniac -- and to make this Wednesday matter. Woke up seven hours later with the driest of throats, a harbinger of colds festering. (Where dafuq did I get this virus from? I've made myself a hermit the past three weeks.) Fighting the whole thing with Neozep, liquids, naps, green tea, calamansi, Berocca, and virgin sacrifices. Even then, I made my self plow through my calendar for the day: endless chores through the heat of late morning, a chance consultation with a student I've failed (who cried in front of me, oh dear god), and then a luncheon meeting. Ended it by catching the 3 PM screening of Doctor Strange, which is not as dazzling as the reviews make it to be, but it was a fair enough an okay origins story, and it very much satisfied. I had to fight my Neozep-induced drowsiness throughout the movie, which means that I will have to watch this again over the weekend to enjoy it better. An observation: why do most audiences leave the theater before the credits roll? Don't they know this is a Marvel movie? (There were two post-credits sequences, if you must know.) 


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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

entry arrow7:43 AM | No One Cares About Murder

I've been watching and reading a lot of Agatha Christie lately, for entertainment and for research. They're delightful detective stories -- but I also know they're really just expertly handled contrivances.

I'm remembering Raymond Chandler's old complaint about the classic detective story in his essay "The Simple Art of Murder," where he wrote: "If the situation is false, you cannot even accept it as a light novel, for there is no story for the light novel to be about. If the problem does not contain the elements of truth and plausibility, it is no problem; if the logic is an illusion, there is nothing to deduce. If the impersonation is impossible once the reader is told the conditions it must fulfill, then the whole thing is a fraud... There is one by Dorothy Sayers in which a man is murdered alone at night in his house by a mechanically released weight which works because he always turns the radio on at just such a moment, always stands in just such a position in front of it, and always bends over just so far. A couple of inches either way and the customers would get a rain check." [More here.]

Nonetheless, it is a difficult kind of story to write -- all that plotting, all that meticulous use of "logic," deduction, and red herrings -- and I've been meaning to write one for the longest time. But I think the most difficult challenge of writing in this genre is going beyond my own culture: British detective fiction works because it is founded on the basic assumption that their justice system works and the perpetrator of a crime will be made to pay.

Not true for the culture I come from: justice doesn't work here and most murderers get away -- or get elected to office. Life is cheap in the Philippines, and any local Hercule Poirot will be out of his depths pursuing a useless crusade, because nobody cares.

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Thursday, October 13, 2016

entry arrow12:01 AM | Women in Peril: Cujo, The Bad Seed, The Witch, Lady in a Cage, Sudden Fear, and the 1975/2004 Versions of The Stepford Wives

Every year since 2010, I've devoted the month of October to watching horror movies of all kinds, from slasher films to psychological thrillers to haunted house movies, from the classic to the contemporary. (Except torture porn. I draw the line there.) This year, I've decided to do "Women in Peril" as a theme. It is an intirguing subgenre of horror, and I intend to catch a full range of its varieties. I'll try to stay away from the "final girl" trope, however. So, no Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween for me. If you have any suggestions, drop me a line in the comments.

[6] Lewis Teague’s Cujo (1983), the now cult adaptation of Stephen King’s tenth novel is remarkable for its capability to heighten and embellish the plain conceit of its horror: it is simply a rabid dog story. That King managed to conjure an entire novel out of that premise really does tell me that structure is all, that perhaps a man vs. wild animal narrative could be a true source of terror if you invest it with something to root for. Who we root for is Dee Wallace’s Donna Trenton, a likeable, if harried, housewife whose life is made more complicated by three things: she is having an affair with her ex-boyfriend from high school, her husband’s advertising campaign for a cereal commercial is failing, and her young boy is exhibiting disturbing signs of being a little too sensitive. Apparently, domestic difficulties get their resolution by an encounter with the diabolical: a good-natured St. Bernard has been bitten by a rabid bat, and has become a lunging mass of droopy murderousness. Away in the city from their little town to salvage his cereal campaign, he tells his wife their car needs servicing. She goes to the town mechanic with her son, and before she could even say, “This is a good parking spot,” the dog has lunged after them, trapping mother and son in the car, whose battery has died. The film’s prototypical set-up is complete: our helpless protagonist is trapped, the geography of the trap is laid out well, and the monstrous creature is circling around the trap. What follows is truly a surprisingly nerve-wracking unfolding of the dog’s uncanny mercilessness, underlined of course by Dee Wallace’s wrenching performance and the growing problems she encounters in a closed car without food or water, the sun making its interiors a frightful oven. Throughout the ordeal, the boy weakens with a deadly swiftness – and tests the mother’s resolve. I like the film, I like its pace, I like its haunting score, I like how it handles atmosphere, and I like that I’m genuinely bedevilled by this dog.

[7] Melvyn LeRoy’s The Bad Seed (1956) is a peculiar horror film that for me becomes a perfect snapshot of its time: the 1950s. By contemporary standards, it fails as a horror film – but taking into context the time it was produced in, it becomes a beguiling artefact. It was a popular film, a major hit for its studio during its release, and subsequently earned four Oscar nominations, three of them for its cast. Only those performances remain indelible, the production not much so – because the immediate thing one notices about it is how stagey it is directed and rendered by LeRoy, which may spring from the fact that it honors more the 1954 stage adaptation of the story rather than the breathtaking novel by William March, which was nominated for the National Book Award. Thus, the story never leaves its primary location, the house of housewife Christine Penmark, which she shares with her husband Kenneth, a colonel, and her precocious and lovely little daughter Rhoda, and which she rents from the lovely landlady Monica, who lives upstairs. The only time it leaves the house is at the end with the scene at the lake, a coda that was added to the film to satisfy the Hollywood Code censors, and provided a marked departure from the more cynical original ending of the play and the novel. That meant most of the vital turns of the plot – in particular, the three murders of the story, as well as the mother’s backstory – are staged off-screen, reported over radio news, narrated by visitors, or unfolding solely through the reaction shots of witnesses. It is a strange filmic device, perfect for theatre but fatal for cinema. That theatrical borrowing is even taken further, with the actors exiting and bowing at the end, like in a curtain call. It left me cold and uninvolved, the very thesis of the excesses of exposition. But the story does posit interesting questions. Can evil be inherited genetically? And if so, if you are a blood relation of someone evil, can you do something about it? Those questions haunt Nancy Kelly’s Christine Penmark, who begins to suspect her perfect daughter, played with such sweet malevolence by Patty McCormack, may in fact be a sociopath (in a time when the term had yet to be invented). When she also finds out that she has been adopted and that her real mother was in fact a serial killer, she recoils from the full implication of her genetic inheritance – that her mother’s killing instincts had skipped a generation but has it passed it on to her daughter. What’s a mother to do? Do you turn over your daughter to the police? Do you do something distract? How do you exactly fight a monster if the monster is your own blood and genes? LeRoy employs a clumsy Deux ex machina to solve the dilemma, which diminishes this adaptation further – but even that is a sign of 1950s social imperatives. While the end credits roll, Nancy Kelly playfully spanks Patty McCormack, in a hopeful suggestion to 1950s audiences that all they had seen so far is just fiction, that they are just actors playing roles. It is a timid comforting hug, and it robs the film of its possible powers to truly terrify.

[8] Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015) makes no pretense at all to make you think that the witch of the title is metaphorical, or that he has made a film where the supernatural darkness is an allegory for human depravity and the abuse of superstition and religion. (In Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, for example, the “witches” are liars, and whole Salem debacle is an allegory for the McCarthy political witch hunts of the 1950s.) The witch is real in Egger’s film, and we encounter her immediately before the ten-minute mark, coating herself in the pulped flesh, blood, and fat of an abducted and subsequently murdered baby. (Ack.) With that abrupt end to Act 1, the film then ushers into completely unexpected territory: the terrors that bedevil the Puritan family we are following, as they try to work new farm away from the settlement they have been banished from because of religious differences, are real – and the Devil himself taunts them through visions and the demonic possession of assorted animals, including a creepy rabbit and a creepier goat. The family has made the crucial mistake of setting up a farm beside a forest that now has revealed itself to be truly forbidding, its dark innards the encampment of diabolical beings. First the baby disappears, then the young twins start to act strange, then the older boy gets sick after a seductive encounter with evil and then dies, but not before spewing out a fervid litany addressed in cold terror to the Divine. All throughout, we see the Puritan stranglehold on the family adding further to the devilish stew, with mother and father now becoming holy inquisitors. The malevolence surrounds young Thomasin, the family’s teenage girl whose burgeoning sexuality may be attracting the very evil now taunting them. The twins accuse her of witchcraft, and the mother and father – fervent in their puritanism – now must decide how exactly to resolve this losing skirmish with the diabolical. It is Thomasin’s viewpoint we follow, as she sees everything around her – her life, her family, her home – getting demolished bit by bit into madness. The film works as a study in tone and mood, as well as its astonishing embrace of historical detail, helped tremendously by all the actors who are outstanding in their embrace of their characters. It is a film almost without a false note – although it leaves us with a conclusion, concerning Thomasin’s final fateful decision, that doesn’t seem organic to the rest of the unfolding. It is a film that is slow in its scares, which may put off the most pedestrian of horror aficionados, but it is best enjoyed in the cumulative experience of its terrors.

[9] In the 1960s, there was a brief trend of Hollywood queenly royalty reacting to the dissolution of the studio system by doing macabre horror. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). Joan Crawford in Strait-Jacket (1964). Bette Davis in The Nanny (1965). In Walter Grauman’s Lady in a Cage (1964), Olivia de Havilland – with Ann Sothern in a supporting role as an ageing prostitute – does extra time in that trend of horror movies in a home invasion story that would have been truly terrifying were it not for its obvious, hilarious leaning towards Republican conservatism in panic mode. Ostensibly, it’s the story of a wealthy old widow played by De Havilland and one unfortunate day in her life. She has been incapacitated by a fall, breaking her hip, and thus must walk around with a cane and must use a newly-installed elevator to access the bedrooms in the second floor of her big house. On the weekend the film opens with, her only son (who’s a closeted gay man) leaves for a trip (with a plan to commit suicide later). A power failure occurs just as she is riding her elevator, trapping her. She pushes the alarm, which attracts only a wino, and later, Sothern’s prostitute, and much later, a murderous trio of hoodlums (two white trash and a dimwit Latino) who proceed to trash the house, burgle it, and unleash bloody terror. All the while, De Havilland is trapped in the cage of the elevator, shouting “Help! Help! Help!” And all the while, the film makes broad editorial comments about the undertow it wants highlighted: how this is really a parable of the best of American [white] society dying, terrorised by new 1960s realities with its liberal progress. We know this because the film is intercut by images of the outside world – rallies, technology, traffic, etc. – that indicate the symptoms of contemporary madness. And we know this because De Havilland’s character makes both voice-over narrations and monologues where she decries the evil and the indifference of the new world. And we also know this because, in response to James Caan’s hoodlum taunting her, she spats at him: “You’re one of the bits of offal produced by the welfare state… You’re what so many of my tax dollars go into the care and feeding of!” So, in sum: white privilege gets terrorised, gay man commits suicide, the welfare state produces hoodlums, and Latinos are dimwits. It’s a film begging to be Trump’s favourite movie.

[10] David Miller’s Sudden Fear (1952) is a thriller that warns us never to fall in love. In this curiously engrossing film noir, Joan Crawford plays an heiress who also happens to be a very successful playwright. (Which renders the story pure fantasy, of course.) In an audition for her new play, she dismisses an actor [played by Jack Palance] who seems to know how to get to the meat of the character, but alas – according to Ms. Crawford – lacks the physical rightness of the part. She tells Palance he just doesn’t look like a romantic lead. (She should have followed her initial instinct.) On a train tip to California a few months later, she encounters the actor again – and what do you know, romance develops. He sweeps her off her feet and the film seems destined for a melodramatic romance about second chances when it suddenly makes a left turn: we find that he is in fact in cahoots with another girl, and they are planning to steal her fortune after killing her off. Of course, Ms. Crawford soon stumbles on the plan, and finding no other possible recourse [the film makes painstakingly lays out the impossibilities of her situation], she pretends not to know, but is aware that a deadline is looming that is actually quite literal. The film is a showcase of Crawford’s luminousnesss, and her smart, lovelorn woman is rendered quite beautifully that we genuinely fear for her danger, and at the same time, her confusion about what to do when you find out that the love you’ve found is actually quite a dangerous thing.

[11/12] Ira Levin’s 1972 novel, The Stepford Wives, is about a Connecticut town where the men has conspired to turn their wives into preening, submissive robots, and has since entered popular parlance to describe people who have surrendered to dull conformism. It follows the travails of a metropolitan woman newly transferred to the town, and slowly comes to realise that something is not right with all these displays of domestic perfection. The story has been filmed twice over the years -- in Bryan Forbes’ 1975 version, which imbibed the pure horror of the book, and in Frank Oz’s 2004 version, which turned it into comic camp. In all versions, just as in Levin’s other popular novels -- which include Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys From Brazil, and Sliver -- we get a good transfer and exploration of Levin’s theme of paranoia, this time centered around domesticity and the feminism that was quite a big deal in the progressive spirit of the early 1970s. I like both film versions of The Stepford Wives, although none of them are exactly perfect. The 1975 version is more critically acclaimed because it sticks to the gritty feminism of the book, and does delve into the horror of the story with a shattering clarity. The frothier 2004 version is truer to the colour palette of the novel, but gets no respect for its candy-colorer comedy, with its zings and wit and pop cultural references and unexpected role-reversals and the happy ending. And let’s face it, Oz’s film was also quite a mess, with inconsistencies everywhere, it becomes harder to forgive its flaws as it unspools. William Goldman’s 1975 script is actually quite a chore, and is never really able to give us a good and thorough introduction to the town of Stepford, and is also quite averse to showing us much of the “wives,” save for the creepy end at the supermarket. Rudnick’s 2004 script maps out Stepford with zany precision and gives us the “wives” immediately in a tight cluster (performing aerobics that’s based on household chores!), it is impossible not to see the robotic in them -- but it doesn’t gel together, and the horror is totally gone, rubbed away by an avalanche of pastels. Maybe in the future a better version could be had, but I’d rather they film instead Levin’s A Perfect Day.

#2016HalloweenMarathon #WomenInPeril

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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

entry arrow1:46 AM | Women in Peril: The Witness

Every year since 2010, I've devoted the month of October to watching horror movies of all kinds, from slasher films to psychological thrillers to haunted house movies, from the classic to the contemporary. (Except torture porn. I draw the line there.) This year, I've decided to do "Women in Peril" as a theme. It is an intirguing subgenre of horror, and I intend to catch a full range of its varieties. I'll try to stay away from the "final girl" trope, however. So, no Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween for me. If you have any suggestions, drop me a line in the comments.

[5] Here is a documentary that runs like an unconventional horror movie of the true crime variety -- with a coda in the end that horrifies and curdles the senses for its depiction of the desperate reach we sometimes have to do to grasp the “closure” we think we deserve. It springs from a murder that has now become almost mythological -- partly sociological parable and partly urban legend.

In 1964, a young woman by the name of Kitty Genovese came home from her work as manager in a neighbourhood bar in Queens, New York when she was accosted by a man named Winston Moseley. She is our woman in peril for this series. Moseley knifed her in the open air, along the quiet sidewalk only a corner way from her apartment. Her terrified screams for help alerted several people in the neighbourhood, and she frightened her assailant just enough that he immediately walked away. Bloodied, she carried on slowly towards the front door of her apartment building -- only to find that the assailant had come back to rape her and finally finish her off. According to the newspaper accounts at that time, with the venerable New York Times leading the charge in reporting, about 38 people heard her scream and watched her die, and did nothing, most of them reporting later on the same mantra: “I didn’t want to get involved.”

The news story proved a sensation, spurred people into action, and seized the wider cultural imagination: it has since given birth to the term “bystander syndrome,” which describes the apathy of people in stopping a crime they’re witnessing, and also allowed the installation of the 911 system of calling the police.

But James D. Solomon’s The Witness (2015) is more than just mere true crime sensational retelling. For me, at its basic level, the film is a thorough and powerful examination of the subconscious biases we bring and even nurture in order to tell the stories we need to tell. Its title then is a perfect capsule of its [unintended?] theme: we are only witnesses to the truth we are comfortable with, and from that springs our versions of the tale.

Ostensibly, the documentary follows the investigations of Kitty Genovese’s younger brother Bill, who was closest to his sister and was a very young boy when she was murdered. Now much older, legless, and ambling around in a wheelchair, he feels a consuming need to find out what exactly happened that fateful night on March 13, 1964. Did 38 people really turn away as his sister was being assaulted? What explains this psychologically? All his life, this murder and this knowledge of what was now being called “bystander syndrome” have singularly defined every choice he has made -- including signing up for the Marines at the height of the Vietnam War. In a culture where young men like him were finding ways to shirk from the war, he had volunteered -- because he didn’t want to become one of those “38.”

And yet the questions remained, and his family was not much help either: Kitty’s death also murdered her memory within the family itself, with most of its members having since refused to talk about her, preferring instead the comfortable silence. Perfectly understandable, given that the murder totally devastated everyone, leading soon to the deaths by stroke of Kitty’s mother and then father. As a much-younger niece recounts in the film: “I first read about the story in my high school class. I was deep into reading it when I finally realised it was actually about my aunt.”

Thus begins Bill’s decades-long investigation: first, he pursued leads and compiled the names of the 38 witnesses, and interviewed those willing to meet with him. Many of them had since died, complicating the filling out of the narrative, but for some of those who are still alive, a significant detail soon comes out from their telling of what they remember: some of the witnesses actually did try to help, and some actually called the police.

The first version of the story then is the newspaper version, as well as the prosecutor’s version: that 38 saw and did not help.

But now a second version comes out: only a very few of the 38 saw the assault, most only heard screams, and almost all did not know a murder was being committed.

Bill tracks down the legendary journalist Abe Rosenthal, who was City Editor of the Times who had given the green light to publish what was now clearly erroneous reporting. The third version of the story now emerges. In hindsight, for Rosenthal, the details of the report were flawed and not entirely factual, but he insists on the “power” of the story: it is now a story discussed in classes, in books, in films. Its implications have become important sociological theory which has in turn done much good, including the implementation of 911 and the better policing of tough neighbourhoods.

But for other critics, there is a fourth version of the story, a shadow narrative of Rosenthal’s insistent one: Kitty’s murder and the 38 have became a metaphor for “big city indifference,” for the soullessness of metropolitan living. It transformed New York into a dangerous place of the imagination.

The inconsistencies in the original reporting leads Bill to find out that his sister was not a “bar maid” as reported, but actually the bar manager -- and then he stumbles on Kitty’s secret life as a lesbian. He tracks down an old lover, and from her he gets his fifth version of the story: about young women in the closet in 1960s America, and the perils of having to identify the body of a murdered secret lover.

Further in his investigation, Bill finds his interest slowly leading to the murderer himself. Upon arrest on an unrelated case of robbery, Winston Moseley had confessed to police about an earlier murder of another woman, and later on also the murder of Kitty Genovese, which was brought about apparently by another psychopathic hankering to randomly kill another woman. That’s the sixth version of the story: the original confession of the killer.

The seventh version came some years later: in an earlier bid for parole [since denied], Moseley wrote an editorial for the Times where he proclaimed himself reformed, and now ready to become “an asset to society.” This is no longer the story of Kitty Genovese but the story of a poor man who had lost his way, and now was ready to make amends to the world.

Bill approaches prison authorities to arrange a meeting with the convicted murderer. Later on he learns that Moseley has denied the request, feeling that the media has already “exploited” him much too much for a good number of years; being filmed in conversation for a documentary with the brother of the woman he had killed was not something he wanted to do.

Undaunted, Bill seeks out Moseley’s grown-up son, now apparently a minister. The conversation that happens is fraught with tension, and here an eighth version of the story comes out: the son obliquely accuses Bill Genovese of belonging to an Italian crime family [not true], and tells him that his father Winston had suggested that Kitty had been killed because she had verbally attacked him, calling him racist epithets, and he had snapped.

Later, learning that Bill had talked to his son, Winston finally writes him from prison, and in the letter, a ninth version of the story comes out: Winston now claims he never killed Kitty, that he was just the getaway driver for the true murderer who had warned him never to tell the real story.

Bill Genovese responds with what for me is the truest line in the documentary: “It’s kind of like the human condition,” he wearily tells his wife who read the letter with him. “One believes their own bullshit in evolving stories.”

Now fully cognisant of the fact that he can never really truly get to the truth, he turns to one device that makes the film a perfect real-life turn for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo: he stages a “reenactment” of the crime in the very neighbourhood his sister was killed. He requests a friend, a young woman, to go to the Kew Gardens neighbourhood with him, and in the exact locations of the unfolding of that 1964 murder, he instructs her to do the exact same screams.

From the opposite side of the road, Bill becomes the titular witness -- the young woman follows Kitty’s haunted footsteps, how she had walked from the nearby parking lot where Kitty had parked her car, on to the sidewalk where she first encountered the shadowy form of Winston Moseley, on to the first screams she made upon being knifed, on to the pained walk she struggled through as she sought her apartment building door after the assailant had run away, on to the second screams she made when she found out he had come back to finish her off. The screams curdle as the night wears on.

Are we witnessing catharsis for Bill? Did the reenactment give him the closure he needed? The tenth and final version of the story, after all, is the personal legacy of that night, and it involved him: in not wanting to become one of the “38,” he had gone to Vietnam, and in the middle of the hell of that senseless war, he became seriously injured and he lost his legs.

In the end, he confesses to the futility of his obsession to find out the truth of that night. There is no truth, only versions of the “truth,” and every witness has a bias to skew it for a story that best fits them.

And so, in the light of the tumult in our ongoing political tribulation that seems to have no end, we must remember that we have accused everyone of bias -- particularly the media. Is media biased? Of course it is; to tell a good story it can sell. But then so is everyone, including you. We all trumpet the story we want to hear because we love the smell of our own bullshit.

And everything in the world, in fact, is bullshit.

#2016HalloweenMarathon #WomenInPeril

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Tuesday, October 11, 2016

entry arrow10:33 PM | Women in Peril: The Neon Demon, The Shallows, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, and Elle

Every year since 2010, I've devoted the month of October to watching horror movies of all kinds, from slasher films to psychological thrillers to haunted house movies, from the classic to the contemporary. (Except torture porn. I draw the line there.) This year, I've decided to do "Women in Peril" as a theme. It is an intirguing subgenre of horror, and I intend to catch a full range of its varieties. I'll try to stay away from the "final girl" trope, however. So, no Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween for me. If you have any suggestions, drop me a line in the comments.

[1] It is easy to dismiss Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon (2016) as being all-surface and no substance -- which is understandable, given that the director’s work thus far, including Drive (2011) and Only God Forgives (2013), are intricate mood pieces made distinctive by a sharp consideration of “style is everything.” I admired Drive and had no patience for Only God Forgives, eventually finding them both a gilded kind of shallow. And yet perhaps the auterial drive that informs much of Refn’s filmmaking instincts has finally met its perfect subject matter in The Neon Demon. It is after all a kind of tragic parable about a young almost innocent model (played by Elle Fanning) who is drawn to a cutthroat fashion industry in Los Angeles, and there finding her natural unbecoming beauty becoming a consuming muse for many of its creatives (agents, photographers, fashion designers) and a consuming target of jealousy for other models. In that simple premise we see Refn construct a glossy horror story that is kind of like a sombre, Prada-clad version of Dario Argento schlock. There’s blood, there’s cannibalism, there’s vampirism galore -- all done up to showcase a parable about beauty and shallowness and the extent to which our desperation allows us to become murderous animals. I’m sure I’ll never want to see this movie again, but for what it’s worth it’s intriguing, and it’s beautiful to look at, and its depravities glisten like blood under neon light.

[2] There is much to admire in Jaume Collet-Serra’s shark attack film, The Shallows (2016), but it is also not surprising to note that its critical consensus has downplayed the film’s success as being that of pure B-movie variety – meaning that it may genuinely thrill audiences, but the thrill is … cheap. It is certainly not the 2010s’ version of Steven Spielberg’s seminal Jaws (1975), but I’m not sure either if its thrills are indeed cheap. For me, they are perfectly earned in a movie that knows how to keep its thrilling sequences well-paced, with everything else perfectly anchored by a star-turn by Blake Lively. She invests considerable emotionality and physical bravado to her role as a surfer who finds herself in a beautiful but secret Mexican beach, where unfortunate circumstances lead her to do battle with a gigantic, very hungry shark. Sure, it’s not perfect, and sure we can see, even predict, the obvious clockwork mechanism of the plot – from the sick mother backstory, to the geographic clarity of the woman vs. shark struggle, to the introduction of the totemic stranger who must become the film’s first sacrifice to demonstrate the awesome terror of being shark snacks. But most of the film somehow work in a kind of cinematic organic unity, and gives us enough reason to root for Lively’s damsel in distress. Plus the cinematography by Flavio Martínez Labiano is gorgeous to look at, there are scenes where sometimes you cannot decide whether to scream or to go “awwww” in admiration of the images.

[3] It has been a while since I saw Curtis Hanson’s nanny thriller The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, but I figured that it was about time I revisited this film given the beloved director’s recent death. I also remember this film as having pretty much scared everyone when it was released in 1992. It was a surprise sleeper hit that for a while it seemed poised to make Rebecca DeMornay – the film’s deranged villain – a huge star. (It didn’t happen. She had one or two high profile roles in big productions right after, but they didn’t climb the same reaches as Cradle.) There is a reason why it is DeMornay we remember most from this film rather than the top-billed Annabella Sciorra, who plays the witless mother and wife who slowly grows to realise that the ever-efficient nanny she has hired is actually a vengeful madwoman bent on undermining her, in a crazy plan to steal her family. DeMornay plays her nanny with a steely sheen we can recognise immediately as the iciness of a psychopath, but she subsumes it with an effortless sexiness and charm that undoes us. We are party to her plans right from the very beginning, but even when she pretends to be good, we readily believe her. DeMornay owned this role so much it has become an iconic turn of late 20th century villainous actressing, up there right beside Sharon Stone’s in Basic Instinct and Glenn Close’s in Fatal Attraction. Sciorra, on the other hand, is given the largely colorless role of unknowing victim; she knows instinctively that something is not right, but the screenplay refuses her agency – even her bravura final act that saves them all becomes perfectly perfunctory. It is of course Sciorra’s emotional battles (and her constant attacks of asthma) that become the lynchpin in our navigation of the brewing domestic horror, but it is DeMornay’s evil manipulations that finally prove delicious.

[4] Is there such a thing as a feminist comedy of manners about rape? The idea alone appalls, and seems perfectly impossible to execute – but apparently there is one, and it comes from director Paul Verhoeven (who gave us Basic Instinct and Showgirls), and it … works. The film is Elle (2016), and it follows the intimate goings on in the life of a resourceful and steely French businesswoman who has founded her very own successful video-gaming empire. Right at the very beginning of the film, we are thrust into witnessing something brutal and shocking: her rape by a masked assailant. In the immediate aftermath, the rapist leaves the scene quickly, and she gathers her nerves and her self, sweeps away the broken shards of glass and vase that are evidence of the intrusion, throws her torn dress to the trash, and then takes a long bath. Blood from her vagina coats the suds, and she brushes it away and prepares to relax. The next day, she goes to work like nothing happened, confesses to her friends and her ex-husband about the assault nonchalantly over dinner, and proceeds to nurse a strange fascination over the identity of her assailant. She somehow knows instinctively that it could only be one of the men that surrounds her life: her ex-husband who used to beat her, her best friend’s husband with whom she is ending a short affair, one of her video game designers who makes no effort to hide his hatred for his boss, her married neighbour with whom she has started a dangerous flirtation, her aging mother’s new and very young paramour, and even her good-for-nothing twenty-something son. She navigates these suspicions in a cat-and-mouse story that has her past as a shady backdrop: her father is a convicted serial killer who slaughtered 27 people in their neighbourhood one fine afternoon when she was a young girl. As played by the great French actress Isabelle Huppert, who made us wholeheartedly accept the dark titillation of sadomasochism in The Piano Teacher in 2001, the character of Michèle Leblanc is a fascinating cipher, one who charms us with subterfuges of comedy as she goes about her life clearly having decided that she cannot be a victim of anything, and that she is indeed the captain of her own fate. I cannot exactly explain how this manages to work as a narrative that is empowering, compelling, and transgressive all at the same time – because in theory, it shouldn’t – but Huppert makes it work, and Verhoeven, working from a screenplay by David Birke based on the novel Oh… by Philippe Djian, provides just the exact amount of imagistic sharpness, and depth in psychological knowledge to lift the material above the easy sinkhole of the sensational. Huppert’s Michèle Leblanc is a woman in peril, yes – but she turns that peril into her playground, where she eventually becomes its boss.


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entry arrow5:31 AM | The Terrifying 13th

I can't sleep. Currently watching 13th, Ava Duvernay's new documentary on the problem and phenomenon of mass incarceration happening right now in America. But it's not just about that: it's a powerfully made thesis about race, the unfortunate legacy of D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, modern slavery, crime-mongering as political strategy, media manipulation, insidious corporate lobbying, the commercialization of prison, and guess what -- the use of the "war on drugs" as a political tool. Apparently Nixon invented that rhetoric, and Reagan made it literal, and Clinton actually aggravated it -- and thirty years later, many of the supporters of that "war" (even Republican stalwart Newt Gingrich!) are saying that the "war" did not work, and that it was in fact a lie. F*q this sh*t, I can't sleep.

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Sunday, October 09, 2016

entry arrow11:16 PM | Bingeing on 'Friends'

I have no idea what drove me to do it, but I found myself bingeing on all ten seasons of Friends -- that's ten years worth of shows -- starting about three weeks ago, on and off. Was it needful nostalgia, a longing for my youth in the 90s when things seemed ... simpler? Was it escape from the madness of today? Who the hell knows. But I laughed, and sometimes cringed at the now-dated sexism and body-shaming and homophobia, but mostly had a good time. There's an emotional accessibility to the show that renders it an instant classic, and it has something to do with the generally good writing (except for some horrible misfires like the Rachel/Joey storyline) and cast chemistry. But nostalgia has its limits. At the end of the escape, you have no choice but to turn back to the real world and everything's reality TV sitcom called Enemies. Bummer.

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Saturday, October 08, 2016

entry arrow11:24 PM | Food Roundup Dumaguete 2016: Kiyosuke

I am an accidental foodie: I used to write a food column for a local paper and have written extensively about the Dumaguete food scene for national magazines and newspapers -- until I decided to discontinue the enterprise about four years ago. Still, people I know who visit Dumaguete keep asking me about the best places to go to eat, and I've found I no longer quite know the scene. A lot can change in half a decade. So I've decided to try a new approach this year and go about sampling the local food culture once more and document everything online in the course of twelve months. The city has grown and expanded enough in the years since 2011, and a significant part of what's happening food-wise has become unfamiliar to me. Consider this a personal adventure.

We swung by Kiyosuke a few weeks ago because we heard from some friends about it: how it was small and intimate and how they have traditional Japanese clothes you could put on for photo ops and such. “Yeah, but do they have ramen?” I asked. It turns out they did not, but I was immediately taken by the place nonetheless. It’s not your typical restaurant: it’s just a small two-room thing, an apartment really, its living room fitted out for a three-table affair, with a small adjoining room done up with tatami and low tables. On the walls of both rooms, the proprietors have painted cherry trees in bloom. The effect is, well, kawaii. The menu does not exactly offer a wide variety of choices, but I liked what I ordered: teriyaki and sushi for dinner and korumitsu for dessert, all delicious, all lovingly prepared. The place is a bit off the beaten path, along West Aldecoa Drive right after the highway, and it could be tough to spot, given that it’s situated behind a garage. Its lived-in/DIY feel might not be for some people, but it does grow on you. I am certainly going back for more. We ordered at 7 PM. Order received at 7:20 PM.


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Wednesday, October 05, 2016

entry arrow9:42 PM | Food Roundup Dumaguete 2016: J Restaurant

I am an accidental foodie: I used to write a food column for a local paper and have written extensively about the Dumaguete food scene for national magazines and newspapers -- until I decided to discontinue the enterprise about four years ago. Still, people I know who visit Dumaguete keep asking me about the best places to go to eat, and I've found I no longer quite know the scene. A lot can change in half a decade. So I've decided to try a new approach this year and go about sampling the local food culture once more and document everything online in the course of twelve months. The city has grown and expanded enough in the years since 2011, and a significant part of what's happening food-wise has become unfamiliar to me. Consider this a personal adventure.

It is by no means a place to marvel at, or to unwind and claim comfort in. The tables and chairs are tight, for one thing, which is understandable for a place occupying what used to be the garage of the old Medina sugar house. The tarpaulin sign outside — “New Open / Japanese Restaurant” — does not exactly excite the grammatically fastidious. (“Perhaps it’s a transliteration of ‘Bagong Bukas’?” a friend of mine helpfully suggested. EDIT: “New open” [ニューオープン] is actually a popular Japanese phrase.) The name of the place itself — billed only as “J,” as in “Japanese” — indeed does have instant recall, but a lazy one that has no claim to imagination. And going in, I had wished very much to be greeted by a high-pitched “Irashaimase!” just to complete the illusion, but that was also a no-go. And yet, in the final estimation, I liked very much this new ramen place in Dumaguete, situated along the Rizal Boulevard in the shadows of Honeycomb. J felt very much like one of those ramen shops I used to frequent in in Musashisakai, in Tokyo, when I used to live there. That recall of “authenticity” — a dangerous word — was enough to banish away my minor quibbles regarding the place. Plus there was this: I had been hankering for ramen for many months now, and couldn’t get my fix anywhere. Certainly not in Mifune, where my one-time search for the dish was squashed by a surprisingly rude waitress that made me walk out. And certainly not in Kiyosuke, where charm seems more paramount and the menu alas is lacking. (Is Wakagi still around? I really have no idea.) J’s menu, on quick glance, offers four distinct kinds of food: sushi, tempura, ramen, and something the menu spells out as “don kach,” but I have a feeling is really katsudon. We started with gyoza, Japanese dumplings filled with ground meat and vegetables and wrapped in a thin dough — which certainly made for a good appetiser. It paved the way for a generous bowl of the chashu pork ramen (“chashoyu ramen” on the menu), good for two (at P500), which transported me quickly to old Kyoto memories. (They also have four other varieties of ramen, ranging from P350 to P400.) The sushi on the menu is strictly platter-based (at P400), and includes eight pieces of assorted ingredients, each one a delight. Definitely not cheap, but the meal was worth it. On the way home, I settled with the plain joy of knowing there was finally a ramen place to go to, and that it was good. We ordered at 7:45 PM. Order received at 8:00 PM.


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