Thursday, September 27, 2007

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (2007)

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (Dennis Dugan, 2007)

The theory behind Dennis Dugan's I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, shallow as it may be, is that crossing over from one spectrum of sexual preference to another is simply a matter of necessity. When Larry Valentine (Kevin James), a firefighter who is singly raising two kids (a Broadway-adoring and tapdancing diva and a regular tomboy), realizes that the easiest way to change the beneficiary of his pension funds from his deceased wife to his kids is to remarry, he asks Chuck Levine (Adam Sandler), a regular Casanova who beds multiple women nightly, to clandestinely execute an affidavit for domestic partnership. Little did they know that their harmless fraud would catapult into a near-lifetime of pretending to be gay.

Well, at least gay in a funny way --- or gay in the mindset of Hollywood. That type of gay consists of terms like faggots, chubby chasers, fairies, drag queens, and the entire gamut of stereotypes raised to the screaming level to inflict the basest level of crass humor. A fund-raiser for AIDS becomes the melting pot of every gay stereotype imaginable and every possible joke conceivable (like never pee in a rest room in a gay event, or all gay men can groove, or that not-so-original joke of looks like a sexy girl on the backside, but its actually David Spade on the front side). The film's love affair with crassness culminates in a shower scene where two straight firemen drop their soaps in the midst of their two wedded comrades, climaxed by angry-looking Ving Rhames, who plays a closeted firefighter, singing and dancing to a soapy musical encore.

The humor is enough to turn any gay rights activist to turn red with anger. It seems that Hollywood has started to use their plight to rake in some much-needed dough. Yet, there's enough humility and humanity in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry to cause a mighty huge group hug for both straight and homosexual viewers in a unified applause (while the rest of high-brow film watchers start running out of the theaters with the look of disgust and indifference on their faces).

The straight community got what they wanted: to see Sandler and James (and macho Rhames), get down and dirty with the entire gay business; the homosexual community gets a thumbs-up for their cause: a genuinely Hollywood creation whose thesis statement is exactly what they have been fighting for decades, tolerance and acceptance.

The film makes it look mighty easy though, to the point that it makes the statement look rather trite or shallow (which we all know isn't true). Also, there's not much filmmaking involved in the entire production. Unless we count out the contributions of Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor (whose writing bravura seems to have been overshadowed by the typical humor that should be in a Sandler movie --- including an inappropriately laughable cameo by Rob Schneider; but I can see traces of genius with the character of Cinton Fitzer (played with oozing sleaziness by Steve Buscemi), the government fraud investigator whose shrewdness is epitomized by his opting to keep a used bubblegum in his belt bag for later use), the film looks, feels, and resonates like every other comedy that comes out of Hollywood these days --- momentary fun for those of us gullible enough to fall in line to see what the rest of this gullible world is laughing about.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Autohystoria (2007)

Autohystoria (Raya Martin, 2007)

Andres Bonifacio, who founded and initially headed the Philippine revolution, and his younger brother Procopio were executed by the men of Emilio Aguinaldo, who continued to fight against the Spanish and later the Americans and became the first president of the Philippines, for allegedly conniving to topple Aguinaldo's leadership. The execution is a mere footnote in Philippine history; it's a big glaring hole that is merely filled with assumptions and hypotheses by different history scholars. In Autohystoria, filmmaker Raya Martin tries to create his own version of the story (thus, the "auto" and the "history" in the title), but instead comes up with something else, a gripping masterful artwork that works in so many levels --- as a linear retelling of a forgotten historical anecdote, as a nightmare, as a commentary on the many powers of filmmaking, and much more (thus, the "hysteria" in the title).

It opens with a tracking shot where the camera follows a man from across a street. Shot in black and white analog video (the rest of the film is in digital video), it partakes of the aesthetic of a surveillance video; the quality is obviously diminished and you can observe the color stains in the edges of the frame. The man in the video is being watched as the camera moves conspicuously and always right across the street (at one point, the man crosses the street but he doesn't notice the camera and continues to cross to the other side). The man enters a house and a few seconds later, the lights downstairs are turned on, and a few more seconds later, the lights upstairs are turned on. Another man goes out of the house to wait outside. What is the man doing inside the house, and why the need to walk all the way there (when there's an abundance of public transportation like jeepneys, taxis and pedicabs in that busy avenue)?

These questions that arise, I think, aren't merely assigned to the viewer but are also assigned to the invisible man holding the surveillance camera. In that sense, the viewers become the spies. That urgency enlarges as the curiosity about the man's activities widen. The sequence is followed by a lengthy still shot of an imposing structure which bears the statue of the Katipunan, the revolutionary group Bonifacio founded to rebel against the Spanish surrounded by a busy rotunda. There's a frustrating sense of redundancy in the shot as cars are circling around the monument without a notice. Is that the purpose of history, to serve as an uninspiring centerpiece to a busy rotunda, presumably ad infinitum?

We see a man wearing a tie-dyed shirt struggling in his seat. Beside him is a boy wearing his high school uniform in a tearful resolution of his known fate. We can see the outside of the moving vehicle; a row of stores in a numbing loop; later we become aware that the vehicle is circling the rotunda over and over again. The two men are clearly Martin's reincarnation of the two Bonifacios and their fate is obvious, they are to be executed (the modernity of the setting alludes to several theories since there is no more Katipunan (except for the famous avenue that leads to the country's premiere state university): for what crime are they to be executed, terrorism, and rebellion?). The more pertinent question however is why are they perpetually circling the rotunda that bears the statue of Filipino revolutionaries?

The moon holds its gaze as we are transported to a jungle. The camera follows the two captured men who are now bruised and injured walking in complete darkness. The ambient noise grips you entirely; Martin's film can't be considered contemplative as it doesn't allow contemplation; it grabs you immediately and puts you right in the middle of the terrifying event. Like the first tracking shot, the camera becomes a character (in the middle of the torturous sequence, the elder brother talks to the camera "are you going to shoot us?"), as the executor. Martin eases the tension with scenes of nature, of the green mountainside that invites the dawn or the running brook that is met with calming daylight, but the terror retains its effect and the serene blanket of nature's beauty can't simply erase the images of the two men awaiting their fate.

Martin's camera has dual roles, as a character to the ensuing events (it pits the audience as a conspirator to the treachery) and as recorder of the events (which assumes the responsibility of recreating lost history). The film ends with a couple of vignettes of Aguinaldo's navy, borrowed by Martin from the archives of American Mutoscope and Biograph Co.. It caps the story, from the surveillance to the capture to the execution and the leadership of Aguinaldo of the Philippine Revolution; it really is a coherent linear tale.

Yet it's also Martin's nightmare, the way history is recreated through the objects of contemporary Philippines. The two men here are clearly not the Bonifacio brothers, they are probably Martin's friends; the initial tracking shot isn't really a surveillance of a man conspiring to commit a rebellion, it's just a man walking a few blocks to visit a friend; the torture scenes in the forest is a myriad of many things: of Martin's everyday experiences in this contemporary metropolis, of the knowledge of the Bonifacio brothers' execution, of the current state of Philippine security (made more prominent by the passing of the Human Security Act by the Macapagal-Arroyo administration, and the many reports of terrorist attacks in television and newspapers), of this nation's worsening historical depletion.

There are no pretenses or borrowed aesthetics (it is certainly different from Lav Diaz's languid long takes as Martin's visuals is entirely personal, entirely his own; raw, crude, but his cinema hardly requires any semblance of prettiness) in Autohystoria. Martin is only in his early twenties but has made three feature films (Martin's first two features are Island at the End of the World (2005), about the Ivatans of Batanes who are separated from the rest of the nation including its history and homogenized culture by geography and climate, and Maicling Pelicula Nañg Ysañg Indio Nacional (O Ang Mahabang Kalungkutan ng Katagalugan) (A Short Film About the Indio Nacional (or The Prolonged Sorrow of the Filipinos), 2006), an experiment in recreating Filipino life preceding the Philippine revolution through elegantly composed silent film vignettes) that are vastly different in tone and mood, but are graced with one common element --- a mature sense of history, aching and begging to exist.

This review is also published in The Oblation and is also my contribution to the Contemplative Cinema Blog-a-Thon at Unspoken Cinema.