Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Urian Anthology 1990-1999

Redemption of a Decade in Philippine Cinema
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

We are a sentimental people. We thrive in captured memories: photographs of ourselves backdropped by famous locations in lands we’ve visited, memorabilia from baptisms, weddings, and anniversaries, essential souvenirs from personally important events in our lives. We are constantly nagged by a fear that lest we have tangible representation of points of reminiscence, we tend to forget. And we do forget.

Our country’s history is haunted constantly by recurring themes of failures, followed by great victories, followed by forgetting, followed by failures, and so on. We establish monuments, statues, and shrines. We name schools, streets and bridges by events or people that would supposedly inspire us to remember.

We are a nation of forgetful people who constantly scrounge for objects to remember. That is our fault. That is also our virtue.

Perhaps the biggest representation of this irony is our cinema. We are proud of it, sure. We rejoice when a Filipino film wins awards overseas. Unfortunately, jubilation is fleeting, if not totally hypocritical. We only recognize our cinema when it receives foreign accolades. Without them and quite horrifically, with them sometimes, our cinema is treated like junk – both symbolically and literally – thrown in un-airconditioned basements and warehouses to burn or rot.

We remember the greats – the films of Brocka, Bernal, the two De Leons, and Conde – yet we are completely unaware that almost all of their films are inexistent in their original formats, most of their films are available in substandard digital copies, and some of their films are completely lost.

What we have left are descriptions, perhaps two or three paragraphs at most, to have us remember these films which we absolutely have no memories of.

Inasmuch as preserving films are important, the act of chronicling films, whether analytically or journalistically, is essential in recreating memories out of nothing, caused by the failure of a people that views cinema as a disposable thing of the present instead of a cultural stronghold.

It is for this reason that Dr. Nicanor Tiongson should be commended for coming up with The Urian Anthology 1990-1999, a handsome yet heavyset tome containing memories – mostly good with sprinklings of some bad – of a contestable decade in Philippine cinema.

It is an elegant book. Its cover, a sepia-hued collage of several scenes from films, mostly historical and involving national heroes portrayed by different actors and actresses, seduces the onlooker to reminisce the decade when glamorous historical epics apologized for the numerous titillating showcases and brash comedies that populated movie houses.

The decade, described by Tiongson as the “best of times, the worst of times,” saw Philippine commercial cinema at its lowest, where studios literally and figuratively prostituted itself and its talents to battle imports. Yet the decade also showed glimmers of excellence, where filmmakers and even studios experimented and, in turn, paved the way for the seeds of what was to come the next decade.

A quick skim through the pages reflects the differing facets that defined the decade. Stills from the numerous films adorn the margins of the book, detailing the highs and lows of cinema, where the same actors played national heroes and rapists, the same actresses portrayed dignified women and prostitutes.

The reviews, selected by Tiongson from the Manunuri’s own roster of critics ranging from the enlightening like Hammy Sotto to the populists like Butch Francisco, are important because most of them reflect the critical reaction during the time of the film’s release, approximating, at least to the current reader, how a film was over-appraised or under-appraised.

The various articles, academically rationalizing the pleasant and unpleasant movements and genres that emerged out of the dire economic circumstance of the industry, are springboards for discourse.

The interviews of the decade’s defining filmmakers are also interesting, especially those of filmmakers who continue to work today who might have sacrificed some of the artistry they preach about to survive the dehumanizing rigors of present-day commercial filmmaking.

For whatever its worth, for however critics and filmmakers acknowledge it now, the decade that Tiongson’s indispensible labor of love gives focus to, as exemplified by the collection of articles that seeks not to blindly honor but only to document the decade that passed, is an amalgam of colors, themes, moralities, and levels of artistry that Philippine cinema is evolving into.

Little by little, as a subtle thread of a narrative develops as Tiongson’s carefully conceived book closes to a finish with filmographies of the decade, we acknowledge that Philippine cinema lives – through the good times and the bad.

Personalities pass. Directors retire. Studios fold. Cinema continues, constantly reinventing itself, constantly changing. The Urian Anthology 1990-1991 is the suitable memoir for this nation of forgetful filmgoers to remember that cinema is of value and should be valued.

I just hope that we do not become content with articles and pictures, and start watching these films, and if they are unavailable because of reasons beyond our control, start clamoring the government for a film archive to save us from the dangers of forgetting.

(First published in Starweek Magazine, 24 October 2010)

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Social Network (2010)

The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)

David Fincher’s The Social Network opens inside a bar where Mark Zuckerberg (Jessie Eisenburg), future billionaire and inventor of Facebook, and Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), Zuckerberg’s very-near-future ex-girlfriend and inspiration for a chauvinistic blog post and website Facemash, are in the middle of a rather lopsided conversation with Zuckerberg leading in amount of words and ideas blabbered in a minute and Albright obviously trailing behind. The setting, although not very long ago, harkens to an era when face-to-face relations have not been threatened with obsolescence. The bar is packed. Talk is lively. That is pre-Facebook, pre-the era of living both real and cyber lives with equal importance, pre-breakups via change in the relationship status in profile pages.

If the internet has made the world smaller, Facebook has turned the inhabitants of that shrunk world into codes and scripts that are all interconnected and worse, predictable. Facebook is not addictive because it was made to be addictive. It is addictive because it simulates the social aspect of modern human living. What Facebook members do in the website resembles, with hardly any artificial intervention, how we act and speak in real life. The fact that the inspirations for Facebook are ignited from the social systems of a university campus reflects the probable lapse in the so-called human free will that the success of the social networking website feeds from.

All this is of course touched upon by Fincher tangentially. What The Social Network is more concerned with is Zuckerberg’s story, how a seemingly unlikable Harvard student turned billionaire in a span of a few years and changed the world. It is a story that plays very much like a corporate thriller, except that the characters, instead of being motivated primarily by the greed that consumes adults, are all twenty-something dreamers whose wealth and greatness are mere byproducts of wrestling with their own immaturities and lack of world-readiness. Thus, sprinkled in between plot-forwarding scenes and dialogue are the portraits that are not always patronizing of Zuckerberg’s character but enunciates his humanity, such as when his new-found fame got him a first stab at sex, or what results right after, when he sees his ex-girlfriend and attempts to utilize his fame to undo the insults resulting from his foolish brashness and insensitivity in the film’s opening scene.

At the same time though, The Social Network does not attempt accuracy. In fact, the characters that Fincher and Sorkin created for the film are only stereotypes of who these personalities could be in real life. It is as if these characters are seen not through a biographer’s precise inquisitiveness or a journalist’s adherence to codes of ethics, but through their very own Facebook profiles, where tagged photos, albums, hobbies, interests, likes and relationship statuses are enough to create an idea of who the person behind the profile could be. In a way, the film relishes in the idea of seeing the characters, which are essentially film-friendly sketches of more complex personalities the audience might never have the privilege of knowing, interact as such, extended sketches of what these people were in Harvard: competitive jocks, unsociable nerds, negligible sidekicks, and objects of desire. Fantastically too, this is primarily how Facebook works, by encapsulating people in a few web pages consisting of pictures, basic information and relations, and allowing the casual onlooker a pre-conceived notion of the person via his profile, and thus, giving him the opportunity to judge via his response to the random Add Friend request.

Despite its liberal interpretation of the Facebook founding story, turning what in my mind is a monotonous and maybe sometimes exciting amalgamation of boring lawsuits, endless nights in computer gibberish and mental masturbation, and utter lack of sexy sex, Fincher and Sorkin succeeds in romanticizing the unromantic, cinematizing the un-cinematic, and humanizing the potentially dehumanizing website that has turned Zuckerberg into an icon of this generation of millionaires and billionaires who’ve reached their economic peaks at the same time they’re discovering their own maturities. It’s a generation, as exemplified in one of the scenes where Zuckerberg is asked a question by an elderly lawyer but his mind is elsewhere and when scolded by the elderly lawyer delivers a witty retort that is impossible to deflect without sounding foolish, that cannot by manhandled by dinosaurs of a disappearing era. The speed of change is indisputable in the film which details the pre-Facebook and post-Facebook eras with satisfying details, although blanketed with the familiar dramas of Zuckerberg and company.

The ending, where Zuckerberg ends up alone after a full day of depositions and argumentations in the conference room, toying with his Facebook page, adding Erica Albright as one of his friends in the networking site, and refreshing his internet browser every few seconds to see if his ex-girlfriend responds to his request, is a very potent portrait of creator succumbing to his creation. It details the very mechanism of human interaction that Facebook or any other high technology simulator of human behavior can never replicate, and that is the ability to feel and the free will to act on that feeling. A billionaire in his early twenties, the founder of the most popular website in the planet, a ruthless and conniving businessman, Zuckerberg, at that moment, is without what he wants and needs the most. It is the fact that it is the mechanical and a little bit humorous redundancy that his creation inevitably lured him into mindlessly committing that exposes his biggest failure amidst his famous successes that makes the scene, and the entire film, a worthwhile, if not enlightening journey into what kind of social creatures our human race is transforming into.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

On Lav Diaz

On Lav Diaz

Lav Diaz, considered by many as the figurehead of what Philippine independent cinema should be, started his career as filmmaker under the auspices of Regal, one of the biggest and most prolific film studios in the country. The films he made for Regal and its subsidiaries, from Serafin Geronimo, Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion (Serafin Geronimo, Criminal of Barrio Concepcion, 1998) to Hesus Rebolusyonaro (Hesus the Revolutionary, 2002), bear a voice that can’t simply be relegated in a passé concept of cinema as entertainment and commodity. As expected, none of the films he made for the commercial film studio made money, but it earned for the country a true artist, uncompromising even in the face of capitalist demands.

Batang West Side (West Side Avenue, 2001), about a Filipino-American investigator who wrestles with personal demons while examining the murder of another Filipino-American in New Jersey, unshackled Diaz from the restraints of commercial filmmaking. Clocking at five hours, the film pursued an aesthetic that is like no other in Philippine cinema, where the camera, mostly unmoving, demands patience and contemplation, because the film itself requires it. Diaz’s next films, Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family, 2004), Heremias (2006), Kagadanan sa banwaan ning mga Engkanto (Death in the Land of Encantos, 2007), and Melancholia (2008), whose running times ranges from nine to twelve hours and themes explore a spectrum that begins with the very personal and ends with the political or the philosophical, reinforces Diaz’s role in cinema. He is indeed one of the most essential filmmakers to have ever come out of the Philippines.

It is indisputable that Diaz is talented. He has an innate ability of sustaining even the most stubborn of interests with just one unmoving and monochromatic image. Take any of the staggered shots in any of his post-Batang West Side films, where depth, detail, and drama are encompassed with economy of aesthetics, and one would immediately notice that Diaz’s reflexes as a filmmaker is not bound by the limitations of what can be capture onscreen. Perhaps what drives Diaz’s cinema to go beyond the cursory demands of why cinema was invented in the first place, is his faith in it, that cinema is not twenty four lies per second, as Jean-Luc Godard would put it, but is actually twenty four or more not-so-convenient truths per second. If Diaz’s faith in cinema is unburdened by cynicism, why then can’t he demand the same faith from his audience? Truth be told, Diaz’s film may be bleak and therefore taxing to Hollywood-fed sensibilities, but the reward of not just sitting through his cinema, but taking part in his cinema, is priceless.

(Written for Lav Diaz's profile as fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.)

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

I Do (2010)

I Do (Veronica Velasco, 2010)

Sometimes a kiss is just not enough. After the redundancy and tedium of romancing, fighting, and forgiving that has been the standard storyline of most if not all recent romantic comedies, the pay-off of seeing the onscreen lovers lock lips in slow motion has been quite unrewarding. Tradition demands that the only acceptable conclusion to any romance is a wedding. Veronica Velasco’s I Do endeavors to innovate on traditions by telling the tale, which according to her and co-writer Jinky Laurel is based on a true story, of a couple whose attempts at being wed are often foiled.

Yumi (Erich Gonzalez) is a hopeless romantic whose mission in life is to find the one to tie the knot with in the dream wedding that she has been obsessing over since her younger years. Lance (Enchong Dee), her Chinese boyfriend, is suddenly faced with the decision of marrying her to the chagrin of her strictly traditional Chinese family, when she discovers that their seemingly innocent romance has produced for them an offspring. Amidst cultural differences, financial un-readiness, overbearing families, and the incoherent advices of close friends, they struggle, stumble, and carelessly rush to the finish line, the dream wedding Yumi has been longing for.

Gonzalez and Dee do make a charming couple. It helps that their performances here are grounded on romantic naiveté and youthful cluelessness, making their fated scenario and their sometimes incredulous reactions to that scenario more believable. The supports, on the other hand, are a mixed bag. The performances of veteran comedians Dennis Padilla and Pokwang infuse Yumi’s humble but earnest parents an amiable sheen. The tacked-on friends, with the exception of Janus del Prado’s pathetically enamored best friend who spurts pessimistic love quotes to hide his feelings for Yumi, are more annoying than alluring, adding more to the unnecessary clunk of the film.

Velasco acknowledges the comedy in the obsession with weddings. As the apt conclusion to any love story, the ceremony represents a collective desire of any lover to cap the uncertainties of pre-marital romantic relationships with something that resembles a fairy tale ending. I Do both flourishes and wallows in its overt comedic intent. Although very careful not to tread past the boundaries of what formula dictates, the writing is mostly witty. However, there seems to be an overabundance of wit and a redundancy of some of the comedic efforts, to the point that the dramatic parts, the portions that feel like the soul of the film, are pushed to the margins. It’s not that the film is not funny. With Dennis Padilla and Pokwang lending their comedic mettle to the already absurd situations conjured by Velasco and Laurel, it’s impossible not to be swayed to at least chuckle at some of the gags. Yet the comedy or perhaps the brand of humor utilized that hinders the film from being anything more than a joyous although momentary diversion.

I Do ends not with a kiss, not with a wedding, but in a heartfelt portrait of familial acceptance. It’s the romantic comedy graduating from the romance and the comedy, bursting the bubble that the lovers created for themselves and realizing that the world is not all about them and the exploits they have encountered in the name of their infallible romance. It is also about other people: the parents that can only long to see their daughter happy, the parents that believe they solely know what’s best for their child, the friends, and the dejected lover. Romances should never end with a kiss, or a wedding, or the promise of love for the rest of their now united lives. I Do, for all its faults and indulgences, invested in an ending that feels like a truly happily ever after.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)