Unofficially Yours

Posted in Film, Review on February 19, 2012 by theburningpulpit
image from internetphilippines.com

My Pa makes the silliest comments when watching movies. This time, he says: nagagaya na tayo sa America.

Uh… for a long time running now, Pa. For better or for worse.

Unofficially Yours (directed by Cathy Garcia Molina) begins with Mackie (John Lloyd Cruz, In My Life) and Ces (Angel Locsin, In the Name of Love) banging each other after a short verbal exchange regarding sabaw and laman. Immediately afterwards the two part on their own separate ways, only to be brought together inside the Manila Bulletin office. He is a former dentist and an aspiring journalist; she is his senior and mentor. And, in the evenings, they are engaged in one-night stands.

The movie is many things: a comedy, a writer’s story, a bit of a social commentary. It’s funny, somewhat witty, and even a little bit sexy. But to wit, Unofficially Yours is ultimately about how a casual setup between a man and a woman becomes that dreaded thing that is love. And, as my Pa’s comment hint, such a story is not yet that familiar this side of the Pacific.

Unfamiliar, but not unheard of. While watching the movie a couple of movies and short stories popped into my head–some less related to the matter than others. Among them were Love and Other Drugs (Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway) and Friends With Benefits  (Justin Timberlake, Mila Kunis), which, I must admit, I can tackle only in the most superficial level. Local fiction also came into mind: namely, “Vinyl Strangers” and “Into Ashes All My Lust,” by Michelle Tan and Exie Abola, respectively. The common denominator? Must be sex minus all those wishy-washy namby-pamby feelings that drive one to crumpling down beside the oven. Or is it?

Unofficially Yours may divided into two parts. The first is all about Ces and Makie thrashing all about the office, the car, and the apartment. We learn that Mackie’s just recently been through a string of relationships and is resolved to make of himself a new man; supporting a lovestruck single mother and a jobless brother, Ces doesn’t want love to get in the way of her career. Words fly past headset-covered ears, roommates stay still in spite of loud bangs and groans, and Mackie’s offer of post-sex coffee, tea, juice, cold water, and warm water are rejected in this half of the movie. Pardon my lack of exposure, but bear with me when I claim that this part seems almost out of the pages of Hollywood, and that I say not as a bad thing. The casual script, coupled with John Lloyd and Angel’s good acting, lends the movie a certain charm that is not of love, but of fun and smart-aleck retorts.

But the movie being a romance after all, the second part progresses with Mackie exhibiting what seems to be more of a needy nature. Despite his promises that he would go the extra mile for Ces, who he finds himself more enamored with, Mackie begins to show something like a puppy dog’s behavior by always asking her to go here and there, at one point almost forcing her to go into a family lunch when she has expressly stated she has work to do. Ces, on the other hand, finds it harder and harder to resist–she even forgoes work for that very same family lunch–and becomes torn between her not-relationship with Mackie on the one hand, and her application for work in Singapore on the other. And the usual Philippine-brand of romance techniques rear its head, with sob lines and an injured heart, a callous third party and, yes, more sob lines. And because it is a Valentine’s movie and people demand happy endings, both see the error of their ways (well, Mackie’s neediness is only summarily addressed while Ces goes on to have a heart-to-heart talk with her Ma) and, voila, make-up song and they are in a relationship.

Now, you may think that I am terribly disappointed with this movie. Actually… not at all. Unofficially Yours avoids as much pitfalls as it finds itself falling into. In a sense of gumption rarely seen in male leads, John Lloyd’s character does not go head over heels when his ex shows up in the family lunch. Angel gets slightly jealous, but just that: slightly, without any real basis and only to illustrate her growing feelings for John Lloyd, and briefly. Nor does anyone moralize over the appalling and depraved scenario that is the one-night stand. And even in comparison with all the literature I’ve mentioned earlier, Unofficially Yours is able to stand up, if not with a victorious pose and a smug smile, then at least with a straight back. The movie certainly does not have the ability to make Mackie’s article improve through the power of love discovered (despite what the film tries to portray), nor does it explore the possibility of Ces becoming satisfied (or should I say satiated?) with sex and sex alone. The beauty of rediscovering beauty in the midst of pain, the increasing depravity of the human person–these themes are wonderful, no doubt, but it would be a happy genius who could pull it off together with the happy ending demanded during the Valentines season. As Jose Dalisay says, the most difficult of stories to write is a credible and riveting love story set in McDonald’s or Jollibee in Quiapo or Cubao–much more if it is to have a happy ending. So Unofficially Yours, while retaining a bit of the old Philippine cinema sob lines and lack of middlegame power (Patrick Garcia was almost a deus ex machina, and Angel’s back story did not even have a scene to go with her narration), follows the merrier path of Hollywood.

Of course, this is not to say that mainstream Hollywood is the ideal when it comes to one-night stands. The best one-night stand films I know, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset in tandem, are mature while fresh, and while these do not have the confetti and the fanfare and the rainbows the Hollywood staple love story has, these do leave a warm afterglow, one that is not quite the giddiness of being in love, but something that goes beyond it.

And to those who are worried about the future of Philippine cinema: despair not! If you’ve noted the movies I’ve attached to John Lloyd and Angel earlier, you may find that, though these are nothing approaching earth-shattering Oscar-baggers, In My Life and In the Name of Love are not completely of the old pattern of local films: much like Baler and Rosario (which I have mentioned elsewhere), they are stepping-stones, tentative dips into the water. I’ve had the peculiar experience of watching a so-called vintage local movie, whose title I cannot and, if ever, will not recall. Only allow me to say that our moviemakers are gaining ground. Just give them more time!

On Reason and Gut Instincts

Posted in Composition, Culture, Essay, Politics, Reflection on February 13, 2012 by theburningpulpit

It’s a cardinal rule–from the courtroom down to the Scooby-Doo detective shows–that evidence be presented to determine and penalize the culprit. This comes not only from the Roman idea that the prosecuted should be considered innocent until proven guilty, but from the fact that, as beings given reason, we demand to see the links between cause and effect: we need to see the cause so that we can understand the effect. No effect is manifest without a cause, and a different cause might not produce the same effect. There can be no water without oxygen and hydrogen, and sodium cannot produce water. It follows, then, especially in our contemporary institutions, that for something to be acknowledged as being there, as real, as the truth, then there must be some concrete thing that can attest to it, and nothing more. However, more often than not, such a simple cause-and-effect relationship cannot be found lying upon the ground. Evidence may always be misplaced, concealed, or destroyed. And this is the problem with many cases, from legal to fictional. The prosecuted cannot be convicted; a suspect cannot be arrested. And yet at the same time, the prosecutor or the detective (and sometimes, even the audience) is very much sure that the one facing trial, or the one sitting quietly by the scene of the crime, is the guilty party. And yet, where does this surety come from? A mere guess, perhaps. Or some vague psychological clue. The suspect’s face, or his aura. Intuition, gut instinct–all the sort of things that institutions cannot accept because beyond the realm of reason. Sherlock Holmes says that guessing is a shocking habit, abhorrent to the rational mind. That much is true. But does that make the gut, per se, inferior to rational inference? The judge and the chief of police might say so. But how about in real life, that is, life as we live it every day, chaotic as it is, full of surprises, full of uncertainties, full of lies and deceit and people whose money can change even the shape of evidence, of criminals whose intelligence can daunt or misdirect the detective? And not everyone can be a detective, not everyone can be a lawyer. But in many cases, gut instinct (or whatever we might want to call that which is outside of reason) can set everyone else better upon the right path. Take the masses, for instance. Yes, the uneducated, uncultured masses. They do not hold a J.D. or a Ph.D. or a F.A.W.T.H.A.L.D. but sometimes, they’re just right when it comes to certain issues. Collective unconscious? Maybe. Or take the novice chess player. In a chess book I once read, the author, a GM, was astounded by a rookie player discovering an easier way to win a certain case-game, much easier than what the chess authorities taught. Now, it may be too radical to clamor that our governments and our sleuths abandon reason altogether, throw the idea of obtaining evidence aside, and trust their gut instincts. For one, intuition is double-edged, and two, a thin line separates unadulterated gut feeling from whim. However, assuming the mantle of reason, making economic advantage corrupt it, and using the slowness of the process of obtaining evidence to their advantage, are all too often tools employed by the culprits, those who are powerful and wise. And those who are weak and meek have nothing but the sense that they are correct. So things must always be, perhaps. The good wise men, those like Holmes who advocate pure reason for the greater good, are either powerless, or still in school, or too few, or nonexistent save in novels that people cherish precisely because they have achieved impossible feats–good, but impossible nonetheless. And until the light of pure reason illuminates humanity’s way, or until humanity has fully grasped Divine Revelation, gut instinct must, we suppose, suffice.

Hello.

Posted in Announcements on February 13, 2012 by theburningpulpit

So I just remembered I have a WordPress account. (Or, I remembered that I have been neglecting my WordPress account. Whichever works.)

I suppose it’s high time to start writing again. Daily, preferably.

The worst thing one can do is to dream for oneself.

Posted in Reflection on July 31, 2011 by theburningpulpit

And the second worst? To pursue that dream.

In our locale, there is an idiom: dreams are for free. (“Libre ang mangarap.”) It absolutely false. To dream, in itself, is its price, especially if that dream is yours,yours alone, and not any others’.

“Follow your dreams,” many say; have we not heard of it in the media? But what the media forgets is that the “your” in the said sentence is open to contention. To follow your own dream, that which is yours alone, is tantamount to selfishness. You pursue what you want—and when you pursue something, you, necessarily, leave something behind.

When you follow your dream, chances are you will come into conflict with someone else’s. Everything in this world is limited: Economics teaches us that. And so are the slots available for teachers, for police officers, for doctors, for lawyers. So when you pursue your dream to become one of these, you are bound to deprive another, are you not?

Even worse, when you follow your dream, you might run counter to the wishes of your family, especially when necessity is on the line. Family is precisely doing what you do not like to do, after all: a mother does not like to wake up early, cook breakfast, and enslave herself for eight hours—but she does it for her children. So what right have you to follow your dreams, when mothers do not?

Follow your dream and fulfill your own wishes—be prepared to ruin someone else’s and abandon bonds of relationships. Stand by your family’s side and be a dutiful child, a dutiful friend, a dutiful citizen—and humble yourself, break yourself into pieces. This is, alas, what life is. We are, sadly, not the masters of this world. Someone once noted that the price of freedom is too steep. And it is true.

In the end, then, hone your talents. Develop yourself. But remember that you do not do these things primarily for yourself. You do these for others. And, by doing good for others, consider yourself rewarded. It is enough.

Anastasia

Posted in Film, Review on April 13, 2011 by theburningpulpit

It was only a matter of time.

Anastasia (Fox Animated Studios, 1997) is perhaps the last of the great princess movies, the final wave of which broke out in the ’90s. However, our family never got around to watching this film on its initial release in 1997, despite the fact that, in the past, we have seen the classic 90s movies like The Lion King and Thumbelina. But perhaps that was just as well, as otherwise I would probably not have appreciated Anastasia in a far different level.

Taken as a movie Anastasia only rates slightly above average. It has wonderful visuals, a great vocal cast (Meg Ryan, John Cusack, Christopher Lloyd, and Angela Lansbury), and its catchy songs and quaint choreography recall Broadway. Besides these things, however, the film has little else to offer. The greater part of the movie is a melodramatic love story between a dashing con man and a princess with an amnesia–hardly something someone of my age and cynicism (a friend of mine calls it “cold-heartedness”) can relate to.

As a historical film Anastasia fares even worse. Despite the film acknowledging itself to be more of a fairy tale than history, historians have deplored over the terribly sanitized version of the actual events. Sure, put all the blame on Rasputin. Sure, minimize the Russian Revolution. Sure, romanticize the Romanovs. By doing so, however, Anastasia may mislead the younger audiences, providing them with a skewed framework of Russian history. And as we all know, a skewed knowledge of history gives birth to a skewed knowledge of a people and its culture. In this particular case, the audiences may think of the Russian Revolution as something of no great import (and for better or for worse, it actually is a landmark in Russian history), and that the Grand Duchess, canonized as a passion bearer by the Russian Orthodox Church, is nothing more than a bit of an over-romantic ditz.

And yet, though wanting in plot (and exceeding in animal friends and unnecessary spunk) and misleading in its representation of history, something in Anastasia compels the viewers, catches and commands their attention–at least, in the earlier part of the movie. I am referring, of course, to the scenes leading to and occurring in the song, “Once Upon a December.” Various people, from fans uploading the song in YouTube to my own sisters, have described it from “haunting” to “nakaka-iyak.” I personally cannot even begin to identify its characteristics, but only feel a certain chill as I watch the ghostly figures descend to the deserted hall, which in turn comes to life with bright orange light as pairs dance and waltz and blend into a painterly crowd as the Czar of all Russia walks down and kisses Anya’s head. For some reason, something in me snapped in that scene. It was as if, in that scene, I was watching a different movie altogether: something that is not part of that above-average Fox film, but rather, something truly touching, truly awe-inspiring, something great.

In Wikipedia, we find amateur historian Bob Atchison saying, “if 900,000 kids go to Anastasia and of that, 10,000 kids become really interested in Russian history and go on and find the truth and pursue it, it’s worth it.” For me, at least, “Once Upon a December” served as such an entry point. It did not only introduce me to Russian culture and history (of which I was, before, only data-versed), but also to a different perspective of history in general. What must history appear to be to those who found themselves its victims? The entire movie did not give me an answer; the song only provided me only with a glimpse. But it was that glimpse that turned things upside down.

In the end, Anastasia is the last great princess movie not because it is glittering, not because it is populated with a wonderful cast, not because it has cute musical numbers. It definitely has no extraordinarily engaging story, and it definitely does not stay true from history. But in spite of all its shining glitter, there, in the film’s earlier parts–and especially in that song–is the hint of darkness. And this darkness disturbs as well as captivates, and it unnerves as well as beckons us closer, closer, to see past the glamor, to look deeper, to feel deeper, to see history through a different lens.

Elsewhere I have said that it is this darkness, this which the 90s movies do not altogether shy away from, is what makes the animated films truly great. There is a dark undertone in The Lion King; even The Little Mermaid and Aladdin have something more to offer than the usual flat evil villain. (In their cases, forbidden love and class divides.) Perhaps this is what the latter movies lack. In the desire to accommodate more people, to be more politically correct, and to be more appropriate, the filmmakers have filled everything with light. And without the contrast, everything appears flat, everything appears too bright, and it stings our eyes. So, yes. Sanitize the movies. Take extraordinary amounts of creative license. But never remove the dark tones altogether.

On Soaps and Prayer Scenes

Posted in Culture, Reflection on April 12, 2011 by theburningpulpit

Despite my father’s protestations, no one in our family can deny that we’re Kapamiliyas–that is, we subscribe to ABS-CBN shows, especially its nighttime soap operas. That said, I am more or less aware of what’s currently happening in Mutya, Minsan Lang Kitang Iibigin, and Mara’t Clara. (There was a time when I was also updated on Imortal, but these days I’ve acquired the habit of sleeping early.) And what I’ve noticed about these shows–besides the unnecessary streams of consciousness and the killing sprees–is that our favorite TV shows often feature scenes of prayer.

Prayer. As in the major characters kneel down before an altar, often with rosaries in hand, and say a word or two to the Poon/Papa Jesus/Bro.

As a Creative Writing graduate and someone with a love-hate relationship with religion, I initially cannot but be irked with such scenes. First, I think that such scenes only waste time, time better spent developing the characters and the plot. In Mara’t Clara, for instance, Gina Pareño’s prayer scenes (probably the product of her package as, well, Gina Pareño) are unconvincing because her character was supposed to be an inveterate gambler who just did not have it in her to be a good grandmother. True, one may say that the events in the soap have pushed her along the road to redemption and maybe even salvation. Okay. But I still cannot readily accept that she would acquire good habits–praying!–almost overnight.

Another problem I have with the prayer scenes is that they oversimplify everything–and sometimes, even the “effect” of prayer, even in this oversimplified mode, does not truly redound to the act. The primary example to this, I think, is May Bukas Pa. The relationship between “Bro” and Zaijan Aranilla (that child actor I really cannot stand, no thanks to his roles) comes across as unnatural and distorted: unnatural, because even theologians will say that a man who claims he can talk directly to God is either of the first order of saints or is terribly deranged–and Zaijan’s character is definitely more of the latter sort, as since when do we really and naturally see a kid as mature and as altruistic as he is? And the relationship is distorted because the representation of Christ as “Bro” in the soap is, as I believe, skewed: we see a detached and faceless entity telling the boy to just be nice and to put a smile on his face and wait for that pie in the sky, and hardly the historical Jesus who frowned at injustice and urged for the establishment of the Kingdom on earth as in heaven. Stretching this point, wouldn’t it be more to “Bro’s” character to urge Zaijan to actively tell Albert Martinez that what he is doing is wrong and that he should “repent and carry his cross” rather than just fading into the background, only there to give the boy a pat, or a smile, or some ephemeral advice? And going back to the act of praying (kneeling down before the altar), doesn’t the depiction in TV reduce it into a mere means of asking God for boons, or of giving Him a smiley and a spiritual thank you card? Does it not take away from prayer’s true nature: a deep communion with God, an act that truly exposes oneself in all his or her weakness, an act of pain and solace, of humility as well as humiliation, hoping that in the act of praying God will intervene and give him or her not this or that, but His own Self?

Ultimately, the misrepresentation and oversimplification of prayer in soap operas irk me a lot because I find prayer as unrepresentable and complicated. I must admit that I myself–I, who pride myself to know a lot of things!–do not know how to pray, and that unlike Jesus’ disciples, who, in asking the Lord to teach them how to pray, which is already in itself a prayer, I am yet unwilling to expose myself and to surrender my weaknesses to Someone I cannot see and cannot fully understand. (I do not even like exposing myself to those who I think I know and understand!) I cannot allow the media to represent the act of praying so banally, so trivially, and in so commonplace a manner because I believe it should be approached by everyone else with the same awe, the same trepidation, the same caution as I do. Prayer should be taken seriously. And to be taken seriously, prayer should be taken as something Other, something too immense, something beyond us.

Or should it?

TV shows are the products first and foremost of business; and for a business to be effective, it has to take into account popular demand. If prayer scenes exist and thrive in ABS-CBN at least, this is most probably because these are demanded and found pleasing by the viewers and subscribers. And what can we say of the viewers and subscribers? Who are they? We may, for the purposes of this reflection, lump the bulk of these viewers and subscribers into one category, and that is the masses. And who are the masses? In our country, the masses are the working class, those who live somewhere from a little above to a little below fifteen thousand pesos a month, those who are for the most part simple Roman Catholics who go to Mass every Sunday. TV, then, by incorporating these prayer scenes, cater to these viewers and subscribers, and so hope to reflect their realities, their aspirations. And their reality is the simplest of prayers: give us this day our daily bread.

Perhaps, just perhaps, I am wrong. It is we who are wise who are at fault. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, one of the greatest of the Russian writers, has implied that truth comes not from the intellectuals with their complicated and Westernized knowledge, but from the simple country folk with their simple and honest beliefs. God, after all, has overthrown the mighty, confounded the wise, and exalted the lowly ones. And so, in Crime and Punishment, we do not find truth and vitality in the intelligent but unnerving Svidrigailov, nor in the ridiculously socialist Lebezyatnikov, but in the simple and warm Sonya and the endearing drunkard Marmeladov. In the latter’s words, especially, we find a simple, almost peasant-like, but nonetheless profound and heartfelt declaration of faith:

“…And He will judge and will forgive all, the good and the evil, the wise and the meek . . . . And when He has done with all of them, then He will summon us. ‘You too come forth,’ He will say, ‘Come forth ye drunkards, come forth, ye weak ones, come forth, ye children of shame!’ And we shall all come forth, without shame and shall stand before him. And He will say unto us, ‘Ye are swine, made in the Image of the Beast and with his mark; but come ye also!’ And the wise ones and those of understanding will say, ‘Oh Lord, why dost Thou receive these men?’ And He will say, ‘This is why I receive them, oh ye wise, this is why I receive them, oh ye of understanding, that not one of them believed himself to be worthy of this.’ And He will hold out His hands to us and we shall fall down before him . . . and we shall weep . . . and we shall understand all things!”

Though we may contest the contents of Marmeladov’s declaration, we cannot deny that he believes this so truly and so purely. And this is perhaps more, so much more, than what we, we who are wise, can say for ourselves. The simplicity of the masses, of the peasants and their pure peasant beliefs–can we scoff at these things and merely dismiss them as the whims and deluded fantasies of a half-lettered folk? Returning to the issue at hand, shall we be irked and shall we be incensed whenever we see prayer so commonly and so simply depicted on TV? How dare we raise our eyebrows, we who are wise, we who are proud, when our lowly brothers and sisters nod their heads and accept these scenes as realities, when they applaud the telenovelas for showing things as they themselves experience them in their lives? Shall we deny them the affirmation of contact between themselves and God, of a God who is simple and loving and who, in turn, loves those who are simple in loving Him?

Maybe it is we who are wise who should learn from the masses. Maybe it is we who sat on our white thrones inside our white towers who should go down to the fields and listen, listen, listen. Folk Catholicism? Simplified Christianity? Are these what our brothers and sisters have? Almost certainly. But then, perhaps their hearts are in the right place–at least, more so than ours. Perhaps there is something to their reality. And speaking of reality–isn’t art, first and foremost, a reflection of reality? Granted, art does not and should not mimic what is. But must art ignore it altogether? Sinners exist. Psychopaths exist. Sex beasts exist. Ivan Karamazov, Smerdyakov, and Svidrigailov all exist. But so do the simple masses. So do the Sonyas and the Marmeladovs, the Father Zosimas and the Alyoshas. And let us not altogether take this one simple thing, this one simple prayer scene, this one simple reflection of their existence, away from them.

Decembre (for Anastasia)

Posted in Composition, Poetry on April 12, 2011 by theburningpulpit

After winter ball

Of trumpets and swirling gowns

Comes the sighing wind.