Friday, June 27, 2008

Cinema as Caterwaul

Cinema as Caterwaul

by Patrick D. Flores


A tarpaulin poster accosts you as you enter the movie house where Pusang Gala is screened. Printed on it are ecstatic endorsements of the film from mainstream scribes, broadsheet and tabloid regulars who are long on their praises but short on their scrutiny. The hype of this recent release is typical, inflated by all sorts of claims: that it was shot digitally then transferred onto film, that it dares speak the sub rosa voices of dissident sexualities, and that it is an independent film from filmmakers who have other things to say besides platitudes. There is an implicit heroism in this posture, a stance against the common and the known.

This ploy, which heavily trades on the prestige of the much-abused term alternative, psyches up uninitiated viewers and earnest cineastes to be impressed, maybe even inspired by the sheer flair and temerity. They will also be inclined to like and cherish the film, read some profound insight into it, walk away from it feeling good about their part in the heady movement of new cinema in the Philippines.

In this situation, film is sort of wrought to become an instrument of national development and global competition. Here, an industry is saved by reforms within the system so that it could function properly in the trade and contribute positively to the general economy. Such is the premise of government investment in a national cinema, aside from its interest in its effective channels for ideological engineering. Cinema thus ceases to be an artistic defense against prevailing untruths and degenerates into a tool of the survival of an order under the banner of the “alternative.” This is what the vogue of independent cinema in these parts is all about: an alibi of the business to make itself over, to take on another guise, to trick viewers into believing they are witnessing new visions whenever they behold reformatted apparitions.

This is why films that do not secure the blessings of the gatekeepers of the State and the market, who conspicuously promote independent cinema in easy mantras, are more interesting. For instance, Yam Laranas’ Sigaw and Brillante Mendoza’s Masahista, which were scrupulously appraised in Los Angeles and Locarno respectively, were largely unheralded, almost weaned away from the publicity machinery of cultural and media brokers who trumpet the advent of independent cinema in very arriviste ways. They might prove to be the more textured specimens of a different breed of films, their spirit more genuine, if only because they have been able to resist the stage management of the hired hands of the establishment who continually sit in juries, get quoted as arbiters of taste, and even teach courses in filmmaking at the height of self-importance and self-perpetuation.

This is, of course, for the most part fantasy, which is a fitting complement to the seriocomic Pusang Gala, helmed by Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil. It conveniently blurs the borders between “reality” and “fiction,” the better to mask its inability to cross the gaps between these poles, granting they exist, and to come to grips with the complications of a dense social context. The film makes it appear that its agenda is complicated; actually, it is simple-minded. The scenario: Two friends and neighbors, a gay man and a single woman advertising executive, go through the travails of love and lust. He houses a lover of the working class, who finds him predatory and thus treats him as fair game for reciprocal predation. She keeps an affair with a lothario who takes her for granted, lies to her face, but makes her deliriously blissful in bed. Both coveted lovers, swines among pearls, betray them; proletariat sodomist rips off romance-writer benefactor, who incidentally takes under his wings a stowaway, and vain stud tells his pregnant damsel, after not seeing her for three months, he could not marry her. All this leads to loss: Boy toy kills street kid and lady-in-waiting tries to kill herself. They endure by indulging their affectations: roses in the garden, gayspeak gossip, whining and dining, and even a lapse of sexual liaison.

Whether in fantasy or waking life, the hapless victims of failed aspirations become murderous, their drama and laughter ultimately overcome by trite grief, their decisions shaped by questionable psychosis to which the film caters with tiresome solicitude. Like the fictions in their minds that do not sell because the public allegedly subsists on more exciting tales, the pair sells out but nevertheless wallows in the conceit of correctness and the righteous indignation against discrimination, which is alluded to polemically and not thought through with care. The eccentricity that the film tries hard to simulate – complete with hectic cinematography, self-conscious inter-cutting, and tiresome parallel editing – could have yielded gains had it been presented as a foil to the rationality of heterosexist habits; its edge could have been sharpened had it been engaged with more friction and tangential resistance from wayward creatures, as well as with the realization that while gays and working women who stay away from their families give full play to romance and sentiment, this reckless, unruly, and potentially radical energy also needs to be tempered by reflection and a keen sensitivity to excess and malice.

That the cast responds to the film’s cavalier demands with alacrity does not help. Ricky Davao’s depiction of gayness is stock-in-trade and Irma Adlawan, unloading her full thespian weight, is eternally existential, as if her character did not emerge from a social condition. The rest of the ensemble are textbook fixtures. This overall failure stems from the haphazard direction of an irresponsible script, based on a play by the co-writer of one of Philippine filmography’s debacles, Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Jose Rizal.

If this flick of no charm is the face of independent cinema that embodies the much-needed transformation in Philippine filmmaking and if digital technology is chiefly used to refurbish an obviously worn out commercial furniture, then it is safe to declare that the box-office raid of D’Anothers is richly deserved. My friend quips that Pusang Gala is a stray film about stray cats, to which I retort that this tedious exercise is a long drawn caterwaul. Or is it merely a whimper – and the putative Philippine independent cinema a sorry purr?

1 comment:

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