Monday, June 21, 2010

Ang Himpapawid (The Heavens)

Ang Himpapawid (The Heavens)
Directed by Raymond Red
Written by Raymond Red and Ian Victorino

NOTE: The real Ang Himpapawid was to be Raymond Red's first feature. It is to this day unmade and exists in two forms. One as the short film A Study for the Skies. And the other as a glimmer in the filmmaker's eye. The following speculates on how the film might have been had it been made the way it was intended. The piece was originally published in the UNO April 2010 fiction issue.

“Poetry is nearer to vital truths than history.” – Plato

History’s always been more toy and maybe riddle to Raymond Red, something to play with and crack, to ransack and suspect, to bother and tweak. The doyens of the mainstream always come to history as if it were plutonium or dogma, that is, with wariness and reverence, and the fallout is blah, wimpy, cushy, safe - - - Jose Rizal, right. Raymond’s three historical fictions run less on set design and textbook exactness but more on dialectical fumes, not buying into the perceived truths of the subjects it hones in on, cross-examining the scuttlebutt, inventing wild theories. And each one feels, in varying degrees, like some aesthetic cage match between the budding classicist and the berserker experimentalist in him. Granted, Sakay (1992) was a stalemate. And the avant-garde tingles in Bayani (Hero) (1991) will crank up empathically, Raymond tells us, in the new cut he’s readying. It’s his obscure first feature, Ang Himpapawid (The Heavens) (1990) - - - the one that almost never got made, the one that Roman Coppola came this close to producing, the one that started life as an aborted fairy tale installation piece made up of slides - - - that fully realizes this delightful frisson. Conceived in embryo as a Super8 feature and at first given over to the organic tangents that specific pairing of form and format anticipated, Raymond shot it finally on 16mm, perhaps to save himself a few headaches, but without sedating its fevered exoticism.

In thumbnail a historical fantasy, but envisioned with a finicky verisimilitude, Ang Himpapawid, set in the twilight of the Philippine-American war and sheathed in dreamy expressionist tangles, is centered by two childhood friends turned freedom fighters - - - Julian (Rene Aquitania) with his head in the clouds and Pedro (Jeffrey Tigora) with his hand on the rifle trigger. Both have a vivid dream of freedom and an even more vivid dream of taking flight to attain it. And in lulls between the spurts of gorgeously-realized conflict, both conspire to jerry-build - - - with little more than a gusto verging on the naïve and spilling over into the nutty and whatever spoils and detritus they can amass - - - an aeroplane that can fly them away to the freedom of their dreams. As one flying contraption after another fails, their obsession turns fevered and combative , embroiling themselves unwittingly in a secret war of their own making against the enemy. Less a historical pastiche as it is an allusive parable on the mechanisms of beautiful failure, Ang Himpapawid could well be Raymond’s sneaky allegorization of his filmmaking process and the turbulent backstory of his film .

No work from the birth pangs of indie seemed to cry for a second look more. Or a third. And a third of many, at that. The noise the critics made was enthusiastic, but sparse for something as freighted with expectancy, with pedigree. But I missed this one in its first run out of having neither the age nor the will nor the curiosity. All that would come later but by then it had flown under the radar, and into a cultural fog, and I would finish up infatuated, for years, with a ghost.

The good news, of course, is that the centerpiece of the new Raymond Red retrospective, which swings from his first battery of shorts to his sinewy new Himpapawid (Manila Skies) is the belated return of Ang Himpapawid ,out of mothballs and back into the light at last. A film this loaded with vulnerabilities, it might help to leverage expectations a little before going to see it, undo the ribbons of fabulous rumor that has since mummified the piece, but not really by much, and I know this because that’s as far as I get. I was still dosed up coming in, prone to letdown. And I kept waiting for it to drop. And it wouldn’t. Not with the pulpy arcana of its parade of aeronautic malfunctions. Not with the stumblebum band of guerillas. Not with the way you can’t tell the corporal from the corporeal. Not with that coup de grace sleepwalking sequence that it turns out wasn’t in the script. It feels like one long mysterious and beautiful and maddening surge of cognitive dissonance. It also feels like his masterpiece.

Ang Himpapawid folds itself into a wrinkle in time with as much speculative fervor as Ang Magpakailanman (Eternity) (1983). And more than Raymond’s later, more sober historical fictions, it is this meta-textual and meta-textural faux-antique, predating Guy Maddin and equal parts Brakhage and Murnau and apparition, and more historical science-fiction than anything, that Ang Himpapawid feels of a piece with, trembling, as it does with the same metaphysical solemnity, the same aesthetic nerve, the same puckish mischief. In its sublime final shot, where everything is explained and nothing is, the film opens up a brand new universe of possibility and in the gap between two worlds - - - classical and experimental, mainstream and independent, fact and fiction, captivity and emancipation - - - crosses over from the wounded lie of history into the vital truth of poetry. * * * * *

*First published in UNO April 2010

Saturday, June 12, 2010


Directed by Raya Martin
Written by Raya Martin and Ramon Sarmiento

The enchanted forest that predominates Independencia, set during the first days of the American occupation, is a spooky and exquisite fake and closer to delirium than setwork - - - pattern recognition with counterfeit rain and skies made from paint.

Into its verdant recesses repair a mother and her son bedeviled by invaders and forced to flee their home- - - Tetchie Agbayani in full-on voodoo seethe and stumblebum Sid Lucero - - - and later a young girl - - - slightly anonymous Alessandra De Rossi - - - raped by soldiers with Roosevelt handlebars, who begets a half-breed boy. The story it’s telling has the aura of vapor. A ghost story, really, like nearly everything Raya does. A story of an exile so utter, a freedom if you will, that everyone who undergoes it all but disappear completely, consumed, become like ghosts. And much as it may pulsate and tremor and eventually breach, from inside this tenuous adoptive Eden, history- - - erratic, rogue, malleable history , the conspirational lie we’re all complicit in - - - is all rumor and smoke.

What Raya is in the middle of here is his vividly referential historical trilogy with its deceptively simple and rather elegant conceit - - - run three specific periods of our history that have been colored by struggle through past pre-eminent, almost anachronistic cinematic vocabularies. Then mine the dissonance. Ignore, then, any dismissals - - and there are quite a few floating around, you’d be surprised - - - that it looks artificial, that in parts it looks half-finished, that it’s the pitfalls of not having enough money to shoot in an actual forest. That’s a little like whining that porn has too much nudity. That’s a little like missing the point. That’s a little, like, dumb.

Form has always been crucial to his aesthetic more than you think , making it always crucial to look at form squarely in the eye. And Raya is often at his most vivid and his most alive,and really his most joyous, when he indulges his fetish for manipulating form, which tends to shift shapes from one film to the next and with a perverse and devilish changeling glee, too, that juices up his manipulations. Not so much assimilating these archaic tropes as re-purposing them into vectors of postmodern strangeness. Like the silent film textures that blanket Maicling Pelicula Nang Ysang Indio Nacional, set during the last days of the Spanish occupation, once so quaint, now possessed of this eerie unsettling beauty, putting Raya on the map but loosing, too, a tumult of lazy if not entirely avoidable Guy Maddin parallels. And Independencia has its fairy tale soundstage of a forest, effervescent throwback to Masaki Kobayashi ,to FW Murnau, to Johnny Weismuller Tarzan movies.

As taken as I am with the camcorder crudities of Now Showing and the way it evoked the fickleness and banality and warmth of nostalgia , not to mention the grimy and petrified snuff film sheen that bears out the claustrophobic nihilism of Autohystoria, the fever dream forest here has enough hallucinatory torque to thrust you whole into that immersive otherness, into that alternate reality, where tree gods bask in the rivers and you hunt for food dressed as bamboo birds and sometimes you lose your way and need to turn your shirt inside out to get back home.

Both allusion and illusion and throbbing with metatextual vigor, it could well be Raya’s most ravishing manipulation yet, and also his most disquieting, if only for how it’s both milieu and metaphor, and for its determined insistence that everything here - - - the very notion of independence alluded to in the title included - - - is nothing but a seductive, bewitching lie.
* * * *

*Originally published in UNO.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Head Above Water: Live From Planet Rox

It had all the come-on of a museum installation, that random labyrinth in Roxlee’s backyard, made from the junk Typhoon Ondoy made of things. Stacks of laserdiscs, vinyl records, cassettes, DVDs, CDs, all bereft of sleeve, strewn all over. The machineries that would have brought them to life lined an entire wall, meshing into a single sculptural mass of wire and cord and parts, water-damaged beyond usable. Resting against a far corner is an unlabeled can of 35mm film - - - with the film still inside. All this actually makes me cringe a little more than the sight of SUV roofs protruding from black water.

Rox and his wife and kids and his brother Romeo live in this five storey tower block. And Ondoy had laid waste to the whole of the ground floor. At the height of the storm, with power outages and communication breakdown amplifying the anxieties of everyone who knew people in the submerged areas, worried texts from friends asking how they were and had they made contact flew in frantic ricochet from one mobile to the next. But the place is a stronghold. Higher ground was always just one flight of stairs away or two. Virtually everybody who knew the brothers has been here at some point. And hung out on the roof deck that overlooked everything. If the place was under water that would mean the entire city was. So of course it wasn’t. In the thick of the deluge, it even doubled as a refugee ark for their waterlogged neighbors. Rox was, at some point, if you remember, a kind of indie cinema Moses, bearing not 10 but 13 commandments for every aspiring D.I.Y. filmmaker. Picturing him as a kind of monsoon Noah fits.

Rox is giving me a sort of guided tour of the detritus. Here are the tools of his trade - - -a 16mm projector, an 8mm camera, two Handycams - - - all wearing the patina of fatal gunk, beautiful in death. “Wala na ‘yan.” ( “They’re gone.” ) he says. He seems unfazed. Could be he’s had time to get over it. The Mini DV camera he’s been shooting his new films with was spared, after all, along with the Bolex and that warhorse 35mm camera. But then, Rox always wore this aura of unfazed. I’m the one who feels tiny pangs of regret, which spike a bit when he shows me an actual 16mm print of an untitled 11 minute collaboration with his brother Mon, fused into an unplayable wither. I wonder aloud how the film would look if we projected it in this condition. Rox just laughs the laugh of a man who has done that sort of thing before. And, it turns out, he has.

It was this other film, years ago, the title of which escapes him as he tells me the story. He was delivering a 16mm print to UP for a screening and was running a little late when the can of film fell from his bag. The lid came loose un-spooling the print onto the street where it lay, vulnerable as a tongue. Before he could retrieve it, several cars had already ran over it. Ever heard the one about imagining yourself sliding down a banister that suddenly turns into a razor blade midway through? This is the equivalent of that cringe-making joke for filmmakers - - -heavy traffic grinding your film into the asphalt minutes before people see it. But Rox, he just calmly spooled it back into the can, headed for the venue and screened the damaged film. “Mas gumanda pa nga e.” (“It actually looked better.”) he laughs. It’s like something out of Cesar Asar, the sly and absurdist and surreal and immortal comic strip he did with his other brother Mon.

For all its unhinged cheek, Cesar Asar, was a cross-generational touchstone that both boosted his mainstream stock, nestled as it was in the pages of the conservative Manila Bulletin, but also further insulated his cult. Nobody thought to qualify its subversive peculiarities as ahead of its time out of how much of its time it was - - -some rather strange fans at some point even pored regularly over the strips for codes, secreted allegedly in the art, from which to decrypt jai-alai numbers to bet on, numbers which, funnily enough,won. “Hindi man lang ako nakatanggap ng balato” (“I never even got a cut”) Rox laughs.

But here we are in the thick of an indie comic boomlet and that handsome volume curating the Planet of the Noses arc is often blithely passed over for the transliterated superheroes and supernatural mysteries and secondary world tripe (yawn) that excite domestic comic geekdom. “I sell more books in Japan.” Rox says, as he should - - - it’s not much of a reach to imagine Planet of the Noses tickling wild fancies there. Suddenly, though, ahead of it’s time doesn’t ring like the mother of all clichés. “Nobody who could push for it pushed Cesar Asar for syndication back then.” Rox laments the possibility stunted. “I think it had a strong chance of being picked up. It’s universal because it’s very visual.” I agree. Dialogue would be the downfall of the film Rox made of it. He tinkers with it from time to time, hoping to find a way to make it work a little better. But it’s the rest of the Cesar Asar oeuvre I’m interested in. I mention anthologizing it but Rox fears most of the strips have been waylaid in the chaos of moving house. Shame. Hands down the mightiest local comic strip ever, then and now, Cesar Asar deserves a full-hog anthology, if only to trap a moment in his career that Rox looks back to with a giddy fondness.

An exhaustive - - - albeit incomplete unless he agrees to play that soggy print - - - film retrospective is more promising, as future prospects go. Two years ago, Rox was one of the objects of tribute at the .MOV film festival. And a handful of his films were screened - - - including the out-there Lizard: Or How To Perform In Front of a Reptile, which I saw for the first time then and was a brand on my brain since. But his corpus is vast. Animation has always been Rox’s métier and his irreverent, evocative, hand-drawn shorts are mostly glorious. But I’m more partial to his films - - -the experimental brio, the wry looseness, the vigorous glee. And the way some of them got under my skin. Like Lizard. And like Juan Gapang (Johnny Crawl), which was my first blast of Roxlee’s non-animated cinema. Pre-indie, pre-digital, pre-everything, it was made under his own steam with a little help from his friends. D.I.Y. filmmaking was , even back then, fortified by such communal ramparts. For a time, the only filmmaker who owned a 16mm camera was Kidlat Tahimik, and everyone borrowed it to make films they would later watch in some basement, projected on a sheet - - - a literal underground cinema. What I would’ve given to see Juan Gapang for the first time under those conditions. But no, I saw it in college. But it was still full-on synaptic broil.

What Juan Gapang meant to me at first was being fed through the disorienting crackle of some alien voltage, a sensation I would eventually associate with every experience of stumbling into a hitherto unseen mode of cinema. Experimental cinema of any make and model was zero footprint to me back then. Lynch and Brakhage and Warhol would come into my life much,much later. And to someone with a headful of nothing but the crassest Hollywood pop, Juan Gapang was like a hit from some truly arcane opiate stash. I honestly didn’t know what to make of it at first. Nor how to feel after. Creeped-out, amused, a little seasick. It is, to this day, my favorite work of Rox’s.

What Juan Gapang meant to me later, along with Kidlat Tahimik’s Sino’ng Lumikha Ng Yoyo? Sino’ng Lumikha Ng Moon Buggy? (Who Invented The Yoyo? Who Invented The Moon Buggy?) and Raymond Red’s Ang Magpakailanman (The Eternal) - - - both of which I remember seeing for the first time within that same year - - - was my first glimmer of an Other in Philippine cinema, the height of which for me, at that time, was a handful of comedies and maybe one or two pop Brockas. It was a seminal moment.

There’s always been a schism between mainstream and independent. But is blurring the divide the point? Or are we better off sharpening it, instead , into relief? The mainstream will always have its insurgents, the independents its fence-jumpers. But overlap is a utopia in need of a reality check. And the presence of an Other in art is almost necessary. Kicking against the pricks, spanner in the works, ghost in the machine, all that. Not that I get confirmation but I’m sure Rox would agree. His Sinekalye seemed to pivot from this stance, ripening an exclusive environment for filmmakers to cook their work and make it sing without intrusion and qualifiers. Much as they’re welcome to crash the party, I’m not sure his 13 commandments were aimed at anyone looking to be careerist teleserye directors and would unlikely sway them anyway.

Rox beams a little when he talks about younger filmmaker friends who have struck out on their own,as if they were charges, or sons - - -Brillante Mendoza,who was his PD for a few of his early films, Lav Diaz, whom he’s known as far back as their days at Jingle when Lav hadn’t even shot a single second of footage, Khavn de la Cruz, who was an acolyte and whose aesthetic hews closest to Rox’s.

Rox himself continues to work, imbibe his ethos. He tells me he’s finished a new and better cut of Romeo Must Rock, his valentine to brother Romeo. And he plans on tinkering with 35mm Man next. His experimental documentary on Juan Baybayin, Green Rocking Chair , fresh off a stint at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival a few months back, may be a kinder, gentler universe removed from,say, Juan Gapang or Lizard , but it is a warm and funny and in parts even touching piece. More than that, he made it in 2008.

The day I swung by to visit, it’s been almost a month since Ondoy and the house has been wiped clean of all its traces - - - no more mud on the walls, no more refugee neighbors. Rox is reclining on one of the many hammocks hung all over the place. Fatherhood and domesticity may have warmed Rox, but I’m not sure the old saw of how these twin poisons bring aesthetic ruin to artists applies to him. Go by the way he howls as Akira Brocka in the noisepop un-band the Brockas and the wild man peg is easy to come by. But brother Romeo is the wild thing in the family and even then, not by as much as you might think. Passive nonchalance has always been Rox’s default setting. On one hand, it’s the purest iteration of cool I’ve seen. But it’s also the nexus of his aesthetic - - - Rox is a man who doesn’t try too hard. And it colors his work to a refreshing degree.

He’s shooting his next film in Lubang and he’s shooting it in January and according to him, “Maganda doon pag ganung buwan.” (“It’s lovely there that time of year.”) He’s not sure where he’ll get the funding but no ripple of worry mars his visible eagerness at the prospect. It’s the way Rox is. And this is what filmmakers do. And more than his 13 commandments, it is this unwritten 14th commandment that matters above all: thou shalt shut up and make films.

*originally published in Phil. Free Press