Some articles on the Rotterdam "Critic After Dark" programme

A short mention in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, on the Filipino films at Rotterdam (1/29/06):

13 old and new Filipino films showing in Rotterdam

An article I wrote for the Feb. 2006 issue of Dutch film magazine Filmkrant:

Movies that matter

Plus a piece (also in February) on my Critic After Dark program by Filmkrant writer and editor-in-chief Dana Linssen:

Nieuwe filmboeken februari 2006 nr 274

Anyone speak Dutch? I'd love to have a translation...


Tenebre (Dario Argento, 1982)

Dario Argento's Tenebre (1982) is better than I remember it. It doesn't have Deep Red's shocking pallette of colors, but I thought the mystery was more coherent and more ingenious all around, even if Tony Franciosa's character didn't make much sense; the surprise coda was surprisingly well done.

On my first viewing years ago I thought it was muddy-looking and ridiculous; I suppose since then I've become a lot more tolerant of Argento's excesses and the pristine DVD transfer did a lot to correct my impression of muddiness.

Also possible I saw a severely cut version (appropriate, when you think about it); I don't remember the film having this much blood, and there's one "OH SHIT!" moment involving a woman seated with a gun in her hand that I definitely would have remembered, if I had seen it.

I like the way he weaves in a reference to The Hound of Baskervilles; I wish he would have the doberman figure more in the plot (can't believe a dog can be that determined without being trained to do so--to pursue an intended target), but the chase sequence itself is well shot and paced, and the dog is an amazing jumper.

Overall--pretty damned good. Maybe one of his best, I think; probably the best of his non-supernatural films.


Introduction to Rotterdam's "Critic After Dark" program

Here's the introduction I wrote for Rotterdam's Critic After Dark program. The website is a bit confusing to navigate so you need to look around for the list of films (I use the A-Z directory, look for Lino Brocka's Insiang, and go from there; either that, or click here).

This online version is shortened from the one I wrote for the festival catalogue.


Michael Moriarty on Larry Cohen

Michael Moriarty on Larry Cohen

I especially like this quote: "one definition of genius can be 'what you do with your mistakes.' Genius has also been defined as 'self plagiarism.'" 


"Critic After Dark" goes to Rotterdam!

The 35th Rotterdam International Film Festival is doing a special section devoted to films I've written about in my book Critic After Dark: A Review of Philippine Cinema. The program includes seven feature films (including works by Lav Diaz, Lino Brocka, Tikoy Aguiluz, and Mario O'Hara) and six shorts (by Cannes Palme d'or winner Raymond Red).

Here's a
list of scheduled films, including date, time, and venue, and a short description I wrote for each:


The Rough House

Saw Arbuckle's short The Rough House, and it's unsettling to see how he relished flirting with women, knowing how his career will end. Surprising to see that this is probably the first time the forks-in-dinner rolls dance made its appearance on the big screen (Chaplin was to immortalize it in his The Gold Rush); most surpising of all is to catch Keaton laughing it up a few times (this must be before the Great Stone Face has actually set).

Arbuckle's filmmaking chops may not be up to par with Keaton's but he's an incredible physical comedian, simply amazing at juggling things, and so is Al St. John, he of the wide mouth and at times jawdropping slapstick routines.

Finall, there's this startling sequence, of Arbuckle carrying a linen bundle into the dining room, untying and laying it out, and showing us a complete, set, and perfectly polished dining service. The solution's simple, too: Arbuckle walks backwards, picking up the tablecloth along the way; then the film is developed and projected in reverse. Nowadays, they'd get a computer to work the same miracle, spending a few million dollars along the way, with maybe half the sense of magic.


Castle in the Sky, Hayao Miyazaki 1986 (some notes)

Some notes I've collected on Castle in the Sky over the years...


Laputa may be on my short list of great boys' adventures, and I think one of the best things Miyazaki ever did (he cribbed the castle from his earlier Cagliostro and from Grimault's King & Bird, and you can see the flock of pigeons in a film he helped animate, Puss n Boots). I think it's a delight, a perfect chase from beginning to end, wonderful variety (giant aircraft, pirates, steam engines, car chases, train chases, underground caverns, military fortresses, superpowered robots, colored smoke, giant storms, flying islands, and more...) and maybe his most villainous villain ever. Sure I'm aware of the borrowings...but I think they work here the way they once worked for me when I first saw Star Wars, some mumblety mumble years ago: mix and match and charm.


And Swift's story does feature a revolving "levitation stone"--though it is, in fact, a giant magnet that acts against the earth's magnetic field to keep the island suspended (and hence, also ironically, a man who abhorred scientists and science ended up writing one of the world's first pieces of true science fiction--fiction with an element predicated strongly on a scientific principle), not a hypertechnomagical glowing blue thing as in the anime."

I've got a few ideas about that levitation stone. Larry Niven's "The Hole Man" speculates that gravity can be used as a way of communicating, like radio (for one thing, gravity can pass through anything), and hence can be treated as a wave, much like radio waves.

Some spoilers...

I think that "levitation stone" is something that can warp gravity waves, like a lens; it has the ability to harness gravity to lift objects, generate huge amounts of electrical power (even that gigantic gun we see--what is that, hydrogen in a state of near-fusion or even anti-matter kept temporarily in suspension in an electromagnetic bottle?), and even keep things together--which is why the bottom of Laputa fell apart when the stone left its holding place (the blocks of indestructible material that made up the lower hemisphere were held together by gravity--much like doors can be kept closed by electromagnetic locks).

I'm guessing too that light and heat is a by-product of this gravity-bending property--much like a current passing through a wire willgive off heat, even light (ergo, the light bulb). Could this be the reason, also, that the tree roots were attracted to the levitation stone, probing deep into the castle to where the stone is located? And could the tree, feeding off the stone's power, somehow become so incredibly high it bursts through the roof (if you look closely, you can see the twisted girders round the tree trunk).


The fact that Sheeta and Pazu are able to survive because they are thrust into the roots of the tree is so very powerful. If they had tried to run, it would have ruined it

They didn't run because they had made up their minds to die, give up, abdicate Sheeta's right and authority over Laputa so that no one--not even Muska--can have it, or abuse it. If they survive, it's by sheer luck.

Interesting how Laputa is divided into sections, and each party is interested in a different section according to who they are--the soldiers and the general are interested merely in gold and treasure (the easiest part of the castle to enter and arguably the dullest moment in the movie); Muska is interested in the technological power underneath; the children, who embody Miyazaki's sentiments the closest, focus their attention on the garden above.


It's not accident that the roots have penetrated everywhere, even underneath, where Laputa's engines are located; that's Miyazaki's metaphor in operation. When Laputa has fallen apart it has, in effect, shaken off what's peripheral, unimportant, even evil, and kept (thanks to the tree roots) what is truly important together.


Love Laputa; in a way, it's Miyazaki's repudiation of his own love of flying--what's important is not that crystal at the heart of the castle (flight), but the tree with roots holding the whole thing together (groundedness). (SPOILER) Plus Muska is one of the rare real villains in Miyazaki, a real sadist (he gloats at the death of thousands and threatens to shoot Sheeta's ears off) and he's dealt with appropriately--considering Miyazaki's a filmmaker, to whom eyes are indispensable, that's as cruel a punishment as he possibly can think of.


All this talk of costumes has got me thinking...

The ultimate challenge would be dressing up as an Ohmu, and all fourteen of your eyes can turn red when your date pisses you off. You can charge the buffet table and when you get there, spread spores (a bubblemaker? A portable fog machine?) in the air.

Or a life-sized God Warrior, complete with extendable 'wings,' poisoned halo, and melting limbs. For the party's climax, you can fall apart.

Or as Laputa, complete with (literally) forestlike headgear (bonsai might do nicely). At midnight, the lower half of your costume collapses into rubble.


How the West Was Won (John Ford's 'The Civil War')

Stayed up to see How the West Was Won. Waded through the Ohio River and Oregon Trail segments to finally see John Ford's Civil War segment, and right off you can see the difference in quality: the storytelling slows down, the characters start acting and talking like they actually live in the countryside all their life (James Stewart's drawling mountain man really threw me), and the movie starts focusing on simple things: a mother seeing her son off to war, a young man striking out for travel and adventure, a woman talking to her parents' tombstones.

Ford uses the Cinerama screen confidently, as if he'd been doing it all his life, and there's one scene in particular that strikes me, of Carroll Baker in aged makeup and George Peppard as her son sitting on a porch, talking. She has her legs wide open, which in Cinerama means she must have measured a hundred feet from knee to knee; she speaks words of concern to her son, and her son responds with exasperation and affection--exasperation in that she should still want him protected, affection in that he knows she can't help it, that she's doing it out of love (at the same time, you realize there's more to her fears than that: that Baker has a better idea than Peppard does of what's waiting out there).

Gradually, naturally, Baker takes on the aspect of elemental matriarch, from whose wide-open loins have sprung a generation--a symbol for all mothers who bid goodbye to their children, off to war, to adventure, to life; Peppard comes to represent any callow youth, wanting to break free and sup full of that life. And Ford achieves all this with a simple shot showing two people on a porch, one of them with her thighs spread apart.

The second significant sequence is an encounter between Peppard's character and two legends of the war: Sherman (John Wayne) and Grant (Harry Morgan). The way Ford shoots and stages it (on a set, far as I can tell, with the deep red sky of a coming dawn) suggests it's like one of those magical moments you read of in fairy tales, where mere mortals come upon living legends and witness momentous events taking place. Yet when Ford allows us to overhear the two men, Sherman and Grant come off as doubting, despairing human beings, every bit as tired flawed and uncertain as Peppard's eavesdropper is.

It's a wonderful short, easily one of the best things Ford ever did, and one of the most wonderful treatments of the Civil War (better than Ford's The Horse Soldier, I think), or of any war, ever.


Shelley Winters is dead

Shelley Winters dead at 83 (or 85)

Wonderful actress. I remember her best as the hapless mother, every bit as innocent as (and a lot more deluded than) her children, perfect victim for Robert Mitchum's malevolent preacher in Charles' Laughton's great The Night of the Hunter.

Then there was her Mrs. Charlotte Haze. Years past her prime and terrifyingly needy, her vulgar, ignorant (yet for all that--or because of it--somehow touching) American widow was the perfect foil to James Mason's suave European professor and Peter Seller's surreal nightmare of a comic seducer in Lolita, one of my favorite--and most moving--of Kubrick's films.


Pork Binagoongan

Cooked binagoongang baboy (pork in shrimp paste) with some changes to fit the circumstances.

Slow-cooked a pork shoulder in the crockpot, with a cup of water and half a cup of vinegar (it should be pork loin, but I was experimenting). When it was soft enough some four or five hours later, cut it into cubes which fell apart, then tossed it into a large frying pan with some of the juices, half a head of garlic chopped, fresh-cracked pepper, and a couple of tablespoons of bagoong, or shrimp paste.

Also sauteed some kangkong (swamp cabbage, I think it's called) in water, garlic, and oyster sauce till tender, then topped it with sweet bagoong (sweetened shrimp paste).

Not bad. Salty shrimp paste has a way of accentuating the pork's sweetness, and cuts into the fatty richness; spooned over fresh steamed rice, it smelled sharp and rich and fragrant. The kangkong made for a nice side dish, crisp leaves and stems in a sweet and salty sauce.


Spirited Away (part of Turner Classic Movie's Miyazaki retro)

Every Thursday night for the month of January, Turner classic movies is having a Hayao Miyazaki retrospective. This features much of his early works and his more recent ones, and includes the films of colleague and artistic equal (if not superior) Isao Takahata.

Last Thursday was Spirited Away. My impression--that Sen's adventures could easily be read as the adventures of any overseas worker or immigrant in a new country--gets stronger and stronger with each viewing. My thoughts on the subject:

Spirited Away

Some additional impressions (SPOILERS):

Geography and layout:

It's surprisingly consistent: the tunnel under the abandoned building that Chihiro and her family enters leads to a field with a dried riverbed, leads to an alleyway full of restaurants, leads to a bridge, leads to Yubaba's bath house. To the left of the alleyway is a warehouse for the sake, a large room for cutting fish and seafood, a huge freezer for storing them, an equally large room for butchering meat, a pigsty, a garden.

Three kinds of elevators service the bathhouse: the first, a service elevator with no walls similar to that used in mines; the second, decently appointed, services the lower floors; the third, looking very exclusive and luxurious, runs to only two floors--what looks like "second heaven" (not familiar with Japanese kanji, but the characters in Mandarin (which share many written characters) read "two" and "sky"), and "heaven" (the Mandarin character for "sky").

Incidentally, while the girl taking Chihiro to Yubaba says in the subtitled version "sorry it's broken," the subbed version is more accurate: the Radish god points up, miming his desire to ride the elevator upwards and the girl replies that the elevator won't go any higher; at the side of the shaft, you can see the Mandarin character for "down." They move to another elevator, the side of which reads "up."

Some lovely symmetries:

When Chihiro walks through the tunnel at the start of the film, the mother complains that she's holding on to her arm too tight; Chihiro, presumably, is afraid she'll get lost. When they go though the tunnel at the film's end, the mother makes the same complaint; this time, presumably, Chihiro is afraid she might lose her parents.

The River God's gift:

The medicine the River God gives Chihiro is apparently an emetic; when given to Haku, he coughs up not just the gold seal he stole, but the spell Yubaba puts on him to control him. Later, when No-Face is given the same medicine, he coughs up everything he's swallowed up, including four of the bathhouse's staff. Apparently the medicine is meant to make you get rid of everything that's bad for you.

Interesting too, that No-Face is voiceless at first, but when he swallows the frog he assumes the frog's voice (this could be a casting decision made during the film's English dubbing) and sprouts a pair of frogs legs.

Milo Miles once wrote that the image of Sen holding down Haku's dragon mouth while the medicine takes effect is a potent sexual image, an interesting interpretation. Equally interesting, I thought, was what happened after Sen steps on the spell or worm that Haku coughs up: the soot spirits and the mouse (formerly Yubaba's gigantic child) gather around the spot where the worm was squashed, and the mouse re-enacts Sen's killing the spirit. I don't know if Miyazaki's ever read Clemens' The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but a similar episode is described there--someone is shot in the streets, a gangly man in a felt top hat re-enacts the killing, and everyone congratulates him for doing it just right.


Might as well note here that Miyazaki is not just a master of characterization, but a master at characterizing various incidental or side characters: the soot spirits come off as a funny crowd of agitators, ready to strike for their rights or anyone else's (including Chihiro's); the giant child appears only after more than half the film has passed, but he's as memorable as Sen herself (and a side comment on the main storyline, of youth growing up to responsibility and a sense of self-worth).

The train ride:

Miyazaki calls the train ride the climax of the film, and I can see why: it's in effect Chihiro's (now called Sen) most decisive, most selfless act--she's risking her life to go to a powerful sorceress to beg for her friend's life (throwing in the gold seal in the process).

During the ride there's a fleeting shot of a train station being left behind, and of a shadowy girl standing there--why is she there (if she had just gotten off, she'd be stepping offthe station). Was she waiting for her father? Was she disappointed he wasn't on the train that just left? Seems like a quick homage to Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro (where the two girls also waited for their father to arrive from work), and a haunting image all its own.

There's another shot during that ride (surely the sequence is one of the most quietly emotional and most strangely beautiful things Miyazaki has ever done) where the camera simply lingers on Sen's face. She's looking forward, probably with apprehension, to facing Zeniba, who, for all she knows, is even worse and more powerful than Yubaba. At film's end, when the car pulls away, the same shot is repeated, only this time Chihiro is looking back at the tunnel and at what she'd left behind--her memories of functioning on her own, and growing into herself and meeting her first love.

A psychologically astute moment:

Then there's the moment when Sen is given a rice cake to eat by Haku, after seeing her parents (interesting to note that her final test hinges on her ability to recognize who her parents are, no matter what form they take, which in a way affirms her affection and bond with them--a notable contrast to the film's beginning, where it seems she blames them for uprooting her from her friends and school). It's her second time to eat something in that world (interesting that you have to partake of something in that world to materially exist in it), and her first time to really relax, and she cries, all the shock and fear of the last twenty or so hours coming out in tears and bawls. It just seems like such a psychologically astute thing for Miyazaki to throw in--of course this girl was going to cry, but she wouldn't let herself do so until she felt safe enough.

The word of a child:

Chihiro is told early on to insist that Yubaba give her work, no matter what is said to her, and it's a potent scene, Yubaba's huge head and taloned fingers pointing witheringly at her while rendering judgement on her meager abilities. I read Miyazaki saying that this goes to show the power of saying something out loud--I suppose it brings something out in the open that can't be ignored. But I think the film makes it more nuanced than that--a child can say what she wants, and repeat it until granted, but this doesn't make her heroic, or even admirable; too many spoiled brats use the same tactic. To say something, or insist on something one believes is right, or is a right, in the face of all adult insistence that it's wrong, that's brave. She's out to save her parents, she has no powers, and no real knowledge of the world she finds herself in; her only weapon is what little information Haku has given her and her own word, little enough as it is. She has to have faith that it is enough to sustain her.


Defecation in public

Was listening to NPR and there was this writer who, on a book tour, described what she found out about people defecating in public places.

Yeah, you heard me right. The dressing room in GAP. The middle of that circular rack where they hang pants or dresses. The middle of the men's room in a Kroger store.

Sometimes, or so she says, it's some kid who needs to go to the bathroom, and the busy parent has to point the child to some dark corner piled high with shoeboxes, or canned pineapple.

Why do they do it? The writer speculates it might be sometimes a protest, sometimes a cry for attention (not personal; they don't want to get caught, of course), sometimes a need to leave a mark.

One lady was said to have filled the center of a roll of toilet tissue, then put it back on the dispenser. Imagine the practice required to fill a roll of toilet tissue.