Monthly Archives: January 2011

Never Let Me Go (2010)

Based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s acclaimed novel, the film stars Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield in this story of human love and tragedy. It follows them as they advance from being childhood friends, to odd rivals, to individuals sharing a common sorrow. Beautifully subdued and restrained, it makes minimal use of dialogue, instead relying mostly on atmosphere to evoke or express emotion.

I read the book first because I didn’t want to spoil it with the movie. But as I watched the film yesterday, the reverse happened. I wanted so badly to forget the novel, to pretend I didn’t know what would happen next, to let the film absorb me so entirely everything else would fade in comparison. But of course it did not. That’s too much to ask. So I noticed changes, deviations from the book. I paid attention to the selections and liberties the film took, as well as those it skipped over: Norfolk, the maps, Miss Geraldine. I knew choices had to be made, and I do not begrudge the movie, but I cannot help feeling that I did not enjoy it as much as I would have liked. I can only blame myself, of course, for having read the novel already, but I wish I didn’t have to choose. I wish I could have had both.

Unlike most book-based movies that only constitute offense, Never Let Me Go actually complements and deepens the reading experience. It adds new dimensions to the story that a book would have never made possible. The score, for example, I found appropriate and lovely and affecting all at the same time. In one scene it made the hairs on my arms stand on end, accompanying pure heartbreak. I cried at that point (just a little bit though, not as much as Maki). Both Angel and Ace have warned me about this before, but I still couldn’t help myself. Angel described it well: none of us could watch the last few minutes properly because of the tears blurring our vision. I must have replayed this one scene (my favorite, and I hazard to say everybody else’s) at least four times already, yet until now it does not fail to move me. I cannot imagine it ever will.

It had never occurred to me that our lives, so closely interwoven, could unravel with such speed. If I’d known, maybe I’d have kept tighter hold of them.

What I’m not sure about, is if our lives have been so different from the lives of the people we save. We all complete. Maybe none of us really understand what we’ve lived through, or feel we’ve had enough time.

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The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

I am tempted to say that this book has left me speechless, but that would be lying. In truth, I am torn between not knowing what to say and having so much to say that a proper beginning escapes me. In this novel, Yukio Mishima writes a fictional history for the 1950 torching of the Kinkakuji. Mizoguchi, the protagonist, is a disturbed Buddhist acolyte obsessed with the Golden Temple. Born with a speech defect, he considers himself ugly and cuts himself off from society. In his solitude, he is haunted by the temple’s beauty, unable to find peace until he destroys it.

Faithful to Zen philosophy, Mizoguchi laments the disparity between his inner and outer selves: his incapacity to reconcile his thoughts with the world. Heightened by his inborn disability, this disjunction causes him endless suffering, since he knows that the gap which so torments him is bridged only by that elusive form: language. This tragedy of disconnection embeds itself even in Mizoguchi’s relationships. Tsurukawa, whose “bright heart…did not belong to this world,” is a rare exception: “Tsurukawa’s gentleness taught me that, even if stuttering were removed from my existence, I could still remain myself.” But apart from this one friend, Mizoguchi—because of his stuttering—fails to bond with others (the perverse Kashiwagi is a negative influence). Images like that of the dying Uiko fascinate him because they show human connection as opposed to his constant experience of disconnection. And it is this early image that haunts him throughout the book: for him, every girl is Uiko.

Mizoguchi knows his own ugliness, but his twisted psyche finds one commonality between him and the Kinkakuji: temporality. Because of this, he finds perverse pleasure in the possibility of annihilation: “I was almost intoxicated with the thought that the fire which would destroy me would probably also destroy the Golden Temple.” So far removed from life (according to him the opposite of beauty), Mizoguchi seeks satisfaction in death and destruction with his final act, but there discovers only emptiness.

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion is not the kind of book you’d pick up for an enjoyable read, but that does not detract from its achievement. It jolts the reader into a different consciousness through its disconcerting images and foreign aesthetics. Entirely absorbing and disturbing, it succeeds in its psychological portrayal of a madman driven to pyromania by his need for release.

Because the fact of not being understood by other people had become my only real source of pride, I was never confronted by any impulse to express things and to make other understand something that I knew.

In the distances I saw something white and indistinct. I thought it was the color of the dawn, but it was Uiko.

In the village roofs whose dim outlines emerged in the darkness of the dawn, in the black trees, in the black summits of the Aobayama, yes, even in Uiko who now stood before me, there was a complete and terrible meaninglessness.

As usual, it occurred to me that words were the only things that could possible save me from this situation.

It was quite natural that wars and unrest, piles of corpses and copious blood, should enrich the beauty of the Golden Temple.

What I dreamed of was something like a huge heavenly compressor that would bring down disasters, cataclysms and superhuman tragedies, that would crush beneath it all human beings, and all objects, irrespective of their ugliness or their beauty.

When I am sad, sorrow attacks me suddenly and without reason: it is connected with no particular event and with no motive.

What meaning could war have at this moment? At a certain place, at a certain time, it seemed to me that war had become a weird spiritual incident having no existence outside human consciousness.

…if the world changed, I could not exist, and if I changed, the world could not exist.

At the same time as looking, I must subject myself to being thoroughly looked at.

I was trying to reach a destination, it did not matter where. The name of the place for which I was headed had not the slightest meaning.

The law of distance that regulated my world had been destroyed. A stranger had fearlessly impinged on my existence.

To my ears the rain seemed petrified with fear, as though it had wandered astray in this particular part of the town and had utterly lost its way.

Never Let Me Go

Killing a novel is easy (authors are a bit trickier, but that’s a theory for another day). Off the top of my head: The Reader, Atonement, The Hours—although this last one I found difficult not to enjoy. You must know what I’m talking about. Films, books: most of the time it’s either one or the other. Exceptions exist, but in general you always end up destroying one, and if I have to choose I’d of course save the book. Reading trumps watching any day (except when they do the reverse and make novels out of movies, in which case the latter wins). What I’m trying to say is: I made a vow to stop my book-killing spree, and so planned to finish reading Never Let Me Go first before watching it.

The book spans the lives of Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy. Narrated in flashbacks, it begins with Kathy reminiscing about their shared childhood in mysterious Hailsham. Prodded by their meeting together for the first time after many years, she looks back on the rest of their history and tries to make sense of her present in light of the haunting past.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, but even as I was reading it another level of my consciousness dissected the craft that went into its creation. Discovery: something poignant permeates Ishiguro’s writing, so subtly that it takes you by surprise. I did not expect to, but I identified so deeply with the characters—tender, innocent, frail as they are—that towards the end I found myself seized by a tremendous hope for their happiness. But there exists so much room for disconnection: in the unsaid, in understandings that turn into misunderstandings, in the expansion of trivialities in place of actual conversation. In Oliver Ortega’s poem “Ilang Sandali Lamang”: “Sabi nila, ang / isa sa pinakamalaking / problema / ang kung paano / sasabihin ang problema. / Kaya nagsimula / tayong maghiwa / ng mansanas / kaysa mag-usap.” We never talk about the most important things. This is tragedy.

A few days ago I promised Angel I’d finish this book soon so I can return it to her and “move on.” Ace teased me about not being able to “let it go,” and though I laughed it off then, I think now that it is true: some part of me will never be able to surrender this.

Because somewhere underneath, a part of us stayed like that: fearful of the world around us, and—no matter how much we despised ourselves for it—unable quite to let each other go.

‘We were right for each other once.’

My heart had done a little leap, because in a single stroke, with that little laugh of agreement, it felt as though Tommy and I had come close together again after all the years.

‘Why would he know? How could he possibly know what Chrissie would have felt? What she would have wanted? It wasn’t him on that table, trying to cling onto life. How would he know?’

So that feeling came again, even though I tried to keep it out: that we were doing all of this too late; that there’d once been a time for it, but we’d let that go by…

‘You say you’re sure? Sure that you’re in love? How can you know it? You think love is so simple?’

‘It wasn’t really you, what you were doing, I know that. But I saw you and it broke my heart. And I’ve never forgotten.’

And so we stood like that, at the top of that field, for what seemed like ages, not saying anything, just holding each other, while the wind kept blowing and blowing at us, tugging our clothes, and for a moment, it seemed like we were holding onto each other because that was the only way to stop us being swept away into the night.

Closer (2004)

“What a floozy,” Alice describes herself in one scene. Incidentally, you can also say the same about the movie. Closer flirts unabashedly, with alluring images of intimate interactions and beguiling exchanges of playful (sometimes snappy) bantering. Fast-paced and entertaining, it doesn’t give you time to think, much less question what’s happening on screen. But it’s not like you need to—most of the time you’re enjoying yourself too much to even think about thinking. A casting and editing success, the film possesses an undeniable charisma, an irresistible magnetism that lures you inside its world without reservation—easy seduction at its finest.

The movie follows the intertwining romances of four characters: Alice (Natalie Portman), Dan (Jude Law), Anna (Julia Roberts), and Larry (Clive Owen). It shows them grappling with inconstant emotions and struggling to locate meaning in their relationships. But as they weave and unweave the tenuous threads of their affairs, they find themselves drawing dangerously closer to one another, eventually losing themselves as they deal with inevitable departures.

Essentially a series of heartbreaks, Closer makes use of several lines made familiar by other romances. But although tacky when taken out of context, these lines found fitting places in the movie’s script. In those scenes, at those times, from those characters, they did not seem at all trite. Instead they resonated with emotion, made perfect sense in those situations. Besides Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, I have never seen or heard so many heartrending statements anywhere else. My heart broke at almost every scene. I died with almost every line.

What makes the dialogue work so well is the emptiness of the characters—mere vague silhouettes, really. We hardly know anything about them, so we get to impose ourselves: make choices along with them, fight for them. It’s what makes the film so difficult to assess, because at some point a part of you gets pulled into it so deep it’s hard to see anything else. But towards the end I caught sight of a chink in its near-impenetrable armor. Frivolous might be too strong a word, but I found that in this movie “love” is a word bandied around too carelessly. And though it had me hooked for the most part, the last ten minutes shattered whatever illusions I might have had about it. It was just one change of heart too many.

‘Hello, stranger.’

‘It’s the only way to leave: I don’t love you anymore, goodbye.’

‘You’ve ruined my life.’ ‘You’ll get over it.’

‘I’m waiting for you.’ ‘To do what?’ ‘Leave me.’

‘Look at me. Tell me you’re not in love with me.’ ‘I don’t love you.’ ‘You just lied.’

‘Don’t move. I want to remember this moment forever.’

‘How? How does this work? How do you do this to someone?’

‘Where will you go?’ ‘Disappear.’

‘You’re wonderful.’ ‘Don’t ever forget it.’

‘No one will ever love you as much as I do. Why isn’t love enough?’

‘Oh, as if you had no choice? There’s a moment, there’s always a moment: I can do this, I can give into this, or I can resist it, and I don’t know when your moment was, but I bet you there was one.’

‘Don’t say it. Don’t you fucking say you’re too good for me. I am, but don’t say it. You’re making the mistake of your life.’

‘Thank you, thank you for your honesty. Now fuck off and die.’

‘I love you.’ ‘Thank you.’

‘Are you flirting with me?’ ‘Maybe.’

‘I love you, I love everything about you that hurts.’

‘Lying’s the most fun a girl can have without taking her clothes off. But it’s better if you do.’

‘What’s so great about the truth? Try lying for a change. It’s the currency of the world.’

‘Don’t stop loving me. I can see it draining out of you.’

‘I love her.’ ‘Boohoo. So do I.’

‘You were perfect.’ ‘I still am.’

‘I don’t love you anymore.’ ‘Since when?’ ‘Now, just now.’

‘Where is this love? I can’t see it, I can’t touch it. I can’t feel it. I can hear it. I can hear some words, but I can’t do anything with your easy words.’

The Remains of the Day

Late last year I suffered a book-borrowing frenzy. That afternoon, I exited the Rizal Library carrying a stack of four books: Don Quixote, The Reader, Flights of Love, and The Remains of the Day. I finished this last one sometime last week, and I have to say that out of all those books, I enjoyed it the most. Because of it, I am now halfway through Kazuo Ishiguro’s other novel Never Let Me Go.

The Remains of the Day is narrated by Stevens, an old-fashioned English butler embarking on a leisurely drive through the countryside. As he looks back on his thirty years of service to Lord Darlington, he recalls certain memories and ruminates on their past implications as well as subsequent significance in his life. These recollections are triggered by a letter from Miss Kenton, a former housekeeper with whom Stevens had a close personal relationship until her retirement more than twenty years earlier, and whom he plans to visit for “professional reasons” before the end of his motoring trip.

The book finds a unique narrative voice in Stevens, who has a charismatic, roundabout manner of speech in perfect keeping with his character. His speech portrays him as a charming, prudish old man incapable of casual socialization despite his exemplary skills in social grace. He is the kind of man who uses words like “evidently” and “ultimately” too often, who spends hours contemplating the concept of “dignity.” This he values above all else as the final, great-making quality of a butler. Based on this principle, he leads a life of absolute professionalism at the risk of personal dishonesty, and finds its results in tremendous unhappiness.

Whatever the blurbs say, the most striking relationship I found in this book is not the one between Stevens and Lord Darlington, but between him and Miss Kenton. The author illustrates their charming romance through curiously veiled dialogues that force the reader to look between lines for hints of true feeling. And even for Stevens, it is only towards the end that he sees the truth in all those years of pretending. The book closes with his solitary reflections on “the remains of the day”: how he arrived at that point in his life, why he’s still there, and what comfort he can take from the situation. Quietly heartbreaking and poignant beyond words, it is a novel never to forget.

I have heard people describe the moment, when setting sail in a ship, when one finally loses sight of the land.

‘Stevens, are you all right?’ ‘Yes, sir. Perfectly.’ ‘You look as though you’re crying.’

‘Why, Mr. Stevens, why, why, why do you always have to pretend?’

‘You are increasingly tired now, Miss Kenton. It used not to be an excuse you needed to resort to.’

Rather, it was as though one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years in which to sort out the vagaries of one’s relationship with Miss Kenton; an indefinite number of further opportunities in which to remedy the effect of this or that misunderstanding. There was surely nothing to indicate at the time that such evidently small incidents would render whole dreams forever irredeemable.

Indeed—why should I not admit it?—at that moment, my heart was breaking.

All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really—one has to ask oneself—what dignity is there in that?

Pulp Fiction (1994)

I cannot believe it took me so long to watch this. I’ve had a copy of it for months now but only got around to watching it a few days ago with Maki. Because it’s from Quentin Tarantino, I had expected it to be brutal, violent, and downright gory. Instead I found it extremely hilarious, witty, and inventive. I enjoyed every minute of it, even those times when the on-screen tension had me half-covering my eyes in expectation of gunfire. But even then it was hardly as bad as I had supposed. Hostility remained at a tolerable level, and was not at all the focus of the movie.

Dialogue takes center stage in Pulp Fiction. There’s often so much going on in any one scene, but still I found myself paying prime attention to the eclectic conversations. And it’s not just the actual lines themselves I found interesting. There’s also something riveting in the way the characters say them, effectively drawing viewers into the moment with them. The breakfast scene (Mike’s favorite, I think) typifies this quality extremely well. Plus it’s also one of the most tension-filled scenes in the entire movie. In it, the tension in the atmosphere surmounts line by line even as the characters prate on about hamburgers. The banality of the topic made the anticipation even more excruciating.

Both in form and content, this movie showed a level of inventiveness that is perhaps unprecedented in my meager film-watching history. Upon first watching it, I did not know what to make of it. It was entirely new to me. Presented in a non-chronological manner, the movie interweaves the lives of several characters from the Los Angeles underworld, including the scheming boxer Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis), gangsters Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), as well as their boss’ wife, Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman). In the space of seven sequences, the film creates a plot that manages to be ridiculous, ironic, and strangely acceptable all at the same time. My disbelief didn’t even get a chance to rear its scrutinizing head. I was ready to accept anything the film threw at me, just like that. Because Pulp Fiction is the kind of movie that takes you along for the ride, no questions asked. But trust me, after that ride, you definitely won’t have any complaints either.

‘Now look, maybe your method of massage differs from mine, but, you know, touchin’ his wife’s feet, and stickin’ your tongue in her Holiest of Holies, ain’t the same fuckin’ ballpark, it ain’t the same league, it ain’t even the same fuckin’ sport.’

‘Say ‘what’ again. Say ‘what’ again, I dare you, I double dare you motherfucker, say ‘what’ one more goddamn time!’

‘What’s more chickenshit than fucking with a man’s automobile? I mean, don’t fuck with another man’s vehicle.’

‘Uncomfortable silences. Why do we feel it’s necessary to yak about bullshit in order to be comfortable?’ ‘That’s when you know you’ve found somebody special. When you can just shut the fuck up for a minute and comfortably enjoy the silence.’

‘Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go home and have a heart attack.’

‘The night of the fight, you may feel a slight sting. That’s pride fucking with you. Fuck pride. Pride only hurts, it never helps.’

‘I used the same fuckin’ soap you did and when I got finished, the towel didn’t look like no goddamn maxi pad!’

‘I’m Winston Wolfe. I solve problems.’

How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

Who among us didn’t have a dragon phase (or are still in it)? Exactly. This movie takes this childhood fascination and transforms it into something wonderful, magical—in 3D, no less. (It’s too bad I only watched it on my laptop.) Whereas everything around us today feels like it’s all about marketing to the largest possible audience, it is a rare, honest, feel-good film: it doesn’t try to be anything else, and it works that way.

Let me summarize. Hiccup is an awkward boy. The son of the chief Viking in his village, he has striven all his life to prove himself worthy of his race and his father. On an island in constant war with dragons, every kid dreams of becoming a great dragon slayer, and Hiccup is no exception. The problem is, when he finally gets his chance, he finds himself incapable of hurting a dragon and instead befriends it, realizing that there is so much more to the creatures than he had been taught to assume.

Although a bit lacking in the how-to aspect, this movie is everything else it promises to be—bright, charming, thrilling, sweeping—at times even scary. In a word: it will make you feel like a kid again. Armed with clever characters and an even cleverer script, it crawls its way into the viewer’s heart so well that by the end of the film you’re willing to overlook its faults. Not that there are a lot. How to Train Your Dragon combines all of the good of children’s films and takes with it hardly any of the bad. Its characters are a tad stereotypical (easily identifiable), its plotline predictable (anticipatable), but who’s complaining? Endearing characters, witty lines, great graphics, swooping music—to a kid that’s all you really need. To quote my nine-year-old brother Sean’s first words at the end of the movie: “That was bee-yootiful.”

‘This is Berk. It’s twelve days north of Hopeless and a few degrees south of Freezing to Death.’

‘Excuse me, barmaid! I’m afraid you brought me the wrong offspring! I ordered an extra-large boy with beefy arms, extra guts and glory on the side. This here, this is a talking fish-bone!’

‘The sun was in my eyes, Astrid! What do you want me to do, block out the sun? I can do that you know!’

‘We’re Vikings. It’s an occupational hazard.’

‘This is Berk. It snows nine months out of the year, and hails the other three. What little food grows here is tough and tasteless. The people that grow here, even more so. The only upsides are the pets. While other places have ponies, or parrots…we have dragons.’