Monthly Archives: May 2012

Contemporary Literary Theory

Swamped as I was with photocopied readings in college, I never imagined I’d want to peruse another such softbound volume after graduation. Apparently, I do. Maki’s book interested me enough to make me plow through its first Xeroxed chapters. Luckily, the Rizal Library also had a copy, so I was able to read the rest of the book without feeling like an undergraduate.

As G. Douglas Atkins promises in his preface, Contemporary Literary Theory delivers a rich “diversity of perspective” from its various contributors. The essays themselves, however, comprise a series of hits and misses. While most are well-structured and easy to approach, one chapter (“Like the Glaze on a Katyid-Wing: Phenomenological Criticism”) stands out for its horrible pedantry, especially in its opening paragraphs; it seems as if the author prefers talking to himself than to an actual reader. Still there are other essays that—in fifteen lengthy pages—barely skim the surface and feel too thinly spread. Theories are naturally expansive, yes, but certain expectations come with reading these sorts of texts. I wanted to walk away with something.

Despite these misgivings, I enjoyed this book for its inviting complexity, which “raises more questions than it offers answers.” Although, like Atkins, I do not subscribe to the idea that “all theories are equally valid,” I recognize their value in that they chart the multiple ways in which we come to appreciate a text. The twelve theories presented here differ on many grounds, but they also agree on some fundamental notions: the finitude of language, the universality (and particularity) of human experience, the versatility of truth. Distinctions lie in the willful primacy of one element or aspect over another; nevertheless, all contribute towards the expansion of ideas, and all maintain a clear pursuit of the inexhaustible.

Contemporary Literary Theory closes with a chapter on genealogical critique, which explains Foucault’s idea of the episteme, and the abrupt transitions that occur between them: “The [epistemological] break…rearranges certain elements of the methodology through which humans gain in understanding of reality and try to justify their attempts to establish their control over it.” I found this an appropriate way to end the book, for struggling with reality and grappling with text represent the same vital issue of interpretation. And while reality may have Foucault’s episteme, in literature we have theory, which guides our knowledge of the uncountable ways in which texts may be unraveled.

Archetypal Criticism (Richard F. Hardin)

It is a revealing fact about the state of literary criticism, especially in English, that…Cambridge school theories are periodically resurrected like the dying and rising gods of which Frazer, Harrison, and Cornford were so fond. The persistence of this idea attests to the strength of the kindred idea, romantic in origin, that the aesthetic has somehow supplanted the religious in human life.

Creating the World: Structuralism and Semiotics (Lori Hope Lefkovitz)

…what we take for granted at one moment as universal, explicable, reasonable, and natural may be easily explained away as the mistaken notions of the past a moment later, only to resurface still later as partial rediscovered truth.

The job of criticism is not art appreciation but demystification.

Hermeneutics (Joel Weinsheimer)

Interpretation operates in the ambiguous space between the hidden and the open, the concealed and the revealed.

…understanding is possible only insofar as understanding has always already begun.

Deconstruction: Critical Strategy/Strategic Criticism (Danny J. Anderson)

‘To keep a poem in mind is to keep it there, not to resolve it into available meanings.’ (Geoffrey Hartman)

Political Criticism (Michael Ryan)

For rhetoric entails struggle; it is a matter of different contending ways of constructing the social world.

One More Chance (2007)

In 2009, my then-teacher Yol asked our FIL11 class to watch at least one entry to the Metro Manila Film Festival. I had not seen a full-length local movie in a long time. Kasal, Kasali, Kasalo did nothing if not affirm my impression that a Filipino movie is not a Filipino movie if it’s not comedy. I don’t remember much of the film, except for one badly inserted Fitrum ad, which strangely stuck in my memory as the sort of thing one expected from the local industry. Of course now I no longer think that way. Despite generalizations, our mainstream networks do occasionally produce good movies, and—as my friends have been insisting for years—One More Chance is one such exception.

Long-time lovers Popoy (John Lloyd Cruz) and Basha (Bea Alonzo) have always followed the rules: no skipping work, no wasting gas; eyes always on the prize. But this stability crumbles when she breaks away, suffocated by his rigid insistence on a plan that fails to take present happiness into account. Devastated, Popoy finds comfort in Trisha (Maja Salvador), who promises to take away his pain, “if only it could be done.” Still Popoy struggles to let go of his past, and Basha comes to realize just what she lost when she chose to leave Popoy.

It needs no further underscoring: John Lloyd and Bea Alonzo were well-cast in their roles. Compared to them, Maja Salvador pales appallingly. Her clumsy English distracts from the dialogue, and her onscreen presence does nothing to rival that of the two leads. This latter effect might have been intentional; even so, it is a cheap way to execute what could have been a more convincing love triangle.

One More Chance is that kind of movie where almost everything turns out right. Barely thirty minutes into it, and I was already bawling my eyes out. I appreciate this movie for many reasons (among them, its subtle Biogesic ad), but most of all because it’s made up of equal parts kilig and puso—100% Filipino. Popoy and Basha act contrary to all rational rules, but you understand them because you yourself have known that kind of love, you yourself have been stupid, and—like them—you still believe. Although five years late, I am glad I finally saw this very well-recommended movie. Even at its worst, it is much, much better than Hollywood’s The Break-Up.

‘But you’re asking for too much. Ang hinihingi mo mawala ka sa buhay ko.’

‘She loved me at my worst. You had me at my best. At binalewala mo lang lahat ‘yun.’

‘Don’t ever think it was a mistake that you chose to find yourself. That you chose to love yourself a little bit more.’

‘Hindi mo alam kung gaano ko kagusto sabihin sa ‘yo na…sana tayo na lang. Sana tayo na lang ulit.’

Titanic (1997)

Nostalgia is a tricky bastard. While it frames the past gracefully, it also alters perception in ways inescapable to the sentimental, a partiality that only deepens with time. At my brother Kevin’s insistence, my siblings and I watched Titanic on its centennial, fifteen years after I first saw it in theater. It was their first time; I was their age in 1997. I loved Titanic then, and I love it now. Sepia-filtered memory makes distance impossible.

Everyone knows the story. Rose (Kate Winslet) is a beautiful, intelligent girl suffocated by the trivialities of high society. Aboard Titanic with her controlling mother and tyrannical fiancé Cal (Billy Zane), she meets Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), a third-class passenger whose carefree outlook shows her the possibility of a different life. But on the fourth night of its maiden voyage, Titanic sinks into the freezing Atlantic, carrying with it the lives and dreams of over 1,500 people—to be remembered only as one of the greatest disasters in history.

James Cameron has yet to impress me with recent works, but he does hit all the right notes in Titanic. Although the movie stretches for three hours, the story moves onward at an ideal pace, never unsatisfying and never dull. With hardly any superfluous scene, Titanic embodies the epitome of a well-told story and a well-rendered movie (perhaps at the expense of being too conventional, too whole). True, the rich-girl-poor-boy narrative is downright cliché, and the couple’s whirlwind romance does require some leap of belief, but both leads play their parts so convincingly that it’s not hard for viewers to make that emotional jump. Many memorable scenes (by now iconic) also help in establishing character, although they do nothing to humanize Cal, whose caricature treatment inspires the same hatred as any old-fashioned villain.

I don’t think I have ever not cried while watching this movie. No matter how many times I see it, the feeling of loss never fades. In combining personal drama with history, Titanic conveys an overwhelming sense of both private and public tragedy. We mourn for Jack and Rose, but we know that their story is only a mirror of all those that went down with the ship, a sorrow augmented by its sheer preventability. For all its melodrama, Titanic expresses poignant insights on the transience of things and the permanence of memory. When Celine Dion starts crooning, who can help but cry?

‘Titanic was called the ship of dreams. And it was. It really was.’

‘Do you trust me?’ ‘I trust you.’

‘Three years, I’ve thought of nothing except Titanic; but I never got it. I never let it in.’