Monthly Archives: June 2012

Prometheus (2012)

In 2093, the spacecraft Prometheus enters the vicinity of LV-223, a distant moon believed to hold the secret to man’s origins. Funded by Weyland Corp.’s dying CEO (Guy Pearce), the expedition follows an ancient star map discovered by archaeologist couple Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green). On the moon, several crew members disembark, including an android called David (Michael Fassbender). Under instructions from Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), they explore the area expecting answers, and discover horrifying truths.

As many critics have noted, Fassbender gives a superb performance as David. He radiates an aura so otherworldly, so nonhuman, that it’s chilling just to watch him move. Because we are not privy to his motivations, David remains an unpredictable character. We are always suspicious. In contrast, Shaw starts off as a naïve scientist seemingly ignorant of the risks of experimenting with extraterrestrials. What she experiences, however, transforms her into a resilient survivor, and we find ourselves rooting for her by the movie’s end. Vickers, on the other hand, stays terribly underutilized. She first appears doing push-ups after two years of stasis—piquing audience interest—but she contributes virtually nothing to the plot. Without any real power (her crew keeps disobeying her) and ostensible personal agenda, Vickers functions as little more than eye candy. Theron’s capable acting is wasted on a character that isn’t done any justice in the script.

Prometheus is far from perfect, but the good news is, it doesn’t aim to be. Viewers complain that it’s confusing and that it contains too many unresolved questions—perfectly valid assessments elsewhere, but here I disagree. Details are dealt sparingly, but attentive viewers should be able to piece together enough information to feel satiated, for now. Ample threads are left open for a possible sequel, which may or may not connect to the first Alien movie (TJ filled me in on this). It’s not that I have zero complaints: An early scene, a father-daughter memory meant to provide background on Shaw’s faith, strikes me as gratuitous and too on the nose. But despite certain predictabilities (ooh this looks dangerous let’s touch it), Prometheus pulls off a thrilling and intellectually satisfying adventure by taking on some of mankind’s most enduring issues and setting them against a gorgeously bleak alien landscape. Perhaps rightly so, it portends that some questions are not meant to be answered, and leaves us with a distressing possibility.

‘The trick is not minding that it hurts.’

‘Why do you think your people made me?’ ‘We made ya ’cause we could.’ ‘Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?’

Summer Hours (2008)

Long queues are a staple for any film festival. What I did not expect: hours of traffic, a persistent “low oil” light, and zero parking spots. When we finally stepped inside EDSA Shangri-La, Tim, Sarah, and I rewarded ourselves with a hearty CIBO dinner. Later, we added cookies and a bucket of popcorn. The calories were well-deserved.

Last 2011, the French Film Festival featured a Sandrine Bonnaire retrospective (À Nos Amours, Vagabond). This year, director Olivier Assayas serves as the guest of honor, dominating the line-up with titles like Irma Vep and Clean. Unfortunately, our intransigent schedules only allowed us to squeeze in Summer Hours. Its synopsis reads like the premise for an Anne Enright novel: When their mother Hélène (Edith Scob) passes away, three siblings must decide what to do with her legacy of valuable art and furniture—a collection she accumulated over the years in a house with just as much history. As Frédéric (Charles Berling), Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), and Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) confront this enormous decision, they invariably look to the past, sifting through their collected memories in a way that only death can trigger.

There is nothing exciting about Summer Hours. After Hélène’s death, everything else is a long dénouement, an unraveling. Scenes lead into the next like the rooms of a house opening to a visitor; in each one we learn a bit more about this abode, this family. The movie possesses a strong sense of verisimilitude. We see our characters eating, drinking, conversing, negotiating their stands. Brief quarrels arise, but—just as in real life—people concede. Nothing happens, yet even the smallest events leave an imprint on our characters’ internal landscapes. Their shared history has carved mutual scars, as real as the cracks in the walls of the old house, but no crumbling occurs. Nonetheless, our characters do mourn. Frédéric cries over Hélène memorably, his face half-obscured by the reflected leaves on his windshield. He has stopped the car; he cannot go on. But outside his grief, life marches on as usual. Calls have to be placed, decisions made; too soon, it’s all over.

Although I still feel squeamish about the ending (the third-generation epilogue seems too protracted), there’s no question how I feel about the film. Summer Hours is a poignant rumination on inheritance: as gift, as burden, as residue. It’s a quiet film, but it resonates with emotion.

‘A lot of things will be leaving with me. Memories, secrets, stories that interest no one anymore. But…there’s the residue. There are objects.’

The Book of Imaginary Beings

TJ has an awful lot of enviable books. Fortunately, he’s also a generous guy. On our first post-Silliman reunion in Manila, he brought a traveler’s backpack full of books to lend. Apart from Sandman: Endless Nights, I also eyed a hardcover originally intended for Vida, who was deterred by a dog-bit-neighbor fiasco. It was titled The Book of Imaginary Beings, and featured the Buraq on its cover. Fascination and curiosity prompted me to snatch up the volume in Vida’s place. Who can blame me?

The beasts chronicled in Borges’ almanac range from the recognizable to the inexplicable, the delightful to the frightening. A sizable number are amalgams, with a few exaggerated combinations refusing to cohere into a single image. Pliny portrays the Leucrocotta as “a wild beast of extraordinary swiftness, the size of the wild ass, with the legs of a stag, the neck, tail, and breast of a lion, the head of a badger, a cloven hoof, the mouth slit up as far as the ears, and one continuous bone instead of teeth.” Others are easier to imagine, like the familiar Centaur and Kraken. Still there are those that need no further envisioning: “The Hide-behind is always hiding behind something. Whichever way a man turns, it’s always behind him, which is why nobody has ever satisfactorily described one…”

In this smorgasbord, overlaps become downright inevitable. Borges records three names for the island-animal immortalized in Sinbad’s tales: Fastitocalon, Zaratan, Jasconius. Elsewhere, he reports of singular beasts: “The Panther has, on the shoulder, a spot which bears the form of the moon; and that, like it, it regularly increases to full, and then diminishes to a crescent” (Pliny). In all his descriptions, there is no attempt at elaboration; many do not even exceed a page. Likewise, Borges makes little effort to justify myths. Creatures simply are, and they are remembered for just that.

Although “necessarily incomplete,” this book renders our attempts at taxonomy laughable, or at least trifling, when compared with the bulk of creatures yet undiscovered, unimagined, lost to catastrophe or history. Perhaps this dearth explains our fascination with animals, real or unreal. There is something about conjuring creatures that makes the heart leap. Of the Ouroburos, Borges writes, “When the Twilight of the Gods shall come, the serpent shall devour the earth and the wolf shall devour the sun.” The prospect is terrifying, but there is beauty in this.

We do not know what the dragon means, just as we do not know the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the image of the dragon that is congenial to man’s imagination… It is, one might say, a necessary monster…

Sometimes I have the feeling that the animal is trying to tame me. What other purpose could it have in withdrawing its tail when I snatch at it, and then again, waiting calmly until I am tempted again, and then leaping away once more?

…and that tree dreamed by Chesterton, which devoured the birds that nested in its branches and which put out feathers instead of leaves when springtime came.

The idea of a house built expressly so that people will become lost in it may be stranger than the idea of a man with the head of a bull, and yet the two ideas may reinforce one another. Indeed, the image of the Labyrinth and the image of the Minotaur seem to “go together”: it is fitting that at the center of a monstrous house there should live a monstrous inhabitant.

Spunk & Bite

“Don’t be lazy.” It’s an admonition we expect from parents, co-workers, bosses. But another writer? Surely not! Surely other writers understand the pains we go through just to squeeze out a publishable paragraph? Yet Arthur Plotnik chides, “In the editing process…kill, beat, and burn—sniff out and destroy everything that smells predictable, clichéd, formulaic, labored, or lazy.” In the hills of Valencia, the rebuke felt personal. Just weeks ago, I’d penned a sentence I now want to backspace into oblivion. “The days blend into one another,” I’d written to start off a fictional quote. Unoriginal, I knew, but it seemed expedient enough…and I’d felt too lazy to think of something else. Mercifully, Plotnik’s examples show that even the best writers churn out lousy sentences sometimes. The solution? Never settle! “Write in white heat; edit in cold blood,” so the popular mantra goes.

As “a writer’s guide to bold, contemporary style,” Spunk & Bite offers 250+ pages of practical advice, giving logical explanations for considerations that seem otherwise natural to the practiced writer. Tips range from basic warnings about dead adverbs and dangling modifiers to more subjective counsels on semicolon use and sentence fragmentation. Although far from boring, Plotnik’s recommendations mostly passed over my head; I simply could not retain everything. What he did, however, is affirm my longtime suspicion that a good story (essay, novel) is as much about content as it is about form. Tenses matter. Words matter. Punctuation matters. In the end, that is what I took away from this book. Serious writers cannot afford to be lazy, because a good piece rests on the kind of language that comes only with time and effort—perhaps even at the expense of a few brain cells.

True to its name, Spunk & Bite proves itself an engaging read (although I could never seem to finish more than three chapters in one sitting). It starts off as a foil to the classic Strunk and White, but the two cater to different audiences. While The Elements of Style targets those new to writing—students in particular—Spunk & Bite was written for those already equipped with a fundamental command of the craft, but whose writing nonetheless falls short of brilliant. Looking for something to resuscitate a dead or beat-up style? Consult Spunk & Bite. It is a book I benefited from, and one I would happily lend to other writers.

Why do words keep shifting function? Well, why shouldn’t they, considering that users are the ones shifting them, and that words should serve users—not the other way around?

Love Me If You Dare (2003)

It’s not exactly cabin fever (we had only been there a week!), but something was definitely in the air that night we watched Love Me If You Dare at the Writers Village. I don’t remember whose idea it was, but Gio, Vida, Karlo, TJ, Debbie, and I ended up watching this movie after dinner—probably as a last attempt to cling to our productive city habits. Valencia’s charms won us over anyway, but at least for that night we managed to drown out the cicadas.

Romantic movies seem to be my thing lately (Titanic, One More Chance). Despite the obvious love story, it doesn’t seem quite right to lump Love Me If You Dare in the group. It’s far from being a category of its own, but it definitely doesn’t belong in such a conventional, realistic set either. Real-life couple Guillaume Canet and Marion Cotillard star as childhood playmates Julien and Sophie, whose friendship revolves around a ceaseless game of dares. At first merely innocent and playful, their challenges escalate as they grow older, becoming more vindictive and dangerous at every turn—until eventually the game becomes their all-consuming obsession.

Julien and Sophie give up many things for love—a parent, marriages, children—but what they hold on to most fervently, what they never let go of, is the game. In establishing the rules of their relationship, it both binds and breaks them. One haunting question reverberates throughout the film: “Cap ou pas cap?” It’s a query posed as much to the characters as to the audience: Are you game? In asking this, Love Me If You Dare highlights its own absurdity, flaunting it, daring viewers to believe the incredible. Each scene adds to this growing sense of disbelief, finally culminating in two alternate endings—one charming, the other disturbing, neither seemingly real.

Even as I was sitting through this film, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d already seen this somewhere before. The camera tricks, the fast-paced narration, the witty repartees—the movie reminded me so much of Amélie—and it pales in comparison. Love Me If You Dare has some things going for it, and it might have worked with a more original framework (and a better lead-up to the ending, or a different ending); but as it is, the similarities are much too striking to be ignored, and it ends up falling short of its cinematic vision.

‘Cover your ears, cover them well. Do you hear how I love you? That’s all that matters.’