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Visit us at Interlineal

25 September 2010 Leave a comment

Interlineal

Interlineal is a non-profit online initiative dedicated to publishing notes, improvisations, and essays on/into art and culture.

It seeks to provide con-texts for discussion and debate on the production, dissemination, reception, and interpretation of various cultural texts by inter-acting with them critically and creatively—in ways that are, to borrow the words of Wayne Koestenbaum,  “direct, ornate, guttural, crude, labyrinthine, gnomic, interminable, minuscule”.

Interlineal wishes to provide an environment not only for composition, but also for the cultivation of a disposition toward inventive thought, playful inquiry, and vigorous dialogue.

Review: The Red Shoes (2010), directed by Raul Jorolan

17 March 2010 1 comment

The Red Shoes. Dir. Raul Jorolan. Perf. Marvin Agustin, Nikki Gil, Liza Lorena, Tessie Tomas, Tirso Cruz III, Tetchie Agbayani, Iwa Moto. Unitel, 2010.

*

A self-styled demigoddess who descended from her mountain of fantasy to preach her Platonic gospel of truth, beauty, and goodness, as well as distribute her divine largesse, former First Lady Imelda Trinidad Romualdez Marcos is muse, madwoman, and monster—a veritable Medusa whose very gaze, her age notwithstanding, may still have the power to stop the heart.

Although she appears to waver past the point of plausibility, especially when she purports to explain the secrets of the universe in arcane arrangements of circles, hearts, and non-sequiturs, Imelda is unavoidably real. How is one to make sense of her? After all, to be “Imeldific”—to be all that she is—is to be outsize, outlandish, and outrageous—to seem nearly unreal, because far, far beyond the pale of merely human imagining. How does one begin to approach, much less apprehend, Imelda—she who amassed thousands of shoes and precious gems, held countless night-long singing and dancing parties, went on manic million-dollar shopping sprees, had pilots circumnavigating the world for white sand and French cheese, claimed that the name “Romualdez” indicated lineage traceable to the rulers of ancient Rome, banished informal settlements behind whitewashed walls, erected a village of toilets on a lonely hill, transformed a farming village into a grandiose colonial town, miniaturized an entire archipelago into a theme park by the airport, and ordained a cultural queendom by the bay where once there was nothing but a wilderness of water? How does one start to understand a woman who, sometime last year, cried piteously that she was terribly poor, that she had been utterly ravaged, and then, a few months later, glided majestically into a concert in her honor during the 40th—the ruby—anniversary of the Cultural Center of the Philippines dripping with rubies?

This is the dilemma that The Red Shoes cannot help but grapple with, albeit in a significantly attenuated form: only the ghostly presence of the glittering Madame is present: as the titular pair stolen after the flight of the Marcoses from Malacañan. And yet the film, despite its admittedly laudable attempt, quails and fails before the specter of Imelda.

The beginning of the story is calculated to enchant: in 1986, when the presidential palace was invaded by protesters during the People Power Revolution, ten-year-old Lucas stumbled upon the massive shoe collection that Imelda left behind and took the red shoes. This early, however, the movie already stumbles, courtesy of a heavy-handed voice-over from Lucas: To his mother, he gave the right shoe (“Para sa katarungan“), while to Bettina, his first love, he gave the left one (“Para sa pag-ibig“). After that, The Red Shoes never manages to recover.

When the film flashes forward to 2009, it is revealed that Lucas (Marvin Agustin) and Bettina (Nikki Gil) are no longer together, while Lucas’s mother is still in deep mourning for her husband—a construction worker who had been among those lost during the Manila Film Center collapse—and continues to indulge an expensive obsession with talking to his spirit by consulting espiritistas. The events that have taken place in between 1986 and 2009 then clumsily and confusingly weave in and out of each other, interspersed with cutesy captions, an intrusive score, and very literal cinematography.

In such an environment, the relationship between Lucas and Bettina, while occasionally touching, never becomes completely believable. The highly artificial dialogue, for instance, drains the drama from a climactic confrontation and turns it into farce. The endlessly repeated motifs of feet and footwear do not help, particularly when Lucas’s father,  Domingo (Tirso Cruz III), appears in one 1980s scene wearing what seems to be a pair of Crocs flip-flops.

Worst of all, events of national significance are used in an instrumentalist manner—as little more than an inert backdrop to give unearned weight to a mostly conventional romance. In the end, neither the provenance of the footwear nor the historical auspices summoned matter at all.

Perhaps appropriately enough for a story that invokes Imelda, it is a campy medium, Madame Vange (Tessie Tomas), that gives the film its best moments.

That said, The Red Shoes is a wonderful portent of what can be done in Philippine cinema. If nothing else, the movie should be credited, and henceforth emulated, for attempting to mine the rich veins of the past—that complex edifice upon which the present is built—in order to create new material. As the former First Lady once said, “People want someone they can love, someone to set an example.”

Review: Estasyon (2009), directed by Cesar Apolinario

Estasyon. Dir. Cesar Apolinario. Perf. Mon Confiado, Klaudia Coronel, Christian Galindo, Diana Alferez. Huge Screen Small Pictures, 2009.

*

Directed by GMA-7 reporter Cesar Apolinario, the film is an exploration of the lives of two men who first encounter each other at the Feast of the Black Nazarene, an annual event that revolves around a wooden image that was brought to the Philippines on May 31, 1606 by a group of Augustinian Recollect missionaries. Opening with an awkwardly deployed comparison of life to travel by train (“Parang MRT ang buhay natin, maraming estasyon.”), Estasyon is unable to traverse the often considerable distance between intent and outcome—stuck, as it were, on its way out of the station due to lack of craft.

Martin (Mon Confiado), who provides the narration—or perhaps “pontification” would be more accurate—is a director making a documentary on the feast. While reviewing some footage in his van, he meets Christian (Christian Galindo), a young criminal on the run who has arrived in Quiapo all the way from Laguna. Christian, bearing a towel imprinted with the face of Jesus, wants to wipe the Black Nazarene with it, an act by which his sick mother, Hermie (Klaudia Koronel), might be miraculously cured.

Martin takes an interest in Christian’s quest, and offers his help in exchange for an interview, which establishes Christian as a central figure in the documentary. Some time later, wanting to round out his project, Martin goes to Christian’s hometown, and discovers what have befallen Christian and Hermie since the day of the feast.

The narrative seems to assume a highly credulous audience over the course of its development. For instance, when Martin and his crew, guided by Hermie, set off to find Christian, they leave their van behind and trudge for hours through fields and over hills, because Hermie knows no other way. It turns out later that the location of Christian happens to be along a busy street. The useless journey is embarked upon merely for expository purposes.

The allegorical pretensions of the story are apparent as early as the opening credits, and the trials of Christian are not so much parallel to the Passion of Jesus as they are forced to be parallel. That his surname is “De Jesus” is the very height of contrivance and condescension: Does the audience need to bludgeoned into understanding and appreciation?

In addition, although ostensibly a commentary on the futility of Filipino folk Christianity, Estasyon has several bad meta-filmic moments: Martin regularly expresses bitterness and frustration at the stifling, because profit-oriented, demands of the movie industry, as if profit and merit were mutually exclusive. In one melodramatic scene he is shown breaking apart discs of what he considers inferior work. Such a judgment does not appear to be based on considerations of artistic excellence, however: Martin just takes the much-worn moral high road and condemns both “bold” movies (i.e., soft-core pornography) and gay movies as meaningless—the silent assertion being that the two are might as well be interchangeable—while valorizing the documentary, as though genre were a guarantee of the significance of the final product.

Why Estasyon has been touted as subtle is, to put it frankly, incomprehensible, unless one believes that a runaway freight train hurtling off a cliff and into a canyon with several resounding explosions, which then cause the mountainside to blaze up in a conflagration that only goes out after several hours of dedicated firefighting, finally resulting in thousands of deaths, not to mention severe damage to wildlife, is subtle.

Awards and Criticism: Rewards and Punishment?

16 October 2009 1 comment

Conversation

I don’t trust that I’m either an intellectual or emotional masochist, but I love reading criticism on subjects that influence my character:  Being a Filipino, woman, middle class, agnostic, even a literature major.

My attitude towards criticism is the same with that of a conversation.  You watch a movie with a friend and afterwards feel an urgency to talk about it.  It is a dialogue wherein the participants’ main goal is not to agree or disagree with each other, but to throw light on why their responses to the work are such.

But when the critique is directed at methe specific and unique I, I am definitely no masochist.  A negative statement about you, your word, work and deed, hurts.

To anyone engaging in the art of communication, to those who are serious about their message and want to be taken seriously, the worst things that can happen, considering they are heard, are:

  1. Be misunderstood and dismissed; and
  2. Be completely understood and logically shown that your words are wrong and weak.

Item one makes you feel helpless and conclude at the end of the day that only you can talk to yourself.  You truly are your best audience.  Item two on the other hand tells you that there is someone else who gets it.  That there is a reader and a reading to benefit from.  Between the two, which response would you prefer?

Criticism has gained a reputation as a fault-finding practice.  Maybe because those who practice it are focused on digging for mistakes, or because those whose works are criticized are too sensitive and take critiques as personal attacks.  Maybe both.

Do art and literature matter?

I gave and received my share of criticism (mostly on poetry) when I was still writing under a pseudonym on another blog in 2006.  Several observations were:

  1. People care and are curious about poetry.  They crave a discussion on what is happening, what is good, bad and ugly.
  2. People listen.

With a framework of writing as if in conversation with a few friends, involvement of readers outside my circle surprised me and led me to believe that I was not alone in my confusion regarding what people think pass as good poetry.  An audience I was not familiar with also pushed me to take more responsibility.  They may only be a few, but considering I was writing about poetry, that audience was more than enough for me.

Readers would ask the big question:  What is a good poem then?  And I felt bad for not being able to reply; partly because I felt like I had to give an introductory course on poetry, since not one sentence or book could answer that, and partly because I realized I was practicing criticism on a very superficial leveldigging for mistakes.

If art and literature matter

When I first heard of the National Artist Awards controversy in August, my initial reaction was, Okay, so what? I’d grown desensitized to questionable awards.  I would even side with those who think that if the name Carlo Caparas were as obscure as Emmanuel Garibayand we loved our presidentno one would say a word about it.

All this to me shows that while we are concerned about the arts, we do not bother enough to examine it (as with many things, we leave it up to emotion and reflex).  When we say art, people’s reactions will mostly be associations with beauty, truth, rebellion, the profound and inexplicable; or I don’t care.  And we have always been fine with that.  There is a virtual consensus that there is no objective way of viewing art, or at least an objective way of articulating one’s feeling towards an artwork.

Some, in their own ways, have been taking action to promote the arts and educate people about it.  There are two things, though, that I believe art could benefit from the most.

1.  We need the awards

  • Yes, to acknowledge and encourage artists, but only secondary to recognizing and demanding artistic excellence.  Artists may have different motivations for joining a contest, but all that will not matter if they win through the merits of their work.
  • To serve as another context in studying the craftas a record of what the standards are of a particular period.  What are the trends, what are the deviations, what are the merits of the deviations?  Why?
  • We need the awards and right now we are seeing how we also need to: (a) improve on its systems, and (b) change our attitude towards it.  Some suggest that the prize money could better be invested in a cause that would enrich the arts.  And instead of a token that seals the artist’s creative credibility and recompenses good work, an award must oblige and challenge the artist to further develop artistic institutions.
  • And yes, by all means give awards for criticism, if only to encourage it and celebrate critical thinking.

2.  We need criticism

  • To serve as another context in studying and valuating an artwork.  (Other than the audience and artist’s personal biases.)
  • To serve as another stimulus in art appreciation.
  • The best promotion of art is discussion.

While we teach how to produce art, we do not teach how to give a critical estimate of an artwork.  (Production is also a practice of critical estimation; the former is exclusive to the artist, the latter is beneficial to both artist and audience.)

Regular criticism in all possible media could serve as a continuous conversation, and if you like, a kind of calibration that would guide us in understanding and appreciating art.

Option

Awards given to the National Artists are sourced from public funds.  That is one solid line that connects art and society.  If art matters to us, we should act as if it really matters.  We can always stay in our world of read-write-paint-et cetera, but once we start expecting recognition for our work and expressing discontent in the environment that influences what we hold dear, then we have to involve ourselves in that bigger world of criticisms and develop our artistic institutions.

NOTES:

  1. Being completely understood and logically shown that your words are wrong and weak can also be one of the best things to happen to someone.
  2. Nothing against Mr. Emmanuel Garibay.
  3. The post is in part a response/additive to what Butch Dalisay previously wrote; Philbert Ortiz Dy’s ideas on how to improve the awards systems are also taken into consideration.
  4. Ideal criticism is subject for another discussion.

Reopening the question, Does poetry matter?

16 October 2009 1 comment

1.

“Poetry is the highest and most difficult of the literary arts.”  It is also the most useless.

If I am asked, Does poetry matter?, the answer is yes, it matters to me.  But the question is not, Does poetry matter to you? To rephrase and put the question in context:  How relevant is poetry in the Philippines in these times?

A chat with a friend has led me to say, Art, especially poetry, is insignificant in these times and in this country.  It is a chat situated in a time when two typhoons have destroyed families and properties in Luzon; when death of democracy icon, Corazon Aquino, under what is considered the worst administration in Philippine history, has Filipinos debating on how to reconstruct our sorry nation; accordingly, it is a time when the next presidential election is months away.  Given these circumstances, where does poetry stand?

I would be the last person to advocate political propaganda over aesthetics in literature (though aesthetics is never stripped of politics, let us keep the term politics to its social and economic nuances for the meantime).  But one has to ask, where do writers get the motivation to write despite knowing there is barely an audience who care about what they are saying.  We are a poor (economically and culturally) country.  We can barely feed our bodies, what more our minds with this foie gras of a poem.

Poetry is insignificant in these times and in this country.  I almost wrote useless, but wrote insignificant instead.  I have long resigned to poetry’s uselessness, but I am not ready to give up on its importance yet.

2.

To those of us who exert energy, invest time and money in a specific enterprise, it is inevitable that we ask, Why am I doing this? What for? To which some poets’ reflex response may be, No reason necessary.  Well and good.

I have no problems with the poet’s arrogance.  He needs it.  No one else will best acknowledge his worth and his work than himself.  It only becomes a problem when he starts to deplore the artistic environment he is a part of and does nothing about it.  It is as simple as reacting to a bad piece of work.  What is good and bad art is always subject for debate.  That is no news to us.  What is astonishing is that no one is debating about it.

Literary and artistic scandals—the most recent being the National Artist Awards—at one point excite writers as there will again be something to buzz about (showbiz gossip predominantly influences the culture we have).  To an outsider (and perhaps to some writers), it exhibits how passionate and protective they are of artistic institutions.  But I am quickly reminded of criticisms against Filipinos’ passivity.  While we associate artists with revolutionaries and bearers of truth, the existence of these scandals and the absence of artistic debates show how even they (whom we want to look up to) lack the honesty and resolve to keep at least Philippine art progressive.

3.

Poetry would not be perceived as a snobbish academician’s business worthy of contempt and dismissal (we are lucky if the perception is far from the fact) if those who practice it take the cliché seriously: artistic integrity.

Some modes of “poetic” thinking and practice that have been observed in the past years until now are:

  1. Eager to be accepted and get published—copy tried and tested formulations;
  2. Afraid of sounding boring—write verses that would least resemble what is considered the norm;
  3. Gay poetry that is more gay than it is poetry.

Given the three, where is the real critical study and understanding of poetry?  Much of poetic technique is based on what feels right instead of consciously delineated standards.  Or based on agendas wherein poetry is not the primary consideration, but the writer.

(If I may digress—What, say, happened to poetic devices that make the poem an aural art?  What happened to rhyme?  Where did rhythm go?  Aspiring poets may have been given the memorandum that not all that has rhyme and meter is a poem, but where do they get the idea that nothing can be gained by these devices anymore?)

This is not to say that we are without excellent writers and that there are no venues to help cultivate the craft, but one has to wonder why a lot of published works never seem to have passed any kind of inspection.

4.

To have the nation reading, it takes a lot of work and a bit of a miracle.  To problematize why we do not read critically or at all is to problematize education is to problematize poverty is to problematize government.  It really is up to you if you want to put responsibility on the government, the people, or sheer luck.  What we know for sure is that it is a complex problem requiring a creative solution that would take time, if we are intent on solving it in the first place.  And that is if we all agree that reading critically is important.

How can poetry stand in a nation of non-readers?  The answer is: it stands, because it does not talk to the nation.  Poets and poems talk amongst themselves.

Filipino poets know there is no such thing as national readership, not even a readership within the capital.  And university readership is a myth.  What is interesting to note is how much they care about this condition and how they act upon it.  Some of them may not be bothered at all with extra-literary matters; they simply write, while some wish what is left of the poetic institution would be more daring and creative.  Some shove poetry into trains.  Some, I suppose, are happy with the status quo—if silence can be interpreted as such.

I have no answers to lend to the national reading dilemma (or I have some ideas, but that’s subject for another discussion).  I do believe, however, that we do not have to wait for the country to get its act together before the poetry community can.

Poetry is not being read as much, not because the reading public is generally uninterested in it, but because of the lack of good poetry and criticism to filter and promote good writing.  If creative writing students and those who willingly engage themselves in poetry are confused about what constitute good art, or do not attain a high degree of confidence in their valuation of art—why this poem gets praises and the other does not, why this collection wins an award, etc.—what more the public?

5.

It is not difficult to be convinced that poetry is alive in the Philippines, if by alive we mean breathing.  Books are published, students take creative writing courses, workshops abound, and once in a while there are essays about it.  I sometimes wonder if these kids who take CW degrees were pressured by their parents (Anak, tumula ka), or encouraged by their peers (Ano’ng kukunin mong kurso?  Ako kasi, gusto kong maging makata…). It is interesting (and entertaining) to think about what compels one to write.  And when you ask them, they will give you the most—poetic—responses (To make sense of things; To turn chaos into order; I love words…). Not the answers writers are sometimes accused of (to be popular among girls, to get a promotion in the English department).  Whatever the writer’s motivations for writing are, I am always humbled by seeing how poetry does not need us; we are the ones who need poetry.  (If one agrees that language is important, it is in poetry that one can find the best techniques to manipulate it.)

Apparently, while there are a number of Filipinos who see value in poetry, not a lot bother to keep its integrity.  We care, but are not critical, about it.

Poetry will matter if we write good poems and if we keep our poetic and extra-literary practices in constant check—which is to say, if those of us who care about it act as if it truly matters.  (For starters, let us not talk behind each others’ backs.  Go beyond descriptions of a book in reviews; provide judgment.  Write regular reviews in the first place.  Evaluate why our responses to a piece of writing are such.)  This may be a long shot and something I will definitely not witness in my lifetime, but I am still romantic enough to hope for and declare it anyway:  That poetry becomes an integral part of our artistic consciousness and that the arts become a part of our intellectual consciousness, because if we can afford it, then that would mean our country has truly risen above its sorry state.

NOTES:

  1. Opening quote is by Jose Garcia Villa.
  2. Poetic standards and the need for criticism are subjects for another discussion.
  3. Like the titular question, most of what is said here may not be new, or has been better argued before.  But I’ll find ways of restating it if only to save it from having the life of a cliché.

Blog Action Day 2009: The challenge for art education

15 October 2009 2 comments

This is my contribution to Blog Action Day 2009: Climate Change.

In the lexicon of many undergraduate students, humanities courses like art appreciation belong to the category of “floating subjects”. While the origins of the phrase are beyond my ability to trace, I find the choice of participle interesting, connoting as it does a state of unsupported suspension, of gliding or hovering that is, in the main, random, aimless, devoid of will or purpose. “Floating” subjects can be enrolled in during any academic term and usually do not figure in any degree program, save as factors in the computation of a student’s grade point average or as prerequisites for “major” courses—which is to say that students are predisposed to see these subjects, if the appellation is any indication, as valuable not in and of themselves, or because they are connected in some significant way to a foreseeable future, but only because they are required. “[Hindi] ko kasi [iyan] major kaya wala na akong pakialam kung may matututunan ako [diyan] o wala. I have more important things to attend to,” says one member of the online forum PinoyExchange. Elsewhere in the same thread, another member expresses the hope that teachers of “floating” humanities courses would “understand that their subjects are not at all relevant to our lives kung hindi naman ako […] art major. I believe they should be more considerate when it comes to grading”.

Although I gladly stress that the aforementioned posts do not in any way encompass the entire range of responses regarding the study of art, it is not unreasonable to suppose that several others would make similar statements. The casually trivializing or downright dismissive attitude among students toward art in general should not be the least bit surprising, of course. Flaudette May V. Datuin, in her Home Body Memory: Filipina Artists in the Visual Arts, 19th Century to the Present, remarks that the inability of students, who ideally ought to “represent a cross section of the best of their generation”, to engage with art is the result of art having practically no place in elementary and secondary schools, except when dance is incorporated in special school productions or physical education curricula, or when the visual arts are either “subsumed under the common sense framework of masters and their masterpieces, or assimilated into ‘practical arts’ and ‘homeroom’ subjects, as ‘craft’, mechanically produced and inadequately contextualized, let alone, theorized”.

The problem of inadequate contextualization is, in turn, indicative of the shortcomings of our current educational system as a whole, as it is largely predicated upon the accomplishment of specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound goals in order to produce globally competitive, export-ready graduates. In the name of the norm and the rubric, learning experiences tend to be standardized, even mechanized, to such an extent that the difficult and complex realities of the world vanish—or are banished—from view. Hence, it is ultimately the student who floats, oblivious to the peculiarities of the community in which he or she participates, unmoored from issues of moral responsibility, and deprived of the will—and therefore the opportunity—to intervene, to act as an agent of progressive change. This situation is hardly desirable, for it is the very same one that has contributed to the sowing of the planetary perils that we are now reaping. “In modern times,” says Suzi Gablik in The Reechantment of Art, “the basic metaphor of human presence on the earth is the bulldozer”, and the devastating effects of all our “bulldozing”—the pollution of our seas and skies, the endangerment or extinction of diverse species, the depletion of resources, and climate change, the recent effects of which, in the forms of typhoons Ondoy and Pepeng (also known as Ketsana and Parma, respectively), have thoroughly battered the Philippines—are truths no longer convenient to ignore or do nothing about. Mark A. Graham declares that, “Education that ignores issues of ecology and community becomes complicit in their erosion“.

What is required, then, is an art education that is deeply integrated with—and thus able to respond meaningfully to—environmental concerns, an art education that configures a space from which students become aware of and respond to the challenge of sustainability—that is, the challenge of “sustaining not economic growth, development, market share, or competitive advantage, but the entire web of life on which our long-term survival depends“—a space in which students become ecologically literate, which, according to Fritjof Capra, means “understanding the basic principles of ecology and being able to embody them in the daily life of human communities“.

Even though fostering eco-literacy may be thought to be the province of science, Capra notes that art education can enhance the ability of the student to recognize and express patterns, and, as a result, learn how to systemic thinking, which allows the student to better appreciate the interdependence and interactivity of ecosystems—eminently useful here is Gablik’s concept of a “connective, participatory aesthetics”, which moves away from “Eurocentric, patriarchal thinking and the ‘dominator’ model of culture toward an aesthetics of interconnectedness, social responsibility, and ecological attunement”. In addition, Hilary Inwood remarks that science educators “freely admit that there has been more success in inducing learners’ attitudinal shifts than in making behavioural ones“, and goes on to cite David Orr’s argument that eco-literacy needs to be integrated into a wide variety of subject areas in order for it to be instilled in students.

There are doubtless many possible pedagogical approaches to eco-art education, though Inwood’s survey of related literature did reveal a number of common characteristics: “community-based, interdisciplinary, experiential, interactive, dialogic, ideologically aware, and built on the values of empathy, sustainability, and respect for the environment“.  What is central to—and in fact, generative of—this blog entry is my belief that art education, being generally concerned with affective learning and imaginative thinking, is a dynamic and powerful means through which changes may be brought about in students, both in attitude and behavior toward vital ecological issues.

Let me underscore that the root word of “ecology” is the Greek oikos, which means “house”, and is therefore evocative of a network of significant relationships to which one is intimately and intricately connected, and within which no one’s role is insignificant. The acquisition of ecological literacy may then be seen as the activation of an abiding sense of place, by which I refer not only to one’s spatio-temporal location, but also to one’s responsibilities within that spatio-temporal location. If the relative sterility of the contemporary classroom has all but deadened the I to the world, it is the task of what Inwood calls “eco-art education” to reawaken it, to re-seed the eye/I with new possibilities for ecologically literate agency. Such an art education in these times is needed in the most fundamental, urgent sense, for nothing less than our continued survival hangs in the balance.