Tuesday, June 24

Manila in Black and White

Found two videos of pre-World War II Manila in YouTube. The first is Manila, Queen of the Pacific. (Andre dela Varre, The Screen Traveler) In 1938, according to the voiceover, Manila had become a modern American city, although traces of its past as a "sleepy Spanish town" was still there--in the narrow alleys, the karitela, the horse-drawn buses, the marketplace where women tested the strength of baskets. It divided Manila into three areas: the modern city with its drug stores (not "chemists' shops") and airconditioned shopping areas in downtown Escolta, Tondo, where the masses lived, and the Intramuros, a great example of the medieval walled cities.

It was quite amazing to see the Manila that a lot of us never knew. There was a tranvia, where we only have the Light Rail Transit. Jones Bridge had been completed just a couple of years back. It showed a lot of promise: see the wide tree lined boulevard standing on reclaimed land facing Manila Bay. It was said that had Daniel Burnham's plan for the city had been completed, it would have been like Washington DC. But in fact, the waterfront road was the only thing in the plan that was accomplished. The Manila that we know now suffers from poor or lack of urban planning. I wonder what it would be like had the plan been put in place, and two, had the city not been destroyed in the Liberation in 1945.

The other interesting video is "Castillian Memoirs: 1930s" It said that the traffic in downtown Manila was insufferable. Just imagine what the narrator would say now. The most bizarre scene was the one with the rotating door for "foundlings" in the the Hospicio de San Jose. A man put a baby in the slot in what seemed like half a drum. "Want to abandon your baby? Drop it in the chute! Works every time!" But then, there was also the scene of performing prisoners in the Bilibid. The Philippines had the largest penal, er, holding area, at the time. And in the afternoons, guests may come in and watch the performances. In those days, this meant military maneuvers and the marching band. Suddenly it seems like the Cebu prisoners dancing "Thriller" is but a logical development.

Finally, found some links about the Liberation of Manila between February to March 1945. Very harrowing accounts of what happened then. If you have the stomach for it, watch the video here.

All three videos are in black and white. The thing with B/W is that the distinction between them is never too stark. Instead what we see is the different shades of gray playing off against gradations of light.

Sunday, June 8

Great Expectations, Ten Years Later

Chanced upon a heavily sanitized screening of Great Expectations on TV last night. When it came out a decade ago, not too many critics were crazy about Alfonso Cuaron's adaptation of Charles Dickens' novel of transformation. There's just too much baggage: the original novel and the 1946 film version by David Lean. But seeing this again ten years later makes me appreciate how Cuaron was able to successfully take the themes of Dicken's novel and make it work in the present day context. There's the amazement of viewing a richly visualized film (always, there is green), the score by Patrick Doyle that enhanced the storytelling (and Life in Mono!), and the artwork by Francisco Clemente that helped crystallize the desires of Finn and put it in display for all the world to see.

Cuaron did fine work with adapting A Little Princess (1995) and he was praised for the visual texture of his work. A lot of the reviews of GE: 1998 also focused on the lushness of the scenery--Paradiso Perduto was literally an abandoned Eden with its ivy and weeds taking over Miss Havisham's doomed wedding party, the first person point of view of the novel was retained in the voice over--later revealed to be done for free by David Mamet, as long as it was kept a secret--and the fluid camera work that mirrored Finn's point of view that largely cast Estella as the object of his desire.

But this was just his second American film, three years before he did Y Tu Mama Tambien and much later than his Harry Potter venture. For a lot of critics, the shadow of the David Lean version loomed large over this Mexican director. It's only later that it becomes evident that Cuaron did much more than a film version of the novel and the 1946 film, he transformed that world and took the same desires and values and put it in a more contemporary setting. Cuaron took Pip away from England's marshes and brought him to a Florida fishing town, and from uncouth and common orphan to London gentleman, Finn sought out success as an artist in late 20th century New York.

Janet Maslin of the New York Times considers the switch to the American setting to be "adventurous and even apt." She calls Cuaron a great visual stylist, "capable of wonder even when its wilder ideas misfire."

Salon's Charles Taylor was quick to note that Dickens is accessible to a lot of people of different ages. Although we first see Finn as a child, what Cuaron emphasizes is the sensuousness and sexuality brewing underneath and brings this desire to the surface. In that first encounter at the Paradiso Perduto, when young Estella urges young Finn to drink from the fountain, and later on she herself drinks from the same spout and French kisses him, we can see that this is not just about a desire to go up the social ladder. Finn wants to become a gentleman so that he can stand on common ground with Estella, so that he may deserve him. He thinks this is his destiny, and when things start to go his way (an offer from a mysterious person to foot the bill for a one man show in a New York gallery), he mistakenly takes this to be the universe (and Miss Dinsmoor) urging him to go to "Estella's New York", get the girl and what he deemed to be his rightful place in society.

The key here is that Finn "thinks" this is what this all means. He is an unreliable narrator. In the opening voice over, he declares: "I'm not going to tell the story the way that it happened. I'm going to tell it the way I remember it." That he is a visual artist and we see a lot of his work also clues us in on the workings of his mind. The first time that Finn sketches the young Estella, the camera leads us to see Estella in parts--eyes, lips, nose, mouth. This is later echoed in the New York apartment when the grownup Estella poses for him. She takes off her clothes and asks, "Do you want me to sit or stand?" He replies with a "whatever." He doesn't care, what he sees is the ideal Estella, the curve of her neck, the swell of her breasts, the strands of her pubic hair.

Estella is forever the dream (or the delusion) that Finn is chasing. In "Not Telling the Story the Way It Happened: Alfonso CuarĂ³n's Great Expectations," Michael K. Johnson notes this disconnect in how Finn perhaps refusing to see Estella as she is. Since this is his remembrance of how things happened, we cannot trust him fully even in his depiction of Estella as dream/object of desire. In Finn's remembrance, even Estella expresses distance when talking about herself, like in this dialogue as she leaves him:

FINN. What's it like not to feel anything?

ESTELLA. Suppose there was a little girl. She was taught to fear daylight. One sunny day, you ask her to go outside and play in the sun and she won't. How can you be angry with her?

FINN. I knew that little girl. I saw the light in her eyes. No matter what you say or do, that's still what I see.

ESTELLA. We are who we are. People don't change.

She refers to herself in the third person, in the first person plural, or even the more generic "people." For Estella, and for Finn's vision of Estella, there is no "I."

Even in the film's ending, seven years after the New York incident, Finn goes back to Florida and Paradiso Perduto and finds Estella, he still refuses to let go. Estella stands on the beach, the bright sun obscures her face, but she will always be girl in his paintings, bright eyed and lips parted ever so slightly, the girl in the plane looking down on the forlorn Finn drowning out in the rainy New York streets. And when she says, "Will you ever forgive me?" he replies with "Don't you even know me?" and takes her hand in his. It seems like he's never learned his lesson on "the fantasy and the wealthy." Miss Dinsmoor has already informed him early on, Estella would only break her heart. But the best he could do is to take our hands, place it on his chest and declare, "Do you know what this is? This is my heart, and it is broken."

For me, this adaptation brings Finnegan Bell closer to Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby, who observes the green light representing the object of his desire from across the lake. No matter how bright the suit he wears or how high he jumps in the air, the Other will not notice, will not take heed, but he will not give up. This is a lover in love with sadness, and though we should know better, we also can't do anything but witness with knowing sadness that we know how this will turn out.

What follows is my favorite scene from the movie. It is Finnegan Bell's opening night. His show is sold out, he is now a successful artist in New York. But the present is unraveled by the appearance of a person from his past, Joe, the man who raised him in Florida. Joe is too loud and careless and basically doesn't fit in Finn's new sophisticated environment. When he leaves the gallery, note how Finn and Joe are positioned, up and down, in and out, but the past refuses to disappear from the present.

Saturday, June 7

Story and Structure

Architect Bernard Tschumi best sums up why I love reading film scripts: "because of the conciseness of it, and the fact that you can always break a film down into separate parts: sound without image, text without cinematography."

Story and structure. And he was reading Godard's "Breathless" too. Can't get anything better than that.

Friday, June 6

The Retro Tech Allure of Typewriters

In the last days of the old millenium, I still cranked out class requirements in what was probably 12 point pica, from the portable my mother bought me in high school. One classmate was amazed upon receiving her workshop copy. "How retro," she said.

For me though, it was more a necessity than fashion or aesthetic considerations. I couldn't afford computer rentals and printouts all the time. But the lasting impression of seeing "black words on white paper rolling up in front of my gaze," as writer Frederick Forsyth said, is never lost on me, and in my mind, has always been connected with the act of writing. Also, I tend to type really hard, even on computer keyboards, which is bad, but something that I can't help doing.

In the digital world, one expects typewriters to be almost extinct. Although sales have been declining steadily, I was surprised to learn that there's still a steady base of customers for typewriters. Most of them are "old people," who probably can't get the hang of using computers, and the occasional student who opts to spend on one instead of a laptop.

Somewhere in our house sits that old portable, probably gathering dust and a colony of ants. I learned to type on a manual typewriter, with coins on the back of my hands. In the beginning, you could hear metal clanking on the floor all over the typing room. It was the early '90s, and in the high school I attended, which was big on office and commerce skills, typing upwards of 70 words per minute was a minimum requirement.

Then Windows 95 came and computer classes no longer involved booting the system cold from copies of DOS and Wordstar in 5 inch floppies.

But we still had regular typing classes, and every day, we had drills which focused on two things: speed and accuracy. With speed, we busied ourselves with high word turnouts, with accuracy, we went slower and made sure that there were no erasures or typeovers. It seemed like an archaic skill to learn on the brink of the digital revolution and the new millenium. But we learned this along with stenography, salesmanship and bookkeeping. Later on, the school would change the names of these skills to reflect the present/future situation: office management, entrepreneurship, and accounting.

It's old fashioned now, but when it was new, the ability to type really fast and accurate was revolutionary, specially for women. The females first ventured into the work space at the end of the 19th century as typists or secretaries. According to Neil Hallows of the BBC, "[i]t was a limited emancipation. The new employees (often called "type-writers" themselves) were accused of stealing jobs from men, depressing wages and sexually tempting the boss, and their chance of career progression was often nil. But for women to have any job outside the home was revolutionary."

So the women's liberation movement got their big push with typewriters, whose "retro" appeal does not end with seeing words come up on paper. More importantly, in a time when computers are plugged to the internet, productivity becomes more difficult. Specially for writers with deadlines and then faced with websites with little links you clink. Before you know the day has passed and you have watched more videos of lizards eating fruits of the pandan tree than you care to acknowledge.

The distraction afforded by the internet paved the way for software to make your computer seem like a typewriter, or at least, a very early version of the unwired computer with the black screen and green blinking cursor. As one commenter said:
A laptop for a writer is like a typewriter with a TV, stereo and library attached--and thousands upon thousands of channels, songs, articles to choose from: laptops anywhere near wifi are an endless procrastination device, an infernal tool of distraction for undisciplined souls such as myself. Indeed, I've even thought of disabling the internet on my laptop just so I won't be distracted.

Although a laptop's often purchased to be used chiefly as a word processor, one all too easily whiles away the hours on websites like this one--when one should be writing. A typewriter, on the other hand, offers no such distractions. It's just there, it has no cut/paste/erase, no itunes or internet, and one must face the bloody thing on its own terms. There are far fewer excuses with a typewriter. Far, far fewer.
It makes me want to hunt up that old portable. It might be difficult now to hunt for the two tone ribbon (black and red) and some wipeout, but hearing the clacking of keys and seeing words on paper is suddenly alluring and can well prove to be the cure to internet distraction.


New books

New books
Originally uploaded by xkg
Lookie at the my new purchases! Haven't bought this many books since the start of the year, effectively repealing my self-imposed book ban. But it's not so bad, as almost all of them are from Booksale. The most expensive of the bunch, Brokeback Mountain: Story to Screenplay, came from Powerbooks, and that's already after 60% off.

A lot of the new acquisitions are scriptbooks (4/13): There is the aforementioned Brokeback Mountain, which contains the original Annie Proulx short story which first appeared in The New Yorker, with essays on the transition from page to screen by Proulx and the screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana. All of them are united in the idea that (1) The film did not murder the original material and in fact added to it, (2) short stories, not novels, make for better adaptation materials.

Also got John Hodge's screenplay for The Beach, based on the novel by Alex Garland, Andrew Niccol's script for The Truman Show, and the script for I Heart Huckabees, which I haven't seen yet but will read anyway.

There seems to be a lot of script books floating in Booksale stores. I wasn't able to get the triptych by Mike Figgis. Of the three, only Leaving Las Vegas was familiar to me. But still, I have ended up with a lot of books to read.

Also got books about writing: Writing Past Dark by Bonnie Friedman, The Practical Writer by Therese Eiben and Mary Gannon of Poets & Writers Magazine, and The Elements of Fiction Writing: Plot from the Writer's Digest Books.

Trevor Corson's The Secret Life of Lobsters is the lone nonfiction book not related to the craft of writing. I was hoping to find a copy of David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster. But hey, this is still about lobsters.

And the last bunch of books are all fiction. Two issues of Story Magazine (Winter 1997 and Spring 1999) cost me Php25 combined. Also got Carson McCullers' The Member of the Wedding and Bharati Mukherjee's The Middleman and other stories. Then there's Murder on the Menu edited by Peter Haining. This last one contains crime stories by Ruth Rendell, Patricia Highsmith, Agatha Christie, P.D. James and even Roald Dahl. Enlisted myself in the crime fiction writing class this term, so this will form part of my reading list.

All told, the thirteen books unloaded me of Php800. Not too bad. But then again, will probably impose the book ban again and not buy anything until I've read most of them.

Wednesday, June 4

Carried Away

In the official website, I was able to confirm my suspicion that Carrie upgraded her laptop. You can now even browse her Macbook Pro Powerbook. The fun part is that if you were able to answer the questions the girls and Mr. Big will throw at you during chat, you get to unlock Carrie's hard drive. (Sounds a bit pornographic, but not really. Just geeky stuff.) Carrie Bradshaw even sent me an e-mail thanking me for "impersonating" her during the chats. Neat.

EDIT: Gadgenista argues that since Carrie's laptop doesn't use the Magsafe Adapter and does not have an iSight, it must be a G4, and therefore a Powerbook. But the website does say that Carrie is using a Macbook Pro. Oh well. The above photo was swiped from Gadgenista.