Friday, November 30, 2007

Fools

"Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, `This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.'"
--Luke 14:28-30

"Who's the bigger fool? The fool, or the one who follows him?" --Old saying

It all started sensationally. Sometime around 11:00AM, during their hearing recess, Sen. Antonio Trillanes and companions abruptly walked out of the courtroom. Everyone was stunned. No one attempted to stop them, not even the armed escorts who were supposed to make sure they behaved. On they walked to the streets of Makati, and into the Manila Peninsula. Another uprising in the making? Probably, probably.

Once more the nation waited with bated breath. But when all was said and done, it turned out to be another Big Nothing after all. No adoring crowds assembled, no cavalry swooped down to the rescue. Instead, surrender -- now with a bang, with a whimper -- a flawed mirror to Oakwood from five years ago.

(What is it with this fetish for posh, swanky hotels, anyway? But I digress.)

A tactician Trillanes is not, that much is clear now. In fact, the extent of his naivete is surprising. Here is a man who has won a moral victory in the last elections, and yet has been unable to consolidate it into any solid footing. Worse, he's gambled away significant good will by pulling this cheap stunt.

We wouldn't be so harsh on him if he had succeeded. It's not like the Filipino people love Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo so much that we would lay our lives down for her; quite the contrary, many would probably cheer her downfall.

"If." That's the point, isn't it? If he had succeeded, congressmen and senators and governors and mayors would be beating a path to his door. If he had pulled it off, the United States would be calling in with a message of congratulations. But he didn't, and that's a world of a difference.

At best, all he achieved was to show how paranoid and how not in control this administration has become. Those whom gods destroy and all that, yes, but that we already knew.

Perhaps it's symbolic that Trillanes should have attempted his latest beau geste on the eve of the day we honor Andres Bonificio. The Great Plebeian set into motion events which would ultimately lead to independence for the Philippines, but had it stolen from his hands by bourgeois opportunists. So reminiscent of recent history, isn't it?

Monday, November 26, 2007

Richard Cory

The original Edwin Arlington Robinson version:

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.


And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.


And the Simon and Garfunkel version:

They say that Richard Cory owns one half of this whole town,
With political connections to spread his wealth around.
Born into society, a banker's only child,
He had everything a man could want: power, grace, and style.

But I work in his factory
And I curse the life I'm living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be
Richard Cory.

The papers print his picture almost everywhere he goes:
Richard Cory at the opera, Richard Cory at a show.
And the rumor of his parties and the orgies on his yacht!
Oh, he surely must be happy with everything he's got.

But I work in his factory
And I curse the life I'm living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be
Richard Cory.

He freely gave to charity, he had the common touch,
And they were grateful for his patronage and thanked him very much,
So my mind was filled with wonder when the evening headlines read:
"Richard Cory went home last night and put a bullet through his head."

But I work in his factory
And I curse the life I'm living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be
Richard Cory.




Beowulf

Note: This is not about the movie.

Beowulf embodies all the virtues in high regard by the people of the the time: strength -- in his case, superhuman strength -- stamina, skill, courage, daring, leadership, a sense of fair play, and most of all, loyalty to his king. Even his boastfulness, which may be interpreted as mere honesty, is in keeping with the qualities of an Anglo-Saxon hero. Beowulf is the quintessential warrior, and for that harsh period, the exemplar of heroism.

Throughout the course of the epic, Beowulf had many opportunities to demonstrate his strength and battle prowess. The one incident, though, that best shows all the qualities of Old English heroism is when he refuses the offer of Hygd, Hygelac's widow, of the kingdom: "...Beowulf would not for any reason be lord over his king's son..." Instead, he merely assumed stewardship until Prince Heardred came to manhood. Beowulf would become king, but under the proper circumstances and following the rules of succession.

The people of the time believed that death was the ultimate end, and the path therein already dictated by Fate (or, in Anglo-Saxon, Wyrd); hence the term "fatal doom," the end to which men are fated. What mattered was how one faced this end. This idea comes up several times in the epic, either in the narration or in the warrior's boast. The best summary is spoken by Beowulf himself: "Each of us must await the end of this life. He who wishes will work for glory before death."

The Christian influence on "Beowulf" is most significant in the association between Fate/Wyrd and the Will of God. The two are used almost interchangeably. Beowulf, for example, says, "God...shall decide who shall be taken by death." In the context of the text, though, they are distinct concepts. As Fate is a deeply ingrained part of the culture and philosophy of life of that period, this appropriation to Christianity shows how deep the Christian influence had become at the time the poem was set down.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Many Poor

When we talk of poverty in the Philippines, the discussion invariably leads to the need for population control. A number comes up -- 85 million, at last count -- as proof that there are far too many Filipinos.

The number itself isn't really proof of anything. There were already far too many Filipinos when the figure was at, say, 60 million; apparently, there was room for another 25 million since then, and the country still hasn't collapsed.

If it was really some hard number at stake, then we ought to object to every expatriate family -- Koreans, Iranians, Indians, Chinese, Americans, etc. -- that decides to spend a few years in this country. After all, every additional body that comes in takes in as much living space and food.

Neither do we object to tycoons, senators, presidents, and other shady characters who have a propensity to father several dozen children, often by different wives. So long as they can support them, conventional wisdom goes, it's perfectly acceptable. (And we wonder why corruption runs high in our government.)

No, our frowns are reserved for that nebulous group, "the poor." In that broad category are the people who go begging on the streets, who sift through garbage cans, who live day by day from hand-to-mouth; in other words, all those who live desperate lives that we cannot imagine living. After all, they can hardly support one child, much less twelve! Or so we think.

So the original premise, that there are too many Filipinos, isn't entirely accurate. What is really meant is: "There are too many poor Filipinos; their population ought to be controlled." That, of course, sounds politically incorrect, so we don't say it that way.

Just why are poorer families larger than more affluent ones? Is it simply a matter of access to contraceptives and sex education? Certainly both factors will play a part, but have we considered the third possibility that poor couples, for their own reasons, might actually want more children?

By our own calculus, such reasoning is unsound and untenable. Why have children when you can't support them? From an evolutionary standpoint, though, such a strategy makes sense.

In a hostile environment, having more offspring ensures survivability of the species. To be sure, several children may die -- a cruel fact, no doubt -- but having such a wide spread means that the strongest possible genetic combinations result from a pairing.

Have you ever wondered why your old streetside beggars seem so hardy? How, at sixty or seventy years of age, they still manage to pester for you for alms under the heat of the sun? Out of several siblings who may have died, they represent the hardiest of the stock. That's evolution at work. Survival of the fittest.

(In contrast, within a resource-rich environment, couples will tend to have fewer children. Why? To maximize the resources for the offspring that they do have. This is the logic that we in the middle class follow.)

There are other practical reasons as well. In a culture with strong familial bonds, the obligation weighs heavily on the children to care and support for their parents in their twilight years. Therefore, in poorer families, children act as a form of social security, an investment for an uncertain future.

Finally, there are the social norms within the class stratum of the poor, one which bears further investigation and understanding. Do children exclusively belong to one couple, or are they part of a larger communal family? How are children viewed? As status symbols? As commodities?

And what about the sexual mores of the poor? Are they as shy or as liberated about it as we are? When does the sexual exposure begin? How do premarital sex, illegitimacy, polygamy, and incest factor in? Will sex education or values education be sufficient to address these issues?

Implied in the talk of population control is the wish to impose our middle class ideas of responsible parenthood. We cannot imagine how they could possibly want more children and so we blame the Church or their lack of education. We act as if the poor do not have the capacity to make their own decisions following the logic dictated by their circumstances.

Friday, November 16, 2007

My movie blog

New blog over at villageidiotsavantfilms.blogspot.com. Very basic template for now, which I'll fix when time permits.

Did I really want to put up another blog? Well....

One of my subjects at the Ateneo de Davao University this semester is Film Appreciation, under Rene Estremeras. Every Saturday, we watch films and write our analysis. While I could just as easily have filed those reports in this blog, I figured I would be generating a lot of topic-specific content so why not put it up in its own space?

First review up is of Nuovo Cinema Paradiso.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Nuovo Cinema Paradiso

Prospective viewers should be given fair warning that Nuovo Cinema Paradiso runs at a little over three hours. Not, as one might expect, because the three hours stretches to interminable eternity; rather, because the three hours seems far too short a time to lose oneself in its story.

Paradiso's richness come from the multiple threads that interweave and support each other. It's the story of the paternal friendship between Alfredo, the film projectionist, and his mischievous apprentice Toto. It's also the story of Toto as he comes of age and deals with love and separation. And it's also the story of a small Italian community, replete with a cast of lovable idiosyncratic characters, whose off-hours lives revolve around the local cinema. And finally, it's the story of cinema itself as we see the evolution of movies unfold in the background.

Paradiso is split into two parts. The first is that of the young Toto growing up in the small village. The second is that of his grown-up alter ego Salvatore, who returns to the village as a successful director some thirty years later to attend Alfredo's funeral. The first unfolds as an idyllic recollection, full of mischief and life; the second acts as a counterpoint to innocence, darker and more brooding. The differences are subtly apparent in the choice of filters -- childhood is represented in warm yellow colors, and adulthood in natural but darker hues.

What brings Paradiso to life is its cast of characters. We focus, rightly so, on the temparemental yet kindly Alfredo who, despite their earlier run-ins, takes Toto under his wing. We root for a young Toto, stubborn and precocious, as he endears himself to Alfredo -- and to us. And later, we feel for his longing and frustration when, as an adolescent, he pines for a girl whose station seems beyond him.

But there's more. Toto's mother is a heroic and tragic widow, bravely carrying on with the task of raising a family by herself. And Toto's love interest Elena, at first distant and aloof, and then, as she warms up, a magnifying glass that enhances the anguish and longing that Toto/Salvatore feels.

Then there's the whole ensemble of villagers -- all of whom provide touching comedy relief: the censor/priest with his bell; the lucky Neapolitan; the usher; the village idiot; the heavy sleeper; the spitter; the lecherous boys... You genuinely feel for these characters. You live , in the span of the three hours of the film, in their village. It is through them that you feel the love for cinema that permeates the movie.

Finally, there's the Paradiso itself, arguably a character in its own right. Paradiso is a world unto itself, the refuge of the entire town and silent witness to their lives.

Paradiso undergoes three phases in its transformation, coinciding with the phases in Toto/Salvatore's life. First, as a converted auditorium run by the local parish -- coinciding with Toto's youth. Then, as a more modern theater reconstructed from the fire -- more sophisticated, as it were -- corresponding with Toto's adolescence. And finally, an abandoned relic, that which greets Salvatore on his return.

Transformation -- inevitable transformation -- is the recurring theme throughout Paradiso. As the movie unfolds, one feels that one loses some things, and the loss of those is irrecoverable. This is the sadness that permeates the movie, even in its happier moments. This, too, seems to reflect Alfredo's injunction to Toto on their parting: "Go away, do not come back. There is nothing here for you anymore."

Appropriately, then, the music of Paradiso is nostalgic, heavy on strings, and evocative of softer emotions. But that only comes into play when the story follows the lives of the main characters. At the times where we are in the theater, it is the raucous mix of of movie music, dialogue, and audience response that we hear. This makes the movies come alive for us, if only briefly, because we feel part of the communal ritual of the village. The obvert theme of the movie, after all, is cinema.

For a movie that does not balk in its depiction of sex, Paradiso is amazingly sensitive in distinguishing it from love. There are three scenes of sex -- Boccia, when he fails to deliver the reels; Toto, in the theater, as some simple rite of passage; the anonymous couple later in the more liberal life of the Paradiso. (Four, if you count the masturbating boys watching the Bardot film).

But in the love scenes between Elene and Toto, Paradiso becomes quite coy. It portrays passion, but something is held back, as if it wants to stay private. This approach heightens the emotions between the two, so that when Toto finally leaves the town -- and Elena -- we know that something great is lost.

Which brings us to the crux of the movie -- the fateful decision to leave the town and his prospects for Elena. It was in fact a decision made for him by Alfredo. The question is why?

Perhaps it is because Alfredo understands Toto more than Toto understands himself. Toto may love Elena, but he also loves film. He cannot have both. Like any great artist, he must be consumed by his passion -- that is what produces art.

That is the meaning of Alfredo's final gift to Toto/Salvatore -- the spliced collection of movie clips. These are all the scenes excised from the movies of his youth -- representing what the artist gives up -- and pieced together and compressed into that reel -- his art.

It is that art which survives and endures, which he can pass on to people, and in so doing, inspire them. That, too, explains his name, Salvador del Vita: the artist as the savior of life.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Played

Culturally, we're predisposed towards powerful emotional images. Images direct our emotions, our decisions, even our entire philosophy. Case in point: "Girl, 11, loses hope, hangs herself."

What could be a more powerful and more emotional image than that? In the midst of economic plenty and conspicuous consumption, Marianet Amper lived in a shanty without water or electricity, her parents get by on P200 per week, and despite her best wishes, cannot afford the fare to go to school. Thus, she hung herself.

Except that, when you read the fine print, it looks like the immediate catalyst was the P100 she couldn't get from her father for a school project. Does this subtext alter your perceptions at all?

Change the circumstances somewhat. What if it was a middle class girl, instead. What if, after her father refused her P100 (or P1,000 or what have you), and she killed herself? Would we still get the headline: "Girl, 11, loses hope, hangs herself?"

In my own street corner, this is what I see: children who scour garbage cans for leftovers and scrap; young vagrant mothers tugging at your sleeve for coins; toothless old women who hold out their hands for alms. Doubtless, you will have your own very real images but they pass you by, invisible, as yet more urban annoyances. These are the ugly realities that we face every day.

So why does it take the suicide of a hitherto anonymous young girl in some faraway place, over what simply might have been an allowance not given, for us to realize that yes, Virginia, poverty is real and poverty is tragic?

Is it because it was on the front page of the broadsheet, placed strategically along the news of payola and economic growth? Is it because it fits in the romantic image of our middle class minds of what it means to be poor? Is it because that stark image manages to justify whatever it is we believe in?

There are many beliefs we need to justify to ourselves and to others.

Girl hangs herself in the middle of multi-million peso bribery deals -- as if such high-level corruption were not already evil enough in itself.

Girl is second to youngest in a brood of seven -- we need population control (never mind that her five older brothers and sisters were already married and living on their own.)

Suicide girl refused services in church -- the Catholic church is callous and medieval (never mind that the services did take place in a side chapel instead of the main altar.)

But let me ask: beyond the emotional imagery, did Marianet Amper's death prompt you to take concrete and institutional steps to address poverty in your community?

I ask this because, in light of recent events, I read someone tearfully say: "If I had given Marianet the P100, it would have saved her life." How gracious...and how useless.

Even if you were to give away your entire life savings to a thousand poor families, it wouldn't solve the problem of poverty in your community, much less the Philippines. Unless your contribution goes to the support of an honest and effective institutional infrastructure, it will all simply go to waste.

And there's the rub. Culturally, we're predisposed towards powerful emotional images. But not so towards the real and difficult work that goes to the organization necessary to fix our broken society. We want a magic wand to make it all go away. "Now na!" Otherwise, we're not really interested: "Ang hirap kasi, eh. Trabaho iyan ng gobyerno."

So instead of substantial change, in a few weeks' time, we will simply move on to the next stark and powerful emotional image, except...darker! bloodier! more spectacular! more tragic! more dramatic! more heart-wrenching! and most importantly, more entertaining!

Because when you get right down to it, all this tearful chest-beating has not really been about Marianet Amper or about poverty in the Philippines. It's been about us. It's always been about us. We've been played and we liked it. And then, our appetite for drama sated, we move on.

Just like the time we howled over the execution of Flor Contemplacion. We've moved on, and we still send maids to Singapore anyway.

Just like the time we pleaded for Sarah Balabagan. We've moved on, and Filipinos still land in Middle Eastern jails.

Just like the time we capitulated to terrorist demands in order to secure Angelo de la Cruz's release. We've moved on, and still Filipinos sneak into high-risk prohibited areas.

And poor Marianet Amper? Just another footnote in our pathetic history, going the way of Mang Pandoy and the Bangkang Papel kids, in death abused more than she was in life. By us.

God have mercy on us.

Friday, November 09, 2007

"Girl, 11, loses hope, hangs self"

Mariannet Amper, sixth grade student of Maa Central Elementary School, second youngest in a brood of seven, daughter of Isabelo -- a carpenter -- and Magdalena -- a noodle factory worker -- both of whom earn P200 per week, hung herself with a nylon cord last November 7.

"Girl, 11, loses hope, hangs self" was splashed on the front page of the broadsheet which broke the story yesterday. It was a contradictory juxtaposition to the main headline which screamed boldly: "Senate probes cash gifts." Supporting that: "Inquiry to focus on source of money" and "Palace admits cash doles from Kampi."

As if to color the disparity further, a small banner produly proclaimed: "Forex reserves hit all-time high of $32.4B" while on the side: "11M Pinoys among 1B living on less than $1/day."
Hope comes in the form of a reality television program, "Wish Ko Lang!", a modern-day fairy godmother to the starving millions, including Mariannet Amper. Under the glare of lights and for the edification of many, "Wish Ko Lang" promises to grant you your fondest dreams.

In the case of Mariannet Amper: "I wish for new shoes, a bag and jobs for my mother and father. My dad does not have a job and my mom just gets laundry jobs." This, in an unsent letter to the fairy godmother.

But the modern-day fairy godmother works only once a week and grants wishes only two at a time. The other 11 million, unfortunately, must wait until next week. Or the next. Or the next. Which is better, then: to leave out one or two that you might have helped, or to dangle a thin hope to that one or two like a lottery on the condition of spectacle for all the rest?

In a corner of the broadsheet, the Archbishop of Lingayen accepts responsibility for Mariannet's Amper on behalf of all of us. "We are all to blame for her death," he is reported to have said.

Which brings to mind a story: A man entered a war-ravaged city. On the street he saw the body of a dead child. He took the body in his arms and wept copious tears over it, bewailing the cruelty of the world. He buried the body and went on his way.

Further along, he saw the bodies of a dozen more dead children. Distraught at the sight, he shed tears, and wrung his hands, and shook his head in grief, but he simply passed them by.

Finally, he came to a field, where there were scattered the bodies of hundreds and hundreds of dead children. At this, he simply turned up his nose and complained about the smell. "I wish," he said, "somebody would clean up this mess."

Beau geste

No colored printer, so black on gray will have to do.

Not that I think it will achieve anything, but still, better than keeping quiet and doing nothing.

Prank calls on morning radio

This morning I got so incensed listening to a morning radio program in Davao City, I actually took time out to write the regional NTC office and Councilor Pete LaviƱa about it.

My brief letter:

I'm writing to bring to your attention a morning segment on Star FM 96.3 Davao.

Around 8:00AM, they have a program where they call unsuspecting people to harass them, and broadcast the entire proceeding on air.

This morning, for example, the DJ called up a woman and accused her of stealing her boyfriend, by whom she was six months pregnant. The poor girl ended up in tears.
I do not find such antics amusing. They are cruel and juvenile, and set a bad example for other listeners.

I call on you to take swift action on this issue.


If you live in Davao City, and you feel strongly about this issue, please send a letter of complaint to NTC Regional Director Josue de Villa-Go at NTC Region XI, Quimpo Blvd., Ecoland, Matina, Davao City.

P.S. The NTC web site is horribly slow and flaky. These are the folks who regulate our telco infrastructure?


Wednesday, November 07, 2007

It's a Geek Thing

Looking for a shirt that's specifically "you"? Search no more! It's a Geek Thing does custom shirts, as well as other shirts of decidedly geeky origins.

And it's all made by...me.

As a bonafide geek, I'm combining my graphics design skillz with my love for T-shirts. And this is the result.

Head on over to the web site and let me know if there's anything you like. No shopping cart for now as this is a small garage business catering primarily to low volumes -- I do all the shirts, from graphic design to printing. For now, anyways.

The New New Colonialism

In the news the past week: 17 Europeans arrested in Chad for kidnapping 103 children. Seven have been freed, though ten remain in custody. They were members of Zoe's Ark, supposedly a charity organization to help orphans. The problem: the children they "helped" were not actually orphans.

I don't know about you but this to me smacks of a colonial mentality with overtones of cultural superiority but hidden behind the veneer of bleeding heart idealism. I can't really call it colonialism (that's a term reserved for 18th and 19th century expansion), or even new colonialism (that's a term reserved for multinational corporations). So I think I'll call it the "new new colonialism."

As I see it, it wasn't so much about "helping the children" as it was to help assuage the guilt of people in the European continent with their comfortable lifestyles. Rather than taking concrete steps to solve real problems, they extend token gestures to help one or two (or in this case, 103) out of several millions. All driven, perhaps, by stock photos of babies with bloated bellies too weak to stave off the flies from their eyelids.

This is not to say that the problems aren't real. They are. This is not to say that the people in the so-called Third World need help. They do. But it has to be done in a way that respects cultural identity and encourages self-reliance. It cannot be a unilateral action dictated by the "economically and culturally superior" party.

Then again, these misguided Europeans were probably just following the examples of their idols Madonna and Brangelina.

Still here

Er, just in case you were wondering: yes, I'm still here.

My blogging muse took a temporary leave over the long holiday, time which I took to get some rote stuff done. I think it might have been the upsetting events of the past month: the Glorietta "gas explosion", the bribery scandals, the Erap pardon, and the sheer brazenness with which our "leaders" continue to operate...but I'm getting all worked up again.

A quick summary of What Has Gone Before:

November 6: dealing with sexual harassment (more on that in a future post...maybe)

November 5: enrolled for the second semester classes in Literature in Ateneo de Davao

November 4: Sunday, a day of rest.

November 3: meeting with the Davao Writers Guild

November 2: working on my long delayed project with the UNDP

November 1: biked to Davao Memorial, visited the graves of my grandparents, and met the people of my childhood.