Rudolph Valentino: Fire of the Silver Screen

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In 2004, the annual Silent Film Festival in San Francisco screened “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (1921) at the Castro Theater. Since I expected a small audience (a silent film, really?), I arrived ten minutes before show time. Big mistake. Imagine the cash registers at Costco on 4th of July. That’s how many people were waiting with ticket in hand. A line extended from the marquee down a quarter of the block to 17th Street, around the corner and up a full block to Noe Street, then around Noe. People weren’t gathered on the pavement for the feature either. It could have been anything so long as it starred the man who was seducing a crowd to spend a sunny afternoon in the darkness of an antiquated movie palace – Rudolph Valentino. I will dispel any notion you might have of everybody present as an old timer. I stress that I… then in my thirties… was there, and I bear witness to the phenomenon that a chunk of the viewers were youths who fit the Haight-Ashbury template of frayed jeans and scraggly hair. Nearly 80 years after his death, Valentino remained a big draw. As I overheard a woman say while gazing at the actor’s name on the marquee, “I guess that’s how it is when you’ve gained immortality in films.”

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How did Valentino manage such a feat? For starters, he was f_ing hot by any standard, be it 1920s or 2000s. I have an indelible image in my head of footage I once saw on TV that featured a pair of flappers strapped to arm cords designed to measure the increase of heart rate upon viewing a Valentino movie. The needle to the flatline screen went berserk. So did the two women. Their eyes popped out as though their fingers had been plugged into a socket. Electricity current (or maybe it was hair peroxide) kindled their wavy flapper bob. Delirious to the point of fainting, they appeared in the throes of an orgasm. The Valentino I saw on screen at the Castro Theater justified the histrionics. There is a reason the tango scene made him famous. In a poncho and a leer underneath a sombrero, he intrudes on a couple heating up a tavern dance floor. Since the señorita’s partner refuses to budge, our star in character as Julio Desnoyers whips out a sword and stabs the poor hombre. He then grabs the lady, lunges, dips, and glides, his body pressed against hers with enough strength for an appendage to poke a hole through his gaucho pants. The persona of the Latin lover was born. Contrary to popular perception, the male archetype started with Rudolph Valentino, not with Zorro.

Valentino was the first with regards to another pop cultural phenomenon that would include James Dean, River Phoenix, and Heath Ledger – the mythologizing of a Hollywood star in the aftermath of an untimely death. Young, beautiful, and at the pinnacle of his stardom, Valentino was 31 when he died of a perforated ulcer in 1926. 50,000 mourners attended his wake in New York city. Those who couldn’t get in, smashed windows, and still others – a handful of maniacal fans – killed themselves. The next time America would witness this form of crazed adulation was some 40 years later, when Marilyn Monroe’s death spiked up the suicide rate by 12% in one week. Film historians never refer to a Valentino film as a touchstone in either artistry or technicality. Neither is Valentino remembered as a great actor. We wonder if he would be the legend he has become had he lived to old age. He could have flourished in talkies as Greta Garbo did (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/flesh-and-the-devil-the-sound-of-an-original/), disappeared only to make a big bang of a comeback two and a half decades later à la Gloria Swanson (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/sunset-boulevard-the-edge-of-madness/), or joined his silent contemporaries on the plummet to oblivion. At the same time, wondering of what might have been is futile. No amount of speculation can amend that the man’s passing under tragic circumstances gave him posthumous fame that will endure for generations more.

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I am as susceptible to the marketing of celebrity misfortunes as any member of the star-gazing public. Young death is a large reason for my romanticizing Valentino. That Valentino had a risqué personal life renders him all the more alluring. Before he was a star, he was a gigolo and a petty thief. His first wife was a lesbian. The public jeered him as a “pink powder puff” upon the release of “Monsieur Beaucaire” (1924) due to his heavy make-up, beauty mole, and flamboyant costumes. He was rumored to have given actor Ramon Novarro an art deco dildo as well as to have had homosexual liaisons all over Hollywood. The guy was literally a walking piece of sex. Plus, he could have been a friend of Dorothy. And then he was gone. No images will ever exist of Valentino’s transmogrifying into a slovenly old man with a pachyderm belly as they do for cinema’s all-time hunk, Marlon Brando. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/a-streetcar-named-desire-forever-young/)

As an artist and a gay man endowed with a highly visual sensibility, I wonder about my own legacy. I am at the age I am meant to be, at the peak of my physical power. 48 is old enough to express wisdom and young enough for future possibilities. I lift weights, have grown comfortable in my own skin, and project through my writings a voice that is distinctly my own. In my daydreams, my novels would exhibit the literary virtuoso of William Styron, packaged with an author pic that stuns with the good looks of Rudolph Valentino. However, even though people assume me to be ten years younger, the Dorian Gray effect can only last so long. Should the reveries persist past my middle years, then I’d be Norma Desmond demented. Alas, although I can always believe within reason in applause for my creative output, the face the public would associate with it could be that of a man who buys movie tickets at the price for a senior citizen. That’s okay so long as I am not prone to whatever it is John Travolta has done to make his face plasticized. The day will come when I must say without contention, “I am old.”

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Immortality and eternal physical beauty are attained only in young death. That is why we are hooked on Valentino and the celebrities after him who have met his fate. We project onto them a desire that we pay plastic surgeons a fortune to fulfill. The irony is that Rudolph Valentino was not on a death wish. On the contrary, he spent his last moments speaking of the future. Yet there we have it: a sex symbol for the ages who will forever be ageless.

 

 

“The Lives of Others”: The Awakening of a Soul

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Cinema is a treasure trove of moments so haunting in their depiction of human relations that they become as much a part of us as the memory of a first kiss or a last parting. One of those jewels is the scene in “The Lives of Others” (2006), the Oscar-winning film about government corruption in East Berlin, where informant Hauptman Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) dissolves into tears as he listens, through bugs he planted, to a piano sonata performed by the playwright he is spying on. Playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) is mourning the loss of a friend (Volkmar Kleinert) whom he just learned has hung himself. “Sonata for a Good Man” is the kind of music that evokes the image of a figure alone in the light of a weeping moon – dolorous, tortured. Dreyman does not play it with the theatrics one would in a concert hall; rather, he hunches over the keyboard a broken man and he asks, “You know what Lenin said about Beethoven’s ‘Appasionata’? ‘If I keep listening to it, I won’t finish the revolution.’ Can anyone who has heard this music, I mean truly heard it, really be a bad person?” The recipient to the question is his girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), muse and actress to his plays. She is also sleeping with the enemy. Wiesler is a loyal Stasi, a secret government police. That is, until now. Wiretapping from an apartment upstairs, he confronts the truth of his convictions; they were built on a lie.

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The reason Wiesler was assigned to spy on Dreyman is not that Dreyman could be a possible traitor, but that a high-ranking politician (Thomas Thieme) wants the playwright eliminated so that he could have the actress to himself. Wiesler, throughout his profession, has heard by subterfuge numerous accusations of corruption against his leaders, and he has acted upon his power to incarcerate the accusers. In a system of governing that rewards blind obedience, he has spent his entire life viewing his fellow countrymen through a funnel. His subordinates fear him. His superiors trust him. Suddenly, it so turns out everyone locked up because of him could be right. Those above him to whom he has pledged allegiance are bad. So is he. Patriotism does not entail aiding a minister to resort to blackmail and false imprisonment in order for him to proceed with a dalliance. It’s downright heinous.

When “The Lives of Others” was released, it received international acclaim. In addition to the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, it obtained awards in Bavaria, France, and Great Britain. Critics lauded it as one of the ten best films of 2007. It’s appeal is not Eurocentric. I saw “The Lives of Others” upon its screening in American theaters and later watched it with my family during Christmas holidays in the Philippines some years after. Everyone from my nephews, then aged 16 to 26, responded to it as did my sister, brother-in-law, and parents. The film’s impact is that it exceeds the boundaries of political history. It is, at its heart, the story of a man’s vivification as he comes to understand and embrace those he has been conditioned to condemn. Even when Wiesler discovers that the Stasi has grounds for arresting Dreyman, he does not turn him in. Oppression is the crime in this whole ordeal, he realizes, while individual expression is the right of every citizen.

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Art is a potent weapon in the fight for our freedom to be seen and heard. The noble characters in “The Lives of Others” are a writer, an actress, and a composer. Activist students marching with fists in the air are not what awaken Wiesler’s soul. It is music. And poetry. Before the scene that marks his epiphany, he reads Brecht from a book he filched from Dreyman’s apartment. So forsaken is Wiesler that, by the time of the theft, his investment in the assignment has switched from sedition to the shared domestic life between Dreyman and Sieland: the quarrels; the morning greetings and evening well wishes; the opinion on a tie; and the sounds of lovemaking. He fornicates with a prostitute. The absence of emotion leaves him lonelier than before. Enter Brecht:

On a certain day in blue-moon September, beneath a young plum tree, I held her there, my silent pale love, in my arms like a fair and lovely dream. Above us in the summer skies was a cloud that caught my eye. It was white and so immensely high. And when I looked up, it was no longer there.

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Conscious of it or not, we are all involved with the lives of others. Last night, while waiting for the underground Muni, I saw a blond boy in his early 20s, in owl glasses and black sneakers and with a condition that caused his leg to shake while he stood stationary. I wondered about the bullying that tormented him as a child on account of his leg, his loneliness, his pain. Then I envied him. He was smiling because he had a friend, another young man, one who was large and hefty and who held him in a way that made it evident they were in love.

That is what I do every day in forming a connection to the world; I observe people – couples on the street holding hands, in a café sipping from the same straw, laughing in harmony; parents; newlyweds; pairs both young and old. I am drawn to lovers. “How would you define love?” someone once asked me. “Good question,” I said. “I don’t know.” Though I have my own ideas, none of it is anything I have ever whispered into another’s ear. Neither have I ever been called upon to prove them. Everybody else, it seems, is more of an expert on the subject than I, even a boy whose nerves are shot and who has, as his saving grace, nothing more than a smile. I am that close to eavesdropping on the intimacies of others.

None of us wants to see ourselves as a Wiesler – strained and alienated – and we are fortunate to be in a country that honors the democratic oath of free speech and civil dignity. Anything from critiques to insults is game in the comments section that follows an aol article. We vote. We speak either for or against marriage equality. We denounce censorship of the press. We have kiss-in protests and porn and dating services. Nevertheless, for all we do so that the powers that be will acknowledge our needs, we can feel so very invisible. Government has nothing to do with it. It’s just part of being human.

For this reason, Wiesler is the character in “The Lives of Others” with whom I most identify. It’s my own doing. I’ve spent too many years endeavoring to emulate the image of the ideal man I have in in my head that I foil opportunities for intimacy. On the other hand, I am blessed to have Dreyman’s prowess with words and Sieland’s gift for drama. With stories I weave, I can caress the hearts of people from the subways of Manhattan to the sands of Boracay. I can be everything that I have wanted to be, but am unable to in reality.

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Writer and director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck makes a clear statement in this movie hailed far and wide as a masterpiece: as the eyes, ears, and mouth of the human race, the artist is never alone.

“The Boys in the Band”: The Ugly Truth

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“The Boys in the Band” (1970) is a groundbreaking film that in the 45 years since its release has fallen out of favor with many gay men. “Self-loathing” is the term frequently associated with it. The “boys” in the title references a group of homosexual male friends gathered at a birthday celebration that devolves into an infernal mess of insecurities and childhood traumas. What starts out as a line dance on a roof top terrace turns into a circle of truth in which each guest is dared to phone the person he loves, even at the risk of humiliation due to the possibility that the person at the other end of the line could be a heterosexual man. Name callings ricochet like bullets. Celebrant Harold (Leonard Frey) refers to himself as an “ugly, pock-marked Jew fairy,” then quickly turns around and accuses host Michael (Kenneth Nelson) of abhorring his predilection for men. Michael calls guest Donald (Frederick Combs) a “card carrying cunt.” Donald certainly must have said something in retaliation for such a disgusting insult. But at this point, the hate is so overflowing that every antagonism and defensive outburst jumble together the way garbage does on a barge. These boys are self-loathing, indeed. May I add angry, bitter, bitchy, nasty, and mean. I will also be so brazen as to declare that these vices are precisely what warrant the film its virtue. Although we may not entirely like the manner these guests behave and treat each other, the emotional turmoil they find themselves in speaks the truth of what I myself have experienced as a gay man for the past 25 years.

John Keats said a mighty long time ago that “beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” The poet could not have predicted the can of worms the liberation movements of the mid-20th century would open, in particular the movement that would build the foundation of the community of which I am now a member in San Francisco. Truth is important, I agree, and it can be beautiful. Truth is enlightenment, after all. But it can also be ugly. Wisdom never comes without pain, and I mean the lacerating kind of pain that makes our hearts bleed.

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My initial viewing of “The Boys in the Band” was an accident. I was 15 years old and living in the Philippines. While my parents were hosting a party, I was in their room, flipping through the TV remote when I chanced upon a man as he waited on a curbside, casserole in hand, for the pedestrian light to turn green. Chin raised in impudence, eyes wide as a toad’s, he was hoity-toity towards a woman dressed in a moo-moo and who was acting likewise towards him. Emory (Cliff Gorman) was the first gay movie character I ever saw, and he was in the Big Apple, a city I considered a Valhalla on earth by virtue of my sister, who was attending college at Columbia. Imagine yourself as me – a Hollywood-struck Filipino boy with a fashion plate sister in America’s most revered metropolis. On school breaks, she would regale me with accounts of clubs, parties, and shopping, her eyes lit as if she were a princess who had been granted a kingdom. She was, in a way. Her closest friend at the time was Robin Givens (before Mike Tyson entered the picture). They once got to ride a fire truck because a group of firemen, good Samaritans that they are, were concerned over the safety of a pair of beautiful teen girls who appeared dazed and lost in a rough neighborhood. So on went the siren, and armored in work gear of helmets, boots, and shields, these flame killers chauffeured my sister and Robin to the party the two had planned on reaching by traversing Central Park. At night. Who else has a story like that to tell? Only my sister.

That was where my head was at when the festivity on TV started – an adventure in New York free of parental guidance. In this sense, you can say that I didn’t see “The Boys in the Band” for what it really is. What 15-year-old possesses such a deep level of astuteness anyway? All I was aware of was the thrill I felt in witnessing my tribesmen pour their guts out over what an experience it is to grow up a sissy. Sure, they were as frightened as a bunch of cornered cats. Nevertheless, they divulged secrets; they empathized with each other; and they weren’t alone. For that instant, I was no longer alone either.

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Life decisions brought me to San Francisco instead of to New York in 1990 at the age of 23. Revelry was in the air. I formed my first group of gay friends. We had parties to get drunk at every weekend and clubs every night to dance in till dawn. We were young and thus we managed at work the next day with the energy an eight-hour sleep provides. But I also quickly realized that for all the hype of solidarity and pride, the gay community was… and continues to be… fractured. Back then, bars existed that were designated venues for specific races: N-Touch for Asians; Esta Noche for Latinos; the Pendulum for blacks. Labels were created to identify those who fixated on a race: Rice Queen, Bean Queen, and Chocolate (sometimes Dinge) Queen. Meanwhile, white gay men stuck together in their own bars from the Castro to the South of Market and all the way up to Pacific Heights.

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In the age of online hook-ups, the racial segregation remains apparent. Personal ads state “not into Asians,” “not into blacks,” and “white only.” Discrimination also extends to body types and mannerisms as manifested by the pronouncements “no fats” and “no fems” and the ever endless search for “only straight acting guys.” We even have gay porn stars who deny any homosexual inclination whatsoever, as if being gay was shameful, and who insist instead that they are straight blokes in it for the money.

None of this exemplifies love and acceptance. It’s heart wrenching. We gay men are, to a large degree, guilty of the self-loathing of which we accuse Harold and his band of buddies. And with the alpha male archetype of muscled physiques dominating the gay media, it’s apparent that all the brawn we’re encouraged to hide our bodies beneath is an armor to protect ourselves against something that’s disturbing and deep-rooted in our psyche.

Michael makes a tear-soaked bid: “If we can just learn not to hate ourselves.” Kenneth Nelson might not have been acting when he said this. He was gay as were many of the other cast members, and they would all fall victim to AIDS. We can only assume that the issues of aging, body image, and bullying that saturate the film hit close to home for the performers. As for me, I thank writer Mart Crowley and director William Friedkin for “The Boys in the Band.” Had Hollywood provided me at 15 a glimpse of my future the gay romantic comedies of today that feature pretty white boys falling in love and living happily ever after, then… God, help me… I really would have been screwed.

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Twiggy: The Flowering of a Waif

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Isabella Rossellini has said that true beauty is when you see a woman as beautiful rather than as once having been beautiful. That’s a tough state to achieve. Many a celebrated beauty spends her early blush of womanhood in front of the camera for the world to behold as a vision of spring loveliness. The permanence of film creates an illusion of agelessness, and that illusion becomes her identity. We wax poetic over our infatuation with these women and the nubility they exude. Of Greta Garbo, a film critic gushed, “Her luscious lips and volcanic, slumberous eyes enfire men to such passion that friendships collapse.” In some form or other, the same has been said of Eve, Helen of Troy, and Nefertiti. Like the illusion itself, the praise is ephemeral. The world turns unkind to the appearance of a wrinkle and an increase in girth. The inevitability of age results in a dearth of film offers and photo shoots. Garbo became a recluse. Marilyn Monroe died. They were both just 36. As a septuagenarian, when gawkers would hound her for a glimpse of her celluloid past, Garbo scoffed, “Look at me now. I look like the Madwoman of Chaillot.”

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For a moment, Twiggy had a place in the gallery of bygone beauties. She was a relic when I was coming of age, and she wasn’t even old, a mere 20-something. Throughout the 1970s, she made a career for herself on screen (both big and small), stage, and in song, earning a pair of Golden Globe awards for Best Actress and New Star of the Year as well as a spot on the British pop charts. That she evolved past modeling, however, was nothing I was aware of. I neither heard her recordings nor saw her movies. That continues to hold true today. For all the Western shows and commercials featured on Philippine TV, many such as “The Brady Bunch” and “Gilligan’s Island” never reached the shores of my homeland. My cognizance of American pop culture didn’t happen until the late ‘70s with “Charlie’s Angels.” Yet I must have encountered Twiggy’s image somewhere…. perhaps in Hong Kong or Japan, where I had spent my toddler years and where Twiggy had been a hit… because that face and that name seem to have been with me all my life.

The first memory of Twiggy I do have dates to the early 1980s. I used to watch an afternoon TV show that would bring the viewers on a voyage through a time capsule to events and inventions of the past. In black and white footage, a girl with linguine limbs, butterfly wing lashes, and the most supercilious of facial expressions since Garbo strutted off the catwalk and into my consciousness. What invention is that? I marveled. Reporters and photographers swarmed around her as if she were Moses parting the Red Sea. It was Twiggy on her arrival in New York in the year I was born. At 18, she had such command of her audience and such awareness of her power to bring the public to its knees with a sashay and a bat of the lashes that I was instantly mired in a feeling of both envy and awe. Whatever it is we call the It factor, she had. I wanted that for myself. Disregard that Twiggy is female. Star quality, charisma, sex appeal… whatever other sobriquets It is known by… is a virtue on anybody of either gender.

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Yes, I include sex appeal because the Twiggy on TV at that moment, in all her cropped hair and flat-chested boyishness, was sexy. The way she moved, her sureness of steps and high head, and her oblivion to the camera flashes and buzzing bee interrogations put her on a pedestal. There’s something alluring about someone you want but can’t have. I encounter that on a daily basis at the gym. It’s called desire. And it’s damn frustrating. Frustration was evident on the face of every member of the press in Twiggy’s presence – the ogling, the swooning, the defeat. You don’t forget that when you’re a kid filled with imaginings of the type of grown-up you want to be.

The clip lasted for no more than ten minutes. Like a genie in a bottle, Twiggy disappeared. I wouldn’t hear of or see her again until 30 years later, with her as a judge on “America’s Next Top Model.” Amid the back stabbing whininess of under-educated girls and Tyra Bank’s atrocious get-ups, Twiggy stands out as a class act. Free of vamping and excessive botox, she is a sedate figure in bangs and tailored suits. Plus, she smiles. In her modeling pictures from the 1960s, she is often somber, as if a show of teeth would have detracted from the wattage of those marble ball eyes. Who knows? Maybe Twiggy wasn’t all that happy back then. To be thrust into the limelight at 16 is a daunting experience, after all, especially when you had not planned on it. Those of us who do not have fame romanticize the attention. We overlook the pressure of expectation and the sacrifices made. Woody Allen, for one, made fun of Twiggy. During that seminal landing in New York, the comedian asked her on a filmed interview who her favorite philosopher was. Since she had been expecting inane questions about her impressions of America, she could not answer, at which Allen looked over his shoulder at the camera with an expression of disdain.

You can almost sense Twiggy on “America’s Next Top Model,” wise with a well-deserved longevity, surreptitiously rolling her eyes across her forehead in questioning the intelligence of those girls the way Allen once questioned hers. She may have stopped schooling to become a world-famous model, but at least she had read Dickens. And she can talk. Eloquently. When Twiggy looks back on her heyday, she does so with detachment and amusement. It’s almost as if she were speaking about somebody else: “I always describe her, ‘60s Twiggy, as my little friend who sits on my shoulder.”

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In the second decade of the second millennium, Twiggy starred in an ad campaign for Marks and Spencer in which she dons dresses with the panache of the sexagenarian that she is. That she is not the gangly teen she was 50 years ago does not bother her an inkling. In her own words, “I don’t understand people getting depressed about getting older. There is nothing you can do about it, so you might as well embrace it.”

Embrace her age, Twiggy has. She laughs. She cavorts. She’s having the time of her life.

“After Life”: A Purgatory of Memories

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Hong Kong constitutes my earliest memory. When I was one, my father’s career with the Bank of America took him from Manila to the former British colony, where we lived in a building perched on a mountain that overlooked the ocean. Repulse Bay Beach was our playground. I can still see the tide rushing towards me, the crest carved in the form of foaming clouds fallen to the earth. I am lying stomach down on the shore, and a feeling I have not known before that is part excitement, part fear overwhelms me. Nothing can harm me, I think, because Daddy and Mommy are near. Yet the wall of water surging forth compounds my smallness in relation to nature.

Water was ever present in the formation of my mind. Over 40 years later, it floods me with memories that place and time rather than sequence link. I now sit on a bench onboard a yacht, my feet barely touching the floor, as my family joins the Normans in prayer for a storm that has stranded us out at sea to subside. Now my father, with a tone of factuality to his voice as if he were teaching me to count, points to cars in the basement garage that a hurricane turned over the night before. A tidal wave on TV mounts to the syncopated trumpets of “Hawaii Five-O.” My mother yanks me by the arm from a toilet. She laughs, not at my slipping into a commode, but at the two of us drenched in rain as we run downhill to a noodle stand.

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Since memory starts at three, these remembrances encompass only one year. The memories that I have amassed ever since have added to the mélange to create me into the person I am today. Months intertwine – years, events, and people, too. They are the solar plexus of my consciousness. It would be impossible to subsist on a single memory, blithe as it is, yet that is the challenge “After Life” (1998) presents.

Director Hirokazu Kore-eda has a peculiar vision of what awaits us when we die. He doesn’t believe in hell, only in heaven. To get there, we must pass through purgatory – a snow laden landscape where stands a sole edifice that houses the departed. Gray and block-like, it has the stodginess of a bureaucratic office. No harps and angel choirs here. Counselors conduct the business of assisting its residents journey forward to eternity with one happy memory. One. The episodes of an individual’s life are stored on reels of film for him or her to view, and within a week the person must decide. An aged woman (Hisako Hara) chooses a plane ride with an infinite view of cherry blossoms. The gaiety of Disneyland’s Matterhorn obsesses a 12-year-old girl (Sayaka Yoshino). And for one man (Kotaro Shiga), happiness never existed. The counselors are faced with the task of inspiring all to search deep in their hearts for a memory redolent with a bliss deeper than the superficiality of one gained in an amusement park as well as to understand that life, no matter how deprived, possesses spurts of richness.

For all their expertise, the counselors are themselves the dead who cannot decide on their own singular memory. Takashi (Arata Iura) is a man in his twenties. Shiori (Erica Oda) is an 18-year-old girl. Like those to whom they offer guidance, Takashi and Shiori remain the ages that they were when they died. A new arrival is of special interest to Takashi. She is an elderly woman by the name of Kyoko (Kyoko Kagawa), who chooses as her cherished moment a farewell to her fiancé before he goes off to fight in the Pacific War. She is young and she smiles with hope beside him on a park bench. The sky is clear. Trees are alive with the singing of birds.

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With every decision comes a sacrifice. Somebody is bound to get hurt. In this case, it’s Shiori. We know by the way she looks at Takashi that her feelings for him are more than platonic. Hers is a look not merely of wistfulness, but of anguish for the knowledge that, once Takashi singles out his memory so that he could enter the portal in the sky, it will be for him as though she had never been born.

It seems that oblivion is the fate of myriad splendors that enrich each passing day from birth to death. Certainly, we have memories we would like to expurgate because the events that produced them were unpleasant. “After Life” provides us with this possibility. Then again, we need to wonder if this is a wise move. We might as well will to change our history. I could wish that I had been looking where I was running that day in the school playground when I slammed into another boy and had my front teeth knocked out or that my brother hadn’t bullied me or that, to avoid what could have been a ship wreck, my family had not moved to Hong Kong. Grant me this wish, then I would never have experienced the gentleness with which a dentist held my hand or the sincerity of my brother’s apology (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/love-story-love-means/), and I would not have the image I will hold dear to the end of my mother, in Capri pants and slippers, running in the rain with the joy of the provincial girl she once was.

How to select one memory to live forever? Takashi’s advice to Shiori is that in our search for happiness, we forget that knowing we were a part of somebody else’s happiness is also a blessing. That doesn’t make it any easier. What a tragedy it would be that in heaven I would not recognize many of my loved ones because I had chosen not to remember them.

Death is complicated. I’d rather choose life.

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“Back to the Future”: A Journey for Every Generation

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Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s… Doc Brown’s time traveling, flux capacitor-powered DeLorean!

30 years later, that genius of a car still stupefies me. It’s the most awesome invention that ever was. Or should I proclaim instead that never was? Hard to say. The thing is a movie invention, and we all realize how significantly more ingenious imaginary machines are than anything real that comes out of a Chrysler assembly line. Now I am not an auto junkie, never have been. I am especially not prone to hyperboles, that “awe…” word in particular. In this case, however, the object of reference deserves the praise of awesome. I would not be exaggerating. Einstein would agree. (No exaggeration here either.)

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When “Back to the Future” (1985) unveiled Doc’s brainchild, it sped off the screen and into pop culture Neverland. The poster image of Michael J. Fox in character as Marty McFly raring for the adventure of his life, car track marks on fire as he counts, panic-stricken, his watch tick away the seconds, is synonymous with the 1980s. Every generation can claim a decade. For me and my peers, the decade of padded shoulders and Pac Man fever is the one and only. I was 18 in 1985, the age of Fox’s character and of his parents when he travels through time to meet their adolescent incarnations. The Thompson Twins topped my list of pop groups. I deified Kelly Lebrock. Benetton populated my closet. I also sang in the privacy of my room to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, swooned over Audrey Hepburn, and bathed my head in hair products to achieve (unsuccessfully) James Dean’s pompadour. In this, I thought I was an anomaly, until Doc’s car materialized in a void and landed on the streets of 1950s suburbia.

Of all the periods in the history of the world, we wonder why Doc (Christopher Lloyd) would program his invention to journey to a monotonous place in a sedate time. The 1940s had the adventure of war. The 1960s was a string of social upheavals. Go further back to previous centuries, and the selection is immense. Sure, the ten years sandwiched between the introduction of the Volkswagen Beetle and the presidential inauguration of John F. Kennedy boasted glorious movie stars – Grace Kelly, Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor – if that’s what you’re into. Otherwise, it suffered from a surplus of Tupperware. And yet, a moment in America when families were migrating away from urban centers makes sense. Like the pioneers of the west, they were etching on new territory a golden future. Not everybody had it good, though, and two of the unlucky ones are Lorraine Baines (Lea Thompson) and George McFly (Crispin Glover), Marty’s mom and dad.

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Our introduction to Lorraine and George is an ugly picture; they’re losers. Lorraine provides no incentive to start a day. Her face Elizabeth Taylor jowly during the actress’s John Warner phase, she’s a drunk who greets her family with a grimace at the breakfast table. George is the quintessential nerd. His despondent eyes through aviator glasses light up only when he guffaws, and he walks with a slouch as if in apology for treading the earth. Marty also has a mama’s boy of a brother, David (Marc McClure), and a sister, Linda (Mary Jo Sperber), who offers no relief. Picture Miss Piggy, but with glasses and a whininess in place of the glam wardrobe and the attitude. You wonder how a dude like Marty could have been born into this family. So does he.

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Doc Brown is the one person in his life whom Marty is proud of. White hair in disarray lends Doc the appearance of a walking streak of lightning. He regurgitates ideas with the rapidity of a machine gun so that we can’t help falling mute the way a child does with a fairy tale. Everything about this scientist is unreal to Marty, but then not quite. As outlandish as his visions are, Doc aspires to fulfill them. From dawn to dusk, he is confronted with a black board of hieroglyphic computations until… lo and behold… he surpasses the imaginings of H.G. Wells. This time machine is real and it works.

Though the journey Marty embarks on isn’t one he would have chosen, it turns out to be an enlightenment. He witnesses for himself where it all began for his parents and why it went wrong. Lorraine in her youth is beautiful. George is talented. Marty never regarded his parents this way, and seldom ever do we with our own parents. It’s an exhilarating discovery for him that his father should possess the gift of creative writing. The guy pens tales of aliens visiting our planet. Marty asks to read them. George is embarrassed. “Oh, no, no, no,” he says. “I never… uh… never let anybody read my stories.” Marty asks why not. “Well, what if they didn’t like them? What if they told me I was no good? I guess that would be pretty hard for somebody to understand.” Here lies the crux of the problem: dad is insecure.

Like arson in liquid, George’s insecurity so contaminates his blood that the local bully, Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson), remains his nemesis into the future. As high school kids, Biff torments George into doing the former’s homework. As married men with kids, Biff torments George into paying for car damages Biff incurs. George acquiesces with a snort and a goofy smile. It is Marty’s mission to change his father into a strong man. More than having a parent to be proud of is at stake. This is a matter of life and death. You see, Marty’s appearance in the past thwarts the event of his parents’ meeting. Instead of George whom Lorraine nurses to health after her father drives into him on the street, it is Marty. No meeting between Lorraine and George equals no marriage. No marriage equals no birth of the McFly progenies.

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Of course, Marty is too lovable of a character to be eliminated, and “Back to the Future” is too fun of a movie not to have a sequel (or two). We are also rooting for George. He speaks for all of us. We want him to have the break that he deserves as much as we want one for ourselves whenever life deals us a bad blow. No better moment for this fighter in embryo to shine… with Marty’s encouragement… than at the prom, the singular event that caps every teen’s existence. In the school parking lot, he catches Biff forcing himself on Lorraine. One punch on that asshole’s nose, and Lorraine sees in George a winner.

Back in the future, George is a best-selling sci-fi author; Lorraine is sober; David and Linda have their rest and recreation at a country club instead of at Burger King; and Biff kowtows to George. This is too drastic of a turn around, we might say. So what? At this point, the film is no longer about parents, but about us… about you.

Every decision you make today will have a repercussion on tomorrow. You can either be George McFly, the winner or George McFly, the loser. Certain decisions will be more difficult to make than others. Don’t fret. You’ll always have somebody to help you. The unlikely ally can even be your own son. And under any circumstance, never forget the life lessons of “Back to the Future”:

  1. Punch the forces of oppression that prevent you from pursuing your potential.
  2. Fight for love.
  3. Trust in the supremacy of your talent.
  4. Forgive your parents. They’re human like the rest of us.

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