“A Place in the Sun”: A Love Worth Dying For

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I discovered “A Place in the Sun” (1951) in a moment of boredom. I was in high school and accompanied my mother to a dinner hosted by a family friend, Mrs. Y. Why I tagged along beats me. I was the only male present and the only teen. Maybe I was there on account of Mrs. Y’s sweet and sour pork, the best I’ve ever had – meaty and crispy as a pig roasted over an open fire; none of the battered lard served at San Francisco Chinatown. To keep myself preoccupied, Mrs. Y allowed me to stay in her bedroom, where I could watch a betamax cassette. She was a patroness of Repertory Philippines, a theater group that mounted Broadway productions with a Filipino cast and where Lea Salonga had her start in “Annie.” Mrs. Y’s enthusiasm for stage extended to films, as well. She had a collection of studio-era classics, and movie star biographies lined shelves. There he stood out like a light tower in a starless night: Montgomery Clift on a bookbinding.

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One hand in pocket and the other carrying a trench coat, blasé in suit and loose tie with hair windswept, Montgomery Clift cut the image of a loner on a journey in which he had lost his direction. I had never heard of the actor before. I read the back jacket, and I skipped a breath. It stated he had been homosexual. Rock Hudson’s death from AIDS wouldn’t happen for another year, so it surprised me that a leading man, and one extraordinarily handsome on top of that, had been gay. Forget betamax. Forget sweet and sour pork. I was hungry to know the secrets and same sex escapades of a film legend. Every photograph of Clift from his early youth to those shot to coincide with his ascension in Hollywood roused my desire. Then there were the photos with Elizabeth Taylor. She was 17. He was 30. The pairing of two individuals whose looks were made for the camera was ingenious movie marketing because over three decades later, I was sold.

What a tragic tale “A Place in the Sun” is. That’s what hypnotizes me about it. We cannot keep our eyes off beautiful lovers who emote desperation, who lose themselves in each other as if every kiss were the last. Such a sight is akin to a marriage between the sun and the moon – dynamite. Clift is George Eastman, a poor relation to a wealthy uncle (Herbert Heyes) who offers him employment in the assembly line of a shirt factory. There he meets Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters). She’s homely but doting, and in her George finds comfort. They have an affair that leads to her getting pregnant.

One problem: George has the fire of ambition that cannot be squelched. As Uncle Eastman promotes George to a managerial position, he invites the latter to a fancy party, where the upstart meets society girl Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor). Given Angela’s affluence and stunning appearance, she would be the ticket to the highest echelon of society. George would at last have his place in the sun. What to do about Alice?

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I am not a superstitious person, but I do believe in signs. It might not have been by chance that my interest in “A Place in the Sun” started at Mrs. Y’s. Mrs. Y was an eccentric in flowing gowns, heavy eye shadow, and glossy lipstick. A portrait of her in her earlier years that hung in the living room presented her seated with the regality of an empress. Her salt and pepper hair had been the curled coiffure that it would be in her later age, and the style with which she made up her face had not changed. Due to her social standing, she had among her friends tycoons and politicians. You’d think Mrs. Y was the Angela Vickers type. Not entirely. Her husband had left her for her best friend. If Mrs. Y was garrulous, it was because she was lonely. According to my mother, she spoke a lot about her ex, and always with a hint of hope. She still loved the man, and she would do so for the rest of her life. Although nobody commits a mortal sin, hers is a sad love story. Now here I am to tell it.

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Mrs. Y discovered her husband’s infidelity when, on a cruise in which her best friend and her own spouse accompanied the couple, the best friend had in her arm a stuffed bear that Mrs. Y had pointed to her husband upon passing a store window. She had wanted him to buy the bear for her, but he had brushed off her wish as childish. That’s like a guy giving his mistress a piece of jewelry the wife expects for herself. Mrs. Y didn’t say a word. She wasn’t going to cause a commotion on deck. So husband and wife separated. They couldn’t divorce since, being a Catholic country, the Philippines forbids it. The church did grant Mrs. Y an annulment, a hypocritical procedure, considering that Mr. Y had sired seven of Mrs. Y’s children. Such is the law there. It gave the best friend the right to leave her husband in order to be with Mr. Y.

I don’t know how long ago Mrs. Y’s marriage had dissolved before my family got to know her. I only have memories of her as a solitary woman in her sixties and seventies, dolled up in the fashion of a dowager in a Chinese opera. During one of her home luncheons, this time with my mother, sister and me as sole guests, she was glowing over a present Mr. Y had given her. It was a betamax machine. On it was a note that said, “love from…” Despite a painful break-up, the two managed to remain friends. He would give her mundane gifts – home appliances, a case of soft drinks, nothing romantic – yet Mrs. Y would read a double meaning to his generosity and the closing to each note with “love.” My mother often wanted to shake her on the shoulders and say, “He’s not coming back.”

My mother was right. Mr. and Mrs. Y’s children came to accept the mistress. The woman proved her worth as she nursed Mr. Y back to health upon his falling gravely ill. He would eventually pass on, but not before his mistress after whom he would name a theater, his personal Taj Mahal.

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It’s strange how our pursuit to bask in the sun’s warmth can lead to coldness. Montgomery Clift was gifted and charismatic, headed for greatness, but tortured over his homosexuality. He lost his looks in a car crash, then died at the age of 45 in a haze of booze and pain killers. Elizabeth Taylor, for all her beauty and talent and husbands, grew old alone. Certainly, we are masters of our destiny. Yet no matter how firm our belief in the path we have chosen, a wrong or missed turn can lead to a cruel blow, sometimes one more severe than we deserve. What had Mrs. Y done for life to repay her with a love that would never be returned? All who knew her remark that she never said a bad word of anybody, not even of the best friend who had betrayed her. Mrs. Y died of cancer some years ago. A picture of Mr. Y stood by her deathbed. His face was the last human image she saw.

When George Eastman has his final walk on earth on his way to the execution chamber, his thoughts are of Angela. A blown up image of the lovers locked in a kiss covers the screen. Angela was everything in life to George worth killing and dying for; eternal faith in her would be his salvation. We can guess at what imaginings of a reunion with her one and only love must have consoled Mrs. Y in her final hours.

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Maybe this is why some of us need to believe in God and an after life: when all things on earth fail, we can make them right in heaven.

“5 to 7”: The Permanence of a Perfect Romance

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The film “5 to 7” (2014) gets its title from the hours in France during which each half of a married couple is allowed to engage in an adulterous relationship. This is not to be mistaken for a fling. What transpires is neither clandestine nor transitory. We’re talking about a deep involvement, the sort where two individuals confide in one another life goals and childhood secrets and introduce family. Whether this is a newfangled French custom or one that dates back to the days of Marie Antoinette is beyond me. In the two years that I lived in Paris some 25 years ago, I was aware of the candid attitude the French have towards sexuality. Burlesque shows attract tourists of both genders young and old to applaud topless ladies as they perform trapeze acts. Hustlers in those days loitered at the Trocadero, and transvestite hookers conducted their business at the Bois de Bologne. They might still do. Then again, prostitution is universal. Consensual adultery, however, at a designated time after work and before dinner like a cocktail, now that’s something else. Had I been straight, I might have heard of this custom. I might have had a relationship with a gorgeous mother of two and wife to a diplomat in the manner our protagonist, Brian (Anton Yelchin), does with Arielle (Bérénice Marlohe). Instead, I have memories of a moment spent with a Swedish man. Nonetheless, love is love, and so potent is its alchemy that no matter our sexual orientation, we never get over it.

Unforgettable is the love between Brian and Arielle. They meet as Brian narrates that in New York, you are never more than 20 feet away from someone you want to know or are meant to know. Voila! She is right across the street from him, alone and puffing on a cigarette. He says something in French since he assumes only a French lady can smoke with such elegance, and he is right. Arielle has the accent, the wit, and the sophistication that Americans find oh so irresistible in a European so that even when he initially tells her that he cannot, on moral grounds, get involved with a married woman, he cannot keep away. Brian is drawn to Arielle as a flower is to the sun.

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We, too, are drawn to Arielle. The woman shines in every scene. Brian’s last name of Bloom is metaphorical because bloom he does. The unconventionality of the relationship gives their trysts a dose of passion on some days and, on others, the semblance of domestic comfort. Their love is so perfect that Brian wants to marry the woman regardless of the age difference (she is 33; he is 24); the trust of her husband (Lambert Wilson) in him to honor the five to seven code; and her obligations as a parent. Love makes a man out of the boy. Arielle wants Brian just as badly. In addition to being a commendable bed partner (“your body expresses what’s in your heart”), he is a writer destined to reach dizzying heights. He has a story published in The New Yorker, which the editor-in-chief describes as possessing “a hint of greatness,” and gets paid $6,000 for it. Sure. Anyway, Brian is a “great” writer in love with a beautiful woman who loves him back, only perfection being the fragile thing that it is, the five to seven rendezvous enter precarious territory.

Life for our couple works out the way it is meant to. Let me simply say that they attain a state of happily ever after that I understand; I myself have this happiness. Jonas and I met when I was 23 and he was 38, in a video bar on a moon-lit street in Paris. In collarless tee and jeans, he was standing by a post, tall with soft curls of dark hair and arms folded to flatter developed shoulders. Striking as he was, it was his smile that was the clincher – warm, glowing, and directed at me. The man was offering his heart from across the room. During the metro ride to his place, Jonas told me of his youth in boarding school, the rampant homosexuality among the boys; his mother’s initial rejection of him upon his coming out and her ultimate acceptance; and his current ex-lover, whom he was assisting through mental illness and alcoholism. He told me of his zeal for soccer, skiing, horse betting, and weight lifting. Jonas was an oncologist with a wide scope of the world. Whatever it was of myself I shared, he said, “Say, you’re very intelligent.” That was how much we impressed each other in a span of 30 minutes. That was how intimate we became.

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In case you’re wondering what I was doing in Paris, I had graduated from Tufts University in Boston the year before and had returned to the City of Lights to be a writer, there where I had spent my junior year as a foreign student, a place that with monuments for buildings was an outdoor museum. Walking its streets connected me to the creative giants through the course of history. Though I knew not on what subject to exert my talent, I was aware that every moment unfolding before me was a possible source of inspiration. As with Brian and Arielle, the stars for me and Jonas aligned to bring us together at this crossroad in our lives. For one night, our words and our bodies were in harmony like notes to music. “I like you a lot,” he said. “I like you, too,” I said. Alas, it had to end at sunrise. Jonas was returning to Sweden in two days. I was moving to San Francisco in two weeks.

Although we never saw each again, we kept in touch by letter for over a year. Jonas’s health began to deteriorate from HIV soon after we parted. He would draw me flowers and express his longing to see the sun in the midst of a freezing winter. We were closing our letters with expressions of love, then I stopped hearing from him. I would have wanted to have known him more, to have spent more days with him, weeks, months and years. But we can manipulate a situation only to a certain point. After that, we need to trust fate.

photo 2Brian in “5 to 7” pays homage to Arielle by publishing a novel about their affair. He titles it “The Mermaid,” an allusion to their first meeting in which he tells her that she shares the same name as the Disney princess of the sea, a siren who rises from the depths of the dark unknown to find life and love on land. Fate brought me to Jonas, and fate chose for our moment to last a night. Because of its brevity, I will till my last breath remember him as perfect.

I’ve written my own novel to immortalize him. As Brian says, “Your favorite story, whatever it may be, was written for one person.” How true that is, and how blessed I am to have met someone to make me believe in love at first sight, the splendor of fairy tales.

“Sunset Boulevard”: The Edge of Madness

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Among my stack of books is one entitled “Leading Ladies: The 50 Most Unforgettable Actresses of the Studio Era.” It is also a tribute to 50 of the most beautiful women of the 20th century. Glamour shots paired with a listing of must-see films and tid-bits of trivia enliven the pages. Titles are at our disposal on DVD so that we could see for ourselves why these actresses are memorable. Each has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

All this aside, one flabbergasting fact stands out that unifies them as members of an exclusive sorority. Ava Gardner, Ingrid Bergman, Lana Turner, Elizabeth Taylor, Lena Horne, Myrna Loy, Marilyn Monroe… these screen goddesses were married an average of three times. From the end of the last marriage (usually through divorce) up to the time of their deaths, which could have been anywhere between two years and 30 years, they lived without a spouse. As Rita Hayworth once said, “Every man I knew went to bed with Gilda… and woke up with me.” She was alluding to her role in the 1946 movie named after her character, one that cemented her persona as the “love goddess” of war-era America.

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Hayworth’s quote could serve as the life story of all gorgeous creatures. Their images so bewitch us that we forget they are just that – images, manufactured avatars of touch-ups and airbrushing packaged to feed our dreams. No model or actress has ever lived up to her two-dimensional alter ego. 1950s supermodel, Dovima, herself deplored, “I began to have the idea that I was a photograph…a plastic image. I could only be myself behind the camera.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dovima) Thus, with Hayworth and company, men married them for their projection of an ideal, and when the human in them surfaced, their husbands bolted. For one’s reality to consist of such betrayal is enough to drive any woman to the edge of madness. If you want to have a distinct picture just how cuckoo, watch “Sunset Boulevard” (1950).

The story of Norman Desmond (Gloria Swanson) has spawned a Broadway musical and spoofs on the “The Carol Burnett Show”: aging silent screen superstar-turned-recluse plans a comeback, employs the professional assistance and personal companionship of a handsome screenwriter (William Holden), and becomes a murderess on the night he walks out on her. Swanson’s performance is over the top, aptly so because that was how moving picture actors performed before sound destroyed their lives, all this widening of the eyes and gesticulations of an orchestra conductor.

The staginess is fitting for the character of Norman Desmond. The has-been is unable to distinguish fact from fiction. For 20 years, she has been holed up in a crumbling mansion, in the company of a manservant, Max (Erich Von Stroheim), who makes it his life’s duty to pen bogus fan letters in order to satiate her delusions of grandeur. The guy isn’t all with it himself. Her fantasy world keeps him breathing, for he, too, was great once… or could have been. Max was a promising director when he had discovered Desmond and had molded her into a star. He is also her husband. Talk about not only a reversal of fortune, but also a reversal of roles. (I believe the word for a man in this position is uxorious.) What a spider’s web screenwriter, Joe Gillis, gets entangled in on the afternoon he swerves his car onto a driveway in an effort to circumvent cops who are after him for a parking ticket. If he had just paid the paltry fine, he would have had a long life. But then we wouldn’t have a movie. If it’s any consolation, the reward of a dramatic story can justify a bad decision.

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For Swanson, playing the role that Mae West and silent greats, Pola Negri and Mary Pickford, had turned down proved to be a good decision. In addition to receiving an Oscar nomination, Swanson is most remembered for the role of Desmond. Any discussion of her earlier films serves as a precursor to “Sunset Boulevard.” Not that the film is autobiographical. Far from it. Through the 1950s and beyond, Swanson flourished as hostess to her own TV show, fashion designer, and fitness guru. Other film offers came, which she rejected because they were variations of the Billy Wilder classic, and crazed old movie star was not the character she wanted to be pigeonholed as.

In her seventies, Swanson did make a star appearance in “Airport 1975” (1974). The disaster flick called for something simple, for the actress to play herself – Gloria Swanson, dressed in fur and black head cloak, narrating to a reporter the story of her life as the queen of a bygone Hollywood, complete with references to Cecile B. DeMille and Carole Lombard. Though somewhat of a parody, we can see in her eyes glee for the chance to tell the world in another blockbuster movie just what it is to be La Swanson. The woman lived a life of excess that included marriage to European (albeit penniless) nobility, the title of marquise, and a weekly salary of $20,000 (a quarter of a million dollars in 2015 currency rate). The lesson: extravagance is permissible so long as one remains level headed.

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Unfortunately, Swanson’s contemporaries did not fare as well as she. One, in particular, had a hard fall, and it is said that she served as the prototype for Norma Desmond – Mae Murray. Known as “the girl with the bee-stung lips,” Murray fabricated everything about her life, going so far as to change her birth year from 1885 to 1898 so that when she did “The Merry Widow” in 1925, her most famous motion picture directed by none other than Erich Von Stroheim and that called for a 20-something actress, she was 40. Like Swanson, she was one of the biggest paid stars with the trappings of a palatial home and a penniless, titled European husband to prove it. Unlike Swanson, she had a mind for neither business nor the hard facts of life: “I am not a realist by nature, and for me to try and become one would only make me acutely unhappy. . .  I have lived as much as possible in a world of fancy.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/mae-murray-the-girl-with-the-bee-stung-lips-by-michael-g-ankerich/2013/01/25/c3f4b7e4-326c-11e2-bb9b-288a310849ee_story.html?utm_term=.81f97e0b8433)

Murray was imperious on set. Disagreeable behavior coupled with a sham of a royal husband who siphoned her fortune left her unemployed, indigent, and insane. In her seventies, she was found disoriented on the streets of St. Louis, believing she had completed a bus trip to New York. “Step aside, peasants,” Murray would tell those around her. “Princess Mdvani is passing through.” It mattered not that homes were now Central Park benches and a Salvation Army shelter and that her daily attire were rags held up by clothes pins.

At least, Desmond retains her wealth and finds a spark of hope in that lonely existence of hers where the sun set long ago. Gillis could walk out on her any moment, but he never does. The truth is the guy cares for her. They are two drifters joined in a macabre partnership of glories past and a future built on dreams. He sees in her the wreckage of fame, the effects of an aftershock when the world turns its back on those who have worked so darn hard to be adored by all. She sees in him happiness.

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Rita Hayworth’s epitaph could well be that of Norma Desmond: “All I wanted was just what everybody else wants, you know, to be loved.” (https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/rita_hayworth_127213)

“Woman in Gold”: A Heartache of Redemption

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An article I read when “The Pianist” (2002) was in theaters explained the increasing volume of Holocaust films in the second millennium. It stated that as survivors of the horrific event age and pass on, it is all the more important to preserve their history in cinema. I have seen quite a few Holocaust films, and it is fascinating that even though they all revolve around one subject, each is different from the other. The most recent is “Woman in Gold” (2015). Perhaps the reason it continues to move me is that I saw it only a couple of weeks ago, so it is fresh in my memory. But I have a feeling it will stay with me for a long time. Helen Mirren is in it, and no film can go wrong with her.

“Woman in Gold” is the true story of Maria Altmann’s redemption for a choice of life over death that has haunted her for 60 years. Altmann (Helen Mirren) is a Los Angeles boutique owner who, with her husband Fritz (Max Irons), fled Nazi-occupied Austria in 1938, leaving behind her family and personal effects, including a Gustav Klimt painting after which the film is titled. It is a portrait of her Aunt Adele (Antje Traue), a woman she looked up to as a second mother. Under Austria’s restitution law of 1990 that examines the Austrian government’s ownership of art works the Nazis pillaged, Altmann seeks the help of lawyer Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) to reclaim the portrait. They go to Austria, where they encounter recalcitrant bureaucrats and legal ramifications, all of which make for scenes of courtroom drama in both Vienna and the City of Angels. But the fight against unjust jurisdiction is not what lies at the core of “Woman in Gold.” It is guilt.

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“I left them here,” Altmann laments of her parents to Schoenberg after the judge rules in her favor. Spectators to the trial are in the courtroom, applauding the verdict. It is unequivocally a victory of reparation for a war crime. However, Altmann chooses not to celebrate. Instead, she looks out a vestibule window at children playing in the garden, remembering perhaps her idyllic childhood in a country to which she had sworn never to return because of a war that sent her parents to perish in a concentration camp. On the day she fled, father (Allan Corduner) and mother (Nina Kunzendorf) bid their last request of their daughter (Tatiana Maslany): live, be happy, and remember them. Robbed of mementos and photographs, journeying on to freedom in possession of nothing more than the clothes on her person, Altmann would abide by their dying wish for the rest of her life. Yet we wonder what nightmares of her parents’ fate must have plagued her as well as what guilt. That it is the natural inclination of a parent to sacrifice one’s own life for a child does not assuage the albatross of remorse on the survivor’s conscience. Neither does reclaiming an object that is a tangible link to the past.

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And yet, the battle was worth it because even though the dead can never be resurrected, Altmann at long last has among her belongings a thing of beauty in which their spirits will live forever. Hers is a triumph that speaks to us all, for her plight had been that of humanity. We see it today. As we obsess over “The Game of Thrones,” actual beheadings occur in Iraq. 20 years ago, America’s fixation with reality TV coincided with the reciprocated genocide of the Hutu and Tutsi tribes in Rwanda. A decade before that, the novelty of M.T.V. overshadowed the catastrophe that was Lebanon. Yes, we are aware of world events, though as other people’s stories rather than our own. Our personal world revolves around recreational preoccupations.

Such was the case when Jewish refugees attempted to escape persecution in Europe on the brink of World War II. The United Kingdom and the United States turned them away, sending them back to their places of origin where they would meet their doom. Meanwhile, those who didn’t know any better danced the swing to the music of Benny Goodman. One country did open its ports to the Jews – the Philippines. From 1937 to 1941, President Manuel Quezon collaborated with a group of Jewish-American businessmen residing in Manila to transport 1,200 Jews from Europe to the Philippines. A compound for the émigrés underwent construction in Mindanao, where they would have thrived and contributed to the community as they had in their original homelands. The plan was to welcome 10,000 Jews, but then Pearl Harbor thwarted Quezon’s vision. 24 hours after the Hawaiian military base was attacked, the Japanese Imperial Army marched into Manila, putting the Philippines at war with Germany’s ally in the Far East.

Although World War II was 25 years before I was born, it is a part of my history by virtue of my parents. My father was 11 and my mother was five when the war in the Pacific erupted. My father once told me that he had thought the bomb blasts he saw from his window illuminating the night sky over Manila were fireworks. Four years later, he would be squatting in a building when the Imperial forces, in the fury of defeat, systematically raped women, then bayoneted every Filipino in the capital. My mother has accounts of the Japanese seizing the grand house she lived in as their headquarters and of a Japanese general’s harboring such a fondness for her that the general would take her on rides astride his horse. Both parents lost their homes in the end. They were burned to the ground. It’s the same story with every war. World leaders express hostilities, but it’s the blood of the citizens that redden the land. Those who survive to tell the tale speak of rebuilding life from nothing, like castaways of a shipwreck.

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Now if we still haven’t empathized with such disgrace, consider the calamities of nature in our own backyard. Autumn in the East Coast isn’t what it used to be 30 years ago. When I moved to Boston for college from the Philippines, it may have been cold with some rainy days, but never did a storm occur of biblical proportions. Then in 2012, Hurricane Sandy flooded Manhattan, damaging even the most upscale of properties and smashing automobiles against edifice walls with the ease it would have a piece of lumber. When Sandy passed, the brutality of winter left cars stranded on highways and generated reports of people freezing to death. Let’s not forget Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans seven years earlier that resulted in a fatality count of close to 2,000 and scores of homeless. News footage of shoes, picture frames, and table lamps strewn across a landscape of flattened houses conjured the horror of a war zone. No doubt sacrifices had been made in which individuals had to choose between saving themselves and saving their loved ones.

This brings me back full circle to “Woman in Gold”: live, be happy, and remember. We can have our home and family torn away from us at any moment. We can be forced to make a choice between life and death that we could regret for the rest of our lives. As a San Franciscan, I live with the threat of loss every day. An earthquake could strike this instant. If the earth were to devour everything I own, then all I would truly have left are remembrances. However, remembrances would not be enough. As mortals, we are subject in time to the frailties of the human condition so that inevitably our memory will fail us. Hence, while we are able, we strive to retain all that is sacred in our hearts through the poetry of words and the light of cinema. Once in a while, we gain immortality through brush strokes so divine that they create a national treasure priced at $100 million. Although none of this may ease the pain of a parting, they’re the best we can do to honor lives sacrificed.

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“2001: A Space Odyssey”: A Galaxy of Human Ingenuity

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It has neither plot nor characterization, neither a sweeping romance nor a family saga. It induces sleep mid-way through its three-hour run, and it has scenes that throw me into a quandary. Even so, Stanley Kubrick’s love letter to humankind, “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), is one of the most spellbinding films I have ever seen. When the curtains draw, the audience is faced with silence and a black screen. Then a miracle. The sun rises to shed light on this new world of ours to the bombast of Richard Strauss’s “Spach Zarathustra.” It is a birth akin to the emergence of a baby from the darkness of the womb into the brilliance of life. Earth is an expanse of dust and mountains rather than an Eden of vegetation, and instead of Adam and Eve, we have apes. They hunt. They commune. They make tools out of bones. One ape throws a bone into the air that it has used as a weapon for murder. As the bone descends, this is where I realize I am in the presence of a soulful storyteller. A spacecraft in orbit replaces the bone, and suddenly we are four million years into the future. No other moment in film history has encapsulated the ingenuity of human evolution than this singular image. It knocks the wind out of me.

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Film historians dissect “2001: A Space Odyssey” with the sedulousness that theologians do the bible. I haven’t read any of their analysis. I have no idea what the monolith represents nor do I care to. Its appearance in Prehistoric Times is weird, driving those simians crazy with its emission of a strident trill, and every time it pops up in other scenes, I am lost in space. Kubrick’s prophetic vision of machines outsmarting us humans is what astounds me. The director presents a more convincing picture of our destiny than does Nostradamus. Case in point. I do a lot of data entry at work. Once, I input something that generated an error, which caused a temp (not even my supervisor) to chide, “You did something wrong. A computer never makes mistakes.” And just last week, Turbotax prompted me to manually fill out paperwork and mail my returns because I fumbled up on the website. How could Kubrick have presaged any of this? We may not be confronted with a nemesis on the level of Hal, the devil in the form of wires and buttons that sabotages a mission to Jupiter and that ejects into space astronauts intent on short-circuiting its dastardly deeds. Still, the headache a computer can generate makes me want to smash it.

In the end, man wins. This is why “2001: A Space Odyssey” is beloved. Hal’s wires are disconnected. The hero in the fight between Frankenstein and the monster he has created is astronaut Dr. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea). Bowman lives on, ages, and becomes bedridden. At the point of death, the touch of a monolith that appears at the foot of his bed transforms him into a fetus enclosed in an orb of light adrift in space. Imagine the intellectualism critics have applied to this symbolism.

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For me, my reading of it is visceral. Here it is. The mysteries of the galaxy are fathomable compared to the enigma of human inventiveness. What we have achieved with bones and rocks is as bedazzling as the sun, as enormous as the great unknown. Every death leads to a birth. The perpetuation of our species takes us leaps and bounds above the breakthroughs of the previous generation.

We humans are the center of the universe.

I do not deny that this is an intimidating concept, especially given that everyone in the film is a scientist. As such, we are under the impression that only Einsteins are capable of contributing to the world. That’s all it is – an impression. If this were a fact, then what am I doing here? I scored 450 in my SAT mathematics. A grade of B- in Biology 101 my freshman year in college was reason for me to celebrate. With a record such as that, I might as well be a number the world does without as a means of controlling the population surplus. Fortunately, I’ve got other talents as do the rest of us who are right-brained, and even for those who love deciphering puzzles, an invention doesn’t have to be complex, at least not according to the standards of a techie nerd. Take the printing press. When I mentioned to a friend upon the arrival of the second millennium that Johannes Gutenberg’s machine was one of the greatest inventions of all time, he dismissed it as an object constructed of wood and ink, insignificant compared to what Steve Jobs has given us; anybody could have made the printing press. Not true. That clunky thing put an end to the Dark Ages and ushered in the Age of Enlightenment, disseminated education to the masses, and gave rise to the Reformation. The change in Europe was so cataclysmic that it resounded in the far corners of the globe. The Age of Exploration would never have occurred otherwise, so where would you and I be today? We can thank Gutenberg for the voyages across the seven seas our forebears took to bring us to where we are.

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Whatever role we play in society, whether big or small, is vital to the flourishing of a civilization, which is why the apes in “2001: A Space Odyssey” go haywire when one of their kind bludgeons to death a fellow primate and why we are as courteous to the janitor at work as much as we are to our boss. We need to be kind to ourselves, as well. I am learning this every day. The routine of a desk job I have established for myself has made life stagnant, and I tend to dwell on what I’d rather be doing. Then I remind myself that I am already engaged in my heart’s desire, albeit one tiny step at a time. I write daily. This blog gets me out of bed. I had the guts to introduce myself to a guy a couple of weeks ago whom I had been admiring from afar. Whether or not he likes me back is irrelevant; I finally made a move. One small dose of a reward will lead to a gold mine. Someday.

So don’t hold back in pursuing your passion, whether it’s opening a coffee shop or penning the next great American novel. Trepidation will not stop time. As Stanley Kubrick shows us, our duration on earth is a flash in the infinite cycle of creation. That’s exactly as it should be because that it is how magic works: life lasts a mere moment, but its legacy is everlasting.

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Brooke Shields: The Prettiest Baby of All

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Brooke Shields is of my generation. As the most famous teen of the 1980s, she was many a boy’s crush. Although “Pretty Baby” (1978) never screened in the Philippines, the premise of a 12-year-old girl’s virginity sold by auction taboo to our Catholic conservatism, we did get “The Blue Lagoon” (1980). Male actors may have predominantly fueled my fantasies, but it wasn’t Christopher Atkins that riveted me. It was she. The publicity blitz focused on the 5’10”, 15-year-old, woman-child who, consciously or not, enthralled the world with her polarizing aura of virginity and sexuality. Philippine magazines ran articles reporting that a body double had been used for the nude scenes and that a ditch had been constructed for Shields to walk in when filming occurred with her co-star because she was taller than he. All this coincided with my growing fascination for fashion models, those static and silent images of female perfection. Had I been a girl, I might have both resented Shields and been threatened by the media’s idealization of women. They embody an impossible standard of beauty. But being a boy, I never saw them as role models, and since my sexual predilection leaned towards the same sex, neither did I lust over them. They captivated me on an aesthetic level the way a Klimt portrait does. And with Shields, that she was close to my age filled me with wonderment at the rank of celebrity she was able to reach simply for being a stunner. They say that looks aren’t everything. Bull shit. So beautiful was Shields that she gained the favor of Imelda Marcos. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-2000s-present/imelda-our-guilty-pleasure/)

In 1983, the second Manila International Film Festival was held. Then First Lady Imelda Marcos had commissioned the project a year prior in her ambition to make the city a film capital on the par of Cannes. Jeremy Irons, Sir Richard Attenborough, and Peter O’Toole were among the luminaries invited. From four continents, countries that included Japan, Australia, the United States, and Italy competed, submitting for consideration of the top prize films now considered classics such as “Frances” (1982) and “La Traviata” (1983). Of all the attendees who could boast a cachet that consisted of knighthoods and France’s Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters, Shields was the showstopper. Not so strange in a country obsessed with beauty and beauty contests. A local couturier rushed to present her with a terno – our national costume of cinched waist and sleeves cut in the form of a cathedral dome – and reporters queried her mother for an opinion on young Brooke appearing in bold (our word for sexy) movies. Reporters especially thought it cute that Shields, with all her prominence in the echelon of glamour and high fashion, was in disbelief that the diamonds sewn into Mrs. Marcos’s black gown were real. 25 years later, Shields would have fond reminiscences of that event, telling a reporter to the American edition of a Filipino newspaper, The Inquirer, on an interview to promote “Lipstick Jungle,” a TV sit-com in which she was the main star: “I’ve had as much fun cutting the ribbon at that festival as I was excited to come here today to celebrate a new chapter in my life.”

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Those were heady times, to be sure, not only for Brooke Shields, but also for us Filipinos. Although nobody could have known it then, the second Manila International Film Festival would be Imelda Marcos’s last hurrah. Since its inception, the festival had already been shrouded in a cloak of controversy. The Manila Film Center, which resembles ancient Egypt’s Temple of Derr, cost $25 million ($60 million in 2015 currency rate) to erect, a fortune in a country where floods rise waist-high during monsoon season due to poor infrastructure. The lobby was built in 72 hours – a job which would normally have taken six weeks of toil – and in the rush for completion, a scaffold collapsed, sending 169 laborers to the construction pit. Rumors buzzed that the first lady ordered cement poured on the trapped men, whether dead or alive. On opening night, attendees reported incidences of haunting – voices in empty spaces; furniture moving on their own; a projection screen buckling. Little would Shields realize a year later that she could have been treading a mass grave. Entering glass portals with Mrs. Marcos by her side, green eyes dreamy amid a combustion of camera flashes, she was the vision of a fairy tale princess in a waltz with darkness – Sleeping Beauty under Maleficent’s spell.

Eight months later – on August 21, 1983 – the opposition leader to the Marcos administration, Benigno Aquino, Jr., was assassinated, triggering a revolt against the government that would culminate in the first family’s exile to Hawaii. There would never be another Manila International Film Festival, and the center would be left abandoned until the second millennium, a decaying monument to the sins of grandiosity.

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As for Brooke Shields, she never set foot in the Philippines again. She would move past adolescence, get a degree from Princeton University, marry twice, and start a family. She would break ties with her mother on account of the latter’s problems with alcohol, and she would have a public row with Tom Cruise (http://www.rafsy.com/actors-models-directors/tom-cruise-the-art-of-survival/) over treatment for postpartum depression. Like any other human, she has experienced life’s highs and lows. Shields is soon to turn 50. Of her crow’s feet, she says, “I’ve earned these.”

However, no matter how greatly Brooke Shields has matured, I still see in her the nubile nymph whose beauty so mesmerized the Filipinos during a volatile episode in Philippine history that she has become ingrained in our collective memory. And every time I hear Lionel Richie and Diana Ross croon the title song to another famous Shields coming-of-age romance, “Endless Love” (1981), I am that 14-year-old boy once more, calling the neighborhood betamax store to deliver the latest starring my favorite supermodel.

“The Law of Desire”: Lunacy and Obsession

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We Filipinos thrive on melodrama. Nearly 400 years of Spanish colonization have given us telenovelas, songs with voices that warble in anguish, and crimes of passion. Brawls erupt upon one man’s glance at another man’s woman. Cuckolded husbands kill wives. Fathers kill daughters and their seducers when caught in a carnal act. We justify manslaughter in the name of love, and we bewail this most maddening of human emotions to God, Jesus, and Mary. Only in 2010 was a bill passed repealing a law that enforced light penalties to such murders. Regardless, this doesn’t change the way we are. We relish in the crucifixion of the heart; love isn’t real unless it stabs.

No yearning is more excruciating than the unrequited. Spanish director, Pedro Almodovar, knows this all too well. He could not have made “The Law of Desire” (1987) otherwise, and he certainly was keenly aware that every one of us on this planet has experienced a form of unreciprocated affection, whether it is with the girl next door or Elvis Presley. “The Law of Desire” is about a triangle that involves a celebrated movie director, Pablo (Eusebio Poncela); a partner of convenience, Juan (Miguel Molina); and a fan, Antonio (Antonio Banderas). They cruise, fuck, pour out their ardor in letters, and speak such lines as “it’s not your fault if you don’t love me, and it’s not my fault if I love you… if I forgot you like you said, I’d end up empty inside…” The ultimate Jacques Brel hymn to love, “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” punctuates each moment of a caress:

Don’t leave me. I offer you pearls of rain from countries where it never rains. I will cross the world until after my death to cover your body with gold and bright light.

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As though this weren’t enough passion, Antonio in the arms of Pablo sings in the climactic scene a ballad that speaks for all the open wounds in the audience:

I doubt that you will ever love me like I love you. I doubt you will find as pure a love as the one you’ll find in me. You will have a thousand adventures without love, but at the end of it all, there’s only pain.

These men are sexy, fervent, and poetic. Love is in the air, in their walk, in every word, and in every look. So why is all their devotion unrequited?

Simple. If these inamoratos were happy, no Almodovar film would exist. Leave it to the Americans to make a stale love story. What we have instead are the primary ingredients to a distinctly Spanish (and Filipino) romance – lunacy and obsession. Antonio is no ordinary film aficionado. He is a stalker, one who orchestrates each meeting with Pablo at a film premiere, an amusement park, and a nightclub, and one so damn good looking that the victim can’t resist inviting the guy to his place for a roll in the sack. A single night leads to others, until Antonio becomes so insanely enamored that he goes to execrable extremes to infiltrate the director’s life.

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In a tale of operatic grandeur, a dramatic ending is de rigueur. True to his reputation, Almodovar gives us a tragic finale to end all tragic finales. Law officers gather on the street. Silence oppresses the night. Police lights flash blue. Everyone looks up at the balcony to Pablo’s apartment, waiting. At last, it comes – a gun shot. At the foot of a makeshift altar to the Virgin Mary, we have the corpse of a self-sacrifice.

What a fitting way to end heartbreak. No woman in the history of the world has suffered nearly as much as the sacred Virgin. Our prayers to her for strength and guidance have endowed us with the perverse hunger for this most violent of tribulations. Otherwise, we wouldn’t need her. So we wallow in misery. And although suicide is a sin, done for love, it is the stuff of art. It is beauty.

But what an ugly feeling unrequited love is. I had a couple of instances of it in college. Because the guys I longed for were straight, their unresponsiveness was acceptable. Then I moved to San Francisco, where at a nightclub, I met a smooth talker of a man who possessed a physique made for military action – sinewy and muscular with a crew cut to complete the image. We spent the night together, woke the next morning in each other’s arms, and exchanged numbers. He said he’d call in a couple of days. He never did. I pined after him like a dog whining for its master, imagining chance encounters at Costco, in Union Square, in Palo Alto. Aside from the visual impact, the man had degrees from U. Penn and Stanford, and throughout the night, he would look into my eyes, blink, and whisper, “I want to make love to you.” How could I not fall for him? When he finally did call, I was home to pick up (no cell phones then; this was 1993). After I greeted hello, he stalled and said, “I meant to call somebody else. I pressed the wrong number. Sorry.”

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Yup, the guy was Latino. The one time I had the courage to call him, I asked, “Have you ever watched ‘The Law of Desire’?” His answer: “Oh, that’s one of my favorite films.” I have no recollection of whatever else we might have talked about. The conversation was strained. Those who have experienced reciprocated love say both parties have words flowing out of them at the first meeting. I knew it wasn’t meant to be. But since I didn’t know him, I saw him as flawless, and onto him I projected desires of intimacy and fidelity.

God, why this pain? How long will it last?

A friend consoled me that, in time, the pang would wear off and I would forget. Yes and no. I’m over the guy. I haven’t seen him in 20 years. I hardly think about him. If I were to see him again, I don’t know if I’d want him. And yet, I remember everything that transpired that night upon our first handshake and the months of emotional debilitation that ensued. That, I will never forget nor do I want to.

Neither can I forget “The Law of Desire.” The film is an ode to passion. When the mind summons an event from the past, the emotions surrounding that instance wash anew over us. They may not linger as before, but they remain smoldering in the core of our being until the day we die. It’s called being alive. That is why our hearts need to ache every now and then, for only in heartache can we take flight in the rapture of true love when it finally happens.

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