“The Sixth Sense”: What We Leave Behind

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Every neighborhood has a haunted house. When I was a kid, the spooky spot in my neighborhood of Dasmariñas Village – an enclave in Manila of gated abodes and wide streets – was a miniature villa with plaster pillars, arches, and grime-layered windows. The only abandoned address in the compound, with signs of fire having gutted its interior, it was a sight to provoke the imagination. No other dwelling existed within 500 paces of its radius. I don’t know why the rumor that the house was haunted. I never heard any accounts of spirits having been spotted. Neither was I told tales of sinister dealings or violent deaths that had led to its condition. Its bleakness, like Dracula’s castle, was enough for the driver to whisper as our car happened to pass by in the evenings that ghosts inhabited its rooms. I was six years old, and the concept of a ghost was new to me. Whatever I imagined, the dread with which the driver spoke of them implied that to stumble upon one would be a terror a like no other.

This was the birth of my fascination with elements of the dark. In the 1970s, a TV program on paranormal activities called the “The Sixth Sense” was obligatory viewing along with “Kolchak: The Night Stalker,” a detective series that involves scenarios a hybrid between the supernatural and sci-fi, and “In Search of,” a weekly documentary on such phenomena as the Loch Ness monster, aliens, and the Bermuda Triangle. “The Amityville Horror” (1979) gave me roller coaster thrills, even though I neither read the book the movie is based upon nor saw the movie itself, and to this day, when I gaze in the mirror in my foyer as I turn off the lights, a shiver runs through me at the mere thought of the urban legend that should I chant “bloody Mary, bloody Mary, bloody Mary,” a hag with bloodshot eyes would stare back at me.

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Although I have never seen a specter, I have friends who have. Chris claims that on the night his grandmother passed away in the Philippines, she rang his doorbell in San Francisco and was standing on his doorstep. Pablo encountered an old man sitting at his kitchen table, whom he described as a transparent figure made of prisms of light. Mark woke one morning to find a priest kneeling in prayer at the foot of his bed, only for the priest to disappear after Mark shut and opened his eyes once more. “Were you scared?” I asked. “No,” he said. “I felt… at peace.” Then there’s Doug, who sees dead people, exactly as Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) in the film “The Sixth Sense” (1999) does. Doug confirmed Pablo’s impression of a phantom as diaphanous, Mark’s experience that a visitation need to not be frightful, and Cole’s avowal that in a haunting, the temperature grows cold.

If ghosts are supposed to be friendly, then why our fear of them and what do they want from us? In “The Sixth Sense,” they are not particularly spine-chilling. It’s the kid, Cole, who’s the creepy one. He’s cute, but unnerving with his dour expression as if he were an old man who has seen too much of a bad thing. They are everywhere around Cole, the deceased, inescapable and terrifying, a presence that devitalizes like a cancer. Among the things he sees are bodies in Colonial period garb hanging from their necks in the school hallway and a cyclist, just killed in an accident, peering at him through his car window. His ability to discern and communicate with habitats of the netherworld renders him socially gauche. His mother, Lynn (Toni Collette), doesn’t know what the deal is with her ten-year-old and here enters child psychologist, Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis). Like any parent, she wants her boy to be normal.

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Normal. So Cole wants to be like the rest of us. It certainly is a bizarre ability to see folks who are no longer with us, but there’s something about Cole that we can sympathize with. We all have our quirks and talents. Some of us have a talent so disproportionate in amount from others that as children, we’re called prodigies. While it is remarkable to be in the presence of a Picasso, who by the age of 15 was creating paintings that exhibited sophisticated depth of perspective, being special can be anathema. Parents and the public harbor ambitions for a prodigy at the expense of weekend sleepovers and afterschool excursions to the mall. With neither a childhood nor the option to choose one’s own future, and with expectations exorbitant, the wunderkind could be at risk of being a lost soul, the luster tarnished. Andrew Halliburton is a mathematics genius who, today at 22, wipes tables at McDonald’s. Megan Ward at ten designed and manufactured a key chain that contains a device to assist people to quit smoking, but at the age of 15 struggles with reading and writing. At six, Michael Kearney graduated from high school; at eight, finished junior college with an Associate of Science in Geology; and at ten, earned a B.S. in Anthropology. At 31, he hasn’t decided yet what to do with his life and has proclaimed that he simply wants to be “normal.”

A large factor to success is failure. With failure, we learn from our errors and therefore exert ourselves to excel at the next round. Often, prodigies are ignorant of the rewards of perseverance because they are praised for their skills rather than for their efforts, and their skills are as second nature to them as eating ice cream. Absent is the motivation to push oneself to the next level. When the motivation is there, however, that is when the world is enriched with the likes of Picasso, Mozart, and that gymnastics rarity, Nadia Comaneci. Although Cole Sear in “The Sixth Sense” isn’t a genius, he is gifted with a precociousness on account of an uncanny skill that separates him from his peers. The only people who want to befriend him are dead. How to explain this to mom, Dr. Crowe, and classmates? It’s freaky.

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For Cole’s benefit, lonely lad that Cole is, Dr. Crowe believes him. The child psychologist is also shocked to learn that he himself is a ghost, killed by a disgruntled former patient who had broken into his home at the start of the film and had shot him. He is communicating with Cole for a reason. Here we learn why sometimes the departed cannot be silenced and why our reaction to them: they have unfinished business on earth; as such, their restlessness in purgatory gives us goose bumps. In Dr. Crowe’s case, he needs to bid goodbye to his wife, Anna (Olivia Williams), to tell her, as she lies asleep while clasping his wedding ring and a video of their nuptials plays on the VCR, that he loves her. We understand his message will infiltrate her dreams, and upon awakening, she will be able to embrace the future with another. Cole’s mother, Lynn, prays for answers from the after life, as well. “Do I make her proud?” she says to Cole when he inquires what question it is she once asked at her own mother’s grave. “Every day,” he says.

Dr. Crowe and Lynn have at last resolved doubts with those dear and unreachable, though only because the psychologist advises the boy to use his talent to his advantage. Rather than allowing his sixth sense to restrain him, Cole should allow it to liberate him. To reconcile the living with the dead is no small responsibility. That this comforts both parties is more a blessing than a curse. We all have a knack for something, and perhaps this is why ghosts intrigue me. When I die, I do hope my soul travels on to heaven, my tenure on earth complete. Should I wish to speak from beyond the grave, then I shall do so through some of the best parts of myself I leave behind – through the love that colors the air within the walls of places that have provided me the richness of food and family, a coconut pie, and the shear force of written expression.

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“Behind the Candelabra”: What Price Fame and Beauty

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Liberace had it all: cash, fame, furs, jewels, mansions, limos, and men. No fluke, our master showman. He possessed an acumen for business to market his talent, and his talent was prodigious. And yet, he was a tragic figure. In “Behind the Candelabra” (2013), the pianist who runs his fingers on the keyboard with the dexterity of a sprinter can’t shed his flamboyant stage persona once the curtain drops, leading to a life that melds the ghoulish with the carnal. The TV movie presents a portrait of Liberace (Michael Douglas) as a sexual predator  à la Roman Polanski, one who liquors up and sweet talks his current libidinal interest while both are naked in a hot tub. The boy toy de jour is Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), who at 16 is 48 years Liberace’s junior. They meet the standard way a celebrity meets a fan he’s got the hots for; Thorson is invited backstage after a performance. Within weeks, the boy is Liberace’s live-in lover. In addition to bed partner, his duties include those of chauffeur, private assistant, bodyguard, and show fixture. He ultimately adapts Liberace’s flair for sequined Elvis-inspired suits, capes, and diamonds as enormous as golf balls, is assigned trustee to Liberace’s estate, and undergoes plastic surgery to resemble Liberace. Everything Thorson becomes is about Liberace and for Liberace, for Liberace would not have it any other way. Such is the degree of the star’s narcissism and possessiveness.

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The relationship between the couple isn’t entirely superficial, though. As one scene of body humping reveals, the two do have an emotional kinship. Liberace’s admittance of love for Thorson could be nothing more than good acting, but Michael Douglas delivers it with such honesty that we give Liberace the benefit of the doubt: “Why do I love you? I love you not only for what you are, but for what I am when I’m with you. I love you not only for what you have made of yourself, but for what you are making of me. I love you for ignoring the possibilities of the fool in me and for accepting the possibilities of the good in me. Why do I love you? I love you for closing your eyes to the discords in me and for adding to the music in me by worshipful listening.”

Wow! Elizabeth Bishop could have written those words. Anybody whom such poetry is recited to while sweaty under the sheets would turn into mush inside, and so Thorson does, which makes it all the more dismaying how love this sweet can go sour. As passion wanes, Thorson gets hooked on cocaine and is disgruntled that he is forced to live under the terms of an indentured servant; Liberace gets bored and preys on another celebrity admirer (Boyd Holbrook). Thus, a partner is disposable because of the plenitude of replacements fame and wealth offer like fruits in a cornucopia, of various flavors, proportions, and shades that sprout in different soils and seasons.

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The manipulation works both ways. Even though Scott Thorson may be the subjugated in the relationship, he has as his own currency a handsome face and a smoking bod. The Adonis effect has its merits, indeed. We have all experienced the power of beauty, how it grabs our attention when on the bus, at the Walgreen’s pharmacy, in the airport. A fleeting image beauty may be, but while within our field of vision, it foments in us a tempest of emotions that range from desire to envy, admiration to resentment, stirs in us a wanting to own and to emulate. Going to a club can be overbearing, what with its atmosphere of inflated animalism, and San Francisco leather fairs that celebrate kink of all persuasions, save for those that transgress the law, can put us in a stupor. Amazonian women in dominatrix gear and incarnations of Tom of Finland hyper males trigger cameras to click and tongues to salivate. Their pictures populate Facebook, generate a million views and comments of wanton ravenousness such as “hottie,” “babe,” and “hunk.” We regular folks might as well hide in a burrow. The message: the more fuckable we are, the greater the chance at love.

This, of course, is a misconception. Liberace’s and Thorson’s fucking doesn’t dissipate the growing animosity between them, and while being a hottie fuels fantasies, we would need to prove the rectitude of our character for the appeal to develop past that. I personally have witnessed the downside of extreme beauty. During my clubbing days, Stan was a guy who captivated me from afar. A model for Colt Studios, a company that perpetuates representations of man as a barbell-sculpted Greek god in the nude, he had a footballer’s stature, a luscious beard, and a presence as mind-blowing as the Grand Canyon. He was so drop dead gorgeous that an image of him in underwear was used on magnets on which magnetized articles of male-archetype costumes were placed. I got to meet Stan at the Berkeley Steamworks, a bathhouse in the East Bay, where he confessed to me that at a sex party in Palm Springs a month earlier, he was on a mission to have a guy who had rejected him. He wasn’t even attracted to the guy. He simply needed to feel desirable. “All my life I’ve gotten attention,” Stan said. “I don’t know how I’ll be able to handle it once I don’t.”

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I wouldn’t say Stan and I became friends, although in our subsequent meetings, he did open up about his life. He had had an older brother, a football player with the University of Texas, who died of AIDS, and when the two were just boys, their mother, an alcoholic, would beat the brother as he shielded Stan from the blows. Stan was later diagnosed with cancer. The last time I saw him was about eight years ago, and he was in remission. It was at the gym. The muscles were gone, and along with that, the attention. From every man’s fantasy to a shadow, Stan on the chest fly machine seemed preoccupied with something other than the workout. When he was in his prime, I would see him in the company of a buffed Latino. The arm candy seemed to be out of the equation. A sense of loss cast Stan’s eyes in darkness, and a loneliness pervaded the air around him. Stud on a magnet, big deal. All I thought as Stan sat at the machine was of how much of a nice guy he actually was.

We all know what became of Liberace. “Behind the Candelabra” makes it clear that even though he has others after Scott Thorson, none come close to his heart as Thorson did so that when he lies dying of AIDS, toupee gone and face emaciated, his body a shriveled mass, he summons Thorson and says as his last words to the discarded lover that he was the best, the one who had made him the happiest. Thorson comforts him that he had been happy, too. That, more so than a gold coffin, capacitates us to face the end in tranquility.

This is how it is behind the candelabra. While the flames flicker, we wave our riches – whether it be a shapely backside, a thick wallet, or a name on the A list – as a magic wand to entrance the one who sends our loin aflutter in the hopes that the physical could result in a union more binding than skin deep. It’s an illusion in candlelight. As Liberace says, “No matter how many people are around, I’m all by myself.” Only when the last flame flickers and dies do we know who have been true to us from the very start.

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“Rebel Without a Cause”: Rage Against the Dying of the Light

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How could Judy (Natalie Wood) and Plato (Sal Mineo) resist falling under his spell? The coolness with which he sports that red jacket, the face all-American in its youthfulness yet haunting in its power to express a thousand sorrows, the lone warrior heroism… James Dean as Jim Stark is filmdom’s patron saint of male angst, evidence that emotiveness in a man more so than stoicism can be a medal of courage. Already in the first frame of “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955), Jim is stripped of armor. Drunk, blond hair on its end like flames of fire, he is on the ground, a defeated soldier, amusing himself with a mechanical monkey and its clashing cymbals as the police take custody of him for vagrancy. What follows is a tale of three teens at odds with their parents and who in school are misfits. Judy hangs with a rough crowd. Plato hangs with himself. Jim is the new kid. Plato first sees Jim reflected on his locker mirror, above a photograph of Allan Ladd. He turns to the hallway to catch exactly what it is he just got a glimpse of, this beautiful and brooding creature, a kinetic energy in contrast to the static image of a movie star. It’s love at first sight.

When “Rebel Without a Cause” was released in October of 1955, James Dean was dead from a car crash a month earlier along the Salinas highway. He had made a name for himself with “East of Eden” in April of that year, another movie where he plays an isolated teen, but it is the hysteria behind the second motion picture on which his legacy rests. Aside from capitalizing on his untimely passing, “Rebel Without a Cause” is a tragedy, and set in contemporary America, it was at the time every American adolescent’s story, whether jock or bookworm, prom queen or ugly duckling. (It still is; hence, its listing at 59 of the 100 greatest films of all time as compiled by the American Film Institute.) Marlon Brando had auditioned for the role of Jim Stark. It is hard to say what interpretation Brando would have applied to the character had he been cast. The man was a great actor. However, we do know this: young folks in theaters were very much aware that the star they were anointing the icon of their generation, with his mangled heart on screen for all to see, was by then a ghost.

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1985 was the year I watched “Rebel Without a Cause,” in a country across the Pacific. The conjoining of three torn outcasts, each one an emotional time bomb ticking to explode, perturbed me for days. If that was the impact the movie had on me, I can only imagine what it might have been for an audience 30 years earlier, in the maelstrom of a Hollywood legend in the making. Though the feelings Judy develops for Jim is akin to a head-on crash, the kind where a 17-year-old girl sees that special boy as her sole future, the bond that forms between Jim and Plato transcends friendship. Jim is more than a big brother, a father, or even a lover to Plato. He is Plato’s savior. Jim Stark is the first person who has ever noticed Plato, and that’s something.

He is also the film’s moral anchor. A schoolmate named Buzz (Corey Allen), who has been bullying Jim, dies in a chicken game, a dangerous sport in which the first of two drivers to abandon his car as both race to the edge of a cliff is deemed a coward. Jim is the survivor. Buzz perishes because his coat sleeve snags on the window roller, trapping him inside. “They called me chicken… you know, chicken. I had to go or I would never have been able to face any of those kids again,” Jim says to his father (Jim Backus) in explaining his role in the disaster. “So I got in one of these cars and a boy called Buzz got in the other…I want to go to the police and tell them I was mixed up in this thing tonight.“ His mother (Ann Doran) tries to dissuade him. “In ten years you’ll never know this even happened,” she says, a callous statement, especially in light of what comes next – another young death, this time by police bullet, with the Los Angeles Planetarium dominating the background, its dome as formidable as that of a cathedral.

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The film could have been entitled “Death Without a Cause.” Rebellion against parents, the law, and all figures of authority is a futile exercise that can lead to irreparable consequences. No matter how loud the scream, it falls on deaf ears. That’s how insensitive grown-ups are. Death is necessary in the movie to relay this message. But how do we justify senseless tragedies in real life? How macabre it is that film viewers in 1955 were falling in love with a dead man who was alive before them, ten feet tall and ripe with a promising future. We hear of this every day, a person snuffed of life for no reason. Aviation disasters, shootings, hate bombings… headlines of body counts strike home with us because the next victims could be you and me, our children and our parents.

Disaster need not always be this massive. The grim reaper works in insidious ways. We’ve all experienced the sullenness that befalls a room because of a seat left empty by a classmate we are told is never returning. Coming-of-age includes death, though how strange it is that knowledge of life’s preciousness must come at the expense of one who should be learning with us. “Class, Abello died yesterday.” The bluntness of that line whispers among my early memories an eerie chant that refuses to be silenced. I was in the second grade. My teacher, Mrs. Ocava, spoke with a grief that choked. Tears wet her glasses like raindrops on windows. That was the first thing she said as she hurried to her desk to clap her hands for us eight-year-olds to stop our morning yakking, and all she could say. No preamble exists for news of this type. I was in Catholic school, and the custom was that students were called by their last names. The story was that Abello was celebrating his birthday. In his excitement to attend his party, he tripped on a step while rushing down a flight of stairs, stumbled to the floor, where he banged his head against a concrete object. The entire elementary school gathered in the assembly ground to offer prayers to Abello. A prayer sheet was passed out that bore his image: a boy brown as the earth, teddy bear rotund, with bangs and a quiet smile.

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We will never understand the workings of the cosmos that single out those to be excluded from fulfilling the lifespan nature has accorded us humans. In addition to James Dean’s death at 24, neither Sal Mineo nor Natalie Wood made it to 50. He was murdered at 37. She was killed in a drowning accident at 42. Do not go gently into that good night, Dylan Thomas wrote. Rage, rage against the dying of the light. We… men in particular… are taught that when in trying moments, we must bite the bullet, have a stiff upper lip, adhere to maxims of stoicism. Austerity is exemplary of toughness. Sometimes, though, strength is in the outpouring of blood and tears. James Dean would never have become a legend had he not raged his way into our hearts. Even the most solemn of us must rage every now and then, shout at the top of our lunges for our convictions to be heard, our troubles as well as our joys. Given fate’s unpredictability, today could be our only chance.

 

 

“Big”: The Best That We Can Be

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Adolescence is the least favorite phase in life. At that age, our body does things we’re helpless against, and they put a damper on our relationship with the people around us. I was a fat kid. My stomach was so protuberant that I couldn’t see my feet, and rolls of lard bulged out between my shirt buttons. Initially, my heftiness had not been an issue in the Philippines. I didn’t care that my brother called me biik (piglet) and that my cousins teased me with baboy (pig). I loved to eat – pork skin roasted to the crisp, toast coated with butter and melted sugar, and chocolates, lots of chocolates. Being fat didn’t get in the way of fun weekends at the carnival or splashing around in our swimming pool.

When my family moved to Walnut Creek, just outside of San Francisco, it became a different matter. I was 12 years old. A burgeoning consciousness of judgment based on appearance coupled with hormonal urges shaded what I saw in the mirror. Plus, I was effete and inept in sports. Some classmates called me Buddha or fag. Other’s downright ignored me. So I starved myself. To my uninformed mind, dieting entailed skipping breakfast, food so parceled out that little did I realize I was depriving myself of nutrients, and hunger nausea. My weight loss was so drastic that at 13, with the family moving back to Manila, the outline of my ribs was visible. While I held myself accountable for my new body, other issues surfaced over which I had no control, mainly acne and a lack in height. Dermatologists and stretching exercises notwithstanding, the only thing I could do was to wait until I was an adult. These curses would cease to be, I believed, so that glaring lights in crowded rooms would no longer be a phobia, and girls who spoke of cute boys would include me in their roster.

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This is how it is. Every girls needs to be pretty. Every boy needs to be cute. A first kiss wouldn’t be possible otherwise. Even simply holding somebody’s hand would be a challenge. Essentially, affection is what largely matters, whether we’re a teen or an adult, the euphoria of having a person we gush over gush at us in reciprocation. Such is the bind young Josh (David Moscow) in the film “Big” (1988) is stuck in. He’s handsome enough, charming even. The problem is that the girl he’s infatuated with is every other boy’s eye candy. She’s sunshine blonde Cynthia (Kimberlee M. Davis), stunning in pink, five inches taller than he, and on a date at a fair with a high schooler who has a driver’s license as his chick bait. Josh doesn’t even fit the height criteria for a roller coaster ride. Dejected, he makes a wish with a fortuneteller machine, and that wish is to be big. Zoltar may be manufactured, but his sorcerer’s turban and fiery eyes are creepy. The thing could have been made in Satan’s workshop, especially since it functions while unplugged and dispenses a card stating that Josh’s wish has been granted. The next morning, Josh awakens a 30-year-old man in the body of Tom Hanks.

Josh returns to the fair in search of Zoltar so that he could renege on his wish, only to find the grounds deserted. Since mom (Mercedes Ruehl) thinks he’s a fiend who might have abducted her son, he can’t go back home. Next stop, therefore, is New York City. With any ‘80s flick that stars Tom Hanks, we’re in for a raucous ride. The first thing a grown man does is he finds employment. No better dream job is there for those of us who are a child at heart than in a toy company. Josh is such a master in determining what makes play things click with youngsters that in a week, he’s promoted to VIP, complete with his own office, a secretary, and a feast of toys that serves as incentive for brilliant ideas on the next blockbuster gadget. He lives in a luxurious loft and dresses in pricey suits. He’s got a playmate in his best friend, Billy (Jared Rushton), the one person to whom he confides everything so that he need not feel alone and who is privy to his secret, as well as a love interest in Susan (Elizabeth Perkins). She’s easy on the eyes, our Susan, and although she’s got a reputation as an opportunist at the company, she changes her avaricious ways when she becomes smitten with Josh for all his innocence and joie de vivre.

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It’s incredible to be a grown up. Then again, this is Tom Hanks in a romantic comedy. The truth is that the insecurities that plague us when we’re in our teens don’t all disappear. A few years ago, I attended a high school reunion. A man was present whom I didn’t recognize, Mr. Clean bald and built. He approached me as I stood with some people at the buffet dinner, complimented me on my own fit physique, and then I saw his name tag. Though the guy had left upon finishing middle school, a friend he kept in touch with over the years had invited him. Robert used to be as monstrous as a fat orangutan and mean. “I don’t recognize you,” he said. “I recognize almost everybody here, but you.” All I said in return was that I remembered him. He used to hiss “gay boy” and “faggot” at me whenever I walked past him in the corridors. After leaving the Philippines, Robert returned to the States, where he was originally from, took martial arts, developed muscles, and worked as a cop. At the time of the reunion, he was an officer at a correctional facility. “So you beat up guys,” I said. Robert laughed. “I’ve been known to do that.” All the while, the shriveling at the pit of my stomach 30 years earlier as he would hurl those nasty words at me, the incapacitating nervousness, came back to me as if I were a fat, effeminate boy once more.

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Even the gay community, despite its allegiance to equality, can aggravate self-doubt on account of a high school cliquishness. I recently saw a documentary on AIDS survivors who move to Palm Springs in order to escape the lifestyle demands of such urban centers as Los Angeles and Miami. The documentary covers the stories of 13 men, and it is striking that the muscular Caucasian homosexuals have established their own tribe within a tribe. They dine together, work out together, and are in unison over the fruits and frustrations of dating a guy 35 years their junior. Those in the documentary who don’t fit the image are an entity unto oneself.

In “Big,” Josh as a man finds a sense of belonging with Susan. Susan discovers through Josh that love is not about favors or self-advancement or money; love is the trust that comforts one, as it does a child, when in the presence of goodness. However, the absence of adolescence forms a void in Josh that needs to be filled only by returning to where he came from. His mother misses him so… distress and hope have been dueling inside of her… and Josh misses her equally as much.

Susan doesn’t want to let go of Josh, and yet she must. As painful as adolescence is, she knows that he needs to experience it because it’s on these very pains that we build our strengths. I myself survived the harassment, though I am not so egotistical as to believe that I am unique in this. We all go through some form of hell at that age. Whatever the trials, they push us in the years that ensue to be the best that we can be. I wouldn’t be writing this had adolescence never been. That I am here a middle-aged man to share this with you is an achievement. And when I remember my teens, it isn’t the bad skin or the negative self-image that comes to mind, neither the bullying nor the impatience to grow up. It’s the summers abroad spent with relatives I only got to see once a year and the Christmases that brought my sister home from college in New York, homework in my parents’ room to the sun shining through the window and my brother’s untangling a tape of Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb stuck in a cassette player.

I remember the love of family.

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“Cinema Paradiso”: The Sacrifice Behind a Dream

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For young Salvatore “Toto” Di Vita (Salvatore Cascio), the defining moment comes when he peeks into the town theater and beholds the illusion of larger than life folks in faraway lands projected onto a blank screen. His expression is of such reverence – eyes wide open, dropped jaw, and mouth formed into an O – that he might as well be witnessing Christ’s resurrection. In a way, this is a birth for the six-year-old. Crayons and coloring books cease to be a catharsis; they’re child stuff. Before him – in the hush of the audience and in their laughter, in the drama and the comedy that unfold upon the flash of light against images on a reel – is his future. The projectionist, Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), sees in the boy a hunger to learn the tricks of the trade so that he takes on Toto as his assistant. Giancaldo is a backwater place, the kind where dreams of fame and fortune, if anybody dares to have them at all, remain just that. A movie is a major event, and in the amazement a screening elicits, Toto discovers his power over an audience. He learns fast that a keen eye for editing celluloid frames and maneuvering the projector at the right pace are a form of wizardry. Cinema becomes the love of his life. The theater is his paradise. And so we have “Cinema Paradiso” (1988).

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For me, my own love of cinema began somewhere at about Toto’s age. I’m a child of the ‘70s, and like any boy of that decade, disaster flicks were my genre. To this day, the triangle of Remy (Ava Gardner), Graff (Charlton Heston), and Denise (Genevieve Bujold) in “Earthquake” (1974) is as vivid as a mural on my bedroom wall. Remy is in a white dress suit, and Denise is in a pink leisure suit – middle-aged elegance versus youthful sportiness. The climactic end when Graff is on a ladder, on his way to ground level safety from a maze of underground tunnels, is pure celluloid drama. Denise, his mistress, extends her hand to him. All he has to do is to grab it. But Remy is screaming below, swept away in a flood of bursting water pipes. Throughout the film, Graff and Remy present the portrait of a marriage in disintegration. She’s a drunkard. He’s exasperated and wants out. Despite everything, he chooses her over Denise… to the death. Then there’s “Airport 1975” (1974). A Boeing 747 collides with a private plane, creating a gigantic hole in the cockpit through which stewardess, Nancy (Karen Black), unleashes a scream that only Fay Wray could match as a rescuer snaps loose from a safety cord and falls to his demise. “The Poseidon Adventure” (1972) features hell in the form of a cruise turned upside down and engulfed in conflagration, while “The Towering Inferno” (1974) boasts movie stars galore that include Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones, Paul Newman, and Faye Dunaway trapped in a burning skyscraper.

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Although none of these films are meant to conjure dreams, dream I did. I wasted pads of paper with drawings of explosions shattering windows to a building and a woman in a triangular skirt (Jennifer Jones) plunging to her death from an outdoor glass lift. I recounted to cousins and house help alike scenes of Remy in deathly situations. Ava Gardner was perhaps the first old Hollywood actress who caught my fancy as a result. My narrations, with voice a pitch higher from excitement, always went along the lines of: “Ava Gardner hid underneath a car… Ava Gardner waved her arms in the air like this…” I never used her character’s name. So lost was I in the throes of adventure that no distinction existed between fact and fiction. And I pronounced her name Ah-va. Even though she was a good 20 years older than Bujold, with the signs of alcohol already having taken a toll on her beauty, I was drawn to her. It could have been star power or it could have been the camera’s uncanny method of conveying turmoil inherent in an actor. The woman was a drunk in real life. Amid crumbling cardboard buildings, and in her pleas to be loved and rescued, she truly does cut the image of a sorry figure that knew better days.

Perhaps this is what Toto in “Cinema Paradiso” sees from childhood to adolescence every night from the projection booth, this understanding that it is the fragility of life that gives birth to the preservation of dreams. Ava Gardner and Charlton Heston are dead. Genevieve Bujold is today 74. Regardless, they have bestowed on us a repertoire of films in which they are young and beautiful – two hours of a world where we can experience to the fullest glory love and hate, life and death, in every pore of our skin – and in this they will forevermore provide escape from our everyday worries. Alfredo gives an 18-year-old Toto (Marco Leonardi) advice that will mark him as a man – to get out of Giancaldo; to never look back, not even in remembrance of Alfredo; to forget Elena (Agnes Nano), the girl who will always be his one true love. The past can be an obstacle. Big dreamers belong in a big place, and often we need to sacrifice the things and people that we hold most sacred in order to surge forward. The train ride where Toto – leading man handsome, dark hair and brows in the style of Tyrone Power – gazes at a blind Alfredo as the mentor recedes into the distance is a universal goodbye.

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I knew when I left Manila at 18 that I would not be going back. My sister had planted the seed of migration four years earlier, when she had been the first to leave the family for college in New York. Life was comfortable in the Philippines – weekends at the Manila Polo Club, betamax, and air-conditioned rooms – yet my sister’s accounts of a city Woody Allen has been mystifying for the past 40 years beckoned me to move West. Hollywood at that point had become an integral part of my daily existence. From the films of John Hughes to the Indiana Jones trilogy, from Gene Kelly’s tap dancing in the rain to his balletic homage to Paris… it was possible, I discovered through my sister, that these distant domains need not be distant anymore. The first day of freshman year in high school, my main thought as I walked down the corridors was this: In four years, I’ll be in the States. Come senior year, I was so resolute to attend college in Manhattan that I listed among my school choices Yeshiva University, at which my guidance counselor said in consternation, “You’re not Jewish.” I shrugged my shoulders. “So what? It’s New York.”

A line to a song about this famous city goes “if I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” The line applies to the United States as a whole, most notably in conjunction with a literary career. Although storytelling is a global tradition, it’s a mega business in the U.S. This holds true for film, as well. In the case of Toto, the mega business is in Rome. True to Alfredo’s instinct, the boy evolves into an award-winning director who doesn’t look back, who ditches nostalgia so that he could dedicate everything of himself to ambition. An adult Toto (Jacques Perrin) is Giancaldo’s golden boy, the embodiment of pertinacity and success. However, the honor comes with a price.

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Toto returns to Giancaldo after all these years to bury Alfredo. His aging mother (Pupella Maggio) remarks that whenever she calls him in Rome, she never detects any love in the voice of the woman presently at hand to pick up the phone. Alfredo might have known solitude would be Toto’s fate. He once told Toto to forget Elena, after all. As a parting gift, he has bequeathed Toto a reel of film that showcases a montage of lovers kissing, and this Toto views with wistful tears. Herein is Alfredo’s final lesson, that even though a big dream can lead to splendid things, it usually involves one.

“The Bad Sleep Well”: The Virtue of an Imperfection

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“The Bad Sleep Well” (1960) has the components of a Filipino melodrama but with the extravagance of emotions whittled off. Japanese in its simplicity, it is nonetheless one of the Akira Kurosawa films that I most relate to because of a love story that infuses the themes of greed and corporate cronyism. Koichi Nishi (Toshiro Mifune) is a promising executive at a high-powered company run by a figurehead known only as Vice President Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori). He has so won Iwabuchi’s favor that Iwabuchi welcomes him into the family as a son-in-law. Ambition is not Nishi’s motive, however. Unbeknownst to Iwabuchi, Nishi is the son of a former employee who jumped to his death from the window of the company headquarters. Corruption is rampant among the superiors, and rather than exposing deeds of crookedness, an employee… bound by loyalty… either is murdered or commits suicide. Nishi is on a mission to destroy Iwabuchi. His means of doing so is through the man’s daughter, Yoshiko (Kyoko Kagawa).

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Yoshiko is a reticent woman, not because she is docile but because she is broken. A limp since birth has afforded her a life of loneliness, the only two people affectionate towards her being her father and brother, Tatsuo (Tatsuya Mihashi). The film begins with the wedding between her and Nishi, and we would think she would be smiling, happy at last; Nishi, with all his chicanery for deceit, must have fooled her into believing he loves her. Maybe he has, but that doesn’t stop the guests from gossiping about a possible ulterior motive. As Yoshiko overhears a guest comment, “Beautiful, until she walks.”

Those of us who are engrossed by a juicy romance could not ask for a better start. A handsome groom in the arms of a bride as luminescent as Venus yet as lugubrious as a weeping willow promises to tug at our heart strings. Kurosawa doesn’t stop with the teasing there. In their matrimonial chamber, Nishi rejects Yoshiko. He steps into an adjacent room, and as he shuts a screen that separates the two, she looks into the camera as if it were his eyes, her own eyes glazed with such need that it seems she is beseeching us to enter her life.

And we do. Kurosawa made “The Bad Sleep Well” as an indictment of power abuse and corporate crime. While all that is prime material for newspaper headlines, it’s the tension between Nishi and Yoshiko that serves as the movie’s magnet. It’s curious as to why Kurosawa made Yoshiko handicapped. Perhaps had she been flawless, she would have been a confident beauty with suitors by the hoard; hence, limiting Nishi’s chances as well as our sympathy. Instead, the director gives us a damsel onto whom we can project our own distress. Although I myself don’t have a physical deformity, I do have insecurities that can be crippling. They cut through two major elements of my existence: the creative and the romantic.

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I have literary aspirations. Allow me to say first that I am thankful for the rejections to my writing I have received over the years. If success were to come easily, then I would never discover the assets that I bear with pride, that I am persevering, resilient, and passionate. Alison Lurie, a Pulitzer winning author who provided me with ample encouragement during my stint at the Cornell writing program, corroborated her support in an e-mail when I had moved back to San Francisco:

Please don’t give up. You are a gifted writer, and have important things to say. Remember that many, even famous writers, were rejected many times by stupid editors.

On the other hand, it’s been 15 years since I left Cornell. Granted I came out since then with a small novel, “Potato Queen,” which proved to be an enriching experience – talks in schools, reading tours, a contract with a book club – I have other manuscripts that I would like to share with the world. It isn’t just on account of my own vanity that I desire recognition. People I love are also involved, those who have believed in me, who have given me the wealth of wisdom that has shaped me into the person I have become. Words are elemental to my identity. If rejections continue to prohibit me from declaring far and wide my tribute to those who have made me that which I am – a voice that can roar with the veracity of the best stories humankind has spun – then I ask what my purpose on earth is.

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I ask where Akira Kurosawa himself got his sense of purpose, who were those that fueled his inspiration. He frequently referenced Shakespeare, but who else? What of his childhood? His personal conquests and defeats? Whatever the answers, the auteur knew the intricacies of love. We are all aware of how failure affects our self-perception in the dating pool. This is what makes Yoshiko a heroine. Comely as she is, she’s got a physical defect that everybody who surrounds her focuses on, and it renders her a disappointment… until Nishi comes along. The guy can’t help it. Hell bent he may be on hating Iwabuchi, the villain’s daughter is so alone yet self-pitiless, so vulnerable yet stoic, that he comes to see all that is gorgeous in her. When his cover is unmasked, Yoshiko puts her faith in him, the ills of her father too blatant to ignore. The result is a scene that in a Filipino movie would have been acted with maximum embellishment. Under Kurosawa’s vision, emotions have been buried for nearly two and a half hours beneath a heap of lies and revenge so that the tears and hugs are earned. Nishi and Yoshiko are standing at opposite ends of a room. Their conversation begins with Nishi’s initial obsession to bring down Iwabuchi, then it turns soft; confessions of love spill forth. She runs towards him with a limp that gives her the appearance of a lame dove. He rushes towards her. She falls into his arms. They kiss… for the first time.

I have imagined love for me to happen as it does for Nishi and Yoshiko, two distant souls together at last in a union of thunder and lightning. In my daydreams, this would occur once I’ve earned a reputation as an author, for success would be my mating call. But this is not a healthy notion. It undermines the person I am, one who possesses the drive to parallel his aspirations, who can endear himself to an audience through the art of elocution, and a romantic who every now and then craves his fix of a bodice-ripping tearjerker. Until somebody does come along, though, films will have to suffice. This is what film is for, after all – to edify, to be sure, but also to console. Notice how the most compelling cinema involves love, even a story about a subject as dry as corporate corruption.

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Trust Akira Kurosawa to develop “The Bad Sleep Well” into a heartfelt tale with a message that spans the ages: in a world damaged by evil, love is the one human element that redeems us.