“Breakfast at Tiffany’s”: Sunshine through Rain Clouds

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“Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961) is one of the dearest love stories ever put on camera, a marriage between romance and fashion set in a city mythological in its reputation of limitless possibilities. The imagination gorges on Manhattan’s concurrence of Greenwich Village bohemia with Fifth Avenue affluence. It’s not everywhere that we see ladies who have as their table partner a Saks shopping bag as they masticate on chicken tandoori to the performance of a belly dancer. This is why the place ranks number one as the most filmed metropolis in the world, the birth place of many of cinema’s classics. Of course, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” would not be what it is if not for its star. Only Audrey Hepburn can actualize our daydreams of a kiss on a rainy day while draped in a trench coat priced at a month’s rent, on a pavement that the likes of Balanchine, Brando, and Bernstein stamped with their footprints. She is an icing of winsomeness on a cake of sophistication – the qualities needed to thrive in this behemoth of an island.

AnnaNo wonder my sister, Anna Maria, took to New York when she left Manila at 17 to start college at Sarah Lawrence. The year was 1980. Although that’s two decades after “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” premiered, the hold that New York has on Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) rang true for my sister. The name brand paradise was inevitable. Upon leaving home, my sister was already flowering into the lady my mother had always wished for. Her high school wardrobe consisted of skintight Calvins and Gucci heels paired with a Gucci bag, a far cry from the yellow nurse shoes of her prepubescence. Long hair that she flipped and blow-dried replaced a mullet cut. She walked with the grace of a gazelle, stooped shoulders, like chicken pox, an ailment of the past.

The stunner my sister was evolving into had first been apparent to me the year we lived in Walnut Creek, where she was enrolled at Carondelet, an all-girls high school in which her uniform was a blue plaid mini-skirt. I was in the sixth grade at Bancroft Elementary when she picked me up one day after class. At the homeroom threshold, too shy to step in, she smiled and gestured with a wave of the arm for me to come out, her one knee bent in a Barbie pose. “Rafaelito’s sister is really cute,” I overheard Dan say, the residential Italian-American jock who, with longish black hair and a lean athleticism, could have passed as Scott Baio’s little brother. New York provided the fertile soil for my sister to fully bud. She got offers to model in commercials and hair videos, and on the street, passers-by male and female, young and old, would give her a double take.

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On her first homecoming from Sarah Lawrence that Christmas, my sister buzzed with stories of late nights out, an existence free from the confines of parental control and a curfew. Prettied up in heels and a little red dress, she danced at Xenon and was the toast at Columbia shindigs. Although she had the prerequisite little black dress, red was her color, her way to scream, “I’m here!” She could have been Lula Mae exulting in her persona of Holly Golightly. Like Holly, my sister was also a vanguard on the latest trends. Kulot shorts and espadrilles, knickers and ballet slippers, micro-minis and off-the-shoulder sweatshirts… she had them all, packed in her suitcase for every trip to Manila when school was out.

Excited as we were to have her home, my father would sit her down and say, “Now to discuss your credit card expenses…” As for my mother, she was agog over her daughter’s embrace of femininity, herself a dresser who during her university days was a sorority girl courted by many. My sister’s childhood hobby of assembling 3,000-piece jigsaw puzzles wasn’t anything my mother could relate to (neither could I), but shopping… the two women in my family at last found a common ground thanks to the Shangri-la of America.

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I got to experience Manhattan when my sister transferred to Barnard/Columbia her junior year. While she was enrolled in summer classes, I stayed with her during my break from high school. I had never experienced such freedom as I did in those three weeks, an interlude from my reality of a world viewed largely through the scope of a movie on a betamax cassette. My sister had not been exaggerating. New York freedom is one so indelible to the very young that I had to write about it in a novel 30 years later:

June 1983. What a hot summer that had been. The sun made me feel sticky and there was hardly a breeze. Manhattan that summer was dust, hot air blowing out of subway grates, sweat, hot air emanating from yellow cab ignition pipes, soot, hot air gushing into revolving doors. Every New York tourist site – the Statue of Liberty, the MOMA and the Guggenheim, even the Chrysler Building – I have no words for. I didn’t visit any of them nor did I care to. What excited me was the collection of boutiques and outdoor restaurants at Columbus Circle and, in the evenings, Danceteria, a three level nightclub that would be famous for having discovered Madonna. Revelers flaunted spiked Mohawks, breasts through sheer tops, and chains on leather. Even though I was 16, I looked 13, and the club never carded me.

Back in Manila to resume school, I was all about New York, amusing (or annoying) friends with tales of dancing till dawn and strolls amid skyscrapers, pretzels sold out of pushcarts and Broadway marquees. I lugged around an issue of Vogue or GQ atop my textbooks for all to see. The glamour poured on their pages was syrup to my fantasies of a life in the city that never sleeps. I wanted to be as gorgeous as Richard Gere in “American Gigolo” (1980), the caress of Giorgio Armani on my back. (http://www.rafsy.com/actors-models-directors/richard-gere-love-is-love-is-love/) Classmates must have thought I was one pretentious schmuck. Forgive me, everyone. I was. Holly makes pizazz seem attainable. Though she isn’t rich, her daily wear is Givenchy, and her flat is no slum. She lives in one of those brownstone houses essential to New York’s mystique. Her upstairs neighbor is a hunk, Paul Varjak (George Peppard), a writer who’s got a closet of blazers courtesy of a Park Avenue matron (Patricia Neal).

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These society dames… you know that if they’re to subsidize a kept man, it would be with a charming dig, the furniture hand picked by Billy Baldwin, interior decorator to the crème de la crème of East Coast dwellers. Yup, I am erudite on Café Society junk. I can also tell you that every New York beauty from Dorian Leigh to Gloria Guinness had claimed to be the paradigm for Holly Golightly. It’s possible. Truman Capote, creator of our heroine, knew them all. Or they could just have been daydreaming because that is what the city does to a person. Model, actor, writer, paid pleasure provider… whoever we may be, the will to make it big in Manhattan affixes us on the Empire State Building like a jewel on a crown.

And so we dive into the vortex below of yellow cabs and plexiglass. Not for everybody, New York. Either we love it or we don’t… the word like doesn’t apply to it… and if we love it as my sister did, then we are never the same person as when we first arrive. My sister had set foot in New York with a purpose – to combine a skill for joining pieces to a jigsaw puzzle with an aesthetic vision so that she could be an architect. Although the prettiness and the modeling were an accident, they contributed to the simultaneous blossoming of body and mind. Today she is a partner to an architecture firm she founded in Manila, her romance with New York having ended years ago. She still goes back to New York, though, and for reasons other than consultation with a business partner who is based in Connecticut. The place will always bear meaning to her; much of the woman she has become started there.

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New York will always have meaning for me, too. Because of the summer of ’83, I chose to go to college in Boston. While not Manhattan, the city on a hill allowed me my chance at independence, to drift as Holly and Paul do on a moon river of dreams: a best-seller, a profile in Vanity Fair, and sunshine through rain clouds in the form of a lover’s kiss.

“Gone with the Wind”: Another Day, Another Chance

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“Gone with the Wind” (1939) could not have ended any other way. Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn is a snappy last line as well as a contemporary one. (I had no idea people spoke with our colloquialism in the 1860s.) More than that, Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) has every reason to walk out on Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), she a sloppy sight of tears as she begs him to stay. For almost three hours, Scarlett has been gushing over Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), a gentleman of such urbanity that he never falls from the pedestal of romantic ideal she has placed him on, ravenous as she is with all her love coaxing. Ashley is blond and impeccable in polished boots and confederate uniform, an upright southern dandy, the opposite of Rhett who, with the physique of a stevedore and a grin indicative of a sailor’s lust, is the match that ignites Scarlett’s temper. In every scene together, Rhett and Scarlett are at each other’s throats… he jibes her for the scheming nature beneath her demure façade… but the two are more alike than different. They both luxuriate in the niceties of well living, and whenever she’s in a fix, he appears as a guardian angel to save her. The burning of Atlanta, financial challenges, the strains of a fledgling lumber business… Scarlett could not have survived these without Rhett. They belong to each other. And yet, she constantly sighs, “Ashley! Oh, Ashley!” When the object of her pining crumbles to pieces upon the death of wife, Melanie (Olivia de Havilland), he displays a weakness so off-putting to Scarlett that she realizes just then that between the soldier and the scalawag, the latter – Rhett Butler – is the real man. The illusion of a girlhood crush at last dissolves, but it’s too late. Or is it?

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Tomorrow is another day. This is why “Gone with the Wind” has to end the way it does. We are fools when it comes to love. Love could stare us in the eyes and we wouldn’t see it, our sights on the wrong person. If the one whom we chase after can’t feel the same about us, then it’s not meant to be. The message can’t be any clearer than that. Still, we chase; so blind are we. What is it we want? The hurt of being spurned can’t be worth anything. Maybe we need to own to satisfy the ego rather than the heart. Scarlett has always gotten everything she wants, from a corset-induced 16-inch waistline to the rebuilding of Tara, the family homestead, to greater opulence. She has admirers who genuflect before her and is a virtuoso in the craft of flirtation.

Now here is Ashely, as spotless as porcelain and whom she can’t break. She keeps trying. How she keeps trying. Scarlett nearly succeeds when Ashely is on furlough. Before he returns to the front, he has one request of her – to watch over Melanie. She pleads him to kiss her, at which he responds, “Oh, Scarlett. You’re so fine and strong and beautiful, not just your sweet face, my dear, but…” He finally slips, but he doesn’t fall and runs off instead into the uncertain future of the Civil War. This near surrender to her feminine wiles is enough for Scarlett to go by. Maybe tomorrow she’ll succeed in ensnaring Ashley. Maybe tomorrow she’ll win Rhett back.

Now here is Ashely, as spotless as porcelain and whom she can’t break. She keeps trying. How she keeps trying. Scarlett nearly succeeds when Ashely is on furlough. Before he returns to the front, he has one request of her – to watch over Melanie. She pleads him to kiss her, at which he responds, “Oh, Scarlett. You’re so fine and strong and beautiful, not just your sweet face, my dear, but…” He finally slips, but he doesn’t fall and runs off instead into the uncertain future of the Civil War. This near surrender to her feminine wiles is enough for Scarlett to go by. Maybe tomorrow she’ll succeed in ensnaring Ashley. Maybe tomorrow she’ll win Rhett back.

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Never censure the power of illusion. Often, it is the only relief we have to face the next day. Every morning offers the possibility of a pleasant surprise, even if the surprise is over a decade down the road. Nobody could have predicted that when my sister and A.K. had a falling out during her graduating year at Columbia University that they would reconnect some 15 years later, both of them now divorced from their own spouses. To add to the surprise, they would meet again at the wedding of the man over whom their relationship had ended.

I became friends with A.K. when he and my sister had still been on good terms, on a summer visit to New York when I was 16. He was a foreign student from India studying engineering, and he described himself as a nerd who, before meeting my sister, would wear white button-down shirts with pens in the front pocket. My sister had boosted his self-image with a fashion make-over so that he now dressed in parachute pants, shirt collars pulled up, and padded shoulders, the whole 1980s shebang. A.K., in return, was academically supportive of her in matters that involved numbers. (She was an art history major.) The two met at a time when one was the right person to help effect a potential in the other. Of the reward of being linked to my sister, A.K. said, “When we walk down the streets, people would look at her, then turn to me to see the guy she’d be holding hands with, and they’d be surprised to see that someone like her could be with someone like me. But it’s more than that.”

Whatever more they shared had been curtailed by the time I returned a year later for another summer in New York. It’s true: three is a crowd. Fortunately, Jason has been with my sister over the long haul, and even though marriage to each other was not to be their fate, they have established an affiliation as friends and business partners. In the meantime, A.K. had taken up with Cathy, a friend of my sister, who told me that A.K. with her was not the intellectual or emotional stalwart he had been for my sister. “He compares me to her. Why can’t you be pretty the way Anna’s pretty? Why can’t you be smart the way Anna’s smart? Why can’t you walk the way Anna walks?” A.K. was stuck in a relationship that no longer was. Illusions. We don’t all need to be women to have a Scarlett O’Hara in us; everyone, at some points in life, wants for something that isn’t coming back. While illusions can be victual for hope, channeled unfairly, they can be deleterious, which is why A.K. and Cathy were a mismatch and why, when Scarlett sees Ashley for who he really is, she’s in a wretched chase after Rhett.

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But often we need to bungle in order to understand how illusions, when seen in the context of reality, can turn into a force that we call hope. No matter the schism between my sister and A.K., they own something that was built on trust and reliance, so that it could have been destiny that Jason, who was no longer a beau to my sister, would run into A.K. on a street in New York only weeks before the former’s wedding, where he then informed the latter that my sister would be a guest and so he should come. Thus, a relationship between my sister and A.K. was revived, with both spending a week at a tennis camp and touring brownstone condos A.K. hinted at purchasing as their home. Although they are not together in the way a typical romance movie would have them be, their reconciliation has lifted the cloud that for over a decade darkened their college memories.

This is why “Gone with the Wind” is a great movie. In addition to the technical and artistic achievements of cinematography, directing, and acting, the movie is an extravaganza of sunny days. When Scarlett O’Hara, in rags and hair in disarray after laboring in heat and dirt to restore Tara, grovels over a turnip like a hungry dog, only to rise to her feet and declare with fist raised to the heavens, “As God is my witness, I will never be hungry again!” the setting sun blazes the sky in red and orange. It’s the same fiery dusk when she looks at the expanse of land on which a glorious Tara now stands, into a tomorrow in which Rhett Butler will grab her in his arms with the vigor of a kiss-smothering brute. These thunderbolt moments have to happen at the end of the day, in the smoke of cannons blasting in yonder and in the shadows of birds nesting in trees.

Each sunset promises a sunrise.

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“Superman”: A Lasting Legacy

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What happened to Christopher Reeve is known to all. In 1995, he made world news when an equestrian tournament turned disastrous as the horse he was straddling came to a sudden halt before a high jump fence, throwing him off and causing him to land head first to the ground. The actor awoke in a hospital five days later to be told that he was paralyzed from the neck down. He discussed suicide with his wife, Dana, who said that the decision was his to make, although should he choose life, she would never desert him. With her fidelity as his buttress, Reeve became a crusader against paralysis and spinal cord injuries, giving speeches across America as well as founding the Christopher Reeve Foundation, a research center dedicated to improving the lives of those with disabilities. Not since Reeve’s breakout role as the title character in “Superman” (1978) had his name been blazoned on front pages and magazine covers. His activism was a labor of love. It added to his shine, and it brought once more to the fore a romantic in Reeve that first endeared him to us in the movie that made him a star.

The Man of Steel is invincible. Ever since his inception in 1938, comics, cartoons and a television series have ingrained this in us. Only a green crystal called kryptonite can destroy him. Yet even when confronted with this molecular foe, he manages to survive. Being the first superhero movie ever made, “Superman” touts the red-caped wonder according to our expectations. The man who roams among us mortals disguised as mild-mannered reporter, Clark Kent, holds up in mid-flight a plane that’s about to crash, carries a tug boat of marauders from the Hudson River to the doorsteps of a police station, and catches Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) midway during her fall down a building. Lois is a tough act. She’s Clark’s co-worker at the Daily Planet whom he’s not only infatuated with, but who also manages to get herself in jeopardy every 30 minutes. She doesn’t know it, but she’s got feelings for Clark, as well, though only when his glasses are off and he’s swooping around the city to save lives and fight crime. Clark must keep his identity secret… revelation would make him susceptible to potential adversaries… so to have a moment with Lois out of harm’s way (okay, a date) he grants her a favor as Superman: she would be the first reporter to get the scoop on this black-haired, blue-eyed, 6’4”, gravity-defying swashbuckler.

Sigh.

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Can you read my mind? Do you know what it is you do to me? Don’t know who you are, just a friend from another star. Here I am like a kid at a school, holding hands with a god. I’m a fool. Will you look at me quivering, like a little girl shivering? Can you see right through me? Can you picture the things I’m thinking of, wondering who you are, all the wonderful things that you are? You can fly. You belong to the sky. You and I could belong to each other. If you need a friend, I’m the one to fly to. If you need to be loved, here I am. Read my mind.

When we fall in love, a fine line exists between what of our affections we expose and what we keep to ourselves. We are simultaneously strong and weak, intrepid and inhibited. Could this be real? we wonder. We want to shout that the view of the world from the stars is as poets imagine. Love has wings. Superman takes Lois above the clouds on a voyage to the moon, regains a hold of her as she teeters, and brings her safely to the ground, both of them in an embrace with lips nearly touching and eyes keyholes to the mysteries of each other’s thoughts. Some interview. We want to shout love. Then again, no. She hardly knows him. He hardly knows her. This is just 20 minutes of a topsy-turvy ride. Maybe, Lois hopes, that given Superman’s ability to see through her dress that her underwear is pink, he could read her mind. With words, we bluff. Behind silence, we hide. But our thoughts never lie.

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Nearly 20 years after “Superman,” Reeve wasn’t doing much in terms of films. He could have been forgotten. No, he didn’t deserve what happened, but happen it did. Our ultimate Superman was back in the spotlight, this time with a love expressed through philanthropic work that would be his lasting legacy. Hats off to a real life hero. He transformed a misfortune into a lightning scepter that continues to illuminate the globe. Toss aside self-pity and defeat. If a quadriplegic can find meaning to life, then we who are full-bodied and able have no reason to mope over our own setbacks. Listen to the man himself: “So many of our dreams at first seem impossible. Then they seem improbable. And then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable.”

You all know what dreams I’ve got. They’re huge. The other day, I was talking to a neighbor about my purpose for this blog – to promote myself as a writer with postings on the subjects that inspire me, most of which happen to be films. I told him that I’ve been having a blast while at this. This blog serves as an emotional outlet without the complexity of a novel, and it’s readily available on the internet. He himself is a writer. Screenplays are his genre. We’re both in the same situation of querying, waiting, and pitching at seminars. We’ve both had close hits, had the right people read our stuff and felt disquietude as their interest fizzled out. “I admire your persistence,” he said. “This is what I set out to do,” I said, “what I went to school for.” I expressed my frustration over my colleagues at the Cornell writing program acquiring six figure deals as I remain in square one. “That’s just a small percentage of people who get to that point,” he said. Oh, I know. And I know that’s no grounds for giving up. In addition to talent and will, my heart’s in the right place. Over the years, writing has grown into a dimension larger than the self. “To forge from the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race,” James Joyce declares in “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” So it is with me. I owe it to all from where I hail whose stories have invigorated my creativity to make it.

Christopher Reeve himself is a lesson in selflessness. His reason for living was in the lives he gave others. Even in a wheelchair, he continued to fly the world in order to right what he believed was wrong. He was Superman to the end, an artist and a lover, and he made us aware of the superhero in all of us: if we could find the strength to unleash the talents we possess that our dreams are made of, then we could fill the world with poetry.

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“Love Story”: Love Means…

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Love means never having to say you’re sorry. False. On the contrary, an apology is perhaps the most underrated virtue in the history of humankind. If Republicans and Democrats could be rueful for their obstinate mudslinging, then our country would be less fractured. Donald Trump could redress his atrociousness by retracting his insults at John McCain, Mexican immigrants, and everyone else at whom he wags his finger. All my bed buddy, Joshua (http://www.rafsy.com/films-2000s-present/two-lovers-so-close-and-yet-so-far/), has to do to amend the rift between us that his standing me up last October caused is to ask my forgiveness. Fat chance of any of this happening. We find it easier to say “I love you” than “I’m sorry,” and as it is, declaring the L word requires more than a modicum of guts. Only a tearjerker such as “Love Story” (1970) can justify the aphorism. It has become such a pop culture catchphrase that we can simply guess at how many relationships that have adhered to it have (or have not) actually avoided breakups.

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Meet our young twosome. Jenny (Ali MacGraw) is a Radcliffe coed of blue-collar, Italian stock who marries Harvard jock, Oliver (Ryan O’Neal), a blue-blooded Bostonian. Other than a difference in class and heritage, which Jenny incessantly reminds us of with her pejorative use of “preppy” on her husband, there’s nothing exceptional about the couple. It’s right that they should be attracted to one another. In addition to blond curls and a face the cinematic version of Michelangelo’s David, Oliver is a nice guy who is hammering away towards a diploma and a subsequent career in law, all under the pressure of severance from the Barrett fortune due to his choice of a wife. Jenny is pretty in a Catholic schoolgirl way, and though insecure of her social standing next to an heir, she is self-assured in where her intelligence can take her, working as a teacher to fund Oliver’s tuition. He lives up to his potential. She tempers her sauciness with sweetness. Even though a doctor informs them that Jenny can’t bear kids, that’s all right because Oliver has got a trip to Paris lined up. The two vanquish every blow that’s hurled their way. Such is the power of love. Indeed, Oliver and Jenny have nothing to be sorry for. And then comes the ultimate blow: cancer.

As Jenny lies dying, she maintains a tough disposition. She upbraids Oliver his helplessness, the regret that shrouds his face over the state she has atrophied to. “It’s not your fault,” she says. Of course, it isn’t. It’s cancer, not syphilis. When outside the hospital Oliver Sr. (Ray Milland) seeks to reconcile with his son via an apology, junior silences the man with that famous line Jenny first utters during a spat one snowy night when they are yet unmarried and confident of a long, rewarding journey ahead. Never having to say you’re sorry could mean that when love is truly present, the remorse we convey through actions should speak louder than words. Still, there’s a reason we humans possess the gift of language, and while a bouquet of roses or the offer to front the medical expense of a sick daughter-in-law could aid to heal a festering wound, the sincerity of the S word is a potent remedy, as my own father has substantiated.

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“Maybe one day, I will be able to tell her I’m sorry,” my father said to his brood over  Christmas dinner a few years ago about an incident from his boyhood. He was 11 when it happened, and over 70 years later it continues to tug at him for the lone reason that he never apologized to his mother. Grandma Antonia sewed him a shirt, a rarity of a gift since he came from a poor background. His own father died when he was five, leaving him to assist in providing for the family, first as an aid to fishermen (his payment was a fish) and then as a newspaper and cigarette vendor. In school, during his first outing in the shirt, my father tore off the buttons. “I don’t know why I did that,” he said to us. “Maybe I didn’t like the way the shirt fit or the color of it. Anyway…” My grandmother was crushed. Upon his return home, she grieved for the shirt, having toiled over it day and night so that he’d have something nice to wear to school. “Hijo, pinaghirapan ko iyan, umaga at gabi, para lang mayroon kang makakasuot na maganda sa escuela. Bakit?” Why, she asked, and she proceeded to mend the buttons back on. My father has never forgotten the look on her face, this injury to the heart, and all because of him. Grandma Antonia has been dead for over a decade. She died in a fog of dementia, the incident obliterated from her memory. Perhaps it had never left an impact on her. Regardless, it has on my father so that in the winter of his years, he still believes she will pardon him. “When we meet in heaven,” he said.

Now trust me on this one: when you are the recipient of an apology, it’s a gift, one that validates not only your beauty as a human being, but also that of the giver. Over lunch a few years ago, my brother expressed his pride for his children, four sons who then ranged in age from three to 18. “Sometimes, though, they can pick on each other and say stupid things, just like the stupid things I used to say to you.” I looked at him questioningly. “I’m sorry about that,” he said. “Don’t worry about it,” I said. “We were kids.” He said, “I know. Still, I’m sorry if I hurt you.” My brother used to malign me my effeminate mannerisms, sometimes underscored with a fist, and although his words could be wounding, they never traumatized. Punches and revilements notwithstanding, we’ve always been a close family, so even as a boy and through my teens, I was already aware that the differences between my brother and me would come to pass. However, I neither willed for nor anticipated an apology. That my brother brought it upon himself to give me one when bygones had already been bygones long ago elevated, in my eyes, his status as a man. He could not have apologized had he never endured his own measure of failures and heartaches. In this single moment, he revealed himself to be humbled by life.

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Of course, I’ve got my own compunctions. Here’s one the arrogance of youth incurred. I told a grocery owner when I was a student in Paris that his existence was pathetic. This because he gestured with a finger to his head to a woman in line behind me that I was a dodo brain. Scrounging for coins in my pocket to buy bananas, I continuously miscounted the amount. After finally paying, I left the grocery in a huff, but I was so incensed that I returned to tell him off. He motioned with his hand for me to calm down. We should forget the ordeal, he said in French. He had a daughter and a son, both no older than eight, watching us through a window to a back room. The man was Middle Eastern of slight build and with a white beard that gave the impression he was older than he was, certainly older than a typical father of kids that age. In the modesty of the grocery – the shelves barely stacked with products and the drab walls – it was evident that he put his entire livelihood into the place, that here… in this small business barren of the stocks and bonds that characterize a major venture, in a country where Jean Marie Le Pen, leader of the National Front who was campaigning for a France free of immigrants… was where he set his hopes for his family’s future. Never mind his entreaty for peace or the witness of his children. I was determined. “Votre vie est pathetique,” I said, once, twice, thrice. He shooed me away. No problem because I had vented my anger. All these years later, I wonder if it was worth it, this gloating sensation for having gotten even. I can only wish that his progenies are thriving.

It’s admirable that Oliver and Jenny in “Love Story” are able to move past disagreements both big and small without having to say sorry. Hard feelings should never brew, for we human beings are flawed animals. Pardons should be granted with generosity. But if given the opportunity, it does no harm to utter the word. It’s only two syllables, and when enunciated with hand on heart, we could make the world one united family.

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“Two Lovers”: So Close and yet so Far

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The most erotic moment I have witnessed in cinema has a man locked in a gaze with a woman across a Brooklyn back alley. Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) is a tortured soul, a depressive who has attempted to take his life by means that include a razor to the wrist and a jump off a bridge into a body of water. Somehow, the guy can’t die. A pair of beautiful women is waiting in the wings, each one ready to enter center stage to play a role in the story of his survival. Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), a brunette who dresses in matronly frocks, embodies stability by dint of her family’s business ties with the Kraditors; hence, the rational choice for Leonard as a wife. Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) is blonde, leggy, and herself a fuck up. She’s involved with an older guy who’s married, treats her as a mere diversion, and pays rent for a flat that she fears she will be evicted from because she has finally mustered the courage to drop him. To top it off, she’s got an issue with drug dependency. That Michelle’s window is across from Leonard’s leads to complications and one steamy juncture. The film is “Two Lovers” (2008). Leonard and Michelle are on the phone – she with shirt raised and breast exposed, he with mouth agape. “You’re so beautiful,” Leonard says. Tears water his eyes. With the ardor of a man who has risen from the dead, he says again, “You’re so beautiful.”

Forget which of the two women is healthy for Leonard. For all of love’s machinations, logical it is not. Neither is it fair. Damaged people have a way of finding each other. Rarely does a coupling that engrosses us have happiness in the equation. There would be no story. In “Two Lovers,” the drama plays out in a domestic atmosphere because we are all in search of a partner for a single reason: as someone with whom to build a nest. Michelle plans on moving to San Francisco to start anew. Leonard wants to abscond with her because he feels connected to her instability. Sandra is clueless as to what is happening behind her back. The chap isn’t strong enough to tell her the truth, and though she would be better off without him, it’s his very weakness that arouses a nurturing instinct in her. Everybody is hooked on the wrong person. Some nest this imbroglio would make, one that would blow away in the morning breeze, every weed and twisted twig laid bare under the sun.

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Sound familiar? Yup, we’ve all fallen slave to the inveiglement of the forbidden fruit. Mine was in the corporeal form of a 6’1”, blond-haired, muscle-bound porn star. We met online seven years ago. When I opened my front door on our initial hook up, I felt as Moses did on Mt. Sinai – flustered by a heavenly bolt of fire that incinerates a bush, the voice of God rising from the flames. Joshua was smoldering. Neither of us expected a friendship to develop… we were each meant to be a one-night stand (porn star, come on)… but when chemistry flares, it can’t be doused. I didn’t even know Joshua was in the adult film industry, and a big name at that, until in later meetings he provided me his nom de porn for me to google. But beneath the tattoos and body piercings, the salacious snarl and engorged body parts, I got to know a boy who would translate in sign language the priest’s sermons during Sunday mass in Dayton, Texas; an artist with a knack for make-up, grooming, and dressmaking; and an adventurer who once rode his motorcycle nude in the Palm Springs desert. I said I loved him. He said he loved me, too. And yet, we never so much as watched a movie together or dined out. Socially, we shared nothing. Our connection was limited to the bedroom. No small matter, sex. Even then, when someone shuns your overtures for a relationship beyond the carnal, you know where you stand, withal moments of emotional intimacy. “You put yourself in this situation,” a friend told me. True. If Joshua was using me largely as a means of physical gratification, then that’s because I allowed him to; it was my choice. I knew from the start party and play were all we would amount to.

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In “Two Lovers,” Leonard makes his own choice. How he wants the baggage of hotness and problems that is Michelle. Although she wants him, too, she’s erratic. Since Leonard can’t control this aspect of her, fate thwarts his choice. The ocean in the gloom of night looks mighty attractive as a consequence. But he doesn’t do it. In the moon’s reflection on soft waves and in the caress of Sandra’s glove tucked in his coat pocket, Leonard sees salvation. Fate turned out to be kind. In rare occasions, it could even provide a second chance, such as what it did for a friend when, during a high school reunion, he reconnected with his first love.

As Timothy described Sharon, she was the girl he had let go of, the one whose presence lingered for over a decade as a phantom of regret. In a hotel room 600 miles away from home, after dancing the night away to Culture Club and Wham! – songs they had danced to at their high school prom – Timothy was this close to running off with Sharon. She was in his arms, divorced, and still hooked on him. He had a family of his own. He loved Linda, he said, but in the 15 years since he married her, he could never stop thinking about what could have been with the other. The thought was everywhere, in every room, at the dining table, at the birth of his kids, mainly because he couldn’t quite understand why he and Sharon had split up. Then dawn came, a drizzly morn. “It was like something washing over me, a baptismal,” Timothy said. In the new day, he realized that all that was happening while apart from his family belonged to the past. The present was a wife whose goodness he had experienced when, as a hospital intern at the time they met, she had nursed his broken leg, their daughter who had needed an incubator to survive the first month of her life, and their son they had named a junior. Sharon was so close… his family was so far… yet he never felt closer to Linda and the children she bore him than at that instant and further from the woman whose head lay on his shoulder. “That was the longest goodbye,” Timothy said, “but at least now Sharon and I had a goodbye.” Fate works in strange ways. Perhaps the second chance the reunion presented Timothy was not to be with his high school sweetheart, but to affirm his vows as husband and father.

Books and songs and movies try to explain love. We think we understand this most cryptic of emotions when we read Nicholas Sparks, listen to the Beatles, or watch a Merchant Ivory production. Then we get a story like “Two Lovers,” and everything we’ve been conditioned to believe about one partner, one life, one happiness, and one sadness throws us for a loop. What does it mean to call someone the love of your life? Would that be the person within reach yet who slips away? The person who says “I do” to washing your dirty underwear and cooking your breakfast while in flip flops? Or maybe the question is futile. Granted the various reasons we love, it could be impossible to choose one.

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“Infamous”: The High Risk of Faith

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A literary critic has stated that had Truman Capote not penned “In Cold Blood,” the author would have been relegated to the footnotes of American arts and letters, his prose nothing more than confections of emotions. The tour de force saved Capote from this fate for two reasons: 1) he outdid belletristic convention by formulating a genre that he dubbed the non-fictional novel – fact presented in the format of a narrative, replete with dialogue, dramatic sequences, characterization, and atmospheric details; 2) his research provided a backstory that seized the public’s attention, a chronicle of love and betrayal that itself would be material for a movie – “Infamous” (2006) – 40 years after the book’s publication.

This pairing of professional conquest with personal catastrophe satiates a hunger in all of us. We common people yearn for excitement, if not in our prosaic dealings, then in the scandals of our public figures. For our consumption, tabloids elevate to a Shakespearean grandeur individuals whose lives are as dicey as the roles they play in the world stage of politics, sports, and the arts. That’s entertainment. In Capote’s case, that “In Cold Blood” involves the massacre of citizens in the bucolic region of Holcomb, Kansas casts a baneful light on the all-American value of small town, neighborly trust, and that Capote should fall in love with one of the killers evokes Desdemona, she whom Othello, her own husband, smothers to death with a pillow.

“Infamous” is an American tragedy.

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The movie presents us a Truman Capote (Toby Jones) who is skittish and frivolous, a New York gossip who hops from one socialite and social scene to another, dapper in scarves purchased at Bergdorf Goodman. One morning he opens the papers, and staring back at him is destiny. Not that Capote is discontent with Manhattan… he basks in his position as a celebrity… but destiny being what it is, it strikes when least expected, a kick in the chest, and there it brews into an obsession, only how peculiar that this latest obsession for the darling of high society should be the murders of a family with the drab name of Clutter in the non-descript town of Holcomb.

Or maybe not. Capote came from humble beginnings, the product of divorced parents and a childhood in the dust bins of Louisiana and Alabama. The morning headlines could have been a signal for him to return to his roots, to bring attention to lives that end without reason in the obscurity of a wheat field while his own flourishes. Capote arrives in Holcomb in a tornado of limp wrists and hats and swiveling hips. He employs his talent as a raconteur to earn the trust of the most circumspect of farmers with anecdotes of Hollywood glitterati, interviewing one and all to gather material in order for a masterpiece to emerge. Nothing and nobody stands in his way… until he meets Perry Smith (Daniel Craig), the other half to the murderous duo that includes Dick Hicock (Lee Pace), a boor devoid of Smith’s sensitivity and therefore nugatory to Capote.

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In Perry Smith Capote sees his alter-ego. They both had fathers who were SOB’s and suicidal mothers, and Smith admits to aspirations of artistic illustriousness, having first endeavored as a painter and then as a musician. An avid reader, not only does he correct Hicock’s grammar, but he is also upfront to Capote with his critiques of the writer’s novels. Most suggestive of Smith’s sensitivity, albeit in a manner unsettling, is the comfort he provides his victims seconds before the murders – a pillow for Kenyon Clutter (Austin Chittim) to rest his head before his brains are blown out, and a mattress for the boy’s father, Herb (Brent A. McCoy), because the floor is cold. Although Capote, the man, doesn’t want Smith to hang, the artist in him roots for capital punishment because it would be the suitable conclusion to a novel that aims to bring justice to both a town forever changed and a family gone due to a nefarious crime.

In this, Truman Capote sacrifices his own soul. As childhood friend and confidante, Harper Lee (Sandra Bullock), reveals: “I read an interview with Frank Sinatra in which he said about Judy Garland, ‘Every time she sings, she dies a little.’ That’s how much she gave. It’s true for writers, too, who hope to create something lasting. They die a little getting it right. And then the book comes out and there’s a dinner. Maybe they give you a prize. And then comes the inevitable and very American question, ‘What’s next?’” Very American this pickle may be, but relatable nonetheless to every one of us who aims high and gives one’s all to reach that summit, nationality aside. It exists in my own home. My father has a friend whom he has known since the fourth grade. He was a rascal of a boy, according to my father, with a prurient sense of humor and who, as a young man, experienced a religious awakening that led him on a path to priesthood, while my father veered the opposite direction to a vocation antipodal to one of abstinence: finance. Yet the difference in their callings complimented each other. Father Bart was an occasional guest to our home in Manila, during which he would offer mass and confession. He now resides in the Bay Area. In a phone conversation some years ago, he expressed to me my father’s contrition that perhaps my father had not spent enough time with me while I was growing up since his primary focus had been money. “Not at all,” I said.

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That my father would think this surprises me. He never so much as hinted, either in action or in words, at any remorse for his career decisions at the expense of family time. Still, there it is. For all the faith Perry Smith puts in Capote to vindicate him to readers of “In Cold Blood” with his accounts of an abusive father and an alcoholic mother, Capote could not save him; every word Capote writes ultimately comes at the cost of the person he feels the book would most benefit. So it was for my father; the faith I put in him to provide for the family required a certain degree of his absence from the home.

This leads me to my own responsibility as a writer. My novels are populated with characters based on members of my family, they who have faith in my literary ambition, depict scenes that occurred in real life. Private matters are exposed, quite a few of which my parents and siblings are unaware I know about. To be perceptive and observant while giving the impression of indifference is my duty as a scribe. As a result, I wrestle with the question of limits. At what point am I breaching confidentiality? Risking embarrassment? Misrepresenting actuality? Even with my own secrets, I wonder how much of them do I dare spill on print. And then, with barely a dent on my conscience, I switch gears to Truman Capote mode. What I do is in the name of art, I rationalize, and readers wouldn’t know the truth anyway. Honesty of emotion is more important, the key element that would allow me to fulfill my destiny as the record keeper of my kin so that those whom I write for and about can stay alive on paper long after we have all gone… I suppose.

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“Sunrise”: The Allure of the American Dream

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It’s easy to fall to the temptation of a big city. Bright lights and skyscrapers scream of money, glamour, and adventure. Every movie star wannabe uproots to Los Angeles, the Hollywood sign perched on Mt. Lee a gateway to paradise. New York is the mecca for a dancer from hicksville with bets on Broadway. Paris is home to the “Mona Lisa”; the tallest building in the world towers over Dubai; and Shanghai is an ever flourishing metropolis of space-age edifices. The coalescence of the past and the future is never more apparent than in an urban center. To be tucked away in a borough, where barely a visitor passes through, is to be non-existent. For all its promise, however, the lure of glitter can have a menacing twist, such as what German director, F.W. Murnau, depicts in his silent classic, “Sunrise” (1927).

“Sunrise” tells the story of a man (George O’Brien) and his wife (Janet Gaynor), a doting pair content in their rustic life. By the lake one night, the man encounters a woman from the city (Margaret Livingston), who in femme fatale accoutrement of black coat and hat, seduces him. The man is so hypnotized that he consents to kill his wife so that he could run away with the woman. He takes his wife on a boat ride with the intention of drowning her, but just as he has misgivings, she suspects something is awry. They reach shore, where the wife flees, finding her way to the city. The man begs for forgiveness, pleads that she not be afraid of him as he offers her flowers and cakes. Love is revivified as they watch a wedding procession. Reconciled, they explore this chaotic hub of trollies and meandering pedestrians, ending their day with a dance at a music hall. On the boat ride home, a storm erupts. The boat capsizes and the man cannot find his wife, while the woman from the city awaits him near his farmhouse, assured he has accomplished the murder.

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Our hero is somewhat of a dud, you might say. Cheating on his wife is one thing, but offing her, and for the sake of a random harpy with whom he has a moment under the necromancy of a full moon? Still, what a spell “Sunrise” casts on its viewers, one on par with a biblical parable. The struggle between gold and simplicity is a universal dilemma. Gold is the metal that ambition is made of, and it shimmers in our imagination with the force of a shooting star, exists within our reach in the form of a Rolex watch, a slot machine, or a sweet talking vixen. Nothing new here. As the axiom goes: every story has already been written; the novelty is in the telling. That “Sunrise” was made in the infancy of cinema as a medium of narration endows it with originality. The film is the first of its kind, a groundwork for other great films to come. Elements of “Sunrise” – its elegiac atmosphere and its spotlight on the underbelly of man’s voracious hunger for more – are evident in “The Godfather,” parts I (1972) and II (1974). We can see what dreams the woman in the city kindles in the man. She’s a visitor from a place that generates tales among folks in the boondocks of easy everything – easy living, easy pleasures, easy virtues. She’s dressed to the nines, and she’s confident about what she wants and how she wants it, the contrast to a tractable wife in blonde bun and peasant frock. No potato picking fräulein is the woman. She’s the personification of a new world, the American Dream.

America is founded on stories of loss and sacrifice. From the early pioneers to the immigrants who passed through Ellis Island, from the migrant workers of the Great Depression to the refugees of the Vietnam War, the call of a bountiful beginning invites all to the land where the eagle soars. No greater symbol of promise exists than that of Lady Liberty, torch raised to the firmament. It’s a never ending saga. Today the exodus is from south of the border and the Latin continent. Whoever the next wave of settlers, wherever from, our histories are intertwined. My aunt, Tita Tessie, started off as an illegal alien in the early 1970s. She came to the U.S. to visit another aunt, Tit Baby, a doctor, who had already petitioned residency for my grandmother, and overstayed. When an immigration officer knocked on Tita Baby’s door one day, Tita Tessie was hiding in a closet while Grandma Susan was praying. My aunt was able to elude deportation by decamping to Canada.

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To this day, I don’t know why the desire to be in America. Life for the Villamin clan wasn’t hard in the Philippines, despite President Ferdinand Marcos’s enforcement of martial law. I suppose it was enough that the dollar is a force to reckon with. When Tita Florence followed, hers was a tear-soaked farewell. I can still see her at the airport, in bell bottoms and platform shoes, head bowed in grief, as her boyfriend, seated on a ledge, gazed up into her face for the last time so that with his eyes, he could implore her to stay. She let go of his hand, ever so slowly, and that was it. Life in America has been prosperous for all of them ever since. Even so, there was no knowing 40 years ago what the future would hold, yet they felt in their core that the gamble was worth relinquishing the nearness of friends and lovers, surrendering one’s homeland for unchartered territory.

My own migration to America was uneventful. I got into college, decided to stay, and during my swearing-in ceremony as a citizen nine years later, I responded to a radio interviewer who happened to be scouting the room that I wanted an American passport because it facilitates traveling. “There must be a deeper reason,” she said. No, there wasn’t. Yet I didn’t want to be trite, so I said, “Ever since I was a child, I would come to the States to visit relatives. It was always such a thrill for me to be with my cousins, to wake in the same house as they were in and just to know I could spend the whole day… the weeks ahead… with them. Coming here was like entering a land that existed in a storybook. The malls, Disneyland, Hallmark stationery… everything Americans take for granted because these things are available to them at any moment… was a treasure that could be mine just by virtue of my being here. This planted the seed of my wanting to be American. Simple as it is, that’s the truth.”

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America is home. The constant spring weather of San Francisco, New York’s sleepless energy, Chicago and its blocks of monolith buildings… I adore them all. Nevertheless, as I grow older, the country of my birth summons me. In “Sunrise,” the man finds his wife adrift on a bundle of reeds, unconscious. Upon daybreak, she opens her eyes and the two kiss, never again to part, for as beguiling as the woman from the city is and all that she represents, the wife is the ballast of the man’s existence. So it is with the Philippines and me. The Philippines is where my life began, the place that nourished my dreams, and while I reside in another country, a part of me will always embrace the monsoon winds, curse a tropical storm, and take refuge in the shade of a mango tree.