“Flesh and the Devil”: The Sound of an Original

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“When the devil cannot reach us through the spirit, he creates a woman beautiful enough to reach us through the flesh.”

The temptress imputed above is Greta Garbo in the motion picture that catapulted her to international renown, “Flesh and the Devil” (1927). She is Felicitas, a countess who seduces to her boudoir a soldier on furlough by the name of Leo von Harden (John Gilbert). The tryst results in the death of Count von Rhaden (Marc McDermott) in a duel between husband and paramour. As Leo is recalled to duty, he promises Felicitas marriage upon the completion of his service, only for her to give her hand to his best friend, the irresistibly rich Ulrich von Eltz (Lars Hanson). Leo is pissed; however, not for long because no man is immune to the wiles of Garbo, and this puts him in the position of Judas to his childhood blood brother. “Aren’t you afraid of what she may do to you a second time?” the family pastor (George Fawcett) asks Leo, though not before his warning about Satan’s legerdemain to possess a man through the groin. Leo does not answer. He doesn’t care.

We, too, are speechless and in heat, no matter that it is now the 2010s. The media’s remembrance of Greta Garbo upon her passing in 1990, 49 years after she had renounced Hollywood to become history’s most famous recluse, already assured her place in the galaxy as an indestructible star. “She’s sexy,” a friend said with the excitement of a teen presented a Porsche. He was 40. “She has boobs.” I was in Paris for my second year, having returned after my junior year there followed by my final term back at Tufts University to get my degree. Since the French have a high regard of film actors as artists, the attention given to Garbo was such that she might as well had been a national hero. “Queen Christina” (1933) was the tribute film aired on TV and the one which caused Quito to gush. As the title character, Garbo in 17th century negligee, an Adrian creation of chiffon that silhouettes her mannequin lankiness, walks around a chamber, gazing at and caressing a bedpost, a spindle, a painting as if they were parts of a lover’s anatomy. “I’ve been memorizing this room. In the future, in my memory, I shall live a great deal in this room,” she sighs to the man (John Gilbert) to whom she has surrendered her heart. “How romantic,” Quito said.

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The most iconic moment is the last, that close-up of Garbo as she stands at a ship’s aft, hair windswept, unflinching eyes focused on the distance. A bar in Paris had a wall of TV monitors featuring news announcements from different countries, in different languages, of Garbo’s death. All ended in synchronization to the actress’s image in the conclusion to “Queen Christina.” The camera adored her. The press in her heyday had nicknamed her “The Face.” The face aged splendidly. My French tutor said of Greta Garbo that she had a look recognizable in the present, be it on the street or on the metro, at the Champs Elysees or at the Garnier Opera. We were perusing a Garbo memorial issue of Elle magazine. Garbo in beret, Garbo in flapper hat, Garbo in a bob… in every photograph, the woman exuded the timelessness of style.

Nobody could have predicted during the making of “Flesh and the Devil” the legend the Swedish Sphinx would become. When she had arrived in Hollywood, MGM didn’t know what to do with her. Studio head, Louis B. Mayer, ordered her to lose weight, scolding, “In America, men don’t like fat women.” The publicity department then promoted her as the modern athletic female before tailoring her into the archetype that would be her trademark – a European exotic, one whose sculptural features and imperial carriage conjure the heroine of a 19th-century roman à clef, an ice princess, her façade turned to jelly in the heat of passion. This anachronism was a hit with audiences, and through the 1930s, on account of America’s need to escape the Depression, her heavy accent in talkies all the more captured a hankering for romance and chivalry.

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Jacqueline Kennedy would be a phenomenon three decades later for a similar reason. A rare bird fluent in French, her debutante and finishing school background anomalous to the average American, Mrs. Kennedy was initially considered a liability to her husband while on the campaign trail. But he won the presidency, and as first lady, she touched the public as youth and class personified, an ideal that young women could look up to and young men could hope for in a wife. No need for a European import. That Jackie was one of us made America believe that this land has its own monuments to parallel the Neuschwanstein Castle.

Now for a real anomaly that became a hit in America, there’s the wonder called Bruce Lee. He was Asian. He was short. He fought karate. And he became a superstar. As Kato in “The Green Hornet” TV series, he so upstaged his Caucasian co-star, Van Williams, that the big screen was inevitable, all of which showcased his mastery in the martial arts. With his flying fists and killer kicks, Lee singlehandedly destroyed pervasive Asian stereotypes of geek and pidgin English speaking Charlie Chan types who spout fortune cookie phrases. “Always be yourself,” he once said. “Express yourself. Have faith in yourself. Do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it.”

Garbo and Jackie themselves lived by this creed, surmounting detractors to rise above the crowd as originals.

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Here is another Bruce Lee dictum: “One does not accumulate but eliminate. It is not daily increase but daily decrease. The height of cultivation always runs to simplicity.” This sums up a large part of Greta Garbo’s enigma and that of Jacqueline Kennedy, as well. Garbo never attended any of her film premieres, granted few interviews, and eluded the paparazzi, donning dark glasses just as her first lady counterpart would later do, she whom Oleg Cassini, a former Hollywood couturier, dressed in clothes of pure lines and zero ornamentation to create the aura of a silent screen star. Neither woman is notorious for excess. On the contrary, their reticence and minimalism so piqued our imagination that we will forever wonder what they truly thought of themselves for all they had witnessed and experienced as crucial players in some of the 20th century’s defining events.

Sealed lips can certainly be a virtue. How often I have been told to refrain from loquaciousness. Readers would rather decipher the emotions transmitted in a story rather than to be told what to feel. It’s like love. Love can’t be forced on us. Love grows in the way a budding flower is nourished to bloom. This is why Greta Garbo is unforgettable. In a single blink she conveys love’s essence, and we are transfixed.

“On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”: Redemption in Time

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Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, Daniel Craig… we all have our favorite James Bond. Biases can lean towards the Welshman who set the bar for grace under pressure while strapped to a gurney with a laser gun aimed at his crotch. Or we might be sentimental over the Brit formerly known as the Saint who traipses a Caribbean jungle, evading witch doctors and voodoo hexes, because he is the 007 our fathers introduced us to. And there’s the millennium star whom doubters first dismissed as James Blonde. In four films of the spy franchise, could he really have raised the bar by several notches? Notable, all. However, this is not the complete list. The one Bond frequently overlooked exposes his vulnerable side in what is perhaps the most challenging of his assignments, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1969). Our world savior does more than survive a snow avalanche and escape by seconds a villain’s lair, perched atop the Alps, on the verge of exploding. He loses the only woman for whom he abnegates his bachelorhood. He’s George Lazenby, a lover more than a playboy.

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George Lazenby deserved more than one shot as James Bond. Pop lore has it Lazenby did such a diabolical job that he was fired. A friend of mine who was a teen when the actor made his debut is of this opinion. “He looks like an idiot,” Quito said. I was a student in Paris, and “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” was rerun on TV. The image Quito was referencing had Lazenby in a squat position, aiming a knife at a human target, mouth firm and brow curled. Lazenby was more Kung Fu grasshopper, less Sean Connery. I might have tuned in to the movie till the end. I don’t remember, for although I would catch the latest Bond flick as it either screened in the cinema or was taped on betamax, I did so not because I was a fan but because it was the in thing, and whenever a Bond from the past aired on TV, I watched out of curiosity, though with no recollection afterwards of whether or not I had sat through the entire run. The plots, if any exist at all, are interchangeable, and as for characterization… forget it. James Bond is all posture and mindless adventure.

Not until Daniel Craig did I anticipate two hours of martinis shaken, not stirred, he who has made the character of Bond his own by infusing him with emotion. In “Casino Royale” (2006), the dude cries. When has Bond ever shed tears? Actually… hold on… 37 years earlier, he ended his tenure on her majesty’s secret service with a sob, and this on account of the same loss as his fair-haired successor – the love of his life. Had it not been for Craig, I would never have discovered this. My fandom of Craig compelled me to research the ranking of Bond films from worst to best. “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” consistently has a spot in the top five, and one list places it in the number one position. The reason: it contains the singular element that would make “Casino Royale” a smash among audiences of the second millennium – a doomed romance.

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I decided to give George Lazenby another chance this past holiday season. Coupled with Diana Rigg as Countess Teresa “Tracy” di Vicenzo, the sole Bond girl in 63 years whom our hero takes to the altar, Lazenby adds a layer to the secret agent that is vacant in his predecessor. The best moments in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” are with her. A presence of pulchritude and depth, Tracy transcends ornamentation. The most stunning is the montage of she and Bond falling in love – a barefoot stroll on the beach, a horse ride, a promenade in a flower garden. It’s a Hallmark pastiche that is oh so heart melting because he is no ordinary man and she is no ordinary woman. And with Louis Armstrong providing the background music, we’ve got the brilliance of a diamond:

We have all the time in the world, time enough for life to unfold all the precious things love has in store. We have all the love in the world. If that’s all we have, you will find we need nothing more. Every step of the way will find us with the cares of the world far behind us. We have all the time in the world, just for love, nothing more, nothing less, only love.

In a 1970 interview, Lazenby speaks of the pressures to fill Sean Connery’s tuxedo. Director Peter R. Hunt instructed him to imitate Connery’s every nuance so that Lazenby met opposition in attempts to assert his own interpretation of the Ian Fleming creation. (He felt the spy should be humane instead of a cold killing machine.) An object of condescension for his lack of experience as an actor, he refused a seven-film Bond contract, and with heavyweights of the franchise perpetuating a reputation of him as difficult, he found no work in Hollywood after the release of the film that had initially opened a door to million-dollar opportunities. How death-like that must be, to have the world snatched from us when just a year earlier it had been offered as our castle. Lazenby did such a fine job, too. All that romancing humanizes a character usually portrayed as a feelingless fornicator.

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If there is one characteristic for which Hunt and the producers could not criticize Lazenby, it is the panache with which the newbie carries the clothes. So many films emphasize women’s fashion. The Bond films are truly a man’s directory on the art of a suit. I myself had a white dinner jacket back in high school. I never wore it, until a chance came when I was awarded the gold medal for an oratory competition and was sent to Jakarta to represent the International School Manila (ISM) in a competition that involved all the International Schools in Southeast Asia. The subject I spoke on was nothing that pertained to the current events of the day. Never a politico, I am more facund on matters about life that novels impart – the futility of revenge, love, dignity in the face of defeat, philosophies that the heroes who populate the pages of Alexander Dumas live by, Dumas being the author who most resonated with me at 18. What a manly accomplishment it was, how Bond debonair talking of me, to have beaten half a dozen or so contestants in my high school, many of who were vocal in my history class about everything from Communism to Ronald Reagan. Those who had doubted me because of my silence as a student at once deemed my speech and my delivery of it as “excellent.”

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In front of my parents’ bathroom mirror, I practiced my winning speech in preparation for my big turn in Jakarta, white dinner jacket on me paired with beige trousers purchased during the previous summer in New York. Black pants would have been too formal. The competition was a day affair. Day called for a light color, and my attire was the closest thing in my wardrobe to a cream suit, the kind James Bond wears the morning after his first night with Tracy. I rehearsed every pause, every drop of the voice upon a particular vowel, memorized every word. And what words they were, straight out of an SAT manual: perspicacious, pertinacious, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious…

I deserve to be up there, I thought in Jakarta. The final five orators were on center stage in an auditorium with every seat filled. I had not made it past the elimination process. Days earlier, the contestants had delivered their speeches in a classroom to a pair of judges. One judge commented that I was bombastic. That was enough to do me in. As I sat in the auditorium while a girl at the podium clasped her hands to the ceiling in imploring the audience to feed the children of Ethiopia, all I thought was that if she had a shot at the crown, then my strike out was more a matter of bad luck than of bad performance. White dinner jacket, so long.

Three years later, at the American College in Paris, I redeemed myself. In an oratory class, a girl handed me a note in which she wrote that whenever I speak, people’s jaws drop, and at the end of the semester, I was awarded the grand prize at an oratory competition. Such good fortune can happen to anyone. When it strokes a famous face, how the angels sing. Take George Lazenby. He never became a movie star. Nevertheless, the only instance he ever got our attention is in the James Bond installment that has increased in eminence over the course of time, and this in no small part because of him. Odd how things work out.

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“A Streetcar Named Desire”: Forever Young

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“You don’t see acting like that anymore, not nowadays,” my sister once marveled. She was speaking of Vivien Leigh’s performance as Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951). I was a senior in high school, while my sister had come home to Manila for a year after having graduated college in New York. The two of us with our mother would watch betamax tapes of studio era classics, and “A Streetcar Named Desire” was requisite viewing, masterpiece that it is. I have seen it on a few more occasions ever since. True to the movie’s stature, the fusion of story, star power, and talent grows more outstanding with each passing decade, a rarity among the CGI-generated spectacles of the second millennium, all produced for the consumption of an audience medicated on Adderall.

For those who have witnessed Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski melt the screen, he a creature of brawn, sweat, and swagger, you understand his effect on a young me as a beast that offsets an aging Southern belle. Blanche herself dubs him a “subhuman animal,” which is precisely what makes him irresistible. The way she scopes his torso as he throws off a perspiration-drenched tee speaks of a crippling desire. She can barely contain herself. “I was played out. You know what played out is? My youth was suddenly gone up the water-spout,” she cries when the truth of her leaving Mississippi for New Orleans to stay with sister, Stella (Kim Hunter), and Stella’s husband, Stanley, surfaces: a scandal that involved a minor. Back then, the ephebophilia went over my head. I was 17. Now…

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“I’m at a strange age,” I told my friend, Wendy. “I don’t know whether to feel young or old.” I turn 49 this month, January. Withal back cramps and knee stiffness from hours of sitting sedentary in an office, I weight train four days a week, boast a full set of naturally black hair on my head, and walk with agility. I’ve been told that I could pass for my thirties, and compared to my contemporaries, I am a kid, wrinkles none. Although I’m flattered at the dismay folks express at my age, the inconsistency of my actual years to my appearance frustrates me. I sense I’m a fraud whenever guys I meet a decade or more my junior assume I am a contemporary. I don’t dare mention the truth. Sensitive as women on the subject, we gay men are insensitive on hook-up sites about our discrimination against mature men. (“Young guys only. You know who you are… No fats. No fems. No oldies…”) If I am young, it is to someone who is at minimum age a septuagenarian. To my statement that I feel like a dirty old man when eying a vicenarian, Wendy said, “You are.”

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Strange age, indeed. Take my gym buddy, Ed, who celebrates his birthday every October. Ed was born in 1966. He is 12 years his boyfriend’s senior, and based on the two years he and Julian have been dating, he swears that a generation gap need not be a factor for a couple in love. He also advises that I play around while I’ve still got the wares to catch a fellow’s eye. In other words, I am near the end of my shelf life. I’ve had a long run so far, one that far exceeds Blanche DuBois’s. Vivien Leigh was 35 when she starred in the stage production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” at London’s West End, 37 in the Hollywood film version. Since she was cast to play Tennessee Williams’s most troubled heroine, we can assume Blanche is within Leigh’s age range, and like Leigh, she remains lovely. A magnolia delicacy along with a flourish of the hand to recitations of poetry charm Mitch (Karl Malden). Mitch is unique among Stanley’s group of poker cads. He is urbane and complimentary, a gentleman in a fedora hat who courts Blanche with dinner, music, and flowers – the trappings of a perfect facade.

Blanche has been lying about her past and she’s been concealing her age. I may not have a shady history that needs a glossing over, but I am guilty of the latter. I used to quote my birth year at some years south so that I could be permitted into bars. Then I switched to quoting it at some years north. Now on certain online sites I block the information. So I have encounters with guys of the “like awesome like” generation. Once the moment is over, it is over. No harm done. A date, however, is something else. In this, I am no fabricator; I believe in honesty. The instant I sense a rapport, I declare that I’m in my late forties. Men have responded favorably, no matter that I don’t fall into the age criteria stipulated on their profiles. Herein is the irony: none of them might have rung my doorbell had I been upfront about being close to 50. Then again, they never asked, and because they never asked, I never told. That I should take the initiative to lay my cards on the table has garnered me points. If I had lost, it would have been worth the risk. Love is too fragile of a gift to be earned with a lie.

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Blanche DuBois’s fate serves as a cautionary tale. Her deceptions chew her to threads and swallow her in one gulp like lion’s meat. What loneliness. What unfulfilled longings. The Southern belle of aristocratic lineage and exquisite beauty could have had it all. More tragic is Vivien Leigh’s own fate. The actress would later say that playing Blanche “tipped me over into madness.” She so identified with the role that in film projects that followed, she would slip into Blanche’s character and speak lines from the Tennessee Williams piece. She was institutionalized for schizophrenia and bipoliarism, during which she received electric shock treatments that scarred her temples, and with her marriage to Laurence Olivier having ended in divorce, she indulged in sexual relations with sailors and cab drivers, the kindness of strangers her only solace. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-2000s-present/begin-again-alone-on-a-pedestal/)

Of course, dirty old whatever is a matter of individual. For these couples, age takes the back seat to love: Humphrey Bogart (born in 1899) and Lauren Bacall (born in 1924); Carlo Ponti (born in 1912) and Sophia Loren (born in 1934); Robert Wolders (born in 1936) and Audrey Hepburn (born in 1929). They were together through ailment, separating only in death, and thus silenced skeptics on the pairing of naiveté and wisdom. Their counterparts today are Percy Gibson (born in 1965) and Joan Collins (born in 1933). “You go, girl,” was posted all over Facebook upon news of their nuptials. I admit that I didn’t think they would last. “She’s rich and famous. She can buy any young bloke she wants,” I posted to a friend. Collins and Gibson have been married 13 years. No fluke, those two. Now lest I forget, here’s a duo that lists as one of my favorites, Christopher Isherwood (born in 1904) and Don Bachardy (born in 1934). Slightly over 30 years apart, the author and the teen met at a Los Angeles beach party. Isherwood was 49. Bachardy was three months shy of his 19th birthday. The attraction was instantaneous, Bachardy would say in a documentary that chronicles the magnetism of their union, “Chris and Don: A Love Story” (2008). With one kiss, they embarked on a voyage that lasted over three decades.

The irony in “A Streetcar Named Desire” is that our heroine isn’t really that old nor would she ever be. She is immortal as Vivien Leigh at the zenith of the actress’s creative prowess, skin as incandescent as ever and eyes crystalline hypnotic, a candle that blazes the screen. “I don’t want realism,” Blanche says. “I want magic.” She achieves this, her deepest desire. As the cardinal force in a story that defies death, Blanche DuBois is forever young.

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“Peggy Sue Got Married”: The Odyssey of a High School Reunion

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To those apologetic for decisions made in high school, don’t be. The irreparability of time gone by aside, perhaps the decision was a wise move to our teen sensibilities. In “Peggy Sue Got Married” (1986), our title character (Kathleen Turner) sighs, “If only I knew then what I know now.” We’ve all uttered this invocation at some point, and it’s actually not a good idea. We form our life philosophy largely from having overcome past trials – break-ups, career ventures gone wrong, economic straits. For us to possess in our adolescence the sagacity of a person at 40-something, then we need to experience through our childhood the lows of adulthood. So long, Santa Claus.

What prompts Peggy Sue Kelcher’s uncertainty is the corner the woman is in. High school sweetheart turned husband, Charlie Bodell (Nicolas Cage), has allowed another woman (Ginger Taylor) to come between them. Divorce is in the offing, until Peggy Sue attends their 25th class reunion, where crowned homecoming queen, she faints, and upon regaining consciousness, she is transported back to 1960, the year she and Charlie were seniors. Full aware of their fate in 1985, she continuously snubs Charlie’s advances for a date. Yet date they ultimately do because she can no longer fight the rekindling of feelings for him.

Such is the durability of adolescence. As old as we become, high school leaves an ineffaceable imprint on us. Equally as wondrous is that those four years can grace us with an actual Peggy Sue. For me, she would be my friend Wendy, whom I’ve known for nearly 35 years, but never more so than when I recently assisted her on an essay for a scholarship towards a therapist certification. Wendy wrote of her upbringing under Chinese-Filipino parents, disciplinarians who enforced obedience and education. Until high school, she adhered to their rules. She attended Maryknoll, an all-girls Catholic school, which conditioned her on the conservative values of no boyfriend, no nights out, and no long nails. To this day the student body at Maryknoll is homogenous; the girls dress in uniforms that consist of a green skirt topped with a white shirt and paired with sensible black shoes; and since perms are prohibited, they wear their hair straight, an occasional clip or headband the sole item that individualizes them. Wendy transferred to the International School Manila (ISM) because her parents recognized the profit of a worldly education, one that they planned would culminate with their daughter attending college in the United States.

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Although Wendy wanted this future for herself, as well, ISM proved to be a culture shock. Classes are co-educational with students that hail from six continents, lending to an amalgamation of nationals, each with its own set of values. During Wendy’s and my enrollment there in the 1980s, uniforms were not the rule. Americans, who constituted a major part of the population, sported rock logo t-shirts and sneakers, while we Filipinos made for a pristine appearance in button-down Ralph Lauren and loafers. They were outspoken in the classroom, and couples were unabashed in corridors with their displays of affection, in contrast to us Filipinos, who are reared to acquiesce to authority and to whom sex is a silent matter. Even so, Wendy made friends fast; exposure to diversity stoked an outgoing nature. Then senior year, she got pregnant.

For a semester, I didn’t see Wendy or know of her whereabouts. Neither was I in the loop as to the reason for her absence. Because certain plans are immutable, she was able to graduate then proceed to the States, where she matriculated at Mills College in Oakland. I visited her during spring break my sophomore year at Tufts, and only then did she tell me she had a daughter. Over the years, I would learn of her estrangement from her parents in the months that led to the end of our days at ISM. In her essay she divulges the darkness of this period:

I am aware that teen pregnancy is rampant, but when it happens to you, you think only of yourself, and not in a selfish way either, rather with an anguish that eats at you as you wonder how the life that is forming in your womb will survive when you’re not even sure of how to survive tomorrow.

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A baby in “Peggy Sue Got Married” compels Charlie to consider a future beyond a vocation in music. The girl he’s been chasing after has allowed him to knock her up. History should not be altered, Peggy Sue realizes, even when given the chance. Although she is too young to be a mother, she takes the leap yet again in order to have the child she so loves, and owing to the discernment of a 43-year-old with which she is able to relive the critical age of 18, she sees that nothing is ever hopeless.

We ourselves may not have the convenience of time travel, but we are endowed with the capacity for hindsight, and hindsight begets wisdom:

Vulnerable, I could have fallen into drugs, suffered from an eating disorder, lost myself to the temptations that seduce the young and the confused. No. I gave birth. My parents embraced my child. I went to college. As tear-ridden as that moment in my life was, I see it now as beautiful because of the woman I have evolved into as a result.

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So reflects my friend, Wendy, on her 17-year-old self. As she and Peggy Sue exemplify, the past can also educate us about family and forgiveness. “Teenagers are weird, and you’re the weirdest,” Nancy (Sofia Coppola) says. Nancy is Peggy Sue’s little sister. She is 12, and she has reacted with revulsion at our heroine’s hug and profession of sibling love: “I really want us to be closer. I have enough unresolved relationships in my life.” Mom (Barbara Harris), dad (Don Murray), and everyone else in the Kelcher circle are just as confused as Nancy over Peggy Sue’s puppy excitement to be home on what to them is just another day and at her one-liners incongruous with a pubescent. (“I gave them (cigarettes) up years ago.”) We, however, follow Peggy Sue with a nostalgia that aches. She speaks for us all as she says to her mother, “Oh, Mom. I forgot you were ever so young.”

Peggy Sue isn’t the perfect daughter. She gets grounded. She insults her father for his purchase of a red and white Edsel. She teases her sister. The second time around, she is warm to all, well aware that this is an opportunity to avoid personal rifts before age deepens a grudge, especially with those who pass on early, and she does not hesitate to say sorry to those she wrongs. Neither is Peggy Sue hard on herself. She has made the right choice with Charlie, despite the disappointment that befalls them on the year of their silver wedding anniversary. The odyssey to the past has taught Peggy Sue that the future is not for regrets, but for making amends.

In her essay Wendy never once expresses the wish to have done matters differently. Even if she had taken other paths in high school, they would have led to trials of their own. The same goes for the rest of us. And so we espouse life, come what may, smarter than ever.

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“The Wings of the Dove”: When to Fight, When to Quit

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Milly Theale (Alison Elliott) has everything in her favor – youth, beauty, wealth, benevolence – except time. She is dying. She is also a pawn. It is the turn of the 20th century. The Industrial Revolution has witnessed an alliance between the old world and the new that is singular to its epoch: the marriage of European noblemen to American heiresses. Empires indestructible for centuries have crumbled to modernization, placing British blue bloods at the mercy of the tycoons of commerce. To preserve a lifestyle of transatlantic cruises and country manors, penurious royals offer titles to the likes of the Astors, Vanderbilts, and Whitneys in exchange for a dive into their coffers.

In “The Wings of the Dove” (1997), New York wows London society in the person of Milly. She’s given a chance at a ladyship when a lord (Alex Jennings) financially strapped requests a betrothal. Milly declines, for she is interested in another man, a journalist of charm but with no pedigree and who himself has an empty bank account. Merton Densher (Linus Roache) likes Milly, too. He even falls in love with her, which confounds matters. He’s supposed to be in love with Kate Croy (Helena Bonham Carter), the ward and niece to Aunt Maude (Charlotte Rampling), doyenne of the beau monde. He and Kate want to marry, only Aunt Maude disapproves of the match given his humble circumstance. Because a woman in love is resolute, Kate refuses to comply with her aunt. She devises a strategy to win Merton the grande dame’s consent, that Merton seduce Milly to include him in her will. This he does, and he and Kate get more than what they bargain for.

Flash forward a hundred years later. Times have changed. The criteria to be a member of the elite is in constant flux in the 21st century. Classes intermarry. Anybody has a chance at upward mobility. Hail to Kate Middleton, the commoner turned duchess and future queen of England. She joins ranks with movie stars, rock stars, and supermodels – the new breed of aristocracy – as tabloid material. The one factor sacrosanct through the periods is our stance as a warrior to be with the person we love. With this comes complexities as ancient as the first embrace: What sign do we look for to wield our sword? And if the beatings persist, at what point do we accept our loss?

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A friend a few months ago asked me if I was being a “defeatist” in my pursuit of a bartender I had approached while he was at work. Although my response was no, Pablo’s use of the word defeatist reverberated with me. I never thought my wooing of Steve to be a battle, as a third party was not involved nor were elements conspiring to keep us apart. The question stated that Steve himself was the force I needed to overwhelm. Pablo had reason for this. I had been agog over my first conversation with Steve. He would hold me by the wrists and give an inviting blink. He also related to my literary inclination. Science fiction is his genre. Aliens, he explained, embody a disconnection that we all sometimes feel as strangers in the midst of a crowd. “I’m really a loner,” Steve said – another commonality between us; he spends his days reading kindle. And then, “I wrote part of a novel in high school.”

That Steve referenced a project at a phase in his life that for me was 34 years ago made me gulp. High school can’t be too far away for him, I thought. The man was born in 1985. While he was in his cradle, I fretted over my college acceptances. But it was a promising first conversation, and one overdue. I had been noticing him for two years at the gym. Approximately my height (5’7”) with the physique of a wrestler, dark hair and eyes and a sturdy nose complimented by a pair of glasses, he’s a little bit geek, a little bit jock, and one hundred percent sexy. The night I had the guts to introduce myself, he was in a pair of tight briefs, his uniform at 440 Castro every Monday, that being underwear night. On this occasion red was his color of choice. The green signal to test my luck had occurred at the gym a few weeks earlier. Steve gave me a prolonged look as he walked across the weight area. Our eyes met, and they remained connected for much more than a second. I was aware of where he works because I would use the men’s room at 440 Castro before hopping onto the underground MUNI for home. To pacify my nerves that Monday, I reasoned that as a bartender, he has to be cordial, clumsy with conversation should I be; cordiality is the nature of his job.

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Me: I see you at the gym often. I’ve always wanted to introduce myself. I’m Raf.

Steve: Yeah, I see you around, too. Steve.

Me: I always come here to use the restroom. Don’t worry. I’m not stalking you. Only a little.

Steve: (laughter)

Jackpot! Whatever the cons I perceived to a connection gave way to rationale in the course of an hour. First of all, age. I could allow the wide gap in our years to be a factor and thus ignore him. Even then, Steve and I would continue to exist, so we may as well exist together, even as pals (with benefits). As for his being a bartender, which another friend would later say could be cause for incompatibility to my profession of writer and educator, I defended Steve on account of his youth, that he’s in the beginning stage of his journey as a man. However, none of this is the reason for my so-called defeatism. As promising as our introductory words were, Steve was polite a week later when I returned for another go, and that was it. The third meeting was even worse. It was a blunder. I sat on a bar stool, silent and ill at ease as a dunce in a corner, while Steve darted from one end of the counter to the other, mixing drinks and flashing smiles at customers, paired with a few amicable words. Then I ran into Pablo on the street near 440 Castro a few days afterwards.

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Kate Croy avows that she would do anything and everything for Merton. This is what convinces the man to use Milly. The intimacy that develops between the two permits Milly a share of life’s treasures outside of her gilded cage, and as Merton becomes ever more entrenched in Kate’s scheme, he gives Kate an ultimatum, that she accepts him as he is, nameless and moneyless. The heiress must be set free, a pawn no more. “No,” I told Pablo. I could not possibly be ceding to defeat because this attraction to Steve isn’t love. Where then is my battle? Love is the kiss of destiny between Kate and Merton. Love is Milly coming to life when Merton enters a room. Love is Merton seeing Milly for the beauty of her soul.

Still, Pablo could have a point. Talking to a guy while he’s at work isn’t conducive to discovering the potential mate in him, what more when the place is a gay bar, distractions galore – drinks, men, music, men, erotic videos, men, and more men. “Ask if he’d be up to doing something social. An art gallery opening. A picnic,” Pablo said. To every suggestion, I responded that I didn’t sense any chemistry on Steve’s part, that courtship should not be this hard. The prolonged look, the holding of my wrist, the blinks as if Steve were smooching me with his eyes… they might have meant nothing or they might have meant something, be it for a moment, which itself poses a brain-twister. That one moment should give me a mission to fight for. Love could be in hiding. Never mind the things I told Steve at the gym in the months following my dunce night, things that have caused me to bite my tongue since I imagine he reacted with a roll of the eyes. (“You look tired… You seem sad…”) He did check me out one Monday at 440 Castro when I stripped down to my undies, and he really doesn’t know me. I am still a story he has yet to read. It doesn’t hurt that Steve might find me physically attractive either.

“The Wings of the Dove” is high drama about high stakes, a tale of conventions now obsolete. Then again, not wholly. I’m a simple man, and Steve is simply a bartender… yet how tangled my situation. Whatever it is that rouses the heart to palpitate, it never goes out of style.

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“Passion of Love”: A Burning Heart

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I wonder about women of a certain age in a country such as the Philippines, where people swear by the dogmas of tradition, who have never married, what their history is, what loves and passions might have torn them apart. My family had a cook named Lita. She was in her fifties and had been with us for close to 25 years when she suffered a stroke while in her sleep. She couldn’t speak upon awaking, and paralysis incapacitated her. The medic who tended to Lita informed my parents that had he arrived a minute later, she would have died. An operation was performed, followed by months of rehabilitation. This was a year and a half ago. Lita is now able to walk with a cane, although her speech remains impaired, and she is no longer under our employment. She is back in her hometown. The other housekeepers maintain contact with Lita. They tell my mother that her brother, who is meant to be her caregiver, is never present except to leech off her for money. “Does she have anybody with her?” I asked Cory, our current cook, over Christmas last month. “No,” she said. “So she’s lonely,” I said.

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Yet Lita doesn’t let on about her difficulties. During her recovery, the maids were impressed by her resilience. “She pushes herself to get better,” they told me. When in San Francisco I had first heard of her stroke, I questioned what my outlook on the future would be had I been in her situation (would I will to live or would I choose to pull the plug?), and then I lamented that she would no longer accompany my mother on my mother’s visits. Still, her presence remains. Lita is a little woman, thin as a whippet with a black bob that frames a sallow face and hands made sturdy from years of grooming the kitchen into her dominion. Despite my mother’s and my prodding, she would prefer to stay in the condo rather than to tour the city, busying herself if not with our meals then with the laundry and other errands. On her downtime, she read Tagalog romance paperbacks. A cousin came to stay with us once, and she said to me, “Lita has a ring on her finger. I’m afraid to ask about it. It could be a sad story.”

If a sad story were linked to Lita’s ring, then it would be one, I imagine, on a cinematic scope. A woman hungry for affection, frail, secluded… a heroine of such a description exists in Fosca (Valeria D’Obici). The film is “Passion of Love” (1981), set in 1860s Italy, in a provincial castle that serves as a military outpost. There Captain Giorgio Bacchetti (Bernard Giraudeau) has been stationed. His dispatchment separates him from Clara (Laura Antonelli), his girlfriend in Milan, a woman beautiful in the classic sense of the word – angelic lips, elegant in form and demeanor, soft spoken – a contrast to Fosca, who is sickly and brusque. Under the care of her cousin, the colonel (Massimo Girotti), Fosca lives in the castle. Giorgio learns of her residency upon hearing her cough echo through the halls. Curiosity results in a meeting, and while he is appalled by Fosca’s appearance, he learns she has a poetic vision of love. She lives vicariously through romance novels, for although she was once a wife, it was to a count who had duped her into marriage only so that he could skedaddle with her dowry. Now Fosca wants Giorgio. He doesn’t want her, yet how persistent and near she is, and how increasingly far Clara grows and difficult, besides; Clara is married and mother to a young boy.

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Melodrama feeds the soul. We might consider ourselves above the violins, too sophisticated to accede to the contrivances of emotion. For all our snobbery, we can’t deny that tears and kisses have their value; love is our first introduction to life. I shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, that Lita should be on the par of Fosca in her consumption of epic romances, albeit those penned by pulp authors and not by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Whatever the literary caliber, love stories serve a primary purpose. So potent is the appeal of melodrama that even Stephen Sondheim, a man of refined culture if there ever is one, created “Passion,” a musical based upon “Passion of Love,” lavish with wondrous declarations of devotement, many of which come from Fosca’s lips:

For now I’m seeing love like none I’ve ever known, a love as pure as breath, as permanent as death, implacable as stone, a love that, like a knife, has cut into a life I wanted left alone… Loving you is not a choice, it’s who I am… I do not read to think. I do not read to learn. I do not read to search for truth. I know the truth. The truth is hardly what I need. I read to dream…

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To dream. I’m on the same page as Foscsa. I dare say that Lita is, too. I don’t seek answers in films and books to questions about our journey on earth; rather, films and books are semblances of the lessons in life to which I am already a student. Whatever wisdom I gain, I will do so in reality. Not yet knowing what soul-stirring events I will experience is what gives birth to dreams, and “Passion of Love” is one story that insinuates no dream is improbable, which is what attributes Fosca her authority. She is a pestilence to Giorgio – omnipresent, tiresome, noxious. She is aware of this. Despite her apologies and endeavors at keeping her distance, the intensity of all that she is lingers in the air, infiltrates Giorgio’s thoughts, so that much about the invalid that the captain initially considers a nuisance causes a reversal in his feelings for her.

Love can happen to anyone. We know this. Even so, the questions we confront are ceaseless, riddles for every generation: What triggers love? What is it about a person that excites passion? Why do some of us grow old in solitude? Some years ago I watched a woman on TV talk about her son, a kid between seven and ten with burn scars that deformed his face. She recounted an incident at a restaurant, where the boy noticed seated a few tables away a man and a woman intimate the way lovers are. He turned to his mother and asked, “I’m not going to have that, am I?” Sincerity glistened his mother’s eyes as his mother repeated her answer to the viewers, that people will not always be kind to him, kind as he himself may be, but somewhere, somehow, someone will see beneath the surface all the good that he is; therein love will flourish.

These are hopeful words, neither delusional nor pandering. Dreams and hope go hand in hand. They’re a necessity as much as the air we breathe, the foundations of a future. So some of us may never marry. That doesn’t mean our hearts are dormant.

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