“An Affair to Remember”: The Nearest Thing to Heaven

“Winter must be cold for those with no warm memories. We’ve already missed the spring.”

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Love hurts and love delights, but never in equal measure. Because all things come to an end, the best we can do is to assure that as we look back on a voyage, we do so with contentment. Relationships, be they romantic or platonic, have their share of rough seas. Some sink. Some are smooth sailing until a divergent path causes both parties to drift their separate ways. Some reach one destination. Some lose their course only to emerge further on intact from a gale.

We always hope that the people we welcome into our lives are for keeps. I am grateful that I have never been betrayed… every friend and love interest have been trustworthy… though I no longer remain in contact with many of those to whom I was closest. Facebook doesn’t count in sustaining a relationship. The photos on a person’s account wall don’t include us; messaging is a cop out for a heart-to-heart conversation; and clicking the Like option to a posting barely expresses the extent to which we care. Instead of regaining for us an intimacy lost, images of our once dearest pals getting married, starting families, and growing old reveal how they have thrived without us.

As a freshman at Tufts University, I was a kid fresh off the plane from the Philippines, socially gauche and intimidated by the Greek system, which was a major component to assimilating into campus life. My roommates, one from Puerto Rico and the other from a Massachusetts town called Franklin, rushed at the same fraternity and formed a bond as brothers. Even so, Jorge and David F accepted me as a buddy. With Jorge, the connection was cultural. We Filipinos are Latin in our propensity for dance music and melodrama. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/the-law-of-desire-lunacy-and-obsession/)  He and I were more Barry White than Bruce Springsteen, “Love’s Theme” our favorite White composition, and we regaled over balladeers to Tagalog and Spanish songs affecting heartache with voices that cracked, as if they were breaking down in tears. Jorge had hawk eyes and Ernest Borgnine brows, thick and bushy. His favorite past time: weekend fiestas with other Latinos at Tufts. David F, an all-American athlete handsome in the mode of a news anchor (think Tom Brokaw), possessed an openness to diverse cultures no matter that he had never boarded an airplane until November of our freshman year to spend Thanksgiving in New York. He was the first person I came out to, and after our graduation up until the second millennium, we kept each other abreast with our jobs and personal happenings.

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The candidness in my friendship with David F bolstered my confidence as a gay man so that when I moved to San Francisco in 1990, I found my niche in the LGBT community. Eric, a flirt of the highest order, constantly wore tight shorts to show off muscular legs. Tony was his foil, a gregarious presence with an enormous smile and a baritone voice. They were both Filipino. Sean was Vietnamese and himself into weight training. On the subdued side, he was soft spoken and wore metal-rimmed glasses that gave him a studious air. David V was half Filipino, half Mexican, with full features and thick, high hair that never fell into disarray. Together we dined, worked out, and went clubbing. We exchanged opinions of what it was to be men of color in a subculture that promoted as the epitome of male desirability the Caucasian Adonis. At last, I found friends I could relate to, who empathized with my insecurities, struggle with self-image, and quest for love.

Each of these guys, from David F to David V, have blessed me with memories to cherish. “An Affair to Remember” (1957) occurs in several forms like the movie itself, which has undergone quite a few versions, the most popular being that with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. Nickie Ferrante (Grant) and Terry McKay (Kerr) meet on a cruise. The opening credits reveal the time of year. The trees in Central Park are bare of leaves. The ground is white. The silhouette of the Empire State building towers in the background behind a gauze of mist and snowflakes. Yet how warm it is on the cruise… companionship is the antidote for frostbites… and how can we ask for better company than two of the most beautiful movie stars of the day, entangled in an affair beset with conflicts. Nickie is fiancé to an American heiress (Neva Patterson). Terry is girlfriend to a rich man (Richard Denning) who provides her with financial support.

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The two are so sophisticated that it’s incredulous he’s actually hard on cash, laboring as a billboard painter upon terminating his engagement on account of Terry, while she, single again for the sake of Nickie, earns a paycheck as a nightclub singer. He’s also got a grandma (Cathleen Nesbitt) who lives in the South of France, in a house perched on a hill. Baroque furniture decorates the interior, while a miniature Eden beautifies the premise. Grandmother Janou is hardly lacking in funds. Still, an obstacle other than another man and another woman needs to prevent our lovers from living happily ever after as the ship docks in New York.

So Nickie and Terry agree to meet at the top of the Empire State Building in six months, the projected time Nickie gives himself to be an economically stable man, which indeed he becomes as his canvasses sell like lemonade on a blistering summer day. “I was looking up,” Terry later says of the afternoon when she was rushing through the Manhattan traffic to keep their rendezvous. “It was the nearest thing to heaven,” she says of the iconic edifice. “You were there.” Nickie might have been. Nonetheless, averting our eyes to the sky instead of focusing them on a busy street is a reckless move.

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What a voyage for Nickie and Terry. As Terry says on the final night of the cruise, “We’ve already missed the spring.” Since they are of a certain age, they see this as their last chance at true love, and therefore, the decision to go full steam ahead, whether or not they reach a shared destination, lose their course, or sink. Whatever the result, they would live adored in each other’s memories. As for me, my own aforestated friendships didn’t come to a stormy halt. Since some of us moved to other cities, geography caused us to drift apart. The one relationship charged with tension would be that with Doug. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/edward-scissorhands-a-volatile-friendship/)

Doug and I last saw each other this September, when he visited me from Los Angeles and stayed at my place. We’ve been friends since 1991. That would be close to 26 years. He’s Mid-Western American. I’m Filipino. Despite the cultural difference, we are similar in our global education (he had spent a college year in Scotland while I in France) and affinity for nice clothes (Ralph Lauren pants for less than a hundred bucks at I. Magnin’s closing sale). Above all, we come from a common family background, one that emphasizes traveling as a means of intellectual enhancement and personal growth. Paired with a physical attraction, we had plenty to talk about, which has not been the case in recent years. Much has gone on with us that we have not confided in each other. Doug has compared our rift to a sibling leaving for boarding school; the kinship remains, but the distance has caused a change in the relationship. His two-week visit was curtailed to two days, during which a yelling match erupted over my persistence for an Uber that never showed up and his mess of food crumbs in my kitchen.

“Turn the boat around,” Terry McKay implores in “An Affair to Remember.” It is now summer in New York. Autumn will f0llow soon enough, winter in its stead, and then Terry will be another year older. Hers is an impossible request, for in life, the past can only be relived in remembrances and, when that fails, in art. But we do have second chances, even when we’ve missed the spring. For as long as we are alive, nothing is ever finished.

Friends and lovers have a way of coming back.

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“Brief Encounter”: No Ordinary Love

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“This can’t last. This misery can’t last… Nothing lasts really, neither happiness nor despair. Not even life lasts very long. There’ll come a time in the future when I shan’t mind about this anymore.”

Here’s the thing about passion. No matter how happily married we may be, devoted to our spouses in the comfort of a cozy home, our needs and future secured, a gorgeous stranger appears like an angel descended to earth and removes a piece of grit from our eye as we are about to board a train. It’s a scene we only know as true in novels and films. Alas, because it has become our reality, we refuse to let the moment pass, regardless the stakes. Nothing in life is entirely an accident. For such magic to spark what would have been a typical day must be a message from the forces of destiny. So begins the romance between our hapless couple, Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) and Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard), in “Brief Encounter” (1945).

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When at attempt at art produces an outcome that is either fabulous or feeble, we know it. The work moves us or it doesn’t. We applaud or we wince. While individual expression is paramount to an artist, certain rules are unbreakable. For one, shun clichés. Every narrative since the inception of storytelling has generally followed a prescribed path: 1) the introduction of a set of characters and the problem that besets them; 2) the catalyst that incites the characters to action; 3) the conflict that causes them to change; and 4) the resolution wherein they face their problem with a new gained wisdom that leads to the conclusion. Clichés are booby traps at every turn, particularly with a love story. Cast a beautiful woman and a handsome man as the lead characters. Make one or both of them married. Have them at first resist temptation and then succumb to it. Let guilt weigh on them. The conclusion is up for grabs, but no matter what, lamentations of heartache are compulsory. What a tremendous undertaking indeed to create a romance more on the level of Gustave Flaubert (http://www.rafsy.com/art-of-storytelling/in-defense-of-flaubert-and-austen/) than Nicholas Sparks (http://www.rafsy.com/films-2000s-present/the-notebook-do-not-forget-do-not-forget/).

Somehow, “Brief Encounter” accomplishes in avoiding paperback melodrama while remaining true to the arc of a traditional narrative. The situation that involves our lovers is really so very “ordinary,” which is a word Laura Jesson as narrator repeats to underscore the surprise of how dramatic her story itself turns out:

“I’m an ordinary woman. I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people. It all started on an ordinary day, in the most ordinary place in the world, the refreshment room at Milford Junction… I looked up and saw a man come in from the platform. He had on an ordinary mac. His hat was turned down, and I didn’t even see his face. He got his tea at the counter and turned. Then I did see his face. It was rather a nice face.”

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Laura and Alec are British, proper and eloquent in the way folks who spend much time with books are. No tumultuous condition such as war poisons their passion with urgency and death. No locale fabled for romance serves as the backdrop. The setting is 1938. The relationship that burgeons between Laura and Alec happens in the most mundane fashion, a lunch followed by a movie. They are each spouse to another, and because they rendezvous in a town that like any other town is prone to gossip, they limit their kisses to the shadows in the underground tunnel at Milford Junction and a deserted boathouse – places to which few people would venture – as if they were felons. Theirs is a dilemma that bedevils all those in the throes of a forbidden love, depicted through an intensity of emotions that overpowers banality. And this is why “Brief Encounter” is a classic.

I myself am no stranger to a forbidden love. In the decade I was born, men of my tribe were jailed, lost jobs and families, and institutionalized on account of their affection for other men. Stonewall paved the way towards their decriminalization, and in the close to 50 years since, we gays and lesbians in America have united to establish a political force that has earned us employment rights, military acceptance, and marriage equality. Nevertheless, we continue to face incrimination in countries slow to recognize civil rights. Russia imposes fines on gay activist groups, the members of which the government deems as “foreign agents,” and in Uganda, homosexuals are sentenced to life imprisonment. China bans depictions of LGBT people on the television, and Iran enforces corporal punishment.

Truly, we are all ordinary men and women guilty of no harm to society. Our only fault according to those who condemn is our natural propensity for those we love. Even in America, for all the progress we have achieved, a return to the status quo is imminent. President-elect Donald Trump has been appointing anti-LGBT politicians to his cabinet, starting with his vice presidential running mate, Mike Pence, a fundamentalist Christian who as governor of Indiana sought to legalize conversion therapy, a procedure that allegedly transforms homosexuals into heterosexuals through psychoanalysis.

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A former colleague at San Francisco AIDS Foundation recently exchanged marital vows with his partner. “I am proud of my husband,” he has posted on Facebook. However, with the tension that has permeated the air in the aftermath of the November 8 elections, he is afraid to hold his husband’s hand in public. We have reverted to 1938. Hate crimes have spiked up, reportedly committed in the name of Donald Trump. A group that calls itself “Americans for a Better Way” sent copies of a letter that demeans Muslims as “a vile and filthy people” to at least five mosques in California, propagating genocide. At Fort Hancock High School in El Paso, Texas, white students during a volleyball game paraded Trump placards as they chanted “build the wall” at their Hispanic classmates. (http://edition.cnn.com/2016/11/10/us/post-election-hate-crimes-and-fears-trnd/) “Gay families = burn in hell. Trump 2016” read a sign placed on a car in North Carolina. (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-elections/donald-trump-president-supporters-attack-muslims-hijab-hispanics-lgbt-hate-crime-wave-us-election-a7410166.html) The bigotry in Europe that culminated in the Holocaust is jeopardizing the stability of a nation universally respected as a stalwart of democracy.

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In “Brief Encounter,” provincialism as much as propriety constrict Laura Jesson and Dr. Alec Harvey. In contrast to the goings-on in high offices and the price denizens of a land pay as a consequence, theirs is a trivial affair, a paltry cause to a domestic disruption that has no ramifications on the safety of neighbors. But the affair does raise an awareness of our own prerogative to love… to love our partners, our culture, our community, ourselves… and once this is questioned, then so too is our standing as citizens of the world. The mooring of an ordinary existence threatens to break. We feel a passion we never have before, an ardency to retain what is rightfully ours.

History repeats itself as stories repeat themselves, for an event does not last unless it is recorded and retold. Neither is everything with us cliché. Despite the collectiveness of an experience, no two people live and remember it the same way.

“On the Waterfront”: Sin and Salvation

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“You was my brother, Charley. You shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit, so I wouldn’t have to take them dives for the short-end money. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody instead of a bum, which is what I am.”

Charley (Rod Steiger) is brother to Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), a dockworker informant for mobsters that exploit laborers at the waterfront. In this, one of cinema’s most famous lines, Terry grieves for his lot among the lowliest of humans. He had made a wrong choice, though one done out of family loyalty. Mobster head, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), had betted against Terry in a boxing match that could have put our hero in the big league. Terry had the skill, the drive, and the moves to be a champ, a title his for the taking. But for Friendly to win his bet, thus keeping Charley in good stead with the crook of a surrogate father, Terry took the plunge… in match after match, again and again… until his reputation dwindled from promising to hopeless. His name synonymous with loser, Terry finds himself under Friendly’s thumb. The situation doesn’t seem that bad, seeing that Charley had once been there and is now a big guy clad in fine threads.

One problem: Terry falls in love. The girl is bad news to Friendly. She’s Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint), sister to a dockworker Terry rats on and so in whose murder by Friendly’s hoodlums he unwittingly abets. Edie is Terry’s chance at salvation. The guy has never agreed with Friendly’s shady ways, though he had been complacent to act against Friendly since this was the only existence he had ever known. Plus, Charley has never looked so swell. Suddenly, here is a girl – porcelain fragile in appearance yet tough, unrelenting, and at the vanguard of civil justice – who awakens in Terry a conscience. The neighborhood priest, Father Barry (Karl Malden), is also on his back, ceaseless in his attempts to galvanize our hero towards vindication. Instead of double crossing his fellow downtrodden, Terry should battle against the real bad guys, cooperating with the cops to lock them in handcuffs. The pugilist can either stay a bum or prove himself a winner in the most important fight of his life.

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Gangsters and shoot-outs, men beaten to a pulp and men thrown off building rooftops… this is not the standard way of living for most of us. Still, “On the Waterfront” (1954) is a classic because something about it conveys a universal truth. Think of instances when we’ve wrestled with our conscience, when we’ve complied to the wishes of one to whom we felt indebted even though the decision was unsettling to our nerves. My own conscience was first put to the test at a very young age. John, my best friend in the fifth grade, convinced me to be an accomplice in stealing a packet of Sanrio stickers from a girl named Claudia. (Sanrio stickers… of all the idiocy.)

Claudia was an easy target. She was Chinese with brownish hair styled after a broom. Some of us guys taunted her with the sobriquet Claudia Kaboogabooger because she picked her nose. John and I were ourselves an odd coupling. I was called Fagalito, while he, being half Filipino and half American, went by the surname of Peralta when in the Philippines and Smith when in the United States. He was a thin boy with bristly hair, faint freckles, and a Richard Simmons aerobicized sprightliness. John got my complicity by telling me a tale of apples he used to pluck from a neighbor’s tree. When the neighbor caught him, rather than chastising or telling his parents, the man allowed him to continue plucking as many apples as he wanted for as long as he wanted. So theft was not a crime; it was a communal act. That settled it. I so wanted those Little Twin Stars and Hello Kitty adhesives.

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The robbery was easy. Each student was designated a cubby hole to store one’s things. The stickers were in an album with magnetized pages. We did it during recess, two packets each. We would have gotten away with it had John not given one packet to a girl he liked, Marianna, a dancer in ponytail who was walking around class with the loot pressed to her bosom. “She stole my stickers,” Claudia told me with eyes seething.

What happened next was a trial of loyalty and ethics. In “On the Waterfront,” Terry Malloy is childlike, a sensitive soul on the wrong side of the law due to familial allegiance, muddled over a killing his snitching precipitates. His boyish lamentation: “I thought they’d talk to him. I thought they’d talk to him and get him to dummy up. I figured the worst they was gonna do was lean on him a little bit.” I myself was perturbed over the hurt I had caused Claudia because she was somewhat of a friend. Her two older sisters were high school besties to my sister and remain close to her to this day. More than that, I had known John’s apple tale to be bogus; I just needed something to legitimize what we have all been taught goes against the grain of human decency.

Our teacher, Mrs. Engwa, beloved by us fifth graders for being motherly but young and pretty with long black hair held back by a decorative clip, had John, Claudia, and Marianna stay after class. John requested my presence, while Marianna requested the presence of her BFF, Sue, a Korean girl who cut the image of the pristine student – black-rimmed glasses, baby doll frocks, and a mullet cut. I couldn’t say no. Such guilt was already anchoring me down. “Who else is involved in this?” Mrs. Engwa asked John in a comforting tone, as two of the four sticker packets were yet unaccounted for. Sue, always assertive and smart, a pro of a philatelist at 11, adapted the tone of a judge. “Yes, John, who else?”

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John was quiet, didn’t budge. He refused to name the other guy. No matter how hard Mrs. Engwa and Sue coaxed, how intently Claudia and Marianna fixed eyes on him for the truth, he was quiet. We were seated at a rectangular desk, in an air-conditioned room with a carpeted floor – a cozy environment – but I was suffocating. I got off my chair, fell to my knees, and said, “It’s me. He made me do it.” In an instant, I revealed myself to be a thief, a liar, and a coward, pointing a finger at another in an effort to elude blame. A hush befell all, this mixture of dismay, disgust, and disappointment.

The stickers were returned to their rightful owner. Mrs. Engwa allowed us boys to go free, but warned that should we do this again, our parents would be notified. Within days, we were back to our name calling of Fagalito and Claudia Kaboogabooger, trading stamps, and gathering on the floor as Mrs. Engwa sat above us in a chair to read us a story. Such is childhood. We easily forgive and forget, and friendships are transient. Come the sixth grade, John and I barely talked. Still, some lessons stay with us for the rest of our lives. I had never felt uglier as I did at that moment of confession, on my knees and in tears. In retrospect, the incident strengthened my moral fiber.

There’s this perennial debate: is man inherently evil or is man inherently good? I believe in the latter. I see evil as a necessary trial to overcome in order for us to discover the path to righteousness. And so we cheer for Terry Malloy. Sure he’s a bum. But he’s got the smarts to admit it and the heart to do something about it.

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“The Searchers”/ “Les Cowboys”: We Belong… Neither Here nor There

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Some stories are so universal in their themes that every other generation reinvents them to conform to the current condition of the world, though with their essence intact. One such theme is the quest for an identity. At a time in America when cowboys were considered the good guys and Indians the bad guys, “The Searchers” (1956) premiered to commercial success and posed the question of what we would do if a person we love reestablished roots with a group of people we have been brainwashed to hate.

The movie follows cowboy Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) on a mission to rescue his niece (Lana Wood), whom Native Americans abducted when she was eight. Although Ethan completes his mission, he does so seven years later, and the 15-year-old Debbie Edwards (Natalie Wood) he finds has adopted the language, way of dressing, and rituals of the tribe that plundered her girlhood home. Meanwhile, the reunion triggers memories in Debbie long suppressed. Who is she really, both wonder. She belongs neither here nor there.

The French remake, “Les Cowboys” (2015), has replaced Indians with Muslims, the pariahs of the internet civilization as Islamophobe runs amuck over ever-deadlier terrorist attacks purportedly committed in praise of Allah. 16-year-old Kelly Balland (Iliana Zabeth) has run away from home with her Muslim boyfriend (Mounir Margoum), spurring her father, Alain (François Damien), and brother, Georges (Finnegan Oldfield), on a wild goose chase in pursuit of her. The pair travel from the comfort of a prairie town in France to Belgium, Yemen, and Pakistan, enmeshed in a decade-long hunt blotted by the breakdown of a family and unwarranted deaths. The obstacle is Kelly herself… she doesn’t want to be found… and should she be, elements of the daughter and sister so beloved might no longer exist.

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Every one of us, at some point in life, embarks on a diaspora of sorts. Whether we are off to college or migrating to another land, we part from a place that since birth has provided us a sense of belonging in answer to a call of distant frontiers to forge our own destinies. My origin is the Philippines, the bedrock of many of my fondest childhood memories: weekend swims in a pool amidst a garden of hillocks and trees as bountiful as those in a rain forest; Grandma Antonia’s meat omelet; a house awash in light as relatives from second cousins to grand aunts gathered for Christmas; and the boom of New Year’s Eve fireworks. I could not conceive of being anywhere far and apart from family. Then puberty hit.

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Today the United States is my home. “Would you ever go back to the Philippines?” my friend, Vince, has asked. To visit, yes. I do often, every holiday season. To live in, no. Only the U.S.A. can ballyhoo a diversity of creeds, ethnicities, and lifestyles. As this year’s presidential campaign has been reminding us, it’s this very diversity that makes America great, a nation founded on immigrants from Europe to Asia, from Africa to the Latin continent, all who have converged on the shores and tarmacs of this world power for one unified purpose: the prospect of an auspicious future. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/sunrise-the-allure-of-the-american-dream/) San Francisco has provided me the community to be true to my nature. I can dance with another man at a bar… hands on the other’s hips, lips close as to suggest a kiss… without fear of censure, and every June, flag poles on Market Street brandish the rainbow banner in celebration of Gay Pride month. The subject of HIV/AIDS is a public discussion. For those personally affected by the disease, a support network exists. Medication is available to prolong life as are counseling and social organizations so that one need not feel alone.

This isn’t to say that America is perfect. Homophobia persists, as evidenced by the murders of transgender people (17 were reported so far for the year 2016) and the shooting at Pulse, an Orlando gay nightclub where, two months ago, a madman opened fire, killing 50 men and women. Nevertheless, America holds sacred the first amendment. Whenever we are victims of an act that violates our civil rights, we speak, we shout, we protest, we take to the streets and raise placards at arms length that demand enough is enough. And those in government do listen. Ten years ago, we would never have thought possible marriage between two persons of the same sex and the abolition in the military of a law that prohibited homosexuals from serving. The United States is indeed a sanctuary for each to exert one’s rights as an upstanding citizen.

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The Philippines is developing its own progressive view towards homosexuality. I have seen in 20 years the influx of gay bars in Manila, some located in the commercial center and that attract the patronage of socialites and yuppies alike. More than ever, the media allot coverage to gay, lesbian, and transgender personalities. One such public figure is Vice Ganda. A movie star and TV fixture, he is heavy on the make-up and speaks with a voice as whirly as his sashay, he is Linda Evangelista in his array of hair colors and prone to histrionics when speaking of his past as a victim of anti-gay defamations. Ganda is a stereotype, which is not entirely good. While lending a voice to a segment of Philippine society to a large scale voiceless, he does so in a way that fans preconceived notions of what it is to be a gay man.

Ultimately, homosexuals in the Philippines do not have a political force. Their presence is contained within a box of flamboyance, everyone’s favorite couturier, hairdresser, gossip, and comic relief – an overall buffoon. Blasphemous is the gay man who breaks through the encasement. Because he isn’t easily identifiable, he is somewhat of a threat, like an enemy spy who blends in a crowd, unbeknownst to all lugging a bomb in a satchel.

In “The Searchers” and “Les Cowboys,” our self-anointed rescuers believe their respective enemies have corrupted the missing girls. Filipinos far from regard Americans as the enemy, despite having been under their colonial authority for half a century. On the contrary, we Filipinos are rather enamored by Americans. We so prize Stateside products that we don a tee stamped with a Tommy Hilfiger logo as if it were ermine, and billboards along freeways feature Filipino faces that promote a Western ideal of beauty of fair skin and aquiline noses. At the same time, while in high school at the International School, my Filipino friends and I had constructed an invisible wall between Americans and ourselves. We considered them loud and sexually loose, an eyesore in frayed jeans and athletic wear as daywear. By pursuing a higher education in the U.S.A., I invited a foreign culture to mollify my conservative outlook on clothes and manners so that, upon my senior year, my father disapproved of my daily attire of shorts, high tops, and a collarless tee. Meanwhile, on the sexual front… well… let me just say I was coming into my own.

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My sister, Anna Maria, never thought she would again live in the Philippines once she left for college in New York five years prior to my own departure. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/breakfast-at-tiffanys-sunshine-through-rain-clouds/) She had found her domain, there in a world capital synonymous with beauty and fashion, art and intellect. How she bemoaned being a misfit when, some 14 years later, she decided to expand her architecture firm to Asia by setting up shop in Manila. “This place really isn’t for me,” she said. We were at a luncheon during one of my visits, and she was criticizing the customs of a myopic society, namely the compliments on appearance that verge on sycophantic and the twaddle whispered over private lives, often false and pernicious. Yet in Manila she remains, and there she will be for a long time to come, perhaps for the rest of her life, for her career has flourished and her American husband shrugs off all about the culture that grates her.

Cowboy or misplaced soul, we are each a bit of both. As Ethan Edwards in “The Searchers” does right with Debbie, he gives us a closing shot a trademark of every tale about the wild, wild, West: that of a figure, stooped and solitary, lumbering into the sunset. Ethan is us either on the road to stake our territory or going back from whence we came.

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“Notorious”: A Yearning Fulfilled

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Much about “Notorious” (1946) is unforgettable, which is why the film ranks as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best, recognized by Time and Entertainment Weekly as among 100 of the greatest films of all time: Alexander Sebastian’s (Claude Rains) Oedipal complex; the fusion of the domestic and the erotic that has never before or since been done to such clever effect as T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) and Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) intersperse kisses with a dinner discussion on chicken; the suspense the possession of a key can breed. The singular moment that stands out for me, however, is subtle in its impact, like the faint scent of sugar that wafts from a bakery. It occurs on the plane ride from Los Angeles to Rio de Janeiro. Huberman has the window seat. When Devlin informs her of the view on the opposite side of the plane, she leans across him for a peak, providing him and us the vision of that flawless profile, and right there, in the awe in his eyes as he steadies his gaze on her, we see the exact second the man falls in love. Fade out.

“Notorious” is a romance wrapped up as a thriller. Alicia Huberman has agreed to work as an undercover agent for the Americans. Her mission: to seduce Nazi in hiding, Alexander Sebastian, into proposing marriage so that, through his trust and affection, she can expose a smuggling ring that involves uranium ore. In other words, for the sake of patriotism, she sleeps with the enemy. The Mata Hari ingredient always makes for a spicy story – feminine guile impairs masculine resolve – although the real bait in “Notorious” that ensnares a new breed of audiences every decade is the dog and cat partnership between Devlin and Huberman. He wants her. She wants him. He is wary on account of her reputation as a lady of lax morals. She interprets his suavity as a ploy for her to accept the assignment. So the two feign cold and loathing towards each other. We know they’re going to get past the façade, pecking and necking as doves do before the credits roll. The question is how, and until then, we savor the tease. Herein is another example of how through cinema we vicariously fulfill our own unfulfilled yearning.

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Those of you who have been following my blog are well aware of my history of amorous affairs that could have led to emotional rewards. You’ve read how factors that range from idealization (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/the-law-of-desire-lunacy-and-obsession/) to objectification (http://www.rafsy.com/films-2000s-present/two-lovers-so-close-and-yet-so-far/), from circumstance (http://www.rafsy.com/films-2000s-present/45-years-two-strangers-one-bed/) to recreational substances (http://www.rafsy.com/films-2000s-present/hello-my-name-is-doris-in-defiance-of-age/) have served as an impasse to an embrace of the heart. What else could there be? The object denounced as the “root of all evil,” of course: money.

Devlin enters Huberman’s life as a matter of duty. He’s a cop, and his superiors have called upon him to crash a party where the lady is hostess so that he could operate his charisma on her while she is under the spell of liquor. Given her father’s indictment as a criminal of war, she would be the perfect ally for Uncle Sam; the opposite camp would never suspect her of espionage. As for Devlin, the man is simply doing his job. So it was with Brad. Brad was a rent man, not just any rent man, but one who for years before our first encounter had dominated my video screen with situations of himself in male bonding action. He lived in Chicago, while I lived in San Francisco. I found his information on the internet and contacted him in the winter of 2007. Fantasy became reality when months later Brad responded that he planned to travel to my part of the country. What happened next spawned an erotic story:

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He isn’t tall, but he’s larger than life. He isn’t ripped, but he’s brawny. Like a thoroughbred fighter, Brad is beefy in all the right places: robust thighs, meaty abs, and hands that can break my neck with the force of a nutcracker. His left arm bears a skull and dueling swords tattoo – an imprint of danger – and his head is striking to behold. In its grandness, his head brims with carnal secrets as ancient as sex itself. To glimpse at those secrets is to gaze into eyes the blue of Neptune. To experience those secrets is to feel a cock that inspires the awe… and fear… of a cop baton.

To say that I was in orbit is no hyperbole. Think of the gold medal that dangles before you, inches within your grasp, until the skater after you does a routine to Tchaikovsky’s “The Dying Swan” that puts you at silver or of the girl that could’ve been your bride had you reached the airport five minutes earlier to prevent her from boarding the airplane. Ever since I first saw Brad on video, that was the position I had been in, of coveting with such ardency that the sheer sight of him was a wallop in the loin. And then I got him. I figured that since I cash in on his DVD’s, I might as well shell out the extra bucks for the real deal. The weight of despondency lifted. I was soaring.

A couple of years after that fateful night, Brad moved with his boyfriend to San Francisco. Although the two remained committed, they continued with their occupation in the pleasure industry, and I became a regular, as often as monthly. Brad was true to his stallion persona, both physically and attitude-wise. Whatever money is supposed to be, it begot no evil for Brad and me. We may have fallen into a pit of profanities, pushed our bodies to exhaustion, and devolved to the level of swines in a pigsty, but everything we did was consensual and done with implicit trust. Once the nasty was over, Brad was a different person entirely, shy and polite.

A fact about Brad: in high school, he was inept in sports. This he professed to me when I asked him to reveal something private of himself. What courage. I don’t know of any other man who would dare to expose himself as challenged in an arena where his masculinity is measured on a scoreboard for all to survey. I also learned that to subsidize college, where he had been studying business, Brad had a stint as a forest ranger, and near the end of our monthly sessions, he was working towards a physical therapist degree. The human in Brad really surfaced during moments in which scarcely a word passed between us. Lying on sweat-drenched sheets, his bulk of a frame propped up by the headboard, he was just a nice guy… sweet, actually… all caresses and strokes.

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Nonetheless, the money had constructed a wall between Brad and me. Chemistry can’t be faked, and I don’t doubt his compliments, which ran the gamut from my physique to my performance. The anatomical manifestation of sexual arousal, the grunts, the exclamations of enhanced sensory stimulation… none of this could have been bought. And yet…

Any time outside the bedroom that I chance upon Brad, I try to glimpse at emotions that lurk beneath his image. At the gym or in the Castro, at a bar or on the subway, I give him a hug and plant a peck on his cheek. Brad smiles, eyes aglow and all teeth. He hugs me back. He pats my behind. In a voice that’s both gruff and endearing, he says, “Good to see ya.”

He might mean it. He might not. Maybe I’ll never know.

In “Notorious,” T.R. Devlin and Alicia Huberman have closure, and it makes us cheer. If our own affairs could be blithely packaged and tied in a bow, then how simple life would be, as tranquil as sleep. We wouldn’t know determination or risk or gratitude. Life would be boring. So I see this is the way it is meant to be between Brad and me. Our meetings ended because he married his boyfriend and retired from the wild scene. That was about two years ago. Just last month, in response to my erotic piece, he sent me an e-mail: “That’s an awesome story about me. Thanks.” His kudos is enough for me to go by. Someday, gray and arthritic, I will put on one of Brad’s DVD’s, and witnessing him resurrected in the prime of his virility, I will be thankful that for a moment in my past, the feast sizzling anew onscreen before me had indulged my palate.

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“The Wizard of Oz”: There’s No Place Like Home

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I once wanted to change my name from Juancho Chu to Wittgenstein Walcher H. Rockefeller van Stausen Smith (sometimes Smyth) VIII. Thus reads the first sentence to “Potato Queen,” my novel that chronicles the relationship between Caucasians and Asians in San Francisco’s gay community of the 1990s. (http://www.rafsy.com/art-of-storytelling/the-reward-of-being-an-author-it-isnt-money/) Like many works of fiction, the novel contains elements of non-fiction. A writer’s key source of material is oneself, no matter how distant from the writer the characters and the setting portrayed might seem to the reader; the emotions splayed across every page are undeniably those of the author.

In my case, I really did want an Anglo appellation. At 11, I was the only Rafaelito in existence I was aware of, and who was I but a fat boy whose right pant pocket jingled with coins and whose left pocket contained a snot-smothered white handkerchief. As for my surname of Sy (pronounced C), it lacked flavor. Consisting of a mere two letters and a single syllable, Sy disappointed the tongue as an incomplete word in need of relish and glamour. Wittgenstein, on the contrary, was a name that evoked in my mind dandies and savants. Connected to surnames that could have been lifted from a Newport social registry, it gave a nobleman bearing to its owner, like Lionel Barrymore.

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That was me, discontented with who I was, a dreamer who longed to soar as a blue bird over the rainbow to a land where Christmas is white and castles in the spring crown green mountains, there where I would stand leading man tall and handsome. Already then Hollywood fascinated me. Even though the family TV was black and white, I remember the American shows I would watch on them as having been in color. Many of America’s prime time best aired in the Philippines: “The Six Million Dollar Man,” “Fantasy Island,” “The Love Boat,” and “Little House on the Prairie.” Hollywood was my Oz, a realm that scintillates with a brick road golden yellow, a field of licorice red poppies, and spires in the horizon emerald green against an azure sky. That Oz could only be reached via tornado underscored its grandeur in contrast to the dullness of home.

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When Farrah Fawcett made it big (http://www.rafsy.com/actors-models-directors/farrah-fawcett-the-kiss-of-providence/), I had transferred a year earlier to the International School Manila from La Salle, an all-boys Catholic institution. La Salle had provided a homogenous environment. We wore uniforms – beige shorts (or pants) and a patch, sown onto a white shirt pocket, that bore the La Salle insignia of an armor head atop a shield – and we were all Filipino. My new school exposed me to a faculty and student body of diverse nationals. Classes were co-educational, and we dressed according to our fancy with exception to flip-flops and torn garments. Just as Dorothy (Judy Garland) 30 minutes into “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) is no longer in Kansas, I was no longer in Manila. I had classmates who spoke of step-siblings and divorced parents, of two families and two homes. Their stories offered me the spice that the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr), and the Tin Man (Jack Haley) lavish onto Dorothy in their respective quest for a brain, courage, and a heart. A motley crew of friends in tow, Dorothy embarks on an adventure that would emblazon itself in the memories of moviegoers from now till kingdom come.

How boring I perceived myself in relation to my Western peers. I would fantasize that my parents feuded with each other, that my father had multiple wives, and that I shuttled from one domestic set up to another. I coveted stories of my own. Two years later, the film “Ordinary People” (1980) would heighten my fascination for Oz into an obsession. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/ordinary-people-extraordinary-lives/) “Ordinary People” ignited in my adolescence a spark towards a creative vocation, a burning to be extraordinary.

Someday I’ll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far behind me, where troubles melt like lemon drops away above the chimney tops. That’s where you’ll find me. Somewhere over the rainbow, blue birds fly. Birds fly over the rainbow. Why, then, oh why can’t I?

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Summer breaks allowed for my daydreams. My family and I spent them in the States. It wasn’t a vacation for me unless we boarded a plane that took us across the ocean, to a continent away from the familiarity of my own culture. The first stop every June was San Francisco. My father would report to the Bank of America headquarters, he having been employed there since the 1950s, initially as a clerk and then, towards the conclusion of his tenure, as a general manager to the bank’s Asian branches. Every day started and ended with the TV. I was hooked on shows that didn’t air in the Philippines, one being “The Brady Bunch,” my favorite. The Bradys might have been common folks to American viewers, but to me, they embodied the mystique of this country – swanky hotels, block-long shopping malls, and bubble gum.

Nothing about the United States has ever been small. Bank of America back then was the most reputable monetary conglomerate in the world. It was no coincidence that motion pictures were… and continue to be… the Star-Spangled Banner’s most profitable export. America is Hollywood. Hollywood is America. We Filipinos joke about our colonial history under Spain and the United States as “300 years in a convent and 50 years in Hollywood.” When MGM was a powerhouse studio, we founded our own movie industry patterned after that of the roaring lion, and the actors who graced the silver screen were themselves fair of skin, our locally groomed counterparts to Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean. (http://www.rafsy.com/actors-models-directors/philippine-cinema-a-childhood-in-black-and-white/)

When I left the Philippines to continue my studies at Tufts University in Boston, my father asked if I intended to return after I graduated. “No,” I said. I was on the road to the plan I had laid out and there was no turning back. I envisioned a penthouse that overlooked Central Park, my wardrobe a collection of Gucci, Versace, and Armani on racks in a walk-in closet. The more foreign to my upbringing the lifestyle I adapted, the better. I had developed an American twang at the International School Manila. Now I needed to transform the exterior. First stop once I got to Boston: the gym. To be American called for a jock physique. And then I enrolled in a creative writing course.

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I hit a wall. During my sophomore year in high school, I had gotten an A on a story about a woman named Christina Wellesley, an aristocratic Brit who embarks on an adulterous romance with a military officer. Together they horse ride on a flower-speckled field and rendezvous in the shadow of a moonlit tree. I was 15. Thank goodness the mind at that phase in life matures exponentially so that by time I was 18, I realized the folly of creating a tale populated by characters I had no clue about and who occupied a world as alien to me as Kathmandu. What to write? I thought of an essay a friend, Michael, in a composition course our senior year had submitted. The teacher had read it in front of class. The piece, about a boy Michael knew back in Korea who had died, guided us listeners en route from Michael’s house to the boy’s and regaled us with both descriptive details and dialogue, the key ingredients to a story. So that was it. I didn’t need to search far for material, I realized. The material already existed in me, in my memories.

Through the years, as the distance between the disgruntled youth that I was and myself lengthened, home perched itself in my thoughts in a flurry of gold and sparkles. I am fortunate today to have the opportunity to spend Christmases with my family in Manila. However, the city of my past is quickly disappearing. Sky-scrapers, condos, and shopping malls rise with the rapaciousness of a forest fire, eradicating trees and grass, sparing no open space. Starbucks is now as ubiquitous as cell phones, and the six cinema complexes in the entire metropolis screen the same selection of Hollywood big budget features. Although Americanization has been synonymous to progress ever since the Thomasite missionaries at the turn of the 20th century elevated literacy among Filipinos by 90%, it was never done with such urgency.

“Slow down, world,” I want to scream. I yearn to turn back the clock so that I could hold all the things I grew up with that I took for granted – Nena’s hand after a day of her cooking, Tita Zennie’s icicle candies, the lizard I trapped underneath a plastic bowl, a narra tree and white sand and Toby the turtle. But I can only click my heels and wish.

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“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 that each featured 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 harken 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. It isn’t easy. We’re all encouraged to conform. When I started writing, the advice frequently given to me was to research the publishing market then to pen something that adheres to the trend. I refused. My conviction has perpetually been to write on a subject I care about, to create a story distinctly my own, whatever the latest fad, because only in this would sincerity reflect in my words. Audience, money, and recognition will follow, for people always respond to matters of the heart. An instructor in a fiction course I took at the Berkeley extension agreed: “If you want to be remembered, write something that isn’t out there.”

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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.

“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. The denizens of Auriol have driven Blanche out. A woman of ill repute, she would ensnare men to a motel she shacked up in, after which her livelihood as a high school teacher was terminated due to 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. They are on their way to the altar, until Blanche has a nervous breakdown. “Let’s turn the light on here,” Mitch threatens. “I don’t mind you being older than what I thought, but all the rest of it… Christ!”

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.

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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“It’s a Wonderful Life”: A Guardian Angel in Faith and Family

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Every family that has suffered the loss of a child has a guardian angel in the dead offspring. This my own family has decreed by virtue of our Catholic faith. I first heard of the belief when my aunt lost a daughter, a stillbirth, nearly 40 years ago. Tita Zennie had three boys. The eldest then was 14 and the youngest was my age, ten. She had longed for a girl and got one. My aunt named her Cherry. On All Saints Day, we stood in the cemetery of the town my uncle, husband to my aunt and brother to my mother, had grown up in. Cavinti is perched on a hill. Stone and wood houses line streets part paved, part gravel. In the square, a church centuries old constructed of volcanic rock overlooks a basketball court, across from which crucifixes and tombstones stand on a knoll a patchwork of grass and earth. Tita Zennie laid a hand on Cherry’s resting place, bowed her head, and sobbed. “Tama na, Mommy,” her youngest, Joel, said. The girl had been born a few months before, and such was my aunt’s grief that my cousin implored my aunt to stop mourning, for she had shed enough tears. Other relatives consoled her with the assurance that, from then on, her family would have an angel by it’s side.

It dawned on me then that my family might have not one guardian angel, but two. My mother’s first pregnancy had been ectopic, while the second produced a boy strangled by its umbilical cord. He was named Philip, and he is buried in the same plot as Cherry. As a child, I heard my mother’s cousin describe him as handsome with soft curls and fair skin. My father had foreshadowed his death. The night before the birth, my father dreamed that a doctor was bundling a baby’s corpse in a newspaper, and the next day, as my father entered the operating room, he saw exactly that. He demanded the doctor to stop so that he could search the hospital for a clean towel; his son deserved a dignified wrapping, no matter that the infant had never breathed life.

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Christianity and popular culture have angels existing in other guises. Gabriel had no relation to Mary, yet God had designated him as the envoy to bear the tiding of her pregnancy, and in “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), a Kris Kringle mirthful old man named Clarence (Henry Travers) descends to earth on Christmas Eve in order to earn his wings by means of saving George Bailey (James Stewart), a good Samaritan about to end his life due to a financial crunch that could throw him jail. As George readies to jump off a bridge to freezing waters below, Clarence dives in, yelling for help so that George rescues him. The angel reveals his identity, in whom George confides that he wishes he had never been born. Clarence gives George the rarest of gifts, a chance to glimpse Bedford Falls, New York and those dear to him should his wish be granted.

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Bedford Falls transforms from a community of friendly neighbors and policemen to a pit of depravity populated by goons and gamblers, brothels and saloons, all under the control of Mr. Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore), the meanest and richest man in town. Only George, through a business inherited from his father (Samuel S. Hinds) that provides affordable housing, would have had both the ideals and the grit to challenge Mr. Potter. Without George, people are on the streets or in slums. The world beyond has changed, too. His brother, Harry (Todd Karns), doesn’t live to adulthood to be the war hero that he would have grown up to be, for George isn’t present in their childhood to save him as he falls into a lake through a crack in the winter ice, and without Harry, comrades in arms whom Harry would have protected also die. “Strange, isn’t it?” says Clarence. “Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

George sees not only how the course of the universe would have been altered, but how important he is to the prosperity of home, as well. He wanted to leave Bedford Falls. “I’m gonna shake the dust of this crummy little town off my feet, and I’m gonna see the world,” so he tells future wife, Mary (Donna Reed). But a duty to his father’s legacy and to a family of his own redirects the course of his destiny. Dreams of college and exploring the globe, of Baghdad and Samarkand, are dashed. It’s a brutal blow, and a necessary one. Sometimes, we need to trip on shattered glass in order to be set on the right path.

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I am at the age where I must weigh the pros and cons of my own dreams. This morning I received a rejection to a short story. No problem. I shrugged it off. I get lots of those. Nonetheless, a voice murmurs within me that perhaps I am not meant to be a star writer. When we dream, we dream big. That’s why it’s called a dream. The chance of a dream becoming reality isn’t ludicrous when we see it has happened to our peers. A guy who had left the Cornell University writing program a year before I entered now has the Pulitzer, while a colleague got a major agent and a Norton imprint on his novel binding upon graduation, and another has become the buzz in the industry with her six-figure book deals. “You’re next,” one of my mentors told me. That was 15 years ago. I might not be on the wrong path, but perhaps this path I am on leads to a destination contrary to what I have been dreaming.

Similar thoughts apply to home. Growing up in Asia, I considered a vacation during summer break from school to be one spent across the Pacific, in either the United States or Europe, far from my culture and country of residence, and through my twenties and early thirties, with San Francisco now my address, family visits were more a chore than a delight. I sought independence, aimed for the moon. As it does for George Bailey, splendor awaited me in the unknown distant. I had to get it on my own because in dreams, we are self-absorbed and unstoppable.

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George tells Mary that he’d lasso her the moon. “I’ll take it,” she says. Question is, what would she do with the moon? Ever the quixotic, George has the answer: “Then you could swallow it, and it’ll all dissolve, see. And the moonbeams will shoot out of your fingers and your toes and the ends of your hair.” He does lasso Mary the moon, but not in the form of Manhattan, Bermuda, champagne, and caviar. He gives her a home in a tumble-down grand house that together they restore, children, and an upright citizen of a husband whom had he never existed, she would have been a spinster entombed in a library.

It’s a wonderful life, George realizes in the end; a person can be great by doing small things. So Clarence earns his wings. As for me, I more appreciate my parents and siblings the older I grow, and I understand more clearly that the blessings that have graced me would never have been if not for them. “Be thankful you’re able to come home to the Philippines and just sit and do nothing,” my sister once told me when I complained of boredom during a visit. “Not everybody has that luxury.” Saying goodbye becomes more difficult each year, for time is fleeting, and gone are the days of youth and the notion of forever that comes with it. Exhaustion and disappointment have tainted my dreams. I’m not entirely sure anymore of the future.

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Still, I believe an angel does watch over me. In moments of doubt, it flutters its wings to remind me that my life is not in vain. For writing is a craft that seasons with age, I’ve got stories in me that have yet to happen, more lives to touch, a chest of riches to share with all. Whatever my qualms, I can be sure of this: the strength of faith and family that has guided me thus far will allow me to prevail, be it through one tiny step after another.

“The Third Man”: Sacrifice in Silence

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With love comes sacrifice. The price is worth it when the person for whom we kill a part of ourselves is obligated to us in return. Love is elevated to a higher level… we’ve proven our worth… and promises are enunciated in return that ground in earthly facts the esoteric commitment for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do we part: “I will be by your side even if you become a quadriplegic… I will take care of you if you have a stroke… You can count on me no matter that we lose our home to foreclosure and shack up in a van.” But what if the dear one misjudges our action, the full truth behind our sacrifice too hurtful for the person to bear, so we keep it covert and sustain criticism?

What we have is “The Third Man” (1949). Joseph Cotten is Holly Martins, an American pulp fiction author who goes to Vienna when a childhood friend, Harry Lime (Orseon Welles), offers him a job. Upon his arrival, Martins learns that Lime has died under suspicious circumstances. He stays to investigate, only to discover that Limes is alive; the pal’s name on a tombstone is a ruse. Lime is a black marketer, his contraband penicillin stolen from army hospitals and diluted with a substance that causes physical deformities and fatalities, many of the victims being children. In Lime’s monologue about the survival of the fittest, he reveals himself to be so empty of compunction that he would murder even his most trusted friend. The two have a shoot out in the city’s underground sewage system, a montage of tunnels and shadows against concave walls, and though justice prevails, Martins must deal with the thorny task of regaining the trust of Lime’s girlfriend. The guy has fallen for her.

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Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli) is herself guilty of her share of misdemeanors – a false passport, accomplice to Lime’s hiding – but she is ignorant of the vileness of her boyfriend’s business. Lime, as far as she’s concerned, is a dabbler in shady deals of no serious consequence, and at the moment, he has sunken into nothing more than an unlucky break. While she first appreciates Martins for the sincerity of his friendship, a rarity in this Vienna of furtive glances and stalkers who lurk in corners, she later considers him a traitor. Martins has cooperated with the authorities to apprehend Lime in exchange for the nullification of her deportation to the Soviet sector of the city. She gets a safety passage to the West instead. Unbeknownst to Schmidt is that Martins does this only when the extent of Lime’s crimes are disclosed to him.

“Look at yourself,” Schmidt tells Martins at the train station. “They have names for faces like that.” He has answered her question as to why the police are granting her the favor of freedom. Disappointed, she furthermore berates Martins his appellation of Holly. “What kind of name is that for a man?” Schmidt rejects the deal. Such is her loyalty to Lime and her anger at Martins. Martins could have aired all of Lime’s dirty laundry, but that would not have been a decent method to earn Schmidt’s affection. It’s a sticky situation, being glued to someone who wants no attachment to us, watching one’s resentment for us intensify as the person he or she clutches to the heart is the actual villain. Even had Martins bared Lime’s dealings, Schmidt would not necessarily have wept on our hero’s shoulder, her tears an invitation to the condolement of a kiss.

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Some things are better left unsaid. Silence spares a person pain. We can write what is too much of a burden to keep buried within, and only to ourselves, though even this is dangerous, for a diary is a Pandora’s box. In it we unload sinful thoughts and seraphic fancies, the seismic tremors of the soul from hatred to a forbidden love. When opened, all that springs forth from its pages cannot be recanted. Martins, for Schmidt’s sake, is a book bound in lock and key.

Life is replete with moments where we run the risk of secrets exposed. “Don’t worry, she didn’t read much,” my sister told me the night I came out. We were walking up Powell Street, headed home from a day of Thanksgiving shopping in Union Square, San Francisco’s downtown, where an 83-foot Christmas tree and a colossal menorah, one across from the other amid an enclave of buildings, both illuminated the night, the former with light bulbs encased in balls and the latter in glass flames. Cable car bells rang as wheels rumbled on tracks, and pine wreaths decked display windows. That was how my mother found out I’m gay. While visiting from the Philippines, she read my journal, which I had left on the dining table, and in it I had written of excursions to video arcades, the only venue then where I could express my sexual identity.

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I had a secret. My mother had a secret. Since she couldn’t contain mine, she called my father in Manila, who then instructed my sister in Los Angeles to inform me on her holiday trip to the Bay Area that they now know of me. Although the revelation saved me the anxiety of sitting my parents down for a formal coming out moment, my journal remained a hushed matter. My sister was merely meant to tell me that I need not hide anymore, not that my mother had glimpsed my inner workings – insecurities and desires and all. My parents still believe I am in the dark about this. So be it. That was 25 years ago, and what my mother had read rocked her nerves. Aside from an epidemic linked to gay men, she and my father had lost something, and of this loss I justified its gravity to friends when they deplored the difficulty a buddy of theirs was experiencing with his own parents upon his coming out.

“In the four seconds it takes to say, ‘Mom, Dad, I’m gay,’ the dreams your parents have been harboring for you all the years of your life are shattered,” I said. They couldn’t comprehend why the blow to Gable’s parents (yes, Gable, named after Clark) since the parents had accepted the homosexuality of a family friend whom they considered “like a son.” My contention was that embraced as this person was, his position was not the same as that of a biological child. From the minute of our birth, our mothers and fathers foresee in us a future opulent with the sort of happiness they had experienced, all of which culminated in our first cry. Courtship, marriage, and parenthood… love’s rituals that every generation celebrates were denied gay men in the 1990s. Gable’s folks were suddenly confronted with a tomorrow that was murky, as the present was licentiousness and death, and history was police raids of public bathrooms with men dragged in hand cuffs to paddy wagons, their names in the following day’s newspapers that listed them as sexual deviants.

My parents never told me what I had taken away from them by coming out. “I thought you were going to marry a Miss Universe,” my father joked when he flew in from Manila, while my mother urged that I be careful. That was all. I’m certain the worry and fear in Gable’s parents weighed on my parents, too, but of what else more, I will never know. In their silence, my mother and father permitted me the freedom to live as I am. I am fortunate to know this. I wish Anna Schmidt in “The Third Man” would give Holly Martins the privilege of acknowledging the degree to which he lays out his neck for her. Maybe, in another story, she will read in tomorrow’s papers the slime bucket Harry Lime was, and our quiet hero will at last get the prize that is duly his.

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