“King Kong”: All or Nothing

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It was beauty that killed the beast. The monster in reference is “King Kong” (1933), a 24-inch model made of rubber, rabbit fur, and aluminum. Never in our worst nightmare had we imagined that a toy gorilla the height of a table lamp would tower over the Manhattan skyline. His every footfall smashes thoroughfares, and his roar deafens with the blast of the A-bomb. Kong turns Fifth Avenue into a war zone. Bravo to the feats of special effects, which augments in importance as our fuzzy menace scales the tallest building in the world. This is no mere pageantry of destruction. Kong is in love. The creature that has pierced his soft spot is a human female, blonde and beautiful Anne Darow (Fay Wray). Kong really doesn’t mean any harm, only a crew of movie people has abducted him from his island habitat, battling head hunters and dinosaurs in the process, and in man’s hunt for the green demon, it has transplanted him to New York, where bejeweled ladies and gentlemen in black tie cash in to behold the reigning monarch of jungle vines belittled in shackles. Movie people, I tell ya.

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What a cycle of exploitation “King Kong” is. The spear throwers kidnap Anne in the darkness of a foggy night from the ship where she lies asleep. As Kong’s bride, she’s tied by the wrists to a pair of posts for him to snatch and abscond with into the jungle. The film men search for her. In their find, Kong becomes a prisoner. No animal rights activism here. It’s doubtful vegetarians existed in the 1930s with the superfluity they do now, and with America entrapped in economic turmoil, audiences needed to witness a beast onto whom they could vent their frustrations tumble from the highest peak. Some things haven’t changed. We still have an affinity for monster flicks, the show of us humans toppling a giant, whether the oversized freak is in the form of a nuclear mutant by the name of Godzilla or an assembly of trucks and cars that transforms into a robot. They’re exhibitions of innovation. But none is as impactful as Kong. I feel for the ape. I understand him.

Don’t tell me you wouldn’t fight to the death for something or somebody you really want. We all need a passion. Pity those who float through life without a desire that causes a bout of chest thumping and a growl. In everyday life, we call this stubbornness. We’re born with it. As babies, we cry and thrash our limbs for a craving to be fed since we haven’t yet developed the skill of language. Then we learn our A, B, C’s. Eloquence mitigates temper tantrums. Or so we think. Our tearful pouting persists in adulthood. We’ve just trained ourselves to sublimate it. Even though we may plummet from the sky because our wings are of wax, we don’t give up. We struggle to fly. We’ve made it so high, up there with the gods, the vastness of the world our own by virtue of the vista we’ve only thus far seen in pictures, read of in books – oceans and seas the blue of topaz, mountains we can trace with our fingertips, clouds wispy as the spirit of doves gone. Higher. Higher. This is what we’ve dreamed of, worked for, sacrificed over. And now we’re falling. Shit!

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My father has said that I was one impossible kid. We’d be walking on the streets when I’d stop in my tracks and cry upon spotting a toy that would trigger a red siren in my head. “What?” he’d ask. No answer, only an escalating whale and incessant finger pointing. I must incontestably have been a tiny terror, for on this subject the rest of my family has a catalogue of accounts, among them which involves a nanny that quit on me, the first child ever in her decades of experience. I can vouch for one. It’s about a beast. Nearly 40 years before “Kung Fu Panda” (2008), I came across a stuffed bear as cute and gargantuan as Po, our martial arts caniform. My father and I were in a Hong Kong mall. We had climbed up a flight of stairs to the next level and there he was. Belly to sink into, front and hind legs cushioned stumps, he occupied the entire display window from floor to ceiling. Mini-bears dangled around him like cub cherubs. He was every little boy’s Buddha. “That’s not for sale,” my father insisted. “That’s decoration.” Me: “WahahaaWaahaahaa…” Although I may not have gotten the object of my mewling, I was enough of a disturbance that to silence me, my parents gave me a teddy bear that was as large as I.

“The good thing is that you don’t quit,” my father would say years later. My doggedness has served me well as a writer. Rejections may wound me, but I never bend. Each no urges me to step up one more rung on the ladder to the top. This had to come from somewhere, my bull’s eye on the point closest to heaven. My grandmother once told me of an altercation she had had with my mother over a piano. She spoke as though the incident had happened a week before, no matter that she was suffering from dementia, her memory shot from an aneurism. “Nagkagera kami ng mommy mo tungkol sa piano na iyan. Nangnakuha niya, hindi niya naman tinugtog. Bwisit na piano!” Grandma Susan’s rant that a war had broken out between her and my mother, and that my mother never played the piano upon getting it, humored me. That she spoke with such fire in closing her outburst by damning the instrument meant she still had life in her. We were perusing my mother’s scrapbooks. Black and white pictures in corner holders filled the pages like black ink on white tiles. I have no recollection of the image that triggered Grandma Susan’s scorn. What I do see is one of my mother in heels and a skirt a richness of fabric, her waist tiny and hair voluminous, as she sits, in a sofa, with a smile that radiates confidence in her beauty and the power it yielded her.

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The stubbornness persists in the generation after me. “Ang tigas ng ulo mo,” my father once told my nephew. Ryan was the age I had been when I made a scene over the teddy bear. Taking my father’s comment of hard headedness in a literal sense, Ryan knocked his knuckle against his skull. “Talagang matigas, eh.” We laughed at his defense that a cranium is meant to be solid. No joke, however, is the solidity of direction he has shown as an adult to be an artist in his own right, music his medium of creativity. Although Ryan doesn’t read notes, melody flows from his fingertips with a strum of the guitar and a tap of the keyboard. He writes songs, having performed his tunes in pubs and talent shows while at the University of Edinburgh and Emory University in Atlanta. Ryan was earning a degree in business. Music was meant to be a hobby. But when we’re that good, our talent assumes a value that surpasses the treasures in Ali-Baba’s cave. Upon graduating, my nephew declined job offers in finance to enter music school in Los Angeles, where he experienced his episode as a struggling artist – stale pizza on the kitchen counter, weight loss, and peddling demos here and there. Will being what it is, he has found his niche in Asia. His songs are requested listening on radio airwaves.

Kong doesn’t deserve his end. The pocketful of gold that is Anne Darow was offered to him as a fruit to pluck; therefore, pluck he did. Her abduction wasn’t his doing. He is guilty of no crime. Snatched of Anne, Kong fights to reclaim what he believes is rightfully his, all or nothing. We would do the same. If given half a glass of water, we in our optimism are supposed to appreciate the little we can imbibe. I disagree. We’re entitled to a crystal goblet filled to the rim. So we charge onward.

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“An American in Paris”: A Song and Dance to a Broken Heart

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“She’s a third-year girl that gripes my liver. You know, American college kids. They come here to take their third year and lap up some culture,” so derides Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) of a young lady who has the temerity to talk shop about his canvasses, in French with the most abominable Yankee twang. He is “An American in Paris” (1951), an ex G.I. determined to earn a spot in the company of Pissarro and Degas. That could have been me – the nuisance of a third-year girl, I mean. For my junior year at Tufts University, my address was on the left bank of the Seine River, in the vicinity of the catacombs, an underground burial maze that dates back to the 5th century. To lap up culture was not my intention for residency in the Xanadu where Hemingway and Fitzgerald once battled wits. I was unhappy at Tufts. Being closeted was isolating, an impasse between me and everybody else, and the fraternity system, the nexus of the university’s social activities, was not my scene. I almost transferred to Berkeley, but opted for Paris instead because… well… it’s Paris.

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I was spoiled in Paris. No other way to put it. I declined the study-abroad protocol of living with a French family. I would have had to abide by a curfew every night and to partake in house chores. More inconvenient would have been the need to learn the language. (What little I picked up here and there sufficed.) I got a studio, and not on my own either. A man under my father’s employment at the French division of the bank where my father sat as CEO in the Philippines both coordinated with landlords who spoke English as well as accompanied me to every meeting so that he could handle the discussions. Although the American College, where I was enrolled at, could have assisted, I still would have been left to my own devices for the end result. Hence, I relied on Quito for everything – hooking up my phone, pointers on French lingo, disbursement of cash, home cooked meals. You name it.

If I did lap up culture, then it was an unavoidable coincidence. Paris is built on art and history. Literally. The whole continent of Europe is. I took courses that included in its curriculum field trips to the Louvre and the Tuileries Gardens and that brought me to Berlin, where the wall stood as an impenetrable demarcation between the West and the East. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/cabaret-come-blow-your-horn/) Spring break was in Russia when it was still called the Soviet Union, and tours to Loire Valley and Mont Saint Michel required us students to congregate at the school before sunrise. The bus ride out gifted us with a vision of Renaissance columns and pediments emerging from the darkness like treasure excavated in the light of a new day. Even when my eyes were shut, I couldn’t shun my surroundings. Such resplendence would lodge itself in my memory. A quarter of a century later, I had to write about it in a novel:

Paris is an outdoor museum. Films and photographs do not exaggerate the city’s splendor. Cathedral spires soar to the heavens to touch God’s fingertips. Edifices in the architecture of epochs past stand indomitable and ageless. Cobblestone side streets invite romance rather than danger. Contrary to common perception, I found the Parisians friendly. So long as I made an effort to ask for directions in French, they obliged. Young folks at the time were dressed in turtlenecks and blazers rather than in sweatshirts and sneakers. On nearly every block, I spotted a little lady carrying a little dog in a Louis Vuitton purse.

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Starved for money as Jerry Mulligan is, he dresses in tailored tweeds and khakis, and with a grin characteristic of his Irish charm – all teeth and a twinkle in the eye – he claims every boulangerie and flower stall his territory with a song and a tap dance. It’s hard to be downbeat in Paris. On days when I’d find myself in a saturnine state, I’d think of where I was, as easy as that. One thing alone could shatter the spell. In any story where a heart sings, the silence of loss plays just as much a major role. Two women, Milo (Nina Foch) and Lisa (Leslie Caron), place Jerry in an awkward position. One is an American heiress who acts as an art patroness to buy his affection. The other is a French girl whom he decides upon first sight is “the one,” though she is betrothed to another.

Me, I liked a guy in my life drawing class. A grungy Norwegian in beat-up Converse and baggy pants, Aris was the epitome of the student artist – thin with blond hair long at the front that he’d flip back and a nose as prominent as much as his cheekbones were sharp. We rarely talked… in fact, we almost never did… so I can’t tell you why my crush. As Jerry expresses to Lisa when she bids adieu: “I came to Paris to study and to paint it because Utrillo did and Lautrec did and Rouault did. I loved what they created and I thought something would happen to me, too. It happened, all right. Now what have I got left? Paris. Maybe that’s enough for some, but it isn’t for me anymore because the more beautiful everything is, the more it’ll hurt without you.”

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That’s what Paris does. It rouses our passions and longings. All those masterpieces and marble are too much for one person. We want to share with another promenades on bridges, around us the shimmer of sun drops on water evocative of Monet, and only in a shared experience of the Notre Dame can we truly commiserate with literature’s most famous hunchback. We are in love with love. This yearning to be the star of my own romance has sent me over the years on a quest for he who could be cast as my leading man. Lust has frequently aced love. Regardless, I am never disappointed for long. Paris instilled in me this resilience:

Despite my numerous instances of two lives shared, my kisses with each man were more a hunger of the groin rather than an expression of the heart. Even so, the world became a smaller place. If men whose lives were never meant to converge could find a common bond in me, then love was possible with anybody, anywhere.

I am not giving away any surprise ending in “An American in Paris” when I say that the parting between Jerry and Lisa is merely a momentary debacle. That’s Hollywood. In my reveries, Paris was supposed to bestow upon me the luck it does our painterly charmer, and the swain who would indulge me with his companionship would also have Jerry’s good looks. (Remember, this is Gene Kelly, leading man in capital letters.) But every love story has a Milo – an odd person out, the lover as loser – and so it is in life. Every time I see Leslie Caron en pointe in the arms of Kelly, her skirt fluttering in the air like the wings of a dove, I think how right it is that the score is by the Gershwin brothers, Ira and George, my favorite of all American songbook musicians:

It’s very clear, our love is here to stay, not for a year, but forever and a day. The radio and the telephone and the movies that we know may just be passing fancies and in time may go.

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Poor Milo. A chauffeur-driven convertible, haute couture, and blonde hair salon polished offer no solace in the face of rejection. She may bribe critics to hail Jerry as the next Cézanne, but no amount of dollars (or francs) could dragoon him to sing those words to her. Jerry Mulligan does give Milo one part of himself he had thought would be his lot to bear – a broken heart.

“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”: Someday My Prince Will Come

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When I was four, I lived in Tokyo, in a white building that had a rooftop deck with a sundial and a swing set and where I first experienced snow. On that morning, my parents summoned my brother, sister, and me out of our beds to the winter wonderland that had formed overnight above. The vision that awaited us was new to my parents, as well, we being a family from the Philippines: a flurry of marshmallow ice balls sweetening the sky; a floor so white and soft that it seemed the world were adrift on a cloud. Songs and stories about the crystalline flakes that fall from heaven have it right – snow is lovely. I took to snow more willingly than I ever have to the sun, the coldness not a problem even though I was in sneakers instead of boots. Like newborns, the five of us gazed at and touched the whiteness around as if it were one more gift life presented. What a marvel it was to be in a scene that until then had been a mere tableau in a storybook. Since snow is real, I wondered, what else of make believe could come true?

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The answer was the movies, and one movie in particular that is intrinsic to our childhood: “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937). Actual snow does not equate into my memory of the classic. The screening was held on a clear day at the American Club, a sporting and social facility in Tokyo for expatriates and their families. A poster of the evil queen, gold crown on black head covering and Bette Davis eyes, stood on sun-dappled ground by the entrance. In the darkness of the theater, as a face part mask and part gargoyle appeared in the evil queen’s mirror to pronounce Snow White the fairest of them all, a rush ran through me. A princess, her face as pale as the moon, trills that someday her prince will come… Hi ho hi ho, it’s off to work we go… A poisoned apple on the floor, free from the grip of a lifeless hand… A witch meets her fate as she falls off a cliff amid thunder claps and lightning streaks… Resurrection by a kiss… A castle in the sky… By the end of the film, my head was awhirl with questions about the human condition from love to mortality.

“Are you going to die?” I asked my mother. She was in the kitchen, dressed in a yellow robe and white puffy slippers, holding a grill with which she was making a pancake that we called flying saucer. They say that as children, we learn of the ultimate end at the age we enter nursery school. We learn from cartoons such as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” In princess fairy tales, death is never dignified. Death is an agonizing exit that happens to villains. Yes, Snow White is an orphan under the care of a madwoman, but if her parents’ final moments had been peaceful, we are never told. Where would be the melodrama in that? “No,” my mother said. That was all, and it was an appropriate answer. I would know the truth with age. Until then, my mother allowed me to believe that we five were inseparable forever. She took the same stance with Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy; to tell me they don’t exist would have been to rob me of my childhood.

RS-04However, my mother’s comforting didn’t silence the stuff I envisioned. Although all kids have an imagination that runs wild, mine would have made El Greco and Ingmar Bergman proud. Death was skeletons in black cloaks, the sky gray as they wallowed in a pit surrounded by barren trees and parched earth. I would lie on my bedroom floor, where I’d shut my eyes and hold my breath. So this is what it is to be dead, I’d think. Blindness became another one of my curiosities, though I doubt it was Disney induced. We’ve got Disney characters who are handless, wooden, sneeze ridden, and goofy, but none who is visually impaired. I would wander the living room with eyes shut, my arms outstretched in front of me. That came to a stop when my mother caught me and noticed a bruise on my forehead from my having bumped into a wall.

As for love, this was an intangible subject, more a feeling than an image. Because of the security family provided – occasional after school surprise gifts from my mother (a box of clay, pez sticks), my father’s piggy back rides, sharing stickers of scented strawberries with my sister, and evenings in my brother’s room as he’d build models of war tanks while I nibbled on the styrofoam packaging the parts came boxed in – I never questioned the feeling. Those moments were the norm. “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” offers its own semblance of normalcy that reproduced my own. Animals flock to our heroine as birds do to a nest, and little people who reside in a cottage around which flowers are in bloom and the grass is green look upon her as a mother. Love is a song and dance, the tweeting of birds, and a smile that squashes all things troublesome. What I already had required no imagining.

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That is with exception to the prince. As grown-up as we become, the concept of a mate born for the purpose of someday intertwining his or her destiny with our own remains. The union is called marriage. My sister had a husband who lasted for a mere two years. “I married him for all the wrong reasons,” she said. Those reasons included wealth and luxury. Beneath the comfort, she might have known immediately upon tying the knot that divorce would be imminent. Already I had detected friction between them when I accompanied her to decide on which of his furniture to keep for the house they were to move into. “That’s ugly,” she’d say of a vase. “It’s expensive,” he’d rebut. Then she’d turn to me and ask, “Don’t you think it’s ugly?” My sister-in-law was involved in another conversation in the aftermath of my sister’s separation from her husband, and her input was that a partner could be a disappointment when endowed with a potential that he or she exerts minimal effort to achieve. A discussion followed on the ideal match, the circumstances under which relationships form, and the redefinition of Mr. Right in accordance to a stage in life, terminating with both women stating, “Mommy was lucky to have found her Prince Charming.”

Indeed, “lucky” is the best word to describe the outcome of the dice my mother rolled in her selection of a husband, a factor that is absent in fairy tales. She made a gamble at 22 to marry my father, a bank clerk with high goals, over suitors established in their financial standing. In “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” true love is preordained. Certainly, my parents have had their rough patches – disagreements over expenses and insecurities over fidelity, typical issues that arise in the course of being together for nearly 60 years – yet together they are. The reality of a fairy tale is that while it shows the magnificence of a meeting, “happily ever after” is open to interpretation. Notice the trials Prince Charming duels with in order to reach Snow White. Even in a story with a predictable outcome, conflicts abound, all as innuendo that the castle in the sky offers its own set of challenges for husband and wife to overcome so that happiness can prevail to the grave.

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Call me a fool, but I continue to believe in fairy tales. “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” has more verity than we’d like to acknowledge it for. Life is a cycle of evil queens and losing our way in a forest, of poisoned apples and suffering a form of death. And out of the woodwork, someone comes to our rescue. Although the person may not always be Prince (or Princess) Charming, that a savior appears when least expected yet most needed give us hope that someday… someday…

“Bus Stop”: Stardom in the Hollywood Night

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Here’s a familiar story:

Chérie (Marilyn Monroe) is a saloon singer from the outback with a big dream. Her destination is Hollywood. To earn money so that she could complete her journey, she has taken a detour in Phoenix, Arizona. With the one exception that automobiles now own the streets in lieu of carts and carriages, Phoenix in the 1950s hasn’t developed much since the days of the Wild West. It remains a red neck county where men behave like men. Chérie’s boss bullies her. Her audience ignores her. The siren’s sexiness has run dry with the regulars. But she’s got nothing else to offer. Dressed as a mermaid in black net stockings, she performs “That Old Black Magic” with a voice that sounds more like the whining of a four-legged bitch than the treble of a chanteuse. Enter Bo (Don Murray), a yokel from Montana. He participates in a rodeo, where he rides a galloping bronco and lassoes goats, and because Chérie’s bosom wiggling the previous night at the salon upstages her inability to carry a note, he decides he wants Chérie for a wife, so he lassoes her, too, as he spots her at a bus terminal attempting to run away from him. That’s not how to catch a lady, Chérie tells him; ask with respect. Bo does, and Chérie gets what she has absolutely wanted all along – love and respect.

It’s no coincidence that Marilyn Monroe is Chérie. Although “Bus Stop” (1956) could be any girl’s story, it is specifically that of its star. How many articles have been written about Marilyn Monroe infuriated with studio heads over their disrespect of her? How many about her emotional frailty? About her? Too many. Whenever we read about Monroe, the word “vulnerable” is certain to appear. To be called such isn’t flattering in this age of feminism. No matter. When it comes to our movie goddesses of the studio system, politics fall to the wayside. Vulnerability is the quality that makes the most memorable of them – from Louise Brooks to Deborah Kerr – reach out to us from across the generations. “Hold me. I’m lonely just like you,” they declare with pleading eyes and trembling lips for the two hours that they are resurrected on the screen. We can’t resist. Nobody has ever said no to the pull of beauty. What makes Monroe’s irresistibility perdurable is that she wasn’t altogether acting. We all know her life story. What a mess.

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I’ve seen many Marilyn Monroe films, but “Bus Stop” is my favorite, and it seems to be those of other Monroe viewers, as well. “She just shines in it,” I overheard a girl say in art class when I was still in college at Tufts University. She was conversing with another girl, and though both stated that they weren’t fond of the actress, in this movie, they saw she possessed something. In a film and society course I was enrolled in that same semester, the instructor honed in on the scene in “Bus Stop” where Chérie expresses her ideal mate to a fellow female passenger: “l want a guy l can look up to and admire, but l don’t want him to browbeat me. l want a guy who’ll be sweet with me, but l don’t want him to baby me either. l just gotta feel it. Whoever l marry has some real regard for me aside from all that loving stuff.” The instructor’s lecture was on the pertinence of a role in establishing the image of a star. “Bus Stop,” he said, is pure Marilyn – the loneliness, the idealism, the desperation to be viewed as something deeper than an object.

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Drag queens glee in playing Marilyn Monroe. They don a platinum wig, pucker red lips, and half close their eyes in bedroom sultriness. They wear a pink gown reminiscent of Monroe’s rendition of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953) or a white dress a replica of the one she made famous in that moment in “The Seven Year Itch” (1955), where air that emits from a passing train beneath a subway grate sends its skirt billowing above the knees. They vamp. They lip sync. They ham up the gyration of the derriere and tilt of the head. I do not find their parodies entertaining. While it can be a salute to an actress to be so iconic that she is a favorite of female impersonators, when done to an excess, the parodies detract from her value. It would be impossible for camp to capture the profoundness of the Marilyn Monroe who said this: “I used to think as I looked out on the Hollywood night, There must be thousands of girls sitting alone like me dreaming of being a movie star. But I’m not going to worry about them. I’m dreaming the hardest.” (https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/marilyn_monroe_499735)

I first came across the quote 25 years ago while browsing a coffee table book on Monroe. The anthem of every aspiring artist, it has stuck with me ever since. I know the kind of night she refers to. I would have them when strolling across the Tufts campus on a weekend, everyone except me on one’s way to this dorm party or that, and on the steps of the Sacré Coeur when I lived in Paris, with the cathedral domes in front of me shaped like gargantuan white turbans radiant in the evening sky. I miss those nights. Nothing about the future is impossible in our teens and twenties. My name on a book binding and my profile on a book jacket were a certainty. Not that my confidence has abated; it has merely been put to the test with age. Someone who had worked in a literary agency told me that even representation by an agent doesn’t guarantee publication; only 5% get a book out. My response was that I don’t give a damn about the 95% that don’t make it. Otherwise, why even bother with this? Until I am a part of this select group, I gaze in the late hours at the wide expanse of stars and wisps of lavender clouds, and I hope.

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Chérie in “Bus Stop” may not have reached Hollywood, though that’s because she finds something better – a man who sees her as an angel despite her admission to having been around the block. That’s Monroe right there, a sex symbol in search of a guy who could love her as Norman Jean, only the actress’s dreams were too grand for her to dismiss, which is why she speaks to our ambitious nature. Monroe got what she wanted. As evidenced by what happened to her, superstardom isn’t everything glossy magazines and tabloids hype it up to be. Still, we want her dreams for ourselves, regardless of the danger entailed or the lives imperiled. Bad luck aside, the end result is undeniable: Marilyn Monroe is immortal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Each sunset promises a sunrise.

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“Sunrise”: The Allure of the American Dream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



“The Red Shoes”: Passion and Sacrifice

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Boris Lermontov: The dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer. Never.

Dimitri: That is all very fine, Boris, very pure and fine, but you can’t alter human nature.

Boris Lermontov: No? I think you can do even better than that. You can ignore it.

Thus goes the decisive conversation that Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) overhears between ballet master, Boris Lermontov (Anton Wolbrook), and assistant Dimitri (Eric Berry). Page has the makings of a star. Hair the hue of autumn, skin winter white, and figure delicate as a spring raindrop, she pirouettes with the fury of a summer storm, the incarnation of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” en pointe. She has the ambition to equal her talent as well as the discipline. Lermontov knows Page is listening in the shadows, which is why he pronounces his lines with an arch of the brow and a flourish of syllables. Every moment commands drama for the impresario. Those who respond to the calling of a creative life must surrender body and soul to their art. As Lermontov says, ballet is a religion. When he first meets Page at a soiree, he tests her dedication with two questions: Why do you want to dance? Why do you want to live? “Well, I don’t know exactly why,” she says, “but… I must.” The perfect answer. The stage is her reality, the world she must inhabit to survive, and in her Lermontov has discovered a novitiate he can train to greatness like a thoroughbred racehorse.

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Some viewers might consider “The Red Shoes” (1948) an exaggeration of creative fever. This sort of existence is implausible. It goes against the grain of what we are conditioned to believe since childhood comprise our collective destiny – marriage and parenthood – the exception to the norm being the men and women of the cloak. Even then, as evidenced by the scandals that have rocked the Vatican in recent years, deprivation in the name of God of a human touch that sizzles the flesh and upraises the heart is an outrageous demand. Neither is it practical in the name of art. Consider the world’s masterpieces created in centuries past that speak to us in the second millennium and will continue to do so for millennia hereafter – from the “Mona Lisa” to “Wuthering Heights,” from the Taj Mahal to the songs of the Gershwin brothers. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/an-american-in-paris-a-song-and-dance-to-a-broken-heart/) They were all inspired by love, the singular emotion that shoots us to the heavens, there where we can color the night sky like fireworks with explosions of fluorescence. Or is art that easy to define?

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Emily Bronte led a life of solitude, her primary companions books and her sisters. No record exists of Leonardo Da Vinci as having engaged in intimate relationships with either a man or a woman. The same goes for George Gershwin. So when Lermontov says “doubtful comforts of human love,” he probably means that the angst of loneliness is sublime… it results in works that brim with pathos… and should we find ourselves falling for somebody, then it’s acceptable so long as the affair ends in tragedy. As ambitious as Page is, she is no machine that can ignore that which human nature needs. “She’s dreaming,” Lermontov scoffs to Dimitri of her performance of “Swan Lake.” The dream shatters when the object of her affection – Julian Craster (Marius Goring), the composer to the ballet fated to elevate her to spectacular heights – makes her choose between him and dance. How victorious for Lermontov that his protégé should be faced with this dilemma. She’s cracking inside. She wants Craster, but the red shoes take possession of her, impel her to dance in a frenzy of heartbreak.

This is what art is about.

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In my youthful romanticism, I fell for the film’s message of passion and sacrifice. I saw “The Red Shoes” in my twenties, in the throes of an unrequited love. The dagger in the heart was necessary for me to write tear-inducing love stories. To grind the dagger to no end, I surrounded myself with melancholy. I consumed them all – “Anna Karenina,” “Madame Bovary,” and “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” – both the novels and the films based on them. (http://www.rafsy.com/actors-models-directors/nastassja-kinski-the-eternal-tess/) My CD player was on a repetitious run of Frank pining for “Someone to Watch Over Me” and Ella bleeding that everyone was singing songs of love “But Not for Me.” Let’s not forget Maria Callas, she who reigns eternal as the prima donna dolorosa, a world celebrated talent embroiled in a romance that cost her career and, worse yet, her voice. I may not have understood a word of her arias, but… man… she sure knew how to drown a note in despair. (http://www.rafsy.com/actors-models-directors/maria-callas-prima-donna-dolorosa/)

Lest you misconstrue, “The Red Shoes” did not instigate my self-indulgence; rather, the film validated it. Self-indulgence had started years earlier when I was in college. Closeted and alienated, guys in gay bars clones of the all-American prototype of jocks and fraternity brothers, I withdrew deep into myself, sought refuge in make-believe. Here set a cycle in motion that has lasted for too long.University of Pennsylvania and Stanford degree holder, Francisco, with the flirtatious blink and a soldier’s build (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/the-law-of-desire-lunacy-and-obsession/); former navy man Chuck, blond and broad-shouldered; Scott of the Abercrombie and Fitch mold and who toured Israel with the bible as his guide… with them, I had a moment of heat that cooled on their end quicker than iced coffee. It has to be this way, I thought. The urgency to express oneself through art isn’t born from happiness, after all. Even Van Gogh’s “Sunflower” is a scream for happiness, not an enunciation of happiness.

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Nearly 30 years after “The Red Shoes,” “ The Turning Point” (1977) was made, another classic movie that pits dance against the doubtful comforts of human love. Emma Jacklin (Anne Bancroft) and Deedee Rodgers (Shirley MacLaine) are friends who were promising ballerinas. While the former is now hailed as ballet’s equivalent of the pope, the latter proves with a husband and a daughter that human love is a certifiable comfort. Albeit successful with their choices, one sees in the other the life she could have had. The bond between both women is therefore tightened by a convoluted knot of enmity and goodwill, regret and contentment. Yes, being an artist is that complex, in movies as in life.

But wait a minute. Who am I? I’m not a ballerina. Neither am I Maria Callas nor am I George Gershwin. Nobody is imposing on me an ascetic existence. Most people don’t even know who it is that’s writing this. And while I will always be a sucker for a fatal romance, I’ve reached a realization that for my words to bear the weight of truth, I must know what it is to lie at the gates of Nirvana with one who loves me in return, to inhale his breath, to feel his caress as if my body were a chalice of light.

Here I go again, taking off on flights of rhapsody. What I want is simple enough: to hold someone’s hand. Art can be a collaboration with the most bromidic of happiness.

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“The Shop Around the Corner”: The Seduction of a Letter

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Letter writing was a serious undertaking. Before the advent of e-mail, this is how I spent many childhood afternoons. I savored authoring epistles to relatives overseas in America, my two closest pen pals being Tita Florence and Grandma Susan. Tita Florence was my favorite aunt. When my family had moved back to the Philippines from Japan, she babysat my brother, sister, and me. She had a voice that vacillated between girlish and womanly, with one word spoken in a high register and the next dipped down an octave. Although she was of the age in which wearing hot pants was acceptable, she had a penchant for dolls. She could be zany, as well: in a department store restaurant, she once piled paper napkins on a plate onto which I had disgorged my pork strips, then rushed us out in a state of laughter. Tita Florence immigrated to the U.S. when I was about eight, shortly after Grandma Susan, a maternal presence who spent years with each of her seven children so that she could aid in raising their children. My grandmother would write me letters on blue triple folded, air postal stationery, her accounts… as those of my aunt… concentrated on the prosaic; words of wisdom would have spoiled the fun. On my end, I never divulged growing pains because I didn’t have any; I was that carefree. Letter writing was an indulgence for two reasons: to practice my penmanship, which Catholic school had fine-tuned into a calligraphy cursive, and to share in the everyday activities of someone I cared for.

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Therein was my introduction to the seduction of a letter. I can still feel it – the anxiety for an envelope to be delivered to me that bore my name written in a hand as if it were Santa’s, and the thrill of tearing the seal once the envelope was in my grasp – exactly as it is depicted in “The Shop Around the Corner” (1940), only the letters in the film carry deeper value than the recapitulations of a day. They’re about romance and poetry, aimed at leading the anonymous recipient to the altar:

My heart was trembling as I walked into the post office. And there you were, lying in box two-thirty-seven, and I took you out of your envelope and read you. I read you right there. Oh, Dear Friend… Are you tall or short? Are your eyes brown? Are they blue? Now, don’t tell me. What does it matter so long as our minds meet?

What a tricky endeavor it is when the pair of quill love birds are Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) and Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), sales attendants at a gift shop who detest each other in person. He is the head salesman. She is his new assistant. He sees her as meddlesome. She sees him as cocky. He calls her “cold and snippy like an old maid.” She calls him “an insignificant little clerk.” Unbeknownst to them, Alfred had answered Klara’s newspaper ad for a pen pal shortly before her employment.  This is the majesty of their situation – they’re in love with each other and they don’t realize it.

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75 years after the release of “The Shop Around the Corner,” we have the speediness of e-mail and online dating sites, where we impart our hobbies, biographies, likes and dislikes to millions of strangers at the click of a button. ChristianMingle.com, match.com, and ucdate.com in addition to sites that target specific ethnicities, professions, and ages… they are all over the internet. They’re a benefit to the world; many people can asseverate their success. And yet, the impersonality of black font on a white screen and single sentences typed in haste as an afterthought can never replace the soul of a letter. Take it from a veteran recipient. If you’ve been following my blog, then you know of Jonas (http://www.rafsy.com/films-2000s-present/5-to-7-the-permanence-of-a-perfect-romance/), my Paris friend. Had his letters been computer generated, I would not have been able to run my fingertips on the indentations of his words, trace the flow of his script, and gaze at the ink that had streamed from his pen as he cherished me in his thoughts. His flowers would have been stock images copied and pasted from the internet rather than hand painted. Of his typewritten letters, I would not be able to admire his dedication as manifested by the cross edits and white outs, appreciate how he labored over an archaic machine just for me.

A story can itself be a love letter. I write erotica. I recently gave an anthology that contains one of my pieces to a guy I just met. I had introduced myself at a bar where he works. Since he revealed himself to be a voracious reader, I figured sharing with him an expression of my creativity would be an apt way to connect. I had scratched out a character’s name in one section and replaced it with his, and on the front page I had scrawled an inscription: Thank you for your conversation and hospitality. You made me feel at home at 440 Castro. The next time I saw him, I asked if he had read my story. He said, “Unfortunately, I haven’t had the chance.” Why would he have? Although it’s a touching piece – two frat brothers experience the exhilaration and ache of first love – I had not written it with him in mind. We haven’t spoken since other than exchanged a perfunctory hello. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/the-wings-of-the-dove-when-to-fight-when-to-quit/)

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Imagine what would have been had Alfred Kralik not responded to Klara Novak’s ad. They would never have discovered the virtues each possesses, spelled out on sheets of paper the weight of gold, original documents their generation would not have today’s technology to photocopy or save on a memory stick. I keep in an antique chest my own letters from Grandma Susan, Tita Florence, Jonas and so many others who have gone either due to nature’s course or a divergence in our joined path, all of them postmarked in an era that recedes further into the distant past upon each passing year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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