“Freeheld”: A House. A Dog. A Woman I Love…

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While at the Cornell writing program, I worked one summer for the university newspaper, writing 500-word pieces on campus activities and clubs. After my hours, I would wait at a stop outside the office for a shuttle ride towards home at Ithaca Commons downhill. Since a large chunk of the student population was away, the parking lot where the shuttle would pass was virtually empty. Days were routine and monotonous, until the afternoon I saw something of an oasis. Whatever it is those stranded in a desert hallucinate – palm trees, water, harem beauties – caused me to blink then stare incredulously. From the horizon, two guys on roller blades appeared like Spartans in a victory march, nonchalant and self-assured. Both were buffed, sculpted, and wearing nothing more than shorts and sunglasses. As they skated my way, a thought came to me as if I were sobering up from a long stretch of inebriation: You guys are gorgeous, white, in an ivy league institution, and probably straight. The two of you have every door, in every facet of society, in every part of the world open to you. You have no reason not to make it. No reason at all.

In the 30 years that I have been in America, the eminence of a select group of people over the rest of us never hit me with the bluntness as it did at that instant. Of course, I know of the Gettys and the Kennedys and the Mellons, but as folks I’ve read about. Those two frat boys (I assumed that’s what they were; a fraternity consummates the image), they were within my field of vision, a jolt of reality. I could imagine their names – John Langston Baskerville IV and Edward Jacob Allerton – long and snobbish and aristocratic. “Oh, my God,” a friend, an African-American in the poetry program, reacted when I told her of my encounter. “I’m just thankful my limbs are intact.”

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A more affecting confrontation with privilege occurs in “Freeheld” (2015), a movie based on factual events about one woman’s fight against discrimination, although the hierarchy plays out in the New Jersey police force, itself a microcosm of a white male powered environment. Lauren Hester (Julianne Moore) is an officer, one of the most dedicated in her unit, a top ace. Since her goal is to be lieutenant, she exerts herself more than her male counterparts, invariably to laudable results; a major accomplishment is the bust of a drug cartel. Ascension to the top of her profession suddenly takes the back burner to another challenge. Hester is diagnosed with cancer. She petitions for her pension to be appropriated to her spouse in the event of her passing but is denied. The reason: the spouse is another woman. This is 2005, and same sex marriages aren’t yet legalized. What gay and lesbian couples are granted instead is a domestic partnership bill, which we learn doesn’t provide the same benefits of a marriage license between a man and a woman. Without the pension, Hester’s wife, Stacie Andree (Ellen Page), is at risk of losing their home. Here begins a battle with state lawmakers, called freeholders, to recognize Hester’s and Andree’s rights. “In my career, I’ve never asked for special treatment,” Hester says in court. “I’m only asking for equality.”

“Freeheld” is ultimately the story of the pains we undergo for our basic prerogative to be happy.

Hester: If you could have anything, what would it be?

Andree: A house. A dog. A woman I love, loves me.

Hester: Me, too. 

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We can’t get anymore basic than this, yet we hear of situations where what seems simple and easy to attain eludes people because of the doings of either the law or fate. With the Philippines jubilating over the crowning of the country’s representative in the Miss Universe competition ten days ago, I googled the whereabouts of past contestants and came across the dismal tale of Damarys Ruiz, Miss Venezuela of 1973. A law degree holder, she was, as a friend was recently quoted in the online paper, The Daily Mail, “wonderful, educated, and a great conversationalist,” who “had opinions about everything.”(http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3091667/Heartbreaking-end-former-Miss-Venezuela-went-model-spending-15-years-life-living-streets.html) Ruiz, with her beauty queen title, modeling career, and intelligence, was on the path to stardom. But something was wrong. She could never sustain a relationship with a boyfriend and lived with a brother who kept her cooped up as he would starve and beat her. In spite of her pleas for help, the police never interceded. In 2000, she fled from her brother, and with nowhere to go, she sought refuge on the streets, a homeless drifter for the last 15 years of her life. Damarys Ruiz died in May of 2015. Her family refused to identify her body. She was 68.

Another international beauty whose life took a downward spiral is Spain’s Amparo Muñoz, a Miss Universe winner I remember with fondness because she was the first pageant contestant I had ever seen crowned, and it happened in the Philippines in 1974. She relinquished her title a few months after her victory. Accounts range from her being disagreeable to her disagreeing to be treated as an object wound up on high gear for one public appearance after another. Film directors in her motherland subsequently took an interest in her, which led to several screen appearances, a few wherein Muñoz exposed flesh – an innocuous amount by European standards but excessive to Americans (read: breasts) – and this led to rumors that she was an actress in soft porn, followed by hearsay of AIDS, prostitution, and heroin addiction. She made TV appearances to counter the negative speculations. Parkinson’s Disease claimed Amparo Muñoz at the age of 56 in 2011. Her last words: “I’ve always respected everyone, most of all God, though I haven’t been treated with respect myself. I hope that people will start to do that now.” (https://jsmyth.wordpress.com/2011/03/01/amparo-munoz-a-beautiful-broken-toy/)

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The two frat boys that afternoon at Cornell were eye-popping, the license to own the world theirs on account of birthright, gender, and race. Own they will, while the likes of Lauren Hester and Stacie Andree assert their voices in courtrooms for a minuscule slice of the pie, and others who have tasted the pie’s topping lose their way through no fault entirely of their own, tumbling into homelessness or landing on the receiving end of a slander. Yet ownership warrants immense obligations, burdens we can only guess at. As political activist Robert W. Welch, Jr. has said, “The responsibilities which are imposed by rank and privilege and good fortune can… become very onerous indeed.”

“Coming Home”: In Love and War

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We’re quick to condemn people’s actions in a time of war when we are mere bystanders to the event. In 1999, director Elia Kazan was awarded an honorary Oscar, which sparked dissidence in Hollywood. Industry big wigs refused him a standing ovation due to his cooperation with the House on Un-American Activities 47 years earlier, wherein he had named colleagues suspected of communist leanings; hence, terminating the careers of actors Art Smith and Morris Carnovsky and playwright Clifford Odets. In a press conference, Kazan defended himself by explaining he had opted for the less opprobrious of two options presented to him. What those options were is pointless. The point is that the Cold War perpetrated rancor and suspicion among Americans, largely bolstered by anti-red propaganda. (An ad for Scott paper towels warned that rough wipes in a company restroom were indicative of capitalist abuse culpable of turning employees into Bolsheviks.) We can therefore presume that the taut times led to drastic measures; those subpoenaed to take the testimonial stand must have done so under the pressure of a threat.

The French movie “Diplomacy” (2014) depicts an analogous instance. Based on true events of World War II, it pits German general, Dietrich von Choltitz (Niels Arestrup), against Swedish diplomat, Raoul Nordling (André Dussolier). Paris is at stake. The Nazis are retreating, and as a middle finger to the Allied Forces, Hitler has commanded von Choltitz to push buttons that would blow up the city. Nordling implores the general to reconsider, utilizing psychological strategies to appeal to his compassion for life and history. Families murdered, monuments crumbled, a civilization annihilated… von Choltitz assures Nordling that all this burdens his conscience. Why then obey the Führer? The dictator holds the general’s family hostage.

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Although both of the above pertain to historical occurrences, they are our stories, as well. War need not be exclusive to either politicians and soldiers or courtrooms and battlefields. Just as with feuding nations, we can’t be too sure of what we are capable in a circumstance that involves the beloved. My cousin, Liza, died of cancer well tended to; her husband, John, comforted her through chemotherapy and promised to fulfill her last wishes. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-2000s-present/me-and-earl-and-the-dying-girl-everyones-loss/) Such faithfulness is the prescription for a big screen romance, and two films of the same title, “Coming Home,” screened 38 years apart (1978 and 2015) and from two different countries (The United States and China), pay obeisance to this, each with a plot distinctly its own; the Vietnam War is the backdrop to the early film and the Cultural Revolution to the later.

In the 1978 feature, Sally Hyde (Jane Fonda) is a military wife whose husband, Bob (Bruce Dern), has been called to action in the Far East hotbed of napalm and stifling swamps. Alone in California, Sally volunteers at a veteran hospital, where she meets Luke Martin (Jon Voight), a soldier recuperating from wounds that have made him a paraplegic. As their friendship develops into something more, Bob returns. He suffers from post-traumatic stress. Sally faces a dilemma: happiness with Luke or fidelity to Bob in order to heal him of his condition? Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming) in the 2015 story is a dissentient to Chairman Mao. He comes home to wife, Feng Wanyu (Gong Li), after ten years in a labor camp, where he had been detained for political rehabilitation. Both await the reconciliation, only an accident during Lu’s imprisonment has damaged Feng’s memory. She doesn’t recognize her husband. To revert her amnesia, Lu reads letters he had written to her from his cell, all of which she has stored in a chest, and plays on a piano songs that bear special meaning to them both, day after day for time indefinite.

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My cousin’s husband has since remarried. The journey back to a serene existence hasn’t been smooth. John’s second wife, Wendy, is ill. “It’s like reliving a nightmare,” John said this past weekend during a visit to San Francisco. Within six months of their marriage two years ago, the condo they moved into poisoned Wendy with mold infection. While the sickness is curable in 95% of its victims, she belongs to the 5% that don’t respond to treatment. As a result, her senses are heightened, causing bright light and noise to burden her eyes and ears; high altitude constricts her breathing; and food spices induce vomiting. On some days, she is so enfeebled that she’s bedridden. So that he can watch over his wife during the day, John works on his entrepreneurial projects in the evenings. Regardless, he maintains an upbeat attitude (“What can you do? That’s how it is.”), hopeful that the next doctor will provide the breakthrough.

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“That’s love,” I told my nephew, Rafael. All those present in the living room consented. Love stories surround us. A friend, Rafael P, is caregiver to an ex-boyfriend who is in stage four of cancer, feeding Jeff meals and changing Jeff ‘s sheets on occasions that he messes his bed, while another friend, Joe, has tightened bonds with his partner, who is nursing him through short-term memory loss and limited mobility, the aftereffects of a brain tumor operation performed a year and a half ago. My own mother is now wary about solo trips to San Francisco because of my father’s crippling knee problems and arthritis. To walk, he needs a cane in one hand and the support of an arm in the other, and he has difficulty putting on his socks and shoes. I told my mother that he wouldn’t like it if we were to make him feel as an invalid through constant vigilance. “Of course, he wouldn’t,” she said, yet a fact is a fact. “Still, he can’t be left alone.”

My nephew, Rafael, said about his girlfriend, “I don’t know if I’d be able to do the same for Kelly.” I responded that he could never know. None of us could, for a flip side exists to every position as it does in a war. My sister knew two guys in college, Paul and Jim, who were a couple and continued on as such after graduation, until Paul’s health deteriorated from a brain tumor. As it did for Joe, a surgery impaired his movement, causing Jim to break off their relationship. I read that a similar scenario happened between two men who, in the 1990s, were big names in the gay media on account of their physiognomy and sexual prowess, assets that Colt Studios, a company dedicated to the promotion of superior-caliber physiques, recorded on film. True to the title of their video, “Muscle Ranch,” Jake Tanner and Ed Dinakos were thoroughbreds that boasted ripped abs and Hercules thighs. Then AIDS took its toll on Ed, and Jake left.

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I am not here to make assumptions on Jim and Jake. I am not an insider to their decisions, and what I relate of them are secondhand accounts. I cite the two to underline that we can never accurately foresee how rough a going can get. Only when we are experiencing it can we fathom the full oppressiveness of the situation. Should we quit, would we be committing an egregious act? Nobody chooses to be ill as much as nobody chooses to be a victim of a war. Nevertheless, things happen. When they do, heroes are born. We extol them. We convince ourselves in our moments of peace and health that, in hardship with a loved one, we will hold the likes of John and our devoted spouses in “Coming Home,” Sally Hyde and Lu Yanshi, as examples to follow. But the truth is in my nephew’s statement: “ I don’t know…”

 

 

“Blue Is the Warmest Color”: A Dynamite of Emotions

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My e-mail to friends and family of “Blue Is the Warmest Color” (2013) upon its theatrical release in the U.S.:

Outstanding movie. Personally, I think it could have been edited because some scenes are prolonged. One lengthy sex scene comes to mind. At the same time, though, I was fascinated by both the directorial and acting processes behind the simulated love making… behind every frame, for that matter. The passion, emotions, and intensity are so palpable that I was lamenting what was lacking in my own life. I mean, I get sex all right, but not like that. What transpires on screen is more than just a love affair. It is a collision. I could see the wreckage and the flames and the debris exploding from the eyes and pores of both actresses. Every touch, every kiss, every embrace are a matter of life and death. And French teenagers are soooo intelligent. Jean Paul Sartre, “Dangerous Liaisons,” Picasso – the characters talk about these subjects with the fervor that we gay men talk about fuck parties on Folsom Fair weekend. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/dangerous-liaisons-the-danger-of-love/)

A collision. This is exactly what I felt with the film adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet (1968). (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/romeo-and-juliet-till-death-and-beyond/) Like Shakespeare’s most celebrated couple, Emma (Léa Seydoux) and Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) in “Blue Is the Warmest Color” are young, so young that they nose-dive into an eddy of hungry glances and devouring kisses, uncaring of what might be because the only thing that matters is now. “Seize the day” is the creed of the young, and this they do. Each one is to the other an apple as robust and sanguine as a heart, coated in lacquer the shine of tears and sweat. With such enticement, a romance is inevitable, and with many tender age romances, it doesn’t bode well.

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“Do you still love me?” Adèle asks towards the end of a three-hour run. It’s a common question, and it’s a hard one. A future depends on the answer. The bluntness with which we can reply in the negative staggers me. Whatever the shortcomings of our partners, we are just as marred by our own failures. Even though an affair may end, is it possible for love to die? Memories must keep a flicker of love burning, an eternal flame. Emma shakes her head. We wonder about her truthfulness when she is as distraught as a wounded cat, face down and eyes tinged with regret. Amid snot, muffled crying, and kisses, Adèle tries to prove Emma wrong in an instant that involves one girl’s hand under the table as the other parts her legs. The flesh is a potent elixir, indeed.

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Emma and Adèle have their youth ahead of them. Regardless of what may become of the two, what they possessed while it was in their grasp is enviable. “Just say stay,” a colleague at the writing program once told me about the separation that happens the morning after. I was at Cornell University, and I had met someone during a weekend in Manhattan, which is a five-hour bus ride away from Ithaca, the town where the university serves as its backbone. Peter was visiting from Minneapolis. After introducing ourselves at a club, we took a cab to his hotel. I lay on his lap during the ride as he stroked my hair. It’s bewildering, the affection born from a handshake and ten minutes of basic conversation. “You have a ‘50s look to you,” I said. He was clean cut with long sideburns and blond waves, a look reared on tuna casserole and apple pie, on Photoplay cover shots of Tony Curtis and Tab Hunter. His room was tidy. Shirts were folded into squares in an open suitcase; fresh sheets covered a queen bed; and a Kenneth Cole shopping bag suggested about him a bit of the preppy and a bit of the yuppy.

The night air was nippy. Moonlight permeated the blue of the sky with a frosted tint. Indoors, we were hot and sweaty. The next morning, as the sun shone through the curtains, I asked, “Should we exchange numbers?” Peter said, “I thought about that, but considering the kind of sex we had, maybe we shouldn’t.” We had been animals for the hours before daybreak, far from dating material. I consented. As we parted at a coffee shop some blocks away, we stood facing each other. He was a little taller than I, and the dazzle of a new day glazed his eyes. We motioned to kiss, but then I stalled. “I know,” Peter said. And I never saw him again.

Animalism is precisely the chemistry between Emma and Adèle, a mating between two lionesses, both unrestrained and ravenous. This is sex. This is love. No, Peter didn’t know what I was thinking. It was because we had devolved for our moment together into thrashing body parts – grunts and spit, muscles and meat – that we should have kept in touch. Defeat prevented me from kissing him. “Stay,” I wanted to say. But we had been in his hotel room, and young and complacent as I was, the submissive between the two, I allowed him the final word, a decision I so regretted that I later requested a friend who was then living in the city to print me a web listing of all Peter Wagners in Minneapolis. “You’re obsessing over him, Raf,” my friend said.

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Probably so. A missed opportunity had happened a few months before with a guy named Mike. To my inquiry about a future connection, Mike said, “It usually doesn’t work the second time around.” He went on to recount an experience to defend his opinion. We were in bed. Steam clouded our reflection on a wall mirror. Mike was tan and sinewy with hair the shade of corn and James Caan curly. His last name was Harney. “Sounds like horny,” I had said a moment earlier. “Don’t even start,” he had responded. “I’ve had that all through school.” I thought this cute of him, that he would share with me something he had been sensitive about as a kid. A personal tidbit as minor as that had made the sex between us more than skin deep. Since we were in a bathhouse, we were on neutral ground. Still, I gave in to saying goodbye and leaving it at that. How difficult would it have been to say instead, “I’m different. I believe the second time can be even better. Here’s my number”?

Now here I am, nearly 20 years later, my memory of Peter and Mike stained by the dreadful incantation of remorse: what if… what if… what if… E-mails and phone calls might have amounted to nothing. Or they could have sparked gunpowder. The beauty of “Blue Is the Warmest Color” is that our nubile femme fatales take a risk with gunpowder. They don’t think about their actions. They’re as spontaneous as children with a lollipop. When the debris settles, Emma may claim that her devotion to Adèle no longer is, but she does assure Adèle that she will always think tenderly of her, that time will never lessen her relevance. Neither one loses anything in the long haul. That both will live forever in one another’s hearts is a gain for each.

The only love in which we lose is the love that could have been.

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“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”: Everyone’s Loss

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My cousin, Liza, died of cancer within five months of her diagnosis a little over ten years ago. At her wake, her husband, John, spoke of her no-nonsense attitude shortly towards the end. (“I started bawling. She said, ‘Come on, we need to talk about this.’”) Liza had a list of what was to be done when she was gone: 1) their three-year-old daughter, Sophie, was to inherit her jewelry once the child came of age; 2) photographs of Liza must remain on display in the living room so that Sophie wouldn’t forget her; 3) after a year, John would be free to remarry. Such systematic thinking struck me as lionhearted. Despite the enervating effects of chemotherapy, Liza chose to take control of the situation, giving stock to the tenet that every gray cloud has a silver lining. We never truly realize of what we are capable until adversity strikes, and my cousin is evidence that what we discover of ourselves can be exquisite. Cinema knows this, and therefore the repository of films on bravery and illness. Liza was well aware that only by exhibiting toughness could those around her overcome bereavement. She was 39. Young, but there have been cancer victims significantly younger – kids, really – and as such, their stories effect admiration among us adults. One of the most recent is “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” (2015).

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Rachel (Olivia Cooke) and Greg (Thomas Mann) are high school seniors. Although they are also neighbors, they aren’t friends. Not that they dislike one another. The dissimilarity between them in interests and personalities prompts nothing more from both than a mutual feeling of disinterest. However, Greg takes the initiative to spend time with Rachel, if only because of the badgering of his mother (Connie Britton), who tells the boy it’s the least he can do for a girl just diagnosed with a relapse of the big C. Upfront fellow that he is, Greg informs Rachel that he isn’t doing her any favors; rather, she’d be a benefit to him because his visits would get his mother off his back. For the sake of a story, the two get along royally, although not without their road bumps. Greg is susceptible to bouts of self-absorption. Rachel at times wants to give up. He’s a typical teen who worries over self-image. She’s an anomaly whose condition forces her to repudiate adolescent rites of passage. Still, friends they become. Greg has a quirkiness that appeals to Rachel’s grown up sensibility. He’s a movie aficionado, and with a pal named Earl (R.J. Cyler), he creates shorts based on the classics: “The Rad Shoes” for “The Red Shoes” (1948) (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/the-red-shoes-passion-and-sacrifice/); “2:48 P.M. Cowboy” in homage to “Midnight Cowboy” (1969) (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/midnight-cowboy-love-in-all-the-wrong-places/); and “Gone with My Wind,” a spin-off of the Oscar-winning Best Picture of 1939 (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/gone-with-the-wind-another-day-another-chance/).

In their nod to the film canon, Greg and Earl perpetuate the timelessness of great stories. No tale is ever antediluvian when it takes us on a voyage across the map of the human heart. While both find in Rachel a subject for the camera, I realize as I write this how little I know of Liza and to what depth a story can be built even so on the meagerness of material. Liza was an all-American girl of the 1970s and early ‘80s. Every summer break from school in the Philippines, I would visit her in San Diego, where she grew up an only child to my father’s sister and a dad who would tease her and a friend with the sobriquet Nabisco Twins on account of their shared weakness for Oreos. She, Tita Elvie, and Tito Ed lived in the kind of house that populates every suburban landscape – a rectangular dwelling beneath a triangular roof, behind which mowed grass carpeted a square garden. A stack of Seventeen magazines sat in her closet shelf, and a poster of Scott Baio hung on her bedroom door. We were pen pals. During college at Loyola Marymount, Liza wrote me a letter that included a diagram of her dorm, plus a listing of her classes and activities. Such was the extent of our communications, never past the routine. The diagram did occupy a generous half page, though, and much of herself that she never put into words, her penmanship revealed – oblongs and circles, swirls girly-whirly, a visual manifestation of her voice, which even in womanhood possessed a girlish cadence. Liza was a person of convention.

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In its perfidious way, cancer underscores the portrait of this quintessential American girl. “Every family has lost someone to cancer,” John said of a fact learned in the course of this ordeal, one that surprised as well as consoled, and as rage overwhelmed Tita Elvie, Rita, the wife to another cousin, had to remind her, “You’re not the only one.” Knowing we aren’t alone in an imminent loss counts for a lot. On a routine basis like a clock chime at midnight, Hollywood churns out a movie that speaks of our grief, of this saga that persists from one generation to another, a statement that our loss is everyone’s. “Terms of Endearment” (1983), the most famous of the lot, features Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger enact a mother’s worst nightmare of helpless witness to a daughter’s battle to stay alive. In “My Life Without Me” (2003), Sarah Polley’s Ann, a 23-year-old janitor who learns her days are numbered, tape records messages for her little girl to play on each birthday until the child turns 18. Seth Rogen in “50/50” (2011) is Kyle, comfort in the form of comic relief to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s ailing Adam. Whether affluent or on welfare or a yuppy, anyone is a target for cancer. The disease is so widespread that it is ensconced in our national psyche.

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Stories humanize each statistic. Rachel of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” herself is graced with an artistic temperament. Although her eloquence testifies that she is well read, we don’t learn until the end that books to her are more than calisthenics in vocabulary. Greg discovers between front and back covers stairs carved into pages that descend into an empty pit. On the steps, minuscule replicas of Earl, Rachel, and him sit a distance apart. Loneliness had been Rachel’s companion even before cancer. She saw it in her mother (Molly Shannon), a lush whom her father had walked out on and the one person she worries about. She wants to give up. Then again, mom needs her; friendships are thriving; and everybody within her orbit is planning for the future – SAT’s, college applications, and the prom, the entire rigmarole of high school. As classmates lose sleep over whom to ask to the dance of all dances, Rachel grows increasingly certain of one truth: no matter the seeming inextricability of a bond with another, we are all ultimately left on our own because everything in life is finite.

Except art. Just as Greg and Earl uncover facets of Rachel as fodder for a narrative, so it is for me with Liza. Anecdotes about my cousin in the days of her wake were chock-full, as they are inclined to be when mourners gather to commemorate a life. I would never have known her aversion to lilies, my choice of a flower to a funeral wreath, had my aunt not sought my pardon since Liza had requested that no lilies be present, she having been allergic to them, so the wreath was relegated to the foyer. Upon learning Liza was sick, Sophie would place Hello Kitty bandages on her. What cheer this must have brought my cousin, and fitting besides. With baby full cheeks, doll lips, and floral round eyes, one of which a birthmark dotted in the sclera, Liza somewhat evoked a Sanrio image. The advent of middle age neither grayed nor slowed her. She had her sight on a cruise for her 40th birthday. A friend was to be her travel mate, two bosom buddies since girlhood together in honoring a benchmark in the passing of the seasons. Alas, it was not meant to be. “Your bags are packed. The ship is waiting. You’re ready,” Angela eulogized. “Go on without me, and I promise that when the time is right, I will follow.”

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The death of a beloved before one’s time is a never-ending story. Children grow up. Parents grow old. Spouses remarry. The world turns. Regardless, something in us remains incomplete. Enter the cinema. In this most universal of American inventions, we find solace as we band with others in memory of their own dearly departed so that together we could create a communal narrative.

“Ratatouille”: Artists and Heroes

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My mother asked me when I was 12 who my hero was. The question might have been in conjunction with a school paper I was assigned to write. I didn’t have an answer. “Daddy,” she said. I laughed. A hero to me was a dead guy whose mug appeared on money, a general or president or civil rights proponent on the scale of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. Then again, this was 1979. Whatever acts of valor on the part of the commoner, journalism tended to bury beneath political sensationalism. The despotism of Cambodia’s Pol Pot may have united the globe in approbation, but torture tactics of yanking nails from fingers and the force feeding of human feces produced more hard copy than the refuge a farmer might have provided a government dissenter, and while American bureaucrats that Muslim extremists had taken hostage in Iran received laurels upon their homecoming, we saw their plight as unique to a region too far to pose as a threat to us.

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The world hasn’t been the same since 9/11. Nowadays, we are more probable to credit with the honor of hero citizens of our community who every day disappear into the throng of pedestrians and commuters off to a nine to five existence. Although we’ve always known that firemen risk their lives, we never witnessed until that day to what extent they hold hallowed their oath to put our well-being ahead of their own. We’re worth that much. In the years after, friends and neighbors have risen above the crowd to champion humanity. Kenyan Peter Kithene suffered the death of siblings and parents by the age of 12 due to a lack of medical aid, a loss that propelled him to establish healthcare in Africa’s remotest territories. Maiti Nepal in Kathmandu serves as a rehabilitation center for female victims of sex trafficking, thanks to the leadership of Anuradha Koirala. In the Philippines, Efren Peñaflorida brings education to street urchins via a portable library and blackboard.

Heroes all, and all are a paragon of the heroism implicit in us. We don’t need to put our mortality on a grill to save others. That we are exponents of life is credential enough. This my father is, he whose origins were mired in hardship, which could be why my mother mentioned him. My father lost his own father at the age kids learn the alphabet. To subsidize in the family income, he relinquished childhood to work as an aid to fishermen, accompanying his mother at the end of the day to collect leftovers from neighbors so that, along with his five siblings, they could have a meal. At 11, he left Cavite, this city by the sea where Spanish galleons once docked, for the promise of the capital, where in the ghettos he earned his keeps as a cigarette and newspaper vendor:

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A hundred years ago, Tondo had been the center for blacksmiths and booksellers, carpenters and nose and ear cleaners, a thriving center at a time when people were few and trees were plentiful. Now it was a garbage dump. White papers and papers the color of the rainbow – torn from notebooks, shredded, ripped off walls – paved empty lots, creating a floor mosaic of scrambled letters in every font and size. Windows to houses of wood and corrugated steel piled on top of the other like layers of mountain caves. In this canal, muddy waters buoyed plastic cups, and in that, streaks the brownish green of a serpent slithered to the horizon.

This is Tondo in the 1980s, partially the setting for a novel I’ve entitled “Maria Celeste,” about a provincial girl who migrates to Manila during the Marcos era to pursue her ambition of becoming a singer. My father’s Tondo was 40 years before that. Even then, he said, the living conditions were squalid. My father had been under the guardianship of a family friend. He called her Ate Lunti, ate being the respectful epithet for big sister. I met Ate Lunti when I was a child. So deep was his gratitude to her that he would make it a point to take my brother, sister, and me on visits so that she could see how well he had turned out, both as a family and a career man, he an ascending banker whom newspapers and magazines profiled. Ate Lunti had white hair and was so wide on the hips that she was immobile. I have no memory of her in motion. I see her in a moo moo dress, sitting on a bed covered with white sheets turned gray from age, the walls around her weathered wood. I see hints of sunlight, but no window. If there had been one, drapes could have covered it to serve as a screen from the heat. I see a smile. That’s how proud she was. My father’s story is so inspirational that it’s the stuff of movies. Watch “Ratatouille” (2007) and you’ll see what I mean.

DaddyI know what you’re thinking. “Ratatouille” is a cartoon, a somewhat gelastic one at that. Remy the rat befriends Alfredo Linguini, a clown of a bumpkin wiry with red hair as curly as cauliflower and who works as a garbage boy in an upscale Parisian restaurant. Alfredo is no ordinary floor mopper. The boy has the makings of excellence. He finally gets his chance to shine when he recreates a pot of soup that had spilled to the floor. The diners savor it, and a collaboration between rodent and human begins. By hiding underneath Alfredo’s toque blanche, the rat helps the boy rise to the status of a culinary master as it gives directions with a pull of the hair on what ingredients to use and when to stir. Remy and Alfredo are such a team that they sway over Paris’s most revered critic. Indeed, what praise flows from Anton Ego’s pen: Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.

My father once told me that he was never a star student nor had money ever been an obsession. When, in the fifth grade, I came home with five C’s in my report card, my mother blew her top while my father, his voice calm, said, “I was never good in school, but I tried.” His message: it’s unfair to demand perfection; what’s crucial is that one strive to be the best that one can be, and if the best is a C, then so be it. Past grades had indicated that I was capable of more. Though I’ve never been a straight A student, I’ve always been pleased of what I was able to achieve because I had applied myself. With his knack for numbers, my father had gotten himself out of the streets. No goal to him was impossible, and with the incentive to be the father he never had, he set those goals as a must, his accomplishments an example to all that prosperity can flourish from poverty in the same way that artists and heroes are born in any situation.

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And so I write:

Even on cloudy days, Celeste saw brightness. On the stage, she could will Cherry to appear however she wanted and, with her music, claim the place as her own. She learned everyone’s name. She regarded her audience as sharing the same home as she, not under one roof but under one sky. Ermita was where loops of jeepney antennas and hearts painted on buses whizzed around them amid screeches and honks and cusses. Hubcaps shapeless as kneaded dough and trash barrels littered pavements. A movie billboard depicted Nora Aunor, Dolph Lundgren, and Eddie Murphy with lopsided noses and fleshy fingers painted in pinkish swirls.

With the God-ordained gift of a voice, my novel’s heroine earns the adoration of working class folk and social outcasts, all who gather in the city’s tourist belt of brothels and karaoke bars. Her own heroine is Nora Aunor, whose grand slam at a singing competition during the Woodstock era lifted her from the sewers into the consciousness of every small town girl. Fighting tales are a part of our collective identity. We need winners. They give us something to aspire to, someone on whom we can project much of what we wish to be – a hero – and they encompass every spectrum of humankind, from a kitchen hand named after a noodle to the men whose surnames we bear as our legacy.

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“Love and Mercy”: The Angst of Genius

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California conjures sun and sand, Speedos and surfboards, and yearlong summers high on weed. Girls are blonde. Guys are buffed. Flip-flops drag on pavements, and tank tops show off tans. It’s a utopia of indolence. Ever since the Gold Rush, the American West has been portrayed as the epicenter of bacchanalia. When the earthquake and fire of 1906 razed San Francisco, the East Coast old guards tagged the destruction a retribution for the city’s fabled whore houses, and 60 years later, the land where the Golden Gate shines was again the subject of judgment for its Flower Power Movement. Protesters of the Vietnam War wielded peace signs in the sky. Hippies packed streets, jobless and strung out on acid. Somewhere in the pandemonium, a new sound was born, music that was a scream for rebellion, though not with the brand of activism associated with the tunes of Bob Dylan. For The Beach Boys, being young was a dance by the ocean. “I Get Around,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” “Surfer Girl,” and “Fun, Fun, Fun”… the song titles alone intimate the spirit of effervescence. Don’t let the frivolity fool you. Brian Wilson, songwriter and lead singer to the band, went through angst to create all that we hear today as The Beach Boys.

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“Love and Mercy” (2015) chronicles to what degree Wilson struggled with both mental and emotional ailments, and they were intense. We’re talking child abuse and hallucinations. As a boy, he lives in a house where violence echoes within its walls. His father, Murry (Bill Camp), would punch him senseless, sometimes in the ear, which leads to his being partially deaf, and later, as a rock n’ roll legend, Wilson falls under the influence of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who pumps him with pills meant to medicate his alleged schizophrenia when, in truth, he is of sound mind. The drugs are a method of manipulation, allowing Landy access to the musician’s will for him to amend so that he would be the inheritor of a massive estate. “Love and Mercy” alternates between a young (Paul Dano) and a middle-aged (John Cusack) Brian Wilson. This so we see that despite the years of treachery, his star ascends and his genius evolves, proof that creative diligence cannot be squelched.

For those of us who lacerate over a part of ourselves that we’d like to share with the world, “Love and Mercy” offers assurance. To make greatness look easy isn’t easy. So deceptive is the effort that the most profound message can come in the sparest package. It’s like a diamond ring in a small box versus a vacuum cleaner in a big box. As the Brian Wilson biopic shows, The Beach Boys repertoire was a product of grueling hours in the recording studio, Wilson’s genius notwithstanding. One scene has Wilson perfecting the string instrumentals to “Good Vibrations,” the musicians driven to exhaustion by his whip cracking of “again… again… again…” and in another, he proves that more than lyrics to a pop/rock number, the words “good vibrations” encompass a life philosophy when he cancels a session because the venue gives him bad vibes, a decision that costs him $5,000 for each musician present. A poignant moment occurs with a backup player. The man claims to have performed with the best, including Sinatra, but it is the numero uno Beach Boy whom he considers “touched”; Wilson is a vessel of melody, one of such transcendent talent that he stands above the others in a category of his own. Still, our hero works his ass off.

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This creed of applying our all to produce the best that we can by the grace of simplicity has been ingrained in me over the years as a writing student. In high school in the Philippines, I suffered from verbal diarrhea. I wrote essays that were a jumble of highfalutin words plucked from the Thesaurus, believing that only by simulating the tone of a 19th century scrivener was I able to create anything of substance. I suppose this happens to all of us once we discover the command of words, especially when the reading syllabus consists of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. The denseness of language might have worked during their time; journals that serialized their writings paid them by the word. For my generation and my culture, and for the sake of being myself, subscribing to the dictum “less is more” would have been to my advantage. College ultimately taught me to trust in my own voice, which presented its own set of difficulties. What a hard task it is to scratch off all the guck in order for me to surface. I’ve often been stuck with a paragraph that has left me in doubt of whatever message I’m attempting to impart. This is why workshops and seminars exist. Even then, they offer no solution given the number of attendees, each with one’s own opinion. Writing remains a stumping experience.

Herein lies Brian Wilson’s gift. A tune needs to be catchy, its accompanying lyrics quick to pick up yet reflective of ourselves, a story of a universal emotion:

Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older, then we wouldn’t have to wait so long. And wouldn’t it be nice to live together in the kind of world where we belong… Maybe if we think and hope and pray, it might come true. Baby, then there wouldn’t be a single thing we couldn’t do. We could be married and then we’d be happy. Wouldn’t it be nice. You know it seems the more we talk about it, it only makes it worse to live without it, but let’s talk about it. Wouldn’t it be nice. Good night, my baby. Sleep tight, my baby.

No space for verbal diarrhea here. The hankering of a young couple to be free to love is straightforward, infused with a desperation that invokes Romeo and Juliet. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/romeo-and-juliet-till-death-and-beyond/) “Good night” and “sleep tight” seem to allude to an eternal union in another world. Whoever thought a commonplace nightly greeting could bear such an implication?

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The challenge of composing a simple and memorable song is tantamount to the challenge a novelist faces in composing a simple and memorable first sentence. Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins Vladimir Nabokov begins in “Lolita” and in so doing introduces us to a story of lewd and emotional obsession. In “Love in the Time of Cholera,” Gabriel Garcia Marquez, rather like a ship captain detailing in one breath the course of a voyage, wastes no time in filling us in on the 350-page journey to follow: It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love. Here’s one first sentence so elementary that any of us could speak and write it at any moment: In those days cheap apartments were almost impossible to find in Manhattan, so I had to move to Brooklyn. This belongs to William Styron in “Sophie’s Choice.” Plain as it is, it sets the stage for a tale of madness, passion, and suicide surprising even to the narrator given that the tragedy happens in a neighborhood we more associate with domestic monotony than with drama.

“Love and Mercy” sheds insight into the mind of an innovator and an artist, and it is frightening to see what cruelty Wilson endured. He reached his zenith with “Good Vibrations” in 1966, after which he spiraled into a pit of drugs and alcohol, culminating in 17 years under Dr. Eugene Landy’s thumb from 1975 to 1992. Wilson could have spent the rest of his life in the shadow of his former glory if not for Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a car salesgirl in whom Landy meets his match; she slaps him with a subpoena upon discovering Wilson’s papers that the doctor has been counterfeiting.

Ledbetter and the genius have now been married for 20 years. Though the man always had drive, through his wife’s love and mercy, he resumed his creative calling. Brian Wilson continues to write songs to this day, and just as it was when The Beach Boys were a chart topper, his productivity is a matter of labor.

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“Two Lovers”: So Close and yet so Far

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

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

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

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In “Two Lovers,” Leonard makes his own choice. How he wants the baggage of hotness and problems that is Michelle. Although she wants him, too, she’s erratic. An arduous journey awaits. Nevertheless, for all of love’s tribulations, fate can turn out to be kind. In rare occasions, it could even provide a second chance, such as what it did for a friend when, during a high school reunion, he reconnected with his first love.

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

Books and songs and movies try to explain love. We think we understand this most cryptic of emotions when we read Nicholas Sparks (http://www.rafsy.com/films-2000s-present/the-notebook-do-not-forget-do-not-forget/), listen to the Beatles, or watch a Merchant Ivory production. Then we get a story like “Two Lovers,” and everything we’ve been conditioned to believe about one partner, one life, one happiness, and one sadness throws us for a loop. What does it mean to call someone the love of your life? Would that be the person within reach yet who slips away? The person who says “I do” to washing your dirty underwear and cooking your breakfast while in flip flops? Or maybe the question is futile. Granted the various reasons we love, it could be impossible to choose one.

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“Infamous”: The High Risk of Faith

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

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

“Infamous” is an American tragedy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Behind the Candelabra”: What Price Fame and Beauty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“I’ll See You in My Dreams”: A Golden Renaissance

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From the moment of our birth, we are given ultimatums on which we are to plan our lives. We must graduate from high school by 18, from college by 22, and by 30, we are supposed to have found a long-term partner, if not a spouse. A friend has asked me how I feel about the belief that if a gay man hasn’t found a mate by the age of 50, he never will. “I don’t worry about that,” I said. “What would be the point?” For a woman, 50 is a pivotal stage. As society views feminine pulchritude to wane in a woman’s forties, come 50, she is invisible. The evidence is in Hollywood. Aging actresses wince that roles are scarcely available to them. Madeleine Stowe, Meg Ryan, Kim Basinger… the list goes on of screen ladies whose names once commanded top billing on a theater marquee and then… poof!… no more. The influx of young and talented actresses such as Carrie Mulligan and Frieda Pinto trumps experience, and when a film does require a mature actress, the opportunity is often handed to the holy grail of Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, and Judi Dench, although as matrons suffering either the loss or the death of love rather than the birth of it. Really, now that I’m 48, what would be the point pondering a downhill journey that awaits after the road mark of 5-0?

But that is not how life has to be. In “I’ll See You in My Dreams” (2015), Carol (Blythe Danner) is a 70-year-old woman who had a youth of riches – beauty, a musical career, a husband, and a lovely daughter. It ended at 50 when she became a widow due a plane crash that claimed her husband. We wonder why it is 20 years until she falls in love again, yet there it is. It happens – the blushing and the coquettish bows of the head, the melting kisses and the swooning over a whisper. The wait was worth it. Bill (Sam Elliott) is a heartthrob, smooth and attentive. That he should ignite a flame in Carol in her golden years dispels all notions that romance must end with youth.

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Given their proximity in age, the two are a logical match. The surprise is in Lloyd (Martin Starr), Carol’s pool boy, a stonehead of a lost soul who’s young enough to be Carol’s grandson yet who is prone to spurts of wisdom. He is also attracted to Carol. The two bond over a bottle of wine as he takes a break from his chores, and this leads to a night of karaoke. Typical of karaoke, the performances are playful, mimicries of singing rather than actual singing, even Lloyd’s performance, aspiring songwriter the guy may be, until Carol takes the mike with her rendition of “Cry Me a River.” The way Lloyd on the bar stool looks at her, the scintillation in his eyes, that alone unbolts the portal to soaring possibilities for Carol. She’s still beautiful. She’s still worthy of a man’s touch. She can command attention from admirers both young and old.

Of course, age matters. One destiny we all share is the grave. As the years progress, an acceptance seeps in that the career we’ve been laboring over might never be and that the one who got away is gone for good. The body ails. Time grows ever more scant. All that work and hope become so tiresome that we reach a point in which we say: “Enough. This is what I’ve got. Relish it.” That’s the key factor – to relish what we’ve got. Although the future may not be the sprawling meadow it used to be, it still exists. Maybe a blindness to this is what stymied Carol from love during her two decades of grief. Maybe. She has no answer and neither do we. Much of living and dying are an enigma. When she bewails to Lloyd her lack of comprehension of the most piercing of losses, he says with complacency, “There’s nothing to get.” What a godsend it is to Carol that this kid should be there at life’s onerous hours, Confucius in the guise of cougar-bait. She is old, and the hunt for answers to the unanswerable won’t placate the years she’s got left. Sometimes, we need to relinquish ourselves to the flow of existence because things will happen regardless. It’s the only way we can rest in peace.

RS-26-croppedI went to watch “I’ll See You in My Dreams” with my 28-year-old nephew. He applauded it, commended the relationships depicted and Blythe Danner. He found her prettier than daughter Gwyneth, a testament to the agelessness of beauty. However, I wonder what reading he got from the film as well as what my own interpretation might have been were I his age today. That I am near the autumn of my years awards me the insight to write this posting with conviction rather than with analytical detachment. And as I ruminate over my life, I am amused that turning 20 was traumatic for me. I wasn’t a teenager anymore. I viewed 23 as the pinnacle of adulthood. Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, and Norman Mailer were literary stars at that age. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-2000s-present/infamous-the-high-risk-of-faith/) James Dean was dead at 24, while Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin themselves didn’t survive to 30. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/rebel-without-a-cause-rage-against-the-dying-of-the-light/) Young as they were, they had made their mark. I wanted to be a writer, but I had no subject on which to write. Time was ticking. My first thought on the morning of my birthday was that if these 20 years went by this quickly, then the next 20 would go by even faster. I contemplated what accomplishments I could trumpet given that I had just gotten a C- in my first creative writing assignment. Answer: none.

Such is the effrontery of innocence, this incurring of expectations, the illusion that we are endowed with the superhuman capacity to fulfill them not long after the age when we have just been granted the right to drink. To measure our lives against those of others is foolish. So, too, is constricting ourselves within a time frame. I’d be lying if I said that I don’t fret over middle age. My stories and novels continue to meet rejection. That’s my youth right there. The years spent honing a craft for the reward of recognition are soon to result in a mid-life crisis of anonymity. On the other hand, I’ve always been a late bloomer of sorts. I didn’t have my first kiss until I was 19, and I was five years older than most of my colleagues at the Cornell writing program. I didn’t look 30 until I was 40, and I have yet to experience a great love.

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I also continue to dream. Ultimatums aside, the half-century mark can be a new beginning rather than a dead end. As long as I’m breathing and able, the goals I’ve held on to through thick and thin can reach fruition. No doubt, I am entering the stage in which my dear elderly are starting to pass on. What a daunting thought – to be alone, those who have provided emotional uplifting… parents and teachers… gone. There’s nothing I can do other than what Carol does: when the shit hits the fan, to take a vacation.