“La Femme Nikita”: From Caterpillar to Butterfly

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Nikita: My sweet, Marco. The world has given me only this one taste of love, and I will remember you always.

Marco: Are you leaving tonight?

Nikita: (nods)

Marco: Got a little place for me?

Nikita: You belong in a big place.

“La Femme Nikita” (1990) is one glamorous viewing experience, an updated version of “My Fair Lady” (1964), but rather than featuring a guttersnipe molded into a duchess, it gives us a street junkie with killer instincts programmed to be a government assassin, seduction her arsenal. As Amande (Jeanne Moreau), Nikita’s mentor in the art of womanly charms, advises, “Let your pleasure be your guide, your pleasure as a woman. And don’t forget, there are two things that have no limit: femininity and the means of exploiting it.” Role of state sanctioned liquidator aside, this could very well be the creed of an actress. Movies tease our voyeuristic nature, and beauty is what the movies is largely about; hence, world cinema’s treasure chest of tales that pay homage to this most potent female attribute: “Pandora’s Box” (1929), “And God Created Woman” (1956), “Lust, Caution” (2007)…

I didn’t catch “La Femme Nikita” when it premiered in theaters some 25 years ago, had never heard of it, until its release on DVD. A friend told me the film was a must. Since I am rarely keen on thrillers, I was hesitant, yet I took my friend’s word for it. I didn’t ask why his enthusiasm, and it didn’t matter, because as graphic as the opening sequence is… guts popping like splattered tomatoes; bottles blown to pieces, their shards twinkling with the effulgence of 4th of July fireworks… it is choreographed in the manner of a stylized dance that contrasts the heat of violence against an atmosphere of cool blue.

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Then there’s Nikita (Anne Parrilaud), a fox prettied up in Yves Saint Laurent. When she isn’t on call, she’s just a girl, spry and doting, wanting nothing more than to keep house for her man. A romance develops between Nikita and the most benign of humans, a grocery bag boy by the name of Marco (Jean-Hugues Anglade). She deserves a normal existence. She’s been rehabilitated, taught to walk and talk as a lady, and so she keeps her profession secret from Marco. We are all worthy of a second chance. However, thrillers being what they are, we are aware from the first kiss between Nikita and Marco that the stakes involved for them are supremely higher compared to those citizens of no consequence such as you and me would have to contend with.

Most of all, I remember “La Femme Nikita” for the moment of revelation that occurs between our lovers: the world has given me only this one taste of love. In a wasteland where the morals by which we survive have gone to dust and life is dispensable, Nikita is reborn. Compassion illuminates what was once a black soul. From a leper that threatens to kill upon each temper outburst to a woman who realizes the poetry nascent in human bonding, Nikita represents the extremes of cold and warm implicit in us all.

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I have a temper. This admission would be a surprise to those who know me. A colleague at the Cornell University writing program once described me as possessing a “Zen calmness,” while during my freshman year at Tufts University a decade before that, my roommate had said that the general opinion of me was that I was “happy and peaceful.” None of them had ever witnessed me lose my top. The odd thing is that I tend to blow up over a trifle.

Last week I had an altercation with the owner of a Chinese restaurant I would frequent on account of the lunch specials: a cup of soup and a rice dish for ten bucks. The waitress who usually served me would give me two glasses of water… one to drink down the meal and the other with which to mix my gym supplement… only she was unavailable, and in her place was a new member to the staff. I asked the restaurant owner, who was making the rounds, to give me my prerequisite second glass of water. He looked baffled at first but consented. Then I requested for a spoon, at which he impudently said, “Only ask once.” I grabbed my backpack and hurried out. His rudeness reminded me of an occasion at a Japanese restaurant many years ago in which a waitress had berated a friend and me with the comment, “You guys would really make it easy on me if you ask for everything at once.” For such a comment was unexpected, neither my friend nor I responded. Instead, we whispered to each other the “B” word. In retrospect, I would have said, “When people dine, they don’t know immediately upon sitting down all they’d like to eat, which is why a waiter is present to assist them throughout the course of their meal. If you have a problem doing your job, I can talk to your manager about it.”

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The same defense came to me at the Chinese restaurant, although the source of my ire was himself the big boss. So rather than relying on the efficacy of words, I walked. Still, I was so choleric that a few blocks away I wanted to have it out with the owner. It turned out that I had also left my supplement bottle. As the waitress who had been serving me handed me back my work out booster, I told the owner never to speak to me that way again. “Don’t come back here,” he said. “Who is this man?” I asked the waitress. I knew his position of importance, as he wasn’t dressed in uniform of white shirt and black pants but in civilian clothes of an azure and white-checkered button-down shirt. And even though the waitress was too scared to respond, she who seemed to be a student waiting tables for extra income, I demanded an answer. I inquired of a pair of staff eating at a corner table. “What are you doing?” the owner asked. “Get out.” He clapped his hands as if I were a dog, though not before one of the staff replied to my question. “Never come back,” he repeated. “I won’t,” I said. Upon leaving, I slammed the door against the entrance wall, and from a block down, I heard the owner hurling malisons at me.

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I huffed and puffed towards the Castro, envisioning the restaurant burning down, a brick smashing the windows, spray paint vandalizing the façade. Suddenly, amidst the pedestrians, I spotted a guy I had met the previous weekend. Awful timing, for sure. Regardless, I did what any civilized person would do – smiled and attempted conversation. “You look good,” he said. If only you knew, I thought. My yelling at the head pharmacist at Kaiser over a prescription that was processed incorrectly, the Aetna representative who was silenced to tears because I insulted her as incompetent over medical refill errors that would happen every month, a note at San Francisco AIDS Foundation in which I instructed the mail person to be careful with letters addressed to other employees that were placed in my box (the note got me in hot water with human resources)… looking good notwithstanding, I could be an asshole, one with a maleficent inclination, if only in my mind.

We’ve all been guilty of a behaving abominably, saying things we wish we had kept to ourselves. At the writing program, Jay – a Jamaican-American at Cornell to earn his Ph.D. – recounted a disagreement with a professor that had occurred during his undergraduate studies at the University of Illinois; he had blurted out that the professor was a “skinny assed white bitch.” In Manila some years ago, a friend expressed his regret for cussing at a real estate broker skeptical of his financial security in spite of the large sum he had put on the table. Noel’s expletive: “You can take my money and shove it up your ass.”

This isn’t who we are. Whatever the situations that push us to act as an insect, we are deep inside as splendorous as a butterfly, perhaps not in the cloth of Anne Parrilaud, who with her athleticism, fashion model silhouette, and emotionality is a ravishing Nikita, but with plenty of redeeming qualities nonetheless, enough for us to feel an affinity to our heroine.

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No, this isn’t us at all. We have risen to heights too distant from our Neanderthal ancestors to remain tottering in dirt.

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”: Ignorance Is Bliss… Or Is It?

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During my junior year at the American College in Paris, I took a philosophy course where the discussion for the day was a utopian future in which we human beings could achieve a uniform state of happiness. One guy in class supported the possibility. He justified his stance with theories of conditioning and physiological programming. The guy could have been a sci-fi junkie, what with his nasal voice and dark hair Medusa curly, black-rimmed glasses and stout physique – the embodiment of a nerd – and only a nerd could subscribe to the notion of people as mechanical as robots. I disagreed, of course. The problem was that I hadn’t yet acquired the material or developed the rhetoric to defend myself. “As it is, we all have a different idea of happiness, so how could it ever be the same?” I asked, at which he responded that we could evolve to a Nirvana in which all our dissimilarities would disappear. “But… but…” I stammered.

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Through the 29 years since that day, the liberal politics of San Francisco (where I now reside) have enlightened me to the merit of diversity. If I could relive the discussion between the two of us, I’d say that for Homo sapiens to converge on one definition of happiness, we’d have to eradicate all that individuates each of us – from gender and ethnicity to creed and personal history. We would even need to do without love, for love begets pain, and considering the multitudinous degrees with which we hurt, the intensity that we feel love’s joy would vary in equal measure.

A world bereaved of the sensation of our hearts in a flutter over someone who stands out as unique to the rest of the population… what would that be like? The question could be the basis of a separate course entirely. Unfortunately, most of us are working folks scant of hours to sit in a classroom. We can spare 108 minutes, however, the running time of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004). No need to read Buddha or Plato or Sartre either. Simply grab a bowl of popcorn, relax, and watch. The answer will unfold before us.

As the film title indicates, every day would be sunny, life carefree, and we wouldn’t have a bothersome thought, at least not the kind that drives Juliet to stab herself with her dead beau’s dagger. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/romeo-and-juliet-till-death-and-beyond/) It really is an attractive prospect. In the alternative world presented in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” a clinic performs a procedure to obliterate all remembrances of a failed romance. Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet) is proof of the procedure’s benefit. She can carry on with Joel Barish (Jim Carrey), the man who caused her emotional ruination, as though the split between them had never been; absent from her recollections, Joel is now a stranger. If she could do without him, he reasons, then he could do without her. But mid-way through the procedure, Joel realizes that he’d rather live with heartache than without.

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The guy is a clodpate. What good does hurting do us? If anything, we yearn for the wretchedness to pass, downing a bottle of vodka to benumb our insides. Some of us are so messed up from a break up that a psychiatrist’s couch is more comfortable than our own bed. And yet, this apothegm: “Better to have loved and lost than to not have loved at all.”

Love is veritably the stimulus to our existence, despite its outcome. Today would not be today as we know it had Mark Antony and Cleopatra remained immune to the spell of dopamine and had Edward VIII not abdicated the throne to wed the American divorcee who, in rattling his heart, sabotaged the British monarchy. The Egyptian and Roman empires might have flourished for centuries more; Charles and Diana would never have been; and we would have less to gossip about. Now take away Lancelot and Guinevere, Florentino Ariza and Fermina Urbino, and the many trysts of Querelle. Gaping holes would be left in our literary canon. As a result, we’d be deprived of tales to fortify our conviction that love exceeds the limits of age and death. In essence, love… for all the weariness it inflicts… gives us something larger than ourselves to aspire for – a treasured place in someone’s memory, a piece of heaven, immortality. Even if the affair should come to an end, we shall have made an impact on a life.

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I have no doubt that breathing would be simpler should the yearning to possess and to be possessed never aggravate us, for it is an aggravation. Worse than that, it’s a tribulation, especially when it becomes a pattern that our own status with the person we so desire puts us in a quandary. We lose appetite, sleep, and rationale. We’re angry and frustrated but have no outlet to vent. A community such as that which thrives on the Star Trek Enterprise is ideal. Be us black, white, yellow, or brown, race is of no issue, and whether Vulcanian or Earthling or a specie from any member of the United Federation of Planets from Aaamazzara to Zytchin, relationships of all nature prosper. We are more similar than different. Conflicts over love never linger. Whatever our dissentions, we reach a resolution by the end of an episode, and forward we voyage through limitless galaxies with our hearts at ease.

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Or we could regress to the innocence of Adam and Eve. How liberated we would be prancing nude among bushes a combustion of butterfly leaves and wading through streams jewel blue. No shame in our bodies equals no self-doubt. Love is a given. We wouldn’t need to fight for it. We wouldn’t need to prove our worth. So complacent we would be that we probably wouldn’t know what love is. That’s as good as having a spotless mind on which the sun shines eternal. As poet Thomas Gray once wrote: “Ignorance is bliss.”

But then where would be the passion in such ignorance? In a resolution secured in a span of 30 minutes? Nowhere. We would be as characterless as unhatched eggs – alive within, but entrapped in shells that deter us from expressing the multidimensionality of our colors. So the serpent despoils Eden, and Krall attacks the Star Trek Enterprise. With the omen of danger forevermore a stain on paradise, we are alert to all we must value, reminding ourselves never again to take them for granted: family, friendship, companionship… everything that instigates in us selfless acts in order for us to hold closer those who are dear.

Joel Barish in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is no dummy. Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) himself is skeptical of his own love-amnesia device. So someone we thought would grow old with us has taken off, never to return. Tears were shed and words of hate were spewed. We’re a prostrated lot. Yet through the murk, a light shines through. We have learned through the ordeal what we are capable of giving – a helluva lot – and with our appetite for life rejuvenated, we continue our march on the battlefield of love, positive that victory awaits at this next round, a happiness ours to keep.

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“Dangerous Liaisons”: The Danger of Love

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“Dangerous Liaisons” (1988) is a Hollywood adaptation of a novel authored in 1782 by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. It’s a commendable adaptation, according to my French tutor when I was living in Paris, one more engaging than its source, which she described as a monotonous, plodding, and tedious read. Leave it to the American movie industry to make of a foreign tale 200 years old fast-paced entertainment replete with the titillations that headline National Enquirer.

The treacherous entanglements alluded to in the title are dares of the heart that high society priestess, Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close), orchestrates in collaboration with her partner in crime, the lothario Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich). Their victim is the unblemished Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer). Nobody is above love, not even the most cynical of us. In fact, cynics fall the hardest, the pulsations in their chest a fracas that tears through the core of their being. And so in their delusion of invincibility, the marquise and Valmont inadvertently find in Madame de Tourvel someone who upsets their universe.

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This is the danger of love. For all the sonnets and songs it inspires and the lyrical prose that elevates it to a spiritual realm, love can trigger in us a rascally urge, a recklessness even, to turn it into a sport, a game, an amusement. We may not be aware of the precarious position we put ourselves in… so lost are we in the fun of everything… until one instant, like the sting of a bee, we are at once conscious of a fire lit by the person we had thought at the onset as merely another point on a score sheet.

I write of this as a man who has had a history of such instances; dangerous liaisons are integral to my kind. A common topic of discussion amongst us gay men is the complication of divulging to someone we have hooked up with for the sole purpose of sex a simmering of emotions. As a friend once commented of my e-mail to Joshua, a one-night stand that developed into something more, “You’re too open with your feelings, Rafaelito.” (http://www.rafsy.com/films-2000s-present/two-lovers-so-close-and-yet-so-far/) This was approximately five years ago. Since then, I’ve had a premonition that once again I’d be in the situation in which I had been with Joshua, this tight spot of how much to hold back and how much to reveal, and I’ve often wondered when and with whom. At last, I met him in May.

On a Friday night four months ago, in a state of amorous starvation and void of luck on Adam4Adam, I scrolled through rentmen.com. I had not intended to hire an escort. Sex as a monetary transaction would have left me feeling as an empty shell, the physical attraction wholly one-sided. I was gazing at the pics of beautiful men merely as gasoline to my fantasies, after which I planned to head out to a bar. But then I saw a young face with a tremendous smile and a price tag beneath the usual rate. My adrenaline rushed. The demand of my groin overpowered me. Go for it, I thought. Shut your mind. This is nothing serious.

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Anthony was true to his pictures: dark hair short at the sides and pomaded on top Tintin style; the lean build of a high school jock; and though he’s of German heritage, a pout that brings to mind Brooklyn-born Italian heartthrob Tony Danza. In terms of performance, as Valmont admits with veneration to Merteuil about Tourvel, “She was astonishing.” Being a beast when in the sack is the nature of Anthony’s profession, so I shouldn’t be surprised. Still, we know the difference between fake and real, between coitus that’s perfunctory and one hormonally stimulated. We sense it. And with a moment where cash for one person is the aphrodisiac, we expect the former. I was pleased to get more than my dollar’s worth and left it at that, until a few days afterwards, when I bumped into him in the Castro neighborhood as he walked out of a Walgreen’s pharmacy. I hugged him. He hugged back, and he kissed me on the cheek, gently.

I started to sext Anthony. One morning, not even a week following our encounter in the Castro, my phone chimed to signal his response, though what I read was far from what I anticipated. Anthony was in the emergency room. “I’m scared and crying,” he texted. He had been bedridden for three days, had undergone laboratory tests to determine the cause of his ailment, and since the tests failed to produce definitive results, he feared he had cancer. I called his number. “Who is this?” he asked, his voice boyish and shaky. “Raf,” I said and then, “Do you want me to come to you?” He said, “If you want. I’m alone here.” I had a dental appointment scheduled that morning, and I assured him that I would go to him once it was done. But he was calmer by then, in large part on account of medical information I had been texting him that a nurse friend provided, all banishing any suspicion of cancer.

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So continued our sexual romps for the ensuing months and up to the present. Although technically I’m a client, a connection has formed between us that even Anthony acknowledges. He has told me that of all who call on him, I treat him the best and that he feels at home at my place. He is off the clock when with me, staying for as long as four hours, falling into a slumber during which he utters the most nonsensical things that make me smile. (“The boogie man’s coming… He’s sucking on his toes while sitting on a tree.”) How adorable Anthony is in repose beside me, a vision from a dream itself aloft in a dream. Upon each meeting, our embraces grow ever tighter, the copulation more fervid, and the air around us hotter.

Sample our text messages:

Me: You’re so fucking beautiful.

Anthony: :)

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Me: I like the time we spent on Pride. You were relaxed and we had great fun and you looked so sweet sleeping beside me. I’d like to see you outside of that context, too. If you’re open to it. I like you. You’d be a cool friend among other things.

Anthony: I’m definitely not opposed to that in fact I would like that very much

And yet, I am not entirely on safe ground. As Valmont’s and Merteuil’s scheming in “Dangerous Liaisons” over their prey delves into intricate territory, the shields to their hearts are pounded on and blunted until the duo is defenseless. As I write this posting, I ponder to what extent Anthony is willing to allow me into his life, where he is and what he is doing, if a “client” is what he will always regard me as. I’m at the Church Street Café, my self-designated office where I write nearly every afternoon. I texted Anthony to come over. He texted back with “okay.” Three and a half hours have passed.

All I wanted that night in May was a screw. Now here I am.

Kelly LeBrock: “Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Beautiful…”

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Thus goes one of the most famous tag lines in advertising history as purred by Kelly LeBrock. With a flip of the hair and a rapturous smile, she makes Pantene shampoo something for a man to fantasize about. Should we ever wonder how females responded to the commercial, watch “Weird Science” (1985), the John Hughes comedy in which our supermodel plays a dream woman a pair of horny geeks (Anthony Michael Hall and Ilan Mitchell-Smith) brings to life by feeding magazine cut outs of her image to a computer. As a teen girl (Suzanne Synder) gripes over LeBrock, “She’s so beautiful, and her body is… it’s gorgeous. I mean, what would I be compared to her?”

The question sums up the enigma Kelly LeBrock must have been to those born in her ilk. However, adulation had not always been the lot of this libidinal creature. Because LeBrock was not all-American, her look was at the start slow to catch on, particularly in the Philippines, where people to this day idealize the United States as one step close to heaven. As a result, I credit myself for having discovered her.

The year was 1983. I was a high school junior when one day my Filipino literature teacher allowed us students to spend recess in the classroom. An issue of Vogue was making the rounds. When the magazine landed on my desk, I opened it to a fashion pictorial, and what graced the pages caused my head to throb as if I had just unearthed Nefertiti’s bust. Those lips – voluptuous, sexy, as delectable as strawberry; the sensuous gaze; the haughty stance… LeBrock displayed the qualities of history’s most fawned upon femmes fatales, from ancient queens to the seductresses of the camera, starting with Garbo (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/flesh-and-the-devil-the-sound-of-an-original/) and culminating with the celluloid sensation of the day, Nastassja Kinski (http://www.rafsy.com/actors-models-directors/nastassja-kinski-the-eternal-tess/).

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“I don’t find her pretty at all,” a girl said. “I like the gloves she’s wearing,” said another. The guys couldn’t get past the lips, and not in a favorable way either. They found the lips flagrantly large. Indeed, they were; hence, my instant attraction. LeBrock was unlike any actress or model before her, and I’ve always been one for a peculiarity, something or someone that doesn’t adhere to a standard edict of beauty but that commands our attention because the object or person possesses a certain je ne sais quoi. That was LeBrock. Contrary to what second millennium film viewers believe, the full lip craze did not begin with Angelina Jolie.

To no avail, I insisted that LeBrock was gorgeous. Nonetheless, I was sure that someday my friends would change their minds; nobody could be that blind for long. The day came with the release of “Woman in Red” (1984). Pre-“Weird Science,” the film was the first to cast LeBrock as a dream woman, this time one in fleshly form, the target of an advertising executive’s adulterous cravings. Set in San Francisco, “Woman in Red” follows Teddy Pierce (Gene Wilder) as he stalks the mysterious beauty through a maze of urban hills and landmarks reminiscent of “Vertigo” (1958). (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/vertigo-in-search-of-the-perfect-mate/) (Trivia: the Brocklebank Apartment Building, which features prominently in both movies, is located a block away from where I live.)

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Suddenly, Kelly LeBrock was a sex symbol to every pubescent boy and CEO. “Woman in Red” was best viewed on betamax, given the machine’s feature that allowed for slow mo. “Kita yung kiki,” gushed my friend, Jonathan, in reference to a scene in which LeBrock flashes her privates as she wraps herself in a bed sheet. We can surmise that the tape section containing the segment must have been marred due to incessant rewinds.

Although I gloated over the realization of my prophecy, the means to the end disappointed me. “’Woman in Red’ desecrates the idealized image of her,” I commented to a guy when the subject of LeBrock came up a few years later in college. He laughed. Herein is the difference between a heterosexual and a homosexual man. A straight male is attracted to a woman on a carnal level. A gay one, such as myself, appreciates her on an aesthetic level. Herein, as well, is the difference between a figure in stasis and one in kinesis. The former invites the spectator to project one’s own ideas onto the subject, endowing him or her with characteristics that ingratiate one’s wants and needs. The latter humanizes the subject. Speech, movement, thought… all factors that expound on an individual’s three-dimensionality… permit less room for fantasy.

In hindsight, no other model could have done what LeBrock does in “Woman in Red” and “Weird Science.” Christie Brinkley is perfect in “National Lampoon’s Vacation” (1983). The role called for a California blonde to pose and pout in a white dress in front of a red Ferrari, white being the color and a Ferrari the flashiness synonymous with the American West Coast. LeBrock, on the other hand, exuded a continental persona – dark-haired, aloof, European exotic. Certainly, other models might have qualified. Joan Severance and Carré Otis come to mind. Despite being American, they were more sophisticated than girl next door. But the lips were a key factor, and only one among the contenders stood at the forefront in that department.

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Kelly LeBrock got was she deserved. The woman reeked of animal magnetism. A pity had she not been cast in either film, thus forever remaining invisible to mankind. Regardless, I can’t help associating her with a passage from the novel “Palace of Desire” by Nobel-winning Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz:

… she has descended from heaven and is wallowing in the mud, after living grandly over the clouds… she’s allowed her cheek to be kissed, her blood to be shed, and her body to be abused.

These are the thoughts an intellect by the name of Kamal harbors for Aida, a woman he is enamored with but whom he holds in such a lofty plane that upon her betrothal to another, he considers it a defilement that she should partake in a physical union with a man, no matter that the man is to be her husband. Kamal can’t even conceive of Aida emptying her bowels. He reminds me of my own early opinion of Kelly LeBrock. The fellow may as well be gay.

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Alas, as a film historian declared of Jayne Mansfield, “Sex is an expendable commodity.” Kelly LeBrock could not be a pinup forever. Not only did she age, but she also gained weight, a ton of a lot of weight. In 2005, she procured media attention as a participant in “Celebrity Fit Club,” undergoing rigorous exercise and diet, all under the specter of her once bombshell statistics of 34-23-36. How reassuring it must have been to millions of women that a Cosmo cover girl, the unattainable ideal, should suffer as they did from negative body image. Of the public’s reaction to her plus size physique, LeBrock has said, “Sometimes people have been cruel, and people aren’t always nice.”

None of us can ever be as we were in our twenties. Such an aspiration is unnatural, inhuman. Fortunately, the goddess who descended to earth in “Woman in Red” and “Weird Science” is an obsession of the past, and the lady behind the image has trimmed down by a method realistic to a human being in her fifties. “I grow all my veggies and make my own cheese and yogurt,” the former model/actress said in a 2013 interview. “To work the land full time keeps me so fit that I haven’t worked out in seven years. I clean the pool myself, muck out the pigs and the horses.” (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2402408/Kelly-LeBrock-comes-hiding-photoshoot-reveals-toll-drugs-divorce-took-her.html)

At last, Kelly LeBrock has found peace, a tranquil existence in a Santa Barbara ranch. Life goes on.

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She, the Perfect Stranger (An Excerpt from “Love Carousel”)

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What was she trying to prove?

That was what Nigel would ask if he found out. But he wouldn’t find out. Megan wouldn’t tell him because he had no reason to know. She might have felt differently a month ago, a week ago even, felt differently before she had gotten her own place. She didn’t yet entirely understand why the grocer boy Todd’s flirtation had propelled her to find a home for herself. If she had not met Todd, she might now have been sharing the same bed with Nigel. Being with Nigel would have been the logical move to make while she was with her parents. And then Todd had given Megan his number, Todd whose eyes and smile she kept on envisioning. They would surface in her mind without any provocation, often at night, in bed, while she lay in the dark alone, daring her to break lose, to take a risk, to act as she pleased and not as anybody else expected her to. She would think of the clandestine fashion in which he had provided his phone number. She would think of Nigel and she would think damn him should he ever tell her his heart broke because she had been unfaithful. And as the late night hours would slip into early dawn, Megan would feel her desire to call Todd build from an urge to a longing and ultimately to a need.

Yet she still couldn’t bring herself to call him. Whenever Megan proceeded to press his number on her cell phone, she would stall on the third or fourth digit. What could she say after hello? How could she navigate the conversation without the ability to gauge his reaction through his facial expressions, his physical nuances?

She had to see him.

The grocery was nearly closing when Megan walked in. It was a Saturday night. Young women in short dresses and clean shaven men wearing button-down shirts tucked out chatted in front of a bar a couple of blocks away. Megan wondered at how Todd could sever himself from the fun in his midst. He ought to be enjoying his last summer before undertaking the burdening responsibility of a chemist.

Some people who appeared to be headed to the bar were in line at the register. As scantily clad as the women were, Todd was oblivious to them, ringing up their gums and cigarettes without providing anything more than a perfunctory good evening nod in response to their coquettish grins. The counter seemed to work as a cordon that sealed him off from social interaction. This pleased Megan. She might be the only woman in the city whom Todd had honored with his phone number.

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Todd didn’t notice Megan when she entered, didn’t notice her as she fell in line. Five people were before her, then four and then three. He looked up from the cash register, saw her and smiled. He gave her a big smile, the kind of smile one had when overjoyed that a person one longed to see had arrived. Megan knew that smile. She had seen it on Nigel on prom night and on the afternoon in the backseat of her father’s Cadillac. She saw it on Dylan. Dylan always had that smile.

Todd’s eyes were lighter this evening. While on their first meeting they were a deep earth brown, tonight there was a milky faintness to them. They were alone in the grocery now, she and he.

“Thank you for your number,” said Megan. What else could she have said?

“You’re welcome.”

“This doesn’t always happen, a phone number on a grocery receipt. In fact, it’s never happened.”

“Me, too.” Todd sounded shy compared to the first time they spoke, embarrassed. “It’s not always I give out my phone number on a grocery receipt. Actually, I never have.”

“Why didn’t you ask for my number or give me yours upfront?”

“I didn’t want to be too… too forward. So I ended up being cheesy.”

“No, not cheesy. Surprising.”

“It’s nice of you to come. It’s nice you’re here.”

“I’ve never responded to a guy this way before,” Megan said. “Let’s start off by introducing ourselves properly. I’m Megan.” She offered her hand.

“I’m Todd.”

Todd had large hands, impressive hands. They had calluses, probably from lifting weights. Even so, his palm was soft and he seemed to be holding Megan’s hand rather than shaking it.

“You should be out at the bars enjoying your weekend like everyone else,” Megan said. She was about to add: “like everyone else your age.”

“You should be, too.”

“I’ve already been through that. It was never my scene.”

“Mine neither.” Todd stepped out from behind the counter. “I have one last thing to do. Please stay. You’re welcome to.”

He shut the door, flipped the open sign to closed. Then he returned to the cash register to count the earnings for the day.

Megan asked, “You trust me with this part of your business?”

“Do I have any reason not to?”

“Since you trust me, then I trust you.”

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While Megan flipped through a magazine, Todd brought the money to a safe in an office located at the back of the store. From there, he asked her common conversational questions: where she lived, what work she did. He was wearing a lumberjack coat when he came out and he walked with a rugged stride down the aisle, slightly bow-legged in the way athletes were.

Megan placed the magazine back on the rack. As she looked up from the rack to face him, he was standing beside her.

“Do you have any plans for the rest of the evening?” he asked.

“If I did, I wouldn’t be here,” she said.

They looked at each other for a moment more, but there was nothing else to say and so he kissed her. He kissed her and she didn’t hold back.

She thought of her parents. They were a mere two blocks away. Megan had not dropped by their apartment to greet them. She had no intention of doing so. Her mother had been upset that Megan insisted on living apart from them, had said Megan didn’t care for them. Her father had defended Megan, stating that it was right she be on her own. Regardless, Megan would never be too far away. She was there this instant, thinking of them, yet allowing herself to live free of their or of anybody else’s opinion. Daughter, wife, mistress – whatever it was people identified her as, she didn’t belong to anybody.

So who was Megan tonight? As far as Todd was concerned, a stranger. He may know her first name, in what part of the city she lived, where she worked, but not her last name, neither her phone number nor her age. The only thing of herself Megan would allow Todd to take possession of was her beauty, for that was all she desired – to be nothing more than something beautiful to a man who struck her equally as such.

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Todd occupied a studio a few floors above. It was typical of a young man’s abode: magazines were scattered on the floor; crumbs dirtied the kitchen counter; a closet door was haphazardly left open. But atypical of a young man’s possessions, a Smithsonian was mixed in with fitness journals, and poetry tomes on Whitman, Cummings and Bishop were stacked on a desk along with chemistry books. A quilt covered the bed. The pattern of cows grazing on the grass beneath a smiling crescent moon made Megan acutely conscious of the disparity between her and Todd’s ages. Really, Todd was just a boy. Was it his undergraduate studies he had just completed or graduate school? By the looks of him, he was perhaps no older than 24. Megan had never thought of herself as an older woman, yet there she was. There she was and how confident this boy was in his seduction of her. He was stroking the nape of her neck, fondling her hair, tenderly pressing his lips against hers. Nothing was rushed about him. How was it he knew exactly what a woman needed?

“Of all the women who walk into the grocery, why me?” Megan asked.

“Something about you,” Todd said.

“My ineptitude with stain removers?”

“Somewhat. Nobody asks me for assistance. Nobody. And you seem like you need someone to talk to, to be with. You have a softness that makes a man want to reach out to you.”

Was loneliness so palpable? In Todd’s touch and in his kisses Megan sensed something in his life was missing, too. No pictures hung on the refrigerator door, not even a postcard. The walls were bare. Moving boxes that had yet to be assembled lay beside a scruffy sofa.

Light shone in from underneath the front door, through the curtains, from the desk lamp on which Todd had draped a piece of cloth. Megan wanted light. She always liked to see the person whom she was making love to and she liked to be seen in return. Sex to her was the most honest of unions, more honest than courtship or marriage. No lies. No facades. No secrets. It was two people drawn together to fill an emptiness that both shared. She stood back so that she could take in the sight of Todd. He undressed slowly. He enjoyed being watched, Megan could tell. He reached out to her and gently he ran his hand down the length of her naked torso, around her breasts. He seemed to be astounded by the evenness of her color as much as she was by the starkness of his tan line.

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“There isn’t a blemish on you,” he said. “You’re one tone all over, like a baby.”

“You, you’re so sun soaked.”

“I was a lifeguard in my previous life.”

“Have you ever saved anyone from drowning?”

“A couple of times. A little boy and a middle-aged woman.”

They lay on his bed, on the quilt with its little boy design, sinking into a pool of midnight blue and cream stars, of M’s and O’s trailing out of the heads of cows. The sheets smelled of Ivory Snow, while Todd smelled of spice and day work.

“Beautiful,” Todd whispered. “Beautiful.” He sounded as though he were experiencing beauty for the first time.

“When do you start your new job?” asked Megan. What she really wanted to know was when he was leaving.

“Less than a month.”

“Half of your place is already empty. The boxes.”

“I’ve always lived like this, ever since I left home. When I was in school, it made no sense to unpack since I’d be moving to another dorm the following year.”

“Your parents must be surprised at the vagabond their son has become.”

“My parents were killed in a plane crash when I was a kid.”

“Oh… I’m sorry.”

“No need to be,” Todd whispered, so close to her face. “I never knew them. I was very, very young. My uncle and aunt raised me.”

“Maybe your next stop will be home to you for a while, a long while.”


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A draft entered through a crack to the window above the bed. It cooled Megan like soft breath blown on her body. Todd’s hand on her belly was warm. His perspiration on her cheeks was as freshening as morning dew. He nestled his head on her chest and shut his eyes. In repose like that, Todd appeared small and delicate. Megan ran her fingers through his hair and it felt as though she were stroking the silken mane of a young animal. She and Todd were strangers to each other, and yet not quite, not anymore. In the little bit she knew about him, he seemed to have bared all of himself. And for the brief moment that their lives intersected, she had plenty of him to carry with her for a lifetime.

“You’re an unusual woman,” Todd said.

“How so?”

“I never thought there could be such a thing as perfect. I was wrong. I’ll always remember this night as perfect, you as perfect.”

“That’s because you don’t know me,” Megan said.

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

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

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

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

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

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Today the United States is my home. “Would you ever go back to the Philippines?” my friend, Vince, has asked. To visit, yes. I do often, every holiday season. To live in, no. Only the U.S.A. can ballyhoo a diversity of creeds, ethnicities, and lifestyles. As the 2016 presidential campaign has reminded us, it’s this very diversity that makes America great, a nation founded on immigrants from Europe to Asia, from Africa to the Latin continent, all who have converged on the shores and tarmacs of this world power for one unified purpose: the prospect of an auspicious future. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/sunrise-the-allure-of-the-american-dream/) San Francisco has provided me the community to be true to my nature. I can dance with another man at a bar… hands on the other’s hips, lips close as to suggest a kiss… without fear of censure, and every June, flag poles on Market Street brandish the rainbow banner in celebration of Gay Pride month. The subject of HIV/AIDS is a public discussion. For those personally affected by the disease, a support network exists. Medication is available to prolong life as are counseling and social organizations so that one need not feel alone.

This isn’t to say that America is perfect. Homophobia persists, as evidenced by the murders of transgender people (21 were reported for the year 2016) and the shooting at Pulse, an Orlando gay nightclub where a madman opened fire, killing 49 men and women. Nevertheless, America holds sacred the first amendment. Whenever we are victims of an act that violates our civil rights, we speak, we shout, we protest, we take to the streets and raise placards at arms length that demand enough is enough. And those in government do listen. Ten years ago, we would never have thought possible marriage between two persons of the same sex and the abolition in the military of a law that prohibited homosexuals from serving. The United States is indeed a sanctuary for each to exert one’s rights as an upstanding citizen.

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

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

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

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

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

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Richard Gere: Love Is Love Is Love Is Love

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Richard Gere belongs in the category that film goers have labeled Gene Tierney (http://www.rafsy.com/actors-models-directors/gene-tierney-a-picture-paints-a-thousand-words/), John Heard (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/the-trip-to-bountiful-a-vessel-of-breath-and-light/), and Emily Blunt – that of underrated actor. Women associate him with his handsomeness. Men associate him with his handsomeness to women. I plead guilty to being so stricken by his good looks that when I watched “American Gigolo” (1980) in high school, I noticed nothing of his thespian talent. As male escort Julian Kaye, he epitomizes everything I wanted to be: a gym-toned sex god with scarcely a worry other than what to wear. I envied Kaye’s mornings. Like a gambler at a roulette table, Kaye pouts over and ponders an array of Italian made garments snatched from his closet and flung onto his bed. Though a bit befuddled, he’s having fun, for no matter his choice, he struts the streets a champion.

My oh my, how facile life is for the gorgeous. To a zit-ridden teen, the message to “American Gigolo” was clear, that to get ahead in the world did not involve any merit beneath the surface. Richard Gere would never have gotten the role that made him a star had he been born without that face, and without that face, he would never have had the perspicacity to channel a gigolo’s cockiness.

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The mold was cast, and our opinion of Gere was set. The man never failed to deliver, often with a surprise punch that made him even sexier. Here’s the reason “An Officer and a Gentleman” (1982) was a box office smash. Gere shows vulnerability, the very characteristic that elevated forerunners Brando (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/a-streetcar-named-desire-forever-young/) and Dean (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/rebel-without-a-cause-rage-against-the-dying-of-the-light/) to a level above the generic pretty boys of their own era. As Zack Mayo, Gere is a loner intent on being a pilot. He enlists with the air force, where he undergoes the physical endurance tactics of Sergeant Foley (Lou Gossett, Jr.), all of which fringe on abuse. The tyrant tells Mayo he’s out, and our hero breaks down, yelling as an orphan boy does to stay because he’s got nowhere else to go. How could we resist adopting him?

Women to this day swoon over the finale. Nifty in a navy aviation uniform of white suit and cap, Mayo sweeps Debra Winger’s factory girl Paula off her feet, out of the warehouse, and into a sun blazed future as wife to a dream man. Gere was against the scene. “Sentimental,” he called it, which is why it works. With his freshly minted stature as a bodice ripper in possession of a soul, no other actor could have rendered heartfelt the type of ending more typical of a Harlequin paperback. Gere’s cockiness was at full force once again, although evened by tears he sheds in an earlier scene over his doomed BFF, Sid (David Keith).

The buddy factor in “An Officer and a Gentleman” is what gets me. Zack Mayo cries unabashedly, regardless that the object of his grief is another male. His embrace of Sid, this desperation to hold on to somebody already gone, is a shout to humankind that a display of affection towards a person of our own gender need not be shameful. Love, in its entire spectrum, is a virtue.

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As musical theater composer, Lin-Manual Miranda, said in his 2016 Tony Award acceptance speech, “Love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love, cannot be killed or swept away.” His chant came in the aftermath of a gun massacre perpetrated by a self-identified ISIS terrorist at an Orlando gay nightclub. Not everybody condemned the crime. Pastor Roger Jimenez of Sacramento preached to his congregation, “Are you sad that 50 pedophiles were killed today? No… I think that’s great. I think that helps society.” The Westboro Baptist Church pronounced, “God sent the shooter.” Tweets that the victims received their just due as a result of being “perverts” deluged the internet. “We live through times when hate and fear seem stronger,” said Miranda.

Since Orlando, we’ve had news of white cops murdering black men and black men murdering white cops; gunmen shooting to death 21 hostages at a Bangladesh café; and a truck mowing through a crowd of Bastille Day celebrants in Nice, leaving in its trail 84 corpses. Not all calamities make headlines. My cousin’s house burned down three days ago. Fortunately, he and his family (including four children between the ages of 13 and 21) were spared. Unfortunately, their belongings were not. They are at the moment taking refuge in a neighbor’s room, still in shock and disbelief, as my cousin figures out the first steps to recovery.

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The volatility of the world beyond the periphery of our front yard puts our personal concerns into perspective. How trite my annoyance is that I weigh 160 pounds rather than my comfortable 165. Sillier still is the media coverage on the Kardashian women, the latest scandal involving racy lyrics Kanye West – husband to Kim – wrote about fellow pop star and ex, Taylor Swift. And yet, human nature compels us to resort to the paltry and salacious as recourse to the hardships.

Richard Gere is no stranger to the tabloid mill. In the year that witnessed the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Nelson Mendela’s freedom from a 27-year jail sentence, and the Persian Gulf War, Gere proved with “Pretty Woman” (1990) that he had box office potential beyond the decade of the 1980s. Fluffy as the film is, it assured him continued work, the chance for a role that could get people to at last speak of him as an actor. Then came a dose of venom. A rumor of Gere performing an unsavory act with a rodent proliferated like forest fire. The rumor was all folks talked about. If Gere made any films during the ordeal, I have no idea. He became an icon of derision, was speculated to be homosexual, and through it all, kept mum, the humiliation his burden to bear in silence.

However, there were some subjects on which Gere did not cease to be vocal. A Buddhist since the late ’80s, he has become a prominent figure against the Chinese occupation of Tibet, establishing The Gere Foundation to campaign for the region’s liberation. He is outspoken on the rights of tribal people across the globe, giving speeches about their persecution under the authority of certain governments, and stands up for AIDS awareness, particularly in India, where he co-founded the AIDS Care Home, a shelter for women and children infected with the disease. Gere is a gentleman true to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s incantation. Still, the gerbil rubbish that led to doubts about his heterosexuality overshadowed everything. Gay men I knew gloated over the rumor. For me, it was nothing more than a cheap shot at convincing ourselves that Richard Gere is one of us.

Well, he isn’t. Even if he was, big deal. I see Gere as he wants to be seen, as an activist and an actor. My favorites of Gere’s second millennium films are “The Hoax” (2006), where Gere plays an author who elaborates a scheme to pen Howard Hughes’s biography, and “Brooklyn’s Best” (2009), in which he is an alcoholic cop caught in a morass of police corruption. I will always watch his movies. I will always be a fan. I fell in love with Richard Gere the instant he held Sid to him, in a desolate motel on a hot day, mourning the loss of a life once rich with generosity and promise. Only an actor confident in his own capacity to give could have tackled this most wrenching scene with integrity.

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“West Side Story”: Devotion in Death

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No matter how many times I watch “West Side Story” (1961), the ending chokes me up. The most recent viewing was on 4th of July weekend 2016. It was a sing-along at the Castro Theater, complete with a goody bag. The contents: a paper crown, a glow stick, a bubble bottle, and a party popper. The objective of the screening was a shindig that would allow us to celebrate, albeit with a dash of irreverence, a cultural icon.

Irreverence, you might ask; teen angst, racism, and young death are serious themes. True, yet look at this way. That we viewers of multifaceted backgrounds and ethnicities could make light of such heavy material affirmed that “West Side Story” had endowed us through the decades with something deeper than tears and despair: happiness.

We cheered to the rooftop conga Bernardo (George Chakiris), Anita (Rita Moreno), and their gang perform while they tally the pros and cons of life in “America.” We hollered at Riff’s (Russ Tamblyn) impish chantey of “Gee, Officer Krupke!” We cachinnated as Maria (Natalie Wood), after she and Tony (Richard Beymer) exalt about “Tonight,” provides this instruction for a rendezvous at the dress shop where she works: “When you come, use the back door.” However, upon the climactic conclusion, a hush befell the theater. The moment is so searing that I wrote about it in an autobiographical novel, “My Wonder Years in Hollywood,” its message being that in difficult situations, a romance can be nipped soon after it buds:

Doc’s Drugstore… Anita is on her way to dispatch a message to Tony that Maria is to run away with him… The Jets harass Anita… “Spick”… “Bernardo’s bitch”… Enraged, she lies, says Maria is dead, shot down by Chino, Bernardo’s best friend… Tony emerges from Doc’s back alley to avenge the murder of his beloved… “Chino! Chino!”… Maria appears… A white shawl swathed around her head, she is Madonna-like… Bang!…

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My affinity for “West Side Story” is perhaps no different from yours. Although I am certain I was introduced to the musical as a child, my first memory of it dates back to high school. I would spend weekends watching old movies on betamax, the chastity of their stories fuel to my vision of love as sunshine and moonlight. Even a ruinous end to an affair, as in “The Red Shoes” (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/the-red-shoes-passion-and-sacrifice) and “A Place in the Sun” (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/a-place-in-the-sun-a-love-worth-dying-for/), didn’t adulterate the emotions depicted. Quite the contrary. That a pair of tender hearts should shatter due to forces beyond their control underscored the innocence and the unjust cost of its loss.

So at 17, I empathized with Maria as she clasps the pistol that fells her first love and, motioning to pull the trigger, declares, “You all killed him… Not with bullets and guns. With hate. Well, I can kill, too, because now I have hate.” Add the music to the drama and the result is something fantastic. The 20th century update to the Shakespeare tragedy (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/romeo-and-juliet-till-death-and-beyond/) offers a modern perspective to a collective experience. This is how it is when we are in love. Life is a song. When love is in shambles, the song plays on, but its melody turns doleful, a sob.

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The soundtrack to “West Side Story” was on my cassette player morning, noon, and night. I thought I was an anomaly. Everybody I knew regarded Tony and Maria as childhood fixtures, fairy tale fabrications in the vein of Snow White and Prince Charming. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/snow-white-and-the-seven-dwarfs-someday-my-prince-will-come/) Then six years later, I moved to San Francisco. Suddenly, I was a stereotype. Musicals and classic Hollywood are apparently connate to every gay man’s identity. “West Side Story” in particular distinguishes itself among us because the miscegenation is a variation of the love that dares not speak its name.

Of the principle characters in “West Side Story,” we gay men most identify with Maria. Tony has already been through the hurdle of anger management issues and rumbles, while Bernardo and Anita make for a hardened couple, wise about the perils of the street. Maria is pure. Her one fret is that Anita refuses to lower the neckline of the dress she is to wear to her first dance. Regardless, she stuns in white lace and a red sash like a rose petal afloat in a milk bowl. She is the only girl Tony sees. They gravitate to each other. They touch hands, then lips, and a tremor within that Maria has never before felt opens her eyes to the splendor of being a woman. Love makes her beautiful.

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Early on, we gay men are bullied and shunned, made to believe we are unworthy and unattractive. We search for validation through physical encounters with those who share our pains, no matter how brief or casual. In our wanton wanderings, we incur the same afflictions that the high school heckler had upon us. We discriminate among ourselves according to age and ethnicity, mannerism and appearance. We marginalize and are marginalized within our own community. It’s adolescence all over again. And just like then, we dream of someone to spot us from across a crowded room, to see us and only us, and in that look make us realize how beautiful we are.

If Maria can have such luck, then any of us can. I have, and I met him in the city fabled for such seismic encounters: Paris. The year was 1990. I had graduated from college in Boston the year prior. Because of Paris’s prominence in literary lore, I had told my father that the place would behoove my aspiration of being a writer.

Sure, I wrote. I wrote of my ambles in the city, for that is what I did every day, walked, walked along the Seine to browse the book stalls that lined the bank, through obscure alleys paved in cobblestone, and up the steps of Montmartre, where cafés surrounded canvasses on easels that stood on display in a square. In the evenings, Paris was utopia to a young man exploring his sexuality. Bars and clubs offered a sampling of men that I would discover through later travels consist of archetypes prevalent in every gay community of all cultures – the fashionista, the jock, the preppy, the daddy… everything. With a bombardment of visual wonders and fleshly delicacies, I wrote nothing that was remotely creative.

And yet, my 12 months in this most revered of capitals was not a waste. Jonas vindicated every street meandering and eight-hour fling. I wrote about him in a blog posting dated April 2015 as perfect. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-2000s-present/5-to-7-the-permanence-of-a-perfect-romance/) We never had any more than one night for me to notice any foibles. He was my Tony, and just as the dance hall becomes empty of other people as Tony and Maria spot each other through the crowd, so it was for Jonas and me. We were in a video bar. He was standing against a post, arms folded, biceps and shoulders powerful underneath a gray sports shirt. His soft curls were the brown of a mustang. His eyes were fixed on me.

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In the metro ride to his place, we spoke of our lives with the ease that we bare ourselves in a journal. Jonas could have been James Bond. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/on-her-majestys-secret-service-redemption-in-time/) He had gone to boarding school, played polo and soccer, lifted weights, and skied. In addition, he had a keen eye for art. On vacation from Sweden, he was staying with a friend, a dealer and collector whose Place des Vosges dwelling had Picasso and Warhol on its walls. All this Jonas revealed of himself without a trace of boastfulness; these were simply facts of who he was. “What’s important,” Jonas said when the talk came to guys, “is that the person is nice.”

Our moment ended upon the first sunrays of the morning. We communicated by letter when I moved to San Francisco. Then after a year the post marks from Sweden stopped. Jonas was 38. We are all aware of what was happening to gay men of that age in the 1980s and ‘90s. Nearly 25 years later, his presence remained so vivid that I memorialized him in my novel, he whose kisses gave me the firmness to brave the future heartbreaks integral to my voyage into manhood:

Through each disappointment, Janos’s love has remained constant, a reminder that I deserve to stand on the peak of Mount Olympus, where I could raise my arms to heaven so that God could shower on me the one blessing that inspires songsters and scribes, the magic of the Taj Mahal, and the birth of legends.

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“West Side Story” is everyone’s story. As unwavering as our devotion is, we are confronted with powers no human can tame. People die… but not our love.

“Notorious”: A Yearning Fulfilled

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Imelda”: Our Guilty Pleasure

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What’s in a name? If the eponym happens to be “Imelda” (2004), then the answer is a closetful. The mere mention of it generates a universal reaction – those shoes! When in 1986 the Philippines’ former first lady and her husband, Ferdinand Marcos, fled the country for exile in Hawaii, the presidential palace, Malacañang, was opened to the public as a museum of greed. I was there. Among the items I viewed: a receipt from Italian couturier, Valentino, for the purchase of two dresses the sum of $150,000; throne chairs; and a hand mirror that bore the initials IM encrusted in diamonds. The grand showcase was saved for the last. Underneath Mrs. Marcos’s boudoir, racks of stilettos, slip-ons, and pumps in leather or woven in bamboo – many of them of the same style in various colors – lined a basement the size of a department store warehouse. The place could have been a DSW outlet, only with every Ferragamo fitted for one woman and with somebody else footing the bill (namely, the Filipino tax payer).

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For the public’s amusement, the Ramona Diaz documentary titled after one of history’s most infamous consorts depicts much of the excesses. Everybody adores a rags to riches story, especially when the story turns sour, and this is the reason Imelda Marcos feeds our fascination. No ordinary woman can boast a trajectory from a hayseed in a third-world archipelago of a nation to a glamazon bejeweled in Cartier, ballroom waltzing in the arms of Lyndon B. Johnson and Adnan Khashoggi. At the peak of her power, the Marcoses amassed a fortune estimated at $10 billion. Their illegal holdings included such New York real estate as Lindenmere – a Long Island mansion that flaunts 16 bedrooms and seven gables – and the Crown Building. Then the People Power Revolution broke out. Mendicants and millionaires took to the streets in rallying for an end to the 20-year dictatorship. Nuns formed human barriers between tanks and protesters that chanted, “Cory! Cory! Cory!” – the nickname of Corazon Aquino,  the soon-to-be new commander-in-chief and widow of slain Marcos opposition leader, Benigno Aquino, Jr. A nation was being reborn.

That such a shift in politics was about to happen was as overwhelming to me as my transition from adolescence to manhood. The Marcoses had held the number one position in the land my entire life. When the uprising in the Philippines made international headlines, I was on my freshman year at Tufts University in Boston while my sister had commenced with graduate courses in architecture at Harvard University. A higher education in America had been my plan ever since my sister had left Manila when I was 14 for her undergraduate studies at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. When she transferred to Columbia University, I stayed with her during two of my summer breaks, and with days spent eating out and nights clubbing, I envisioned my own future as an undergrad to be equally fun-filled.

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The opportunity existed at Tufts. My roommates had the time of their lives – a dorm party here, a frat party there, and cultural clubs that offered a banquet of social activities from barbecues to dances – which for me was the problem. I was so absorbed in an image I harbored of myself as a dandy about town, a trendsetter dressed in black and white, that I struggled to make friends. In reality, I was an average teen dealing with the issues of self-image and sexuality. So what that I wore Benetton and Calvin Klein? No designer label could conceal the pockmarks and the body that lacked even a hint of athleticism. The lying was worst of all. I lived in an all-male dorm. My two roommates – one from Puerto Rico and the other from a town 40 miles southwest of Boston – griped that slots to the co-ed dorms had all been taken, so there they were. I voiced the same fate. The truth was that I had opted for an all-male boarding situation, motivated by hopes of a boy meets boy romance.

As I spent weekends at my sister’s place to escape the Tufts campus, the People Power Revolution was brewing. My mother wrote of my father’s and her involvement in a letter:

On January 7, the Management Association of the Philippines (Daddy is the president this year), the bishop, Businessman’s Conference, and the Makati Business Club had Cory Aquino as the speaker during their combined meetings at the Intercon. The affair was flashed briefly… A picture came out in the USA Today paper, January 8th. Daddy was in the picture. He gave the closing remarks on that day. Cory’s speech was very good and she intelligently answered questions from the floor… People are clamoring for change that a big number are volunteering to help Aquino. On my part, I volunteered for NAMFREL (National Movement for Free Elections) and we help any way we could. 

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By the end of February, the revolution swelled. The news featured scenes of military helicopters landing on Aquino territory as their pilots renounced allegiance to President Marcos and of citizens that numbered in the millions thronging Manila’s main thoroughfare, Edsa Avenue, the banners they waved and confetti that danced in the air yellow, Aquino’s official color. Suddenly, I was no longer invisible. Guys in my dorm would ask, “What do you think about what’s happening in the Philippines?”

I have no recollection of what I might have answered. In the midst of a personal coming-of-age saga, the current events of the day were the least of my concerns, until the afternoon my Puerto Rican roommate showed me a New York Times picture of Imelda Marcos taken during her husband’s 1965 inauguration. She is pristine in a bubble do and a white gown. Her smile is serene and her eyes are limpid with conquest. I wondered what must have gone through her mind at that instant. A decade earlier, she had been a salesgirl in a music store. Now… “She was beautiful,” my roommate said. She was, indeed. She was also omnipotent and omnipresent. Everyone from high school classmates to my mother’s friends had an Imelda anecdote to tell: Imelda once ordered a Philippine Airline carrier to be available at her disposal, leaving the passengers stranded at the airport; Imelda had reserved two floors at the Waldorf Astoria; Imelda would throw $100-tips to the bellboys.

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I most relished my father’s anecdotes. Malacañang Palace would call our home every so often to extend an invitation to a social function, all of which my father would decline. Nevertheless, Imelda Marcos would summon him for a so-called discussion on the Philippines’ economic state, during which he along with other businessmen would ride in a van to the presidential palace with the first lady as a fellow passenger. She was always seated in an elevated section at the back. “I’d be right in front of her,” my father once told me. “Whenever I turned to say something, I’d be talking to her knees.”

What did I think? I was all for Cory, but Imelda was one colorful character on the par of the evil queen in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/snow-white-and-the-seven-dwarfs-someday-my-prince-will-come/), as comical as a Disney villainess, and because of her, the People Power Revolution bordered on entertainment. The jokes were non-stop: raise Imelda Marcos’s 500 brassieres on a flagstaff and salute, “Erin go bra”; Imelda Marcos makes Marie Antoinette look like a bag lady; Did you hear that Imelda Marcos committed suicide? She piled up all her shoes then jumped.

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And this brings me back to the footwear. I visited Malacañang Palace during vacation from Tufts. A pair of sandals was on display on a pedestal. In transparent platform heels, bulbs flashed with the zaniness of lights in a pinball machine. “Madame’s disco shoes,” the curator said. Ideas of my own purpose in life percolated right there. Adolescent blues, goodbye. They were momentary stuff. The factor intrinsic and everlasting to my being was my identity as a Filipino man. It’s no coincidence that I was born two years after the Marcoses ascended to power. The stories about their exploits became my stories. The nationalism that led to their debacle was in my blood. Write it, I thought. Hence, my calling.