How to tell the story | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022


You do not have to wallow in the Pasig and fish out a decaying carcass in order to tell a good story. It is always in the air. In the heart, in the mind. These are the raw materials. The question is, How do we treat these stories?

We always have good stories to tell but what seems to be the problem is our treatment. Just look at our so-called serious and respectable names in writing and filmmaking. Everybody is becoming a hero. Everybody is going to save his nation. They loudly lament the poverty of their brethren, and these mournful men are precisely the overfed, the smug, the most arrogant.

Our idea of a serious film is grim sociology—you know, social consciousness here, class struggles there, generation gap, or prostitution as cultural institution, or divorce Pinoy-style. How about the problems of the soul?

Our idea of a quality film is a big-budget opus tracing the struggles of the sweet, gentle, long-suffering Filipinos from the time of the proto-Malays through the Edsa Revolt down to the plight of the OFWs; or a saga of the Christian-Muslim conflict; or a pageant on top of Banaue Rice Terraces; or agriculture under the shadow of Mayon Volcano.

Fine. How about the struggles within the man? How about the struggles within the family?

In short, we forget the essentials. We forget that before we take the first step in the saving of the nation we must first tackle the problems of our soul. Did Bergman ever need a big budget? Did he make the epic of Scandinavia? The last ride of the Vikings?

Sociology should only serve as background to the story of man, the arena where the souls must clash and wrestle. It is only the setting, the milieu, not the story.

Theme and material

That, we think, is what is wanting in the novels of Rizal. He dealt primarily with the society of his time, and only the ugly face of it, some satires on customs and rituals and traditions, and if he ever dealt with the souls of Ibarra and Maria Clara, it is stereotyped, flat and melodramatic—so his novels have turned out more propagandist than art.

We respect Rizal but we can only smile at the Philippine-allegory subgenre his work has engendered. They breed like vermin. They overlook the very simple fact that the themes of the greatest novels and dramas of all time are the basic human relationships, the family, mortality, the problems of suffering and evil—“Hamlet,” “The Brothers Karamazov,” the “Agamemnon,” the “Oedipus,” the “Antigone.”

Precisely because Euripides is too sociopsychological, too patriotic about Athens, his dramas may be more modern than but also arguably inferior to those of Sophocles. What is eternal in the Greek tragedies are not the politics or social behaviors of Thebes or Mycenae at a given period, but the feelings of those men at that “pre-Socratic time of evil when men were sanguinaire et inhumain.” What is more lasting in Shakespeare are the lurid tragedies and bawdy comedies, not the political plays.

Just simple. Materials are everywhere. You can get a story from a drunk on the street, from the radio or TV or YouTube, from a dream.

For instance, there was that news about a drunken father who ate his infant son. Out of this our directors can make a film exploring the cannibalistic instinct, the child-swallower archetype, or the power of the irrational in human life, but instead they make a social protest about hunger and destitution.

There was also the headline about a certain landlord who roasted the wife and children of his tenant. Out of this we can make an intense study of hate, but instead we make a film about feudalism and land-grabbing. We only examine the landlord-tenant relationship. Why not also examine the mutual hate of two men?

Sensationalism and art

That’s just the problem: We’re still not sure where to focus. Analyze the criminal more than the crime. True, the greatest themes are man, society and civilization—but man first and foremost, man and, perhaps, his relationship with the superhuman.

The classic example is Coppola’s “The Godfather.” Certainly it is a gangster film, but what’s more important than the psychology of fear it explores are the family relationships there—how the brothers treat one another, their sister, their wives and children; how they revere their father; how the father loves his youngest son.

Al Pacino says it to John Cazale: “You are my elder brother and I love you, but don’t you take side against the family again, ever.” In the sequel he has that brother killed while in the act of praying the Hail Mary—killed him for the interest of the whole family. Maybe he is wrong, since we are never permitted to use a bad means to obtain a good end, but we have to respect his choice.

And the shootings, those harsh images have been tempered by the cinematography and music, often juxtaposed with images of religious rituals such as the procession, so what comes out is poetry of violence and darkness. They are jolting but never sickening. Art must disturb as well as refresh.

More than being a study of crime, it makes a lasting impression as a film with religion. Its presence is everywhere, images of religious ceremonies from wedding to funeral to baptism. We’ve even noticed a picture of St. Augustine pasted on the wall.

The idea of the baptism interspersed with scenes of vendetta makes you smile. When Pacino is asked by the priest if he renounces evil and he says yes, it’s intercut with a scene of a man being shot on the forehead. “Do you renounce Satan?” “I do.” A bullet in the eye.

Here we see love and hate, life and death, good and evil become one, juxtaposed with bitter irony. That’s just what’s remarkable about this gangster film, that the director has transformed sensationalism into high art.

Genuine portrayal

Now, our so-called serious directors also make films about the family, but instead of creating characters with universal reverberations, they create characters fated to welter and rot in domestic tragedies of petty squabbles and mere resentments; or else locked in Marxist-Freudian prisons and squashed like bedbugs by the system; or grappling with problems such as STDs or how to get the housemaid into bed.

Fine. But, as Melville said, how can you make a great novel about a flea?

What would it be like, for instance, if instead of struggling with the idea of revenge or the spread of evil in Elsinore, Hamlet grapples with insomnia? What would it be like if instead of struggling with the forces of destiny, patricide and incest, Oedipus grapples with cancer of the pancreas?

And there are the movies that tell again and again the story of the shy rose from the barrio who goes to Manila, gets lost, and finds herself dancing the striptease with a tear in each eye. Social factors are dragged in, some psychological excuses—and there is your serious film. It is sickening, boring. So much time, talent, energy and money are being wasted on them.

And they tell you it is a genuine portrayal of life; that people are really corrupt; that we are all victims, and exploiters; that prostitution is a necessary social service; that every girl in the kabaret is really a dear; that we must understand—a sad tune played again and again. Sad, indeed. It makes you want to vomit.

“There is more than hideousness and squalor here. There is bestiality.” They believe the dregs of society and the scum of the earth are the representatives of humanity. How about the lady? How about the fair maiden?

The French and the Russian novelists specialize in this drab and lurid aspect of existence, but the supremacy of the Russian realist tradition lies in its “more spiritual realism,” says critic Edmund Fuller.

Truly, the themes of all great literature are religious in nature. The Russian novelists understand this. They are “men of soul and sensibility.”

Impermanent value

Why write a novel about the present political situation when every political situation does not last? Stendhal likens this intrusion of politics in the novel to the firing of a pistol at a concert. “And if art is a mirror, what political allegiance has a mirror?”

This utilitarianism of art is sad. It should be reserved for pottery and architecture. In literature and the cinema, it produces works of impermanent value, as short-lived as fashion in dress, faddish expressions and lingo, or any trend in social behavior.

They have only to realize that if it’s topical it may be of little worth, ephemeral, a passing fancy—as simple as that. Why not analyze what is lasting in man? His emotions, for example. His basic relationships. They have only to realize that when everything else shall have passed away the heart shall remain—as simple as that.

And why waste your breath bawling like an infant over poverty when the poor you will always have with you? If you cannot help it, then leave the novel alone and go to oratory proper. Write sociological tracts, polemical journalism, history books. Do not fool around with the novel. “That way they would do greater justice to themselves and more service to mankind,” says Fuller.

Why not just bare the soul without stripping the body? Why not just examine the problems of the soul without citing the statistics? There is only one reason for this. They are either pornographers or propagandists.

They are the source of corruption. They corrupt their audience with their biases and hang-ups. They corrupt their audience with their amateur psychology and irresponsible politics. But we cannot presume to scold them now, much less in the future when they will be grand old men to be revered.

Same sad story

And as for the sorrow of these champions of the dregs of society, Fuller has recognized it as “the new compassion.” They romanticize the criminal, they authorize evil, they legalize ugliness, they go sentimental over dirt. “Their eyes are fixed on corruption as if it were the sole or total reality of life.” They have known no grace.

They are tearful over the corrupt and the depraved and the degraded, and they blame everything on the noncriminal, the priest, the police, the parents. “They take murder, rape, perversion, and ask belligerently what is wrong with it.” Who are we to judge? We have no right. Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin as you please.

The lovable bum, the whore with the golden heart, the playboy and the anarchist are heroic. All authority, all sobriety and order, the church, the school, the home, the government, all the rest of the world are bad.

They bitterly satirize the churchgoer, the teacher, the chaste religious boy. They have overflowing compassion for the delinquents and misfits, vandals, alcoholics, drug addicts, pickpockets, and assorted malefactors.

“They are resentful and vindictive against the socially adjusted,” says Fuller. “Not casting stones at the sinner, they cast stones at everyone else. This is not compassion. It is paranoia. If you listen to them long, you will be ashamed to be sober and out of jail.”

And that’s exactly the story they’re telling in our contemporary movies. The old themes are just given a more graphic treatment. Sex and violence are here to stay. Poverty porn has become more abject (and is perpetually exported to festivals abroad). The Cinema of Abjection thrives alongside the Cinema of Transgression.

What we are seeing now is a renaissance of sort, a revival of lost glory. We’d concede to calling it a Gilded Age. As Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” shows, a Golden Age may not have existed after all.

High seriousness

Yes, of course, we can’t have a perfect film (not even Bergman, Ozu or Bresson). But we expect from them, at least, that high seriousness demanded of great art.

Most of our digital movies are haphazardly done; they seem shot on the fly. Some of the more serious flaunt their artsy influences but haven’t learned much from the original. They’re merely copies of copies, and bad at that. These we regard with utter disdain.

(Simplemindedness cannot be drowned out by beautiful images, heightened language, advanced technology, or innovative technique. It has a way of staying afloat.)

We can see that even in many of the best of them it’s still a cinema that’s either exploitative of actors and subjects, manipulative of the audience; or pa-art, pa-profound, self-indulgent, masturbatory; or way too obvious; or riddled with simple crudities, loopholes and clichés—with none of the breadth of vision and depth of insight of Brocka and Bernal.

The finest film we’ve seen so far this year is Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life.” We believe it is such films that possess elements of greatness our contemporary cinema should aspire to, for it to approach a Golden Age. We know of at least one who sat through that film for nearly three hours dumbstruck from scene to scene and by film’s end was rolling in bliss.

It is the kind of bliss you feel when at the climax of Brocka’s “Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag” you realize you’ve just witnessed a crucifixion. It is that supernal bliss you feel when at the finale of “Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos” a procession enters the church and the saints come marching in. Yes! God has returned.