Penman No. 271: From Balagtas to Gloc-9

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Penman for Monday, October 2, 2017

 

It would be easy and comforting to praise director Treb Monteras’ Respeto as a testament to the redemptive power of poetry, to art as a transcendent force in the universe—but it’s not that simple.

Yes, there’s quite a bit of that, and happily so for occasional poets like this viewer. We want to believe, in our heart of hearts, that poetry will save us, will elevate us from the sordidness of our surroundings and from our own sad and sorry failings. Two of my favorite quotations about poetry which I often bring up in class address that notion.

The first comes from that quintessential poet of the city, the Frenchman Charles Baudelaire: “When (like a poet) / the Sun descends into the city / It ennobles even / the vilest of its creatures.” So, poetry ennobles, raises up the poet from his or her pedestrian reality, no matter how vile that reality may be.

The second comes from Anne Sexton, who took her own life at age 45 after a long bout with depression, but who could still understand that “Suicide, after all, is the opposite of poetry.” Poetry was the life-force, the contributor to the poet’s heightened state of being, as Sexton would advert to in another line: “Saints have no moderation, nor do poets, just exuberance.”

These ideas were swilling in my head hours after my wife Beng and I stepped out of the cinema, still trying to figure out what I was supposed to think. We had missed Respeto during its Cinemalaya screening—they ran out of seats for us at its last showing—but had heard great things about it and weren’t about to miss it again during its regular run.

The movie itself isn’t hard to follow, even for a pair of senior citizens whose virgin ears opened up to Pinoy battle rap (always good to learn something new) for the first time. The Brockaesque descent into the urban jungle is such a familiar move for Filipino filmmakers (Hamog and Pauwi Na most recently come to mind) that it’s practically a given, but Respeto deepens the milieu by opening a door to the hip-hop subculture that many middle-class and middle-aged moviegoers have no inkling about whatsoever.

The fast and furious exchange of expletives aside, you could take Respeto as an Araby-type coming-of-age story where a young man falls for a woman, tries to gift her with something marvelous, and fails in the effort but learns something about himself in the process. Well, it’s a lot more complicated than that, because many other dualities and intersections abound in the story beyond just man and woman: that between youth and age (Hendrix, played by the ace rapper Abra, and Doc, played by Dido de la Paz), between apartment and slum, between bookshop and bar, between wisdom and wit, between Balagtas and Gloc-9, between Marcos and Duterte, and even between people who suffer and die for their beliefs and those who simply die out of poverty and crime. And perhaps, in the end, the movie asks, are they really so different? Is there some overarching reality that yokes them all together?

That reality seems to be that they’re all Filipinos living in the time of tokhang, a reality that pointedly intrudes into the narrative at key points and provides the inevitable climax. The environment seethes with menace and aggression—from the verbal violence (and blatant machismo) of the rap battles to the chilling corruption of the rogue cop Fuentes (played with understated competence by Nor Domingo). Without providing too much of a spoiler, I’ll just say that there’s no happy ending here, no triumphant reversals of fortune where the good guy bucks the odds, wins the prize, and gets the girl.

A perceptive review online by Tristan Zinampan puts it this way: “Respeto tells us that—given the cyclical oppression of Philippine society—going your own way, resignation, and apathy are not enough a vehicle to escape. Injustice is widespread; there’s simply no room to hide in this little archipelago. Just because you’re looking up, it doesn’t mean the chains on your feet aren’t there.”

Respeto’s Pinoy ‘hood is fertile ground for confrontation between good and evil in all their forms, with life and art insistently if desperately seeking to survive in the most hostile environments, even within the rap arena itself, where originality seems to be at a premium. The movie’s consistent use of a cemetery as a place for the creation of new art in words and images highlights this struggle.

Ultimately, however, at least for this viewer, Respeto affirms the inescapability of politics—especially the politics that kills—in our society, and its intrusion into our most private spaces, our most fervent dreams. There’s no doubt that the film draws much of its appeal from its running political commentary, but it’s less the topical references that create Respeto’s critical value for me than the power games that define it, some larger than others.

My takeaway isn’t a soothing one: poetry won’t save us, but guns—maybe even a rock—could, if that’s what it takes to overcome evil. And then again, the poetry—the truly great poetry, like all great art—will survive all of us: killers, victims, and bystanders alike. Catch Respeto the next chance you get, maybe on the campus film circuit, and tell me what you think.

 

Penman No. 253: Wealth You Can’t Buy

IMG_1773Penman for Monday June 5, 2017

 

BENG AND I flew down to Iloilo City two weeks ago—she to hold a workshop on art restoration at the University of San Agustin, and I to attend Pagtib-ong, an International Conference on Intangible Heritage organized by the University of the Philippines Visayas at Casa Real—so it was a culture-heavy weekend, but happily so.

And what, exactly, is “intangible heritage”? Simply put, it’s wealth you can’t buy, of the cultural kind—the songs, stories, dances, traditions, practices, and beliefs of people, especially of those outside the increasingly homogenized and globalized mainstream. At a time when we’re all watching (and paying for) the same shows on Netflix and having the same Americano at Starbucks, younger Filipinos are fast losing touch with their own cultural roots. “Pagtib-ong” means “putting on a pedestal,” so this time and for a change, it’s our intangible heritage taking center stage.

UP President Danilo Concepcion framed the context well in his message that I read for him: “As nations and societies modernize and move deeper into the 21st century, the emphasis on material growth becomes even more pronounced, often obscuring all other considerations. Those considerations include intangible heritage—the cultural threads that bind not just people together but the past and the present, and indeed the present to the future. Our intangible heritage speaks to the very soul of our cultural community. It may not have much monetary value, if at all, but it is priceless in terms of containing, preserving, and propagating the values we seek to transmit from one generation to the next.”

Politicians will wonder how studying folk songs, kitchen practices, and the vocabulary of obscure languages can be important to national development, and it will be for us—both as scholars and cultural advocates—to show them how and why. Gatherings of scholars such as Pagtib-ong are rare and valuable, but we should also learn how to translate and communicate the significance of these events and their implications for our societies to a larger audience.

Just to give you an idea of what went on at Pagtib-ong, I’ll give you a sampler from the talks of the scholars who presented their research at the conference, and note the Asian and Filipino values and practices that I culled from their work.

Harmony. Pham Thai Tulinh of Lu TuTrong Technical College in Vietnam, the granddaughter of a general and a poet, had this to say about “QuanhoBac Folk Songs”: “The women traditionally wear distinctive round hats and scarves, while the men wear turbans, umbrellas and tunics. The Quanho folk songs are always performed voluntarily in groups of male or female (singers)…. A group of females from one village sings with a group of males from another village with similar melodies, but different lyrics, and always with alternating tunes. In each group, one person sings the leading tune and another sings a secondary part, but the two should be in perfect harmony at the same timbre.”

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Continuity. Anna Razel L. Ramirez of the University of the Philippines Visayas reported on “Dungkulan: The Eternal Fire”: “A dungkulan is a large piece of wood that provides kitchen fire and ensures that an ember is always available to start a fire in the absence of matchsticks…. More than a fire starter for food, dungkulans are significant in the lives of people in the countryside and in the mountain areas. It is the source of warmth at nighttime, a reliable source of coffee on cold mornings; a steady source of warm water for health emergencies; and what many others need from that slow burning log that sustains the dapug and the lives of the people attached to the dungkulan.”

Conversation. Jose R. Taton Jr. of the Philippine Women’s University spoked on “Talda for Mixed Chorus”: “The talda is one of the various forms of musical repartee practiced by the Panay Bukidnon of Central Panay. Considered as a tukod-tukod (creative invention) tradition, it involves a dynamic altercation of deep sentiments of longing and love from singers who actively and spontaneously stream words (gina-gato) using metaphorical and figurative language. It is sung at leisure at any occasion, and the length of the musical conversation varies depending on the conscious and willful response of both parties.”

There were dozens more of these fascinating talks on the menu—I was especially taken by a lecture on Panay’s fabled golden boats by Dr. Alicia Magos, herself a legend in folklore studies, because it reminded me of the golden boat with my grandfather’s name emblazoned on it, reported to have been seen in Romblon off Calatong, our own enchanted mountain—but alas, we all had to return to our more tangible existences.

Many thanks and congratulations to UPV Chancellor Dr. Rommel Espinosa and Conference Chair Prof. Martin Genodepa for reaffirming the position of both the Visayas and intangible heritage in our cultural and social maps.

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Penman No. 236: A Web of Entertainment

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Penman for Monday, January 30, 2017

 

IF I HAD to name three of the most important and most useful sites on the Internet that I’ve ever used, they would, unsurprisingly, be Google, Wikipedia, and YouTube. (Some would stick Facebook in there, but since I stay off the FB grid, I wouldn’t know).

Granted, they’re far from perfect and are eminently susceptible to manipulation by both the well-intentioned and the unscrupulous. It’s easy to become overly dependent on them for information, and to simply believe what they say and show without any kind of critical intervention. For many students and researchers, Google and Wikipedia have long replaced the physical library—and why not?—without minding the inflexible if inconvenient need for proper attribution of sources and for fact-checking. Google in particular gives weight to the popular, and in this age of fake news, post-truths, and “alternative facts,” where “If it’s retweeted a hundred times, it must be true,” the pitfalls abound.

But with enough awareness and discernment on the user’s part, they can be valuable tools for learning, and I have to say that I can’t possibly get as much work done as I do these days without drawing several times a day on these indispensable sites.

And there’s an even better reason, I’ve discovered, than cold research or trawling for factoids to explore these sites. They form a veritable Worldwide Web of entertainment, taking me to serendipitous discoveries of all sorts, thanks to the Web’s structure of hyperlinks. They often lead me to things and places I’d never have encountered otherwise, which is where much of the entertainment lies, in the continuously unfolding panoramas of knowledge that open up onscreen.

A good example came up about a month ago, while I was watching an episode of Great Performances on PBS (which I get by paying a small subscription fee, well worth the treasure trove of documentaries and arts programs). This one was titled “La Dolce Vita: The Music of Italian Cinema,” and it featured the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra in a concert of classics by such renowned and popular film composers as Ennio Morricone and Nino Rota. (Morricone is a personal favorite—I keep playing Yo-Yo Ma’s rendition of “Gabriel’s Oboe” from “The Mission”, and even visited Morricone’s hometown in Cervara di Roma, where he’s venerated as a hero.)

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One tune that captured me was the haunting theme from a film called “The Anonymous Venetian,” played on the violin by Joshua Bell. I had heard the song before, but Bell performed it with such sublime intensity that it brought my wife Beng to tears when she listened in.

Now that I had the title, I went to Google to find out more about the song and the movie; Stelvio Cipriani had composed the music for the film, which had been directed in 1970 by Enrico Maria Salerno, starring Tony Musante and Florinda Bolkan. Further Googling revealed that the movie was about a terminally ill musician who meets his ex-wife in Venice, briefly rekindling their old passion. It was panned by the critics (and then again, some bad movies produce the best scores–remember “The Promise”?). I’m a fan of movies about Venice (Luchino Visconti’s “Death in Venice”, Nicholas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now”) and Beng and I had spent some of our most blissful moments there riding the vaporetto on a one-day visit three years ago, so I went on eBay to buy the movie, but it wasn’t available on DVD.

Neither was it on YouTube, where you can find whole movies if you get lucky (and don’t mind the dubious provenance). But I was able to download the full PBS video on the PBS site and to find other versions of the song on YouTube, from which I cut clips to save to iTunes.

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My attention then turned to Joshua Bell, who turned out to be something of a sensation in American music. Among other interesting factoids brought up about him by Wikipedia was that he owned and used a 1713 Stradivarius violin called the Gibson ex Huberman after two of its previous owners, a $4-million instrument which has been stolen not once but twice.

That led me to the story of the violin itself and back to YouTube, where a one-hour documentary titled “The Return of the Violin” traces the long and poignant pedigree of the violin, particularly its time in the hands of the Polish prodigy Bronislaw Huberman. Huberman received the violin as a gift from a Polish noble family in recognition of his astonishing prowess, but even more remarkably, he didn’t rest on his laurels; he saved many Jewish musicians during the Nazi period by recruiting them to join the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, which he was setting up at the time.

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At this point, I was getting far more than entertainment; I was getting an education in music and its humanizing influence, thanks to a few clicks on my keyboard.