Penman No. 232: The Other Leni

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Penman for Monday, January 2, 2017

 

PROMPTED BY the rumors swirling around Vice President Leni Robredo and her possible replacement in that post by Sen. Bongbong Marcos in a January judicial coup, my ruminations drifted over Christmas to the Marcos legacy, and how differently Filipinos see it, and why. At my usual poker table, for example—where I face millennials more than fellow seniors—a question I often hear whenever the Marcoses come up in conversation is, “Why, were they really that bad?” I wouldn’t be surprised if it came from a 30-something, but it’ll typically come from someone my age or older, who lived through the same period—or did they?

Those of us who worry about the historical revisionism or amnesia that seems to have overtaken us may be forgetting something else—that, just like in Hitler’s Germany, the dictatorship wouldn’t have lasted that long without some significant degree of popular acceptance or complicity. One of my pet theories about our martial law experience is that those of us who fought it were in a distinct minority, still are, and will be again. Most Filipinos never had the Metrocom or the ISAFP breaking down their doors; most Filipinos never had a son or a daughter shot or raped or imprisoned because of their beliefs; most Filipinos were already too poor to feel they had been stolen from. Many seniors—with understandable appreciativeness, especially at this point of their dialyzed and hypertensive lives—will remember only the medical complexes that Mrs. Marcos built.

If the present administration felt confident enough that it could get away with the Marcos burial, it can only be because it thought this way as well, and gambled on it. It understood that for far too long—and in the increasingly rare instances when it was even brought up in school—martial law, Philippine-style, had been depicted as a war between President Marcos and the communists, not as a systematic campaign of oppression and plunder waged by a dictator against his own people. Now that the CPP-NDF was having coffee in the Palace, what was the problem?

If we’re talking about educating Filipinos—and not just millennials—about martial law, the case will have to be made that it was an economic, political, and moral disaster for all Filipinos—not just for the Left, not just for some businessmen, and not just for some rival factions of the same elite. We were all materially impoverished and morally compromised by it—and continue to be, despite EDSA’s flickering promise. (And if you still don’t know or can’t remember exactly what the Marcoses did, here’s a report from The Guardian to refresh your memory.)

I’ll let that contention simmer for now, because what actually led me to write this column, my very first of the new year, was an essay on another Leni that I was reading online, titled “Fascinating Fascism,” written by the late Susan Sontag and published in February 1975 in the New York Review of Books.

It must have been the image of some black-shirted (but surely well-intentioned?) young men giving clenched-fist salutes in front of the Rizal monument that led me to revisit the Hitler Youth and Nazi iconography—less to condemn it (let’s give the trolls a rest) than to see why it was so effective and appealing. There’s a scene from 1972’s hit movie Cabaret that might suggest why fascism, as Sontag says, can be so fascinating even and especially to ordinary folk, and you can watch that clip on YouTube here. It’s that of an angelic boy singing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”—at least it starts that way—and it’s masterful moviemaking, showing within minutes how something so bright can be so chilling.

And speaking of moviemaking, this brings me to the other Leni—the German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003), who directed the seminal Nazi propaganda films Triumph of the Will, about the party’s mammoth Nuremberg rally in 1934, and Olympia, about the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Her work would be hailed as technically brilliant and she herself as “an artist of unparalleled gifts” even by American critics—given especially that she was a woman trying to succeed in a male universe—and after the war, conveniently “de-Nazified,” she became something of a media darling, claiming that she had been politically naïve and knew nothing about the Nazis’ war crimes; she even joined Greenpeace and released a dreamy underwater movie on her 100th birthday.

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(Photo from kinoimages.com)

But in her powerful essay on fascist aesthetics, Sontag cuts Riefenstahl no slack, painstakingly proving that contrary to Riefenstahl’s later assertion, she was a willing and willful collaborator of Hitler and Goebbels. The essay is a marvel both of scholarship and insight, something many writers today—who wrap themselves up in opaque critic-speak but yet fear or disdain to take a clear moral stance—can learn from. The full text can be found here.

This next leads me to a confession I’ve made before: that as a young screenwriter, I too was complicit in the making of a monumental film which would have been Marcos’ answer to Riefenstahl’s myth-making epics. It must have been around 1978 when I got word from Lino Brocka, with whom I had just begun to work, asking me to accompany him to a meeting called by Mrs. Marcos. It was the peak of martial law, and no one could say no, unless you were prepared to go to the hills or to march in the streets, as we obviously weren’t—not yet.

As it turned out, Imelda had summoned seven other leading film directors and their writers as well, and we were assembled at the Goldenberg mansion in Arlegui near Malacañang. Our marching orders—as Imelda would explain to us over the next many hours alongside her aesthetics of cinema (“No shots of squatter shanties!”)—were to produce an eight-part filmic history of the Philippines from Magellan to Marcos. Lino and I drew the Gomburza episode. We ended past midnight, after a personally guided tour of the premises and their precious artifacts, and were sent home with curfew passes.

The film was shot in pieces and later stitched together by the National Media Production Center—there’s a reference online to a “Kasaysayan ng Lahi” film being entered by the Philippines to an international film festival in Tashkent—but I never saw it and had no idea where the reels were kept until a friend told me a couple of years ago that they were stored somewhere in the offices of the Philippine Information Agency in Quezon City. In a sense I was glad that for some reason the film never hit Manila’s screens (at least not that I know of), as it would only have added to the perpetuation of a fable.

But then again, with a restoration underway (and I’m not referring to crumbling celluloid), it might yet play in your friendly neighborhood theater—and worse, in the blinding daylight. Like I texted a friend, somehow 2017 feels like 1971, all over again.

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(Photo from wsj.com; photo of Hitler and Riefenstahl above from documentary.org)

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 177: Compress, One More, Wacky!

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Penman for Monday, December 7, 2015

 

 

GET SEVEN or more Pinoys together for a group photo and you’ll invariably hear this mantra: “Compress! One more! Wacky!” To the uninitiated foreigner—already surprised by our propensity to grab them by the arm for a quick and giggly shot—they’re orders that demand translation, so here goes:

“Compress!” technically means that not everyone can fit into the shot and that everyone should therefore squeeze together, at which point people will take a deep breath and turn sideways, turning a 40” midsection into what they imagine is a svelter 38”. This process can morph into a quick trip-to-Jerusalem rearrangement of the subjects, if the hold-your-breath trick doesn’t work. “Small ones in front!” or “Kneel! Kneel!” will be the next order of business, followed by a flurry of to-ing and fro-ing, and split-second negotiations over who’s taller than the other by half an inch, or whose knees can take the bending.

“Compress!” can also mean some young swain’s opportunity to snuggle up to an unsuspecting loved one. But even without the side benefit of romance, “Compress!” manifests the Pinoy’s sense of personal space, which is to say, ”I’ll let you dig your elbow into my rib cage, or touch your knee against mine—but I warn you, go no further, lest you think me immodest!”

The coming of the selfie—or more precisely, that new word I picked up from a book launch last week, the “groufie”—has made compression even more necessary than ever—which, let’s admit it, is a lot more fun than the scientific solution, which is to get a wider-angle lens.

“One more!” reaffirms the Pinoy’s fatalistic conviction that something will surely go wrong and that the first shot taken will prove to be a bad one, or will mysteriously vanish into some dark photographic abyss, from which no memorable snapshot ever returneth. This seems to have been more likely to happen in the bygone days of film, when everything from a faulty sprocket to invasive sunlight could spoil the most carefully posed portrait. But the onset of digital photography has clearly offered no measure of assurance to the Pinoy, who remains deathly suspicious of solitary shots, and who will scream, from the back of the pack, “One more!,” as if the course of history depended on the preservation of that instant.

And so the photographer dutifully fires off a few more shots, giving the subjects a chance to modulate and modify their poses and expressions—more often for naught, because the Pinoy’s fatalistic conviction that something will surely go wrong just happens to be correct, and the camera almost always takes the shot at the worst possible millisecond, when one’s mouth is half-open or one’s eyes are half-closed. This foreknowledge, seared by experience into the Pinoy’s subconscious, likely accounts for the multiplicity of shots taken at every occasion, and “One more!” is never meant to be taken literally, but rather to resound like an echo.

Let’s not forget the equally inevitable complication to this phase. Just when it seems all the angles have been exhausted and the smiles have dried on people’s incisors, some latecomer—who had been blithely chatting away on her cellphone across the grounds, in full view of the pictorial entourage—just has to make a mad dash across the grass, yelling, “Wait! Me, too!” And being the world’s most hospitable people, Pinoys will invariably accommodate the catcher-upper with a frozen smile, even as their eyes glare at her like live coals. And having wedged herself into the frame with a cheery sigh, Ms. Latecomer, of course, will have every right to demand “One more!”

“Wacky!” is probably the most perplexing word in the vocabulary of Pinoy photography for the foreign observer. “Compress!” and “One more!” at least make practical sense, but the command to go “Wacky!”—sometimes given in dead seriousness by some phlegmatic photographer—taxes Occidental logic. To visitors who’ve never witnessed it—meaning, you haven’t been here for more than 24 hours—“Wacky!” means assuming some ridiculous stance, or putting on a clownish face, the permutations of which are theoretically endless, but which typically reduce themselves to tongues stuck out, googly eyes, hands like Mickey Mouse ears, and poses like zombies or broken marionettes.

It isn’t all that strange when the subjects of the “Wacky!” shot are fifteen years old and younger—after all, it’s second nature to juveniles, who don’t need to be asked to act like they were, well, kids. It approaches the bizarre when—say at the closing of the 16th Annual Meeting of the Southeast Asian Society of Gerontology or of the National Consultative Assembly of Tripartite Wage Boards—grown men and women in shiny barongs and power suits are exhorted to do their “Wacky!” best, and deliver on demand.

Professional anthropologists and sociologists (who do the same thing at their conventions, for certain) will have a proper explanation for this behavior, but it can’t be too far-fetched to surmise that the photographic display of Pinoy wackiness is meant to be a healthy release of our inhibitions, even a democratizing gesture of self-effacement and bonhomie. It’s good to look and feel silly once in a while. Never mind that, given our itch to socialize, to see and be seen, “once in a while” happens three times a week on average.

As Paul Anka put it, “the times of your life” will always be worth remembering, and always worth compressing for, one more time, the wackier the better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 123: The Power of Panorama

Penman for Monday, November 17, 2014

 

I’M BY no means a professional photographer, but as a fairly frequent traveler and occasional journalist, I’ve had to take my own photographs to accompany my articles and my blog pieces. Not surprisingly, some of my pictures have been good, some bad, although I would hope that I’ve shot more of the former than the latter overall. I’ve been dabbling in photography, after all, since the 1970s, when we learned to develop and print our own black-and-white film, and were ever aware of how much film and paper cost, not to mention the SLRs and the lenses that we lugged around.

Digital photography, of course, has changed all that. I started toting a 2-megapixel Canon Ixus around 2001—costing me what a new iPhone 6 would today—and instantly I knew that there was no going back to dark rooms and smelly chemicals, at least for an amateur like me. (That Ixus, by the way, took amazingly sharp shots, one of which I still use as the wallpaper for my big iMac—proof that it isn’t all about megapixels.) Since then I’ve dealt with a train of other digital Canons, Casios, Panasonics, and Leicas, all of them rangefinders. And then, a few years ago, I switched to a Nikon DSLR, followed by the inevitable and financially excruciating lens chase that every photography enthusiast knows. Eventually I got those I really wanted—a long zoom, an ultrawide—and happily shot away in sorties to China, the US, Israel, Corregidor, Batanes, and many other places worth toting a heavy bagful of gear to.

And then the iPhone 4 came along. All of a sudden, I had a phone whose camera seemed good and sharp enough for most daily uses (night is something else). More and more, I began taking just the iPhone and leaving the bulky DSLR behind. Aside from and because of its small size, shooting with your phone’s camera has its advantages; you can shoot unobtrusively, within seconds of spotting your subject, and you won’t look like you’re begging to be mugged and to have your precious cargo carted away.

Cameraphones, conversely, have their disadvantages. They’re generally not too good for night shots, unless your subjects are brightly lit, and while the digital zoom can make your subjects bigger, the closer you get, the grainier the image becomes. In other words, for best quality and for mission-critical work, there’s really no perfect pocket substitute for the big cameras and lenses. (Other than the Nikon, my favorite standalone camera for many years was the Leica D-Lux 3, which created razor-sharp images in the 16:9 format.)

But that said, for most uses that don’t require more than a 4”x 6” printout or screen image, an iPhone’s camera will do just fine. My iPhone 5s was the only camera I brought with me on our family’s two-week jaunt across Western Europe last May, and it served us superbly in Madrid, Barcelona, San Sebastian, Venice, Florence, and Paris—all places with fabulous photographic possibilities. Sure, I missed the kind of tightly cropped detail that a telephoto lens is great for, but casual tourism is mostly about scenery, which means that wide-angle or panoramic shots are more useful.

This brings me to my topic for the week, the power of panorama. It’s a power that’s been right there in your iPhone since iOS6 (and very possibly in other smartphones as well), waiting to be unleashed. A panorama is a very wide, narrow picture that covers practically everything before you, and maybe even behind you. The built-in Camera app on the iPhone offers several options for picturetaking: time-lapse, slo-mo, video, photo, square, and pano.

We take most pictures with the “photo” option, yielding a regular rectangular frame, vertical or horizontal. If you’re happy with those pictures, fine. But you should know that, especially when you’re in a spectacular tourist spot and need or want to capture as much of that scene to bring home with you, then the “pano” or panoramic option can be your best friend.

It takes a bit of self-training, and there are many guides online to help you take a good panoramic pic (just Google “taking panoramic shots with an iPhone”). What it basically involves is choosing and standing at a good vantage point, opening the camera, choosing “pano”, pressing the button, then moving on your heels in a semi-circle from left to right, following the guide arrow until the full panorama is taken.

Your first shots will likely be misfires, full of unwanted detail, bodies with missing heads, the same person appearing in two or three different spots, very bright and then very dark bands, and so on. But over time, you’ll get the hang of it, and learn to avoid the pitfalls. For example, you’ll learn to generally avoid scenes with lots of moving figures (although the motion blur and duplication of people can also be aesthetically appealing); you’ll learn to pre-visualize the scene, deciding just how much to cover instead of the full 240-degree sweep of the app.

If you’re careful and lucky (you’ll need to be both), you can capture a scene that’s not only visually breathtaking, but also socially observant, like a Hogarth drawing with a lot of interesting detail in the little corners. That’s what I was going for in my pano shot of an afternoon in Madrid’s Plaza del Sol, where an anti-fascist rally literally marched right into the restful mood of other Madrileños in the frame. My shot of the riverfront of Cold Spring in upstate New York seeks to blend natural scenery with human habitation, and that of an early evening in Manhattan’s Bryant Park plays on light and shadow, and the city’s iconic skyline.

Don’t forget that you can and probably should crop and edit the image afterwards, to remove ragged edges up and down caused by uneven shooting (you weren’t following the arrow, tsk tsk), to go for a tighter frame, and to adjust the exposure. Consider, too, other apps like Google’s free Photo Sphere, which yields even more stunning—and seamless—360-degree pictures, for a fully immersive experience approaching virtual reality.

Whether you’re in your office or on top of the Great Wall of China, a good panoramic shot can be your best and most comprehensive reminder of where you were and what it felt like. But you’d have to remember the option. Speaking of the Great Wall, we were there a couple of Decembers ago, all by our freezing lonesome in Mutianyu. Rendered speechless by the majesty, it was only on the van back to downtown Beijing that I realized that I’d been on top of the world—and forgot to take it all in.

Flotsam & Jetsam No. 35: New Pens for the New Year

THE HOLIDAYS and turning 60 this month gave me all kinds of excuses to acquire new pens, and here are two of the best ones: a Montblanc Oscar Wilde, issued in 1994, and an Onoto Magna Classic in tortoiseshell, handmade in the UK just last month. I’m broke but happy 😉

They do look good beside my old mainstay, the Agatha Christie. It’s like having three gorgeous girlfriends to take out on a date (shhhh, don’t tell Beng!).

Penman No. 82: A Man Called Nik

IMG_2939Penman for Monday, January 20, 2013

IT WAS with great sadness that I received the news a little over a week ago that my friend Nik Ricio had passed away. We knew that he had been ill for some time, but as these things go, you hope for the best, and never really think people could leave so soon.

He was, to me, indisputably the best Filipino book designer of his time, and one of the finest Filipino artists to have wielded a brush or a technical pen. More than that, he was a friend to me and to many other artists and writers, the kind of friend whose company you didn’t only enjoy but whose talent you felt enriched by and actually learned from.

I got the message about Nik’s death from another old friend, Tere Custodio, with whom Nik and I had worked on the massive, 10-volume Kasaysayan project back in 1997-98. The three of us would collaborate on other book projects after that, but nothing before or since matched Kasaysayan in its scope and intensity. We had been commissioned by Reader’s Digest Asia and by A-Z Direct Marketing to come up with this anthology in time for the celebration of the Philippine Centennial in June 1998; we had our first meeting in January 1997, and in exactly 18 months, on schedule, the anthology was launched—a compendium of 3,000 pages, a million words, thousands of photographs, and the labor of around 200 writers (not just historians, but economists, poets, scientists, priests, and artists, among others) whom we tapped for various essays. Tere oversaw the logistics and execution of the gargantuan project; I edited the text, advised and assisted by the late Doreen Fernandez; but it was Nik who almost literally shaped these ten books and gave them their final look, working with what even then was already an aging pair of Macs and PageMaker.

I recall that effort because of what I learned from Nik, with whom I sat side-by-side, going over those many thousands of pages on his computer screen. I was a rookie editor, something like an infantry captain suddenly ordered to command the Battle of the Bulge; Nik already had many coffeetable books to his credit, chiefly with Gilda Cordero Fernando’s GCF Books, sumptuous productions which Beng and I coveted but could then scarcely afford. I decided early on—sagely, as it turned out—to let the design lead the text.

Happily Nik and I shared a traditionalist aesthetic—a sense of pleasing balance, squared corners, fine detail, and subtle suggestion (this was before book design got all postmodern funky, splashy, and edgy). I could see that Nik was going for a certain look; he’d tell me, “It would be nice if all the last lines on the page ended here…. Let’s get rid of all widows and orphans (lines that hung out all by their lonesome)…. I need a subhead here, to balance the subhead there…. Could you make sure that all the subheads are at least X number of characters and Y at the most?… You see this white line running down the page? That’s a ‘river’ and it doesn’t look good. Help me remove these rivers by adding a few words here and deleting some there….”

As meticulous and painstaking as he was, I never once heard Nik raise his voice, even as the rest of us were at our wits’ end doing our darnedest to make sure we hit our deadlines. Our tie-up with Reader’s Digest afforded us a substantial budget, and as art director Nik could have had his pick of hotshot photographers to help him illustrate our books (Nik insisted that there be a picture in every spread, over ten volumes). But when he had to, no-nonsense Nik—a talented photographer himself—went out with his camera to shoot, say, a rash of rust on a GI sheet or a patch of moss on a rock to use as pictorial motifs.

There’s an ongoing retrospective until the 27th of Nik’s work as a designer, illustrator, photographer, and painter at the Liongoren Gallery on 111 New York Avenue, Cubao, and aside from his book designs and paintings, there’s a wall of his photographs, taken on Manila’s streets in the 1960s and ‘70s: an armless man playing a guitar with his toes, a dog standing his ground in front of a Mercedes-Benz, an old woman staring out a concrete window. He had the eye of Lino Brocka, but unlike Brocka, he went past the real to the romantic, insistently seeking beauty in a decidedly un-beautiful world. He never gave up; even toward the end, no longer able to hold a brush, he used sponges to create large tree paintings.

Nik sponge painting

Flashback to another New York, the real one. In October 1999, Nik had one of his finest and happiest spells when an exhibition of his paintings opened at the Philippine Center in New York. I was happy to write the text of the brochure that introduced Nik and his works to viewers, and this is what I said then:

“After more than three decades of working as one of Manila’s leading graphic designers, photographers, and illustrators, Nik Ricio returns to an old love—painting.

“This exhibition—surprisingly enough, only the first one-man show of his long career—shows Nik returning to his artistic and spiritual roots. Those roots lie deep in romantic myth in a sense of beauty and order to the natural world, in faith and hope in the regenerative power of Art. Ricio’s works are a veritable garden of the Muses. The lushly detailed foliage that has become a virtual trademark of Ricio’s graphic design is more than pretty in these paintings; every leaf and flower is an affirmation of life, which all Art aspires to achieve and to sustain.

“Ricio made his mark early by winning first prize for two successive years, 1966 and 1967, in the prestigious Shell National Student Art Competition, before graduating in 1968 from the University of the Philippines with a BFA, majoring in commercial and editorial design.

“In Manila and around Asia, he is best known and much sought after as a book and graphic designer. His book projects include the celebrated Turn of the Century, The Streets of Manila, Being Filipino, Dances of the Emerald Isles, Rizal the Saga, Tide of Time, and, most recently, Kasaysayan: The Story of the Filipino People. He counts among his clients some of the Philippines’ largest corporations, as well as Readers’ Digest Asia, the World Bank, the Ambassador Hotel in Hong Kong, and the Manila Hotel.

“As an art director, he has been described by a critic as ‘a submarine commander, a visionary of the deep who gives out consummate orders with the minimum of tantrums.’

“Both the mastery and the modesty should come through in these paintings. They are as close as we can get to what Nik Ricio—so much of whose work has been to realize the dreams of others—really dreams of, all by himself.”

It was no great secret to those who knew him that for many of his last years, Nik was estranged from his family; there was great pain on both sides, and ironically it took his terminal illness to reunite him with his wife Tes and their children, also accomplished artists.

Beng and I went to Loyola Guadalupe for Nik’s very brief wake, to condole with Tes and the family, and with Nik’s many other friends. He lay in an open casket, like Beng’s brother had many years before, preparatory to cremation. I remarked to someone how I would probably end up the same way in the same place, having bought a funeral policy for Beng and myself there. Many tears were shed and regretful words spoken. Walking back to the car, it felt as if you had closed a well-written book full of engaging events and lavish illustrations, leaving you wishing only that it had gone on for a bit longer and had a happier ending.

Godspeed, Nik, and may you meet with all the beauty you tried to give us an early glimpse of. 

Flotsam & Jetsam No. 34: Pens Noir

I DIDN’T realize how much more interesting my favorite pens could look until one afternoon this week when—during a long and rather boring meeting at the office—I played around with the two pens in my pocket and with my iPhone, and then applied the “noir” filter in my Camera app. Then I went home and took a few more shots of my other pens. Voila—a whole new way of looking at fine pens.

Flotsam & Jetsam No. 32: An Ode to My iPen 5s

I’M CALLING it my “iPen,” but yes, it’s the new iPhone 5s (the 32gb “slate gray” version) that this incorrigible Apple fanboy couldn’t resist during a recent sortie to Bangkok’s MBK shopping mall, which had loads of these gray-market goodies coming out a few days or even weeks ahead of its scheduled launch in most parts of the world. It came at a considerable premium, of course, but if you factor in US sales taxes and shipping (plus how much you would pay for that ineffable factor called instant gratification), it all evens out, or at least I convinced myself so. What does the 5s have over the 5 (mine’s not even a year old, picked up in the US last October)? Not much—they’re the exact same size, so I just slipped the new phone into the old, custom saddle-leather case—but it does have this cool fingerprint-ID technology that saves you a lot of passcode and password keystrokes, and the camera is blazingly fast and sharp. Worth all the extra bucks? I guess. Do I really need it? Very probably not. Do I really want it? Absolutely. Here’s a visual ode to what I’ll be signing with as my “iPen”: