Left: with Brillante Mendoza; Right: autographed program
Again with Mendoza, and “long-poem” poet Vince Serrano
I finally saw Brillante Mendoza’s Kinatay at Greenbelt as part of the week-long film festival sponsored by the Italian government. Kinatay (“butchered”), the gruesome story of the kidnap/murder of a junkie prostitute in the hands of corrupt cops, won Mendoza the best direction award at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.
It was a contentious win. Variety bemoans the “obvious statements made banal by heavy-handed ironies”. Critic-blogger Benito Vergara also noticed the numerous lack of subtleties:
The prostitute’s stripper name, for instance, is Madonna. There’s a quotation about never losing integrity on the back of Peping’s criminology school uniform. There’s a faded poster of Jesus, heart surrounded by thorns, just above the basement room where Madonna is about to be raped and murdered. There’s a massive billboard that reads, “Jesus is the way, the truth and the life.”
There is nothing of the sort. If anything, it was the subtitling that did the movie a disservice by underscoring what were actually not so obvious. Madonna is not an unusual stripper name in Manila. The motto on the uniform is in fact indecipherable in the muted lighting. Even the billboard signs that supposedly comment on the action were not gratuitously used at all. Yes, Mendoza is making “legible” ironic gestures, but these are hardly in your face, and are quickly drowned out in the white noise and frenetic kaleidoscope of the city.
Roger Ebert decried Kinatay as the worst film in the history of the festival. Nothing is further from the truth. Ebert’s comments are actually more telling of his inability to grasp new cinema. In McLuhan’s terms, his bewilderment is symptomatic of the visual, literate man’s helpless flailing before the audile and tactile.
On the sound track, there are traffic noises, loud bangings, clashings, hammerings and squealings of tires. They continue on and on and on. They are cranked so high we recall the guitar setting of “11″ in “This is Spinal Tap.” They are actively hostile. They are illustrated by murk. You can’t see the movie and you can’t bear to listen to it.
But the the movie is all about sounds and textures. It simply follows the character of Coco Martin, a neophyte cop, as things unfold in real time without rhyme or reason. Pretty much like how much of life happens.
Ebert reads movies like printed text. This habit enforces the narrative elements of 19th century novels with the strictness of grammar schools. Hence, his typical aversion to comic book adaptations with their lack of psychological realism and lineal logic.
The adventures of Captain America are fabricated with first-rate CGI and are slightly more reality-oriented than in most superhero movies–which is to say, they’re still wildly absurd…
When the mild-mannered alter ego transforms into the superhero, Ebert fails to see the glamour conferred by the costume, and instead dismisses how “the new Steve Rogers, is now [simply] a foot taller and built like Mr. Universe… [adopting] a costume and a stars-and-stripes shield, which serve primarily to make him highly visible…”
This inability to grasp the iconic is brought about by the pressure of lineal logic imposed by the sequential nature of printed text. According to McLuhan:
Literate people think of cause and effect as sequential, as if one thing pushed another along by physical force. Nonliterate people register very little interest in this kind of “efficient” cause and effect, but are fascinated by hidden forms that produce magical results.
(from Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan)
In a way, we cannot blame Ebert because his reading is within the nature of the movie as a medium: “movies assume a high level of literacy in their users”. Furthermore, it is a hi-def medium, or “hot” in McLuhanesque, as opposed to “cool” TV with its mosaic-like pixelation (actually, “snowiness”). What Brillante Mendoza accomplished in Kinatay, with digital filming technology, is to turn down the resolution of the movie, immersing the viewer in the black ink of night with ambient lighting (or lack thereof), as the protagonist makes his unwitting descent into hell. We are literally left in the dark as to what is happening in the scenes, and are forced to rely on our other (audile and tactile) senses to orient ourselves in the penumbral landscape.
And, not surprisingly, this is precisely what Ebert complains about!
For at least 45 minutes, maybe an hour, maybe an eternity, Mendoza gives us Queasy-Cam shots, filmed at night in very low light, of the interior and exterior of the van as they drive a long distance outside Manila to a remote house.
In turning the movie into a cool medium to tell a hot crime story (the butchering of a hooker), Mendoza gets the audience involved in depth in the characters’ experiences. This is reinforced by the use of nondescript performers, which makes it even more similar to TV’s use of everyman actors as opposed to the hard glamour of old Hollywood stars.
Ebert preempts contrarian views from likely avant-garde “theoreticians” by declaring his stoic indifference and recusal from any rebuttal:
There will be critics who fancy themselves theoreticians, who will defend this unbearable experience, and lecture those plebians like me who missed the whole Idea. I will remain serene while my ignorance is excoriated. I am a human being with relatively reasonable tastes.
Yes, his tastes are indeed “relatively reasonable”. That is why he is the go-to reviewer on a movie night out. Ebert works best as a middle-ground critic for the middle-brow–as the cultural arbiter of taste for the bourgeoisie. His audience do not need to be subjected to such real-world grisliness after a good dinner, coffee and mints. They need his little sensible narratives with character development and dramatic arc. It is the reassuring order of print for the visually literate. They cannot handle the delirium of real space and time, where nothing seems to happen, or, more correctly, where things simply happen without purpose. Like Peping, we are unwittingly implicated in a crime that unfolds casually and told as a matter of course. (“No drama is developed. No story purpose is revealed.”)
It is no surprise that Ebert and his literate audience feel “alienated” because narrative order is expunged in real space and time. It creates a morally chaotic, or at least indifferent world, where savagery, such as depicted in Kinatay, truly exists. Moreover, their most reliable orienting faculty, the visual, is purposefully impaired, and they are forced to deploy their audile and tactile sensoria to navigate the free fall into the lower depths. They cannot remain aesthetically detached, and are recruited to participate in depth as they are dragged into the muck. Getting your hands dirty is the risk of using the sense of touch.
But this is not just a “theoretical” quarrel about the formal biases of Ebert’s literate culture. I was riveted in my seat and felt sick in my gut while watching Kinatay–not by the ostensible violence as one would for Noe’s Irreversible or Passolini’s Salò–but from a deep disgust at the moral nihilism at the base of Philippine society. Kinatay is Mendoza’s singular outrage against this latent animal viciousness in people, from the Maguindanao massacre to the piles of decapitated corpses dumped by drug lords in the streets of Mexico.
Kinatay is ultimately a Sadean mockery of the Enlightenment’s confidence in a rationally ordered Nature. Ebert’s “civilized” audience (the printed word is the civilizing medium) needs exquisite surfaces and an organizing principle even in their depictions of the Holocaust.
What is most amazing about this film [Schindler's List] is how completely Spielberg serves his story. The movie is brilliantly acted, written, directed and seen. Individual scenes are masterpieces of art direction, cinematography, special effects, crowd control.
They cannot fathom that such a hell on earth indeed exists. Well, Mabuhay! Welcome to the Philippines.
Wanted: Gen. Jovito “The Butcher” Palparan
Two days after Jovito Palparan Jr. was stopped at an airport in Pampanga province from leaving the country, the government launched a manhunt for the retired major general tagged by activist groups as “Berdugo (Butcher)” for the string of extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances attributed to him. (from the Philippine Daily Inquirer)
Indigenous peoples in the Cordillera are pushing for the arrest and detention of General Jovito Palparan believed to be behind the torture and death of many highland leaders… Palparan was assigned to the Cordilleras from 1991 to 1994 and has been pointed out as the mastermind in the torture and killing of Marcelo Fakilang. Fakilang was tortured and killed in his own hometown in Betwagan, Sadanga, Mountain Province in 1992. (from Sun Star Baguio)
[Human rights] violations are part of Arroyo’s policy… [Arroyo] praised Palparan during one of her State of the Nation Address… “Gloria [Arroyo] recognized Palparan for going after activists whom they regarded as criminals. It is a policy of government. Gloria should also be punished,” Mrs. Cadapan [mother of an abductee] said. (from bulatlat.com)