June 12, 2014 § Leave a comment
Alex Gilvarry’s acclaimed debut throws a Filipino fashion designer into the snarling jaws of New York’s fashion world.
The title of Filipino-American Alex Gilvarry’s debut novel, From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant, can be a little intimidating, or as Random House president Howard Kaminsky pointed out in the book’s testimonial video, annoyingly problematic. Its cover is grim: a mascot-looking prisoner reading a fashion rag as the darkness of his prison envelops him, the seven-word title stamped throughout the cover like a protest or a plea. It sounds like the kind of book that should only be read by anyone whose idea of a good time is watching CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera.
But Non-enemy Combatant is actually funny. It’s about a Boy Hernandez, a Filipino designer who moves to New York, and sets out to conquer the fashion world. Mostly everything goes according to plan — until Boy’s ties with a terrorist are uncovered and he is taken away to “No Man’s Land,” a notorious prison the likes of Guantanamo Bay.
From inside a six-by-eight-foot cell, Boy recounts his foray into fashion, name-dropping big designers such as Alexander McQueen, Carolina Herrera and Diane Von Furstenberg. His confessional was later compiled by fashion journalist and editor Gil Johannssen, who introduces the heavier political threads that surround Boy’s case — and corrects Boy’s misappropriations (Boy, for example, attributes a Nietzsche quote to Coco Chanel and mistakes Flaubert for Proust).
Boy’s similarities to certain Filipino fashion industry figures, namely Bryanboy and Timothy Garcia, have led people to think that Gilvarry based his protagonist on these larger-than-life characters.
Gilvarry explains, “I wrote about half the novel when my friend Liz Moore said ‘You know there’s this guy Bryanboy. I don’t know if you know about him. He kind of looks exactly like the character you’re writing about.’ So I checked him out and his website. I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ The similarities were crazy. Bryanboy sort of looks like the man I had been imagining as Boy.
“Bryanboy was one of the blogs I started reading more and more as I finished the novel so probably a little of him filtered in. In fact, I wrote him in the book, I mentioned him a few times. He’s one of the bloggers who writes about Boy to make him a little more famous in the Philippines,” Gilvarry says.
Gilvarry, a Norman Mailer Fellow who has contributed to The Paris Review, is striking in a Fil-Am sort of way (later, some people would tell me they picked up his book because he is “so gwapo”). He stands 6’3” and his warm voice makes for a perfect NPR commentator. He occasionally visits the Philippines and researching for Non-Enemy Combatant brought him more often in familiar places such as Manila and Samar, places that eventually became Boy’s past. Despite being born and raised in Staten Island, New York, Gilvarry admits his Filipina mom allowed him to grow up in a half-Filipino environment. He doesn’t speak Tagalog but his mom’s way of speaking English made him aware of the rhythms of the immigrant language.
Thus, Gilvarry’s Boy reeks of basic Filipino nuances — he maligns idioms and pronounces f’s as p’s or v’s as b’s. But Boy also bulldozes stereotypes in a world where Overseas Filipino Workers are usually portrayed as hardworking laborers who juggle jobs just to send money home; their voices clipped with Americanized English while hanging on to a hard Filipino accent as a crutch and a lifeline.
Non-Enemy Combatant comes at a period in the US where legalities surrounding immigration have formed a heavy cloud in an already volatile socio-political atmosphere. It has been the subject of many polarizing discussions, particularly now that the US presidential election is looming.
“America is a country of immigrants in some ways. Of course, now we don’t see it that way, people there don’t see it that way. There’s a big fear of the immigrants more than ever in recent history, I think. It was really just from inspiration and you can get a lot of metaphors out of the story of migration,” Gilvarry says.
Through Boy, Gilvarry weaves a gripping tale of post-9/11 New York, a city that has learned to stand ground and lick its wounds while still bracing against semblances of threat that hang in the air. The landscape may have changed and an enemy has been taken down but for Gilvarry, New York is still charged with the climate that has pervaded over the past decade.
“The biggest change was Osama Bin Laden is now dead, right? And I found that the climate hasn’t changed as much as we think it has, even though it has been 11 years since 9/11. We’re still at war with terrorists, we’re still very afraid of them,” Gilvarry says.
Non-Enemy Combatant not only skewers post 9/11 distrust and discrimination, it also addresses the dearth of the Filipino voice in American literature, something that he has always sought out as a publishing editor and as a reader of immigrant novels.
“I don’t think Filipinos are very well understood in literature and in American Literature, too. I feel like in the US, they already have Korean-American literature, which calls to mind a bunch of authors. Chinese-American literature, that calls other authors to mind. But we don’t really have Filipino-American Literature. But of course there are many who are coming around now. But I wanted a Filipino-American novel to tell that story because I don’t think it has been told enough, at least.”
As Filipino-American writers like Gilvarry, Miguel Syjuco, Lysley Tenorio and Gina Apostol pave the way for Filipinos in the greater fabric of world literature, we can only expect that the stature and myth that surrounds us Filipinos will expand to broader horizons, and that we will be known not only for our labor exports and YouTube cover songs.
“I think editors are now more aware of Filipinos and Filipino American literature and it’s only gonna get better and better for everybody as we build our canon,” Gilvarry says.
This article was originally published 22 September 2012 in The Philippine Star’s Supreme
October 25, 2013 § Leave a comment
My gateway drug into the hyperkinetic world of pop culture was Titanic. Yes, thatTitanic—yes, the $200-million James Cameron movie which also doubles as an approximation of his dick and ego. And here’s the most baduy thing about it: Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On was the reason I tuned in to MTV every freaking day. It may sound terribly jologs, but a blockbuster film like Titanic makes for a perfect introduction to pop culture. Its immensity covers all the great films that existed before it, sharing the weight of historical epics such as Ben Hur and the sweeping romance of classics like Gone with the Wind.
My Titanic years (which approximately lasted for two years) were pretty intense: I scoured newspapers and magazines and clipped any mention of the film — the ‘90s version of an aggregator or Twitter link (the news clippings are still kept in a red folder somewhere in our house). While waiting for Celine Dion on MTV, I got introduced to musicians like Tori Amos, Madonna (who was at her post-‘80s prime in 97’s “Ray of Light”), Bjork, U2 and Jewel. Everything else followed suit: Top 40 pop, American Film Institute’s 100 films (courtesy of the Newsweek special with the AFI 100 commemoration that featured a Martin Scorsese article mentioning Titanic), Academy Awards, film soundtracks, and magazines (Vanity Fairand Entertainment Weekly).
Four years after, this ridiculous cycle of obsession was repeated when The Lord of the Rings came out. This was a longer phase, marked by a close reading of J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy and The Hobbit, learning to write and read in Elvish and other Middle Earth languages (the Cirth rune was a particular favorite), and visiting filmtracks.com for translations of the choir texts Howard Shore used in the trilogy’s soundtrack.LOTR ushered in the science fiction/horror/speculative fiction phase of my reading life. Unlike my Titanicphase, this was easier because there were blogs like Andrew Ty’s Atrocity Exhibition LiveJournal or Banzai Cat’s blog that referred me to authors like China Mieville, Iain M. Banks and Thomas Ligotti.
Because you kids arrived on this earth in the time of the Blessed Reign of the Holy Internet, getting access to all the cool and obscure pop culture stuff is pretty easy. Even a quick visit to a Wikipedia page of a film, book or album leads to a treasure trove of information via citations and footnotes. But the case here is all about careful curation of content. Your online existence will be relatively easy if you know which sites to go to for your pop cultural consumption. Going past The Daily What, I Can Haz Cheezburger, or Animals Talking in All Caps (probably the most intelligent animal-related meme blog on the web), here are four websites and an artist discography that has helped shaped my cultural consumption over the past decade or so. I hope this list will be helpful, particularly to those who want a different pop cultural perspective this 2013.
Combining excellent writing with sharp pop cultural observations, Slant champions the great and the underappreciated in film, music, television and (more recently) video games. Their 100 Essential Films list has Bela Tarr’s Satantango share sacred space with divisive cult classics like Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls. All their staff lists, like The 25 Best Horror Films of the Aughts and 100 Best Films of the 1990s are essential reading for film enthusiasts.
It may be a bit twee or over-enthusiastic for some but Maria Popova’s website is a repository of curiosities and interesting finds on science, history, literature, politics, and everything in between. Some of their interesting posts include The Best Science Books of 2012, Susan Sontag on Love, and “British vs American Politics in Minimalist Vintage Infographics.”
The discographies of Sufjan Stevens and The Decemberists
These folk rock contemporaries are commandeered by men who have painstakingly pored through little-known lore, urban legends and kilometric epic poems, as reflected in their respective discographies. Stevens, known for his ambitious Americana albums, mixes gritty narratives (his song John Wayne Gacy Jr. is about empathizing with the titular serial killer) and Christian-folk sensibilities (particularly on his album “Seven Swans” which featured a track about the transfiguration of Christ) while Colin Meloy, the lead singer and songwriter of The Decemberists, incorporates Japanese legends (such as “The Crane Wife”) and indie rock operas (in The Hazards of Love) as tributes to his literary heroes. Their albums and the succeeding unraveling of their influences and Easter Eggs are great introductions to lesser-known tales.
Their website’s “about” page puts the reading experience succinctly: “mental_flossmagazine is an intelligent read, but not too intelligent. We’re the sort of intelligent that you hang out with for a while, enjoy our company, laugh a little, smile a lot and then we part ways.” The magazine poses questions and answers to things you never thought you’d be interested in: investigations on newt toxins, how paperbacks changed the way Americans read, and stories behind famous cocktails. You may not give a sh*t about these things but after reading mental_floss, you will want to tell everyone (i.e. your Facebook friends list and Twitter followers) about it.
October 8, 2013 § Leave a comment
Three quarters into Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, one of his broken-down characters proclaims, “Lots of bad things happen once you start to get old.” It’s not quite as profound like the other chunks of wisdom Chabon scatters across his book but its basic, eleven-word grip hovers above the characters heads like a godforsaken slogan written in Dayglo colors. Chabon, who previously won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, splits this realization into the two halves of his story: one about fatherhood and the other about professional struggle.
Chabon builds Telegraph Avenue as a sprawling view of pre-Obama America. It’s 2004 in the titular NoCal avenue (which connects Berkeley and Oakland) and Nat Jaffe and Archy Stallings find themselves in a battle against retail giant Dogpile, which threatens to eat up their independent vinyl record store, Brokeland Records. Their wives are also having a hard time as birth partners and will soon descend into some sort of professional limbo after birthing hiccup with one of their clients. These characters will soon hang out with then Senator Obama in one of his political fund raising gigs in Berkeley. His cameo sets off the signifier for change—something that will be faced with a good amount of reluctance and opposition.
Much of what Chabon mines here is the stuff of Obama’s promised wave of change: racial dynamics (Nat is Jewish and Archy is black), health care, corporate sleaze versus small businesses, communal development, and homosexuality. There’s even a little bit of immigration tucked here and there. Chabon frames all this in a Blaxploitation perspective, via Archy’s dad Luther who used to be a B-movie action star. He occasionally lapses into a mixtape of the African-American history, jazz and soul worship, violent outbursts, and the existential state that we share with our collectibles, mimicking the filmic stylishness and attribution of Quentin Tarantino, whose work figures widely in the book.
Telegraph Avenue towers with ambition. It hints at an exercise of making the new Great American Novel that approximates the socio-political climate of the era, an impression that is reinforced with each giddy reception of the book. Heavily immersive passages (watch out for the one-sentence chapter), pockmarked with bursts of obscure references may sometimes mar the reading experience but once Chabon unleashes a bevy of swift literary Kung Fu moves, he hooks you in from page to page, crackling with fetishistic brio and sense of direction. It may be a slow burner but Telegraph Avenue reveals itself as an unlikely field guide to pop cultural dreams and easing up into the complexities of adulthood.
July 14, 2013 § Leave a comment
These days, Jodi Sta. Maria is walking on sunshine. Warm fuzzies roll on to her favor; an unstoppable force that lets her glide like a kite on a clear blue sky. It’s an imagery that anyone can easily associate with her, especially now that she’s been giving audiences healthy doses of optimism as Maya in the hit daytime show, Be Careful With My Heart. “When people see me now, parang they see me as walking good vibes,” she says with a chuckle. If ever Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote ‘She’s a Rainbow’ with a particular girl in mind, it would probably be someone like Maya, and in extension, Jodi herself.
The story of Be Careful With My Heart is hardly new stuff: a provincial lass finds her way into the city to help her family and, after a series of happy accidents, ends up as a helper in the household of a rich businessman. Yet, it became 2012’s biggest television phenomenon, boasting ratings that rival top-ranking primetime soaps. The tandem of Jodi and Richard Yap, who fans fondly refer to as Sir Chief, his nickname in the show, has become its beating core. In that sudden tip of a hat, Jodi and Richard are now household names.
The show’s success has led to its transforming into massive franchise, spawning numerous fan pages and blogs (teeming with gif sets of memorable kilig scenes), soundtracks, mall shows, and even a world tour. Originally slated for a one season run when it premiered July last year, it is now extended until mid-2013. A film starring Jodi and Richard is also said to be in the works. But more than its skyrocket to fame, Be Careful has stood as a tent pole for feel-good television, a moral guidebook that kids and adults alike can check whenever they find themselves in sticky situations, just like in Maya’s [mis]adventures.
“Siyempre sa umpisa naman ng show ay mere entertainment lang; to entertain people,” Jodi explains. “But then habang tumagal, we all realized, hindi lang siya naging basta entertainment para sa mga kababayan natin kundi naging source din siya ng inspiration and reminder para sa nakararami. Naging instrument lang kaming mga actors, our directors, production staff, and yung mga crew. We work hand in hand para makapag-send out ng magandang mensahe sa mga tao.”
Jodi Sta. Maria cover story for Preview Magazine March 2013. Read the rest of the story on Zinio
July 9, 2013 § 1 Comment
Love is just escape for two people who don’t know how to be alone,” says Jesse Wallace (Ethan Hawke) in Before Sunrise (1995), the first of Richard Linklater’s trilogy that centers on a couple as they go through European cities and discuss pretty much everything there is to be discussed. It’s easy to dismiss the films as ideations of Jesse’s escapist theory but in between dorm-room ramblings on gender studies, the cultural clash between Americans and Europeans, and wistful evocations on love and the fragile nature of relationships, Linklater’s long walks of romanticism touch on a familiar truth; a stripped-down form of love, something that inspired at least a generation of moviegoers to search for an elusive kind of love on trains, cafes, record stores, and second-hand bookshops.
Of course, here we’ll have to settle for alternatives: record shops in Cubao X, Book Sales, Starbucks, or the school library. It’s a search that’s First World and bohemian at best, teetering on the ridiculous notion that a chatty but good-looking Frenchie like Celine (or in Jesse’s case, an American) on the train might be the love of his life instead of a psychotic man-hater. At its most basic, the films operate on the template of Hollywood love, with a hefty serving of intellect and a dash of quirk (although never crossing the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Side) but Linklater, who later collaborated with the actors in the screenplays of Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013), provides us with conversations that are believable enough to make love-struck wanderers out of us, hoping that we’ll strike up a conversation with someone who reads Kinsey or Georges Bataille. The closest thing that we can settle for here is someone with a dog-eared copy of Haruki Murakami or John Green.
It’s almost been 15 years since Before Sunrise and it took Jesse and Celine nine years to reunite in Paris in Before Sunset. Their initial meeting, brimming with bullshit theories that hallmark youthful musings, provided us with an ending that exposed the hopeful or the cynic in us: would they really meet six months later like they agreed to? Turns out, they didn’t. Celine’s grandmother died and was buried on their supposed meeting date but Jesse did fly to Vienna and stayed there for a week, hoping that Celine would eventually show up. They haven’t quite moved on after that, their one night in Vienna still their most vivid memory. Jesse then writes a novel about their encounter, a clever way to draw Celine’s attention and they eventually meet, nine years later at Jesse’s book reading in Paris. And they’ve done a little growing up, too.
Before Sunset shows a more hard-edged couple, jaded and a bit contemptuous after experiencing fallouts in their respective relationships. But at their core, they’re still those young drifters that met in Vienna. We ride in on that hope too, that they’ll finally pick up where they left off nine years ago, despite the fact that they only have an hour until Jesse flies back to New York. Then Linklater gives us what possibly is the best ending of the last decade.
Nine years later, we have Before Midnight, which premiered in Sundance last January to overwhelmingly positive reviews. Adjectives and phrases rained on the film range from “masterful,” “perfect” to “the best of the trilogy.” Its release was anticipated mostly by the teenagers who saw Before Sunset who have by now turned into battle-scarred 20- or 30-somethings, hoping to find an acceptable resolution to Jesse and Celine’s romance. With promo stills and rumors that hint at the relationship’s demise, Before Midnight gnaws on that paralyzing anxiety that we’ve been harboring all these years: that they’ve never really hit it off and that their romance is just kept alive by “brief encounters in European cities.”
Before Midnight finds Jesse and Celine in Greece, a rather ominous setting: a country that’s known for its ruins. The years haven’t been easy on Jesse and Celine and here, we find them tangled in the repercussions of their decisions from the last two decades. “How long has it been since we walked around bullshiting?” Celine asks Jesse. You can’t help but feel the last two films have afforded them a ruminative break over everything that they have been trying to escape. For a couple that you’ve projected on your ideas of what love is, Jesse and Celine make for a perfect substitute for a future you’ll hope to find yourself in. So for everyone who’s loved the last two films, Before Midnight is either that last dash to fulfillment or a heavy blow of betrayal.
It’s almost silly, of course, trying to pin your relationship woes on a fictional couple. But it almost seems too plausible since ours is a generation shaped by pop-cultural codes. The release of Judd Apatow’s This Is 40, a comedy film that chronicles the struggles of a couple in their 40s, and the second season Lena Dunham’s Girls, catalogue frustrations that come punching in when you’re grappling with quarter-life crisis. These films haven’t given us escape; they have been confrontational avenues where we can deal with our own shortcomings in whatever relationships we find ourselves in. We might be occasionally eaten up by fears, held up by streaks of optimism, and let down by sullied expectations, but our personal histories will always culminate in that moment of reprieve, that like Jesse and Celine, we’ve given ourselves chances to look on a future that we think we truly deserve.
October 18, 2012 § Leave a comment
Out in newsstands this month or buy the digital edition on Zinio.
September 8, 2012 § Leave a comment
There is a certain trace of nihilism attached to the title of Marty Syjuco and Martin Collins’s documentary Give Up Tomorrow. After all, its subject is as bleak and hopeless as a Lars Von Trier film. As facts snowball into one apparent truth, the title emerges as a mantra, ushering in a degree of survival, especially for Paco Larrañaga, the documentary’s subject and the public face of the Chiong rape-murder case.
“I think when you leave this film, you’ll wonder how could he survive, how could someone innocent, not just Paco but all the other innocent people, survive (in prison)? And what we learned from Paco, living in the present moment and just getting through one more day, was just inspiring for us. Even though the title seemed very negative, when you watch the film you can see that it’s really a positive advice that kept him going,” says Collins.
This is the case: On the stormy night of July 16, 1997, sisters Marijoy and Jacqueline Chiong were allegedly raped and murdered after they were kidnapped at a mall in Cebu City. The case became one the city’s most heinous crimes and the authorities were pressured to come up with suspects or at least a lead. The police then arrested eight men who were accused of the crime, one of whom was Paco Larrañaga, then a 19-year-old student at a culinary school in Manila. The trial went on for decades and became Cebu’s “mistrial of the century,” a public spectacle of our country’s faulty justice system and a catch-all of the media’s penchant for sensationalism.
Give Up Tomorrow shines light on a huge chunk of the story that was never told back then. The media, and in turn the public, had a part in convicting Larrañaga and his co-accused. They were made out as monsters capable of killing two girls out of lust and petty reasons. The film assembles hundreds of interviews and evidence that point out the glaring truth about the case that was overlooked by the prosecutors and the media: the innocence of everyone convicted of a crime interlinked with the most corrupt depths of our society. A haze of facts and shady evidence clouds the real nature of the case. And this is what Give Up Tomorrow addresses: a view of the Chiong case that spotlights an outrageous example of bullying stemming from racial tension.
“We wanted to try to clearly show all sides of the story, to give voice to some who hadn’t had a voice yet in the reporting that had been done on this, to show something fair and let the audience make their own decision. That was always our goal. We also didn’t want it to be a news piece. We wanted it to be a film. We wanted people to connect with the characters emotionally onscreen,” Collins explains.
“When we started digging deeper and learning details of the case, we realized you can’t make this stuff up. Nobody can write this up because it’s too crazy, it’s too unbelievable, and the only way to tell this story is to make a documentary,” adds Syjuco.
Stoking racial tension
Even before the conviction was handed out, Larrañaga was already guilty in the eyes of the public. He was a conyo, a privileged delinquent who happened to be a great-grandson of the late Philippine president Sergio Osmeña. His roots were the very ropes that strapped him helpless even though evidence proved that he wasn’t even in Cebu the night the crime took place, a fact that was pointed out by defense witnesses (all 35 of them) using logbooks, school records, and even photographs. The evidence and testimonies were dismissed, saying that these were from friends of the accused.
“The media presented Paco as this mestizo. It was no longer about the facts of this case but about what Paco represented: the whole history of being mestizo, a colonial past, and being related to the Osmeñas. That was the story that was selling headlines and much more interesting so people were just stoking that ethnic and racial tension constantly and facts were just getting buried,” Collins shares.
But with years of research, clarity and brevity, Give Up Tomorrow lets the people involved in the case speak for themselves. It refrains from being an overarching piece of didacticism or unleashing a torrent of information that dumps “facts” readily available for decades. From the opening scene that establishes Larrañaga’s take on the case up to his transfer to Spain to serve the remainder of his life sentence, the filmmakers painstakingly filter voices that eventually mold into a singular perspective of the case. But most of all, it challenges a nation whose notions of guilt and justice were twisted by unfair and biased reportage.
The film teeters, though, on a side that could render its effort useless: Syjuco’s brother is married to Larrañaga’s sister so accusations of bias emerged from some prior to the screening.
“I distanced myself mostly in the edit. The editing was really just Michael and our editor, Eric (Daniel Metzgar),” Syjuco says. “With the 400 hours of footage, it took them two years to edit. For me, I felt this was an opportunity, because I had this guilt, this was happening and I didn’t do anything. I guess I used the camera as a weapon. The true story was never out there. I also didn’t know Paco’s family very well. It’s just now that the film is done and they went to the premiere in Tribeca and we were together in some Spanish festivals, that I got to know them and spend real time with them.”
In a country that perceives personal connection to a subject as a form of corruption, Syjuco and Collins were just focused on doing their jobs as filmmakers, as champions and crusaders of truth.
“Our intention in making this film was to present the truth. We knew that once we did our job and once the people saw the film it wouldn’t matter. It wouldn’t matter if this film was made by his brother. The facts of the case were just showing the truth. It’s easy to say, if you haven’t seen the film, that there’s a family relation so it’s propaganda. But people who walk into the theater with that in mind always leave and say, ‘You know what it doesn’t matter anymore that you’re related to (Paco), because it’s presenting the truth,’” Collins says.
And as filmmakers who dedicated seven years of their lives working on this film, it’s encouraging to know that Syjuco and Collins don’t just see the controversial subject as a starting mark in their careers.
“We worked on this for seven years and we’re going to see it through the end. From distribution to outreach and eventually creating an impact,” says Syjuco.
A ripe time for change
After decades of discrepancies, doubts and disparaging images, the case is still an erroneous landmark in the face of our justice system. The Chiong case has been a playground for men and women acting gods, serving up crooked justice as they see fit. But ultimately, Give Up Tomorrow is about injustice, regardless of its form and who it takes in its undertow. After all, the Chiong family only looked for justice for their daughters and Paco’s family strived to undo the wrongs committed against him.
Like all the great documentaries that preceded it, Give Up Tomorrow is a manifestation of how the medium can serve as an instrument for social change, how it can create a spark that will ignite an impact greater than what the filmmakers realized. And with the changing social climate and the emergence of new voices in the media, maybe it’s about time that we looked back on a more tumultuous version of ourselves and reassessed our faults, prejudices, and accountability.
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For more information about Give Up Tomorrow, visit pacodocu.com where you can contact the filmmakers for screenings and interviews.
This article was originally published in The Philippine Star