La Teta Asustada (The Milk of Sorrow)

Sometimes, the beauty in something strange lies on the fact that it defies comprehension, shameful as it is on my part as a moviegoer to accept, but I failed to fully understand the film despite its stark simplicity. The paradox is, the closer an idea or a thought approaches simplicity, the more profound it becomes, the more it evades understanding.

A week after watching the movie, I still could not understand it, still could not encapsulate the theme inside a convenient, boldly-outlined thought bubble. And that’s after a careful reflection! The aesthetics of the film La Teta Asustada (English title is The Milk of Sorrow, but literally “The Frightened Teat”) is an ‘allegorical’ one as it was referred to in the brochure released by Instituto Cervantes in Manila during its 9th Pelicola (Spanish Film Festival).

And to compound matters, I only have Wikipedia to help me situate the film in its context. This Academy Award for Best Foreign Picture nominated film in 2009 by the Peruvian director Claudia Llosa, which has a period feel in it, probably caused by the sepia filter or the general mood and its nuanced sadness, begins with a melodious song sung by an old woman. Eventually, the audience is confronted with a disturbing lyrics and bitterness of a dying woman’s heart who has been raped in front of her husband and was forced by her rapists to eat her dead husband’s penis.

This is a beautiful film that tackles the result of the atrocities of the 12-year war in Peru on the individual–especially women as well as their children who were caught between the warring government and the rebel Maoist group Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path). The film at first seems distended, unrelated vignettes of Peruvian society but these parts eventually form into its cohesive one-ness that center on Fausta (Magaly Solier).

The storytelling devices used in the movie are odd, sometimes approaching to scandalous hilarity, but there is nothing laughable about the film. The potato Fausta inserts in her vagina because of her fear of sex, and consequently, the fear she has of men, and the difficulties she has to go through just to bury her mummified mother, all these are reflections of her solitude and unexpressed sadness caused by the fear ingrained in her by her mother through her breast milk (but more through her disquieting, angry songs) while she was growing up.

While Fausta silently confronts the shadows that lurk in her psyche, the setting, the Peruvian capital Lima and its outskirts seem to have moved on, fully recovered, and free from any signs of the a painful past. This contradiction, the contrast between the bleak landscape and the beautiful Fausta, the happy people and the deeply but quietly fearful Fausta all created a film that haunts, that leaves a bitter aftertaste, but that gives its audience a better understanding of unknown realities hard to understand, much less confront.

Llosa kept herself from going into the realm of hard-core psychologizing by giving the audience only the surface to rub, but by so doing penetrating the depth of Fausta’s fears and the mysterious terrains of her mind.

I may not have fully understood the film until now, which I shamefully admit, but that’s where I think the reason why I find this film beautiful and poetic.

Midmorning

We are all drifters, said a forgotten philosopher who to his dying days begrudged the fact that he will to eternity not have the honor to own the profoundly beautiful quote, ownership being nothing but an illusion he can only marvel at but never truly touch.

It is unliterary to begin a decent story with a dilemma of the possibility of an impossibility, or like the local myth of Bernardo Carpio, to remain etched on the boulders he meant to have separated using nothing but naked force, unmoving, passe, uninteresting, both boulders and myth. And the man named Carpio.

Or walking naked in the house, drinking milk from its carton, letting some of the white liquid drip to the chests and run like midsummer rain. Only to be licked by an irked Cheshire cat.

Worse than a stupid film for stupid people

A film is judged based on multifarious, sometimes unclear, criteria, as, however we look at it and attempt to make the language of ‘reading’ sound elegant, any judgment that has to do with art will bound to be a judgment that has to do with taste, or at least the taste of people who control power or those with hegemonic interests, as my Soc Sci teacher at UP indulgently referred to these.

Despite agreed upon universals  such as believable narrative, motivated acting, clear direction, and seamless editing, most aspects of the criteria are genre-specific. Some people who are not schooled in film-making or film analysis, like this writer for instance, rely on more primitive, almost instinctual means, to judge whether a film is good or not. No, this is already too lofty. Say, whether a film is able to achieve its objects or failed unequivocally.

We working-class people, who work ourselves to death from Monday to Friday, only look forward to a Friday night of senseless entertainment, to feed our need to escape from our boring and tiring existence, much like the Russian in the 1800s who drown themselves in vats of vodkas after a day of plowing the fields of their landlords. People like us do not demand much from the films we watch. A good laugh here and there that would help us forget, for an hour and thirty minutes or so, how we are oppressed by the prevailing societal and economic systems, is but all we ask from a movie we paid 160 pesos (4 USD) to watch. But I guess, this oppression we sustain in workplace, forgive my very Marxist tone, is extended beyond its walls.

Mamarazzi is directed by Joel Lamangan and starred by the most bankable, to use the term of some media pundits, comedy actress of present, Eugene Domingo. It is a story of Violy, an owner of a funeral parlor who has a triplets born out of wedlock and the conflict that arises when the supposed father of her children resurfaces one day. To sum up, Mamarazzi is a film of loosely sewn parts, a comedy of the worst sort, a none sense parading to address social issues like death, parenthood, and homosexuality, which must have been the director’s suggestion, utilizing wry comedy in its unintellectual sense.

This film reflects Joel Lamangan’s decline as movie director. To say the least, he is overrated. And this film shows without doubt his ineptitude as a director. Lamangan ruined the film with his sloppy and pretentious direction. The camera shots are unvarying and ugly, the acting is uninteresting, and all the rest seems to be forced fed on movie goers. But what is most enraging is the fact that the film is not funny, at all.

We patiently sat in front of the screen waiting for something to laugh about. That was the most we tired members of the proletariat expected from our Friday-night movie.

It was, however, clear after fifteen minutes of watching Domingo and the rest of the cast trying their best hard to make the audience laugh that Mamarazzi has got virtually no story to tell. So we the pitiable audience dope ourselves in believing that a slapstick act or a punchline is on its way. A handful made it, but most didn’t.

Yes, I am certainly aware of the assumption. This is a stupid film for stupid people, but had this been the premise, then the director should have gone all the way down the slope of senselessness, without any half-baked commentaries on issues that he feels strongly about, he being an ‘activist director’. I want my movie, if it has to be stupid, to be plainly stupid. The condescension of the director to the intellect of the viewers enrages me.

After coming out from the cinema, I realized I was robbed with my hard-earned 160 pesos.

The beautiful and brainy Filipina

One runs the risk of being labeled gay if he talks eloquently about beauty pageants. A man, specifically a macho man, in the Filipino society is not supposed to be passionate about 80-plus women strutting in long gowns or skimpy bikinis, unless, of course, this passion is erotic in nature, otherwise he is either automatically categorized a homosexual, which is more likely, or a sociologist, which is not very bad, only a covertly homosexual sociologist, that is.

But labels will remain very practical and utilitarian, and they will remain so no matter how smart or dumb they sound so long as people think these labels function to simplify what could have been things too complicated and complex for them to comprehend, so long as people think that not thinking is the next best thing by letting labels think for them, instead. Stereotypical labels are for the intellectually inelegant.

Now allow me talk unabashedly about our obsession as a nation with beauty pageants. While in some countries these spectacles that ‘celebrate’ the sublime beauty of a woman are shunned for being exploitative, shallow, or vacuous, in the Philippines, these spectacles continue to feed the masses’ quixoticism and give the needed affirmation that they can also be beautiful, especially if a representative of the Philippines reaches the top 15, then the top ten, down to the final five contestants.

Seeing their supposedly beauty-and-brain Miss Universe contestant sauntering, traipsing, and walking like a de-legged praying mantis is like seeing themselves on-stage, surmounting whatever challenge thrown to them — tripping on-stage because a portion of the gown caught in the 9-inch hill of the shoe, donning a 200-kilogram national costume, or answering a question from an obviously racist and unqualified judge — all  in the name of bringing honor to the country. Nothing triggers the Filipinos sense of nationalism other than international beauty contests, boxing fights of Manny Pacquiao come to a close second.

Filipinos define being beautiful as having the features of a mestiza (although this is slowly changing), tall, slender, with a 36 (or even bigger)-24 (or even smaller)-36 (this is usually fixed) body statistics.

And because Filipinos have these delusional tendencies that they are smart, they also expect that their beauty queens to be not only freakishly beautiful but also abnormally smart and articulate.

Being brainy, on the other hand, means being able to speak in English complete with all the trappings of accent and twang of a native speaker. As for the substance of her answer, a beauty contestant can always rely on canned responses prepared for her by her trainers, proven through years of experience to always impress the judges whose tastes on beauty are very discriminating and irrevocable; these judges are the final arbiters of the very philosophical question: who is the most beautiful? and by induction, what is beautiful?. Or who gave the smartest answer? and by induction, what is an intelligent answer?.

Regardless of the flaws in the definition of these abstract concepts, a Filipina sent abroad to compete in a beauty contest must possess these two. It’s beauty-and-brain or nothing. Non-negotiable.

So when their beauty queens choke during question and answer, give downright pathetic responses, or let go of grammatically suspect sentences, the Filipinos back home cringe and cry foul.

My pity goes to these women whose major, major mistake is joining these tired competition.


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I’m right in the middle of filling this blank space up with words, characters some would be quick to correct me. It is early morning of Saturday; I’m in front of  the television that gives off soft glare, hearing Gus Abelgas’s glottal detailed narration of a heinous crime committed by an obese twenty-something. The ambiance of the living room makes me sleepy.

If not for the unforgiving fluorescent, I would have already stopped writing, climbed up the staircase and should’ve already been sleeping now. Thanks to the 40-watt bulb, I am still up until this time to continue writing. I thought of using this free time, the only one I have this week, to distill my rambling thoughts.

A friend told me that I wallow in the banalities of my writings. Although this isn’t the exact words he used, but the manner he said it sounded as strongly as ‘wallowing in the banalities’, that while I constantly remind my students that their writings should have a purpose, that it should comment, albeit subtly, on their social reality, complete with the trappings of an elegant utilization of the English language, my own writings have barely escaped the personal and the mundane.

I hate it when I do not write for several days; losing this very precious momentum I’ve painstakingly built, because of a long break, makes it even more difficult for me to gather enough propulsion to hurl myself back in front of Microsoft office and commence writing. I’m like a weightlifter suffering from massive muscular atrophy after a long respite. Or a soprano unable to sing an aria after a tonsillectomy. Or somebody whose former memory could be described as eidetic but stopped being so after undergoing three frontal lobotomies. On a second thought, one cannot hoard momentum, just like one cannot hoard sleep, time, or courage, when it comes to writing. Every day is a different day; a better metaphor would be somebody being on a labor bed giving birth every time he decides to put his thoughts into writing.

I just ran through posts I wrote years ago. At the very core of it, the entire act or reviewing posts of past years was nothing short of narcissism, and a blatant one to boot.

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I find it remorseful reading old posts. They remind me of my latent naivete, still obviously present in my newer posts, but hopefully more subdued this time. I quietly enjoy mocking my former youthful decadence. But while I take pride in how I unreluctantly debase and berate my old self, no holds barred, like all narcissists, I derive an inexpressible pleasure from the act of reading my old thoughts, more like Narcissus staring down at his own reflection in the pool. The images I see may not be beautiful, but how the image appears is immaterial, the fact that they’re mine and that I come close to enjoying the covert exercise, are enough to classify this as self-worship in nature. One philosopher, his name escaped me, said that self-love is insidious.

So right in the middle of filling this space up with characters, these things occur in my thoughts. I cannot help from writing them down, for future’s sake.  I find being afflicted with Alzheimer’s romantic. Though the idea scares me, reading these from the perspective of my Alzheimer’s-ed self is  rather intriguing.

Now, I certainly need start to writing.

The politics of staring

Ralph Waldo Emerson said it no more succinctly than this, we cannot see things that stare us in the face until the hour comes that the mind is ripened.

Many people hallucinate and hear voices when no one is there. Society call them mad, out of their minds, demented, or a little loose in there (saying the word ‘loose’ while raising their hands above their heads and gesturing that two irritating Vs and checking if somebody else is listening). They are shut up in rooms where they stare at the walls all day. The other kind, the more villainous of sort  are called writers and they do pretty much the same thing, write their rants and rambles the entire time while they stare at their own wall of emptiness all day.

Spoliarium by Juan Luna. Photo taken by Randy Solis.

After work, and if I still have time left, I would spend it ensconced in front of my computer trying to decipher, by looking at the blinking cursor, which I hope it may, in all its humbleness, tell me the secret of the universe.

In my many attempts to unravel this secret, this cursor might have already revealed it to me a long time ago, only that I failed to stare at it as intently and did not recognize what should have been completely obvious. I missed it. Or because of my whining while writing, it decided to slip from my sight and decided never to manifest itself to me, ever.

The author before the painting Spoliarium by Juan Luna. Photo taken by Randy Solis.

But I am not the over-determined kind. I am not beholden to anything or anyone, even to the noble quest of knowing the secret of the universe. I guess it is because of this over-determinism why some people go mad. The wall stares at them and they thought it’s God. They stare back, and from that moment on they irretrievably fall in to a spiraling abyss other people call madness where no one will escape unscathed.

On elegance



Seated in the end-most seat at the back part of the auditorium of Insituto Cervantes in Manila, I had a clearer, albeit the small cinema in the Instituto was unlighted as in all other self-respecting cinemas, glimpses of people who were seated in front of me. I went there earlier, catching a 5:30 pm LRT1 ride from Gil Puyat to United Nations amid a heavy afternoon downpour.

On Wednesday of last week, I got hold of an announcement, printed in the Business Mirror, on the Spanish Embassy’s annual El Dia Espanol (Day of the Spanish Language). Piqued by the activities lined up by the Instituto, I braved the impending rain which later fell into an itinerant early monsoon rainfall. I arrived at the Instituto soaked and a bit disorientated because of drippings from umbrellas of other less careful commuters and the usual slaughter house-like scene inside these crammed coaches.

The perceived very intellectual atmosphere in the Instituto, several meters away from the UN Avenue train station, gave me a warm welcoming.

Several groups of Filipinos, mostly students and young professionals and some tourist-looking Caucasians were conversing with each other in Spanish and English and occasional Tagalog in a small cafe a few steps from the metal-detecting machine. I do not speak Spanish neither do I understand the language, which is just too bad.

At first, I thought the place was reeking with heat coming from the usual European (specifically Parisian) coffee shop debates on semiotic, critique of post-structuralism or the discussion on metaphor and the primacy of irony over other devices in chapter 4 of Aristotle’s Poetics. Overhearing their small chit-chats, my impressions fell flat on their faces and mine, and the supposed intellectual atmosphere collapsed into heaps of commonplace subjects of small talks. The topics of their discussion were of unlofty kind, mostly mundane concerns about the heralding of a new brand of politics that comes with the election of Mr. Aquino to the highest seat in the land, the recovery of the national economy vis-a-vis the ‘rigged’ figures proudly claimed by the Arroyo administration, the sorry state of Philippine education system, and some students from, I gathered, St Benilde, who were exchanging banalities about the rigor and excitement of their college life.

I sipped my coffee fast and escaped immediately from the very heavy atmosphere in the lobby. I ran to the small auditorium and chose the most isolated location because I wanted to enjoy my movie, Galatasaray – Depor. I half suspected it was going to be in Spanish (of course!) and that subtitles, if there were any, would be in Spanish. I was right.

I trusted that motion picture is an art of universal value that transcends cultural boundaries. And that for somebody who studied and teaches communication, my education prepared me to tackle kinesics head on, understanding the story based on the actions, the varying tones of the characters’ voices in delivering their lines, and the subtleties of their interactions. Or so I thought.

Until a group of people, the same group I tried to escape from in the cafeteria came in and joined in communal experience of film-viewing. One of them, the most brazen, blurted “Ay, walang English subtitles.” I do not see why people in this country have the penchant of stating, and stating out loud, what is obvious.

But the fact that these people have the audacity to advertise their stupidity like a badge of honor is even more horrifying.

On the other end of the spectrum, some people, whom I assume to be impeccably conversant in Spanish, made it sure that people like me who understand no Spanish word except pronto, puerta, or puta knew where to locate ourselves in the greater scheme of things. These people who have studied Spanish, the younger, over-eager undergraduate, especially, who were part of that group in question, laughed twice as hard and as loudly as one would normally laugh when faced with a funny scene or line in the film.

Their stylized way of laughing signified the void that separates the Spanish literate and the non-literate, which was fine with me. They were more than willing to announce their extensive knowledge of the Spanish language, complete with understanding of the subtle idioms and irony.

But this is an act that leaves a bad aftertaste. It’s inelegant.