Saturday, October 05, 2019

nothing to laugh about

It is inevitable that we finally get the cinematic treatment of a standalone, origin story about Batman’s longtime foe, especially with the hero’s appeal waning throughout the years in the movie theaters. Director Todd Philipps has crafted Joker that consciously distances itself from the current crop of comicbook films. It is brutal, knowingly dark, and has borrowed a lot from noir and psychological thrillers. Philipps knows the strengths of his actors, particularly Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, and Joaquin Phoenix. Sadly, Zazie Beetz is criminally underutilized here.

Much adulation has been said about Phoenix’s performance, and all of those are true. You simply cannot ignore Phoenix, just by the sight of him alone in each frame. He has this gangly body like stretched rubber, one that is always at the point of breaking. And break he did. This is an acting that is tremendous, almost grotesque in its unhinged ferociousness. Comparisons to Heath Ledger's Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight are valid. But Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck—the character before it became the infamous Joker—is different. Here is an unlucky man-child who works as a hired clown, dreams of becoming a standup comic, and lives with an ailing mother in a world that is systemically determined to make their lives miserable. It doesn’t help that Fleck has a condition that prompts him to laugh, painfully, at the most unfavorable times.

The movie has its funny moments (it is The Joker after all), but unlike the quippy Marvel humor, these moments still involve chaos and bloodshed. Yes, bloodshed. And poverty. And confusion. And government budget cuts. And secret bloodlines. And the good old cruelty and manipulative injustices of society. This sounds bleak and hopeless, but that is the point.

And it makes this movie dangerous.

It is basically a vivid representation of our flaws, of all that we usually ignore and the consequences we get from doing so. Despite its (successful) attempt at fleshing out the grey areas of our regular excuse of “us being simply humans,” it is terrifying to imagine the glee, the affirmation, people who have been equating mental health issues to something abstract and purely evil could get from this film. It is also difficult to shake off the feeling that it has the potential to heighten the stigma around said issues and to validate revenge fantasies—especially for people with impressionable minds in the age of violent instant gratification, Trump, and Duterte. With a pop culture subject that is as massive and influential as The Joker, it is not funny. It has just become too real and scary.

[ image borrowed from this site ]

agi: the pathways for our literature

Words are among our simplest of comforts, but when wielded differently, these are also a source of division and displeasure. That is why, in the recent Agi Creative Writing Workshop—organized by Kaliwat ni Karyapa (KaKa) writers collective, with the support of the Center for Culture and Arts Development of the provincial government of Bohol—these things were held to a higher standard, handled with a master’s care.

Patterned after the country’s major writers’ workshops, where a panel of distinguished literary artists dissects and studies the participants’ submitted works, Agi is the first of its kind in the province, gathering practicing and emerging writers from different parts of Bohol. The term agi is a Bol-anon word for “handwriting” and “to get through.”

The writing fellows are Cathleen Grace B. Dahiroc, Marlene G. Estorosas, Mae Tiffany O. Gallendez, Donita Jeanne Gervacio, Karla Jane Gonser, Anne Genelou D. Hangad, Vanessa Jane Jumoc, Lucell Larawan, Carlo Christopher A. Lelis, Karen Lara M. Libot, Ariel B. Logroño, Mary Rose D. Morales, Ruvyne Gayle A. Nagal, Ruby Angeline A. Pring, John Harvey Reforeal, Ronald T. Salada, and Venice Alyzza L. Ugay, along with two members of KaKa, Dandreb James Arro and Amor Maria J. Vistal.

The workshop sessions began on May 25 at Reyna’s The Haven and Gardens Hotel, where the first order of business was poetry. The panelists for the day were poets F. Jordan Carnice, Paul Joseph Vistal, and Palanca award winners Rene Eune “Coy” P. Ponte and Noel “Roy” P. Tuazon.

Since the fellows were a mix of high school students, working millennials and long-employed professionals who reacquainted themselves with their love for writing, the panelists balanced their critiques by pulling the hardest punches, but still aiming for sharp but necessary tough-love advice.

Criticism is never meant to discourage, but everyone needs to know what can be improved and what should be disposed. For poetry, this includes growing out of comfort zones: to kill your darlings when lines sounded beautiful but gratuitous; to break out of traditional rhyming schemes that constrict, rather than uplift, the poem’s intent; to stop mimicking Hallmark greeting card poetry and Instagram aphorisms by setting aside Lang Leav, Rupi Kaur or Wattpad and then venturing to other literatures; and above all, to read, read, read more works, especially by local writers.

There was also the dialogue on allusions and central metaphors, heightened language that ushers the reader to insight, ekphrastic poetry, sexism in writing in the 21st century, enjambments and caesura, brevity versus excess, and many others. The standout that day was some of the balak, Visayan works of poetry that were clearly more Bol-anon than Cebuano, capturing the sensibilities of one’s culture and strength of the native tongue.

May 26 was dedicated to prose works, covering both fiction and creative nonfiction. The workshop was moved to the new Bohol Provincial Capitol near CPG Park, where everybody endured the indoor heat due to the absence of electricity in the building. This only added to the unease of the writing fellows who were at the receiving end of more heated discussions. Luckily, power returned just before lunch. The main panelists for this day were overall workshop coordinator Liza Macalandag and Bonifacio Quirog Jr., along with Carnice, Vistal, Ponte and Tuazon.

Although nothing is truly original, since an idea is a reflection of reality or response to another idea, the critiques still touched on inventiveness and demands of narrative, requiring the fellows to ask themselves these: What does “show, don’t tell” mean? What makes this narrator’s point of view distinctive, but still relatable? How do I avoid becoming didactic, but still driving home the point?

The temptations of purple prose, the wasted opportunities of going back to heritage for story material, and the phallic undertones (or overreadings?) of some of the pieces were among those that animated the discussions. In the end, whether the story is sci-fi, horror, a recording of personal angst or an excerpt of a longer memoir, the consensus for any literary work is that substance should always trump form. The skeleton needs organs and muscles for the body to move.

After the workshop sessions, the panelists were impressed that, despite of the unsavory words that came with the praises, nobody among the fellows cried or left the room in a fury, unlike many of the panelists’ past workshop experiences. But when they were asked to share their thoughts about the workshop, tears were shed. They agreed that this two-day fellowship was an opportunity too rare for anyone to pass, especially in Bohol, and they were beyond grateful that they were gifted with the space to identify themselves with another writer, to unload questions they were fearful to ask (ironically) in classrooms, and to refine their craft while getting the chance to connect with other literary artists in the province.

This response proves that there is a desire for a community of writers in Bohol, that there is passion for writing and critical thinking despite the constant assault of misinformation these days. There are already several writers workshops held annually in the country, serving as major rites of passage for aspiring writers, but they are mostly outside of Bohol — the Silliman University National Writers Workshop in Dumaguete City, the IYAS Creative Writing Workshop in Bacolod City, the Iligan National Writers Workshop and the many university-led workshops in Manila, to name a few.

Finally, Bohol has the Agi Creative Writing Workshop, a gathering everybody hopes would be institutionalized and reach its golden anniversary in the future. Because, like reading, writing must never end. Writing our literatures is fundamental because, no matter the place, it is a way of memorializing (and learning from) our nation’s traumas and triumphs.

But Agi is not just about writing and establishing one’s penmanship in the country’s many literary expressions. It is about creating pathways for new writers and tirelessly following the journey of history and heritage of a people. And based on the direction this workshop is going, it is on the right track.

[ this article is published in The Sunday Times Magazine of The Manila Times on June 9, 2019 and an abridged version is published in The Bohol Chronicle on June 2, 2019 ].