Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Ka Elmo

I received a text this afternoon that Elmo Redrico, or Ka Elmo, as he was called by his friends, passed away. Everything is still in flux: the text was received at the remove of who knows how many branchings of an original text (SMS) flurry. The text, received at 2 in the afternoon, said he died at "2pm," so whether he died at 2AM in the morning, or yesterday afternoon is still unclear. No mention of how he died, although I know he was on a regular regimen of heart medicine. Didn't show it though: Ka Elmo was a spry old fuck. Smoked, drank, on the perpetual lookout for a buffet table. Used to be among first to show up at the Furball Christmas parties at the 18th street compound. Drove Mads nuts. More information should be percolating through soon. In the meantime, this.

The still is from Local Unit, my 8-minute segment in Imahe Nasyon (Image Nation), an omnibus digital feature produced by Jon and Carol Red for Viva Films. Should be coming out in a month or so. (I think Ka Elmo was in a couple of the other segments as well.) His character is a black-market brain merchant/surgeon. I was a bit startled by this frame, grabbed from a shot in the video: he actually looks handsome. Good bones under the crumpling of age. I never noticed. I suppose his perpetual clowning obscured that from me. Now I regret I never got to show him the final edit. He was good in it too: looked wily and tired, like an old dog, hints of madness at the edges. A good actor, under all the shtick.

A real pity, as his tireless appearances in independent shorts seemed about to pay off in his breaking through to becoming a recognized character actor in the Filipino mainstream. He played a cop in the cult juggernaut "Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Olivero." He has parts in some 3 other features still in production. He was so transparently pleased to be able to say "I can't go tomorrow...I have dubbing..," so glad to be in the loop and working.

Ingat, men.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The Passing of Mowelfund, Part 1

I came upon Mowelfund in the early nineties. Now, it is possible to identify it as a time of transition, when the waters of film had begun to shrink under the rising sun of video, but desktop editing had not yet become available to the general populace. Super-8 had died. Kodak Philippines had discontinued processing it, and donated the behemoth developing machine to the Film Institute.

It was a purely symbolic gesture. The Institute had no use for it any more than Kodak did. It was a small, thirsty factory of a machine: built like a tank, designed to hold tens of gallons of reagents and process hundreds of rolls at a time. By the time I turned up it had already been rusting for a few years by the door of the converted house that sheltered the entirety of the Mowelfund instrumentality, an industrial-sized omen of the fortunes of celluloid.

Super-8 was dead, though it was to be a few years before LARRY MANDA was to confirm the truth with his film Goodbye Miss Super-8. Hardcore users like NOEL LIM and RAYMOND RED still ordered their Super-8 stock from friends and relatives living abroad, and mailed their rushes off to Japan for development. It was a risky and dispiriting way to work. A month could go by before you discovered that your camera's light meter was screwed or that your stock was greenish, by which time your actors might have changed their hair, graduated or flown away. Welfare office shared space with the film institute in an atmosphere of sleepy Filipino nothing-doing punctuated by sudden bursts of fevered activity, as when Erap would hold free clinics for movieworkers, or around Christmas, when wave after wave of guild parties would ripple across the compound. Nobody knew that film was dying.

What was to take its place? Surely not the video that Surf Reyes' students were reduced to using in place of Super-8. True, Mowelfund had a full-fledged video editing suite in the back, that could do everything a suite in a commercial television station could do, but that was jealously guarded. People with an in like Patrick Purugganan or Mel Bacani could edit their opuses there, with frame-accurate sync, time-base correctors, genlocks and character generators, but most workshoppers had to make do with the consumer-grade cameras and video decks reserved for them. Linear Editing by pushing play and depausing the record function.

There must be an entire generation now who are unaware of how difficult it is to even perform a match cut on this kind of setup, or that it was completely impossible to perform a dissolve. Even the Super-8 guys had no dissolves in their arsenal, although JOEY AGBAYANI demonstrated in his film Eye in The Sky that it was technically possible to perform in-camera double-exposures in Super-8. (Super-8 didn't come in spools, but cartridges. You had maybe a half-an inch of exposed film that, if you were crazy enough, you COULD try to inch in the wrong direction in a dark room for a couple of feet before the cartridge would seize up. I don't think even Joey tried this more than once.)

That was then, when NICK DEOCAMPO would imitate a particle accelerator in his classes, slamming 3 or 4 streams of postmodernist film theory with Filipino politics, hoping to flush the magnetic monopole of Third World Cinema Praxis from the chaos of his improvisations. He was the boss as well as the primary propagandist and fundraiser for the Film Institute, aside from being articulate, passionate, militantly gay and steeped in the theory of deconstruction. Nobody within a 200 kilometer radius with the balls to call him crazy, though I wonder if he didn't feel a little lonely, alone with all those philosophical toys that nobody else knew how to operate.

That was then, before the money finally came through and Nick was finally able to raze the old house where all the art-scum independents like ROXLEE and YAM LARANAS would while away the afternoons, raze it to the ground to make room for the building that would house his dream of a film school, which would serve as the nexus of film study and training for all of Southeast Asia, maybe even Asia. The man had nothing if he didn't have vision.

That was then. Before computers fell on the independent scene and blew it up.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Ambiguity as Feedback

It is possible to describe artworks (and man-made objects in general) in terms of ambiguousness. At one extreme, you would have highly ambiguous things whose meanings or uses invite a great deal of user improvisation, such as alphabets, balls or building blocks: things that you are free to use to make up your own stories/games/objects. At the other extreme, you would have things whose uses and/or meanings are highly specified, such as mathematical equations, a 3/16ths inch nut or an ash-tray shaped like the Eiffel Tower, i.e. things wherein the maker tried as much as possible to restrict the range of possible uses/interpretations. In that sense, one could also describe artwork A as being more or less ambiguous than artwork B. One could say, for instance, that Lyle's Luwalhati't Hinagpis, (his 3-channel thesis with the infamous talking vulva) as being more ambiguous than Reincarnation (his 8-channel work), which is clearly anchored in existentialist themes by the spoken text.

It is not necessarily the case that the more ambiguous artwork is the better one, or even the more inspiring one. While it's true that the more ambiguous object will (by definition) be able to sustain more interpretations than a more specific object, there comes a point when the increasing the number of possible readings makes it seem more and more pointless to make a reading at all. Making a reading is to assert the primacy of a specific meaning in the work. When the work is so ambiguous that it can mean anything, then there is no point in asserting that it means anything specific . Infinite interpretations collapse to zero.

I've been circling the image of guitar feedback as a metaphor for the particular kind of aesthetic experience I seek, and want to engender. As any electric guitar player quickly discovers, there are "sweet spots" to be found that produce feedback: fortuitous arrangements of guitar, amp and fretting, when the elements lock together: output feeds into input, setting up a little self-sustaining sun of sonic energy. When you tune a work to the right mix of ambiguity and specificity, you reach a point when it seems bursting with intention, a mute gesturing urgently in the dying light, from the other side of the highway.

After all, the mind's activity of reading, or deriving meaning from signs can be described as semiotic amplification. Under the proper conditions it should be possible to set up semiotic feedback loops in the mind, where

1) the meanings the mind has produced become signs to be read again, or

2) the meanings the mind produces changes the meanings of the signs it had produced earlier, or

3) both