Thursday, March 25, 2010

Collab in Hong Kong 2

Huh. Been awhile since part 1. Oh well. Anyway, this is a still from the time lapse footage I took on the walkway of the IFC mall in November 2009. The video's here on youtube. This is a fair sample of what happens in many of the public spaces in Hong Kong. The domestics, who live cheek-by-jowl with their employers, get the hell out of the house and picnic. Hang with their friends, often bringing rolling suitcases filled with food. Some have prayer meetings, dance, practice martial arts. They eat together, chat, play cards, give each other pedicures. Some even just sleep.

Gotta say that the Hong Kong-ese have a very enlightened view about the spectacle. (And it's not just the Filipinos who do this. The area around Victoria park is Indonesian territory, for instance. I don't know if the Thais have adopted an area.) Apparently there were major debates in the 80's about the propriety and desirability of having major swaths of Hong Kong space being essentially colonized by foreigners camping on scrap cardboard amidst their shiny architecture, but more intelligent elements in the country seem to realize that not to permit this would be to do away with a social and psychological safety valve that sustains the viability of hiring alien domestics. I doubt Filipino administrators would be as tolerant.

As I said, Ming-chong and I took the students to a field trip as part of the workshop that we were running during the collaboration. While we had the cameras shooting time lapse, we took the students to Lantau -- an island about a half-hour from Hong Kong by catamaran ferry -- where there is a designer community called Discovery Bay, (sometimes just referred to as "DB") populated primarily by the rich and expatriated. Like Alabang, only with yachts. And more white people. And no cars. (Only DB officials can use internal combustion. Everyone else has to use golf carts, or the island buses.) Yacht-dwelling foreigners moor their boats in the place called The Marina, and (as is the case in much of the world) their domestics and helpers are Filipino. Mostly Filipinas.

At any rate, the Filipinos do not live on said boats with their employers, but have effectively colonized an old fishing village in the area called Nim Shue Wan.

This is the entrance to the village:

Basically, we took the students there to see the Filipinos in a setting closer to their natural habitat, as it were: living in their own houses, among their countrymen. Of course, it's still a highly unnatural environment. Most rent rooms in houses that are communally occupied, and the female to male ratio must run to the tens, if not the hundreds. The village lies on a known hiking trail, so the residents are used to whites and Hong Kong locals passing through.

This is what it looks like from the beach. You get the idea. 1-2 floor concrete structures inherited from the fishermen, most of which have air conditioning. Some living spaces extended by adding posts and beams and stretching tarps over the resulting space. A little crumbling about the edges, and the odd pile abandoned furniture/appliances lying about, but the toilets are in order, there's power, running water, even cable and internet access. Nothing like a Manila slum.

Naturally, we wound up getting directed to a birthday party being held on the beach, where everyone immediately decided we were guests. Good thing there was a lot of food. I wondered if I was amplifying some kind of stereotype of the happy-go-lucky Filipinos: I got the sense that Filipinos served as a symbol for "soul" to some of the more thoughtful students, somewhat in the way blacks served as that symbol for Kerouac. They see the girls as singing innocents, ambassadors of values they feel are under siege by technology and commercialism.

After we dismissed the class, I stayed and hung out a bit. After night fell, we moved to someone's yard where somebody (naturally) hauled out the karaoke. Party kept on till night, when a shower forced us all inside.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Blinded By The Light-- Notes on Corsello's Profile on Manny Pacquiao

The original article is here.

Some of it ranges from good to brilliant, I think. I've never seen an American writer draw such a successful bead on our culture. For that matter, I haven't read many Filipino writers who've done it as well as he does in this article. The wealth of detail. The meanings he finds in those details. His propensity for holding his self-importance so lightly. In spite of being slighted innumerable times, he understands on a completely instinctive level that the offenses are trivial matters, and it's this unwillingness to indulge his self-love that allows him to see that these slights as an entry into the real story, which is about surreal cordon sanitaire surrounding Pacquiao, a shell of chaotic social activity he and at least one other writer has described as "dysfunctional". Another piece of brilliance lies in the precision with which he describes how Filipinos see Pacquiao as embodying an innocence that is threatened and contradicted by his political aspirations and the monstrous trapos like Chavit and the Ampatuans that hover around him. The Filipino dark side, the pit.

Some of it, I repeat, is brilliant. Maybe even most of it. BUT.

But: Corsello crashes burning when he mystifies what his powers of analysis fail to grasp. And what he is most unable to grasp are the roots of the chaos -- a chaos with social, political, and apparently psychological aspects-- that restricts his access to the subject of his story, so much so that he is reduced to offering his readers Paquiao's indigestible and incomprehensible answers verbatim at the end of his article. This in spite of the fact that he did, after a long and merry chase, finally come face to face with Pacquiao, who looked him in the eye and invited his questions.

Corsello does not explain why the interview failed, which is the proper word to describe an interview that results in a clutch of cryptic Pacquiaoisms that Corsello abandons the reader to decipher without assistance. An interview where Corsello's words are obliterated by the Word of Pacquiao.

An interviewer is supposed to mediate between his subject and his readers. To clarify the subject for the readers. To help the subject make his meaning plain. But when Corsello finally sits across Pacquiao, he seems to disappear in a white light, as if he had been incinerated by a furnace at the center of the labyrinth, or taken up to Heaven like Elijah, where matters were revealed to him indescribable in the words of men. He draws a curtain across the failure, and does not make it clear whether he was prevented from asking follow-up questions by Pacquiao's lieutenants, whether Pacquiao refused to amplify his answers, or whether he, Corsello, was so frazzled to be sitting across a man that he describes with what must we must call religious language, that he was incapable of insulting his god by giving any sign of puzzlement or incomprehension.

For whatever reason, he runs into a wall. Or, perhaps, another labyrinth.

Incapable of making sense of the chaos around Pacquiao, he resorts, or is reduced to, mystification. Corsello attributes both the chaos and Pacquiao's boxing accomplishments to a mysterious quality in Pacquiao that Corsello intimates is beyond human ken, beyond language. "The strange," he calls it reverently, but he might as well call it "the miraculous", because he uses the phrase to assert the existence of some eerie, unsayable power in Pacquiao in which antithetical qualities are resolved and united.

Not true. The contradictions surrounding Pacquiao are all recognizable Pinoy weirdness. Not standard weirdness by a long shot, but not unique either. Corsello would have glimpsed similarities and parallels if he's gone to the celebrations of other big men, other stars. The untalented performances offered as entertainment, the excess, the schizophrenic/hallucinogenic interior design by untalented friends-and-relations are common phenomena in the celebrations of Filipino families. They're just amplified by orders of magnitude in Pacquiao's case, because of his wealth.

Many of the phenomena that Corsello observed are not even uniquely Filipino. D. A. Pennebaker's documentary Don't Look Back captured a similar vortex of idolatry, political jostling, mystification, transference and projection surrounding Bob Dylan in 1967. Accounts of Louis XIV's court in 17th Century Versailles record courtiers jockeying for the honor of handing the Sun King his shirt at his morning toilette exactly the way Pacquiao's lieutenants vye for the honor of fluffing his rice. However, I think Corsello may be the first to document the process by which the idolatry that envelopes the inner circle results in choking the flow of information to the idol the circle professes to love and serve. The process by which a star is eclipsed from view by the shell of asteroids it attracts.

A question kept hovering in my head the whole time I was reading the profile: To what extent does Pacquiao enable the weirdness around him? What does he get out of it? I can't help but think that Pacquiao is not an innocent here, not the simple victim of sycophants and courtiers that he cannot distinguish from true friends. An entourage, or any social structure for that matter (especially one as expensive and logistically unwieldy as the one surrounding Pacquiao) is supported and maintained in spite of its inconveniences for the sake of the advantages it confers. What those are however, I probably don't completely grasp, because I don't like large groups. However, I have a deep suspicion that the group serves as a portable jungle in which Pacquiao feels safe: Protected. Powerful. Hidden. One of the aspects of a large intimate group is that responsibility becomes shared and diffuse. Roach and Corsello find it impossible to blame Pacquiao or even the various "chiefs of staff" they speak to who represent Pacquiao, because the structure makes personal blame impossible. Nobody can be identified as Colonel Parker, as the one controlling access to Pacquiao. Roach's comments make it clear that Team Pacquiao's fear of Manny's displeasure makes it difficult to ask him questions, even if -- perhaps even especially if -- they are important questions, because it is precisely the important questions that could be freighted with unpleasantness. It appears to me that the main advantage of such an arrangement is that it makes it possible for Pacquiao to avoid doing things he finds distasteful, inconvenient, or just plain tedious. I specifically suspect that the shell allows him to elude the grasp of marketers, entrepreneurs, and garden-variety yahoos (Pacman dolls? Pacman sneakers? Lunchboxes? Video games? Cellphone borloloy?) that flock around American celebrities; allows him to avoid having to explicitly refuse them, avoid even listening to a Filipino intermediary plead their cases. Any such intermediary who persisted in backing a prospect, a deal, a person... Anyone backing anything Manny found tiresome would quickly find himself outside the circle of favor. It may seem like an expensive, inefficient way to avoid having to say no, but I suspect that many Filipinos would understand the motive. Saying no is work. Even just listening to proposals is work. How much is peace and quiet worth? It may sound strange to speak of peace and quiet in the middle of a mob. But as Corsello himself notes, it is Pacquiao's prerogative to end any conversation any time he sees fit. The slightest tilting of his head places him completely out of reach in a way even a foreigner can understand.

(It just occurred to me that it is probably the case that most foreigners -- or at least many Western foreigners -- might not understand. That it might have been precisely Corsello's sensitivity to these cues -- one might say his susceptibility to group pressure -- that was responsible for finally giving him access to Pacquiao. When I say this, I don't mean to say that I think meetings took place discussing what to do with the white guy. More likely what happened was that Pacquiao, and the people around him gradually became reassured that this Corsello guy was a good egg; marunong mahiya, as we say: capable of shame/tact/discretion. Corsello's reflexes reassured people, and their guards relaxed. And opportunities opened as a result.)

How much is peace and quiet worth? This question can be read in two ways. It can be a question about the price of peace and quiet: How much would you be willing to pay to have it? However, it can also be a question about the obtainability of peace and quiet. When your consent can set millions of dollars into motion, how much do you have to pay to get peace and quiet? In the Philippines. In America. In Las Vegas. Maybe it is extremely hard to get peace and quiet once the bitch-goddess of American success has rubbed up against you. Maybe it is so hard to get that you need a shell of Filipino chaos that large in order to obtain it. It could be, that against the chaos of entrepreneurial capitalism, that Filipino social chaos is a perfectly rational, perfectly functional defense.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


Dibs on history! Philippine history anyway. Am teaching a video production workshop for the NCCA's Kalahi Cultural Summit. Underequipped, as per usual. They gave me one camera (albeit a little beaut of a DVX100B) for a workshop that they opened to all comers. Hit on the bright idea of teaching the workshoppers to make and edit videos with footage shot with their cellphones. I'm calling the idea Sineselpon --a Tagalog-phoneticization of "Cine-cellphone." Serendipitously, sineselpon would also be the (Tagalog) present progressive and transitive form of selpon. In English it would be the equivalent of the word "cellphoning," only (like I said) transitive, like the verb shoot. "He's cellphoning the sunset". I've already made an account in youtube called selpontv. Empty as of now. Got the workshoppers downloading video files from their cellphones with a card reader, converting them to DV AVIs with Super, (a freeware video format converter) and editing them on Vegas 3, still hands down the most user-friendly video editor I've ever come across, small and powerful and handy as a pair of longnose pliers. Was a hit of an idea. Buncha kids sitting around my laptop arguing in Boholano and waving off entreaties that they take a break and get something to eat. Naturally, it turns out other people have had the same idea. The French Pocket Film Festival is on their sixth year already, so this is not a world first, and why should I have thought it would be? Phones shoot video, after all. You don't have to be a genius to think hey, we should make films/fiction/narrative with them. Think Nokia or something even got guys like Quark Henares and Raymond Red to make some as a publicity stunt for one of their high end models. Fuck that. The Phil is exactly the place where this art novelty/corporate gimmick could be the gift of water to people dying of thirst. Philippine cinema was a child of feudalism. The early movie studios were owned by hacienderos, landed oligarchs who recruited their tenants for labor. For the capacity to write with images to literally fall into the hands of the tenants represents the complete demolition of that structure. We're talking the potential of making democratic, groundroots, punk moving-picture praxis like the world has never seen or imagined, away from the dons and doƱas, bypassing issues of funding, ideology and patronage, uploaded straight to the internet and talking to the world. This could really be something.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Lisbeth Salander = Batman

Lisbeth Salander is the short, tattooed bisexual punk with Asperger's who is the unlikely heroine of Steig Larsen's detective series. In The Girl with a Dragon Tatoo she was only half Batman: a grim technofetishist, a detective, and a revenge-driven do-gooder with an extreme and unyielding moral code. In the sequel she's also become a billionaire and a master of disguise, with a car, a hideout, concealed (and nonlethal) weapons and a nemesis she's known from childhood!