Sunday, September 15, 2013

"Otso" by Elwood Perez

(A little caveat: this is not quite a “review” in the strict sense of the jargon. This is simply an extended rumination of a voyeur of Filipino films. As of this writing, “Otso” is the second of three films [the other two being “Lihis” and “Sonata,” both of which will have their space here some time soon] I have watched thus far from the menu of entries in this year’s Sineng Pambansa All Masters Edition.)

Given the moral of “Otso,” it is inescapable: we begin with the perfunctory synopsis of the film.

Lex, an aspiring writer from Los Angeles, returns to the Philippines and decides to live in the shabby condominium in Sampaloc, Manila where he grew-up. Driven by his desire to write his first screenplay brought about by a prior arrangement with a movie director, Lex draws inspiration from the lives of the condominium tenants: Sabina, a rumoured paramour of a congressman, Cajucom, gunning for re-election; Hans, a worker in the congressman’s warehouse; Brent, a young boy, the son of Hans whom Lex would spend time with, and together they resemble the duo of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; Joy, wife of Hans and mother of Brent, afflicted with a paralyzing ailment; Anabele Abdon, the flirtatious hag who manages the condominium and whose political allegiance is to Mayor Samson, Cajucom’s rival; Ato, an employee of Congressman Cajucom who, together with a prostitute and a gay pimp, connive to ‘buy’ the votes of the condominium tenants and the rest of the neighborhood; and Anita Linda, or Alice Lake, the condominium owner who is venerated as the queen of indie films during her time.

But some things would get in the way of Lex from completing the story, beating the deadline, and thus earning a living just to pay the bills and improve his diet of pan de sal. For one, his laptop crashes, inauspiciously crippling the progress of his screenplay. For another, his director gradually loses interest in Lex’s script. But perhaps his most monumental ordeal of all is his attempt to write the story itself, one that he slowly realizes is not cast in stone. And this is where the film takes flight.

The start and the end of the film are in full color — everything in between is in black and white. There’s a compelling reason to this monochromatic portrayal of the meat of the story. Throughout the film, there are scenes where Lex finds himself transfixed, his gaze trapped on the image of a young boy and his mother. The enigma of this boy is eventually lifted, and it is revealed after Lex’s visit to Anita Linda’s penthouse that the boy is in fact Lex himself. Apparently, Lex’s memories of his childhood have crept into the present — Lex himself is a bastard who, at a young age, was witness to his mother’s sexual exploits — and his return to the building where he had those memories certainly did not help allay them. By presenting those incursions of his memories into his waking world in black and white, the barrier between the past and present is blurred. It is as if Lex is living his childhood again, and with the clarity of hindsight he sees himself in the young Brent, except that it is Brent’s father, Hans, who does the philandering. With the constant provocations of his memories, Lex struggles in his writing, at least initially. This tells something about the creative process in writing itself. The film is almost direct in showing that writers, among other breeds of creators of art, are too oftentimes beholden to their past, their memories, as if it is an incurable affliction that can hardly be tempered. But as Anita Linda admonishes, the truth is not always what it seems; let go of the past and focus on the future.

The truth is not always what it seems. To drive home the film’s point: the truth is not always black and white. Testament to this film’s premise is its narrative, its very treatment of Lex’s perception of his surroundings. In the course of his writing, Lex finds himself believing things: Congressman Cajucom employs a network of people out to secure the votes he needed by buying them; Sabina is the congressman’s paramour and has sexual relations with Hans; Anabele Abdon confides with the priest the illicit campaign tactics of the incumbent congressman. But upon completing his screenplay — and by which time the project has already been called off — he realizes that he might have been wrong all along, that, on the contrary, it was Mayor Samson who, with the help of Anabele Abdon, bought votes; that Sabina was simply, in her good conscience, helping Joy in her therapies for free, Sabina herself a nurse who would even look after Brent while Hans is away for work. Anita Linda confirms this, albeit without really saying so; numerous CCTV cameras are installed throughout the condominium, and it is in the penthouse where she keeps an eye on the activities of the tenants, as though the old lady — age is just a number, so she says — is an omniscient being, an all-seeing god who understands Lex’s inclination to inadvertently distort the truth by living it in black and white. And yet things are just about to get stranger.

Supposedly, “Otso” tells the story of Lex on the cusps of completing a screenplay, and he sources his inspiration from the seemingly intertwined lives of the condominium tenants in the heat of the election season. But toward the closing parts of the film, something happens: the young Brent is shown typing on a laptop, and it appears that he is actually the one writing the story. In other words, Lex is just another character, a figment of the imagination of the young boy. Brent himself is writing the story of a writer who in turn plans to pen a story. Proof to this revelation is the final scene where someone tells Brent over the phone that his screenplay has been given the green-light, and the film’s power of suggestion indicates that this screenplay is the one about Lex. Consider as well that the final scene is no longer in black and white, implying that the narrative has returned to its first layer. So it goes: Brent tells the story of a writer who attempts to tell the story as fateful to reality as possible, only to find out that the writer, Lex, has distorted the truth in the process. The consequence of this is that, by portraying the unreliability of Lex the storyteller as weaver of fiction from truth, even the reliability of Brent himself as writer is put into question. His fiction betrays his credibility as creator, and perhaps it is the very fabric that “Otso” intends to display before its viewers: the film itself should be taken with a pinch of salt precisely because the truths proffered by the arts are subject to speculation. Without much doubt, “Otso” is a text about a text about a text. Thrice detached from the core fiction it showcases, the film begs its viewers to reconsider the possible temptation — the habit of art aficionados — of finding truths in fiction when works of fiction themselves are susceptible to distortions of truth. In a way, the moral of the film is that people should appreciate works of art for what they are on face-value instead of appreciating them for whatever intentions they carry. Simply put: art should be for art’s sake. Interpreting “Otso” from this lens, the film is essentially an attempt at film gymnastics. Stripped off of its supposed undertones — or overtones — of the glitter and grime of electoral politics and romance, the film makes acrobatics at narrative techniques, heavily relying on its visuals to float its merits as an intelligent work of art. After all, “Otso” is a film that can be enjoyed only when seen.

With this insight, one cannot help but wonder if the directors of the rest of the films showcased in the Film Development Council of the Philippines’ (FDCP) Sineng Pambansa, which is actually the first of its kind in recent history, are aware of the implications of Elwood Perez’ “Otso,” because if the film itself is to be believed, it nullifies whatever motive or message each participating film carries. In a larger scope, “Otso” takes a jab at cinema. The film itself is a statement against the proclivity of artists in general to incorporate truths in their work when doing so is a faulty agenda. It seeks to eradicate from the shoulders of artists the onus to force viewers to draw truths from fiction. If this is truly the case, “Otso” is a Trojan horse.

But of course, one can also say that “Otso” is equally guilty of the accusation it levies against other artworks. It is a grenade that must obliterate itself in order to destroy others. If one is to follow the logic of “Otso,” it also commits the offense of advancing an agenda, albeit discreetly, and its agenda is its underlying moral of “Ars gratia artis”: art for art’s sake. By subtly espousing this bohemian creed, the film inadvertently tempts its viewers to discard its agenda as well, precisely because the phrase is also a political statement. It must be recalled that “Ars gratia artis” is no less than a reaction to prevailing Victorian norms and sentiments during that age. With this virtue, perhaps vice, embedded in the film, it, too, must be eliminated. Deprived of jabs at truths and social realities, relieved of the motive to pursue aesthetics and nothing more, one might think that nothing more is left of artworks, films in particular. Absent the polarity between politicized art and depoliticized art, perhaps nothing is left. The process of creation then becomes a fruitless exercise. Or does it?

One philosophical tradition proposes that the search for human meaning is futile. As there are infinite meanings to everything, attempting to discern them is a cumbersome affair. Worse, one cannot even be sure if one has successfully arrived at an indispensable, fundamental human truth that defends itself against every refutation. This is the theory of absurdism. And yet absurdism would suggest that all is not lost. The quest for meaning must continue or at the least commence for it is the only way to understand its futility, as though the only way to give flesh to this idea is to immerse ourselves in the nothingness despite the abundance of meaning, akin to creatio ex nihilo. Viewed from the context of absurdism, the process of creation as a fruitless exercise finds redemption, at least partially. It is this premise that likewise redeems “Otso” from its nihilistic direction. In this sense, films must still be created and shown to the viewing public if only to make people realize the absurdity of human meaning, or of finding truths and realities in films when there are none to begin with. And if only for this reason, “Otso” gives its nod to FDCP’s Sineng Pambansa, to which, I think, it has a bit of modicum of success.

There is no saying that the film’s plot is contrived per se, precisely because its allure rests on its portrayal of social realism vis-à-vis the film-as-text as unnatural and unconvincing. It does not matter if the actors played their roles and carried their dialogues in true-to-life fashion — or the lack of it — simply because the aesthetic judgments it elicits, particularly on the film’s mechanisms in relaying realistic scenes dubbed with social tendencies, are meant to cast doubt on the very integrity of films that take that path. Viewed from this frame, the issue is not whether the plot and acting are good, whatever “good” means. Rather, the issue that the film seems to present is whether the question should be asked in the first place, for if the correspondence between the film’s plot and acting and the realities outside it is a moot concern, there being no concrete correlation in the first place, to ask the question is to fail to appreciate the film’s absurdist theme. Worse, to assume the correspondence and to sift it from the film so as to reaffirm the presumption is to miss the point by a distance as wide as the interstellar space between Voyager 1 and the sun. Pardon the metaphor; I can’t help it.

To end this exegesis, “Otso,” speaking through Anita Linda, incites viewers to abandon the past and concentrate on the future. The past is the domain of memory, the bastion of human frailty, and viewing the world from the lens of history can be rife with the danger of corrupting our perceptions of truth. The future, however, is replete with potential amidst the uncertainties as no meaning can ever be certain. As with the length of the movie, flanking the black and white motif of the so-called truth are colors that set aside — even at the cost of complicating — the prevalent notion that there is a dichotomy on our versions of historical truths. There is not only black and white since there are as many colors as the hues of truth and meaning. But as the theory of absurdism would caution the unwary, do not simply abandon realism. Engage it and learn its flaws. Then and only then must one move forward — to nothingness.


kae said...

I don't want to pretend that I understood everything. It might be an interesting watch but If Otso has a text version, I would love to read it.

SPLICE said...

Hi Kae! Unfortunately, there is no available transcript of the movie yet. No print adaptation, too.