Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.
Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.
In my craft or sullen art, Dylan Thomas
IT'S THE STORY, STUPID.
By now the staff and crew of SERBIS are already past caring what anyone thinks of their work, but as SERBIS opened in its home country for the first time yesterday (I saw it on July 2), it opened the film – and people behind it – to critique by the local audience of both the pandering and the venomous kind. After all, not all the reviews that came out of Cannes were nice to read (or watch, as it were). I admit I was pushed to watch SERBIS because of the quite interesting trailer. I like the color green and there was this overall greenish – or rather, mocha – patina all over the film which I loved so much. Plus, being an amateur photographer, I like shots with drama and SERBIS was quite liberal in this department (among other things, but that’s getting there too early).
Mendoza’s penchant for realism find resonance in the works of Filipino film masters – Brocka, Bernal, etc., but then I recall writer Rita de la Cruz reminding a group of younger, bright-eyed writers during a workshop, ”Napaka-boring ng katotohanan.”and SERBIS has everything – guts, grit, gumption. It also has all the clichés one can possibly think of in films of this genre (they are too difficult to resist). Not only does it have the kitchen sink, it also threw in the toilet bowl for good measure.
Because of this, SERBIS’ narrative suffered terribly in the light of its turtle-paced progression. The story was sacrificed on the altar of details. Because of too many things happening on the screen at the same time (too much energy was spent on establishing the setting, for example), the writers didn’t even have the chance to develop the characters. Everyone acted on their own accord; we couldn’t even figure out who was the son, the mother, and the grandmother of who (see? We were too distracted).
Lingering shots (method acting) did not help nor did they make an impact. This makes me wonder if Mendoza has friends in the film industry who could criticize his work honestly without being afraid of losing their jobs in the increasingly contracting local film business. It is in the interest of Mendoza to surpass his more brilliant works (i.e. Kaleldo). It is useless to keep on experimenting in styles if the story does not progress. The latter should come as a surprise since the writers of SERBIS had super track records (Pila Balde & Tuhog for Amando Lao; Kaleldo for Boots Pastor). Was the material too complex to put together in a 1.5-hour film? Maybe. I recall watching a play of a similar story at last year’s Virgin Labfest and I thought it was the worse of the lot.
Anyway, the film is a visual feast (and I do not mean the gratuitous nudity which was said to have driven a wedge between the director and lead actor). Priceless were the scenes where Coco Martin was unplugging a stuck floor drain, the escaped goat against the screen, an aggrieved Gina Pareño on the toilet floor clutching her new but wet pair of shoes, Julio Diaz and that perpetual stupid look on his face, water coming out of the faucet during Gina’s bath scene (I loved the tiles!). The opening scene; what the hell was that all about? Ugh. At any rate, Gina Pareño shines in this film (but not as much as she did in Kubrador). Coco Martin and Jacklyn Jose are hopelessly trapped in mono-dimensional characters. Everyone else was forgettable.
Filipino Director Brilliante Mendoza poses in Cannes during the photocall (May 18, 2008). Photo credit: Getty Images
If it wouldn’t be too imposing, I wish to offer four alternate endings to SERBIS:
First, there was a scene where it showed the theatre in its most serene – silent and lighted. For once, there was a respite from the ambient noise that so many reviewers were complaining about (I think I liked it, actually). There was a top shot of a man sitting all alone on a bench below with the light from the afternoon sun flooding the area around him. There were lovely shots of empty halls and stairwells that were fantastic and worthy of a coffee table book. Slow music. Fade.
Second was when Gina Pareño, after taking a bath and changing into mourning clothes again (but bejeweled, as if to show pride in whatever was left of her former fortunes) manning the ticketron, her head held up high. The camera actually panned out, but didn’t fade as expected. Tsk tsk. It could have ended the film on a more positive note. I mean, after all the sad, depressing scenes earlier, perhaps there could be some form of justice in the end? Nada. None for this film. It’s too Lars von Trier for crying out loud (he did once say, “A film should be like a rock in a shoe”).
Third was when Coco Martin packed his bags and walked out of the theatre and got swallowed up in a huge religious procession. Pan out, fade, music, credits.
The fourth was a beautiful and dramatic night shot of the theatre’s façade with the huge signage that reads FAMILY (the theatre’s name; how truly imaginative. Onli in da Pilipins.) The theatre looked glorious, it’s 70’s-era architecture a stark contrast to the shabbiness around – and inside – it. Fade, music, credits.
All of the above endings are thematic and aim for positive endings, but Mendoza’s style is obviously – and continuously – changing; there are no more rules, and that creates a lot of problems. I think I also had a quick Maslow moment during the screening. “It is tempting,” says Abe Maslow, “if the only tool you have is a hammer, you treat everything as if it were a nail.” Truly, when one has high-grade cameras and great writers at one’s disposal, so many things can be done with them; otherwise, what are you a filmmaker for? To quote von Trier, “When there's nobody to enforce discipline upon you, then you have to enforce it from within. That, in return, has made me incredibly disciplined at my work today—I work all the time. But at the same time it's a tremendous source of anxiety that everything is your decision. Of course this has given me great faith in my own creativity—almost like a christening gift.”
I, too, have great faith that Mendoza will continue to improve his craft.
Anyway, after mentioning all these to a friend, he SMSed back,” Who cares about the technicalities? How was the sex?” I rest my case.