Tuesday, October 15, 2013

LUKAS THE STRANGE (John Torres, 2013)

Lukas The Strange bears an alias that's hard to live down -- the odd one, the solitary one, the alienated one -- as inscrutable as the circumstances surrounding his life. Even as the luster of tinsel -- in the form of a film shoot -- comes to his village, partway a source of hurtful jouissance, part bittersweet pleasure, the shy, withdrawn Lukas grapples not just with adolescence but with his strange knowledge and conception of his father. The-Name-of-the-Father, it seems, preoccupies him as a source of bewilderment, of troubling resonance. In an opening sequence of this new, beguiling film by John Torres, the father intones to his 13-year-old son, as in a dream, a father finessing his son into the acceptance of a stigma, a confession of a cardinal sin: he is half-horse, half-human.

"A tikbalang." Well-understood. Well, almost. The tikbalang, after all, is the indigenous, folkloric, centaur-like trickster that leads travelers astray. Through this dream-like admission made by the father, Lukas is made to learn what it all signifies, not just the negative tenor behind his father's voice: is the symbolic confession a shorthand for a serious crime (say, of causing people to disappear as tikbalangs do, a euphemism for doing away with the era's desaparecidos, the enemies of the state, as Torres intimates in an interview?) or is it just as much a shorthand for the father's indiscretions having to do with women (another Torres motif) ? Lukas thus begins to parse adult language to enter the symbolic terrain – and how the sobriquet starts to become him! On closer reflection, is the father's condition an inheritance to be passed down to his son who will duplicate it in his adulthood? In this realm of the boy's growing psyche, there is seemingly, as yet, no law, society, or a grasp of adult language: indexes which the psychoanalyst Lacan sees as necessities to confirm the boy's place in proper society.

The father, someone once said, is often a source of centrifugal power. He is often the disruptive presence within a dysfunctional family and breaks up Oedipal bliss. Torres' film may be viewed for its mythopoesis or its historicity but it lends itself well to a psychoanalytic cartography of the unconscious. The film, in essence, is auto-psychoanalysis, as it tries to triangulate what Lacan conceives to be the human psyche and its attendant tensions (1) The Imaginary Order, the narcissistic side, sees Lukas participating in auditions to land a role in a film being shot in his village. (2) The Symbolic Order – the assimilation of language and the rest of what he needs in order to assume what "The-Name-of-the-Father" stands for -- sustains the threat of disruption (possibly, in Lacanian terms, a psychosis) borne out of a father's damaged example. (3) The Real Order, the locus of anxiety, the antithesis to fantasy that is ultimately beyond symbolization, is interwoven with the imaginary: Torres, an artfully deceptive analysand projects it onto a social turmoil (e.g. the film's dark historico-political aspects) but not without the bittersweet overlap of the imaginary of the pastoral myth, the ethos of a celluloid-hungry psyche. If one pursues this to its conclusion, Torres proves to be his own Lacanian theorist, and Lukas The Strange is his impossible attempt at the Real.

The crux, in the artificial realm of tinsel and make-believe, remains how the father’s virility overshadows the growth and upbringing of Lukas. The father, as the movie and the movie-being-shot-within-the-movie wear on, becomes an object of rumor, that of being intimate with Melanie Moran, the actress, a figure of fantasy, the object of desire, for Lukas. While a pining voice on the soundtrack, Lorena, the confidante who uniquely understands Lukas, is full of longing for her strange, bosom friend. The film is fraught with the object of unattainable desire, what Lacan calls the "objet petit a" -- a lack in a person's life that mostly remains unfulfilled.

Circumspectly choosing the predominant gauge of 35 mm intercut with sparing digital video, the better to bear the cicatrices and artifacts of his visuals, Torres interweaves this psychoanalytic fable – about absent, wayward fathers, that dieu obscur -- against the backdrop of a time of authoritarian monstrosity in the person of the tyrant Marcos. Such diegetic aspects add to the pathos of longing, yearning, desire, loss, pain and a kind of orphanhood.

Despite the dolorous themes and undertones, however, Lukas The Strange is not strictly a clinical study at all, if one shuns its subcutaneous significance: it is grounded in true cinematic and artistic finesse and dexterity in the way it weaves in and out of its narrative tenses; it has a wealth of low-key but diverting dedramatized sequences that straddle the modes of narrative and documentary; it is simply an enchanting faux-naif film to experience, almost like a companion piece to Shireen Seno's feature debut Big Boy. The story of a colorful if beleaguered youth is assuaged with eidetic imagery -- from bucolic shots of the North, to a natural occurrence of a tornado, to the auditions happening in the village of Lukas: children being cued to tumble and roll downhill, men firing away with imaginary guns, a row of pretty village lasses filing in and out of the frame. There is also a formidable river that must be swam and crossed as in a trial by ordeal, its tributaries flowing the same way downstream, bearing a box of pornographic videotapes, the father's legacy -- like an ominous pattern floating away, to be salvaged or to be let go, like a bloodline, like a message in a bottle inscribed with the deepest sense of loneliness and void.

Title in Tagalog: Lukas Nino

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