Friday, October 14, 2011

BUENAS NOCHES, ESPANA (Raya Martin, 2011)

Has Spain ever left us? Today, more than a century removed from our country's declared independence, Raya Martin’s latest film, Buenas Noches, Espana, seems to prompt such a question. From all indications, Martin appears unsure of a definite answer, unconvinced of a clean break. Implicit in the film's title seems a fervent wish: a valedictory with some finality. And yet Spain, it seems, is in his heart: proof positive is how he is sojourning in that country, enjoying its hospitalities, and primed to produce another film with a Spanish cast.

Understanding the tenor of Martin’s previous films, however, we take it to be no benign vacation: contemporary Spain remains a fertile hunting ground for artifacts and documents relevant to our nation. In our minds, Martin is not unlike a late 19th-century ilustrado travelling through Spain and the continent, picking up pieces of Filipino heritage, and evidence against our old colonial masters. True enough, in Buenas Noches, Martin’s own personal archaeology while in Spain has yielded a startling find, a find that, sadly, many viewers never get to see in the aftermath of their decision to damn the film and walk out on it.

Buenas Noches may not be an easy film to sit through, but it justifies its devices. This film hinges on the mysteries of physics and those of altered states; and Martin never discourages such a notion: the film’s characters, he hints, may be high on hallucinogenic drugs. What else to expect when he takes a news item about an instance of teleportation in 1593 (one where a Filipino soldier vanishes in Manila and materializes in Mexico City), then soups up that gizmo of science fiction and passes it off as a wholesale possibility? Thus, all amped up, and all doped up if you will, Martin proceeds to blindside us with the postcolonial thrust evident in his previous films.   

From Autohystoria (2007) to Maicling Pelicula Nang Ysang Indio Nacional (2005) to Independencia (2009), Martin has been engaged on a mission of dredging up and retrieving our colonial past. That has meant everything from reconstructing the lay of the land in 1896 to doing a diachronic depiction of Filipino culture circa American times. This time Buenas Noches reveals more about our present-day cultural relations with Spain than anything else, something that might seemingly involve more diplomatically palatable facets of geopolitics, but still puts into perspective how much – or how little – has changed between the two countries. 

To show all this, Buenas Noches engages in untutored filmmaking. Almost spitefully, it offers no plot, no narrative, no dialogue, no exposition, no characterization, no budget: merely perhaps the capital of charm to sign up the services of two well-known Spanish actors (one is Pilar Lopez de Ayala, known for her work on Guerin’s In The City of Sylvia). What is in great abundance here are eyeball-gouging process shots, like tinted, superimposed, overexposed images, the better to underscore the atmosphere of hallucination. What is also in great abundance is the wall of sound on the soundtrack: a grating reverberation of electric guitars, looping percussions, industrial and mechanical noise. Then like canned accompaniments to punch-lines, there is music from old Hollywood cartoon shows, the better to highlight the pranks of a pair of teleporting lovers at the center of the film.

Still, of these teleporters, we know precious little. This kind of minimalism paradoxically adds to the mystery of their identities. Their journeys are even more meaningful, showing up everywhere with perfected spatial travel, visiting Spain and presumably its various colonies like Mexico and our own country. Teleportation, it seems, is that proximity borne out of colonialism. But this is all a prelude to a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts in Bilbao, which, at first, they turn into a playground, unleashing themselves like refugees from Godard’s Bande A Part.

Levity, however, turns to tearful solemnity when they stumble on a sad reality: a clutch of Juan Luna paintings languishing in some neglected rack in the museum. Locked away in these institutional walls, they are too far removed to make a voice. The Spoliarium was returned to us on a whim. Will these lesser-known paintings in Bilbao suffer the same fate? For so long, we seem to be incapable of recovering parts of our patrimony that have been withheld from us not only by Spain, but by American and Japanese colonizers. This is our postcolonial condition.

But while this might be key to finding the intent of this film, is it the key to gleaning a narrative and understanding the film as a whole? The dubious have a point. Still the unusual interweaving between these two possible threads, and the red herring that this film represents for the purposes of archaeology, are beguiling and absorbing enough to recommend it to the viewer. History is never too simple, after all. Spain is in the heart, and not in the heart, and the infinite gradations in between.   

Monday, October 3, 2011


Life according to a manual. Life according to instruction. In this documentary about West Germany circa 1988, Harun Farocki unravels a dystopic lay of the land, where every human step proceeds in accordance with prescribed and inculcated behavior. He examines how modern Germany might be overdoing it, how its culture of thought and intellectualism might be permeating aspects of life that it never should.
Farocki’s primary material, seemingly innocuous enough, are sequences from training courses. Without any apparent order or logic, they are intercut and observed devoid of comment. How policemen are trained in the handling of crime; how medical students are taught the mechanics of childbirth; how waitresses must comport themselves among clientele: these passages form an amalgam that appears nothing out of ordinary until Farocki intersperses contrapuntal images that create meaning for his juxtapositions. Hence, we cringe at how a striptease dancer is schooled to the last gesture, to the point of disgust. We wince at how children are repeatedly and heavily psychoanalyzed and tested. We are appalled by the way elderly citizens, counter-intuitively, receive instruction on social behavior.
Welcome to the German Federal Republic, where everything proceeds by the numbers. Where everyone is socially appropriated and micromanaged. Where nature and innocence are denaturalized and unlearned. What should be articles of personality and individuality are summarily expunged by the vaunted German obsession for perfection and polish. This is the panorama of his country that Farocki has decided to show us: artificial, antiseptic, automatic.   
In this way, Farocki’s visual motif – of mattresses, car doors, key locks made to undergo stress tests, and wear and tear – begins to make sense like Eisenstein’s non-diegetic inserts: these much abused objects are a metaphor for the German mind and psyche. Farocki’s documentary is a social parable that warns of collective psychical and psychological exhaustion and enforced conformity.  
There is an afterimage from this film that haunts the viewer: the look of a striptease dancer that questions the rigid cooption of how she must act, that lays out, ad nauseam, the almost robotic proramming of each of her living, pulsing gestures. It’s a moment that invites paradoxes: The quest for perfection can be demoralizing; the insistence on instruction can create angry ciphers. Deep enough, the soul may be objectified, but it will revolt. 
Such suggestions Farocki elicits while eliding all manner of commentary. No telling voice-over cues us in, as in his best-known work, Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1989). Everything is there, and Farocki leaves us to piece together a meaning. To take his film as a kind of rigid and didactic statement after all is the least of his intentions. He is one German who still believes in self-determination and independent thought.