Monday, December 17, 2012

COLOSSAL (Whammy Alcazaren, 2012)

What has become abundantly, colossally clear with the arrival of Whammy Alcazaren on the independent scene and the premiere of his experimental first film, Colossal, is that this young wunderkind has grand ambitions for cinema. For his feature debut, he has taken on “the myth of man” for his towering theme, as the Cinemanila programme proclaims, and to a considerable extent he has been equal to the task. For the moment, however, the hyperbole of the title remains inapplicable to the final product -- so tantalizingly close, but unconverted. Not a masterpiece just yet. Ask anyone else, however, about their encounter with Colossal and the testimonials would be glowing and the gigantism of superlatives is bound to gush forth.

Don’t think this is meant to be contrarian, the prodigious talent of Alcazaren is there to marvel at: I can perfectly see what the converted and the faithful see, but their adulations are also often colored, quick to favor and factor in his astonishing youth, that this is just his thesis film at the University of the Philippines. A school project, to be perfectly honest about it. And the myth of man? True, true. Such grand themes for such a young, collegial filmmaker. They say: "There is not anyone comparable, not any teenager or early twenty-something in recent memory, at least, who has undertaken such a work of such professed scope and breadth with such confidence and precocity. Not even Raya Martin, perhaps." That may not be too far-fetched, but about Colossal I harbor some reservations. 

What astonishes me, at this juncture, are the writerly gifts of Alcazaren. The screenplay for Colossal essentially consists of an epic monologue of consistent versification supposedly recited by an ancient, old man. Epics, it must be said, are rarely attempted in verse. For someone barely out of his teens, this hoary ventriloquism is no small feat. This has been, up to this point, Alcazaren's most developed metier. A considerable gift to envy even by writers twice his age. A gift so full-fledged and mature. The sinuousness and supple contortions of his syntax, as suggested by the English subtitles (how I wish I could understand Bisaya), are there for all to hear and see. The bamboo-like resistance of his lyricism sways with meanings: a single viewing may not be enough to illuminate the beauty of language and expression and comprehend the nuances of emotion and wisdom. But here it becomes a little dicey: the old ancient man addresses a second person -- is it even a person? -- whose death grieves him, but whose identity seems to shift around, remaining a nagging, unresolved question. 

Colossal's grief is its motif of grief -- as given verbal expression by the ancient man in a dolorous low key, compounded by scenes of mourning of a young contemporary man -- has no clear referent. This grief is suspended in the ether of the abstract. Should it be simply be understood as universal grief about human death? Or is this grief something more colossal -- about the demise of races, cultures, civilizations, or even grand abstracts? As the ancient man poeticizes in a disembodied voice, the young contemporary man, who is equally grief-stricken, traverses natural landscapes -- from forests to caves to shores -- to commune with the consolations of nature, of the cosmos, to meditate on the nature of man and grief and loss. Are they one and the same: the ancient man and the contemporary man, or are they the grieving archetypes of their time? And who is the dead? Apparently someone in the young man's tribe, apparently someone the old man grew up with -- his oft-mentioned mother, his entire tribe, his nation? Apparently it is lapsarian man. Apparently someone universal, with the ancient's clear reference to the myth of Orpheus.

Apparently this is about us as a nation. We get a tell-tale word or two to suggest it, and a montage of photographs to emphasize it. The old man hails from many generations ago, he confesses, in a time of noble chieftains, a time of datus. He also alludes to the creation myth of Malakas and Maganda, a sure sign of his provenance. All the while his meditations are woven together with still photographs: towards the beginning, of old and new Manila, for instance, the photo of an old, manicured Luneta, circa 1960s, juxtaposed in contrast with a photo of vehicular gridlocks in our streets of today. Towards the end, as the old man expresses solidarity with “colossal youths” -- the freedom fighters, the fallen but fighting youths in the streets -- there is a procession of euphoric revolutionary moments, the recent Edsa 2 revolution in particular (the youthful Alcazaren is too young to remember the first one), side by side with photos of happy anthemic moments from recent live concerts of local bands. Colossal -- but all on paper. For the moment, it leaves too many questions pendant.

For the moment, the visual approach of Alcazaren is static and in dire need of imagination and expansion. His use of still photographs is slavish for one. Another callow flaw is his obsessive, unmoving regard for natural forms verging on the abstract and tactile textures, and their well-worn symbolism: for instance, those of predictable rock formations and especially water. Water imagery seems to be his calling card -- its fluidity, he seems to say quite tritely, is not unlike the passage of time, the process of grief, the history of man -- whether taken as stills or captured in the following ways: water rolling onto shores, water crashing in waves against rocks, water pooling at the foot of falls.

Surely Alcazaren has a lot else in store for us. Colossal is nothing to sneeze at. Take for instance the ingenious epilogue, monochrome as the rest of the film's 86-minute duration, featuring what seems to be a firmament of stars where geometric patterns of lines are drawn. It seems like an afterthought to end it all, and yet how strangely apt and evocative, as though Alcazaren imagines the ancient consultation of stars, the birth and death of old and new constellations, as though to ground the place of man in the universe. Maybe this is the best way to foreground the wisdom of the old man's words, the myth of man. 

For now, Alcazaren has not attained the rarefied heights of the original. He has taken unmistakable pages from his cinematic ancestors, the closest one being Christopher Gozum, most especially his first film Anacbanua. Between the two, the reliance on poety recited in a regional tongue is one striking similarity. The ranging over landscapes is another glaring parallel, with Gozum marking his chronotope with Pangasinan particularity. Alcazaren’s landscapes and tribe, in contrast, seem a generic one, although complete with token tattoos and shamans. Otherwise, this tribe doesn’t exist, or is unrecognizable. Surprisingly he did not shoot in the Visayas but expediently on location in Ilocos Norte (but the young grieving man in the film might indeed hail from Ilocos to begin with) at some expense of authenticity. But we must greet the young Alcazaren with open arms at the start of a promising career. He is the future of our cinema. He is bound to be colossal.          


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