Saturday, June 10, 2006

FILMS IN THE GUISE OF A HOMAGE (2002)

WRITER'S NOTE: This writing was first published in 2002 for PEYUPS.com. Just sharing them to you and preserving some of my early writings.

FILMS IN THE GUISE OF A HOMAGE
By SIGFREID BARROS-SANCHEZ

A FEW months ago, while filming some “unnecessary” sequences for the film “Kilabot at Kembot” in a popular motel, we were surprised to find an unexpected visitor on the set --- a well-known director. He happened to pass by the Malate area and saw the lights and generators outside the motel. Familiar with this set-up, he decided to take a look inside. He was talking to the film’s publicist when I happened to chance upon him outside.

“Ano’ng ginagawa mo ngayon, Direk?” asked the publicist.

“Oh! It’s a very wonderful film. Very original,” he says. I remember the words very well. We, writers, are suckers everytime we hear somebody tell an original tale. “It’s about this young teacher na nagturo sa isang eskwelahan in a far-away barrio. She inspires the kids despite bata pa siya at kaka-graduate lang.”

“Ah, parang “Not One Less”…” I uttered. I know I should have not opened my mouth. But for someone who has Chinese director Zhang Yimou at the top of his list of influential filmmakers, how can you not butt in especially upon recognizing the semblance right away. At this moment, the local director is already looking at me and the publicist is in a quandary on what the hell I just said.

“Ano ‘yung “Not One Less,” Direk?” asked the writer in front of him. He tries to regain his poise and delivers, “Oh! It’s a Chinese film. It’s a homage, actually. But there’s this twist in my film. Two of the students are very poor kaya nagpapalitan sila ng uniform…”

I was about to play party-pooper again but decided to whisper my comment to myself.

“Children of Heaven…” I murmured as I tried to walk away, shaking my head. Iranian Majid Majidi’s film holds a special spot on my shelf of art films.

Recto

Homage. Paying tribute. Bestowing respect. To express high regard for someone else’s work. However, for some, it’s a good excuse to copy. To clone or to duplicate. An alternative for the phrase “ripping off”. Even closing in on the word “stealing”.

Everytime I hear that word, the next thing that comes to my mind is Recto. No, not the person, but that place in Manila where you can get all the copycat-stuffs in the world. You want a cheap imitation of the newest fad in the fashion, even corporate, world? Go to Recto and you can find one there. Perhaps your brother’s diploma or your sister’s perfume or your best friend’s Levi’s jeans are all but products of this wonderful avenue when they visited Manila. Heck, you can even be wearing a Recto right now!

Martin Scorsese once said that we just repeat everything that was done before, shots, styles, stories. But once the obvious becomes too obvious and, instead of admitting it, you defend it by saying it was just “coincidence” and start putting on your press releases that it was an actual account, then your “homage” becomes “hambog”.

Same sins

The Pilate, I am not. I, too, have committed the same sins in writing my scripts. When Viva Films asked me to write my first work, “Alas Dose,” for their company, the first direction I decided to go with my first draft, upon learning that we will be having Cesar Montano and Christopher de Leon as main actors, was Robert de Niro and Al Pacino’s “Heat”. Director Erik Matti, who directed 80% of the movie only to relinquish the job to Direk Ogie Salvador after a major spat with a major figure, decided to break this idea I have been toying for several drafts and decided to give it a different twist. Had he finished the film and went the way the road that we finally agreed upon, Filipino action movies would have been very, very different by now. Or so we think up to this day.

When I pitched for “Kilabot at Kembot,” I was very excited to hear that the production is very, very interested to get “fresh” ideas for its initial offering. “Basta dapat iba,” they kept on telling me.

I decided to write the first four drafts in a mixture of “American History X,” “Enemy of The State,” and, would you believe, Giuseppe Tornatorre’s Oscar-winning work “Cinema Paradiso”? The original story was that an ex-gangster goes out of jail, full of tattoos, and decided to change his ways by working as an “aparatista” (projectionist) in an old cinema house at the Recto area. Its ending was supposed have an “Enemy of The State”-like finish with three groups going at each other while the protagonist outwits them and escapes. Think also of Ridley Scott’s “True Romance”. It was supposed to tackle and hit the booming film piracy eventhough its main actor was not yet involved then (nor was thinking probably or else he had given his thumbs up on the first draft) as chairman of the anti-piracy agency of the country. It was supposed to be my “homage” to the film medium itself and all the movies I’ve watched in my younger years. Eventually, I got kicked out of the production for a month for failing to supply them with what they said was “iba”. “Masyado kang pa-art film,” was one of the comments. When I was asked to rejoin again, the new script retained just the “American History X”-thing: the main actor had tattoos and there’s this kid who idolized him.

“Prosti” was another one that could have gone the “homage” direction. When Direk Erik asked me to write its complete story after getting the go-signal from Regal Films upon pitching it, I wanted to retain my original idea that Jay Manalo’s character has a cut dick (ala-“The Angry Inch”) after his American stepfather bit it off when he was just a small boy. I actually saw this story on TV Patrol and decided to use it as my political statement in the film and to show the anti-U.S. Bases in me. Also, I wanted to show a pimp falling in love with his prostitute and that among the many men that has used Aubrey Miles character’s body, it is he, dick-less and all, who has offered the only true love and not lust.

To tell it honestly, I was inspired by that Chinese film (sorry but I just love works by these Chinese) “Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl” where a man tries to hide his feelings for a student sent to him to experience life in the countryside in communist China. After the government fails to return the girl back to the city, he watches each time different men use Xiu Xiu’s body for lust. It turns out, the man fights off his feelings because he has lost the “weapon” he needs to demonstrate his love for Xiu Xiu in the line of battle a few years back. I was very much engrossed and absorbed at this different kind of love twist that I decided to fight it out with Direk Erik that the scene be retained. Regal however gave the thumbs down explaining that it will be hard to explain to Pinoy viewers the lovemaking scenes when they can not actually make love. So, we instead got a character named “Nonoy Laki” for Jay who’s problem is he got a big wiener (can we count this as a homage to Jay’s “Totoy Mola”?). Direk Erik however was able to incorporate some “homages” to films we were very much inspired during pre-production: Wong Kar Wai’s “In The Mood For Love” (the slo-mo brushing of shoulders of Jay Manalo and Aubrey Miles while going up and down the stairs) and Todd Solondz’s “Happiness” (the montage of characters and their search for their happiness). He even did an obvious homage to his teacher’s, Direk Peque Gallaga, original “Scorpio Nights” by shooting a scene wherein Jay peaks into and spits in a crack on the floor. Seeing Jay lie flat on his stomach on the floor gives goosebumps as you recall Daniel Fernando in the ‘80s doing the same thing.

However, thinking we escaped with those reverences, “Prosti’s” showing incidentally coincided with “In The Mood For Love’s” showing at the Art Film Theater in Greenbelt, Makati. Although film buffs, artists, critics, and elite citizens only go to these screenings, we got our worst criticism from a reviewer who always hated Erik’s works a few days later. “Prosti: In the mood for lust,” it reads. Erik’s answer? “He failed to see that it was an obvious homage.”

Lately, local films that we have been viewing or that are shown in cinemas have actually scenes, sequences, or highlights borrowed from Hollywood movies and the unobvious foreign art films.

Jologs

This year’s biggest grosser, “Jologs” is actually inspired by “Go” and “Pulp Fiction.” Although what we saw on screen was very, very much different from the one that won for scriptwriter Ned Trespeces the top plum in the 1st Star Cinema Scriptwriting Contest in 2000, he admits that the inspiration was still there. Even the lip-synching part at the end of the film of all the characters was taken from the film “Magnolias” which starred Tom Cruise (it got limited playing in the country). Next we heard, the same company which produced “Jologs” is actually trying to come up with a Pinoy version of that hit Spanish film “Amores Perros” and that French sleeper “Amelie”. We may even get “Fat Greek Wedding” or “Ring” wannabes (both recent top moneymakers in the US) by next year. After all, isn’t “Got To Believe” just “The Wedding Planner” and that recent Aga-Claudine flick “Kailangan Kita” a mixture of “Like Water For Chocolate,” “Chocolat,” and “Woman On Top” dipped in Pinoy melodrama sauce?

Then there’s Quark Henares’ “Gamitan” which is actually that Ryan Philippe-Sarah Michelle Gellar-Reesee Witherspoon “Cruel Intentions”. There’s a scene in Ara Mina’s latest “Two Timer” which is very much like that in “Unfaithful” of current did-you-see-her-boobs Diane Lane. Robin and Juday’s “Jeannie, Bakit Ngayon Ka Lang” is clearly based on that ‘60s show “I Dream of Jeannie” which is being shown locally on Studio 23. Jeffrey Quizon admits that his current film with Vic Sotto “Lastikman” has shades of Tobey Maguirre’s “Spiderman”. Meaning to say, come this year’s entries at the Metro Manila Film Festival in December, we might be seeing a handful of these so-called local flicks laced with either “homage” concepts or “homage” scenes.

Just recently, I was able to catch with my kids an afternoon show that viewed past Pinoy films wherein we have obvious copycats of “Batman and Robin,” “Sleeping Beauty,” etc. But considering that these are comedy films, this genre uses a different word in describing a “homage” film: Spoof.

Meanwhile, for the past fifteen years, our Pinoy action films have been very well patterned after hits by either Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone. And so we get poor xeroxes of “Kindergarten Cop” or “Rocky” along the way. Manila Filmfest entry “Diskarte” which starred Rudy Fernandez and Ara Mina was actually an “airball” copy of Mel Gibson’s “Payback”. Airball because it really failed to hit the rim.

In a directing class a couple of years ago at the Ateneo de Manila University in Loyola, QC, one of the directors in the panel openly admitted that in making his high-tech movie about a group of teenagers stumbling upon a plot to start a nuke war by unearthing them at the abandoned Clark Airbase, he recorded all the scenes from different Hollywood pictures in one tape and requested his crew ---- cinematographer, production designer, cameramen, editor, and special and digital effects men --- to shoot his scenes at the very same way as that of which he recorded. The movie was a big flop despite its budget and the director never got to direct again.

Economics

“Kokonti lang naman ang istorya sa mundo,” director Augusto “Ogie” Salvador once told this writer. “Babali-baligtarin mo lang.” In contrast, an idealist friend in college once told me that we still have a lot of stories to tell aside from our love story, our sex life, or our miseries. “Puwede kang gumawa ng istorya tungkol sa lapis o sa sapatos o sa iba pang maliliit na bagay na bihira mong mapansin. Kailangan lang ibuka mo ang mata mo ng maigi, maging aware ka sa paligid mo, at marunong kang makiramdam. May istorya sa bawat sulok. Hindi lang natin nakikita ngayon kasi may mga bagay na pumipigil sa atin para makita at maisulat ang kuwentong iyon.” That has been my inspiration ever since.

In entering the film industry four years ago, I encountered one major block in writing very original pieces: economics. Armed with what I thought was a very original piece via a script entitled “Ang Anak Ni Brocka” wherein I tried to prove that Lino Brocka sired a son in 1979 while filming “Jaguar” in Tondo, I was slapped with the truth. Producers, who are businessmen above all else, are still at the helm of the industry and they are concerned at only one thing --- to make money. And making money means copying films overseas that made millions for their producers. You, a starving artist with a pregnant wife and three more young mouths to feed, decide to give in to their every demands. “Gayahin mo ‘yung ganito. Gayahin mo ‘yung ganyan. Lagyan mo ng hubad. Dagdagan mo ng sex,” is what you’ll hear. Seldom do we see a really original film like “Bayaning Third World” by Mike de Leon. The sad part is, the market doesn’t go for intellectual art films. The Eraserheads learned about it, in the music business side, when their “Fruitcake” album failed to earn as much as their past ones. That’s why in one of their songs they belt out, “…Pinilit kong iahon ka. Ngunit ayaw mo namang sumama” (“Para Sa Masa”). It holds the same for less-traditional films.

And so, does this mean that we must stop copying or “paying homage” to other films? The answer, for now, is “no”. It helps you find your identity, your focus, and your style. Also, it educates and introduces new visuals and ideas to the nation’s major market (the “bakyas”) who are not privilege to watch foreign and art films. But when your film has the making of being seen internationally or even being viewed by a panel of jury from, say, the Oscars, wouldn’t it be wonderful that your movie has no traces of obvious “homage” from other films? It makes you feel proud. The feeling, they say, is the hardest to copy .

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