Saturday, April 19, 2014

I is for Irving

Totally unexpected, this one. I know all about the big screen adaptation by Tim Burton, but that movie takes a liberal shot at Washington Irving's novella, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Liberal, like 50%. When I think about it, all the movie had in common with Irving's material is the Headless Horseman and Ichabod Crane. And Burton just borrows the name of the latter. Because when you break it down, Johnny Depp's character doesn't share any similarities with the Ichabod Crane that Irving writes about.

All right, so we have Ichabod Crane, who is not a member of the judiciary but is merely a humble schoolteacher. So humble, so insecure, and so clumsy. And he's not really the hero of the story as it will turn out. By the end of the story, Ichabod Crane is just one more casualty. Was he a victim of the Headless Horseman? Or was he just an unfortunate character who's fallen prey to a prank by Brom Bones. Brom and Ichabod are both wooing the town beauty, Katrina Van Tassel. It's really not made clear though if Katrina has directly denied Ichabod her hand. All we know is that at the end of the party, Ichabod leaves with very low spirits.

What caught me off guard was how humorous the story can be. Somehow, we feel that Irving is making light of the people of Sleepy Hollow. He loves them, make no mistake. But it's as if he's inviting the reader to see that these are people who tell creepy stories to amuse themselves. I'm amused as well. I'm amused at the brilliant way that Irving shows us how a town's beliefs, its superstitions, can influence the lives of the locals. And that despite these superstitions, they make do.

It's no wonder that Irving's stories have stood the test of time. These are the kind of stories that you tell each other at the campfire. These are the stories that you share to your friends to creep them out. While the Headless Horseman doesn't really appear till the end of the story, there's a sense of pervading gloom right from page 1 of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. By the end of the story, if you're not creeped out by what happens to Ichabod Crane, then at least it will give you pause to think whether the Headless Horseman is real or not.

Read this book if:
  1. You love short creepy stories.
  2. You've seen the movie, and now it's time to read the book.
  3. Headless Horseman! Headless Horseman! Is there really any other reason for reading this?

Sunday, April 13, 2014

H is for Hardy

First, this is going to be short. I'll be writing a full post on my thoughts about Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native over at The Project Gutenberg Project blog. I've been accepted as one of its contributors, and my first post goes live this Tuesday. The blog's all about discovering forgotten classics in the public domain.

While Hardy may not be considered "forgotten," I feel that he's not as popular these days as some classic authors. Jane Austen, for instance, has had numerous adaptations of her novels. Shakespeare has been reworked to death. Henry James and E. M. Forster enjoyed a revival due to the wonderful Merchant-Ivory films. But Hardy? Quite few and far between, if I may so.

Second, The Return of the Native caught me by surprise. Oh, Hardy, why did it take me this long to read you? The novel opens very slowly. But the drama that enfolds lures you in. Here are tragic characters all set out to enact the story that unfolds beautifully. Here's a novel that lets you look into the lives of provincial characters—their superstitions, their upbringing, their beliefs and mores.

Perhaps it's the depressing themes that make people shy away from Hardy. Yes, The Return of the Native can indeed be a downer. You wallow in it. You get lost in all the frustrations, the what-could-have-beens, the missed connections, and the futile romances of the people of Egdon Heath. But you know what? I'd gladly return to the fictional Wessex of Hardy, if only to read his brilliant stories. The themes may be depressing, but the writing is glorious.

Started reading this while waiting to board a plane
Read this book if:
  1. Depressing novels are your thing.
  2. You've always wondered about Hardy's fictional Wessex.
  3. You know what it's like to return to your hometown after years of being away.
My post at the Project Gutenberg Project blog is now up. Read it here.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The screenplay, the movie, and everything in between

When I was a kid, there was nothing more magical than entering the cinema with snacks in hand, parting those thick red curtains, finding the seat with the best view, and waiting for the entire room to get dark. For a couple of hours, I was far removed from reality. I guess I will always love watching movies in the big screen. And I will always look forward to seeing a story unfold itself.

The story—the screenplay—is the movie's lifeblood. And a good screenplay can be quite a challenge to write. This is what I learned after reading Ricky Lee's Sa Puso ng Himala, a book that tells you everything that happened from the screenplay's inception to the making of the movie "Himala." It's a good story to tell, especially if the movie has been hailed as the best that Philippine cinema has to offer.

No, this book is no longer a manual for today's brand of filmmaking. Sa Puso ng Himala can be seen as a historical record, a piece of important collections of what people in the movie industry did back in the day. The daily toil, the grit that gets in their fingernails, the politicking to get funding, the non-digital manipulation of sound and dubbing, the thousands of extras that need to be hired—everything's in this book. If you watch the movie "Himala" now, you'll be transfixed by the inspiring performances of the cast, the timeless strength of the material, the texture of the production design. The book, Sa Puso ng Himala, tells you how they got there.

The movie's origins and production are a remarkable piece of storytelling in itself. Here are candid anecdotes of people who were involved in the movie. At that time, they never really knew that they were making Philippine cinema history; they just wanted to get it over and done with. The director was a perfectionist, the shoot location was a barren landscape, the extras were difficult to control, the budget was limited. Basically, there were problems at every stage. But you can never go wrong if you have a brilliant screenplay and a very talented cast.

Reading Sa Puso ng Himala is like finding yourself part of the crew. The book's author, Ricky Lee, who is also the screenplay writer of the movie, recounts the several changes his story underwent. The cast and crew reminisce about working with legendary director Ishmael Bernal, he of the impossibly high standards. (A couple of hundred extras needed first thing tomorrow morning? Done.) There are even articles about the movie's post-production stages, the production design, the poster, the local and international reception of the movie, and the day-to-day grind on set. It's a perfect book for classic movie buffs.

I have always believed that reading the screenplay is just part of the process. One gets to fully appreciate the magic of the movies when you see the words come to life in the big screen. It's like reading Shakespeare, yes? Shakespeare's plays become more vivid when you see them enacted on stage. That was, after all, Shakespeare's goal. After turning the last page of Sa Puso ng Himala, I did not just love the movie even more; it made me develop a deep respect for the craft, a fascination for the discipline that this form of media demands from its people. And that's why you stay for the credits at the end of the movie. Respect, people.

The different personalities involved in creating the film
The cast, the crew, the people in publicity,
and even a daughter of President Marcos
A page showing Ricky Lee's notes
Again proving that good writing requires several revisions
Ricky Lee conceived the screenplay with Nora Aunor in mind.
Quite amusing to read the perspectives of the cast and crew
Cat fights on set? Check. 20-hour days? Check. 
Lots of behind-the-scenes material in the book
Juicy, gossipy stuff
The book has lots of photo essays such as this spread. 
The devil is truly in the details.
How Bernal wanted to shoot the pivotal last scene
A study in organized chaos
Every aspiring writer should read Ricky Lee's screenplay. 
The book also includes the English translation of the screenplay.
On the left page is the visionary, Ishmael Bernal.
Read this book if:
  1. You find movies magical.
  2. You love reading screenplays.
  3. You're looking for a gossipy read.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The book club discusses the screenplay of a classic Filipino movie

The requisite close-up photo with the book
No stranger to reading screenplays, I am.
Sometimes, the book club pushes itself outward and talks about material that we wouldn't normally read ourselves. That's what happened this weekend, when we met one afternoon to talk about a screenplay of a much-beloved Filipino classic—"Himala." So I'm sharing with you pictures of the event, dear reader. I'll reserve my thoughts on the screenplay for another post. Anyway, you can click on the pictures to enlarge.

Of course, one does not simply organize a discussion by just coming up with the discussion questions. This month's facilitator, Orly, made sure that he kept up with the book club tradition of giving away bookmarks and other related items. For "Himala," we each received these wonderful bookmarks and the anahaw fans with the words "Elsa saves" and "Elsa loves you" printed on them. These phrases are the arc words of the screenplay.

I am an Elsa fan.
The fan can be quite useful, especially now that it's officially summer.
The books, the DVD of the restored version, and other stuff
Always a good conversation starter
Orly did a wonderful job facilitating the discussion. He even invited Gilbert, one of his friends who was involved in the creation of the coffeetable book Sa Puso ng Himala. That particular book had the screenplay we're going to discuss, plus a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff about the production of the movie. The BTS stuff had very juicy bits about the crew and the talent. Very gossipy and quite fun to read!

Before we delved into the discussion proper, Orly showed us a few slides about the screenplay. He talked about the screenwriter Ricky Lee, the history of the film's production, the movie's very important place in Philippine cinema, and even the personalities involved in the movie. It was a very informative and engaging presentation. Lots of questions thrown around by the members even if we haven't officially begun discussing the screenplay.

We were actually given 2 books to choose from for this discussion—Sa Puso ng Himala and Si Tatang at ang Himala ng Ating Panahon. Both contain the screenplay, but the former focuses more on the movie, while the latter is a collection of the screenwriter's works. I bought both books though, as I couldn't help myself. But for the discussion, I decided to go with Sa Puso ng Himala. I figured I wanted to know more about the movie rather than the writer.

Orly (in white) and Gilbert (in yellow)
As expected, with Orly as the facilitator, the discussion was livelier than usual.
One of Orly's pre-discussion slides
This one shows the screenwriter, Ricky Lee. 
The rare movie postcards given away as prizes.
I won one of them! The one with Elsa, the lead actress. 
Now we're on to the discussion proper. Of course, the usual questions were thrown to the group. Which themes in the screenplay struck you the most? Who were the characters that created a strong impact in you? How was the experience reading a screenplay? How is it different from reading a play or watching the movie? From a scale of 1 to 5, how would you rate the screenplay? It all feels very structured at first.

But you know what? From the discussions we've recently had, the moderator just poses a few standard questions, and then the discussion takes off from there. So really, the moderator simply steps back and just makes sure that everyone is given the chance to participate. In the end, we usually end up answering one another's questions. The members are a talkative bunch, and a good number of us can be quite opinionated.

My good friend Orly
He's the perfect guy to facilitate this screenplay discussion.
A few members share their ideas about the screenplay
Here we have Doc Cecille, Gege, Jeeves, and Czar. 
Lots of lighthearted moments during the discussion
Here's R. doing a goofy face. To his right is Sana. 
When asked for my favorite characters, I chose the 3 principal women:
Elsa (seated), Nimia (the one to her right), and Chayong (above Elsa).
Anne and Honey
Some of the questions were deeply profound. We had to pause and think. 
Ms. Raquel Villavicencio, the movie's production designer, joined us!
She shared lots of insights about the movie's production.
We were given copies of the original and final drafts of Elsa's speech.
Truly, writing a screenplay requires several drafts.
Busted! My good friend Marie.
Finishing the last 2 pages of the screenplay during the discussion
Oh, and it wasn't just a discussion. Orly facilitated a screenplay writing workshop by the end of the afternoon. Actually, it's in preparation for the group's Christmas party this year. I know, I know, it's still March, but we do have something big planned for this year. The theme for this year's Christmas party is the movies! For that project, members were sorted into teams and each team was tasked to make a 15-minute movie following a specific genre.

Anyway, for the screenplay writing workshop, Orly listed the deleted scenes from the movie. Then each group was assigned one of these scenes. The groups were then tasked to write the screenplay (with the speaking parts, the blocking, the description of the setting, etc.) for that particular scene. To think that some of us have no experience with moviemaking, much less with writing a screenplay, I think the final outputs were awesome.

The members listening to Orly explain the screenplay writing workshop.
We take things way too seriously, which is a good thing. 
Gege, Sana, and Iya
The ladies discussing the deleted opening scene of "Himala." 
Joko, R., and Jewel
I was aiming for a candid shot actually.
Jeeves and Mike
They're just 2 of the members of the all-male team.
Standing: Czar, Don, and Orly; seated: Doc Cecille, Jan, Anne, and Honey
The fabulous ladies are doing their own version of brainstorming.
And during the discussion, Marie gave me the hat I asked her to make.
My birthday's St. Patrick's Day! I love this supersized leprechaun hat!
It was truly a wonderful way to spend a weekend afternoon. It feels like I haven't seen my friends from the book club forever, even though we do make it a point to meet at least once a month. Till next time, fellow bibliophiles. And to you, dear reader, isn't it time you join a book club?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

On a book-ish high in Singapore

So I turned 40 last St. Patrick's Day, and I decided to celebrate it away from Manila. So off I went to the Singapore with R. and a couple of other friends. I've been to the Lion City so many times for work-related stuff, but this is the first time I went there purely for some R&R. The trip also marks the second time I travel abroad with R.

Singapore is very friendly to bibliophiles. Lots of awesome bookstores. Some bookstores in Manila may be having financial troubles, but they seem to be thriving in the Lion City. I see people reading everywhere—trains, cafés, restaurants, and parks. I visited 4 bookstores in Singapore, and I saw that there's always a line at the cashier.

The first bookstore that we visited was BooksActually. Their flagship store is in the trendy Tiong Bahru district, which is lined with artsy eating places and other hipster-friendly establishments. It's actually my 2nd time to be in BooksActually, and I was looking forward to getting more Penguin mugs. Unfortunately, they ran out of them.

BooksActually is such a quaint bookstore that I've fallen completely in love with it. The staff's friendly and accommodating, and their selections are awesome. But like most bookstores in the city, their books can be quite pricey. I drooled over their collection of vintage Penguin paperbacks. In the end though, R. bought me a Jane Eyre tote.

The 1st time I was in BooksActually, I never thought that there's be non-humans living inside the store. So I was surprised when this cat suddenly appeared out of nowhere and just contentedly settled himself on top of the piles of books. We learned that the cat's name is Cake, and that there were 2 more cats hiding in the bookstore.

The 2nd bookstore we went to was just a few stores away from BooksActually—Woods in the Books. It's more of a specialty bookstore, stocking only children's books. So lots of picture books in that store. Again, still pricey. And boo-hoo, they don't allow people to take pictures inside the store. Still a good place to visit though.

It was a rainy afternoon when we went to Tiong Bahru. We couldn't get a cab, and we couldn't possibly walk to the train station without getting terribly wet. So we whiled away the time in this coffee shop called Poteato, where 2 of the staff were Filipino. Very friendly bunch. And they had the best white chocolate cheesecake ever!

As soon as the rains stopped, off we went to Orchard Road, where one of my favorite bookstores can be found in Takashimaya mall—Kinokuniya! Oh, Kinokuniya, why can't I quit you? You breaker of budgets, you destroyer of wallets. I think I might have browsed the shelves of the fiction section of Kinokuniya no less than 3 times.

When we left Orchard Road to have dinner, I had 4 new books in my backpack. Yes, only 4. Because, I repeat, books in Singapore are pricey. I had to make sure to get those titles that bookstores in Manila wouldn't have. Was thinking if I should get the hardcover cloth-bound Penguin classics. I held off though, as I wouldn't want to pay for excess luggage.

And then the last bookstore we went to was Relay, which was at the airport. Compared to BooksActually and Kinokuniya, Relay carries fewer titles. But they do have those beautiful Irish editions of classics, which were also reasonably priced. I bought 2—Heart of Darkness and To the Lighthouse. Woolf is my planned W in my dead guy challenge.

So it was a very enjoyable trip, undoubtedly. I went back home with 6 new books, and my luggage was within the 15-kilo limit. (My check-in luggage weighed 14.7 kilos. Yay!) Of course, the 1-week trip didn't just involve book-hunting. We naturally had to act all touristy and see the usual sights. Till next time, Singapore!

My stash

Friday, March 21, 2014

G is for Gotthelf

I love a good horror story. And after reading mostly the Victorians in my dead guy reading challenge, I believe the time is now ripe to go beyond the British realm. So I picked up Jeremias Gotthelf's The Black Spider. Gotthelf is a curiosity. He was a Swiss pastor who was a contemporary of Edgar Allan Poe. According to his biography, one difference between Gotthelf and Poe is that Gotthelf believed in the reality of the demon he created in his short stories. This thought gives me goosebumps, as the monster he created in The Black Spider is quite the character.

Upon opening the novel, which was published in 1842, one might think that it isn't a horror novel at all. The opening lines paint a picture of quaintness and the mundane. Gotthelf begins with a very vivid, albeit poetic, description of the town of Sumiswald, where the events of the novel take place.
Above the mountains rose the sun, shining in limpid majesty down into a welcoming but narrow valley, where it woke to joyous life creatures that had been created to take pleasure in the sunshine of their days. From the forest's gilded edge the blackbird trilled its aubade while the amorous quail intoned monotonous minnelieder from amid the flowers sparkling in the dew-bespangled grass, and high above the dark firs, lusty crows danced nuptial roundelays or else cawed tender lullabies above the thorny little beds of their unfledged chicks.
But all will not be well at Sumiswald, for in The Black Spider, a dark period in the history of that little fictional town will be told. It begins with a brutal knight, one Hans von Stoffeln, who makes a most inhumane demand on the farmers of his estate. It's a demand so impossible for the residents of Susmiswald that one of the women, Christine, is forced to make a pact with the devil. The devil in The Black Spider is one I haven't encountered before. No horns, fangs, and serpertine eyes and tails here. What Gotthelf conjured is a tall, red-beared huntsman dressed all in green and with a red feather in his cap. All he asks in return is an unbaptized child.

So the knight is made happy and all seems well in the little town. Until the first child is born. Christine takes it upon herself to get the child and bring it to the devil. But she is thwarted, as the child is baptized as soon as it is born. Then the second child is born, and the same thing happens. All this time, a black mark has been growing on Christine's face. The mark grows and grows till little spiders come out of it and kill all the cattle in Sumiswald. When the third child is born, Christine hurriedly goes to the mother's house and steals the child. But alas, when she was about to hand the baby over to the green huntsman, a priest sprinkles holy water on these two. The devil flees, and Christine shrinks and transforms into a small spider, which the priest casts aside in rescuing the poor baby.
The story does not end here. It's too clean, yes? The black spider wreaks havoc in the town, appearing in one house, killing people, and then disappearing instantly, only to appear again in another place. It's at this point that I begin to think how The Black Spider is very similar in theme to the story of the pied piper of Hamelin. But instead of people realizing their fault and correcting it by doing what has been previously agreed on, the people of Sumiswald resort to their faith. (Gotthelf, after all, was a pastor.) Of course they can't give a child to the devil, whether it's baptized or not. It was up to one of the residents of Sumiswald to outwit the black spider and trap it in a wooden post.

Gotthelf's novel is a quick read. It's just a little over 100 pages. One assumes that this tale, written in the mid 1800s, would have a plot that took its time to unfold. No. The Black Spider's narrative pace is a hectic one. And an atmosphere of dread and creepiness pervades throughout the pages.

Nightmarish—that's how I would describe Gotthelf's novel. I couldn't help but look over my shoulder every now and then. Just to check whether an 8-legged thing is slowly finding its way into one of my pockets. Don't get me wrong, I love spiders. They kill pests, and they'd mostly leave you alone if you leave them alone too. But the spider in this novel is something you'd wish you'd never meet. You might as well practically kill yourself if you do. There's just no escaping it. It's evil incarnate.

Again, I'm grateful that NYRB has published this forgotten classic. It's wonderful reading about the traditions and customs of small towns in ages gone by. There's an opening scene about a baptism that's about to happen. I never knew that there was so much eating involved before and after the ceremony. I guess in olden times, one stuffs himself silly when a baby enters the Christian world. Fascinating trivia.

Read this book if:
  1. You have a thing for classic horror stories.
  2. You love spiders.
  3. You're looking for a quick and scary read.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

F is for Fowles

Twenty years ago, as soon as I finished reading The Magus by John Fowles, I can still remember my feeling of elation. It was my first Fowles, and I thought that I got mind-fucked by the novel. With its seamless transition between reality and fantasy, The Magus was an exercise in patience and stamina. Finishing it was a rewarding experience indeed. I never planned to read another Fowles novel, but I needed a letter F for my dead guy challenge. So, Fowles's debut novel it is. (Flaubert, I will tackle you another time. Promise.)

Ah, The Collector. What a totally satisfying thriller you are. You're still quite a suspenseful read, even though you were first published in 1963. And I now understand why you were the debut that brought Fowles to everyone's attention. You do remind me of those movies that feature deranged serial killers and psychopaths ("The Silence of the Lambs" and "Psycho"). But what sets you apart from these thrill-a-minute films is how erudite you seem to be. Reading you wouldn't just satisfy one's craving for a sickening story; you also allow us to go deep into both the minds of the characters—the captor and the captive.

The novel, all 300 pages of it, features just two characters. Frederick Clegg, the lonely clerk who collects butterflies in his free time, and Miranda Grey, the art student whom Frederick develops an obsession on. And Fowles just gives us 4 chapters. With the first chapter, it's all about Frederick's point of view. It recounts his unhealthy attraction to Miranda, his winning a substantial amount of money in a lottery, and his meticulous planning of Miranda's kidnapping. Frederick is the collector referred to in the novel for obvious reasons. We just know that, probably, not everything is right in his calculated mind. With his money, he buys a cottage with a basement where he keeps Miranda.

Cut to the next chapter and we get to know Miranda a bit more. The Collector isn't just about the battle of wits between Frederick and Miranda. It's more of an exploration of the minds of its characters. With Frederick, it's all about obsession and how he's determined to make Miranda a part of his collection. In Miranda's chapter, we read about Miranda's life before her abduction, her willingness to be romantically involved with an artist 21 years her senior, her plans of escape from Frederick, and her eventual desperation at the futility of all her attempts. Her chapter made us feel for Miranda, and we really hope that she would have escaped by the novel's end.
One just can't imagine what prison is like from outside. You think, well, there'd be lots of time to think and read, it wouldn't be that bad. But it is too bad. It's the slowness of time. I'll swear all the clocks in the world have gone centuries slower since I came here. 
I shouldn't complain. This is a luxury prison. 
And there's his diabolical cunning about the newspapers and radio and so on. I never read the papers very much, or listened to the news. But to be totally cut off. It's so strange. I feel I've lost all my bearings. 
I spend hours lying on the bed thinking about how to escape. 
Endless. [page 250]
The Collector messes up your brain too, in a beautiful way. The sexual tension between the two characters is just nail biting, even though Frederick and Miranda never really do it. Well, almost. There was this one time when Miranda attempts to seduce Frederick, but it doesn't go as planned. Frederick couldn't perform. Somehow, a psychiatrist has told Frederick that he'll never be able to do it with a woman. And it is at this point that you get to thinking—just what the hell is wrong with you, Frederick? Why couldn't you get it up? And why do you do a complete 180-degree turn when the object of your obsession offers herself up to you? All of a sudden, you think of Miranda as a charlatan.

I should read more John Fowles. Such a deft writer, that one. Comfortable in varied writing styles. Frederick's narrative is an exercise in control and in looming terror. Miranda's, on the other hand, spirals downward from being whimsical, introspective, and then surrendering. You literally feel her descent into madness and despair. It's a truly chilling account.

Read this book if:
  1. You love psychological suspense.
  2. You have an unhealthy obsession of things and, possibly, of certain persons.
  3. You know that that seemingly harmless dude sitting next to you in the bus keeps a woman prisoner in his basement.