Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Style as Meaning (Part I)

While I must admit to having found Jun Ichikawa's 2004 film Tony Takitani strangely beautiful, it is additionally remarkable for having so little that is edifying to say about its characters or the world it glances at - the word explores simply doesn't fit. It moved Stanley Kauffmann to write: "The effect is strange: it makes the director the protagonist of his picture. We cannot be much moved or amused by the leading characters: we are held only by the way the picture is made, thus by the intelligence that created this style. Not many of us, I think, would want to see many films made this way, possibly not one more, but this one is an intriguing glance at the director-as-god, deigning to treat human frailty with imperial sway, assuming that his art justifies this slender material." (8.15.05)

What struck me about the comment was how Kauffmann could have been writing about the entire oeuvre of Robert Bresson. To be fair, I found Ichikawa's film more moving for its use of genuine actors.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Vittorio de Sica

My list of favorite directors must immediately give one a sense of my concept of film art, since all of them are realists of some kind. One of the most important realists was the neo-realist Vittorio De Sica. He was a consummate artist who used his gift for visual storytelling with an unprecedented talent with, to use that clumsy term, amateur actors. And he was one of the greatest directors of children. Several years ago I published an item for Senses of Cinema called A Noble Ruin: Remembering De Sica.

After recently noticing that De Sica is conspicuously absent from Senses' Great Directors Database, I volunteered to write an entirely new piece on De Sica. My request may have been lost in the shuffle of department reassignments. I won't go banging on their door. But just to remind them of my request, I'm reprinting my old essay (2000) here.


In a 1971 interview with Charles Thomas Samuels, Vittorio De Sica made a sad summation of his career in film: "All my good films, which I financed myself, made nothing. Only my bad films made money. Money has been my ruin." (1)

Good films. Bad films. In De Sica's filmography, it is relatively easy to distinguish them. It seems almost as if they were directed by two different men. For how could the man who made Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di Biciclette, 1948)(2) have made Woman Times Seven (1967), a showcase for Shirley MacLaine's dubious talents in seven equally moribund roles? Or, A Place for Lovers (Gli Amanti, 1968), wherein Mastroianni pursues Faye Dunaway, who is dying from a brain tumor (or was it the other way around)? Or, The Voyage (Il Viaggio, 1974), his posthumous film, a turgid romance with the unlikeliest pairing of Sophia Loren and Richard Burton?

If we look closer, however, it becomes obvious that De Sica's career did not follow so simple a trajectory. It would be perilous, in fact, to uphold his criterion in the face of some glorious exceptions. For, in which category would De Sica have placed The Gold of Naples (L'oro di Napoli, 1954), which he didn't produce and which made money? Or the film that represented his comeback, Two Women (La Ciociara, 1961), which was produced by Joseph E. Levine and starred Sophia Loren and Jean-Paul Belmondo (and which, incidentally, won a few Oscars)? Or, Filumena Marturano (1964), produced by Carlo Ponti and distributed in the U.S. by Joseph Levine, who doubtless gave it the asinine American title Marriage Italian-Style?

The Gold of Naples was originally a six-part film, derived from a Giuseppe Marotta novel depicting the picaresque lives of Neapolitans. Two of the episodes were cut for its American release, presumably because they were considered too esoterically Italian. Of the four remaining parts, two stand as monuments to De Sica's ability to regenerate the sometimes forgotten art of film acting. They both climax at momentary character epiphanies that required the actors to undergo emotional transformations before our very eyes. Yet De Sica and his actors make the transformations so understated that the effect is altogether astonishing. The first of these two parts depicts a local hood who tyrannizes a family, until, having finally had enough, the family stands in unison against him. The hood stands there, in the family's kitchen, ready to tear them limb from limb, when he suddenly sees the desperate determination in their faces, even on the face of their little boy. He looks down, fiddles with his hat, and backs away, quietly closing the front door behind him.

The second great episode shows us Teresa, a prostitute approached with a marriage proposal from a wealthy young man. Never once questioning the unlikelihood of her good fortune, Teresa is informed by her new husband on her wedding night that he only married her in order to atone for the suicide of a virtuous young girl whose affections he had ignored. He assures her that she will enjoy the comfort of her new social position, but the whole town is to know of his marriage to a streetwalker so that he might spend the rest of his life paying for his unthinking cruelty to the dead girl. Tearfully fleeing from her humiliation, Teresa leaves the house and hurries down the dark street. But before getting more than a few blocks away she suddenly stops, gazing at the night and the inevitable return to her old life. Silvana Mangano gives the performance of her life as she communicates, with a few sobs and the stamp of a lifetime of hard choices on her face, how wealth and comfort can render the unthinkable somehow preferable to a hell she knows only too well. She goes back to the house - her house, and raps entreatingly on the huge wooden door.

Two Women was based on an Alberto Moravia story named after its heroine, Cesira, "la Ciociara" (i.e., woman from Ciociara). The Gold of Naples introduced a voluptuous young actress to the world named Sophia Loren. By the time Loren's producer-boyfriend Carlo Ponti approached De Sica with the project of adapting the Moravia story to film, she was on the verge of international stardom. De Sica had made only two films in the seven years after The Gold of Naples. He had produced The Roof (Il Tetto, 1956) with his own money - again addressing social concerns, this time a young couple's attempts to put a roof over their heads. True to De Sica's dictum, it made no money. Two years later, he made Gina Lollobrigida a star in Anna of Brooklyn (Anna di Brooklyn, 1958), without managing to contribute a tincture of luster to his own reputation. With Two Women, De Sica returned to familiar terrain, in a thoroughly neo-realist mode. The other woman in Two Women is Cesira's daughter, Rosetta. Together they leave war-ravaged Rome for the relative safety of the countryside - eventually returning to Cesira's village. Along the way, they encounter various instances of war's ultimate obscenity. Spared in their encounters with Germans and fascist Italians, both mother and daughter are ultimately raped by the Allies - a truckload of leering Moroccans - within the presumed sanctuary of a derelict church. Nothing and no one is spared the indiscriminate barbarity. De Sica, by concentrating less on events than on the effects they elicit in his characters, managed once again to humanize his material, to subsume history in the life of his heroine.

By the time De Sica made Filumena Marturano in 1964, neo-realism was quite belatedly dead, and no one but its inveterate hardliners were lamenting its passing. Nonetheless, De Sica managed to discover, in widescreen Eastmancolor, a style to suit the Eduardo De Filippo play he had chosen to adapt - a dramatic approach to life embracing both the glorious and the ridiculous. Here we are once again introduced to a familiar acting pair, Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren. But we are quickly convinced through superb acting and a genuine feeling for the city of Naples that this is to be something more than yet another bathetic love story. Sure, the flashbacks are handled rather quaintly, and the music is awful, but the film embraces so much that it would be useless to complain that its embrace is sometimes clumsy. De Sica takes us well past the usual melodramatic conclusions in his characters' lives to an ending that is neither final nor quite fulfilling. It may be the cheeriest ending to any of his films: Filumena/Sophia marries Domenico/Marcello. But why is Filumena crying as the camera tracks discreetly away from her?

In 1952, after his last "good" film - Umberto D - flopped (read: "made no money"), De Sica answered the call of David O. Selznick and directed Stazioni Termini (1952), clumsily renamed Indiscretion of an American Wife in the U.S., starring Selznick's wife, Jennifer Jones. Living up to her reputation as a notorious pain in the neck, Jones was required to wear a Christian Dior hat that she hated so intensely she attempted to flush it down a toilet. De Sica explained to her morosely that he could have made another Bicycle Thieves with what her hat was worth.

De Sica never made another Bicycle Thieves. He became the pampered captive of the likes of Joe Levine and Carlo Ponti. Even his old comrade, Cesare Zavattini, with whom he first found his authentic voice in I Bambini ci Guardano, (The Children Are Watching Us, 1943), would follow him into obscurity. Their commitment to examining the lives of the poor was derived from their devotion to Communism, which Mussolini helped arouse, and which a crippled economy after the war allowed to blossom into what is probably the single most important movement in film - only later to be codified by the term neo-realism.

Neo-realism would quickly become a political, as well as an artistic, creed. Every Italian film was scrutinized for its fidelity to an inviolate code. What saved De Sica from becoming merely doctrinaire, and what would arouse the disfavor of doctrinaire Italian critics, was his unflinching honesty and his unwavering compassion for what most of us have since forgotten - the "invisible ones" who unwittingly fell through the cracks in our universe: the shoeshine boys of Rome; a paper-hanger who has to sell his nuptial linen to buy a bicycle; an orphan boy whose only escape from a Milanese shanty town is with an enchanted dove; an old man driven to beg for a few lire so that his dog can have a saucer of milk. It is the measure of the humanity of any age if it can sometimes find its heroes in such company.

© Dan Harper, December 2000


1. Charles Thomas Samuels, Encountering Directors, G.P. Putnams's Sons, New York, 1972, p.187

2. I insist on calling the film Bicycle Thieves, instead of the usual The Bicycle Thief - since that was De Sica's point. The conditions in which we live, namely capitalism, have forced everyone to steal bicycles to survive.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Thoughts on Seeing Seven Samurai Again

I watched the Kurosawa film Seven Samurai these past two nights with my sister. I still have no idea how she could've been my sister and not been subjected to this 3-hour film by me (exactly 3 hours and 23 minutes, and with intermission it's closer to 3 1/2 hours). People sometimes exaggerate in these matters, but I can fairly accurately estimate that I watched the film, from beginning to end, possibly 15 times in the last 35 years. (I regret to admit that I've read Moby Dick only once.)

Again I was enthralled by Kurosawa's boldness and genius. Once again I wept at certain scenes - Watanabe's learning how the farmers had been eating millet instead of rice, Kikuchiyo's showing off of the samurai armor, the bloody and wet penultimate scene, which shows the merciless cruelty of war more effectively than any other film. In fact, Kurosawa's film once again demonstrated how ridicuously lacking are American films of any comparable depth and gravity. The John Sturges Western remake, The Magnificent Seven is stupid and stolid next to the original. In fact, it exists, as Vernon Young once put it, in another world - one divorced from art and even intelligence.

So, what did my sister think of the experience? I believe in her heart of hearts she saw the greatness of it. But she would probably never admit it to me.

Monday, October 22, 2007


Spinoza wrote that "Love is the feeling of pleasure, accompanied by our knowledge of its cause." The mystery of love, the magnificent enigma of love, is simply that - our realization that another human soul has brought us this feeling, this completely transcendent emotion. And that we must seek to know this other soul. And to make that seeking our life's work.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A Film Lover in a Hick Town

Practically all my life, except for a few years when I lived in Denver, I have been living in hick towns. Towns like Albany, Georgia and Columbia, South Carolina. Des Moines, Iowa and currently in Anchorage, Alaska. For a film-lover, this has meant that my personal history of mentionable filmgoing experiences has been extremely limited. Even in college towns like Columbia and Des Moines, the pickings were always slim. Knowing what was worth seeing, and never having an opportunity to see it, was a presiding frustration. There was always chance - that impartial arbiter of life - to blunder into, as I did in 1971 when one of the nuns at Saint Peter's Parochial School screened a 16mm print of Federico Fellini's La Strada. She found some overt Christian message in the film, along with whatever else, and convinced her fellow nuns that it was worthy of foisting onto an unsuspecting PTA meeting. That film changed everything I knew about movies and eventually made it impossible for me to watch one for nothing but its entertainment value. Hollywood, as I knew it, was doomed.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A Poet

Some people wonder where the "poetic sense" kicks in - if it is simply an intellectual faculty, an ideology imposed from without. Randall Jarrell insisted that there was a broader understanding of poetry, that could make Freud and Einstein poets in everything but form. Philip Larkin was a poet in virtually everything he wrote.

The Pleasure Principle

It is sometimes useful to remind ourselves of the simpler aspects of things normally regarded as complicated. Take, for instance; the writing of a poem. It consists of three stages: the first is when a man becomes obsessed with an emotional concept to such a degree that he is compelled to do something about it. What he does is the second stage, namely, construct a verbal device that will reproduce this emotional concept in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time. The third stage is the recurrent situation of people in different times and places setting off the device and re-creating in themselves what the poet felt when he wrote it. The stages are interdependent and all necessary. If there has been no preliminary feeling, the device has nothing to reproduce and the reader will experience nothing. If the second stage has not been well done, the device will not deliver the goods, or will deliver only a few goods to a few people, or will stop delivering them after an absurdly short while. And if there is no third stage, no successful reading, the poem can hardly be said to exist in a practical sense at all.

What a description of this basic tripartite structure shows is that poetry is emotional in nature and theatrical in operation, a skilled re-creation of emotion in other people, and that, conversely, a bad poem is one that never succeeds in doing this. All modes of critical derogation are no more than different ways of saying this, whatever literary , philosophical or moral terminology they employ, and it would not be necessary to point out anything so obvious if present-day poetry did not suggest that it had been forgotten. We seem to be producing a new kind of bad poetry , not the old kind that tries to move the reader and fails, but one that does not even try. Repeatedly he is confronted with pieces that cannot be understood without reference beyond their own limits or whose contented insipidity argues that their authors are merely reminding themselves of what they know already, rather than re-creating it for a third party. The reader, in fact, seems no longer present in the poet's mind as he used to be, as someone who must understand and enjoy the finished product if it is to be a success at all; the assumption now is that no one will read it, and wouldn't understand or enjoy it if they did. Why should this be so? It is not sufficient to say that poetry has lost its audience, and so need no longer consider it: lots of people still read and even buy poetry. More accurately, poetry has lost its old audience, and gained a new one. This has been caused by the consequences of a cunning merger between poet, literary critic and academic critic (three classes now notoriously indistinguishable): it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the poet has gained the happy position wherein he can praise his own poetry in the press and explain it in the class-room, and the reader has been bullied into giving up the consumer's power to say 'I don't like this, bring me something different.' Let him now so much as breathe a word about not liking a poem, and he is in the dock before he can say Edwin Arlington Robinson. And the charge is a grave one: flabby sensibility, insufficient or inadequate critical tools, and inability to meet new verbal and emotional situations. Verdict: guilty, plus a few riders on the prisoner’s mental upbringing, addiction to mass amusements, and enfeebled responses. It is time some of you playboys realized, says the judge, that reading a poem is hard work. Fourteen days in stir. Next case.

The cash customers of poetry, therefore, who used to put down their money in the sure and certain hope of enjoyment as if at a theatre or concert hall, were quick to move elsewhere. Poetry was no longer a pleasure. They have been replaced by a humbler squad, whose aim is not pleasure but self-improvement, and who have uncritically accepted the contention that they cannot appreciate poetry without preliminary investment in the intellectual equipment which, by the merest chance, their tutor happens to have about him. In short, the modem poetic audience, when it is not taking in its own washing, is a student audience, pure and simple. At first sight this may not seem a bad thing. The poet has at last a moral ascendancy, and his new clientele not only pay for the poetry but pay to have it explained afterwards. Again, if the poet has only himself to please, he is no longer handicapped by the limitations of his audience. And in any case nobody nowadays believes that a worthwhile artist can rely on anything but his own judgement: public taste is always twenty-five years behind, and picks up a style only when it is exploited by the second-rate. All this is true enough. But at bottom poetry, like all art, is inextricably bound up with giving pleasure, and if a poet loses his pleasure-seeking audience he has lost the only audience worth having, for which the dutiful mob that signs on every September is no substitute. And the effect will be felt throughout his work. He will forget that even if he finds what he has to say interesting, others may not. He will concentrate on moral worth or semantic intricacy. Worst of all, his poems will no longer be born of the tension between what he non-verbally feels and what can be got over in common word-usage to someone who hasn't had his experience or education or travel grant, and once the other end of the rope is dropped what results will not be so much obscure or piffling (though it may be both) as an unrealized, 'undramatized' slackness, because he will have lost the habit of testing what he writes by this particular standard. Hence, no pleasure. Hence, no poetry.

What can be done about this? Who wants anything done about it? Certainly not the poet, who is in the unprecedented position of peddling both his work and the standard by which it is judged. Certainly not the new reader, who, like a partner of some unconsummated marriage, has no idea of anything better. Certainly not the old reader, who has simply replaced one pleasure with another. Only the romantic loiterer who recalls the days when poetry was condemned as sinful might wish things different. But if the medium is in fact to be rescued from among our duties and restored to our pleasures, I can only think that a large-scale revulsion has got to set in against present notions, and that it will have to start with poetry readers asking themselves more frequently whether they do in fact enjoy what they read, and, if not, what the point is of carrying on. And I use' enjoy' in the commonest of senses, the sense in which we leave a radio on or off. Those interested might like to read David Daiches's essay 'The New Criticism: Some Qualifications' (in Literary Essays, 1956); in the meantime, the following note by Samuel Butler may reawaken a furtive itch for freedom: 'I should like to like Schumann's music better than I do; I dare say I could make myself like it better if I tried; but I do not like having to try to make myself like things; I like things that make me like them at once and no trying at all' (Notebooks, 1919).

Monday, October 15, 2007

Amores: Josie Bliss (I)

Neruda told the story of Josie Bliss in his memoirs, Isla Negra, then he composed a book of poems inspired by his memorias.

Loves: Josie Bliss (I)

What became of the furious one?
It was war
the gilded city
that drowned her, so that neither
her written threats
nor her electric blasphemies could get out
to find me again, to persecute me
as they did so many days, in that faraway place,
so many hours
that time and oblivion
took care of, one by one,
until, at last, she can be named as death,
death, bad word, black earth
in which Josie Bliss
will rest in her rage.

She would add up
my absent years
wrinkle by wrinkle, as they probably gathered
on her face from the grief I gave her;
because she was waiting for me on the other side of the world.
I never came, but in the empty
in the dead dining room,
maybe my silence wasted away,
my faraway footsteps,
and maybe until death she saw me
as if through water,
as if I were swimming in glass,
slow of movement,
and she couldn't take hold of me
and would lose me
every day, in the pale lagoon
on which her gaze was fixed.
Until she finally closed her eyes -
when was that?
Until time and death covered her over -
when was that?
Until hate and love bore her away -
Until she who loved me in rage,
in blood, in revenge,
in jasmines,
couldn't go on talking to herself,
gazing at the lagoon of my absence.

Now, maybe,
she rests restlessly
in the great cemetery in Rangoon,
or maybe on the banks
of the Irrawaddy they burned her body
all afternoon, while
the river murmured
things that I might have said to her in tears.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Hallelujah I'm a Bum

I finished my final day of work yesterday, but the momentousness of the occasion has yet to sink in. Maybe I'll be ready to celebrate when I fly out on the 23rd.

To my sorrow, I saw through the necessity of work at a very young age. I had gone with my parents to a Shoney's restaurant every Sunday for years, and the manager would always be there with his hellos and smiles. My sister once worked there as a waitress (where she developed her insatiable taste for maraschino cherries) and recommended me to the manager as a prospective busboy. I was all of fifteen, and I was hired practically on the spot and reported for work on a Saturday afternoon to find that I was the only busboy on hand for the night. Instead of smiles, the manager was suddenly a complete asshole to me - snapping his fingers when I didn't move fast enough, constantly telling me what I was doing wrong, and even accusing me of stealing the waitresses' tips. I quickly learned the lesson - the Golden Rule, who has the gold rules. I told the manager to fuck off and walked out.

This was the beginning of my very rocky job history that ended with a whimper yesterday. I don't have a red cent to show for 30-plus years of work. I spent nearly half of it in the military, which I wasn't cut out for either. The only time I even came close to being sold on the American Dream was when I was married (to a Filipina) and I wanted to have what everyone else wants. But I wasn't good at it. I suppose my heart wasn't in it. I simply could never forget the sight of that Shoney's manager bussing tables as I walked away from the restaurant on that fateful Saturday night.

I can still see him there, the poor asshole. I'll never work again. Hallelujah, I'm a bum.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Neruda Part Two

I'll let Neruda relate the rest of his adventures in the Far East. Upon his arrival in Columbo, Ceylon, after abandoning his life and his mistress in Burma:

"Something came to throw a cloud over those days literally burned away by the sun. Without warning, my Burmese love, the tempestuous Josie Bliss, pitched camp in front of my house. She had come all the way from her far-off country. Believing that rice was not grown anywhere except in Rangoon, she arrived with a sack of it on her back, with our favorite Paul Robeson records, and a long, rolled-up mat. She spent all her time posted at the front door, looking out for anyone who came to visit me, and she would pounce on them and insult them. I can see her now, consumed by her overwhelming jealousy, threatening to burn down my house, and attacking a sweet Eurasian girl who had come to pay a call.

"The colonial police considered her uncontrollable behavior a focus of disruption in the quiet street, and I was warned that she would be thrown out of the country if I didn't take her in. I felt wretched for days, racked between the tenderness her unhappy love stirred in me and the terror I had of her. I didn't dare let her set foot in my house. She was a love-smitten terrorist, capable of anything.

"One day, at last, she made up her mind to go away. She begged me to go with her to the ship. When it was time to weigh anchor and I had to go ashore, she wrenched away from the passengers around her, and seized by a gust of grief and love, she covered my face with kisses and bathed me with her tears. She kissed my arms, my suit, in a kind of ritual, and suddenly slipped down to my shoes, before I could stop her. When she stood up again, the chalk polish of my white shoes was smeared like flour all over her face. I couldn't ask her to give up her trip, to leave the ship with me instead of going away forever. My better judgement prevented me from doing that, but my heart received a great scar which is still part of me. That unrestrained grief, those terrible tears rolling down her chalky face, are still fresh in my memory."

note: The official name for Ceylon is now Sri Lanka, which is merely a different transliteration of the word "Ceylon."

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Burma and Neruda

The events in Burma (the Generals now want us to call it Myanmar, so I call it Burma) this past week reminded me of Pablo Neruda and his lonely stay there in the late 1920s. Appointed an Honorary Consul to Burma by the government of Chile, Neruda found himself in direct conflict with the British ruling establishment there, and found himself embroiled in a passionate affair with a Burmese panther who called herself "Josie Bliss." Only later did Neruda tell us who exactly he was addressing as "Oh Maligna" in his poem "Tango del Viudo" (Widower's Tango), published at the beginning of Part III of his Residencia en la Tierra, and relate the strange story of his involvement with her.

I have often wondered that no one has tried to make a film of this story - of the insensate jealousy of Josie Bliss, of how Neruda would be awakened by a movement and see her pacing around his mosquito netted bed with a glinting knife, torn between her love and her jealousy which wanted to kill him rather than endure it any more. Then Neruda received his orders of transfer to Ceylon, and he withheld the news from Josie Bliss, and, when the day of his departure arrived, dressed as he always did to go off to work and instead boarded the ship that would carry him away from her - leaving behind everything he had collected during his stay: every book and photograph, only so she wouldn't suspect.

On the ship the first lines of "Widower's Tango" came to him:

"Oh evil one, you must by now have found the letter, you must
have wept with fury,
and you must have insulted my mother's memory,
calling her rotten bitch and mother of dogs,
you must have drunk, all by yourself, your twilight tea,
looking at my old shoes forever empty,...

Friday, October 5, 2007

Happy Days Are There Again

Several years ago I submitted the following piece to Senses of Cinema for them to include in their festival report section. Fiona Villella [sp?], then editor-in-chief of the e-zine politely turned it down. I present it here, just for the hell of it.

Happy Days are There Again

Ten years after the second most powerful volcanic eruption of the 20th-century buried it under as much as four meters of pumice, ash, and a cement-like mixture called lahar, Angeles City, Philippines announced its resurrection to what it hoped would be a world audience in the unlikely form of an international film festival.

Optimistically called the "Golden Phoenix," the grand prize was never awarded, since the festival ended prematurely with the armed robbery of the box office receipts and the gilded trophy itself. The chronically underpaid Philippine police have yet to trace a lead.

No matter. The purpose of the festival was to assure foreign investors that Angeles City, contrary to popular belief, is back on the map, awaiting recognition as central Luzon's premier tourist attraction. That wait may be longer than city developers expect, but it won't deter Angeleans from pretending that the dark days following the desertion of the United States armed forces from Clark Air Base are finally over. The sun shines as brightly and as relentlessly as ever on the dusty outpost, a rest stop on the highway from Manila to Baguio, and it seems to be just as good a reason as any to celebrate - something Filipinos seem to have an endless capacity for.

Home to a motley collection of expats from Australia, America and Europe, Angeles is easily the unlikeliest place you'd expect to find a resort - even a nebulous one like this. But, for better or worse, the expats are the backbone of this revival - the ones who hung on to their property during the first bleak months after Mt Pinatubo so overwhelmingly devalued it, as well as those who bought up the property when it was worthless, somehow believing that one day there would be a whopping return on their investments.

No one could have foreseen such a turn of events - not just the inevitable revival of Angeles City as the commercial hub for Pampanga province, something Filipinos could handle by themselves; but the return of the girlie bars which once skirted Clark Air base, a phenomenon unintentionally abetted by Mayor Lim's crackdown on the trade in Manila. But the clientele of the bars has aged considerably since the U.S. Air Force unceremoniously flew away to more hospitable bases in Guam and Okinawa. Balibago, the Angeles suburb in which most of the bars are situated, resembles more than ever a retirement community with girls.

The bar girls seem to be at least as likely as bar owners to seek a haven in Angeles. The hundreds of bars which once lined Magsaysay Drive in Olongapo and the dozens more which lit up Manila in a somewhat garish light have long since closed for an interminable off season, leaving thousands of women, many of them not so young any more, to seek gainful employment elsewhere. For most of them, as for so many Filipinos, such employment is nonexistent. Some of the girls could have done worse, surely, than follow the bar owners to Angeles.

But girlie bars weren't supposed to be the main attraction in Angeles last March. The event organizers promised as "The Last Ever Angeles City International Film Festival" advertised an impressive list of world famous celebrity attendees: Jackie Chan, Sylvester Stallone, and Gerard Depardieu. Only later, when these megastars were conspicuous in their absence, was it explained that they had merely been sent invitations. They were otherwise not obligated to attend. And if that weren't disappointing enough (I'd actually looked forward to meeting Depardieu), even the handful of Filipino celebrities who could presumably have been counted on to show up either just popped in to say "hi" or excused themselves with prior commitments.

Such are the vagaries of this somewhat insular country, which always seems more than a little oblivious of what's good for it. Despite this show of national and international disinterest, the festival was kicked off with the world premier of Little Shaolin, Part 5, which had to change venues due to a momentary (three hour) blackout (which Filipinos, optimistically as ever, call a "brownout"). And a Lifetime Achievement Award was given to an American director from Hollywood's Golden Age who looked as if he'd been disinterred for the occasion. No one I spoke to had ever heard of him, and the old man was gracious - or cantankerous - enough to discount the significance of the event with a self-effacing and uproarious speech.

Most of the other screenings, I soon discovered, were of what are known hereabouts as "bold" movies - X-rated even in the absence of a rating system. And when a "Miss Phoenix" beauty contest climaxed with the contestants shedding their bikini tops - the winner, naked except for her crown and a smile, having given the male judges the most stimulating lap dance - I realized that I was far from Cannes, and even farther from the other City of Angels - L.A.

By the time the thieves struck, terrorizing the poor ticket girls with their automatic weapons, just about everyone had seen quite enough. Stealing the Golden Phoenix was probably an afterthought when only a few thousand pesos turned up in the theater's safe. But it was a sorry consolation prize, since it had nothing gold about it except a thin coat of paint. The thieves, bunglers of an already bungled event, would probably have taken little pleasure in the knowledge that they had spared us the last days of this dubious festival. The only objections came from some disgruntled residents who were obliged to clean up the considerable mess a week early, without further assurances that they were to paid for their labors.

With the remaining days on my return ticket, I had just enough time to take a sentimental journey, carefully retracing the steps of a prior visit, reacquainting myself with old companions, and once again learning to forgive this place its little absurdities. Mount Pinatubo, still very much an active volcano, can do little more to Angeles than it already has, except maybe enrich the soil for the local sugar cane growers with its occasional effluences of ash or force the bar owners to hire otherwise indigent men and women to sweep the ash off their doorsteps. They've all learned in the last four years, as I learned in just three weeks, that there are worse things than volcanic eruptions. There are film festivals.

Dahan Dahan

I was in Thailand for my birthday in 1993. In my hotel, I saw a music video on tv on a Hong Kong-based channel. It was by a Philippine artist named Viktoria, "Dahan Dahan," sung entirely in Tagalog, a language with which I was only just becoming acquainted.

Later that same year I was in the Philippines, and I saw the video again, and I went out and bought the tape. Some of the lines from the song "Dahan Dahan" stay with me: "Di kita iiwan" (I'll love you forever) and "Puso ko ibibigay sa iyo" (I give you my heart). But the title, which means step by step or gradually, became a sort of title for a great love affair that began at about the time I bought the tape, and hasn't as yet ended. When I told the girl that as long as I lived "Dahan Dahan" would be "our song," a serious, almost frightened look came over her face.

I recently found the video on You Tube. Here it is.

Charles Nicholl: In Love With Being Lost

There is a magnificent poem by a 20th-century Scots poet named Norman Cameron called "The Voyage to Secrecy":

The morn of his departure, men could say
‘Either by such a way or such a way,’
And, a week later, still, by plotting out
The course of all the roadways round about,
‘In these some score of places he may be.’
How many days the voyage to secrecy?
Always the milestones by the road hark back
To whence he came, and those in idleness
Can bound his range with map and compasses.

When shall their compasses strain wide and crack,
And alien milestones, with strange figures,
Baffle the sagest of geographers?

The poem, virtually forgotten but for some out-of-print anthologies, is a marvelous evocation of a common desire: to lose oneself. Great novels like Pirandello's The Late Mattia Pascal and films like Antonioni's The Passenger explore much the same territory - the flight beyond the boundaries of selfhood, of identity.

Where could such a journey begin? And where could it possibly lead? Charles Nicholl, who has written several splendid books (about Arthur Rimbaud in Africa, Walter Raleigh's last voyage and his own strange visit to Thailand), also reviews books on similar themes. Christians in a Pagan Place is a book review on a woman's visit to Pitcairn Island, the refuge of the Bounty mutineers. To circumvent the popups and ads, I reprint it here.

Serpent in Paradise by Dea Birkett, Picador, pounds 16.99

Though her destination was not notably dangerous, Dea Birkett's journey to Pitcairn Island strikes me as remarkably intrepid. Known to historians as the last resting-place of the Bounty mutineers, to philatelists as a much-prized postmark and to nostalgic imperialists as a last remnant of the British Empire, Pitcairn is a mere speck in the South Pacific, a mile long by a mile and a half wide. Its 18th-century discoverer, Captain Philip Carteret, described it as "scarce better than a large rock in the ocean".

It is 1,000 miles from the nearest large island, Tahiti, and more than 3,000 miles from New Zealand, whence it is nominally governed by a British High Commissioner who has never visited it. The 1991 census gave the population as 40; by the time Birkett arrived it was down to 38. The island's telephone system consists of one party line, its school has nine pupils, its fleet a pair of longboats named Tug and Tin. Herein lies the intrepidity, in this mix of remoteness and claustrophobia. It is like being stuck in a small village several weeks' journey from anywhere. Add to this the ascetic rule-book of Seventh Day Adventism - drinking and smoking are illegal, dancing and cards frowned upon - and you have a destination more forbidding than the deepest jungle or the iciest pole.

This sort of assignment is Birkett's forte. Her book Jella described a journey on a cargo ship from Lagos to Liverpool. She is one of a tough new breed of woman writers, like the Antarctic traveller Sara Wheeler. She feigned a tenuous research project on the Pitcairn postal service, and packed a trunk with writing equipment, mosquito repellent, a copy of Return to Laughter by the anthropologist Elenore Smith Bowen, a large tin of instant coffee, and "enough tampons to last until my menopause". After many false starts, she got passage on a Norwegian cargo ship plying out of Houston, Texas. Nearing Pitcairn the captain used a chart compiled in 1825 - the most recent available. Arriving, she is immersed in the rough, awkward intimacy of this remote and inbred community. She is disappointed to find that the "home in paradise" she has dreamed of "resembles a second-hand electrical appliance shop". She is warmed, puzzled and sometimes seared by her hosts, Irma and Ben, and their son Dennis - who is asserting his independence by moving 50 yards up the street - and the large spider which lives in the "duncan", or privy. Her story is told with candour and humour. She is spikily observant, but there is a deep background note of tenderness for these hardy people.

She has some tough trips aboard the longboats, but the deeper dangers are personal - flickerings of sexual attraction, old feuds, loneliness. "There was a pattern to Pitcairn which I could not see, a rhythm which I could not hear, like a dog's whistle when I wasn't a dog." At times she almost buckles under the pressure and longs to say, "I'm off for the weekend. See you soon!" "But there was nowhere to go . . . It was the same heavy air, the same tangled weed and trees, the same clawing mud on every corner of the island." And behind it hovers the ghost-ship Bounty, a true but fantastic story in which "what had happened and what we wanted to have happened were from the very beginning confused".

Little is known about the lives of the nine mutineers who settled on the uninhabited island in January 1790, with assorted Tahitians, under the leadership of Fletcher Christian. Most, including Christian, were killed by Tahitians in 1793, but one John Adams lived until 1829. Mystery surrounds his identity: there is no John Adams on the Bounty's muster-list. There are reasons to believe he was Able-Seaman Aleck Smith, but a more colourful theory suggests he was Christian. Birkett visits Adams's grave, but later learns it was a fake. The original is in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, as is his blond pigtail, catalogued blandly, length 190mm, width 16mm: "The length and width of a garden worm."

Most of today's Pitcairners are direct descendants of the mutineers. The surname Christian still flourishes, and confers power and status. In the last pages Birkett writes that "We all hold a place within our hearts - a perfect place - which is in the shape of an island. It provides refuge and strength . . . My mistake was to go there." It was certainly not a mistake in terms of good copy. Whatever her regrets, she has written a charming and perceptive account of life in this curiously dour tropical paradise.

(Charles Nicholl "Books: Christians in a pagan place". Independent, The (London). May 31, 1997.)