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.

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