Saturday, February 28, 2009

Notes on the Way

JUST about the only spark of interest generated during one of the most boring Academy Award ceremonies on record were Sean Penn's remarks about equal rights for gays. Penn, a straight man, was apparently convincing enough as a gay man in Gus Van Sant's Milk (1) to win him the Oscar for Best Actor. The guy he was playing in the film was Harvey Milk, a political activist in San Francisco who was what they like to call "openly gay".(2) He was murdered by a gay-hating colleague. A few years ago we were treated to Ang Lee's classically tragic film Brokeback Mountain, which told the story of two gay men (played beautifully by - you guessed it - two straight actors, one of whom was the late Heath Ledger) whose unhappy lives were the result of their having to conceal their gayness or risk being killed. One of them eventually meets this fate, although his official cause of death was an "accident".

Unlike Sean Penn, I am not altogether certain that gay marriage would be a panacea. Civil Rights certainly did not put an end to racism or race discrimination. And women's suffrage decades before gave women the vote but failed to put a dent in sexism and sex discrimination. Gay rights would seem to be little more than the latest in a long line of cudgels our young and shaky democracy takes up every now and then with which to beat itself into a just and fair society.

Where custom is lacking, only the law, apparently, can protect people from the more blatant forms of intolerance. And even if gay marriage is a legal issue rather than a moral one, a fact of which the defenders of the "sanctity of marriage" are oblivious, it does not obscure the obvious inability of Americans to accept diversity and common civility unless they are compelled to do so.

Somehow in the Philippines, probably having to do with cultural standards, gays - or baklas as they are popularly, if stereotypically, called - are both more open with their differences and more accepted, perhaps, because of it. Gay women, known as tomboys, are less prevalent (at least to my foreign eyes) but no less accepted. Philippine society is relatively straight-laced, but the presence of effeminate men in popular entertainment (films, television comedies and dramas, reality shows and game shows) is a kind of acceptance. Gay marriage, in a Catholic country in which divorce is still illegal, is a fairly dim prospect. But there is at least a rock bottom understanding that prohibitions are useless and that merely opposing a personal difference will never stop it or make it go away.

(1) Van Sant has made one film - Gerry (2002) that has interested me. The rest are terribly arch or silly or both.
(2) George Carlin made nonsense of this stupid terminology when he swapped it with the equally stupid "happens to be", as in "he happens to be black", viz: "Colin Powell is openly white, but happens to be black".

IN other Oscar news, everyone is hailing Slumdog Millionaire as a triumph for "Bollywood". The only Indian to win an award for the film was the composer of the film's musical score. All the other awards went to Englishmen. Exploitation?

THE United States government has at long last (sixty-four years late) recognized the service that thousands of Filipinos did to the American war effort in World War II, fighting with American forces for the liberation of the Philippines from Japanese occupation. A small episode in that liberation was recently dramatized in the painstakingly factual and utterly lifeless film The Great Raid (2005). The U.S. government's recognition includes monetary compensation, a lump sum of $9,000 (420,000 pesos). However that curious number was arrived at, I am certainly not alone in the Philippines in saying it is far too little and far too late.

Just watching the sad parade of old men walking or, in many cases, being wheeled, into the U.S. Veterans Affairs stations to file their claims, some of them wearing their medals and the Veterans of Foreign Wars hats, gets me steamed at my government. Already, I hear, there are thieves descending on some of the unwary to "help" them file their claims and collect their checks. President Arroyo announced that her government will assist in the processing of claims. However pure her intentions may be, I think that this is a matter that the U.S. Embassy and Veterans Affairs should handle by themselves. It is the very least they can do for these heroes.

IN 1955, a film was released called Marcelino pan y vino, about a little boy adopted by Catholic monks who discovers a life-sized crucifix in an attic and has conversations with Jesus. I saw the film when I was attending parochial school in South Carolina, and I was profoundly disturbed when Jesus found it necessary to take the little boy with him back to heaven. Not to be outdone, the Philippine TV network, ABS-CBN is currently airing a series called May Bukas Pa during prime time in which a little boy adopted by Catholic monks discovers a statue of Jesus on the monastery grounds and has conversations with Him. The boy even calls Jesus "Bro". In the 1955 film, we never actually see the Savior or hear His voice. In the Filipino series, we see a very white-skinned Jesus, his face discreetly averted from the camera, and hear his conversations with the boy. The boy is also equipped with miraculous healing powers, which brings the monastery alot of unwelcome publicity and trouble. I only hope the series will follow the example of the film and allow Jesus to take the little tike with Him back to heaven, where he obviously belongs.

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