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April 19, 2004

DONG AMPIL DE LOS REYES

At a reforestation site in Siera Madre foothills, my three children chanced upon a fat pugo (quail) in the cogon grass. Startled, the bird took flight, pumping its wings madly and rising barely more than a meter above the ground. “Habol! (Get him) I thundered, darting after the fugitive. The kids squealed in glee as they broke into a run. The pugo covered abou 70 meters, then plopped into the bushes. But the children were at the drop site almost at once and startled him for another leg of the marry chase. Again, the furious pumping of the wings, the sudden dive for another cover after some 50 meters. The youngster wouldn’t be shaken off and shooed the bird off with their joyous threats, not pausing to catch their breaths. After another 50-meter flight the poor pugo dropped,  froze, but was promptly scooped out of a knot of grass by my boy as he yelled in triumph. Sheer delight dictated the adrenaline-charge pace of the chase and the children unwittingly learned rhythm therefore.

A couch potato opts to be dictated upon by the rhythm of the small or wide screen. His passivity allows the film maker to play the crudest tricks on him. Trompe l’ oeil. The viewer can be fooled again and again.

Critic Beinvenido Lumbera contends that the local movies run like a runny nose, paced to  match the filipino sense of rhythm which, he surmises, is based on the movement of carabao-drawn carts, sled and similar slow-moving  farm vehicles. The pinoy may move out of the countryside but countryside stays with him. Even thebuhol-buhol (tangled), usad-kuhol na trapik (snail-paced traffic) of Metro Manila makes sure of that. Thus the Pinoy predilection for the largo or adagio tempo of the kundiman, ballad, slow rock, the Lenten pabasa, and My Way .

Novelist Wilfrido Nolledo asserts that the just-right rhythm in film can be nurtured. His advice: ride a bus. American filmmaker Steven Spielberg, he thinks, must have cultivated his sharp feel and rhythm during cross-country Greyhound bus rides.

But vehicle-bred rhythm smack of subservience, or surrender. It paints a picture of a lumbering beast or an assemblage of soot-belching steel imposing its tempo on its human cargo.

Cart-bred rhythm hints of lassitude, languor and stasis of cesspool, or of the time wasting method of an inept bureaucracy. The Pinoy films, one suspects, cultivate a culture of red tape, procrastination, inertia or sloth.

Just as dehumanizing is machine-bred rhythm. While it doesn’t reduce the viewer to the level of a beast of burden fed on the fodder of dry imaginary or visual slops, Hollywood sucks the viewer into the eddy of the glitter and gloss.

A few films treat the  malady afflicting the Hollywood-film lover. Al Yankovich parodied the cut-throat contest for TV rating in UHF. In videorome, David Cronenberg painted the scenario resulting from viewing a surfeit of sex and violence. Wes Craven’s Shocker briefly satirized the moron miron (kibitzer) made passive by celulloid action.

Bestial rhythm strikes the viewer dumb; mechanical rhythm makes him numb. Viewing a moving picture often means estrangement, not necessarily engagement, with whatever is happening on-screen. Engagement means getting into the picture, escaping the passivity of the viewing and taking part in the multidimensional life being viewed –life from which are drawn the skein and tangle of threads to weave artifacts such as painting, film, or writing. (Estranged from the fullness of life, an artist weaves rags instead of tapestries.).

Getting into the picture entails the nurturing of a rhythm that is entirely human. The life-and-death engagement of the oriental martial arts hint at such a rhythm. Consider taijiquan or the so-called “supreme ultimate fist. The student must complete its 108 forms in about 20 minutes as he fuses thought to every languid body movement. The body becomes the vehicle defining rhythm.

Taijiquan for martial applications, however, demands the execution of the same set of forms in 10 minutes or less. And in an actual fight the taijiquan disciple unleashes two or three moves with the least exertion, quicker than the eye: a lethal trompe l’ oeil.

Human thought steers every movement, defining rhythm in its own terms. Unlike that absorbed from riding a vehicle, rhythm defined when thought becomes a rider /driver–and body the vehicle–is entirely human. The sharp feel for rhythm may be purely personal, as individual as perception. And perception differs.

Let’s get back to rhythm movies. Haiku was developed with the human heart as metronome. A few film makers like Erwin Castillo, Narciso Reyes Jr. and Pio Castro III transmute haiku to celluloid and present them as 30-second commercials. These are visual haikus: short bursts of images, like a knockout punch delivered with an economy of movement.

Movement frozen in snapshots are strung together and unwound at roughly 12 snapshot per second to stimulate motion. One snapshop in that dozen present the package at its most expressive, most vulnerable. The sharp editor can pick up the snapshot, discard five or seven, and wedge that most expressive picture right there in the middle of the sequence. Or the sharp cinematographer can zero in on those shots and spare the film editor the troubles. Result: motion-picture images like haiku, not unlike taijiquan’s lethal poetry in motion.