№ 9. Agatha Christie, Yin Xin, and Intentions in Imitation

(On weekends, a smorgasbord of discoveries made both offline and online will be featured here, to celebrate how the Internet is full of oddities and ideas from the real world.)


1. Murder on the Orient Express

Since its release in 1934, Agatha Christie’s best-selling novel about a murder on the Calais Coach has repeatedly been hailed one of the greatest pieces in her collection, if not one of the best whodunits of all time. Her story’s confined set-up and most shocking plot twist — as well as its eccentric but much-loved protagonist, Monsieur Hercule Poirot — altogether make for a compelling inquiry into the ambiguous limits of human morality.

The novel’s acclaimed film adaptation from 1974 did not fail to touch on the many faces of this morality. It did not hurt to be aided in this endeavor by a cast of the most notable names in their day: Ingrid Bergman, Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, and Sean Connery, to name a few. Acclaimed thespian and director Kenneth Branagh seeks to recreate this feat later in 2017, although strangely there are no trailers for the movie yet. Here’s hoping that the remake will not be a disappointment to both new and old fans of this curious case.

2. After Old Masters

The French term chinoiserie pertains to an artistic style that incorporates East Asian motifs into European art; an early, acceptable sort of cultural appropriation, it may be said. The Chinese artist Yin Xin subverts this in a collection called After Old Masters | another perspective, where he takes some of the most recognizable European paintings of old and gives their subjects Asian features. The point of such a vision, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London claims, is “to stress how the observer’s perception of artistic value is determined by his or her cultural context.”

To be sure, the collection alludes to the universality of the likes of Manet, Vermeer, Botticelli — but it also hints at the literal lack of non-European faces in what is perceived as mainstream art.

3. Google Fortunetelling

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“Of course we can’t predict your future!” the user is later chastised in the results page of Google Fortunetelling, an awareness project initiated by the world’s largest search engine. With the Syrian refugee crisis continuing to grow every day with no signs of abating, unaffected people elsewhere someday might just come to reduce the victims’ numbers to a mere statistic and cease caring altogether. After all, continued exposure to an issue tends to desensitize a person, and many of us are prone to not caring about problems abroad until the same thing happens in our own neighborhood.

The faux-fortunetelling site is then but one of a few creative means to keep netizens engaged in, even sympathetic to, the plight of the refugees. Only time may tell if the website will continue to circulate, to make others stop and think, but with luck and humane structural solutions, the site need not operate for very long.

4. “Beauty and the Beast” Karaoke [Philippines politics edition]

Not for the first time, Filipinos turn to humor to alleviate the feeling of civilian helplessness over our turbulent political scene. In this case, humor comes in the form of a lyrical breakdown of Celine Dion’s iconic “Beauty and the Beast” — the theme song of the Disney classic whose 2017 remake became the sixth all-time highest-grossing movie in the Philippines less than two weeks after its local release.

Twitter user Stewart O‘s thread is neither a parody nor a translation, but a visualization of the lyrics that just happens to correspond with the more frustrating episodes of our national government’s drama. Read it and weep, laugh, or sing along.

5. Commonwealth x ASICS GEL-Lyte V “Kultura”
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Tributes and homages to old traditions abound in all modern industries, and not least in the world of fashion. When said homage is paid by way of a product, however, a very fine line exists between honoring and profiteering. Such is the problem with locally unknown brand Commonwealth, whose collaboration with the equivalently popular name ASICS has spawned the “Kultura” footwear, “a sneaker that pays homage to one of the [Philippines’] preserved traditions.”

This tradition is none other than batok, a form of hand-tap body art originating from the Kalinga ethnic group in the Cordillera region of Luzon. Its oldest and most notable practitioner is century-old Apo Whang Od, whose bucketlist-level fame among tourists and international backpackers is doubtlessly what brought said art into the radar of Commonwealth in the first place; and the part that does not merit enough indignation as it ought to is that no matter how well-intentioned the tribute, it only betrays how poorly the tradition is understood.

At the end of the day, batok is ideally administered only to persons having physically and mentally proven themselves to their tribe, but the sneaker user — almost reminiscently of the Philippine colonial experience — has bypassed that rite of earning the tattoo for an easy US$ 160.

Of course, not all patrons of this product will be uninformed; the issue nonetheless remains that the price to pay for convenient access to an art is actually the cheapening and misunderstanding of said art. This may conjure up the long-standing debate between exclusivity and accessibility in art, but that had best be elaborated on another time. For now, let it be said that imitation might only be the sincerest form of flattery when it is not done for the mere sake of imitating.

 

№ 8. Alignment Charts, Women’s March Signs, and the Duty to Posterity

(On weekends, a smorgasbord of discoveries made both offline and online will be featured here, to celebrate how the Internet is full of oddities and ideas from the real world.)


1. Mia & Sebastian’s Theme

When Damien Chazelle’s La La Land debuted at the Venice Film Festival in mid-2016, most critics hailed it as a “magical love letter to the golden age of Hollywood.” Today, it suffers from backlash caused by audiences having had more time since then to nitpick the movie’s flaws, from its oversimplification of jazz history to its unfailingly whitewashed cast.

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Nevertheless, the film’s music and aesthetics undoubtedly pay homage to classic predecessors from the twentieth century. Mia & Sebastian’s Theme, for example, is a brief melody that encapsulates the two lovers’ trajectory in the same way that Casablanca‘s As Time Goes By vocalized the romance between Rick and Ilsa.

The former piece, alternatively known as Late for the Date for reasons shown in the movie, is best heard in its simpler piano version. In one interpretation, i.e. this writer’s, it is a poignant anthem of might-have-beens — especially in the context of Sebastian and Mia’s story. The first few bars communicate a weary, wistful sadness, which later builds up to what only comes across as lonely indignation at the ending that, for better or for worse, did not materialize.

2. Alignment charts

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For players of tabletop and online role-playing games alike, character alignment is basic knowledge in character generation — and yet in the course of decades, the use of alignment charts has crossed over to mainstream pop culture. They are now used to classify pre-existing characters, both fictitious and real, though not always do aficionados of Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, or even American history fully appreciate the nuances of said chart.

Alignment is premised on two intersecting measures: morality and ethics. In arguably reductionist terms, the former imposes a standard for right and wrong and is thus more norm-based, while the latter induces one to choose what is typically good in consideration of the present society. In any case, the morality spectrum is often composed of good, neutral, and evil; lawful, neutral, and chaotic comprise the ethics spectrum. Combined, the two spectra generate at least nine unique character variations that fit even with most contemporary, non-RPG applications.

3. Discarded Women’s March signs

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While rallies in the past had often been reliable sources of paper waste, the Women’s Marches around the world last January paved the way to a new destination for demonstration signs: museums and libraries. The Newberry Library in Chicago, the Bishopsgate Institute in London, and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History were but some of the institutions that quickly acted on the potential of discarded local protest signs to be artifacts of academic study. After all, while the marches mainly revolved around the hate-promoting ideas of American president Donald Trump, the protests were phrased through many different lenses: from feminism and women’s rights, to LGBTQ rights, and so on.

The myriad signs mirror the variety of voices accordingly, and the opportunities of study from there on are endless. Any archives will prove to be just as serviceable for historians as for political scientists, sociologists, even design professors.

4. Ex Urbe

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Amidst all the long-form blogs that populate today’s heavily profit-driven cyberspace — and these are rare enough in occurrence — Ex Urbe is one that strikes just the right balance between personal presence and intellectual substance. Ada Palmer writes with pizzazz on a wide array of topics ranging from European history, her academic specialization, to gelato and Marvel movies. Her website is a role model for budding academics’ own attempts, like this one.

5. #KwentongJollibeeValentineSeries

Since the dawn of the advertising industry, romance has yet to fail as a marketing approach regardless of the time of year. In the Filipino setting, where even in politics appeals to emotion take precedence over logical reasoning, one can only imagine the year-long proliferation of such-themed commercials, not to mention the increased hype every February. For instance, Jollibee’s three new Valentine Series videos recently went trending on Twitter because of the sheer volume of reactions to what already may have been plots in a local television drama or commercial.

These videos are targeted at millennial Filipino audiences, who are currently perceived to be all about hugot (sentimental) culture. Older and/or more YouTube-savvy netizens, however, would know that the ending in “Vow” is similar to a 2009 ad released by McDonald’s Philippines entitled “First Love (Huling El Bimbo),” or that the romance unfolding in “Crush” has been the premise of many a local teeny-bopper film. Critics have also been quick to point out that Jollibee seemed to have no qualms profiting off the idea of a loved one’s death in “Date.” As with La La Land, more people are calling the videos an advertising backfire only now that the initial rush of emotions has cleared up.

Of course, the intention is to celebrate love, and that ought not to be lost even on the naysayers. The notion of advertising agencies running out of original ideas nonetheless calls to mind the possibility that at our current rate of production and consumption, one day our collective pool of ideas could become saturated. In that case, one solution would be to recall an old idea and modernize it, à la Ratatouille, and this could be justified by claiming a celebration of the past.

Still, up to how many times are we justified in our nostalgia — and for that matter, in recreating or modernizing an old idea? True, our duty to posterity may be to keep knowledge alive for their own appreciation and instruction later, but given the current state of things, some people are wont to think that certain ideas are better off kept from future minds’ perusal. Then again, history will only prove that studying history is necessary, however painful, though that is a matter for another post.

 

№ 7. Farewells, Beginnings, and the Beauty in Uncertainty

(On this first post of the new year, a smorgasbord of discoveries made online will be featured here, to make up for how the real world was more disappointing than not last 2016.)


1. nagsasanib

Described as a channel for “visuals in conversation,” nagsasanib is a long-distance art project that shows how any two places can be as alike as they are different. One only needs to point the camera in the right direction — to echo the late John Berger.

Juxtaposition is one of the more recurrent means of generating what passes for art these days, popular examples of which would be by Alexey Kondakov, Dr. Propolus, even Fly Art Productions. Then again, these outputs often involve building on previous, often classical artworks; generating then juxtaposing original works is infinitely more challenging. Still, everpresent in any artwork is some degree of pretentiousness, which is why it might be a relief to consider that the nagsasanib project’s appeal lies not in its tumblr-esque aesthetic. Geography is what really gives meaning to this collaboration, one of whose creators is in Metro Manila while the other is based in San Francisco.

Interestingly, nagsasanib loosely translates to ‘combining or overlapping’ — but because of the common word ‘lap,’ some translation websites have come to associate the root verb sanib with kandong, which in turn means ‘to have on one’s lap.’ Even though it only began this January, the long-distance project becomes all the more meaningful.

2. Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events
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On this month’s fateful Friday the 13th, Netflix released its much-hyped adaptation of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events book series — a phrase which here means “the thirteen-volume chronicle on the woeful, calamitous lives of the three Baudelaire orphans.” The Netflix remake literally brought Lemony Snicket’s character out of the enigmatic silhouette previously cast in the 2004 movie version; this was but one of the few major moves intended to distinguish the series from its cinematic predecessor. Within hours, the reviews turned out to be mostly positive, although any adaptation is always fraught with the misfortune of coming under closer scrutiny than is the case for shows with original screenplays. Of course, comparisons are made not only between the series and the movie, but between the series and the books as well.

This eight-episode pilot season only dramatizes the first four books; time will tell if the two more seasons needed to complete the series shall materialize. Given that it is a Lemony Snicket story, The End is bound to be unclear and ambiguous anyway — and as distress-inducing as its source material.

3. #ObamaFarewell

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In less than a week’s time, the highest political position in one of the most powerful countries in the modern world will be occupied by an “unspeakable cad,” to quote a character in a 2004 film about three unlucky orphans. Barack Obama’s descent from the US presidency has been marked with mixed sentiments, but mostly by wistful heavy-heartedness, coupled with gratitude for a kind man who made history by thwarting the white privilege surrounding the American presidency.

Last Tuesday evening, Obama gave a final presidential address from his adopted hometown of Chicago, in an event that took social networks by storm with the hashtag #ObamaFarewell. In that speech, he thanked the many notable persons who accompanied him on his definitively forward-thinking eight-year term, and once again implored Americans to never stop believing in their individual capacities for social improvement.

In a large fraction of households across the US, not to mention in several nations around the world, many are dreading what is to come after Obama’s farewell. Whether it is the beginning of something better or the beginning of the end, though, it would not hurt to be optimistic.

4. This Andrew Garfield interview

Martin Scorsese’s 28-year passion project Silence may not have been met with the raving reviews and award nominations it seemed guaranteed to receive  but filming experience must have been most enriching, as evidenced by this clip of one of its stars, Andrew Garfield, on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Garfield has previously identified himself as an agnostic pantheist, having had a largely secular upbringing. Nonetheless, he proved his chops as an actor, in playing a Jesuit missionary in 17th-century Japan.

In the interview, his takeaways on religion and faith also only emphasized his openness of mind. There is an indescribable beauty to a line of thinking where: “a life of faith is a life of doubt” because “certainty starts war on behalf of ideology.” Whether in the religious sense or not, doubt in moderate amounts and over the right matters only would serve to affirm faith.

5. 21 Things You Should Stop Doing This 2017

A new year is always an opportunity to do over some aspects of one’s life, to reset one’s gadget to factory settings, so to speak. While the title of the pamphlet hints at lifestyle practices that ought to be settled in 2017, though, new beginnings can be undertaken in any year, and at any time of the year for that matter.

Of course, one of the ingredients for any effective reset is having a new perspective. Whether it may be a new outlook at love, gender, career, etc., whether shifting on a modest pace or in a radical way, a change-up every once in a while is healthy because it prevents one from stagnating. New perspectives, after all, are premised on that most universal of laws: that the only constant thing in the world is change.

Knowing that nothing is ever permanent is healthy, then, to be sure, just as not knowing anything for certain keeps one on one’s toes. (There is an underlying premise that these are all good things, mind you.) Acknowledging that one cannot know what everything is and will be is the first step to conceding that one cannot control everything.

In turn, acknowledging that one cannot control everything is refreshing in today’s trend of omnipresence via the Internet and other technologies. In a sense, partially relinquishing control over one’s life only gives more meaning to optimism. There is more reason to be hopeful, and if things turn out well, the satisfaction is genuine. If things do not unfold the way they were hoped, one may take comfort in the thought that the raincloud is not guaranteed to hover forever.

 

№ 6. Stupid Questions, 73 Questions, and A Social Justification of the Mema

(On weekends, a smorgasbord of discoveries made both offline and online will be featured here, to celebrate how the Internet is full of oddities and ideas from the real world.)


1. Beren and Lúthien (2017)

38b71681-78b2-4aa9-9f42-a890c8aeb549A passage in the appendix of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King reads — “There were three unions of the Eldar and the Edain: Lúthien and Beren; Idril and Tuor; Arwen and Aragorn.” The story of the first pair has already been told in an entire chapter of The Silmarillion, is retold by Aragorn to the hobbits in The Fellowship of the Ring, and remains to this day a well-loved story from the First Age of Middle-Earth.

In 2017, a complete century after it was first penned, the tale of Beren and Lúthien is set to be published as a stand-alone book. To be sure, there is a fair number of posthumous Tolkien publications, most of which have been made possible by his son and editor Christopher Tolkien.

However, in this age of unrestrained, sometimes unnecessary sequels/prequels, it is all too easy to construe this latest book as a means of milking the franchise. Then again, given the sheer extent of world-building the elder Tolkien has achieved, it would only make sense for genuine enthusiasts to celebrate it. The less interested can hop on or hop off the bandwagon as they please.

2. M.C. Escher

The recent Marvel Comics film adaptation Doctor Strange (2016) has repeatedly been reviewed as reminiscent of the art of M.C. Escher. Most people will likely have seen the works of this Dutch graphic artist someplace before, though they might not have known his name. Maurits Cornelis Escher was best known for woodcuts, lithographs, and sketches that defied technique and perspective. Even today, his works are celebrated as having blended together artistic aspects that are normally distinct and separate: e.g. foreground and background, two-dimensional flatness and three-dimensional volume, and so on.

Of course, there is more to Escher’s art than mere optical illusion, as some critics would be wont to opine. As The Guardian has declared, “Escher’s greatest pictures are not simply geometric exercises; they marry formal astonishment with a vivid and idiosyncratic vision.”

3. This Tweet

Not a lot of people with access to the Internet today have always relied on the Internet for answers. Before Google and the rise of the millennials, it was the custom to either ask the questions of someone else (an adult if you were a kid), or find the information in a book. If books were the chosen source, you could locate books via the card catalog in a public library, or — in this case — phone the librarian to have them scour the catalog for you.

While most people nowadays would gripe about the inconvenient, gadget-free nature of such quests for answers, there is some soothing to be gleaned from tangible paper and a real telephone conversation partner.

Also, while the questions posed to the librarians are dubbed stupid questions, let it be said that stupidity is relative. Asking what kind of apple Eve ate betrays an ignorance that we easily laugh at because it is inexcusable in our time. Along that thinking, however, we of the modern age have therefore no excuse for ignorance, not when the means to make informed opinions are at our fingertips.

4. Vogue’s ‛73 Questions’

Vogue Magazine describes this online video series as a way “to see what [their favorite personalities] like, what they hate, and most importantly – what they know.” That last bit sounds ominous, but 21 episodes in and the 73 Questions segment has been making good on its promise to prise personal information from its celebrity guests. It is reminiscent of the slam books of 90’s kids, as well as the Proust Questionnaire tradition of Vanity Fair, but with more unconventional gimmicks.

The whole series makes for a decent pastime for anyone with extra time on their hands and a high tolerance for celebrities. On the other hand, given the professions of most of the interviewees, it is easy for non-enthusiasts to bash the gimmick as scripted and artificial. (On a third hand, it probably is to an extent.) Still, entertainment is entertainment to the right people; non-enthusiasts are non-enthusiasts for a reason; and again, haters are not required to play the videos.

5. Mema

The Filipino language is abundant in slang, to say the least — but anyone growing up outside of Luzon, if left untrained, will find themselves grasping at colloquialisms should these be hurled at them. The term mema, for instance, has been around for over a decade, and yet its usage has only recently been revived on social media. It is in fact a contraction of the phrase ‘may masabi,’ which means to say something for the mere sake of having something to say.

Because of technological advancements, the word has updated to also mean ‘may ma-post,’ or to post online for the sake of posting. With more and more sensitive topics erupting all over the Internet these days, the mema has become synonymous to the troll that comments with no genuine concern for substance. Then when these people are called out, their main defense is that they are entitled to an opinion.

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A mema is generally harmless, as is most anyone with a social media account. If he or she insists on engaging in shallow topics all the time, then all other people can do is throw meaningful pieces of information their way in the hopes of a metanoia. Of course, a mema that is immoveable on the wrong side of a moral issue requires another course of action altogether. To paraphrase a dialogue between Stephen Strange and the Ancient One in the latest Marvel movie: Not all questions have to be answered; not everything has to make sense. Not all things have to be controlled. People change in the best possible way at their own pace, and rarely ever at the behest of others.