Thursday, August 27

The TIme Traveler's Wife

Novels mounted into films tend to disappoint me because they always seem to miss the point. Robert Schwentke's latest film, The Time Traveler's Wife is another example of that disappointment. I have read the novel two years ago and I was really impressed by the way Audrey Niffenegger told the story of how love can survive time.

The novel is set in Chicago and jumps from different time periods from the mid-seventies to the turn of the century and on to the not so distant future. The whole story revolves around two main lovers – Henry and Clare, who are desperately trying to build a normal life as time literally steals it away from them. Henry suffers from a fictional genetic disorder called chrono-displacement which causes him to time travel within his lifespan (and sometimes even beyond) under extreme stress. He met Clare, who was then a little girl, in one of his time travels. Henry and Clare's relationship blossomed from friendship to a love that would be best defined by St. Paul's words in his letter to the Corinthians - “Love is patient and kind...”

To be fair, Schwentke didn't do a bad job mounting it to celluloid. Its always a struggle for a film maker to direct a film adaptation. Call it a curse, but film adaptations were not meant to outshine the original written work. Given the plot and the ethos of the narrative, it would seem quite difficult to put everything on to film. My main criticism about the adaptation was that it slightly lost its focus for two reasons – the character development and the ending.

Both Henry and Clare's characters were not fully exhausted in the film. The young Henry only appeared in one scene but his character was also quite pivotal in the book. Clare's character was rather poorly portrayed also in the sense that the film focused way too much on Henry and his disorder. Although the book was about a husband time traveling, it was also about the wife being left behind. Clare was the Time Traveler's Wife after all and the film failed to establish that. I could forgive that bit in the film but I what I could not accept was the ending.

The film ended with the Henry and Clare's daughter, Alba, playing in the meadow with her friends and seeing a forty something year old Henry. She then asks her friends to call out her mother while she and her father talk. Henry, by this time, knows he is already gone in their lives. He has traveled to the not so distant future. Clare runs out to the meadow and Henry meets Clare and they kiss until Henry disappears and all that is left are the clothes and the pair of shoes which Clare still prepares. The camera pans out to the meadow with Clare and her daughter walking back to their house. It's a nice ending for a date movie, which what became of The Time Traveler's Wife. However, it did not do justice to Niffenegger's novel. Niffenegger's ending to her love story was one of the best that I've read. I rarely read love stories because I never liked their endings. Niffenegger, however, wrote a very moving ending that was fit for a love story with a time travel element in it. The book ended with forty something Henry visiting an older Clare in the not so distant future. Henry is narrating the whole time. He describes how he appears in the same meadow where he and the young Clare met the first time and how he came to love the little girl that gave him her dad's clothes and pair of shoes. He also describes how his love for Clare still grows and deepens and how he is still in love with the same woman. The page ends with Henry describing Clare as beautiful woman, even though she has clearly advanced in years, sitting by the meadow, waiting to catch a glimpse of her beloved time traveler.

Though disappointing, the film tried its best to live up to the standards of every film adaptation, which was to be inferior to the original. Bana and McAdams' portrayals were quite moving and their tender moments were both heart wrenching and genuine. For people who haven't read the book and will see the film, they will probably like and even love the film and would probably rave about it for a day or two. For those who have read the novel however, be prepared to be slightly disappointed.

Thursday, August 20

for Carmen.

photo courtesy of Fernando Panoso


She died at five fifteen Friday morning. I came to know about it four hours later.
Her body, ridden with cancer, finally gave out and expired in some government hospital in Japan. A friend called my mother about her passing.

How should one feel when a person close to him dies? I honestly do not know the answer. If I had known the answer I wouldn't be writing this. Am I sad? Probably. But I am not sure. The thing with me is that I am never sure of these things. Emotions are very tricky. You can't reason with emotions. You cannot quantify them or dissect them into little compartments so that you can analyze and utilize them to suit your every need. I was never good with emotions. I do think I possess them, but I can't seem to summon them like other people do. I guess I'm wired differently. I am more like her in that sense. She was also wired differently, like me.

She had a gutter mouth. She can be arrogant when she wants to be and she was never apologetic of her actions. She'd do everything that was contrary to other people's expectations. My sister, Carmen. Carrie as we called her.

I learned my first lessons in life through her. She was one of the first to get married in the family out of the desire to escape my father. Back then, my father ruled our household with an iron fist. With two parents and seven siblings and a nephew, our household in one of roughest places in the city was like a banana republic and my father was the dictator. We were raised Catholic but he was Bible-trained by the Seventh Day Adventist through my grandfather. We were all afraid of him, even my elder brother and come to think of it, even my mother. All except my sister Carmen.

I still remember when I visited their home when I was seven. She just gave birth to my niece a month before and I decided to drop by their house out of curiosity. She was so happy to see me. Her husband had just woken up from siesta and he gave me a nod as he passed by me to go to the makeshift kitchen to make a cup of coffee. They lived in a small space, like a box apartment. The wedding gifts were placed in one corner of the room, some still have remnants of wrappings. I looked at them intently and examined each one. Most of them were all the same traditional Filipino wedding gifts consisting of cheap china and crystal, electric fans, picture frames and an assortment of Tupperware products. They all looked like they were bought in the same store.

She offered me lunch and I accepted even though I already ate lunch before going to her box home. It was adobo made of water spinach. Like any other kid I didn't like eating vegetables back then and she knew that. She was a bit embarrassed when she offered me the food. I could tell. I could also tell that it was also their dinner the other night. I couldn't picture her living in that space. At a very young age, I could tell that she didn't like living in a box apartment with a husband and a kid. And somehow, I could also tell that she knew that I knew. I ate the adobo, and I even lied that I liked it and told her that I would ask our mother to make it for me. I left an hour later. I went back home with the knowledge that my sister wasn't happy. I was sad that she and my niece had to eat like that and sad that she had to live in a place like that. She told me to come and visit her and my niece whenever I like. I said yes like I said yes to lunch. But she knew. I learned my first life lesson – don't get married for the wrong reasons.

Two months later she was back at our house. I woke up one morning and found her with my niece and with all her wedding gifts of cheap china and crystal and a plethora of picture frames and Tupperware products in our living room.

She left for Japan later that year. I've never seen her look so happy. The last time I remember seeing her close to this being happy was when she was with her friends. She had a lot of friends, my sister. She always loved going out. She laughed so hard when she was with her friends. Probably because of the fact that my father wasn't present when in those occasions. She loved anything that involved being out of the house and out of my father's gaze. Ever since the wedding and then the divorce which prompted her to go back to our house, my father has been constantly breathing on her neck about failing to sustain a marriage for even a year. It seemed that her plan to get married so she could get out of his dominion didn't work out so well. Being married to a man with good looks wasn't enough to sustain a family. She only realized later that a backbone was more important than facial features. Albeit late, she packed my niece and her things and all her wedding gifts except the electric fan back to our house that morning. I've never seen my father gloat so much. It was like the Marcoses were back in town and the Filipino people were trying make amends for booting them out of the islands. My sister, true to her being wired the way she was wired didn't take it lightly. She enrolled herself to dancing and singing lessons and had managed to get herself a ticket to Japan. When my father found out, it was all too late for him to do anything. It was a sucker punch that me, my mother and my other siblings never dared to do. She won the battle that day. And somehow, she won that battle on behalf of my mom and my sisters and perhaps even my brother and me.

I never knew what she did in Japan. I never asked. When my mother and my sisters did, she would always give sketchy answers so I figured that she probably wanted it that we know little about her life in Japan. What I did know was that her life in Japan was hard. She got married to a Japanese guy that she met in the pub where she worked. He was a pencil pusher. He was handsome like her ex husband was handsome, but like with the first, the marriage didn't last. He gave her a son though. She formed a greater bond with her son than with her daughter that she left in the Philippines which was to be expected.

She did not communicate with us for almost three years. The letters and the phone calls just stopped. We all thought she was left for dead by the yakuzas in some gutter. At fifteen, I could hear my parents talking about her in the other room. Even my father was worried. I was worried. I heard stories about Filipina women in Japan working as entertainers, I already figured that she was one years before.

Then she called us. She said she was going home. I was already in college by then.

She once told me told me that if there was ever a song that absolutely defines her, it would be “Never Been to Me” by Charlene. One night that song came up on the radio and I told her about “Priscilla: Queen of the Desert” and it turned out that she had already seen it. She turned all serious and quiet and just listened intently to the song. She was never usually serious about anything when she talked to us. My conversations with her usually included a sex joke and a cop a feel (she did it to everybody, including my parents). We were smoking that night. When that song came up, she just let the cigarette burn while she quietly hummed along in her head. I didn't know what to say because it was the first time that she was like this to anyone of us. I came to realize that the woman in front of me. The woman I was smoking with that night as we were listening to a cheesy song was not my sister. I've always thought that my sister was this beautiful woman who walked the earth with an arrogance of a bullfighter waving her red flag with such bravado telling the world to bring it on and give her some more. The person in front of me was totally different. It was like being seven again, only this time there were no more allusions or second guesses. This time, truth revealed itself plainly to me like sunrise. This person was not my sister. She was just Carmen, revealing her naked loneliness behind the misty fumes of the fag that she was smoking. And when the cigarette slowly died out and the song started to fade, I saw her face and realized that she was the song. And as much as I didn't want to learn another one of life's important truths that night, the universe decided to reveal itself again through my sister. The sad part was, I was already grown up enough to realize that there was no more “home” to go to to escape this truth.

Our relationship became more profound when I was in China. She never mentioned about that night at our house in the Philippines and that song. We often talk on the phone. She would call me in odd hours from Japan and we would talk about guys and their dicks, blowjobs, anal sex, her skin regimen and more guys and dicks. Call it superficial, but that was how I related to my sister. That was how we talked. The serious issues we never discussed in depth because she reasoned that they would still be there after the discussion – that they would still be unresolved issues. She avoids them like a plague. Perhaps, I do too. I never called her ate (elder sister in Filipino) after that night. I always called her Carrie or Ayrak. She liked it and I liked it too. It was a silent agreement between us that we wanted to be both in equal footing. She would always say that she was the most beautiful child in our family. I'd play along and tell her that t it was usually the youngest who had the best qualities since the genes that were passed on the child were already fine tuned. We'd go on for minutes just outdoing each other. I'd tell her that her breast needed augmenting and then she'd tell me that even sex change wouldn't solve half of my problems. Good times. I never realized that my sister who was miles and miles away from me would actually turn out to be my first fruit fly.

She can be impossible at times. No, she was impossible most of the times. She made so many wrong decisions that affected her life and her children's as well. I didn't speak to her for a time because of that. I wanted her to get her act together and be a mother for once. We didn't talk for a 6 months. I was angry and apparently so was she.

It didn't last though. It only took a phone call at an odd hour. Although we both knew that we still hated each other's guts, we both still wanted the engagement that we have established for it was genuine. And like us, it was beautiful.

The last time I saw her was about five months ago. I had to ask a five day leave from work just five days after I came back from my summer holiday in the Philippines. My bosses understood. I packed like lightning and flew back to Manila. I went two days ahead of them. My sister who was in California went to Japan to bring her to the Philippines. It was a one way ticket for Carrie. I saw her at the airport. She lost a considerable amount of weight and one could tell that she was sick. She walked in very small steps like she had her feet bound with those Chinese shoes. I could hardly hear her voice. When I hugged her she started coughing and didn't stop. My sisters and my mother and even my father who has aged and mellowed through the years were shedding tears. I wasn't.  I was counting the people in the airport. Counting airplanes arriving and departing. Focusing on certain colors like blue, red or green. I wanted to be seven again. Life was too simple when you're seven. You could always go home. But when you're thirty, you're old enough to realize that a home isn't always a safe haven. A home can be intruded by hatred and violence and madness and by sadness. By cancer. When a home is intruded, one asks himself where to go. At thirty in a balmy afternoon in an airport in Manila, I was trying very hard to be seven again.

She managed to get herself a ticket back to Japan. She said that she would return and she would want to go back and spend more time with her daughter and her granddaughter. Yes, she was already a grandmother. The look on her face when she saw her grandchild. It was pure energy.

She refused to believe it was cancer. She refused chemotherapy. She said knew what to do, she would get well and that she would work again. For the first time, the family really talked. All of us. It was a first time that I've seen my brother teary eyed. I finally did cry, over the phone talking with my boyfriend. I didn't want her to see me like that. I knew her well. She didn't want a pity party. She didn't want people crying when they see her state. She wanted a sugar coated reality. And I provided it for her. I told her to make herself well before I left. I told her that she would need to live 25 more years so she could watch her grandchild grow up and get married. I told her she needed to beat whatever it was that was afflicting her. She was a bullfighter and she needed to vanquish the bull in front of her. She liked my version. Somehow, she knew that I understood.

The song came up again on my last night in Manila. I think she may have forgotten that we had this conversation years before. I didn't tell her though. I just listened. This time, she wasn't smoking a cigarette. This time it was all her. No masks. Just her. Carmen.

How does one feel when a person he loves dies? Does he cry? Or wail? Or lament at the life, precious as it was, that was stolen. I honestly don't know.

But I am happy.

Because my sister can be beautiful again.