Staying Alive, Barely

13 Oct

Review: Last Viewing (dir. Roni Bertubin, 2009)

Flaudette May V. Datuin

On the surface, Laura Estrellado is stoic, pragmatic, sensible, at times even heartless, and emotion-less (pusong bato, pusong bakal, walang puso). Yet, she is made to go through several events that are so overwhelming, so overflowing with affect they can sicken anyone, but more acutely so for a mother with a child, whose affliction (Autism Spectrum Disorder) – tellingly in the case of the missing Heidi – renders her unable to communicate, consigning her to a position outside language, where she teeters on the edge (saling pusa), if not entirely outside the margins of the social. Thus, beyond the surface, Laura is a traumatized woman and it would have been much simpler for a performer like Janice de Belen – a child of Flor de Luna, the histrionic soap opera of my childhood – to portray such toxicity by resorting to hysterics, or your garden variety, melodramatic fainting spells and endless weeping.  But such stereotypical acting repertoire does not fit Laura’s kind of trauma; her trauma does not spring from cataclysmic, highly visible, historical events such as war, disaster, genocide. Instead, they occur repetitively, privately, in the everyday. The death of a child in the dead of night on a grassy field has become “ordinary,” statistically normative and “normal,” the stuff of trivia, tabloid and indie films in the poverty porno genre. So ordinary has this unspeakable crime become that it could happen or could have happened to anyone, including Laura’s missing “special child,” as terrifyingly dramatized in a scene at the mortuary. Through it all, save for occasional scenes of restrained breakdowns, Laura  may come across as in control; however, such restraint may be a symptom of pathology, of psychic numbing, of self-blame and loss of hope, of avoidance and withdrawal, of warding off the breakdown, in order to stay alive, albeit with very little hope and life, if at all.

The film’s narrative is itself symptomatic of prolonged avoidance and withdrawal, mis-identifications and mis-recognitions, evident in many instances. First, there was Heidi, the silent social “saling pusa,” and then she was excised from the life of the biological mother, taking the “family secret” of bodily disorder with her, in effect cutting if off from the original gene pool and grafting it onto another. When Heidi died, the unruly affliction died with her, preventing further propagation and social contamination; the adoptive family is “spared” from future problems, but at the same time, benefited from the joy that the child gave them in her brief life. The next time we see her from the moment her mother lost her, she is no longer Heidi (hiding), but Rochelle, the beloved child in a well-appointed adoptive home. In the final scene, she reverts to Heidi (for the biological mother), while remaining as Rochelle (for the adoptive mother), but this time metaphorically, cinematically and literally embalmed and laid out for final viewing.

When Heidi vanished from Laura’s life, she disappeared into obscurity; she, along with her affliction, drifted into a state of absent and silent presence in her mother’s life, and vice-versa. It was as though the self has gone missing for both mother and daughter, with their presence characterized by lack. The mother, like daughter, “disappears” throughout the film, many times obliterated and written off in the lives of her loved ones: as an abandoned lover forced to keep and raise a “special child” all by herself, as a disowned wayward daughter driven out of a dysfunctional home, as a resentful breadwinner-sister and estranged daughter “abandoned” by a sick, dying and later deceased father, by a brother forced to work abroad, and finally by a daughter who goes missing at a crucial moment when the mother lets down her guard and vigilance (nakalingat). Mired in a life barely lived, Laura has come to a point when she cannot even have space in her life for romantic love, or maybe romance has no space for her. Whatever chance or glimpse of one was quickly nipped in the bud in a comedic scene that initially looked like a date: Laura was wooed, not as a potential lover, but as a surrogate mother/ matrimonial godmother (ninang sa kasal).

For Laura and Heidi, insidious, persistent trauma plays out in a series of losses, leavings and failures – a life marked by unfortunate choices, decisions, chance and fate. Resorting to self-blame, with others joining in (the neighbor who chastises her for bringing the child to Baclaran, the brother who takes her to task for “merely” bringing in the money but not “really” caring for the father, the aunt who chides her for being emotionless), Laura describes herself as a failed mother, lover, daughter, sister, provider, and even at certain points, the potential failed worker, always under threat of being suspended, demoted, or fired. So toxic are the conditions that Laura cannot help but succumb to the pathology and weight of trauma, at certain key incidents: mistaking “good news” sent from her brother’s cell phone as good news about Heidi when it was actually news of the brother’s successful application for and impending departure for Saudi, then proceeding to see things and imagine Heidi back to life, matter and flesh. In yet another terrifying breakdown scene, a cell phone has gone missing at the workplace, and everyone was asked to open their bags, which Laura resisted. When she reluctantly surrendered to the inspection after much persuasive pressure, what was revealed was not proof of theft, or lack of it (the cell phone was later found, and it was established as merely misplaced, not stolen), but evidence of an extreme private anguish. Unfolded for everybody’s gaze was the dress she asked her daughter to try on at the store where her mother last saw her alive (save for a brief glimpse that looked like a case of mis-identification). It was the dress she was supposed to wear for her “graduation” from the daycare where she was unofficially enrolled (saling pusa), along with the medal awarding her as the class’s Most Quiet, an ironic take – the good behavior actually springs from the child’s inability to process thought and emotion into language, an idea, a memory.

Beyond the linguistic and communicative, it is objects and their social lives – cell phones and wallets lost and found, dresses worn and touched, ash in a canister and zip-lock, toys as objects of autistic fixation – that bear the weight of trauma and its negotiation. The central site of this negotiation is the crematorium, locus of an affective economy, hinged on providing intangible products and services, such as wellness and ease to the bereaved. These intangibles are made concrete and manifest through the respectful but distanced labor of love dispensed by Laura and her co-workers. It is labor in “bodily mode,” as Michael Hardt puts it, where the economic, the material and prosaic are elevated to the level of human contact and interactions (or what Lauren Berlant refers to as public intimacies), of empathy, sentiment, and even of the occasional comedy and painful irony.

It was extremely unbearable for instance, to witness a mother reuniting with her long lost loved one in death, and watch her perform cremation rites for that child, on behalf of a paying client, who considers the dead child her own. Laid out in a state of arrested decay, the remains stand as evidence of trauma, which the laborer-mother works through via what she repeatedly, almost automatically intones as the Last Viewing. “Viewing” in this space of negotiation is a process that involves not just seeing but of gut feel (kutob), particularly of maternal gut feeling and sensing of muscle, skin tone, texture,  birthmarks, and bone. The final viewing prolongs the maternal moment, yet another instance of avoidance, but is also actually a working-through of pain and grief, before the final surrender.

In that last viewing, the mother overlays the client’s video remembrances and testimonies with her own secret and silent rites of memorializing enacted through the laying over and enfolding of clothing she once carried everywhere as charm, as sign, as zone of comfort. And perhaps reluctantly learning from the manghuhula summoned by a well-meaning, but endearingly irritating aunt, and who divined Heidi’s condition (alive, in good hands, but ailing) through the feel and touch of her graduation dress, Laura subsequently kept the dress close to her person wherever she went, as aid to activating and intensifying her maternal kutob, and to accessing a “memory” that is irretrievable under ordinary circumstances, and one that can be made available to us – the silent last viewers/voyeurs –  “post-mortem,” through the embalming power of film. After prolongation of the maternal moment comes the separation, the relinquishing of the body and its consignment to the cleansing power of fire, with Laura presiding over the organic matter’s transformation into ash.

Then comes the moment of final surrender, of doing what needs to be done – the turning over of the canister containing most of the ashes (Laura kept some for herself in a zip-lock, another instance of avoidance through comic relief, of cracking a joke to ward off the breakdown). In the film’s cruelest, yet most exhilarating cut, we witness two strangers, two m/others unknowingly becoming intimate across a space of shared trauma. It is an encounter which we and the dramatis personae are probably trying to avoid, but which must take place, and which we must wit(h)ness through and in the film’s humanizing space. Laura is brought back to life through Janice de Belen, the sterling performer, and presides over a rite of working-through, easing her daughter’s and her self’s passage from a life, barely lived to the hopes and promises of an after-life, here and beyond.

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Posted by on 13 October 2012 in Film Review, Philippine Film


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