So the other night I was watching Long Shot, the romantic-comedy starring Seth Rogen as an idealistic, unemployed journalist who gets hired as a speechwriter and falls in love with Charlize Theron, the woman who used to be his babysitter and is now—wouldn’t you know!—the sitting Secretary of State.
I was getting into it too: Rogen and Theron have a playful chemistry; the comedy manages to balance Judd Apatow-brand crudeness, scathing Veep-style satire, and a genuine sweetness; and the script by Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah has a both-sides-now inclusivity to it, managing to explain the attractiveness of the Republican worldview to the Dem-liberals who subscribe to Rogen’s stoner politics. (Plus Alexander Skarsgård as a bumbling, thinly fictionalized Justin Trudeau—what’s not to love?)
A large part of the plot has Rogen’s Fred Flarsky accompanying Theron’s Charlotte Field as she travels the world garnering support for her “Bees, Trees and Seas” initiative, a wide-ranging pact to protect the environment. The itinerary covers swathes of Europe, South America, and Asia. At the exact mid-point of the movie, the pair and their coterie touch down in Manila, where Rogen intones that “the Philippines gets a bad rap. It’s actually a pretty good place—never mind that it’s on the brink of a civil war.”
The two engage in some late-night flirting via speech revision, and just as things start to take a turn for the romantic, gunfire pulverizes the Secretary of State’s hotel room. Roger and Theron take refuge in a store room, and Theron surmises in a solemn tone reserved for presidential briefings that “insurgents are attacking the government.”
What the effin’ hell?
It’s very easy to find stuff to be outraged about. And if you’re a Filipino, pop culture is a minefield teeming with potential offense. It seems like our race has always been a favorite Hollywood punchline… or punching bag.
Going back to my childhood, I remember watching Bring ‘Em Back Alive, an ‘80s adventure TV series starring Bruce Boxleitner as a 1930s Indiana Jones-like figure (except in a pith helmet instead of a battered fedora) who had a Japanese actor named Clyde Kusatsu speaking in pidgin English for a sidekick. In one episode, Boxleitner treks up a mountain and negotiates the release of American hostages with a tribal leader in the mountain tribe’s native language—Tagalog. The effect on my early adolescent brain was jarring: Is this how the rest of the world sees us? As bloodthirsty savages?
Arguments that Hollywood has always been run by ignorant and privileged one-percenters do little to assuage the offense. After all, Hollywood is the equal-opportunity offender that marred a perfectly charming love story like Breakfast at Tiffany’s by casting Mickey Rooney as a Japanese caricature of an upstairs neighbor. When an episode of Desperate Housewives has Teri Hatcher questioning the qualifications of a nurse after she finds out said nurse is a Filipino, you can say it’s an easy laugh at the character’s suburban cluelessness. But still, the joke hurts.
Again, it’s easy to find stuff to be outraged about. And it’s fashionable to express outrage at every slight. I call this visible lambasting—often expressed through the highly individualized soapbox called social media—“botox outrage.” It is indignation that makes you look good because you appear patriotic, a staunch warrior for heritage and race. The trick is to distinguish, among the myriad throwaway punchlines, which stuff is worth getting worked up into a lather. Because outrage employed too often tends to lose its efficacy, just as botox injected indiscriminately could prove hazardous to your health.
A tale of two food stories.
An interesting comparative study would be the Cebu episode of Netflix’s Street Food and a Cornell professor ranking Filipino food dead last among Southeast Asian cuisines on Twitter.
When the Street Food episode on Cebu dropped a few weeks ago, the shaking of ruffled feathers was instantaneous. Directors Erik Matti and Jose Javier Reyes were the first to lead the charge, decrying the episode on two fronts. One, they accused the show’s creators of being lazy with their research in highlighting the obscure delicacy of bukasi (reef eel soup) when there were more popular—and presumably, more palatable—options available. They also lambasted the episode for highlighting cook Florencio Escaba’s dire circumstances, leveling the accusation that the producers were engaging in “poverty porn.”
I watched the episode as soon as the controversy erupted, and I’m not alone in thinking that the outrage is much ado about nothing, saying more about the people squawking than the subject being squawked at. (See: Chef Myke “Tatung” Sarthou’s rejoinder to the episode’s haters in this website.) For one, the charge that the episode is poorly researched is a demonstrably false one; if the creators hadn’t bothered to employ resource people and do their due diligence, we would have had another bland travelogue on lechon and green mangoes with bagoong.
I call this visible lambasting—often expressed through the highly individualized soapbox called social media—“botox outrage.”
The accusation of poverty porn is a more serious one, because it alleges that the producers are falling back on a comfortable stereotype that portrays the Philippines as a place of abject destitution. But to me, poverty porn—if we go by the strict definition of porn—is showing poverty for poverty’s sake. Just as porn portrays sexual intercourse without the context of emotion or situation, poverty porn is poverty without the context of history or society or even individual striving. And if you watch the story of Mang Florencio and his valiant ability to feed his community through his environment’s seasonal bounty, you will see that this is just not the case. His is a story to be inspired by, not outraged at.
Compare this to political professor Tom Pepinsky going on Twitter and presuming to know enough of the breadth and depth of all Southeast Asian cuisine—presumably because he teaches a course on Southeast Asian politics at Cornell—to rank Filipino food last in a nine-item list that he insists is “objectively correct”, and you should see the difference immediately.
The key to identifying subjects worthy of outrage is context—or lack thereof. What makes the portrayal of the Philippines in Long Shot offensive is that, of course, the film will not provide a context or a rider explanation or an asterisk to its damaging joke. (The movie would come to a screeching halt if there were suddenly an onscreen footnote saying that “The Philippines is currently not engaged in a civil war, y’all.”) And so the image of the Philippines as a political powder keg/center of chaos will stand in the minds of the audience watching in the Midwest, or in some dubbed version in Montenegro.
But, really, who needs to bother with facts when you’re peddling fiction, right?
What’s even more frustrating is that the next stop on Charlize Theron’s rainbow tour as fictional Secretary of State is Cartagena, the picturesque beachside city in Colombia… the next-door neighbor of Venezuela. Which the filmmakers could have used in lieu of the Philippines, seeing as it is a factual, real-life powder keg/center of chaos. But, really, who needs to bother with facts when you’re peddling fiction, right?
Looking into ourselves.
Speaking of poverty porn, I have always been personally offended at director Brillante Mendoza’s use of the country’s impoverishment as his calling card to international cinema. I found a bit of titillation as a gay man in watching the future Cardo Dalisay engaging male clients in “extra service” in Masahista, but when you watch the dire story of a projectionist with a boil on his ass having sex in a rural moviehouse that is at one point invaded by a goat (Serbis), then you watch the dire story of a mob gofer who becomes the helpless witness to the murder of a snitching prostitute (Kinatay), then you watch the dire story of two grandmothers on a collision course over a crime involving their grandsons (Lola)—one of whom photogenically rows a boat in a squatter colony overcome by flooding—and you have to wonder if there is an objective threshold to how much squalor you can take as a moviegoer. Apparently, the threshold does not exist, because the jurors at Cannes and cinephiles all over the world keep lapping it all up. (I also watched Sapi, Mendoza’s first stab at horror, and found his effort at making a genre movie sorely lacking. So there’s some context for you.)
Again, compare those four movies, which portray their characters as helpless cogs in the grinding machinery of their poverty, against a movie like Signal Rock. In director Chito Roño’s suspenseful drama, Christian Bables plays an amiable layabout running to and from the rocky outcrop of the title (the only place in his remote fishing outpost where he can get cellphone service) as he negotiates with the various political and economic entities in his town, desperately trying to save his OFW sister from her abusive partner. There is context, there is a character taking active control of his circumstances, there is an objective to root for. Chito Roño’s superbly made Signal Rock was submitted for consideration to the Oscars’ foreign film race last year, where it promptly sank without a trace. To me, that is way more outrage-worthy.
Which leads me to the question of whether we are, in a huge way, encouraging the rest of the world to dump on us. When we keep presenting ourselves on the world stage as a people unable to take control of our destinies—whether it be our unwillingness to fight for our territories against China or our inclination to humor our president’s rape jokes—are we tacitly telling everyone that we are ignorant, impotent, mewling savages?
Looking back on that demoralizing night when I watched Long Shot, I swiveled around in my seat and did a visual survey of the dozens of moviegoers in the cinema with me, just to see if the segment set in the Philippines dampened their enjoyment of the movie the way it did mine. The laughs seemed to be as hearty as ever, there seemed to be no ticket buyers walking out in disgust. And I felt even more disheartened. Time will tell if enough local cinephiles will watch Long Shot and raise enough of a stink over it. If that furor is a long shot to materialize, maybe it’s another effect of “botox outrage”—we’ve been screaming bloody hell at each and every imagined slight for so often and so long, we’ve become numb to actual offensiveness when it comes our way.
In the meantime, I will take consolation in the idea that Long Shot will probably eat Avengers: Endgame’s dust.