Feature by: Ben Slater
Alexis wrote quite a bit in the last five years of his life, for newspapers, magazines, specialist film websites, his own blogs and of course, Criticine. I’ll leave his articles for the latter out of this survey, they are readily accessible here. And his letter to Nika has been widely circulated. I’m looking for the rest of it. Stuff I read at the time, stuff he mentioned in passing or not at all, things I thought I’d read, but had only skimmed. What I didn’t anticipate was how much Alexis lived his life online, and how much he wrote his experiences into the spaces of the blogs and the other social networking sites he readily joined. Impossible to simply track down ‘Alexis on film’, instead the virtual ‘Eggy’ keeps cheerily popping up, with an anecdote, a quote or a music recommendation. Peering through the archives of his various blogs, I have the queasy feeling I’m stalking him into the past. But I’m also observing him through a crucial period, the transition from keen film fanatic towards the committed advocate and critic he was becoming.
My very first encounter with Alexis was via his blog ‘Concentrated Nonsense’. Only one page of the original version remains, and most of the articles he links to there are defunct, including those for the website Indiefilipino.com, where his strident championing of Lav Diaz’s Batang West Side (“an unequivocal masterpiece “) was first published in 2003. It would be a seminal moment in his career which some kind soul has posted here.
The too-cutely self-deprecating ‘Concentrated…’ wasn’t Alexis’s only online nickname, his long-running LiveJournal blog (from 2002) was dubbed ‘_fiction_’, and before that there was a Geocities homepage (long since deleted), ‘nervous_ph’. All these pseudonyms suggest different phases in his life and also varying public personas. His _fiction_ ‘bio’ reads: “I was born in the Philippines. My father is Filipino (Kapampangan). My mother is 1/2 Italian, 1/2 Chilean (Raised in Chile). I moved to Canada when I was 2. I came back when I was 16. I like movies.”
‘Concentrated…’ marked his shift toward a more film-focused shop-front, and in 2007 he migrated to the ‘grown-up’ looking ‘Concentrated Nonsense (Cinema Edition)’, used mostly as an occasional notebook, pasting in quotes he admired and stills from foreign films that referred to the Phillipines, such as the Chaplin images that headed the site. Criticine started in 2005, but it was updated infrequently, and although it was very much a one-man show, Alexis preferred to keep it separate from his personal blogs, sticking to the formal method of publishing ‘issues’.
All these sites overlap in time and content; and while hopping between them it’s possible to piece together the events that marked his development as a critic and thinker about cinema. Writing for Indiefilipino in 2003, programming for .MOV festival, the first South-East Asian Cinema Conference in Singapore in 2004 (which he excitedly attended as a ‘stand-in’ for Lav Diaz), participation in the Berlin Talent Campus in ‘05, visiting the Singapore International Film Festival the same year (which he reviewed here), and then Rotterdam in ’06 and ‘07 (when he met Nika), and to Oberhausen in the same year, where he served on a critics jury with his idol, Jonathan Rosenbaum (his report for FIPRESCI focussed on Singapore film-maker Ho Tzu Nyen), and all the way back to 2004, when he issued his fiercely impassioned call to boycott the Metro Manila Film Festival. That piece was originally written for Indiefilipino, and he would repost it in subsequent years as the MMFF continued. The squandered potential of the ‘festival’ was something he never ceased to rail against.
Although his initial interview with Lav Diaz for Indiefilipino has gone, another one, conducted not long afterwards can be found on _fiction_. He describes it as a “piece of shit”, mainly because at the time he was also serving as a post-production assistant on Diaz's Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino and didn’t have his eye on the tape recorder. It has a raw gonzo quality, and the fact that he made it public (more than once) shows he had some fondness for it. What’s interesting is that Alexis isn’t shy about the complex position he’s in vis-à-vis the film-maker - he’s friend, helper, collaborator, interviewer, critic, promoter. He would fulfil this role with several others, and it was often a difficult place to be.
The relationship that Alexis had to Lav Diaz’s cinema was fundamental to who he was. Every semester he and his students spent a day watching all 11 hours of Ebolusyon. A rite of passage for him as much as for them; one he kept needing to take. Although Diaz himself is tired of discussion of his films being reduced to their extraordinary length, it was an issue that Alexis felt a need to grapple with, such as in a loving appreciation of Ebolusyon that appeared in a special edition of Ekran, the Slovenian print magazine that Nika edited during this period, which has been transcribed and posted here. And his first visit to a Lav Diaz set, for Heremias, described in a 2007 article for Filipino magazine Rogue (reprinted online on Kino), where with reverence and frankness, Alexis finds that the experience of observing Diaz shoot a long take is very different from witnessing the finished product. It’s interesting too, to read this extract from an essay on Diaz written for an academic journal Inter-Asia Cultural Studies (scroll down to the second piece), where Alexis puts his work in context with a less-personal, but no less urgent, voice.
A ‘cleaned-up’ version of the “shit” Ebolusyon interview was published on the Asia Europe Foundation’s film-makers’ portal S.E.A Images, and he contributed several pieces to this site for a time, including a rare (for Alexis) long-form film review of the documentary Imelda, and an early piece about John Torres. Several years later, just as she was moving to Manila, Nika would get a job as one of that site’s content editors, alongside French writer and curator Jeremy Segay, who conducted this lively interview with Alexis.
An early international film site to recognise Alexis’s potential was Senses of Cinema, who published his amusing interview with Filipino film-maker Khavn, and Alexis's 2004 ‘top ten’ films. Only three years later he was sought after by the UK’s Sight & Sound for his ‘top five’, (page 48 on this pdf) and comparing these two lists is instructive in tracking Alexis’s development as a critic and globally-connected cinephile.
This 2008 piece for Dutch site Filmkrant gives us a snapshot of his thinking at that moment, which inevitably includes the MMFF, annoying cell-phone use (even in alternative venues) and a second-hand anecdote told to him by one of his favourite Filipino film-makers, Kidlat Tahimik, about a long drive he once took with Werner Herzog. Most of us who spent time with Alexis would have heard this story, complete with the amusing Herzogian-Austrian accent. In Filmkrant Alexis quotes the anecdote from his “journal”, which it turns out was his _fiction_ blog. This story, worth retelling to anyone who’s never heard it, about commitment to an audience no matter how small, was a powerful parable for Alexis. I think it gave him hope for the future.
Another Herzog moment concludes Alexis' contribution, 'Ecstatic Tuths', to the Oberhausen film festival catalogue for 2009 (that year's theme: 'Unreal Asia'), in which he takes brief but close looks at the short films of Amir Muhammad, John Torres and Chris Chong (You can download the whole thing here, but be warned it's over 9 megs, Alexis is on page 95).
As he plugged into the international film festival circuit Alexis was getting around, and as he wrote in a contribution to a ‘roundtable’ discussion for The Auteurs website (now Mubi), “Perhaps as important as the movies I've seen at film events abroad were the people I've met, the kindness they've showed me, and the way that, just like a good film can, they've helped me understand this world just a little bit better.” He took photos of them, and many can be seen on his Multiply
and Flickr pages. Here I stumble across snaps I’d never seen before of Alexis posing with David Bordwell, Abbas Kiarostami, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Tadanobu Asano, and many other friends, acquaintances and colleagues – the documenting of events, moments and connections, some fleeting, many more than that.
Among the later pieces online is his review of When Timawa Meets Delgado from Rogue magazine (Alexis insists he didn’t come up with the title), and one of his final published articles, on Raya Martin’s Independencia from Cinema Scope. A piece that I suspect meant a great deal to him, because of the matching of both a film and a publication that he respected and loved.
Returning to his blog archive for 2009, we can find a short but moving recollection of Philippine action star Fernando Poe Junior and his own father, Leonardo, written to mark the third anniversary of the latter’s death in June 2009. Alexis had been concerned about the definition of ‘critic’ as long as I knew him, and he rehearses some arguments about this in an entry called ‘Journalism vs Criticism’.
Alexis had a powerful sense of injustice when it came to how the State treated artists, particularly film-makers, as either irritants to be ignored or pawns in a bigger political game. Here's an eloquently spikey column on this subject written for the Philippines Free Press in July 2009, but republished on the website of Rock Ed Radio. A regular radio show which he often contributed to
His two contributions to the aforementioned The Auteurs roundtable can be read here and here
. They are among his most confident and assured writing up to that point (early 2009); here he strikes the balance between the personal and the discursive. He’s modest, clear and yet not afraid to take on and address difficult, complex issues. Very close to how he was as a public speaker, either in conversation or around a panel at a film festival; charming and straightforward, and yet he could surprise his listeners with a brilliant, thoughtful insight, often snuck behind a smile and joke.
Just as Alexis often did I’ll conclude with a quote:
“I dream about starting a library, similar, perhaps, to the ones of Forum Lenteng and Rumah Buku, to share the books and films I’ve accumulated in my travels and over the years. I’m lying, I don’t just dream, sometimes I sit down, make notes and plan. To me, living in this part the world, these are some of the issues in film culture that matter at the start of 2009.” (from the second of his The Auteurs entries)
And finally, the typically humble final line from the piece about his father:
“However inadequate a remembrance, this post is dedicated to his memory.”
If anyone has a link to a piece of writing by Alexis that they feel I should include in the above, then please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org