Dreams of Freedom, Illusions of Autonomy: A Critique of ‘Love You to the Stars and Back’

Photo grabbed from Star Cinema website

Some films and TV shows are highly conducive to a philosophical reading. The Black Mirror, for instance. But it’s not something you’d expect from Filipino romantic comedies, which are more (in)famous — and at times derided — for their kilig factor, feel-good, light-hearted entertainment, and their false ideas about love and romance.

I suppose one should never generalize about anything, and that there will always be an exception to any rule. But at any rate, I’ve been amazed at how these supposedly shallow films embed political and even philosophical issues, even if the movies don’t consciously couch them in such terms. In Love You to the Stars and Back, a film that stars Julia Barreto and Joshua Garcia, politics and philosophy pertains to questions of freedom, independence, and autonomy, which are portrayed as illusion and nonsense.

Directed by Antoinette Jadaone (English Only, Please and That Thing Called Tadhana), the film begins with Mika’s (Julia Barreto) road trip. She misses his mother, who had died of cancer, and does not approve of her father’s (Ariel Rivera) new relationship (Maricar Poon). Upon learning that she will be having a half-brother (or sister, the movie never mentions it), Mika bolts out of the house, jumps into her car, and drives to Mt. Milagros, where she plans to be abducted by aliens. Her mom had explained to Mika that her death was the equivalent of, or could simply be seen as, alien abduction.

This is the second time a road trip has appeared in a Direk Toinette (close kami?) film. One was in That Thing Called Tadhana, but while Mace’s (Angelica Panganiban) journey to Baguio represented in this film a wish to cope with heartbreak, the road trip in Love You to the Stars and Back entails a trip to nonsense. Aliens do not really exist, do they? And the chant to summon the aliens, “Ajira Grevinda Mama Ajaarum” does not mean anything, as Mika herself admits when Caloy asks her, whom she meets on the trip. Plus, the chant is shouted on top of Mount Milagros towards a beautiful but empty landscape.

Mika has reached the summit of her sought-for liberation (literally so), but as she (with Caloy) stands and shouts on top of the mountain, we see (and later she does too) that her quest for freedom is a desire and encounter with emptiness.  One is reminded of Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 (ca) painting, Wanderer above the Mist, which portrays a man standing over a sea of clouds. The painting represented the nothingness inherent in Romantic thought and the all-powerful sovereignty of the subject in German idealist philosophy. In the film, this power and meaninglessness of the subject is captured in Mika’s quote, “Minsan, kailangan mo lang maniwala” (Sometimes, you just have to believe). As if believing something — aliens exist and will abduct us — would automatically make it true.

The same desire for liberation and freedom underpins Caloy’s journey. Stricken with leukemia, he has been given a few months  to live and wishes to die because he does not want to be a burden to his family. His operation costs PhP 4.5 million with only 50 to 60 percent chance of success. Like Mika, Caloy chants, “Ajira Grevinda Mama Ajaarum” to nothingness.

Naturally, no alien comes for them, and they both rationalize this by saying something along the lines of, “Maybe they’ll come tomorrow.” But this initiates the process of returning to reality, wherein they realize that their dreams of freedom and liberation will not be forthcoming, that the freedom and independence they seek is as illusory and nonsensical as, “Ajira Grevinda Mama Ajaarum.” Similarly, after their trip, Caloy has to be taken to the hospital because of complications arising from his cancer.  His illness — which spurred him to decide to die — ruins his plans for a noble demise and self-sacrifice. Hence the return from the sublime heights for freedom to limitations and imperfections of the quotidian. Hence the title of the film: they reach for the (metaphorical) stars only to come back.

The road trip motif symbolizes and suits this quest for freedom quite nicely, where you are liberated from your everyday surroundings, where you can go where you want and do simply as you wish. We see this in Mika’s conversations with her father, “Don’t mind me; I am OK.” Her road trip is an expression of her autonomy and independence from her father and (soon-to-be) stepmother. Caloy has the same desire; in the film, he laments why people decide for him, why he is not allowed to choose for himself, and that his life is to be decided by others, in this case his family and eventual girlfriend. This also explains why he hated the fact that his mother had to ask for money from a relative who disrespected her: he no longer wants to be dependent.

But if in one sense the liberation, freedom, and independence that Mika and Caloy seek — as symbolized by their wish to be abducted by aliens — are illusory, then they are in another. For one of the lessons in Love You to the Stars and Back is that one can never be completely autonomous. One can never simply cut ties with one’s relations, and that one can never be fully independent and autonomous. Indeed, it is through his relationships that Caloy survives and lives, despite his contrary wishes. Both characters realize this in the end. Mika makes up with his family and accepts the stepmother that she used to hate, and Caloy realizes that he has a lot else to live for, not least his girlfriend, Mika.

Why does the film insist on this quite obvious lesson? Who would deny the reality of our need for dependence? On the one hand, the film chides and corrects the excesses of its two protagonists, who wish to be free, autonomous, and independent at the expense of their family and loved ones. This I suppose is the typical wish of any young person (read: millennials?) like Mika and Caloy, characters who represent the (Filipino) youth today. Love You to the Stars and Back struck a chord, earning over  PhP 100 million (as of September 2017).

On the other hand, I read the film as a symptom of a (growing) tension and reconciliation between the ideology of and desire for autonomy, and the collectivist, family-oriented nature of Philippine society. Asian nations, including the Philippines, have long been perceived (stereotyped?) as collectivist, but here we have a film whose protagonists wish to leave their families, and assert their autonomy.

Of course, it’s not as if Love You to the Stars and Back censures autonomy. The film ends with both Caloy and Mika reunited on Mount Milagros. It does not shun the (symbol and location for) autonomy, liberation, and independence, but shows that desiring these things must be coupled with an awareness of one’s (inter)dependence. And nothing exhibits that better than love.

The foregoing tension has always been a case in youth-oriented and -targeted films, so perhaps questions of autonomy, independence, and liberation are fleshed out therein. But I also wonder, in the case of the Philippines, whether and to what extent can we attribute films such as Love You to the Stars and Back and few others including Seven Sundays (these few others collectively merit a separate blog entry) to changes in Philippine society and its shifting demographics. Especially of note are the growth of the Filipino middle class through remittances and BPOs, the increasing neoliberalization of the Philippine economy, full exposure to Western values thanks to the internet, and massive consumer spending as evidenced through the creations of more malls.

Does this fresh assertion of autonomy represent the values of the new, confident Filipino middle class, an ideology that middle classes elsewhere — not least those in Britain that based its wealth on merchant trade and sought to curtail royal power, and those who launched the Enlightenment in Europe, particularly in France? Or is the expression of autonomy simply an indication liberal ideas have always had a place in Philippine social life, despite the dominance of semi-feudal politics, and patron-client relations?  In which case, a film like Love You to the Stars and Back points to a constant tension, reconciliation, and negotiation between two facets of Philippine society: its liberal democratic, and individualist tradition and its (supposedly?) collectivist, communal, and perhaps semifeudal sociopolitical legacies.


When It’s OK to Kill: The Ethics of Violence in ‘Game of Thrones’

From_WallpaperUPThe streets, rooms, and castles of Westeros are strewn with dead bodies –throats slit and bodies impaled, stabbed, or decapitated.  Yet Game of Thrones is as popular as ever. Does this indicate a penchant for violence among fans and viewers?

One sure hopes not. Viewers may relish the entertainment value of the schemings and killings, among others, but would not condone them in real life. There, all of the major GOT characters would be arrested, tried, and prosecuted for murder. In theory at least.

But alas, Westeros is not a democracy, which is one reason why and how Game of Thrones resonates in our world today. While art and literature do not simply “mirror” history, the series does portray an undemocratic society ruled by few elite, one-percent families. There is no voting, no consultations, no participatory governance, no deliberative democracy.  Only war, power grabbing, and the eponymous game of the series.

More importantly, Westeros is a land where the traditional, old-fashioned moral order — where good and evil are easy to tell apart — has broken down, if not disappeared altogether.  It is never really clear in Game of Thrones who the bida is. This isn’t the case in, say, Lord of the Rings, or the Harry Potter, where everyone knows that Sauron and Lord Voldemort are the villains, and that Aragorn and Harry are the heroes.

Indeed, the plot of Game of Thrones deliberately frustrates the tendency, as in all narratives, to look for, choose, and side with the bida. More specifically, it brutally disabuses us from the long-standing assumption that the good guys will triumph in the end. Season 1 sets up one character as a protagonist, only for him to be decapitated later on. Something similar happens in the Red Wedding. To be fair, however, two of the nastiest of characters in the series get their comeuppance as well, both of whom die a violent, if not well-deserved deaths. Many others in between — “innocent” and “guilty” — are struck down. As far as killing goes, Game of Thrones does not take sides. Anyone can die.

This is an undeniably cruel world. But this indiscriminate, bloodthirsty penchant for killing is paralleled, balanced, moderated, or contradicted (depending on your point of view) by an even-handedness that is less evident in the TV series: the books devote several chapters to each major character, and allows readers to get to know another, if not deeper look, into their respective personalities and motivations. It is as if the narrator gives everyone a chance to speak on the microphone, to let each of them have their say, and to let us, the viewers and readers, sympathize and gain different vantage points. Such generosity, if not liberal democratic tendency, runs counter to the Machiavellian cruelty and Hobbesian violence of the series.

Through this fairness, Game of Thrones seeks to preclude us from making clear-cut moral judgments, that X is good, while Y is bad, and gives us instead a gray-colored moral landscape. This is particularly true of Jamie Lannister. In the first episode of Season 1/in the first book, he starts off as a typical villain, but as we get to know him through his chapters, especially in his interactions with Lady Brienne, one sees his different, perhaps nicer and kinder side. That he isn’t so bad after all. And Cersei, for all her ruthlessness, is painted differently and somewhat more sympathetically (she is a victim of patriarchy; and often complains a la feminist mode how women are limited), the more deeply one delves into her mind. Even the good guys betray a streak of ruthlessness every now and then.

Even if there are no traditional protagonists in Game of Thrones ala Aragorn, Frodo Baggins, or Harry Potter, viewers still choose from several contenders for the role of bida, the one who will control King’s Landing. And how they make such decisions partly entails a moral decision on their part, one that justifies or ignores the killing(s) perpetrated by their chosen “hero.” This is just entertainment, but the kinds of moral reasoning employed here is troubling, for they resemble the types of justifications of real-life killings.   Even if s/he killed someone, he is nice guy deep down; her heart is in the right place; he killed in self-defense; she just wanted revenge; it’s the fog of war; we understand where he is coming from; it’s a kill or be-killed society; she had no choice; he had to do it as a show of force; everyone in Westeros has blood on their hands, anyway.

There is then little, if at all, solid moral ground from which we choose our bida. For whatever our reasons are, they essentially boil down to a justification of killing and murder; and reflect choices that we would not otherwise or hesitate to make (one hopes at least) in real life: few would not justify the murders committed in Westeros, even those by, say, Arya or Jon Snow, no matter good and how kind-hearted we find them. Whatever her merits and despite her past history, Arya is a murderer.

In many ways, this kind of decision-making in fiction reflects a world of increasing cynicism and growing moral and political complexity, not least that of business, where the goal is to “win,” get ahead, and “defeat” competitors, often with advice from The Art of War, The Book of Five Rings; or the 48 Laws of Power; where questions of ethics are displaced by neoliberal notions of risk and returns, gains and profits; where everyone is urged to be less idealistic and be more practical; where compromise and getting our hands dirty are routine; where due process is done away with; where killing is justified, legitimized, sanctioned, and tacitly approved in various ways.

Game of Thrones reflects and responds to a world beyond good and evil, as it were, presenting and problematizing a social order dominated by power, competition, and violence. To what extent, if at all, can ethics work in this world beyond good and evil? Do such categories still work given the compromises that many of us have to do and live with? Are we forced to abandon our ethical ideals? Can ethics help us survive such a cruel word?

Such questions pervade our popular culture, from Iron Man 1, which simultaneously questions and upholds the US Military-Industrial Complex, to The Walking Dead, which asks just how much and what kind of morality applies in a post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested world.

Indeed, the exercise of power has been one of the perennial themes of sci-fi and fantasy, from Lord of the Rings and Wheel of Time to Star Wars and Harry Potter. But ethics, as we have seen, is not far behind. In true Aristotelian vein, morality is intimately tied to politics, concerned as it is with selflessness and humility, and with selfishness and ambition that drive Tom Riddle and Anakin Skywalker to the dark side. Many of these films or novels function as, among other things, moral fables. And while it may seem naive, if not academically unfashionable, to speak of fables in this morally complex world, what makes ethics seem so superfluous and outdated is also what makes it so urgent and difficult to come by.

Enjoy the rest of Season 7, but do not forget that the world beyond is dark and full of terrors.