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NYFF08: A porno theater's small pleasures ("Serbis")

Above: Jacklyn Jose as Nayda, one of the best "details" of Serbis.
When craft fails and a script is mostly a shamble of ideas, it is the details of a film that can catch fire. That is perhaps what is great about cinema above all other arts: even in failure, the medium’s relationship to reality practically guarantees that any given film will be of interest somewhere in its myriad of things and people, movements and inactivity. The Filipino film Serbis, for example, contains one hell of an ugly series of handheld, digital camera movements following the various family members who run, work, live, fight, and fuck in a decaying pornography theater, up and down stairs, from one wing of the building into another (even, at one pretty marvelous point, chasing first a thief and later a goat in and out of the theater). The grubby setting gets even grubbier aesthetics, gratingly ungainly, hideously composed long jostling shots of camera movement. But the payoff, if I haven’t talked enough here about space in cinema during the New York Film Festival, is that we get a real sense of the physical layout of the theater, and of the elaborate path each family member must weave to get to their rooms, or to the projection booth, or to the theater itself. In this respect at least, director Brillante Mendoza even leaves you wanting more, more exploration of this strange living/working/loving/fighting building, especially the theater, which unlike Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn isn’t really the setting for the film, and instead we only get hints of the wonderful exhibition hall, all rusty blue and gloriously, classically dingy.
Dare I say the porno building has a layout as elaborate as the intertwined families, gays looking for the “service” of the title in the darkness of the theater, transvestite layabouts, adopted family members, pregnant girlfriends, and all other manner of the almost indeterminate human populace that comes and goes and hangs around the theater? Indeed I do, though that isn’t a particularly interesting angle to the film. Yes, the building seems to collect a nicely disparate populace of the unhappy, but the script has little interest in figuring out why they are so, or what exactly it is about this magical old porno house that seems draws people to it like a magnet. Much more telling is the path Nayda (Jacklyn Jose) weaves around the theater. As the matriarch-in the-middle—not as in command and respected as the family’s grandmother and the owner of the theater, but not quite as silly as the two younger girls flitting around, one preening, the other knocked-up—Mendoza has Nayda move around the theater with a routine assurance that speaks mountains for the hybrid role of mother and proprietress she must simultaneously play all the time. The sloppiness of the film as a whole inadvertently lets its slack story and form droop around Jacklyn Jose’s performance, allowing its strength and persistence to stand out all the more.
Add to Serbis’ incongruous, though not exactly exciting resume of similarly stand-out attributes is a casual and non-judgmental attitude to the illicit sex going on all around the theater, from the porno itself to the homosexual cruising, the grandmother’s misguided outrage at her dead husband’s philandering, and strange hints of inner-family goings-ons. All seem less a matter of judgment than a part of the environment, a matter of society, natural (though not necessarily right) and permitted, or at least tolerated. There is indeed a small amount of plot in the film, though it don’t go much of anywhere; characters too, but I suppose that bare minimum is necessary to give us some ground to stand on in a near-defunct urban porno theater. But the stuff of the script is the most calculated of Serbis, and is the most forgettable, the most film festival-pandering and programmatic. Only on the sidelines, in the background, in the extra space does the film catch a little friction, get a little interesting. Serbis is the kind of movie you don’t care a lick for what happens, to whom, or why, but love for a single second because it spares time for a detail as small, unexpected, and totally inconsequential as the slow revelation that one family relative, for whatever reason, exists at the movie theater just to cook and serve meals at a street-side table shared by crooked attorneys, family members, and random patrons alike. Why does this pornography theater also have an unadvertised restaurant-in-miniature working out of the family’s own kitchen table? I have no idea, but it’s the kind of information—random, strangely gratifying, and rooted in the small things of life—that makes a film like Serbis tolerable.

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