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We live in science-fiction times. You have to read Ted Chiang’s The Story of Your Life (filmed as Arrival).

November 29, 2016 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Movies 1 Comment →

Movies showing in New York: Moonlight (which I have to see with my friends), Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford’s latest, winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Venice where Lav Diaz won the Golden Lion), and Manchester by the Sea, the new film by Kenneth Lonergan starring Casey Affleck. Cost of a movie ticket: $16.


I loved the ill-fated Lonergan movie Margaret and wanted to see Manchester by the Sea. Casey Affleck, who has used his freaky stare to great effect in his brother’s Gone Baby, Gone and The Assassination of Jesse James, is said to be terrific in it (the word Oscar has been used). But when I got to the Angelika both screenings of Manchester were sold out (there was a Q&A with the filmmakers aargh) so I settled for Nocturnal Animals.

Tom Ford’s first movie A Single Man, an adaptation of the Christopher Isherwood novel, was a feature-length perfume commercial (Bawal ang pangit) lifted by a heartbreaking performance by Colin Firth (who really won his Oscar with that). Nocturnal Animals, an adaptation of Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, is actually two movies. The first is about an art gallery owner played by Amy Adams who seems to have everything she wants: a thriving career, a rich and gorgeous husband (Armie Hammer), a fabulous house and glamorous lifestyle. It still looks like a perfume commercial, but this is to underscore the shallowness of her existence.

The second movie is a dramatization of the novel her first husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) has written and dedicated to her. It’s a nasty, alarming thriller in which a man (Jake), his wife (Isla Fisher, brilliantly cast—she looks like Amy) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) are driving through a Texas highway in the dead of night when they are forced off the road by a trio of thugs led by a terrifying Aaron Taylor-Johnson. The worst that can happen, happens. The ensuing investigation is led by the always disconcerting Michael Shannon, who would’ve made off with the entire movie if Jake were not so solid.

As the gallerist reads the manuscript, she recalls her relationship with her sweet, unambitious ex and how she destroyed him at the prodding of her mother (Laura Linney, who is brilliant). Nocturnal Animals stays in your head for days, and should cause a few arguments about the ending.

Amy Adams is having a great year. I’m looking forward to Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve (Sicario). Even before I’ve seen the movie, I already owe it a great debt for introducing me to the work of Ted Chiang.

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Arrival is based on Chiang’s The Story of Your Life. Ostensibly a first contact with extraterrestrials tale, it is a mind-bending rumination on language and cognition, and a deeply emotional story of motherhood. The main idea is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis:

the theory that an individual’s thoughts and actions are determined by the language or languages that individual speaks. The strong version of the hypothesis states that all human thoughts and actions are bound by the restraints of language, and is generally less accepted than the weaker version, which says that language only somewhat shapes our thinking and behavior.

Chiang is a writer who explores exhilarating ideas without losing sight of the familiar and human. Like many of the finest writers today, he is isolated from the general audience by the label “science-fiction”. But we live in science-fiction times, and the only way we can make sense of this pandemonium is to read writers like him.

If you see Ted Chiang’s books in stores, buy them all. Read them and give them to your friends. If for some reason you don’t like them, send them to me and I’ll swap other books for them.

On the Internet, nearly everything conspires against the truth.

November 07, 2016 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Current Events, Technology 1 Comment →

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Doctor Strange sends some journalists to a hell dimension.

We are living in the post-fact age. The more I see what’s going on, the more thankful I am that I was born in the analog world (a.k.a. old).

Digital technology has blessed us with better ways to capture and disseminate news. There are cameras and audio recorders everywhere, and as soon as something happens, you can find primary proof of it online.

You would think that greater primary documentation would lead to a better cultural agreement about the “truth.” In fact, the opposite has happened.

Documentary proof seems to have lost its power. If the Kennedy conspiracies were rooted in an absence of documentary evidence, the 9/11 theories benefited from a surfeit of it. So many pictures from 9/11 flooded the internet, often without much context about what was being shown, that conspiracy theorists could pick and choose among them to show off exactly the narrative they preferred. There is also the looming specter of Photoshop: Now, because any digital image can be doctored, people can freely dismiss any bit of inconvenient documentary evidence as having been somehow altered.

One of the apparent advantages of online news is persistent fact-checking. Now when someone says something false, journalists can show they’re lying. And if the fact-checking sites do their jobs well, they’re likely to show up in online searches and social networks, providing a ready reference for people who want to correct the record.

But that hasn’t quite happened. Today dozens of news outlets routinely fact-check the candidates and much else online, but the endeavor has proved largely ineffective against a tide of fakery.

That’s because the lies have also become institutionalized. There are now entire sites whose only mission is to publish outrageous, completely fake news online (like real news, fake news has become a business). Partisan Facebook pages have gotten into the act; a recent BuzzFeed analysis of top political pages on Facebook showed that right-wing sites published false or misleading information 38 percent of the time, and lefty sites did so 20 percent of the time.

“In many ways the debunking (of misinformation) just reinforced the sense of alienation or outrage that people feel about the topic, and ultimately you’ve done more harm than good.”

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Dormammu makes Doctor Strange’s head explode.

Read How the Internet is Loosening Our Grip on the Truth, and make sure you have chocolate, a stiff drink, or a snuggly cat to console you afterwards. Or look at this selection of the weirdest Doctor Strange moments in the comics.

Recommended by mood: 7 books paired with 7 movies

November 04, 2016 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Movies 3 Comments →

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The very cool people of Seven A.D. invited me to their monthly Sietehan, where we talked about my strange career, the writing process, and how to survive the discovery that your father is not Darth Vader but Jar Jar Binks. Teeny, who heads the agency, was my classmate at UP——there were only a handful of Comparative Literature majors, so our classes were held in the teachers’ offices at the Faculty Center. (If you’ve seen that wonderful San Junipero episode in the third season of Black Mirror, that was my college soundtrack.)

Tey asked me to recommend books and movies for the younger staff who, being of the digital age, are swamped with reading and viewing options. Here are seven books and seven movies, paired according to mood.

1. The Outsider by Albert Camus and Blade Runner by Ridley Scott

The short novel is about a young man who casually commits murder because life is meaningless. The movie is about a cop who is assigned to kill clones who aspire to be human. The two protagonists should talk to each other.

2. Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy and Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock

In the novel, a young woman goes to the house of a titled family and claims to be related to them. It turns out that she is the genuine article and her “relatives” are fake. Terrible things follow. In the movie, a detective becomes obsessed with a client’s wife, has a nervous breakdown, and then hires a woman to pretend to be his client’s wife. Only she’s not pretending to be that woman. Terrible things follow.

3. A Sport and A Pastime by James Salter and The Earrings of Madame de…by Max Ophuls

A swoony, sexy novel about young lovers driving across France, as told by a friend who imagines their affair. A swoony, romantic movie about a sophisticated marriage that is shaken up by a sudden, grand passion.

4. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell and Magnolia by Paul Thomas Anderson

Seemingly random groups of characters turn out to be connected in ways we did not suspect.

5. Any Human Heart by William Boyd and Children of Men by Alfonso Cuaron

A delightful novel about the life and times of a writer near the end of his life, and a heartbreakingly beautiful movie about a man facing the end of the human species. You dive into the depths of despair, and somehow emerge hopeful.


6. A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor and The Last Days of Disco by Whit Stillman

After being kicked out of boarding school, a young man decides to walk across Europe on the cusp of World War II. After graduating from college, a group of young people make their way in New York City. Common theme: Young people figuring out how to be adults.

7. Scoop by Evelyn Waugh and Young Frankenstein by Mel Brooks

A timid nature writer is mistakenly sent to cover a war in East Africa. The grandson of Victor Frankenstein recreates that infamous experiment. Both are hilarious.

Megacity Fictions: Constructing the megalopolis with words

November 02, 2016 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Projects No Comments →

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In October I got an email from Kathleen McCaul-Moura, a novelist, journalist, and doctoral candidate in creative writing at the University of East Anglia. She’s doing work on megacity fiction and how the infrastructure and architecture of massive urban hubs affect the literature which is created within them. She was looking for partners for the Megacity Fiction website and the anthology to be published by Boiler House Press in 2018. I’ve written several stories about Manila so I said yes, and volunteered my friend Budjette Tan (now based in Denmark) whose Trese series investigates Manila’s mystical underworld.

The Megacity Fictions site is up, with stories by Budj and myself. (Lamentations 5:23, which I wrote for an art exhibition many years ago, appeared in my book The Stories So Far). Coming up: stories from Moscow, Jakarta, São Paulo and Chongqing. Visit the site, enjoy the stories, and submit your own writing.

Doctor Strange: Psychedelic Marvel

October 26, 2016 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Movies 2 Comments →

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Doctor Strange opened in local theatres today, more than a week ahead of its US debut. The latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel McAdams, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, and Tilda Swinton, who can play any role she wants as far as we’re concerned.

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Saffy’s Wow face

You will enjoy Doctor Strange if

– You’re into eastern mysticism, magical arts, astral projections and that mind-bending stuff that was big in the Sixties when the comic book first came out.
– You like seeing Benedict Cumberbatch playing another arrogant genius (See Sherlock, See the Star Trek Khan redo, See The Imitation Game, See The Fifth Estate). Typecasting!
– You like seeing Benedict Cumberbatch as an arrogant genius who has a life-threatening experience and learns to see past his enormous ego to serve the greater good (See Iron Man, which launched the Marvel movie universe).
– Tilda Swinton is your life guru.
– The concept of alternate universes and time loops appeals to you.
– You’re a completist and you have to see where one of the Infinity Stones comes from (That is not a spoiler).
– Years of watching two Marvel superhero movies every year have trained you to sit through the end credits for a surprise guest appearance. (There are two closing credit sequences.)
– You get a kick out of random pop references in your superhero flicks.
– You prefer your superhero flicks to be fun, because life is grim enough.
– You approve of the Petyr Baelish/Littlefinger look that Stephen Strange ends up with.
– You’re thrilled by reality-bending, folding, splintering effects, like Inception without the “Look, this is the greatest thing ever!”
– Seeing Stan Lee reading The Doors of Perception makes you happy.
– You are not yet exhausted by the endless parade of superhero movies.
(You live for superhero movies/You do not live for superhero movies.)
(more…)

10 writers, 10 stories in our just-concluded Writing Boot Camp

October 23, 2016 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Projects 4 Comments →

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The objective of Writing Boot Camp was to produce a story in the time between our two Saturday sessions. Last Saturday, the participants stood before the class one by one to read their first drafts. We got an intriguing range of stories, from fantasy epics to alternate histories, from the beginning of romance to the end of friendship, from the shenanigans of confidence tricksters to the inner worlds of small children. Good work, everyone!

Watch out for the Writing Boot Camp anthology featuring the complete and final versions of these stories.

Angel With A Stoma by Ramy Roxas. A surgeon finds his logical assumptions about life, sex and death challenged by a seriously ill patient.

The Confident Man by Kyo Mendoza. Hard work is all very well, but if you want your rewards quickly—like, right now—what you need is confidence.

Men, Not Boys by Jeffrey Resurreccion. In a violent, hedonistic society, a boy with a mission hopes to be chosen for a strongman’s harem.

Vivid Vengeance by Michael Bartolo. A secret agent wakes up from a coma in an alternate 1980s in which the Philippines is a socialist country.

Commuter by Rizza Estoconing. A call centre agent longs to escape her daily commute and live in the city. Is it worth it?

Anatomy of a Break-Up by Barny Rivera. One minute you’re giddy with happiness, the next minute you feel like a bag of trash hurled into an active volcano.

Boy by Philler Uy. We always assume that kids are making up things, but what if they’re not?

Harsh Tag by Rizalee Ibarra. When Zen logs onto Facebook she turns into Zena the Warrior Princess, obliterating dissenters with the strength of her political convictions. Then her online and real lives collide.

The Wrong of Being Right by Zack Lim. A teacher realizes that he could’ve changed the course of history, but is the past really past?

Ghost by Alexis Roxas. Is the blond boy sitting by himself in the woods a ghost, a figment of her imagination, or a time anomaly?

The next Writing Boot Camp will be held in February, 2017. For inquiries, or to commission a Writing Workshop for your group or office, email saffron.safin@gmail.com.

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Thanks to WSI Corporate Center for our excellent venue and facilities. WSI Corporate Centre has spaces for seminars, parties, wedding receptions, family reunions, clandestine superhero conventions and so on. For rental inquiries, call (02)8585405.