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Movie Review: Serbis

While watching Brillante Mendoza’s film Serbis, viewers may only take a slippery hold on the many secrets that linger inside the campy porn movie theater (appropriately called “Family” Theater), that doubles as an underground hotspot for gay prostitution. The latter point seems to be the more arresting aspect of the film, but Mendoza isn’t interested in the men who engage in pleasure-for-profit. They consistently remain nameless and faceless. Mendoza is instead interested in the family that runs the theater, whose own disarray parallels the crumbling of the theater itself, as prostitutes and customers run rampant under blind eyes.

That the story circulates around a movie theater is significant, because there are times when watching certain individual’s activities feels like an act of voyeurism. There is the opening scene, in which a nude Jewel boldly applies lipstick and, while observing her self in the mirror, puts on a sexual display with a series of gestures and endless mouthings of “I love you”. Whatever and whomever she is doing it for remains unclear, but there is a blatant sexuality, vanity, and privacy to her act, and those qualities are broken when Jewel realizes that, in fact, her nephew has been watching all along. This is one of many moments in which characters (and viewers) are put in the uncomfortable position of feeling unwelcome as they open doors, seeing what probably shouldn’t be seen. Yet, despite all appearances, that which is seen can no longer be erased from the mind.

The quality of voyeurism has much to do with the notion that each character has a particular position and place in this microcosm, and while crossing certain places may be unallowable, it is also unavoidable. The people running in and out of the theater are many, but there remains an unspoken agreement of where each one belongs. Through an observable series of everyday routines, one is trained to understand that Ronald runs projections (while masturbating) in the reel room; Alan trades projection reels and paints posters (while bedding his girlfriend Merly in between); Nayda stands in as the married theater matriarch (while fighting an attraction to her cousin Ronald); and so on. No mention is made of how this pattern came to be; it just seems to have been this way for as long as anyone could remember. Here it becomes clear that the family operates under the illusion that people can run by pure mechanics, can automatically stabilize their selves, and can be free of wrongdoing or mistake. Even the movie theater itself, a porn house, is maintained under the illusion that sex can be distilled and rendered immobile, resting as paintings on the theater walls or as a picture on screen for the price of a movie ticket. In fact, much more is brewing under the surface. Whether anyone knows, or wishes, to acknowledge this, remains unclear.

This droning routine, rendering even sex stagnant, makes one look to smaller, more quotidian gestures to find any hint of disruption or untidiness. Mendoza sets everything up so that seeing a man being sucked off by a boy for a modest fee is no longer shocking; but catching Ronald looking one moment too long at Nayda is. The losing principle of Serbis, it seems, is that life should be anything but messy. If things do get messy, then clean up the mess, pure and simple. As Nanay Flor, the aging mother, says, “There’s a lot to fix in this movie house”, but she fails to recognize that perhaps some things, like her divorce, can’t really be fixed. Near the end of the film, Mendoza withdraws from the family and leaves the theater. The final scene rests on two complete strangers, men who briefly converse about nothing in particular, and the film reel burns up, leaving a gaping hole in the screen. The gesture reads like a "fuck you" to this concept of social mechanization to which the family--and on another level, the audience--so desperately adheres. With people, there is no smooth running or compartmentalizations to be had, so let them remain confusing and opaque, even in the movies.



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