Screening Log: Serbis (Brillante Mendoza, 2008)

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02/09/2009 4:28 PM |

Or, Private Parts in Public Places. Filipino fest favorite Serbis is about a family living in the Family, a brokedown movie palace now showing porn flicks while rent boys offer “serbis” (“service”) while you watch. In one day, lasting a little less than 90 minutes, we get a bigamy lawsuit, an unwanted pregnancy, affairs, a robbery, and a few dozen secondary grease-fire crises.

An odd comparison, but: Hitchcock’s Sabotage is another genre movie (a thriller, rather than a multi-threaded, melodramatic, serial-seeming soap opera) about people who run a movie theater, and live inside it. And both Sabotage and Serbis seem to point out the ways in which their characters live in, well, a movie: Serbis‘s opening credits play over very scratched black leader, and the film ends with the celluloid burning up (like Two Lane Blacktop, weirdly), like the world is contained within the celluloid.

Life here is spectacle.

This makes life rather exasperating, especially if you’d just like to be naked without being peeked at (tough luck, Naked Girl Surveyed By the Camera in the Opening Scene). The sounds of traffic permeate the walls; coitus is invariably interrupted — especially, in a late set piece, by the goat that wanders into the theater. Mendoza privileges moments of privacy — a family member carries the prints back to the distributor, getting some alone time with the movie everybody’s just been having it off to in the same room — with longer, quieter takes. Nobody can find a minute’s peace, or solitude — and this combination of common space and the frantic, constant dramas of subsistence and self-respect make Serbis into a rather poignant study of lower-middle-class life in the Philippines. (And a brusquely funny one, in the friendly familiarity people come to have for each others’ bodies, and sexual predilections.)

Appropriately, then, given its focus on hardscrabble life, Serbis‘s metacinema ends up less Hitchcockian high drama than softcore parody. Everybody’s too busy being serviced to watch the porn movies; smutty posters adorn the crumbling Deco walls of the Family. When somebody does watch a movie, it’s a hysterically cheesy superhero movie seemingly made in someone’s backyard, with leftover carnival costumes. The window of the projection booth — the well from which the subconscious shoots forth as a beam of light, according to some film theorists — here seems more like a glory hole. (The projectionist gets an on-site b.j., as you might expect.)

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