Reviews / October 2017 (Issue 37)

Out of Love: Laurel Fantauzzo's The First Impulse

by Collier Nogues


Laurel Fantauzzo, The First Impulse, Anvil Publishing, 2017. 234 pgs.


The First Impulse begins from the story of Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc, two young film critics who were murdered in a robbery at Tioseco's family home in Quezon City in September 2009. The couple's life together stays central to the book throughout, as does the progress of the murder investigation. But this is not a biography, nor a true crime story. Nor is it a memoir, though Fantauzzo's own relationships to the Philippines, to family, and to young adulthood are also the books' subjects. At its core, The First Impulse is an ars poetica, in the form of a book-length braided essay whose strands are bound together by this question: what are we willing to risk for the art we love, and for the complicated people and places who provoke that art and make it worthwhile?

For Filipino-Canadian Tioseco and Slovenian Bohinc, film criticism was a way of discovering and supporting the powerful, often-overlooked creative voices of their homelands. The First Impulse traces their embrace of film criticism as a language and vocation, recounting how Bohinc's editorship of the venerable Slovenian film magazine Ekran widened its scope to include third-world cinema, film theory and political criticism, and how Tioseco, alone of his siblings, decided to make the Philippines his home instead of Canada, becoming the top young film critic in the country according to The Philippine Star. A few years after the couple met at an international festival in Rotterdam, a friend and fellow critic commissioned Tioseco to write an article explaining how he came to film criticism. Tioseco responded with an epistolary essay addressed to Bohinc, taking the opportunity to explore the unspoken questions of their long-distance relationship. "Does a place mean more than a person?" Tioseco asks. And, more pointedly, "Does my work in the Philippines mean more than the possibility of a life with you, somewhere, anywhere else?"

This question is important not only to Tioseco and to Bohinc; it's also crucial to Fantauzzo and her own path back to living in the Philippines, her mother's home country, rather than her native Southern California. Early in the book, she explains that when she first encountered Tioseco's and Bohinc's story, she was wary of her own interest, not wanting to insert herself into someone else's tragedy. But, she says, so much felt familiar, from their questions about life and art to Tioseco's commitment to and complicated feelings about the Philippines. She writes:

Alexis's and Nika's lives and deaths became like the Philippines for me … A source of grief. A source of education and affection. A story of connection, longing, migration and separation I felt compelled to explain.

Over its course, the book chronicles Tioseco's and Bohinc's romance and the legacy of their work in the context of Philippine history, politics and social institutions, with excursions into both Slovenian and Philippine film history. But always the book's central concern is a personal and philosophical negotiation between belonging and estrangement, desire and frustration home and away.

Most of the book is narrated in present tense, which, as we might expect, gives the feeling that events are unfolding for the writer and her readers at the same time. We're kept in suspense as Fantauzzo and the Tioseco family gradually discover what happened. But the present tense does other work here. Fantauzzo notes that Tioseco's friends speak of him in the present tense—one says, upon hearing that Fantauzzo has Italian heritage, that Alexis does, too. And Chris Tioseco, Alexis' brother, speaks in present tense in a video-recorded appeal to the murderers, pleading for them to take anything they want, if they just leave Alexis and Nika alone. For Tioseco's friends and family, the present tense appears as a way to assert his continued presence in their lives. Fantauzzo's borrowing of this eternal present recalls the convention, in film and literary criticism both, that fictional characters are spoken of always in the present tense. Close a book, and open it again years later—the characters are still there, still doing the same things. Fictional characters are always alive in this way, though also never alive at all, excluded as they are from real lived time. Fantauzzo's choice of present tense functions as a way to approach the real lives of people she never met, who were far from fictional, but who, as she writes above, came to be larger than life. The effect is something like a voiceover narrating a filmstrip which keeps gaining frames, keeps coming into closer focus, keeps pressing its difficult questions and finding new ones rather than answers.

The book's most compelling moments are those in which Fantauzzo most closely attends to her own delicate negotiation between feeling and acting, like an insider or an outsider. Perhaps the most poignant of these is a scene in which she's been invited to a spiritual cleansing ritual inside the Tiosecos' house. The other participants are all either the couples' good friends or the colleagues of the woman conducting the ritual, most of whom had not themselves known the couple. Fantauzzo writes wryly, "Alexis and Nika's friends were bemused and a little impatient. The strangers were earnest. I wondered which I should be."

The predicament of where Fantauzzo stands, as local or foreigner or as some unfixed synthesis of the two, also refracts out more broadly to questions about the Philippines. In one scene, Fantauzzo reflects on her own silence when given the opportunity to ask pointed questions of a Filipino filmmaker rumoured to have held a grudge against Tioseco. Her reticence, she admits, "unlike Alexis and Nika's public willingness to name the lapses of their home countries," was driven by fear of what might happen if she questioned "too firmly and too loudly," not only because as a non-native it's not her place, but also because, as she explains, Filipinos customarily prioritise getting along rather than calling out; even if she'd been born and raised there, confrontation would be a challenging option, especially against a man with friends in high places. In another scene, she walks with Manang, the Tioseco family's housekeeper, through Quezon City's streets from the Tiosecos' wealthy neighbourhood to the slum in which another former employee lives. Crossing EDSA, Manila's largest thoroughfare, on foot prompts Fantauzzo to realize she has stopped really seeing the many people who don't drive that distance, who walk instead because driving or riding public transportation is beyond their means. The scene recalls Tioseco's own growing understanding of and discomfort with the Philippines' class hierarchies as he moved back from Canada in late high school. And here Fantauzzo returns, implicitly, to another of the book's questions: given that we are all embedded in systems of unjust power distribution, what is our responsibility to resist those systems, and what can a devotion to writing or film or any other art do to redress injustice beyond acknowledging our complicity? It's a question that seems particularly relevant now for artists, writers and really anyone attending to our era's growing income inequality, global precarity and increasingly authoritarian-style governments in the Philippines, the US and elsewhere.

The First Impulse invites and deserves a wide readership. It's a capacious book and an ambitious one, and it will reward readers interested in how we make our lives worthwhile in the midst of all we can't control. And, too, it will reward anyone who has felt caught between homes, or caught between love and worry and frustration and anger for the home they've chosen, but who hopes their own first impulse will always be, as Alexis Tioseco put it, of love.


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