Millennial Traversals – The Critic as Creator

Completed on assignment at the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, this interview was seemingly afflicted by the several strokes of ill fortune that befell it, its production agency, and eventually the government that had set up, best intentions notwithstanding, the ECP. As Soltero was being finalized, Senator Benigno S. Aquino was murdered by still officially unknown assailants – and no amount of goodwill from this point onward could ever save the Marcos government. The ECP was dissolved and replaced by a more profit-oriented institution prior to the downfall of the regime. Pio de Castro III suffered a near-fatal stroke a few years later and died thereafter, as did Bienvenido Noriega, Jr.; Jay Ilagan perished in a vehicular accident. The hotel where the bulk of the interview was conducted, Hyatt Terraces in Baguio City, collapsed in 1990, during the last major Luzon earthquake of the 20th century. The article itself was intended for SineManila, an ECP film magazine which was unceremoniously shut down by a turf-obsessed intelligence agent in the organization; it eventually came out in an older outlet of mine, the December 4, 1984, issue of the Philippine Collegian (pp. 4-7), a student paper. As de Castro had feared, critical responses to Soltero ranged from cool to frozen; how much of this may have been due to the media’s civic duty of denouncing any move (including any movie) made by the Marcos government will have to be determined more carefully, at some future time.

Pio de Castro

Anyone who wills himself success in filmmaking must at least be competent in the less compound medium of literature. Hence the several cases of serious writers on film – often lumped together under the dubious heading of “film critics” – who eventually go into film practice, and the occasional instances of film practitioners who set down their thinking on print through interviews or articles or book writing. Not surprisingly, the field is replete with some of the best minds at work in any national art scene, a veritable namedropper’s delight: the French New Wave, the New American Cinema, to cite the more familiar foreign contexts hereabouts. More relevant still are the treats of Ishmael Bernal accommodating any interviewer daring enough to take him on, or Eddie Romero discoursing lucidly on the aesthetics and politics of local cinema under his own byline.

Such rare examples of talent awesome enough to cross over limitations inherent in various media make of us lesser mortals, if not trustful admirers, then suspicious watchdogs of that remote realm of genius. Any artist who distinguishes himself in a particular field cannot repeat his success elsewhere unless he were more than just another diligent craftsman: when Pauline Kael abandoned her New Yorker post, upon which she built a reputation as the most influential critic in America, the entire movie press called itself to attention; when her first project as script doctor, James Toback’s Love and Money (1982), flopped both critically and financially (notwithstanding an impressive debut by its director in Fingers [1978], which Kael was among the few to appreciate), howls of self-righteous protest resounded beyond Hollywood. Smug silence accompanied the still-plucky Pauline’s return from peril to the pages of her all-too-forgiving publication.

A similar posture prevails in the country. About the worst thing you could say of a tried-and-tested film writer who has “legitimized” his status via membership in the local film critics’ circle is that he is using the organization as a stepping-stone for breaking into the industry. All those contacts, all that goodwill, all that theoretical sharpening, where else could everything lead but toward practical application? Sooner than later another founding member of the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, Pio de Castro III, will be going the same route attempted by his colleagues Behn Cervantes and Nestor U. Torre Jr. – right into the mainstream of filmmaking. As most frustrated film buffs would delight in pointing out, de Castro’s predecessors – whether deservedly or not – did not meet the expectations accordant to individuals of their stature, proof of which lies in their inactivity as film directors at the moment. (Never mind that perhaps the most successful critical and commercial filmmaker of the moment, Ishmael Bernal, was also a practicing critic before his entry into the industry.)

“You might consider me a bit different,” de Castro clarifies at the outset. “I was into filmmaking way before I went into film criticism. Even as a Manunuri member, I derived my subsistence primarily from commercial filmmaking. My practice of film criticism was more of an avocation, something that followed from my delight in the medium and not the other way around.” Pio de Castro III is the 40-year-old multi-awarded advertising and television director – and erstwhile Manunuri chairman – unanimously recommended by the board of jurors of last year’s scriptwriting contest of the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines to direct the third-place winner, Bienvenido Noriega, Jr.’s Soltero. The movie follows the outfit’s first major (1982) successes, Ishmael Bernal’s Himala (from the screemplay by Ricardo Lee) and Peque Gallaga’s Oro, Plata, Mata (from the screenplay of Jose Javier Reyes).

All the awards and distinctions garnered by both only serve to complicate the prospects begin brought to bear on de Castro’s Soltero by an audience already made vigilant with the awareness that the feature film debutant had been and can still be capable of passing reliable judgment on his colleagues-to-be. With the great probability of confronting unreasonably high criteria for aesthetic acceptance, de Castro has decided this early upon a stance of self-effacement. “I’ll be very happy just to get mixed reviews for this film,” the heavily built authoritative director and occasional character actor coolheadedly declares. “If some like it and others hate it, that would be good enough for me.” Such modesty belies what may be the most auspicious motion picture debut since, well, Oro, Plata, Mata although again the absurdity of latching reputations onto first works would be validated in the cases of established artists whose subsequent outputs render even well-received first films less significant, and vice versa.

Post-production observers can attest to the project’s evolution from literary winner to cinematic aggregate, from a disjointed three-hour rough cut to (as of press time) a coherent two-hour interlock. “I wanted to pursue the ‘experimentalism’ of the project by shooting the script exactly as the writer finished it,” says de Castro. “Normally you would have the director revising a script to suit the demands of his particular sensibilities, if not discarding it altogether and retaining just the plotline and the names of the characters. With Soltero it was different. I had to audition for the role of director. I could have been rejected; so the way I saw it, my passing the trial for the position meant my being qualified to direct the script as written.”

De Castro certainly had credibility in so far as being a “soulmate,” a key word in the film, to the central character in Soltero was concerned. He married late, about five years ago, and so was a soltero, or bachelor, for most of his life thus far. Almost immediately upon graduation from Ateneo, he took up his M.A. in film and TV at Wayne State University as a Fulbright-Hays scholar. When he returned to the country in the early 1970s, he applied for and got into Image Film, the advertising outfit with which he is still connected. He also moved into a small apartment near his office at LVN Studios; it was here where the Manunuri used to meet until de Castro, then already married, moved to San Juan where, needless to add, the Manunuri still goes to during sessions.

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Foundations

Soltero the screenplay tells the story of Crispin Rodriguez, a banking executive in this late 20s, whose singular pursuit is that of love in its various forms. In three particular areas of his life – romantic, familial, and professional – he realizes his aim in varying degrees of success. The film, in contrast, focuses on the aforesaid areas according to the amount of personal commitment involved on the part of the lead character – i.e., the most on Crispin’s love life, some on his family, and a few on his officemates. The evolution of emphases from the abstract whole of the screenplay to the more accessible simplification of the earlier mentioned interlock commenced only after it became literally evident that strict observance of the written work would have necessitated a final cut which exceeded three hours in length. “It would have been nice to see what the three-hour-plus finished product would be like,” says scriptwriter Noriega, “but we won’t be able to sell it. Having two versions of the same film – a long one and a short one – would also be financially inadvisable because of the expense involved.”

De Castro and Noriega, in apparent disregard of the traditionally individualistic processes acknowledged in undertakings of “high” art, conferred with expert acquaintances and arrived at the hierarchy of emphases essential to delimiting the running time of the final version.

As it is, however, the film’s present form will be undergoing a few more reconsiderations induced by its problematic transition from script to screen. A rich exposition, for example, appears to raise some issues which are not all pursued, while a few resolutions ask to be expounded on beforehand. “I’m amazed,” says de Castro in a more typically candid mood, “that a lot of people have been passing judgment on the project as if it were already finished. So many things can still be accomplished in the course of post-production.”

He may be merely reacting to a manifestation of the high expectations he had already anticipated. Those fortunate enough to have attended screenings of both rough cut and interlock, for example, will marvel over the remarkable job of restructuring accomplished in the present form, in which shots and sometimes entire scenes intended for mutually exclusive purposes were transposed to other sequences without any noticeable diminution of credulity. Given such expertise, the tendency of insiders to extrapolate their expectations could very well soar out of control. The notion that this course need not apply to established directors who have consistently maintained a level of mediocrity would be patently unfair, but de Castro is not one to take the whole thing seriously. As he announced during audition sessions for the movie, “I just want to do a successful commercial exercise – a ‘bold’ tearjerker!”

As a result of what may be considered the streamlining of the screenplay, lead character Crispin Rodriguez’s story has been constructed to begin with the end of a romantic relationship and end with the end of another one. The multi-leveled treatment carried over from the original screenplay allows for a meaningful overlap of the two women’s stories, not to mention the several ingressions into the affairs of Crispin’s family and officemates, which serve as commentaries on the lead character’s condition. A series of events arranged chronologically provides a throwback to the narrative requisites of commercial cinema, but the overall emotional wallop is more exhaustive without being as blatant as the commonly encountered cases of box-office melodrama, primarily because of the high degree of intellectual involvement demanded by the unconventional storytelling mode.

Yet preview audiences agreed that the product so far has demonstrated more commercial potential than could be expected from a prototype of the existentialist art film, purveyed most capably by contemporary German filmmakers. For with perhaps an eye out for the genre’s absence of appeal among Filipinos (witness, if you can, the availability of Ingmar Bergman releases), de Castro seems to have surmounted its individualistic nature by infusing it with a more popular, and therefore mass, accessibility. Or has he? Experts at home in the territory of personal cinema constantly allude to the humor, the ease with which the best samples are executed; after all, ethereality, when it becomes more than just the subject of the work itself, can never, at least in theory, be mistaken for its antithesis, ponderosity. In this respect, the director of Soltero can be said to have hit the right formula in his approach to the work – that is, to regard leaden material with the levity of familiarity. But then again, would that be a fair remark to make about a presumably perspicacious artist?

Extra-creative factors will determine the permanence of Soltero’s contribution to local filmic history, but at this time at least one declaration can confidently be made: the movie succeeds on its own terms not because of its commercial concessions or its generic faithfulness, but because of its conscious verisimilitude to a heretofore unexplored aspect of Philippine social reality, an achievement which draws a historical affinity through Crispin Rodriguez from other characters of contemporary cinema grappling with the entanglements of their respective social fabrics – e.g., the Kulas of Eddie Romero’s Ganito Kami Noon. . . Paano Kayo Ngayon? (1976), the Miguelito Lorenzo of Oro, Plata, Mata (1982), even the Julio Madiaga and the Poldo Miranda of Lino Brocka’s Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (1975) and Jaguar (1979) respectively. The fundamental difference, however, between Crispin Rodriguez and the other names mentioned is that the Soltero character achieves historical significance paradoxically by his distance from the historical vortex. Whereas the other characters get caught up, whether or not against their will, in the velocity of their respective social eras (and therewith become signposts of some sort for scholars of local culture), Crispin Rodriguez could never attain fulfillment as a realist character except through the mutual exclusion between himself and his particular reality, which, because of its alienating affects, can never be disclosed in any other way.

He may be loath to consider the comparison, but Pio de Castro III bears such a visionary resemblance to Crispin Rodriguez. His wife, the former Joy Soler, describes him as “a very quiet, contemplative, into-Zen person. I’ve never seen anyone so placid. It takes a large amount of negative stimulation to get him angry at something.” The de Castros first met while they were both performing for the Philippine Educational Theater Association during the early ’70s. “He was visiting [founding chair] Cecile Garrucho then,” Joy recalls, “when he got persuaded to act for PETA. In one summer he did Bertolt Brecht’s [The Good Person of] Szechuan, the passion play Kalbaryo where he played Jesus Christ, and an Off-Broadway production, [Gretchen Cryer & Nancy Ford’s] The Last Sweet Days of Isaac.” De Castro’s acting career shifted media when Lino Brocka cast him as the ambitious worker Imo in Maynila, where he garnered critical notices for his sharply drawn portrayal of a single-minded proletarian who leaves his hopeless existence behind for the higher living of a white-collar employee. His last screen appearance was in Romy Suzara’s Mga Uod at Rosas (1982), in which he appeared as a commercial artist who again leaves behind a starvation lifestyle, this time as a serious painter, for the more lucrative lure of advertising.

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Resemblances

Again the parallelisms prove too tempting to resist. “The guy’s determination is fantastic,” avers Joy. “During film festivals where he decided to participate, for example, he could watch movies round-the-clock, sleeping less to watch more, and still retain what he saw for critical discussions” – reference here being made especially to de Castro’s involvement in both editions of the Manila International Film Festival, the second of which he participated in as chair of the committee in charge of a well-received comprehensive retrospective of Filipino films. Unlike his filmic portrayals, however, de Castro does not believe in brandishing his curriculum vitae so readily. “He takes care to keep most of his achievements discreet,” says Joy, without any hint of disappointment whatsoever. “Whenever he gets wind of a big break coming his way, he never tells me unless it’s been formalized. As a person close to him, I have the impression that his expectations are in inverse proportion to his efforts.”

Casual observers can easily corroborate the couple’s selfless dynamicism. Their residence is inadvertently referred to as the Manunuri headquarters even by the members themselves; for most of the group’s profitless subsistence, the de Castros “subsidized” meetings by preparing hearty meals (then as now the main incentive for attendance) for an inadequate token among the members present. Joy maintains that “there was no prior agreement between Pio and myself to support the group as well as we could. The Manunuris are the sort of people I don’t need in my career, but that’s precisely why I enjoy their company so much: they provide a welcome respite, these artistically inclined individuals who are honest and humane for a change. Also I make a deliberate effort to link up with Pio’s concerns, and serving the group is one of the most gratifying ways I know.”

“I learned a few thins while doing Soltero, says de Castro in Baguio, after a day of shooting some pivotal sequences, accommodating an unexpected TV interview in between, taking the ECP public relations staff to a few interesting locations (including a general hospital for the treatment of a member’s eye infection), and staying up past midnight to answer some off-the-record questions while preparing to leave for Manila by early morning. “No, actually I learned a lot. What we see on the screen in movie-house, the things we can criticize so easily after a short period of practice – those weren’t created with as much facility. I believe in film criticism, I believe there’s a place for it not only within the interests of the general public but those of the industry itself; I have always been into filmmaking, but working for the first time inside the industry has given me a different perspective. Whereas before I could assent to some sympathy for local artists, today I might even become vehement about it. I have this newly emerging conviction that if only to help them appreciate first-hand the plight of local filmmakers, all the film critics around us should be given the opportunity to direct.”

De Castro did not exactly push himself forward in a director’s direction, if one were to judge by the number of breaks he broke. One of the more recent ones went to an established director and was shown last year to a good box-office crowd which seemed to have excluded serious film observers, while another has been on hold ever since the local censors demanded a certification from the material’s writer, who has been dead long enough for his works to be made required reading even in institutions where they were previously banned. “I was always on the fringes of the industry, more as a filmmaker than as a critic. In a sense I still am, because of the nature of ECP. I tried my hand in advertising first and TV next, to be able to gauge my capability for film direction. With advertising, I thought that if I could make a minute or less worthy of my client’s money, then maybe I could use longer time to greater advantage; with TV it was more of an experiment: I did a limited series film-style, with more complicated set-ups, matching shots, and so on. When people said I did well, I felt more confident.”

A host of awards of merit and excellence from local and international advertising congresses, plus positive reviews and a Catholic Mass Media Award for the TV series Pira-Pirasong Pangarap[1] all serve to back up the assurance – of production experts if not de Castro himself. “I’m glad I had the opportunity to work with ECP; it’s the only outfit which could have produced a project like Soltero – an unconventional movie without traditional exposition, obvious conflicts, surface climax. I was also given leeway in the casting, except for Jay Ilagan, for whom the screenplay was written and who was specified from the start. I chose the performers solely on the basis of their individual proficiencies.” The actors referred to can likewise enjoy the privilege of a certain amount of pre-judgment. “If anyone asks me how any of the actors performed according to expectations,” says de Castro, “I would say simply that the very fact that they were cast implies that expectations were already met.” Jay Ilagan, who delineates the character of Crispin Rodriguez, may at this point in his life claim to have enacted the role of his career,[2] just as Vic Silayan did in Mike de Leon’s Kisapmata (1982) where Ilagan won his only other acting awards (Metro Manila Film Festival and the Manunuri’s Urian as supporting actor), a year after his MMFF trophy, also for supporting actor, for Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Brutal (1980).

Based on the controversies (or absence thereof) attendant to the production of Soltero, de Castro can assert that the project thus far seems to have acquired the approval of ECP observers. Previous ECP films always elicited adverse reactions regarding budgeting, with Soltero so far the only exception, notwithstanding last year’s economic inflation. “In fairness to finance experts connected with the project,” adds de Castro, “when they saw the results they understood why a few seconds’ take could cost so much and take so long to set up.” In contrast with its spectacle-scale ECP precedents, Soltero may yet chart a new and more affordable course for future productions – both within ECP and, more important, an industry whose audience has been estranged from essential intimacy in cinema…that is, if and when Soltero achieves its expected impact upon film experts and unexpected acceptance among movie-goers.

The movie’s director would rather not be too optimistic about either. “The movie has its moments, to say the least. I don’t want to be disappointed by the way it turns out, artistically and financially.” A performance by the film on both levels as modest as its filmmaker would suffice for the purposes of the film lover who only wanted to do good. The future can be just as modest: “I want to do a gangster film,” for a change of pace. I want to let out all the fury and excitement which I had to keep under control in Soltero.” A slight pause, then “I just hope I did well enough to deserve to make another movie.”[3]

Notes

[1] A moderately successful early ’80s program, rather than the ’90s series with the same title.

[2] After a recent re-viewing of Ishmael Bernal’s Salawahan (1979), I realized that this was Jay Ilagan’s indisputable peak as actor. For some reason, all his performances seemed to decrease in effectivity the further we get from this point.

[3] As it turned out, Pio de Castro III and Bienvenido Noriega, Jr. managed to make one more movie each after Soltero; Noriega in fact had died before one of his plays was adapted for the screen.

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About Joel David

Teacher, scholar, & gadfly of film, media, & culture. [Photo of Kiehl courtesy of Danny Y. & Vanny P.] View all posts by Joel David

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