An earlier generation of Pinoy media observers would have thought that the death of Dolphy, once it arrived, would have left behind the issue of his profligacy: the usual tally of the deceased’s offspring and their corresponding mothers alone would already bring up the issue of his sexual insatiability and the potency of his allegedly humongous “secret weapon.” Yet it is a measure of the extent of the Philippines’ cultural maturation that the only controversy left literally in his wake is the question of why he had not been declared a National Artist, the country’s highest official distinction for people in his profession.
His earlier nomination, during the previous round, was supposedly sabotaged by the objection of a highly influential culturatus. The ensuing round of exchanges has been seemingly obsessed with the violation of a confidentiality agreement – a strange and moot assertion, considering that the National Artist selection process is performed as part of a mandate of the national government and is therefore always open to public inquiry. Nevertheless a resolution, as far as one can be determined, has been promised by no less than the President, with his assurance of support for any future recommendation for the award to be handed to the late comedian.
At this point a personal disclosure ought to be made: not so much because of my past association with some of the institutions involved in the controversy, but because of my incomplete coverage of a film artist who I presume to critically evaluate. I can probably count about a dozen Dolphy films that I have seen, and a whole lot of film excerpts, but this would not pass my own test for serious attention to someone’s body of work. Yet for someone with over 220 film titles (not to mention a successful TV crossover) dating to over 60 years back, Dolphy himself might be able to forgive anyone who’d been unable to watch a hundred or more of his own titles.
With the National Artist question, the answer may be parsed as simply and literally as possible: he was a major star (possibly the Philippines’ most prolific one even solely in terms of film projects) and was therefore “national,” and he had possessed sufficient artistry not only in maintaining this status but also in impressing colleagues and (certain) critics, including the official mainstream organization (with which I was also once associated) that had given him a lifetime achievement prize. Yet the next logical question, of whether being both nationally renowned and unquestionably artistic automatically makes one deserving of being called a National Artist, is where a lot of qualifiers have to be raised.
Dolphy had been part of the wave of local stars who wrested control of their careers from the vertically integrated studio system of the 1950s (the so-called First Golden Age) by producing their own projects; one such figure, Fernando Poe, Jr., had already been granted the recognition, while an arguably just-as-vital name, deposed Pinoy President Joseph “Erap” Estrada, may never receive it, because first and foremost, the distinction is inevitably political, and it would simply be more politic to bestow it on Dolphy than on Erap. Yet unlike the major stars who emerged immediately after World War II, Dolphy had been saddled with twin disadvantages that make his triumph more remarkable for its time.
One of those liabilities, poverty, was an acceptable one, in the sense that the democratic system being upheld by the republic (exemplified by the social mobility afforded by media stardom) allowed for individuals to transcend such class-based limitations. The other matter, his East Asianness, was a far trickier situation for anyone to navigate. The war had traumatized the population into an affirmation of the racial stereotyping originally propagated by the early European colonizers – that of distinguishing between the “right” kind of fair-skinned people (Caucasians) and the “wrong” kind (East Asians, who were earlier demonized as pagans and were later imaged as ruthless colonizers). Hence Filipino aspirants to movie stardom had to misrepresent their mestizo features as non-Asian; or, if this were impossible to pull off, then they had to settle for less-profitable second-tier status as villains (e.g. Bruno Punzalan), seductresses (Bella Flores), or comedians, where Dolphy (alongside Chichay, Babalu, and a long list of other names) found – and managed to build on – his niche.
It was certainly no help when newly emerging nationalists with anti-imperialist sentiments sought to critique Philippine culture’s excessive white love by producing xenophobic literature that targeted the local Chinese community. This context helps explain not just Dolphy’s long-term political neutrality (just as Chinese Filipinos were known to support both establishment and opposition candidates during elections) but also why his type of comedy evolved toward a safe, family-friendly, middle-brow variety. Of his few forays with “serious” filmmakers, none had been with Manuel Conde or Ishmael Bernal, the National Artist auteurs who had reputations for scathing social satire. In fact he had tended to fall into the same misconception that the biggest Hollywood clowns, from Charlie Chaplin to Tom Hanks and Jim Carrey, had about serious material: that it had to be unfunny in order to “deserve” respect.
Ironically it was also as a result of this nationalist resurgence that East Asians (Filipinos or otherwise) were finally able to attain star status in local media, starting with the distinctly chinita Vilma Santos all the way through the frankly named Rico Yans, Sandara Parks, and Kim Chius of the present, with his own children deploying his once-suppressed surname; any number of leaders – all the way to Presidents and Cardinals – no longer need to remain silent about their overseas ancestry.
How then should good old Pidol be assessed? His National Artist award will be handed down, barring unforeseen abnormal circumstances, and that would restore some symbolic balance to the excesses in our history of racism, however long-gone this tendency might have been. But it would be far more instructive for his audiences to remain aware of his weaknesses as much as his virtues, and the all-too-human reasons that had forced him to resort to the self-limiting career measures that he, in a sense, had no way of avoiding.
[First published July 12, 2012, in The FilAm]
One fascinating thing about having been present during the emergence of critical awareness in Philippine cinema was observing how games of auteur favoritism played out: who would be the critics’ pets and how would the rest fare in relation to them? The way the rules were formulated – a series of commentaries by organized critics that built up toward an annual awards ceremony – made for dramatic though ultimately hollow displays as a community of artists would be set one against another, with those who won more trophies regarded as first among their peers. The problem would be not so much the occasional lapse in judgment (Ishmael Bernal losing as director of Manila by Night , Nora Aunor undervalued for some of the best performances in global cinema) as the regressive impact of film awards on cultural understanding; awards could not serve as periodic summations of critical evaluation simply because there is rarely any real criticism behind them. Influence-peddling probably, favoritism definitely, but critical thinking? Only if we accept celeb-fetishism as worthy of serious scholarly consideration.
Marilou Diaz-Abaya was one of the early victims of this still-ongoing practice of intellectual barbarism masquerading as earnest cultural analysis. Emerging fully formed and initiating a so-far unparalleled film series on Philippine femininities, mostly with the same team of close associates providing assistance, she met with dismissive responses from the exact same group of people who should have known best. Her recent death, after an extended bout with breast cancer, had met with a lot of appreciative reminiscences, evidence of the care and humor with which she prepared for the end; yet whether this kind of appreciation will ultimately extend to her body of work – that both remains to be seen and does not excuse the neglect with which her practice had been met. None of her major films (except for two star vehicles on Viva Films) is available on DVD; their restoration might be all that remains, if justice deserves to be served, toward the rehabilitation of her stature as major Pinoy film artist.
In retrospect, it would be easy to see how Diaz-Abaya could be so casually written off. Not only was she young, she had come from financial privilege and so could afford extensive film training, then-unavailable locally. Her circle included some of the most prestigious players the industry had ever seen: Ishmael Bernal mentored her, Jesse Ejercito produced her projects, and Ricardo Lee (the only one still actively practicing his craft) wrote scripts for her. It were as if she had been an interloper, and she had enough self-deprecating humility to preempt everyone in cracking jokes about her sheltered upbringing. Moreover, film practice at the time had attracted the finest talents in the country, facilitated in no small part by the fact that the Marcoses, despite their ruthless control of media, were sufficiently star-struck (Ferdinand won the presidency via biographical blockbusters, Imelda had screen-tested for the studio that produced her husband’s films) to treat film as their fair-haired child, their showcase of progressivity and proof to the world of their cultivation of democratic space.
Thus critics had no lack of talent to uphold, and shelving a relatively young newcomer who came from the “wrong” (that is, the right) side of the tracks would not count for much when so many others and so much else could be celebrated. Lino Brocka could come up with an instantly recognizable global classic in Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (1975), and Ishmael Bernal could presently respond with Manila by Night, arguably an even more significant contribution. Diaz-Abaya staked her claim to this order of filmic discourse by proffering Moral (1982), which expanded the city-film setting to include the newly formed metropolitan area and focused on women’s issues. Differing from Maynila, Moral sustained the sexual politics and multi-character format of Manila by Night; if the Bernal film still stood heads and shoulders above everything else, then both Maynila and Moral might be seen as its proper bookends, one anticipating and the other upholding the middle production and sharing its stature as major Philippine film confabulations.
Interviewed by phone, Lee recalled how Diaz-Abaya knew the long-term value of their output: Moral was “the only movie where my name and [producer] Jesse Ejercito’s appeared along with hers above the title,” he said, adding how her readiness to share credit extended to a directing class where he handled the writing portion as well as to the joint memoir of their professional collaboration that they had nearly finalized when the end arrived. He explained further why his scripts with her, and her films with him, have marked each other like no other Filipino director-writer team-up had ever had: “No other director treated my material with the openness and care that she did. Some of the materials we tackled were new to her – queerness, prostitution, incest, promiscuity, atheism – but with her I always had the assurance that she would set aside her biases and preferences and come around to the vision in our material.”
What compounds the difficulty of evaluating Diaz-Abaya’s output was her restlessness which, given how limited her time had been, may now appear as an eagerness to cover as much ground as her seemingly boundless energy could allow. I had occasion to interact with her twice, once in graduate school when she dropped by New York on her way home from a European film festival, and another time about a year ago when her cancer had been in remission; each time I was with a “younger Marilou,” first film critic Bliss Cua Lim and then filmmaker Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil, and both times it still amazes me to recall how she had no other agenda except to indulge in intelligent exchanges. Earlier she had just finished Milagros (1997) and announced that she felt it was time to tackle films about men: “I’m not sure I’ll be as successful as I had been with [films on] women,” she said, “but I have to take this risk so I can know for sure.” More recently, she had just released her last film project, Ikaw ang Pag-ibig (2011), but she talked with undiminished excitement about teaching, research, writing, and spiritual preparation – everything (except perhaps the last) that I and everyone else I know had been doing.
What will always haunt me about her is my envy about how she never allowed any limitation to stand in her way: she consorted with far older adults when she was young, opted for a profession dominated by biological men, ran with a crowd far removed from her genteel and well-heeled origins, pursued topics and challenges way beyond her comfort zone, and kept looking forward even with death staring her down for years. She welcomed the revitalization of film practice via the shift to digital technology, but was never remiss in cautioning against the dangers of excess privilege – and who better to know about this than her? In one of several excellent interviews that have cropped up all over Philippine news outlets, she made mention of how indie-film production could entrap its practitioners; after affirming how respect for the audience should be “non-negotiable,” she proceeded to explain the merits of the currently most popular (and consequently most derided) local genre, the romantic comedy. This was a lesson that her generation of filmmakers learned the hard way: that the way to improve a much-abused mode of practice is not to reject it, but rather to seize it and transform it so that the people who attend to it will benefit from patronizing it.
Marilou Diaz-Abaya had always connected and insisted on learning and never hesitated to share what she had. In a too-short lifespan she had earned much more than a beautiful farewell, but in the meanwhile that is all we had been able to give, even as the harder long-term work of revaluation lies ahead.
[First published December 12, 2012, as “Marilou Diaz-Abaya, 57: Rule Breaker, Risk Taker” in The FilAm]
Of whether Nora Cabaltera Villamayor, legally a senior citizen of the Philippines and permanent resident of the US, is an accomplished artist there can be no doubt. One might inspect the record of her multimedia accomplishments – as recording artist, television performer, stage actress, concert act, and film producer and thespian – and concede that she may have excelled in many, if not most, of these areas; one might even be a serious observer of any of these fields of endeavor (as I have been) and assert that no one else comes close, although many certainly aspire to her level of achievement.
Not surprisingly, the rejection by President Benigno Aquino III of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts’s endorsement of Aunor has occasioned a number of impassioned and articulate responses, starting with social networks, by now filtering through mass media, and inevitably destined to land in scholarly discussions, with the Philippines’s own major indexed humanities journal, Kritika Kultura of Ateneo de Manila University, slated to publish a special section devoted to her. (Personal disclosure: I am in charge of this specific project, as forum editor.) The nature of the reactions should not surprise anyone attuned to Philippine popular culture: the late-1960s working-class devotees who demanded for, and got, the teen idols they wanted have since grown along with them, many gentrifying and positioned in various capacities all over the globe.
It would have been instructive for the president’s culture team to have looked into the origin of what National Artist for Literature and Magsaysay Awardee Nick Joaquin described as a phenomenon, in one of his landmark journalism articles. For way before the 1986 middle-class people-power revolt that restored the oligarchy that Aquino effectively represents, an earlier, limited, though genuinely working-class form of people power, comprising mostly rural migrants working as factory hands and domestic labor, discovered the pleasures of pop-culture consumerism and ignored the dictates of the then-already enfeebled studio system of the so-called First Golden Age of Philippine cinema.
Rather than flock to the presentations of the typical European-featured and bourgeoisified talents then still being insistently launched by the major studios, the new urbanites, still capable of earning disposable income without seeking overseas employment, used their peso-votes to signify what types of idols they preferred. Today’s intellectuals replicate an error of historical interpretation when they position Aunor and her teen-star rival, Vilma Santos, as belonging to the native-vs.-mestizo division that observers during that time believed was at play: although Santos first emerged as a child star during the waning years of the Golden Age, her fairness did not conform to the anti-Asian requisites of the time; grown-ups with distinctly Oriental features like hers would have been relegated to serious secondary roles as male villains or femmes fatales or, at best, comic roles (where, instructively, the biggest star, Dolphy, had to suppress his Chinese surname).
Hence the masses’ new choices represented iconographies long withheld by the elite-controlled studio system, with the two biggest stars no longer male, and either morena or chinita (as their types used to be termed). By the arrival of the 1970s, the more Western-looking types accommodated this new demand for transformative appearances by exploring unusual options, including the pornography genre now remembered as bomba – also a reference to then-emerging student and labor unrest.
Since then this social experiment in discovering new types of media performers for popular consumption has either ended or changed, depending on what perspective one opts to adopt. East Asian-type candidates have managed to swing the door wide open, thanks to the example initiated by Santos and followed through by the middle-brow Chinoy-ethnocentric efforts of Philippine cinema’s most successful producer, Lily Yu Monteverde. But proof that this progressive window has also long slammed shut lies in the fact that no other brown-skinned female star has emerged since Aunor.
To confound matters for the race- and class-conscious arbiters of social acceptability, Aunor’s Otherness was too close for comfort to her mass adulators’ condition – i.e., like them she was born poor and far from the capital city, enduring the then-standard harsh treatment reserved for those perceived as unable to call on socially influential contacts for protection, cursed with disproportionate ambition and fated to rely on wit, talent, and industry to attain her dreams. Not surprisingly, for the period of what might count as her on-the-job internship, she displayed an earnest studiousness, carefully enunciating her song lyrics and delivering over-rehearsed renditions of even the most casual lines of dialogue and investing whatever spare funds she had in art or period film projects that baffled her fans and accounted for her occasional impoverishment (by movie-star standards).
Nevertheless, when her artistic maturity had peaked, roughly toward the close of the 1970s, the fruits of such unmatched discipline and struggle went on glorious display and earned her an entirely new generation of followers, many of them academically trained in cultural and media appreciation. I remember suspecting her then of finagling her performance record by paying attention to only her serious projects (as other major performers and directors were wont to do), and watching the several potboilers she appeared in during her many periods of financial difficulty: to my amazement, each one, without exception, was stamped with a level of expertise that performing arts majors would have killed for.
This background also helps explain her disdain for the trappings of social respectability, having realized (as most long-lived artists do) that the widest range of experiential possibilities can always be harnessed in the service of interpretive craft. Small wonder that when she had the assurance of serious coverage during her current career resurgence, she spelled it out for the world, without apologies: chemical dependencies, multiple (including same-sex) partners, neuroses and anxieties, an inexplicable wanderlust, regret in the innocence of the now-lost past and hope in the uncertainties of the future. It was a source of amusement for me to see her fans scrambling to rationalize her statements, with a few of them abandoning their devotion to her because of their newfound fundamentalist religious convictions.
Less amusing was the spectacle of a supposedly enlightened presidential administration decreeing, in effect, that it did not want to be represented by such a powerfully transgressive figure. Its ignorance of the artist’s temperament gets exposed when we look up the list of names who had already made it to the ranks of the country’s officially endorsed masters and see that the best among them had made use of similar methods of exploring hidden or difficult truths and realities. The kind of sensibility that counts a public record like Aunor’s as contaminated by her less-than-“exemplary” lifestyle encourages medieval institutions like the Catholic Church to attempt a takeover of official cultural functions; worse, it plays into the dangerous oligarchic fantasy that a commodified, infantile, unexceptional mass culture is the perfectly satisfactory consequence of a wholesome moral existence.
[First published June 21, 2014, in The FilAm]