Book Launch Lecture: Manila by Night

The summer of 2018 marked my first visit home after three of my four book volumes (actually two of my three books) had come out. I was invited to speak at the book launch of Pro Bernal, Anti Bio, Angela Stuart Santiago’s completion of Jorge Arago’s interrupted biography of Ishmael Bernal; the occasion was titled Queer & Defiant: Ishmael Bernal, Bernardo Bernardo, & Manila by Night. I took the occasion to talk about Manila by Night, the movie as well as the monograph I contributed to Arsenal Pulp Press’s Queer Film Classics series. About a week later I was guest speaker once more, this time at the website launch of the University of Santo Tomas’s UNITAS journal, where I was requested to speak about the two volumes of Millennial Traversals. The Manila by Night lecture below was followed by a percipient set of questions by my colleague, Patrick D. Flores, but unfortunately I was unable to take time to recall them after the event. (To enlarge the pics, please click on them. To go to the Manila by Night book feature on this blog, please click here.)

QUEERNESS AS DEFIANCE IN MANILA BY NIGHT

Facebook announcements. (Courtesy of Katrina Stuart-Santiago)

Many thanks for making the effort to trek all the way to what was once known as the centerpiece of the City of Man, the [Cultural Center of the Philippines] Complex. I used to work at one of the edifices here, the now-condemned Manila Film Center, and even though public transportation then was far more efficient and inexpensive, coming all the way here is not something I can be easily persuaded to do, now that I can find all the excuses I want.

Katrina Stuart-Santiago was extremely patient and encouraging in making all the necessary arrangements, but my interaction with her goes all the way back, in discussing the botched National Artist Awards procedure during the second Aquino regime, and later in going over some points of the book that she worked on with her mother, Angela. My association with Patrick Flores goes even further back, nearly three decades if I’m not mistaken. We were contributors to the review section of National Midweek, and when his review of Bilangin ang Bituin sa Langit came out, friends asked me if I resorted to using a pen name again. I told them no – I wasn’t ready to write anything as accomplished as he did on the subject of local melodrama.

We had a conflicted and sometimes contentious relationship, but I bring out this history here so that I might be able to demonstrate to you that the lessons I learned, some of them painful, helped me evolve further as a film commenter and scholar. Some of these lessons still have to be played out more fully – and again, this is not in the spirit of TMI (or too much information) but rather in pointing out that the movie that will be screened after this talk, also suffered and continues to suffer from several hard-to-resolve problems.

As everyone here who lived through the middle period of Marcos martial law would remember, Manila by Night was subjected to the worst censorship case ever visited on a Philippine movie. It was banned for nearly a year, disallowed from participating as a competition entry in the Berlin International Film Festival, and released with the longest listing ever of visual cuts and aural deletions. Since all reference to Manila was prohibited, the title itself was changed, to City After Dark. Unknown to the public, the director had intended to prepare a definitive cut for the thwarted Berlin screening. He was discouraged from doing so by the festival director of the Berlinale – although after Imelda Marcos decided that the movie could not be permitted to represent the country on foreign screens, that issue was no longer even relevant from that point onward.

I provide a more extensive explanation of how Ishmael Bernal arrived at the particular stylistic decisions he used during the period when he made Manila by Night, roughly from 1979 to 1981. What matters in our looking back on this same period is how his approach was misconstrued as a lack, an inability to measure up to the level of competence exhibited by his contemporaries, including his friendly rival, Lino Brocka. His stylistic choices, which were drawn from Third-World cinema samples as well as his documentary training and internship, resulted in his being penalized by reviewers as well as the award-giving critics. You have the jaw-dropping anomaly of the group acknowledging Manila by Night as the best film they were privileged to recognize, but Bernal losing the prize for direction. After Brocka made a splash at the Cannes Film Festival, the next Filipino lined up for that supposedly most prestigious of all film venues was a much younger aspirant, rather than the filmmaker who was definitely Brocka’s equal, and in all possibility his superior.

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There is one more historical detail that recently re-emerged, as proof of the queerness of Manila by Night’s existence: Bernal made what we might call Manila by Day – a documentary, rather than a feature film, that upheld rather than critiqued the city, commissioned by Madame Iron Butterfly Imelda Marcos, rather than Mother China, Lily Monteverde. A few netizens expressed disappointment with what Bernal did, since it contrasted with the decision by Lino Brocka and Mike de Leon to boycott anything associated with the Marcos martial-law regime. But this overlooks several matters, from Bernal’s sense of duty in securing the good standing of his producers, to the later news of his active participation in the left underground during and after the people-power uprising of 1986.

So the generally positive development of intensive film study and training in the Philippines, an option unavailable during Bernal’s time, also holds a disadvantage for older critics and historians of film. What we have among us is a generation of film participants and observers not only schooled in film, but also adhering to film-school values without the need to start from a wider historical, cultural, and philosophical analysis of their place in the world – a set of values that an earlier generation like Bernal’s and Bernardo Bernardo’s had no choice except to pursue. Instead of measuring friends by their choices of favorite films or music or books as social-network folks do today, they would start by articulating their social or political positions vis-à-vis urgent local or global issues, and proceed to infer which contemporary or classical philosophers, if any, informed their new acquaintances’ opinions.

Bernal and Bernardo – but if you’ll permit me I’d prefer to call them Ishma and BB respectively, to distinguish between them more easily – were exponents of a queer sensibility way before the word “queer” was recuperated in lesbian and gay activism via the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power’s even more radical breakaway group, Queer Nation. Formed in 1990, the group was credited with reversing the derogatory connotation of the word in mainstream media. The term “queer” is intended for oppositional activism, wherein a practitioner can be anyone who or anything that challenges whatever happens to be the acceptable or decent set of values of the moment. As an example, when I mentioned to BB the word and how it was defined in gender politics, in the context of his self-identification as a gay man who had a few celebrated heterosexual romances, he said, “Then I’m definitely not bisexual, but I’m also more queer than gay.”

We would therefore be correct in describing Manila by Night as a queer text even before New Queer Cinema first emerged in the 1990s. (I would even argue that many of the so-called queer cinema films are really nothing more than rom-coms with same-sex pairings, but that would open up a can of worms that we in this kind of event would not be able to wriggle out of.) Crucial to this description would be the kind of bohemian lifestyle that people like Ishma and BB designed for themselves, and that would be evident in their artistic output. They readily crossed boundaries of class – and gender, in BB’s case – and were consequently fluent in a wide variety of lingos, costumes, mentalities, and professions. To paraphrase Terence, nothing Filipino was alien to them.

Yet Manila by Night possesses a distinction shared in fainter degrees by any number of exceptional Filipino movies, including Bernal’s own follow-up projects. Even by global-cinema standards, one would be hard-put to put together a canon of films with multiple-lead characters whose achievement equals or exceeds Manila by Night’s. Robert Altman’s Nashville, Bernal’s direct inspiration, would be part of that list, as would Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game, Mizoguchi Kenji’s last film Street of Shame, and an obscure Italian title, Liliana Cavani’s La Pelle. These are all multicharacter movies, but they move beyond the depiction of a small group or community that has become one of the standard formats of independent cinema. They make use of types rather than characters, since the number of protagonists is so large that it would be impossible to develop any one of them unless the filmmaker abandons everyone else to focus on a few, sometimes on only one, the singular hero.

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And yet, rather than failing from this inability to provide a classically well-rounded character, these films give us a weird, or shall we say queer, impression that a characterization has been achieved. A characterization that does not reside in any of the characters, but rather in the social impression they create, via their couplings and conflicts, their onscreen interactions and offscreen further developments. The impression we get is that of an abstract super-character, one that we may define according to geography – the city of Nashville in Nashville, Manila in Manila by Night, Tokyo’s Yoshiwara district in Street of Shame, Naples in La Pelle. And because no single character is privileged, it becomes possible to define and redefine society according to the perspective of any character we choose to identify with.

Most people would get the impression that queerness in Manila by Night resides in BB’s character, Manay. BB himself affirmed that Manay was meant to function as the movie’s conscience – an unusual one, considering that this moral center indulged in promiscuity without batting the proverbial eyelash. Yet when we pick out Manay as our reference point, we find that the men he sleeps with are straight-identified, and that the women he tries to help occasionally turn out to be undeserving of his kindness. From Manay and through one of his charity cases, we arrive at the figure of Kano, the lesbian drug pusher, the only character in Manila by Night who (as described by my colleague Libay Linsangan Cantor) is never seen during daytime, much less in a home of her own, so totally liminal that all we can do is guess, from her name and origin in the US naval base, about her parentage and childhood. And as if this experience of trauma weren’t enough, several more come up, one worse than the other.

Ishma took pains to explain that all the unusual events in the film were drawn from his or his friends’ experiences. (I won’t go into too much detail so as to avoid ruining your experience of the revelations in the film.) With Kano, he had no definite real-life model, at least from what I remember. Yet it is Kano who resonates with the burning issue of our time – worsening poverty, homelessness, the drug war and its concomitant extrajudicial executions. In the monograph I wrote for the Queer Films Series of Arsenal Pulp Press, I claimed that Kano, by herself and as a focalizer who allows us to reconfigure the other characters, displays the radical potential described by such lesbian theorists like Judith Butler, Teresa de Lauretis, and Peggy Phelan, who argue in favor of invisibility, constant reinvention, and dangerous sexualization.

All that I would like to point out, by way of ending this elaborate argument, is that these qualities, in a Third-World context, raise the specter of guerrilla resistance. For me, this poses a challenge to scholarly colleagues who assert that nothing of political import arises from Manila by Night. It may be not completed according to the preference of its director, it may suffer from the technical weaknesses inherent in its deployment of unpolished surfaces and improvised performances, it may partake of a nihilistic vision packaged with a comically incongruous happy ending. Like some of the most gifted people we’ve known, Ishma and BB included, it is a difficult movie to love, yet it makes itself impossible to dismiss. Thank you everyone for listening.

Above: The author and Patrick D. Flores await their turn during the program. Below: The author, Angela Stuart-Santiago, and Rodolfo Vera (who performed a reading with Noel Añonuevo) pose before a picture of Ishmael Bernal. (Photos courtesy of Dempster P. Samarista)

(Delivered August 7, 2018, at the Silangan Hall, Cultural Center of the Philippines, Roxas Blvd, Pasay City)

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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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