Bibliographic Mini-Reviews: Memoirs & Bios

Please click here to jump ahead to reviews (listed alphabetically by title) of:

Bagay Tayo [We’re Compatible] (Jerry B. Grácio);
Filipino Directors Up Close: The Golden Ages of Philippine Cinema, 1950-2010 (Bibsy M. Carballo);
Lino Brocka: The Artist and His Times (Mario A. Hernando, ed.);
Si Nora Aunor sa mga Noranian: Mga Paggunita at Pagtatapat [Nora Aunor to the Noranians: Remembrances and Confessions] (Nestor de Guzman, ed.);
Pro Bernal Anti Bio (Ishmael Bernal, Jorge Arago, & Angela Stuart Santiago); and
Ang True Story ni Guy, Unang & Ikalawang Aklat [The True Story of Guy, Volumes One & Two] (Baby K. Jimenez).

My original intent was to draft an article that provided a report on the state-of-the-writing of this area in Philippine film-book publication. I learned about a much-awaited completed draft, by a practitioner who had passed away, that might take a while to process for publication, then learned about a couple of others being finished, plus plans for several more. At this rate, it would take too long before I could write on what has turned out to be the largest category of books on Philippine cinema.

11011This was when I opted to fall back on a less-than-satisfactory critical format, the listicle. Incapable of providing a macro view, true, but then it’s updatable. I’d already raised some points in “Authoring Auteurs,” the bibliographical essay I wrote, but these are worth repeating for the sake of the present posting: the country’s very first non-institutional film book, Vicente Salumbides’s Motion Pictures in the Philippines (Manila: V.S., 1952), would have been a full-blown memoir if it did not have to assume the unwieldy challenges of representing an industry and narrating a history; and the impetus for active film-book publication that started roughly with the declaration of martial law by then-President Ferdinand E. Marcos covered the same individual, Nora Aunor, as did a number of other film books (and film-book chapters) that emerged afterward. I didn’t mind expanding my coverage to include intellectual bios, if any should come along, as well as investigative or even muckraking reports, if these prove to be productive of critical insight. What I had to exclude were the several essentially biographical encyclopedias, since these would comprise listicles (like, but not like, this post) that were premised on a predetermined Who’s Who-style of maximal appeal with minimal analytics. Collections that comprise more than paragraph-length entries, on the other hand, are included, as they deserve to be.

11011All blog entries, as anyone with a Facebook account can attest, can be subjected to endless tinkering – corrections, revisions, even outright deletions. Some foreground this changeable condition less than others, and this post resembles the front page of Ámauteurish! in being updated whenever and wherever I manage to go over a new entry. The books will be alphabetically ordered by their respective authors’ family names, but will also be tagged with the date of uploading. These may best be regarded as extended annotations rather than reviews, with an index of entries (see above) providing both coverage and links to individual commentaries.

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Ishmael Bernal, Jorge Arago, & Angela Stuart Santiago, Pro Bernal Anti Bio (Manila: ABS-CBN Publishing, 2017), 394+x.

Jessica Zafra once headlined that this was “the best Filipino film book of the year, maybe of all time,” but that assertion raises questions of comparative criteria (in a field where I’ve got a few entries myself, but I think my reservation’s valid nevertheless, even outside of my books’ areas). Where Pro Bernal Anti Bio can definitely win is in the Pinas bio category: controversially, it’s the best in its own way. It swings a few of these achievements by being sufficiently nothing and everything in the same instance: an autobio that wasn’t finished by its subject, a bio that also wasn’t finished by its author, a memoir that draws in voices and perspectives from everyone else, finished after the autobio and bio writers passed away. Any Filipino film observer would know Ishmael Bernal, and a better-informed one would also know Jorge Arago, but it’s Angela Stuart Santiago who accomplishes what the previous authors probably only instinctively envisioned when they went about writing their entries: a literary equivalent of Bernal’s specialization, the multicharacter movie. Part of the reason it succeeds is because of a paradox: Ishma may have turned into a leftist ideologue toward the end of his life, but he remained irrepressible and transgressive, and would probably have abandoned vulgar Marxism if he had hung around longer, claiming that that phase of his life was just for the lulz.

11011PBAB could get by on Bernal & co.’s intelligence and wit alone, but the instinctive, nearly experimental structure commands closer scrutiny. Inevitably, several details conflict among themselves and/or with the historical record, despite Stuart-Santiago’s alert interventions. But this is the exception to the flawed-data project: the typical non-fiction text can be critiqued on its author’s inadequate analysis, with its errors indicating careless or lazy handling. In this instance, these troubles assume minor proportion in relation to the impressive achievement of recapturing a life lived to the hilt, the mind in constant overdrive, the heart always anxious to keep up. I had never pulled myself away from a Philippine book so many times, in order to slow down the process of completing it. Anyone who wants to learn about celebrity and/or queer culture in the Philippines would do well to make this book her first stop. [July 30, 2020]

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Bibsy M. Carballo, Filipino Directors Up Close: The Golden Ages of Philippine Cinema, 1950-2010 (Pasig City: Anvil Publishing, 2010), 206+xvi.

Bibsy Carballo stood apart as more than the public-relations practitioner that the public knew. She handled top-flight talents, line-produced prestige film projects, hobnobbed with bohemians, and had the ability to write like a journalism graduate and professor, both of which she was. One of the pleasant surprises of Filipino Directors Up Close derives from her account of its writing process. The articles were written purposefully for compilation in this volume, rather than for various publications at opportune periods, and though she observed the canonical practice of starting with winners of the Order of the National Artist, she readily and good-naturedly included filmmakers who were breaking ground in merging quality and commerce, shining a light, for example, on what she called Star Cinema’s “Three Marias” (Olive Lamasan, Rory Quintos, and Cathy Garcia-Molina, misnamed Cathy Molina Garcia in the table of contents and Cathy Grace Molina in a caption). Although the articles draw from standard references and even take care to specify bibliographic information, they never fall back on standard or predictable narratives, mainly because Carballo had the ability to identify telling details or raise crucial questions. She claimed to have enough leftover material for a second volume, and that is the tragedy that attends this publication: she could have persisted in an impressively creative and productive career if a terminal illness did not cut her life short. [August 2, 2020]

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Nestor de Guzman (ed.), Si Nora Aunor sa mga Noranian: Mga Paggunita at Pagtatapat [Nora Aunor to the Noranians: Remembrances and Confessions] (Quezon City: Milflores Publishing, 2005), 238+viii.

You may think that a collection of testimonials about someone who has been written about, more than anyone else, in local publications and not just film books, could constitute star overload. Yet these are (necessarily) fans and appreciators writing at the point when their object of adulation had grown up, and when they also underwent their own process of maturation. Nestor de Guzman – who put together a historical first for Philippine pop culture, the Noraniana [memorabilia] Collection at the public library in Iriga City, Camarines Sur (Nora Aunor’s hometown) – zeroed in on the star’s most articulate and devoted admirers. Wilfredo O. Pascual Jr., the first essayist to win first prize in the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature for his Noranian appreciation, provides his own awakening to her pervasive cultural presence; a number of academics and professionals, film and literary critics, even a drag queen whose performance is premised on mimicking Aunor: all stand up to be counted. Most impressive, in terms of Aunor’s star record, are fans who became famous precisely for being her fans, notably the late Armando “Mandy” Diaz Jr. True to the Philippines’s own historical exigencies, many of the contributors are now based in foreign countries, and nearly all of them are identified according to their membership in one or the other Aunor fan club. All of course are effusive about their particular experience of Noramania, so the best approach is to keep the book on a nearby shelf and dip into it a few articles at a time, preferably after going over a sampling of the subject-artiste’s output. [July 30, 2020]

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Jerry B. Grácio, Bagay Tayo [We’re Compatible] (Pasay City: Visprint, 2018), 274+vi.

Those who were fortunate enough to track Jerry B. Grácio’s now-deleted Facebook posts would have had an inkling of what Bagay Tayo would have been about: an account of his life with his husband Raymond Reña, whom he nicknamed Pitbull. Yet BT is still so much more than its already-rewarding hyper-romantic queerness portends. Some of these details may spoil your discovery, so we’ll leave it at that for now. Grácio was approaching his peak as scriptwriter when he set down his historia de amor (cowriting in the same period the script of Khavn’s Balangiga: Howling Wilderness), so his navigation of the class and culture differences between him and Pitbull would not be too surprising. What makes BT extra-special is the manner in which he partakes of Pitbull’s way of thinking, seemingly to the point where he can take the place of his partner entirely, if that kind of arrangement became necessary. Grácio deactivated his social-media account at the point when Pitbull’s spell in prison was about to end (spoiler, I know, but not if you were in his FB circle), and any further questions you may have are dealt with in the text, in the most painfully honest way you can imagine. BT’s actually romantic only to the extent that Grácio allows it to be, and to ensure that you don’t get too much of a wonderful thing, he made sure to come up with what appears to be a miniaturized version of the book: Hindi Bagay [Incompatible], which is actually a collection of poems about love, including the end of it. [July 30, 2020]

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Mario A. Hernando (ed.), Lino Brocka: The Artist and His Times (Manila: Sentrong Pangkultura ng Pilipinas, 1993), 312+viii.

The Philippines’s most internationally renowned filmmaker was a combative pro-democracy activist when he was alive, with his output about to explore a set of formal and social-semiotic innovations when he unexpectedly perished in a vehicular accident. He always had a conflicted relationship with government institutions and film critics, so a government volume handled by one of his allies (and occasional nemesis) had to be primarily hagiographic or be accused of grinding an ax or two. For that reason, the more extensive articles work out better than the reviews and publicity interviews (some of which are frankly substandard), and the material more closely approximates Lino Brocka’s constantly, if slowly, shifting sensibility the closer it was written in the book’s present time. Two contributions in particular complement each other historically and provide novel revelations: Johven Velasco’s “Brocka’s Theater: Something from the Heart” points out where Brocka actually started out as rightist in both gender- and political-activist terms, with the Philippine Educational Theater Association enduring his virulence. Jo-Ann Maglipon’s “The Brocka Battles” picks up on the director’s realization that the Communist left had the most prepared program and personnel in confronting the dictatorship of Ferdinand E. Marcos, although he also started considering anarchy as a more appropriate approach to his style of radicalism after Marcos’s ouster. Always, one has to exercise caution in taking Brocka at his word: to the end, he remained defensive about his past missteps, notably in his capitulations to the left-leaning literati’s sexism, homophobia, and anti-Asian racism. His output indicated that he was sensitive to oppressed people’s objections and took cognizance even if he would occasionally fall short, so the volume works best as a dialogical sampling of Brocka, his colleagues, and his body of work. [July 30, 2020]

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Baby K. Jimenez, Ang True Story ni Guy, Unang Aklat [The True Story of Guy, Volume One] and Ang True Story ni Guy, Ikalawang Aklat [The True Story of Guy, Volume Two] (Quezon City: Mass Media Promotions, 1983), 208+nulla and 296+nulla resp.

Until Ishmael Bernal et al.’s Pro Bernal Anti Bio came along, this was the definitive entry of its type. Written in then-unusual Taglish, complemented by dozens of snapshots, by a confidant of someone who has actually been the most successful multimedia star in Philippine history, at the point when she became the country’s premiere film performer. It is no fault of Baby K. Jimenez that at least a third volume seems to be missing, since Nora Aunor (the “Guy” in the title) ventured even further, and continues staking new ground well into her 60s. Fortunately BKJ herself is updating her text and promises anyone who asks that it will be appearing within her and Guy’s lifetime. Just for context, Ang True Story ni Guy arrived after a few other books on Aunor jump-started the so-far still-flourishing trend in Pinas film book publication, and was followed by a few other books and book chapters, all no longer primarily biographical. But if you still can’t get enough Guy in your life, she recently authorized another author, Ricky Lee, to cover the areas that ATSG 1&2 avoided: in a word, the scandals, the same elements that would have defeated most of us but what an artistic genius (Bernal’s description of her) knew how to work into her craft. We still haven’t heard the last of her – and she’s still around, if you can imagine the mythic possibilities. [July 30, 2020]

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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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