A Missing Installation in the Philippine Pantheon

I have decided to attempt the drafting and revision of an article whose final form I am still uncertain about. It will have elements of what we might recognize as basic film research, so it may wind up as a formal essay or a scholarly article. Depending on the terms that any prospective publisher might specify, this article may be pulled out (“embargoed” I think is the technical term) before it can be considered finalized. I will of course alert readers where and when it will be published. For the foreseeable future, I expect to add bibliographic notes, to be minimized if I can help it, and illustrations, as much as I can compile.

I must begin with a personal paradox: I started in film studies during a time when auteurism (or the “auteur theory” for those who prefer Andrew Sarris’s mistranslation of the politique des auteurs) had its heyday and persisted mostly in the minds of what today’s cultural snobs would call fanboys. I participated in such activities as a way of demonstrating the many lacks that local critical practitioners brought to their activities, and saw the millennial generation pick up on the mechanics but not the critique that I thought would make people hesitate or avoid auteur politics altogether.

11011I subsequently became aware that the prevalent trend in pop-culture activity will always be toward more prestige markers, not less. In undertaking what I hoped would be my ultimate (and therefore final) stab at canon-formation, I came to understand a significant aspect of its appeal: in recounting a work we have cherished, the more exclusively the better, we get to replicate the pleasure we experienced in appreciating the piece, along with the satisfaction of knowing, or hoping, that our writing might persuade other people to reconsider their differences with us.

11011The canon project I had been working on (formally as consultant for a publication team) affirmed for me the collected names of appreciated filmmakers – or what Sarrists would call a Pantheon, an assemblage of worthies – along with occasional additions or tweaks, mainly in the direction of rectifying the constant and predictable errors of the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, the original Filipino critics circle. This process has become so commonplace that most of the better young film bloggers could figure out for themselves how to evaluate films and bodies of work without falling into the established critics’ self-laid traps.

11011With earlier film samples, the provision of proof becomes more burdensome, mainly because of the country’s archival travails. One might stumble across the claim of certain oldtimers (some of them now gone) that Gerry de Leon’s the all-time greatest Pinoy film talent, were it not for the loss of his best entry, Daigdig ng mga Api [World of the Oppressed] (1965). Yet when I reread a vital article by the best among the first batch of MPP members, Petronilo Bn. Daroy, he expressed serious reservations regarding this film, and instead upheld Lamberto V. Avellana’s Anak Dalita [Child of Sorrow] (1956). Lamentably, the film exists, in a remastered condition … and will probably be unable to sustain more than a single screening with audiences who do not share its church-fomented biases against slum residents, lumpenproles, and racial minorities.

Contentions

Interestingly, these first two winners of the Order of the National Artist represented not just rival studios but also different sets of creative associates and political affinities. Although both (along with another National Artist, Eddie Romero) directed episodes of Tagumpay ng Mahirap [Triumph of the Poor] (1965) for Diosdado Macapagal’s ultimately failed campaign against Ferdinand E. Marcos, Avellana managed to switch sides quickly and effectively enough to be able to get his National Artist recognition ahead of de Leon. The one last studio-era National Artist, Manuel Conde, also labors under the loss of his “best” entry, the series of political satires that feature his version of folk trickster Juan Tamad. What remains in his name is the charmingly problematic Genghis Khan (1950), evidence of the Philippines’s once-confident cosmopolitanism in appropriating a “lesser” culture’s heroic figure and devising rollicking entertainment premised on the legendary exploits that led to the rise in power of Temujin Borjigin, prior to his Eurasian expansion of the Mongol Empire during the 13th century.

11011Hence the First Golden Age film that most contemporary film buffs have been holding in highest regard for the past few decades would be Manuel Silos’s Biyaya ng Lupa [Blessings of the Land] (1959). Like Anak Dalita, it was produced by LVN Pictures, famed for its costume epics. Another quality both pictures share is an insistence on social conservatism as vital to the definiton of nationhood, along with the open and violent rejection of marginal characters. It would be tempting to conclude that Filipino film observers tend to revert to reactionary values in evaluating the past, although I would caution against such a headlong conclusion. It may be safer to assume that whatever tools they may have devised for appreciating contemporary releases seem to them to be inappropriate for older films.

11011For this reason I have maintained the vital importance held by Gregorio Fernandez’s Malvarosa (1958). I also submit that its modernity gestures toward our present, which is why it appears anachronistic, capable of baffling viewers of early cinema who expect the samples to be genteel, virtuous, placid, and old-fashioned, possibly out of understandable and well-placed empathy for their elders. Nevertheless such sentiments are beyond me, for better or worse, so my own uphill struggle to convince colleagues to keep rewatching these titles until they arrive at a level of familiarity that breeds either contempt or admiration can only be assuaged by the fact that Malvarosa will be capable of leaving behind most of them, and a lot of latter-day cinema besides.

11011A major part of the difficulty of championing Malvarosa is the figure of its director. Gregorio Fernandez was celebrated for his mid-1950s output, which when regarded by the acclaim bestowed by the Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences Awards would have indicated a declension: from a sweep of the major categories for Higit sa Lahat [More than Everything] (1955), to a best film and technical prize only for Luksang Tagumpay [Mournful Victory] (1956), to nominations for the direction of Hukom Roldan [Judge Roldan] (1957) and Kung Ako’y Mahal Mo [If You Love Me] (1960), with an “International Prestige Award of Merit” (presumably for foreign film-festival recognition) for Malvarosa.

11011As anyone familiar with award-giving trends might be able to infer by now, these prizes do not track Fernandez’s achievements with satisfactory accuracy. His first incontrovertible world-class masterwork arrived before the FAMAS took notice, in Prinsipe Teñoso [Prince Teñoso] (1954), dismissed then presumably for being an overtly commercial adaptation of a literary form, the metrical romance, introduced during the Spanish colonial era and previously filmed in 1942, also for LVN Pictures, by Manuel Conde (who takes story credit in the Fernandez version). From available evidence, Higit sa Lahat would be a gendered twist on the Hollywood melodrama favorite Stella Dallas (dir. Henry King, 1925; King Vidor, 1937), but the succeeding films up to Malvarosa demonstrate more admirable and often successful risk-taking.

“Yoyong”

Born in 1904, Fernandez died before he reached 70, in 1973. This was about a year after the Order of the National Artist of the Philippines was first introduced. Considering the many other Filipinos who were able to acquire the distinction after they had died, Fernandez is certainly highly qualified. In fact, with the ready availability of several of his major projects for his home studio, LVN Pictures, one could easily make the argument that Fernandez has been severely underrated and unfairly overlooked.

11011The prevailing assumption about Fernandez is that he shone brightest during the 1950s, the height of the First Golden Age, with a number of his films dominating the so-named academy prizes, in a way that would only be surpassed by Gerardo de Leon, an early National Artist Awardee, in the 1960s. The comparison between the two filmmakers goes beyond the acclaim they received during this period. They were both actors, held advanced health-science degrees (de Leon in medicine and Fernandez in dentistry), provided unforgettable roles for actresses, and had clan members who also became prominent in the local industry.

11011While de Leon’s productive streak continued way after the collapse of the studio system in the early 1960s, Fernandez’s output became scarcer until he seemingly gave up on making films altogether. Unlike de Leon, who was still working on an unfinished epic (Juan de la Cruz, for Fernando Poe Jr.) when he died, Fernandez worked on a hagiographic bio-picture for Diosdado Macapagal and a few sex-themed films. De Leon also did Daigdig ng mga Api for Macapagal’s campaign and a number of genre projects, but he seemed to weather the collapse of the studio system better than Fernandez, making films for the actor-producers who dominated the independent-production system as well as B-films for the US drive-in market.

11011The relative inactivity of Fernandez may have baffled serious observers during the time, but all we have are a few reports posted online as well as the accounts of some of his now-elderly contemporaries. (People were understandably more discreet during this period.) His daughter Merle forged ahead of the aspiring sex sirens of the late 1960s by pioneering in the trend known as bomba, which were erotic melodramas that were premised on the more (literally and figuratively) frontal depictions and discussions of carnal situations that originated in Western cinemas.

11011While the founding elders of the MPP decried the collapse of the vertically integrated studio system (and the First Golden Age along with it), I have pointed out elsewhere that the tendencies they considered most deplorable – bomba films and teen-idol musicals, both products of low-budget “quickie” efforts – actually betoken a progressive sensibility in the local mass audience. Because the new urbanites, comprising rural migrants working in factories and domestic labor, demanded a new breed of stars who resembled them more closely (non-white females rather than the studios’ emphasis on Euro-manqué males), the standard old-time mestizo performers were forced to immerse in taboo-busting material.

11011We ought to take note of the fact that a National Artist for Literature, Bienvenido Lumbera, once stressed (in “Pelikula” 216) that bomba films deserve to be revaluated in light of their overt challenge to the strictures of conservatism and denial of women’s prerogatives in acting on their desires and preferences. (Fernandez’s last film, in fact, starred his daughter, possibly accounting for an abhorrent rumor that both engaged in an incestuous relationship.[1]) With the declaration of martial law in 1972 by President Ferdinand E. Marcos, bomba-film production ended, as did Merle Fernandez’s acting career for the most part. Instead, she provided contacts and support for her younger brother Rudy, who became one of the country’s top action stars, renowned for his ability to combine stunt scenes with serious drama.[2]

Family Tragedy

Interview articles on Gregorio Fernandez during this period situate him in his hometown, where he earned another kind of renown – as an expert cockfighter. He may have worked this out as his way of retiring from industry practice, although this may also indicate some degree of estrangement (from his familial and work circles). One might want to speculate that his professional troubles may have started from the suicide of his wife, Pilar Padilla, whom he had directed and performed with in a 1946 title, Dalawang Daigdig (per the Internet Movie Database). The tributes that came out after Rudy Fernandez’s untimely death from cancer mention how he was the first family member to encounter his mother’s body – a traumatic experience, considering he was 5 years old when she died in 1957.

11011We can speculate on the ways that this incident may have affected Fernandez’s frame of mind, i.e. that he still valiantly managed to come up with an early feminist masterpiece the next year, in Malvarosa, and that he lost his enthusiasm for innovative filmmaking afterward, as perceivable in a decline in his later LVN films. This would be a tricky way of applying auteurist principles, however, primarily because his non-LVN films from the 1960s onward are unavailable. To reference once more Gerardo de Leon, I remember how most cineastes tended to uphold his prestige productions up to Daigdig ng mga Api but dismissed his co-productions and genre projects; yet when video copies of these films became available later, many of them constituted major revelations.[3]

11011In Fernandez’s case, we are fortunate to have LVN scion Mike de Leon, who has overseen the video transfers of nearly all existing Fernandez films and selflessly uploaded these on his Vimeo website, open-access style. I would enjoin all Filipino film enthusiasts to go over the Fernandez titles chronologically, to be able to acquire a proper appreciation of his considerable skills as director and actor. The most significant aspect I noticed in the major films was his careful attention to identity issues, both in terms of strong women (and children) roles as well as in a sincere respect for Muslim Filipinos, to the point of providing them with a heroic twist in the spy narrative of Kontrabando (1950).

11011He could not avoid the Cold War tendency to demonize East Asian characters, unfortunately; but in Capas (1949), he brought up the fraught issue of wartime collaboration and provided a conflicted Japanese officer as a way of demonstrating to the Filipino double-agent that people on the enemy side could also be capable of human decency. We may note here that this film came out almost right after the end of World War II, several decades ahead of Mario O’Hara’s comparable (though expectedly better-focused) Tatlong Taóng Walang Diyos (1976).

11011The other primary mark of Fernandez’s films is his willingness to deploy comedy. Even in his serious works, this tendency enables him to approach the material with a light touch, reminiscent of a great Classical Hollywood practitioner, Ernst Lubitsch. Despite its several promotional placements, Miss Philippines (1947) evinces the bemused stance that would sustain Fernandez through the “heavier” material he would tackle later; in fact the situation of the alcoholic mother and the daughter torn apart by filial loyalty and her longing for happiness would subsequently reappear, with fuller social implications, in Malvarosa.

11011In the meanwhile, he came up with the only available color film bearing his credit, Prinsipe Teñoso (1954), and it’s a marvel beyond the novelty of its Ruritanian-type romance. Its storytelling is so assured and skillful that the existing print’s archival problem, resulting in a narrative leap from the title character’s attempt to defy his father to his wandering in another kingdom as a leper whose true form appears when he bathes, becomes an unexpected modernist touch – perfectly in keeping with the film’s championing of women, captives, the outcast, and Islamic outsiders.

11011Fernandez’s major FAMAS winners were Higit sa Lahat (1955) and Luksang Tagumpay (1956), which attempt to spin the genre of melodrama by placing the burden of saving the family on male characters. The first time I saw these two during a late 1980s retrospective, I had the impression (affirmed in Prinsipe Teñoso) of a director who was not content with observing the standard approaches dictated by genres, star personas, even Classical Hollywood stylistic prescriptions. The now-missing final sequences of Luksang Tagumpay had an Expressionistic denouement, where the central male character’s domestic world literally starts falling apart around him. I remembered having just seen a similar sequence in a film whose title escaped me then; when I saw it again later – Mikhail Khalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying – I needed a double-take, because Luksang Tagumpay had preceded it by a year.

11011This was all in preparation for a final Fernandez revelation, heralded by Mike de Leon’s social-media announcement. Hukom Roldan (1957) is the major black-and-white discovery of our time, proof that Fernandez’s maverick impulses led him to attempt narrative and cinematic techniques that heralded a globally influential trend that was just about to break out a year later in France. The fragmentation of linear time, abrupt shifts from one character to another, sudden insertions of direct-address sequences – even the narrative twist in following the title character’s story only to focus more intently on the woman he inadvertently betrayed: when Alfred Hitchcock attempted this defiance of audience expectation a few years later in Psycho (1960), the gender emphasis was in the more conventional direction of disposing of an unruly woman so we could focus on the man who solves the mystery of her disappearance.

11011I am not in the habit of lionizing our local filmmakers so enthusiastically, because I believe that we do them (and ourselves) a disservice by overemphasizing their achievements. With Gregorio Fernandez, I have finally come across a filmmaker whose available body of work can sustain enough appreciation for us to declare, no matter how late in our history, another master film artist. I would rate Malvarosa (1958), for which he is justly celebrated, as superior to all the other existing “best” works – Manuel Conde’s Genghis Khan (1950), Lamberto V. Avellana’s Anak Dalita (1956), Manuel Silos’s Biyaya ng Lupa (1959); Gerardo de Leon would peak in the 1960s, so Fernandez’s films in the 1950s ought to rate more highly than even de Leon’s.

11011Inasmuch as it would take too much time to explicate why Malvarosa deserves more than the significant appreciation it already enjoys (our best black-and-white movie would not be difficult to declare), I should just close for now by pointing out its merits vis-à-vis its contemporaries: its focus on the downtrodden is not “redeemed” by the intervention of society’s superiors; it embraces slum culture – its lingo, pastimes, and aspirations – while slyly and good-naturedly pointing out their limits; it provides warm emotional closure without falsifying the tragic losses that our poverty-stricken compatriots (still) undergo. This may help explain why it has been easier for film commentators to dwell on the other 1950s films: although more identifiably of its time than most of the other entries, the treatment that Malvarosa invests in this material is beyond-classical in its sophistication and naturalistic in its sociological observations.

Notes

[1] Rap Fernandez, grandson of Gregorio Fernandez via his son Rudy and the latter’s wife Lorna Tolentino, replied to my query on the allegation by stating: “I was only made aware of the rumor through the research I conducted for my thesis on Gregorio but I know for a fact that this is blatantly untrue. There were even rumors that my father was Merle and Gregorio’s secret son but that’s just completely false.” A niece of Merle, Jane Po, affirmed not just the falsity but also the implausibility of such a scenario. (Both exchanges were conducted via Facebook Messenger.)

[2] Gregorio Fernandez introduced Rudy to Sampaguita Pictures in time for the musical teen-idol trend mentioned earlier, but he probably shared his elder sister Merle’s dilemma of being too fair for the preferences of the early 1970s mass audience, aside from coming in when the trend (along with bomba) was at its peak. Rap Fernandez pointed out Merle’s involvement in finding opportunities for Rudy; she also grieved over his death from a terminal illness, maintaining that she had lost someone she deeply cared for (interview with Leavold & Palisa).

[3] It would make sense to place Gregorio Fernandez’s peak in the 1950s, a decade removed from Gerardo de Leon’s, since the latter actually was nearly ten years younger. Gerry de Leon’s Terror Is a Man (1959), Women in Cages (1971), Kulay Dugo ang Gabi [The Blood Drinkers] (1964), and Ibulong Mo sa Hangin [Blood of the Vampires] (1964) hold varying degrees of admirable regard for cineastes who specialize in B-film production.

Works Cited

Daroy, Petronilo Bn. “Main Currents in the Filipino Cinema.” Readings in Philippine Cinema. Ed. Rafael Ma. Guerrero. Manila: Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, 1983. 95-108.

Leavold, Andrew, and Daniel Palisa, dirs. The Last Pinoy Action King. Documentary. Reflection Films, Death Rides a Red Horse, and Quiapost Productions, 2015.

Lumbera, Bienvenido. “Pelikula: An Essay on Philippine Cinema.” Tuklas Sining: Essays on the Philippine Arts. Ed. Nicanor G. Tiongson. Manila: Cultural Center of the Philippines, 1991. 190-229.

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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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