In the Beholder’s Eyes

A Foreword to Feel Beautiful

Jojo Devera and I share more than just the same pen-name initials. It was 2015, and then-President PNoy Aquino had just rejected the National Commission for Culture and the Arts’s recommendation for Nora Aunor to be one of that year’s recipients of the Order of the National Artist. The response I wrote was the most-shared post I did during the few years I spent traipsing around on social media. I organized as many of the sharers as I could gather into an online chat group, mostly in preparation for a special journal issue on media stardom that I was editing.

11011After I found that we had the same generational markers as well as some friends in common, I continued corresponding with Jojo on a regular basis. I was able to write on an auteurist project (produced, directed, written, starring, and sung by the artist we fondly called Ate Guy) even though no celluloid copies of the rough cut could be found after she abandoned the project and ordered all evidence of it destroyed. Jojo not only forwarded the only known remnant, on fast-degrading video, to me, but also secured Aunor’s permission after I concluded that the material could sustain a regular Web of Science-indexed journal article. Greatest Performance may have been exceptional, but Jojo’s support was just as remarkable. For a later project, I (and the team that solicited my assistance) managed to watch several now-rare titles from copies he provided, in order to finalize an “ultimate” list of canon-worthy Filipino films.

11011In fact, I already knew that I wasn’t the first scholar that Jojo assisted. Several other names, regarded as global authorities in areas that pertain to or focus on Philippine cinema, kept including him in their list of acknowledgments. It was therefore no surprise for Jojo and I to learn that we shared the same attitude regarding the necessity of upholding the public domain, in our function as collectors. All that this entailed was making our holdings available to everyone, if possible without even being asked to. Since my materials were primarily in printed form (alongside some knowledge gained from operating covertly during the Marcos martial-law dictatorship), I encountered less trouble. With the same brand of camp-inspired playfulness and transgressiveness, Jojo became someone I regarded as my high-profile counterpart, a lightning rod for people who mistook his attempts at selfless pastiche and appropriation for serious challenges at whatever authority they wanted to claim.

11011This would also be the same values we shared with Elwood Perez, the subject of the book he wrote. I remember speculating with some activist friends whether Elwood or his then-producer, Lily Monteverde, would wind up heavily penalized, if not worse, after Imelda Marcos made her extreme displeasure known over one of their “bold” projects, Disgrasyada (1979). Like another filmmaker, Ishmael Bernal, who had close calls with censorship officials and similarly upset the meddlesome Imelda with Manila by Night (1980), Elwood persisted and brought his craft to several peaks of achievement that still have to be matched by any of the artists who succeeded him. Unlike in Ishma’s case, however, organized film critics have been remiss in acknowledging Elwood’s record. The members of the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino could not bring themselves to recognize and honor Celso Ad. Castillo’s Burlesk Queen in 1977, but they never even acknowledged their own founding chair’s Ang Isinilang Ko Ba’y Kasalanan? and Elwood’s Masikip, Maluwang: Paraisong Parisukat; over a decade later, in 1989, they honored Ishma’s Pahiram ng Isang Umaga but not Bilangin ang Bituin sa Langit; not long afterward, it was Ang Totoong Buhay ni Pacita M.’s turn to be snubbed.

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11011Fortunately, a breakaway group of critics that I associated with provided Pacita M. with the prizes it deserved, as did most of the local award-giving bodies for that year (1991). This millennium, the installments of Elwood’s planned autobiographical trilogy on the Filipino artist’s condition (Otso in 2013 and Esoterika: Maynila in 2014) elicited gasps of wonderment from a few observers paying attention, but with nothing from self-proclaimed “credible” critical voices. But history, as one of its victims memorably uttered, will always wind up correcting anomalies and injustices in its own time (remarkably, and movingly, Gregoria de Jesus, the country’s first and fully deserving First Lady, maintained her truth despite having been grossly abused and betrayed by people who were supposed to be her comrades and protectors, and never was indemnified to the end of her life).

11011In an ideal world, everyone would be scrambling to ensconce Elwood in his rightful place as the most successful transformer of Pinas film genres, fusing edgy sociological insight with the subtle deployment of formal requisites, along with the one quality that endeared him to mass audiences as much as it encouraged know-it-alls to conclude that he had no notion of serious discourse: humor. In my defense, I need first to attend to an even more badly neglected talent from an earlier period of film practice, director-actor Gregorio Fernandez. But remember the canon project I mentioned? While I had long ago crossed the line in regarding auteurism as an ultimately futile and useless means of analysis, I agreed to participate therein in order to ensure, once and for all, that a “most definitive” list can be drawn up. The names regarded as our usual Second Golden Age suspects – Ishmael Bernal, Lino Brocka, Mike de Leon – dominate, in quantitative terms (and I might add that after the First Golden Age’s Gerardo de Leon, next in line is Yoyong Fernandez). And Elwood Perez? Up there with next-placers Marilou Diaz-Abaya and Chito Roño – also names that might surprise local old-timers as much as it took the canon-deciders aback after watching and rewatching all of the old films we could lay our eyes on in over a decade of screenings and deliberations; feisty old Fernando Poe Jr. also snuck in, by having the Panday titles he directed honored as a series.

11011So the Elwood Perez recuperation project has only just begun, and I’m endlessly flattered and humbled to herald the very first major contribution by Jojo Devera, the Elwood Perez of Pinas film archiving. One final point that should seal the deal for any remaining doubters out there regarding this present volume’s worthiness: the only Philippine critics’ group that awarded an Elwood film was spearheaded by Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr., a discontented straggler from the older award-giving organization (as I was). Mau took the matter of introducing Philippine cinema to a global audience in ways that organized critics only believed they could but never did, by founding and running the annual film festival of the Filipino Arts & Cinema International in San Francisco, California, these past several decades. In separate years, Elwood, Jojo, and I dropped by, to be recognized for our separate specializations. For obvious and admittedly selfish reasons I’ve always maintained that FACINE’s prizes trump those of our former organized colleagues, but to my pleasant surprise, the years have been consistently affirming that claim. Elwood should of course be able to demand much more than that, but every moment that he’s denied his rightful recognition begins to reflect more and more on people who’ve assumed the audacity to impose their poorly considered decisions on the rest of us. Our starting point should of course be Elwood’s entire body of work, but for a one-stop initial explainer, just Feel Beautiful.

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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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