Tag Archives: Auteurs

An 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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Transcript of a Mobile Phone Interview of Peque Gallaga by Monchito Nocon

The following material was provided by Monchito Nocon for the research I was conducting on the making of Ishmael Bernal’s Manila by Night (1980). On the occasion of Peque Gallaga’s demise on May 7, 2020, I requested Monchito’s permission to post the content on Ámauteurish! for its research value. Everything that follows is as he provided. To further enlarge on some of his points, I added some excerpts from interviews he gave for the Brocka, Bernal, and the City exhibit at the De La Salle – College of Saint Benilde in 2019; these appear as endnotes.

Background: In 2012, I was connected with the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP), where I was in charge of the Media Desk that, among other responsibilities, published the official newsletter, with me serving as editor-writer. Prior to this in 2009, the Philippines was presented a most generous gift by the Pusan International Film Festival: a scanned copy (2K) of Manila by Night.

11011The FDCP was thus looking at completing Manila by Night’s full restoration, leading up to a possible premier on the big screen. It was to be a potentially big event, and I was tasked with doing a cover story on the film for the newsletter. So I immediately sent an email to Peque Gallaga, Manila’s production designer, who graciously promised to write me something posthaste.

11011However, as it happened, Peque was in the midst of moving house in his native Bacolod, and, in the frenzy, couldn’t find the chance to sit down and write. He offered instead to do a long-distance phone interview, which I welcomed and arranged (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Email reply from Peque Gallaga.

11011The following is the transcript of that interview, which I did on my own volition. As there was no way for me then to record a mobile phone conversation, I had to transcribe everything in real time, by longhand! I also took the liberty of adding headings to make it more comprehensible. Alas, I failed to save the article draft, the publication of which was eventually scrapped as the restoration project never got off the ground.

Peque gives a behind-the-scenes peek into working on Manila by Night

  • [I first worked] with Bernie in Girlfriend – it was love at first sight! We got along well and I brought with me my Bacolod team.
  • It was an ambitious project!
  • [Scriptwriter] Ricky Lee – he marked the whole year [in the film] through the feasts
  • Douglas Quijano, I, and Bernie went to all the night spots – it was an eye-opener – to pick up information.
  • All scenes were shot in Manila after midnight – at 2 a.m. – with the crowd directed [to appear as if it was earlier in the evening].
  • We recreated the vibe [of Manila].
  • We went to a masahista [massage] joint.
  • Bernie did a sit-down with the masahista – did an interview – picking up on what they do. He got into the daily minutiae.
  • She [Cherie Gil] ran the whole stretch in different takes, and covered the geography.[1]
  • They really swam in Manila Bay!
  • [Quotes Bernal in relation to a scene Peque wanted to have reshot – the one with floating candles on Manila Bay. Sergio Lobo, the DOP, failed to properly get his instructions in shooting that scene, and instead of a fuzzy, surreal scene, you could actually see the candles afloat]: “A film can never be perfect. There has to have a rough edge … a mistake … a human aspect.”[2]
  • Does that scene (referring to the above) make sense to you? Concerned with reality.
  • [Along] San Pedro etc. – William [Martinez] pours water over his head – a cleansing – a religious statement.

Peque on Manila, the city

  • It’s not the Manila that it used to be – [you now have] drugs, fringe elements. It just shows that Manila hasn’t changed – the city that hasn’t worked.

Peque on Bernal’s directing style

  • [Bernal] wanted to show reality, not a polished version.
  • He was very classical – close-ups with actors – makes them more dramatic.
  • Long shots tell the story.
  • [He would] sit down with the actors to talk with them regarding the script.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask them [the actors] the most intimate questions.
  • [He created] an intimate bond with performers – not on a boss-employee level but something more personal.[3]

Note

[1] When her character Kano starts being chased by narcotics police, she runs from Sauna Turko along Roxas Blvd. toward Rizal Park, turns right at Mabini Bridge (the side street that traverses the estero of Fort San Antonio de Abad between Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas and Ospital ng Maynila Medical Center) and around the former Harrison Plaza, until she gets cornered and caught at the intersection of Mabini and Vito Cruz (now P. Ocampo) Streets. [Thanks to Dr. Juan Martin Magsanoc for determining the formal name of the Mabini Bridge stretch.]

[2] “I talked to Sergio Lobo who was the cameraman [for Manila by Night]. I said, ‘For their LSD sequence what I want to do is to get those little cups for the candles and float them by fitting them in small Styropors. But is it possible if you can put Vaseline around your lens so that it will just be out-of-focus lights and it’s only the faces of Cherie and William that are going to be seen, so that all of a sudden these lights come on?’ He said ‘Yeah just paint the Styropor orange so that the lights would still be warm.’ So we bought about 200 [candles on Styropor] and on two [small outrigger boats], we lit each and every one of them and swept them with bamboo so that as the scene goes on these things start floating in. When we saw the rushes, I said, ‘Bernie, that’s shit! He didn’t defocus it in any way!’ All of a sudden they were surrounded by stupid candles and Styropors. ‘It’s ridiculous. This is really bad. We have to reshoot it!’ He said ‘No, just remember this scene will keep you humble the rest of your life.’” [From “Brocka-Bernal Interviews, 2018-2019,” for the exhibit Brocka, Bernal, and the City, January 24 to April 29, 2019, at the De La Salle – College of Saint Benilde’s School of Design and Arts.]

[3] “It’s very funny. He called me up and said ‘Peqs! Listen, I’ve been talking bad about you okay, but you have to understand, I’m the old guy, you’re coming up, your movie’s beautiful, I’m jealous, and … it’s only human, OK? We’re still friends.’ And I said, ‘Okay Bernie. I haven’t heard you say anything about it.’ He answered ‘Well I’ll be quoted … but beyond all that, I love you.’ I said ‘I love you too Bernie.’

11011“I don’t think I saw him after that anymore. So much so that when Marilou Diaz-Abaya called me up and said, ‘We need your help, Bernie’s dead,’ I said, ‘I’m busy, I can’t make it, I have to finish something first.’ She said, ‘Come on, that’s Bernie, he’s your friend.’ I said ‘I’m sorry I can’t make it, I can’t make it,’ so she hung up [after] she told me where it was. I stayed there for a while and I said ‘That’s right, Bernie’s my friend.’ So I got in the car and went, not to the wake. His body had just been brought in [to the morgue]. Mel Chionglo was there, Marilou, one or two others. And they said, ‘Oh you’re here, you should be here, we’re his friends.’ I said ‘Yeah, what do you want me to do?’ ‘Well we’re choosing coffins now and everything we seem to choose are six figures – 300,000 [pesos], 250,000. We have to work this out, what can you do?’ I said, ‘I’ll watch his body.’ So I went and sat down and I watched them not only dress him up, but put the big needle to remove all the dead blood, wash him, et cetera. I just stayed there until everything was done and they dressed him up and I remember combing his hair. That’s the last time I saw Bernie.” [From “Brocka-Bernal Interviews, 2018-2019,” for the exhibit Brocka, Bernal, and the City, January 24 to April 29, 2019, at the De La Salle – College of Saint Benilde’s School of Design and Arts.]

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My Peque Gallaga Interview

Maurice Claudio Luis Ruiz de Luzuriaga “Peque” Gallaga (1943-2020). [From the National Commission for Culture and the Arts]

I will admit that I tried, for the longest time, to keep distance between myself and Peque Gallaga. During the publicity blitz for his first solo film, Oro, Plata, Mata [Gold, Silver, Death] (1982), I preferred to interview his wife, Madie, the film’s producer who also happened to be the daughter of my mother’s supervisor at what was then the national sugar institute. He had a reputation for being temperamental and I preferred to avoid celebrity types, although I discovered later that I enjoyed studying them. Since this was the “new cinema” moment when the film world lavished adulation on auteurs, and OPM was a star turn more for its director than for any of its actors, Peque became as much the star of one of the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines’ initial productions as Nora Aunor was (then-already) the star of the other, Ishmael Bernal’s Himala [Miracle].

Gallaga directing his films: Oro, Plata, Mata (1982, above) and “Manananggal [Viscera Sucker]” segment of Shake, Rattle & Roll (1984). [From Focus on Filipino Films and Ronald Rios]


11011In fact I’d made his acquaintance earlier, when I had just joined a then-still-studious critics group that decided to invite the members of the newly formed production designers’ guild in order to get pointers on how to properly evaluate their category – for an annual awards system that I also soon repudiated. When the guild president kept arguing that PD practitioners insist on lavish adornments in order to shame producers who skimped on production budgets, Peque spoke out and said that the best kind of mise-en-scène was one that did not draw attention to itself. In effect, he stated that PDs should learn to welcome the challenge of working within narrow budgets, although whether he knew or didn’t, by saying so he contributed one vital brick to the ethical critical structure I was building for myself.[1]

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11011On another occasion, in one of those many self-congratulatory receptions the then-booming industry loved to sponsor, I had occasion to mention to him that I attended the rescreening of a film where he participated as actor. This was Mario O’Hara’s Tatlong Taóng Walang Diyos [Three Godless Years], which came out in 1976, the same year he won the critics’ prize for production design for Eddie Romero’s Ganito Kami Noon … Paano Kayo Ngayon? [As We Were]. Over coffee after the screening, one of the founding members asked me if I’d seen it before (I had), and what impressed me about the present viewing. “Peque’s performance,” I said, and he agreed. I said it might be the best of that year for the supporting-actor category, and he agreed again, somewhat sheepishly (I thought, because Peque wasn’t even nominated for it).[2]

11011About a year later, when the agency provided me with a scholarship to complete a second bachelor’s degree in the country’s first academic film program at the national university, I arrived at the office to turn in my output for the day. The whole place was abuzz with the premiere of the first sex film made by Regal Films, the country’s most successful studio. It wasn’t the first so-called bold film, or even the first locally produced bold film, to be exhibited free of censorship at the Manila Film Center; neither was it Peque’s OPM follow-up, since he’d already exhibited Bad Bananas sa Puting Tabing [Bad Bananas on the Silver Screen] (made for the 1983 Metro Manila Film Festival) as well as the soft-core historical allegory Virgin Forest, also a Regal production, earlier in 1985. Scorpio Nights promised to be different though, with its title suggesting an overtly and unapologetically sex-focused product.

11011But the buzz I mentioned was something else. It centered on an event that occurred right before the pricey but expectedly jampacked screening. Those who’d attended said that when it was Peque’s turn to speak, he let go of a volley of curses, naming specific individuals who were officials in the ECP and/or colleagues of mine in the critics’ group. Despite the fact that I’d already forsworn participation in the group’s annual awards after extreme frustration with not just the individual choices but also the hypocrisy and cynicism behind the process, Peque’s outburst made me anxious. At that time, I guessed that it had to do with the backlash by left-leaning critics against OPM, to which our group had given its highest prizes; some of the OPM-bashers were former members, others were later invited to be part of the group.

11011With some hindsight, I later thought that it also may have had to do with the fact that the cash-strapped ECP bypassed its next year’s second-place scriptwriting contest winner, Flores de Mayo [Flowers of May], and favored the third, Soltero [Bachelor] (1984), thus ensuring that Flores would never get done: not only was Flores written by Jose Javier Reyes, the same person that Peque recruited to write OPM as well as Bad Bananas, but Soltero was written by an official of the ECP – one of the names Peque had singled out. Friends at the agency however told me that any hurt feelings were subsequently smoothed over via an apology that Peque issued.

11011I got some measure of assurance later, after I completed the film program and worked up enough nerve to contact him to tell him how much I appreciated Scorpio Nights, how I disagreed with the critics locking it out of their major awards categories, and how relieved I was to drop out of the group so I could finally criticize them as an independent entity. He was effusive with praise for me, pointing out something that didn’t occur to me up to that point: “those people,” he said, “should have done what you did – study the field that they were dabbling in, so they’d know what they’re talking about and earn the right to call themselves qualified.”

Films co-directed by Gallaga: Binhi [Seed] (with Butch Perez, 1973, above) and Sonata (with Lore Reyes, 2013). [From Ronald Rios and Rappler]

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11011Academe gave me the time and inclination (though not the funds) to pursue a career as resident film critic of what was then the country’s most consequential newsmagazine, National Midweek. A foreign graduate-study grant became available right after I published my first book, and I stopped communicating with Pinas industry participants for nearly a decade. I maintained contact with some practitioners of a narrative format that I announced as my dissertation topic, but when the most prolific among them, Ishmael Bernal, died unexpectedly, I decided to stay put in the US until I completed my doctorate.

11011This is my roundabout way of explaining why my most intensive interactions with Peque since the present millennium consisted entirely of social-network exchanges. I knew I could get a great interview out of him, but in the meanwhile what I needed was some information for the book on Manila by Night (1980) that I was writing. I knew some of his stories as its production designer (for which he won his second critics’ prize), and I was aware that he was referring to his work on it when he articulated his principles during the critics’ soirée with the PD guild several years earlier.

11011What stumped me regarding Manila by Night was a different type of design – film sound. I apologetically brought up the topic with him, expecting him to hint at least that I should focus on his visual specialization. What do you know, he did get involved with the movie’s aural design, confirming my suspicion that the film’s extremely accurate and well-timed voices and noises were actually artificially – and painstakingly – recreated in the sound studio.[3] Much like creating a news report using memory and restaging the incidents one wanted to cover, carefully enough so that the total reality effect was replicated.

11011So one of my long-term to-do projects was an all-out Peque Gallaga interview, covering the full spectrum of his participation in film and film-related activities: as project conceptualizer, director (for film, TV, and theater), performer, visual and sound designer, theater-guild founder, professor, and whatever else he might remind me. I just needed to muster the guts to handle what I thought was his contempt for film critics, since he never failed to blast my older colleagues even after they handed him a well-deserved life achievement award about a decade ago. I also take every opportunity to point out their shortcomings, so at least we could have that useful convergence as starting point.

Gallaga and Lore Reyes, his co-director since 1987. [From Lore Reyes’s Facebook page]

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11011The final factor that eliminated all my misgivings regarding his belligerence occurred via a casual conversation I had late last year with his co-director, Lore Reyes.[4] I mentioned, in one of my recollections of the ECP screenings, Peque’s flare-up during the Scorpio Nights premiere. Apparently, according to Lore, everyone else had forgotten about it – but of course I couldn’t, since I had to steel myself for a Peque interview that was never to be, as it turned out. The story involved an otherwise highly regarded personality who was associated not just with ECP but also with the critics group as well as the national university’s film program. I deduced that he was acting with the support or encouragement of people in these institutions, the same people Peque had called out.

11011From our November 21, 2019, exchange: “Did you know? I caught Hammy [Agustin Sotto] cutting Scorpio Nights near dawn on the morning before its ECP premiere. I told Hammy I was going to fetch Peque, he said go ahead, fetch Peque. So I did. Peque punched him and kicked him in the head. It was a scene straight out of a cheap indie movie: a 5,000-foot reel unspooling all over Jess Navarro’s editing room in [the Regal office in] Valencia as Jess and I tried to stop Peque from beating up Hammy.[5] Later that day, [unknown to Manila Film Center head] Johnny Litton and Hammy, Jess restored all the clips that Hammy had cut (we brought a Steenbeck to the ECP parking lot and bribed the ECP projectionist so we could borrow the premiere print). That was where Peque’s rage was coming from, when he cursed all those personalities who were right there in front of him on the first row. They tried to cut his film without his knowledge.”

11011Goodness, I realized, I had nothing to fear at all about the man. He would defy hell itself to fight for something he thought was right. About that interview….

Notes

An account of Peque Gallaga’s achievements is recounted in the tribute issued by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts on its Facebook page. An abridged version of this article, titled “Peque’s Rage: A Retelling,” was published in the May 12, 2020, issue of The FilAm; it was also reprinted in the June 2020 issue of The FilAm: Newsmagazine Serving Filipino Americans in New York. (Click on pic below of the newsmag version to open PDF file.)

[1] In Monchito Nocon’s unpublished 2012 interview with Peque Gallaga regarding Manila by Night, Peque quoted Ishmael Bernal’s response when he demanded a reshoot of the Halloween revelers’ frolic at Manila Bay, since the camera operator had forgotten to bring the right lenses: “A film can never be perfect. It has to have a rough edge … a mistake … a human aspect.”

[2] To the credit of the late Mario A. Hernando, with whom I was conversing, he devoted a portion of his newspaper column (Kibitzer, in the now-defunct Times Journal) to raise this very same issue. The incident also alerted me to the dangers of passing canonical judgment based on swift and temporally marked-off considerations such as awards schedules.

[3] Abbo Q. de la Cruz, who played the rebellious peasant in Oro, Plata, Mata [Gold, Silver, Death], and whose Misteryo sa Tuwa [Joyful Mystery] (1984) was the first film completed during the second and final batch of ECP productions, was credited for sound effects in Manila by Night. On a Facebook post that was subsequently deleted by the account owner, Peque mentioned how he and Abbo locked themselves in the sound studio and worked themselves to exhaustion, until they felt they had all the possible audio coverage that the director might require.

[4] Another critical issue that besets the Gallaga credit is the directing partnership he maintained with Lore Reyes. This should resolve by itself as Reyes continues making films on his own, as he has done and as he should continue doing. Gregory Paul Y. Daza, in “The Unsung, Ignored Half of the Gallaga-Reyes Movies” (for the September 4, 2015 issue of BusinessWorld), provided what amounts to a useful primer for the Reyes-Gallaga dilemma.

[5] Tina Cuyugan, in a Facebook comment posted on April 10, 2020, narrated that “Peque did mention that he went to that encounter with Hammy brandishing (although not using, in the end) a cane that had been hand-carved by prisoners in Palawan. The type of precise Bakunawan detail that can stick to one’s memory for 35 years.” (“Nelson Bakunawa” was the name Peque used for his account, bakunawa being a mythological serpentine dragon capable of disrupting weather cycles and causing eclipses and tremors; the account has been archived by his family and is no longer available.) My own assessment of Hammy’s extremely conflicted positions as film critic, historian, festival promoter, educator, and aspiring industry practitioner may have to wait until I have been able to ensure my own objectivity about his actuations vis-à-vis the far-from-perfect institutions wherein he operated. For an essential and intensive retrospective report on the production history of Scorpio Nights, see Jerome Gomez’s “Coital Recall,” in Rogue (November 2015): 74-81.

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Manoy Takes His Leave

The sudden end to the long and productive life of actor-director Eddie Garcia was unnecessarily tragic, with corporate negligence compounding the foolhardiness of an artist too game to retire at an age when most other people would have completed two or more entire careers. The evaluation of netizens is on the mark in this case: Garcia’s willingness to take risks, typical of his approach throughout an extended and colorful career, should have been tempered by the studio that had apparently bet on countering the most successful serial program of the moment by showcasing, among other novelties, the physical agility of the country’s oldest active action performer.[1]

11011First appearing as a contract actor by the most star-obsessed among the 1950s First Golden Age studios, Garcia’s unconventional attractiveness positioned him a degree apart from full star stature: he could occasionally headline a project, but never the romantic leads that required the Euro-mestizo prettiness claimed by any number of now-forgotten actors. Having decided to make the most of a range of skills that allowed him to dabble in genres as disparate as horror, action, comedy, even soft-core melodrama, as leading man or villain, he settled on making himself indispensable as a competent ensemble performer who could draw on reserves of brilliance in case the role happened to demand it of him.

11011His filmography of over 650 film appearances (a possible local record) attests to the success of his strategy, but he had a higher purpose in mind: to be able to carve out a parallel career as film director. His choices were informed by the same principle of populist entertainment that he maintained for his acting career. One can see how his efforts could be occasionally penalized for being too mainstream, in a system that prized (then as now) “independent” efforts: when his best film, Saan Nagtatago ang Pag-ibig? (1987), came out, the Filipino critics’ group declared that no film during that year was worth considering for its annual prizes. Saan Nagtatago has since then been regarded as one of the high points in Pinoy melodrama.

11011Observers were also prone to concluding that his expertise as director accounted for his actorly acumen. This may be safely accepted as conventional wisdom, in conjunction with his pronouncement that his original dream was to be a military official. His work ethic, arriving about an hour ahead of call time, lines already committed to memory, was typical of performers of his generation, and those of theater-trained actors even today. Yet there were fault lines in this ultra-professional approach, and it occasionally showed up in his filmmaking record. He directed (and won his first directorial award for) the second biographical campaign movie of Ferdinand Marcos, Pinagbuklod ng Langit (1969). When later, the then-newly founded directors’ guild declared a boycott of the film projects of Gabby Concepcion, Garcia defied guild president Lino Brocka by accepting a Concepcion assignment for Viva Films.

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11011Ironically, Garcia’s acting projects with Brocka constituted his most rewarding body of work. He had memorable roles in the first few films of Ishmael Bernal, showed up in some of Eddie Romero’s more ambitious projects, and endeared himself to camp fans in the sex-comedies of Danny L. Zialcita. But as the most politically committed Filipino director, Brocka required effective representations of political villainy, and no one delivered the goods as well as Garcia, in a series of acclaimed works: Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (1974), Miguelito: Batang Rebelde (1985), and Gumapang Ka sa Lusak (1990), among others. Their collaboration was cemented early on, in Brocka’s second film assignment and first serious work, Tubog sa Ginto (1970), still arguably the highest peak in male Philippine film performance.

11011The mystery in Tubog lies in how Brocka managed to create his best queer film during the period when he still had to come around as an openly queer artist. His later “out” movies, notably Macho Dancer (1988), pale in comparison to the early work. People tended to ascribe some credit to Garcia, to his admission that he conducted intensive research among colleagues in the industry, plus his earlier attempt in essaying a comic version of the closeted authority in Kaming mga Talyada (1962), affirmed by his subsequent willingness to tackle similar roles (comic and dramatic) even in his old age – including his last film assignment, Rainbow’s Sunset (2018). To be honest, the results were always mixed and not as definitive as Tubog itself; in a comic ensemble work, Mga Paru-parong Buking (1985), he was upstaged predictably by Bernardo Bernardo and unexpectedly by George Estregan.

11011Eight years ago, in one of those confluences that make pop culture an endlessly fascinating phenomenon for its devotees, several identifiably masculine actors admitted to past same-sex experiences. One of them was Garcia, who said that his own episode occurred early, when he was 15, as part of a quest to determine his own preference. One could look at the group of confessors and note for the record that they were all extremely accomplished performers. Yet the measure of the audience’s distractability, as well as Garcia’s own volatility, is that most people remembered his queer performances, but not his own acknowledgment of the roots of his appreciation. All in all an occasionally spotty record then, but generously strewn with gems worth treasuring: rarely have we been so lucky.

[First published June 23, 2019, in The FilAm]

Note

[1] In the wake of the tragedy, the studio, GMA-7, announced that its series, Rosang Agimat, was shelved. The new program was intended to challenge ABS-CBN’s long-dominant Ang Probinsyano, where Garcia had (ironically) also been a featured player.

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A Salute to Our Pinay Filmmakers

While preparing for the end, Marilou Diaz-Abaya gave a series of interviews worth re-reading once in a while. Respect the audience, was her admonition to indie practitioners. Work to develop their preferred product, which then as now meant rom-com films.

11011Responses by local gatekeepers melded with Euro-festival jurors to ensure that this crucial bit of advice be downgraded and ignored as quickly as possible. Only high-art, alienating, complex-but-inconclusive films were fielded to foreign filmfests & local critics’ competitions, where they dominated the prizes for the past several years. Filmmakers (often women) who so much as deviated from the poverty-focused extreme aestheticizations that these taste-mongers upheld, were scolded for supposedly betraying progressive ideals.

11011As it turned out, it was women (with an occasional male director or two) who laid the foundations of the Pinoy rom-com in the 1990s, another batch who strengthened it in the 2000s, and still another group hard at work during this decade in transforming it.

11011One would have to be an ideologically arrested thinker to believe that their output is automatically invalidated by the popular acclaim that it so rightfully earns. For one thing, several of the current practitioners did dabble in indie work, and (as if observing Diaz-Abaya’s advice) brought over what strengths they developed to tweak, improve, and revise the rom-com format.

11011The fact that the most prominent Pinoy international film festival, San Francisco’s FACINE, wound up honoring a rom-com entry, its jurors smitten by its unexpected warmth and delicacy, affirms that our women filmmakers are on the right track. The Young Critics Circle also gave their major prizes to women working in documentaries – and in a rom-com project.

11011If progressive is seen as any effort that upgrades the public’s habits by meeting its demands halfway, and regards genre exercises as a means of conveying new insights and possibilities, then this is certainly a trend worth attending to. The promise of viewing pleasure would just be icing on the cake, a reward for finally coming to terms with an audience that is truly our own.

[Posted March 25, 2019, on Facebook]