Penman No. 194: A Tree Grows at the Met

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Penman for Monday, April 4, 2016

 

 

THE FIRST and last time I saw a show at the Manila Metropolitan Theater must have been in the 1990s, for a production of Nick Joaquin’s “Portrait of the Artist as Filipino.” The theater was in fine shape then, and I recall being as enthralled by the place itself as by the spectacle onstage.

As a young boy in the early ‘60s, my father had worked at the old Department of Public Works building across Plaza Lawton (before they became the Post Office and Liwasang Bonifacio), and I had often tagged along to play with his red-and-blue pencils and his swivel chair. The most entrancing element in that locale, truth to tell, was the giant pot above the old Insular Ice Plant that spewed what seemed to be a steady stream of boiling water into a waiting coffee cup; but my eyes would stray to the strange pinkish building in the distance and I would wonder what went on there and what it held.

I got my answer, thanks to Nick Joaquin, but a few Sundays ago, I had an even more amazing opportunity to know the Met more intimately than I would ever have imagined. Sadly the intimacy was that which might exist between a doctor and a patient, like a probe of cold steel into some tubercular organ.

My wife Beng belongs to Kasibulan, a group of women artists, and they had been invited to do a sketching session at the old theater that Sunday morning, alongside a cleanup operation to be undertaken by volunteers. Did I want to come along, perhaps to take pictures, or at least hold bags and run errands for the ladies as they drew arches and vanishing points? Of course I did.

But before I go any further, especially for the benefit of our millennial readers, let me give a backgrounder on the Met and its sorry fate.

When the Manila Metropolitan Theater opened on December 10, 1931, it was an architectural wonder to behold and to step into—an Oriental palace in pink coral, crowned by exquisite minarets, statues, sculpture, and tilework. The overall style was Art Deco, the rage at the time, spilling over from the West but adapted to its new setting in the East. It could seat almost 1,700 people, and it had been put together and adorned by some of Manila’s finest architectural and artistic talents—designed by Juan Marcos Arellano, built by Pedro Siochi and Co., and decorated by the Italian sculptor Francesco Riccardo Monti, the sculptor Isabelo Tampinco, the future National Artist Fernando Amorsolo, and by Juan Arellano’s brother Arcadio.

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Erected near the site of its predecessor, the Teatro del Principe Alfonso XII which burned down in 1867, the Metropolitan was meant to be the city’s premier cultural venue, a showcase of the Filipino artistic genius. In its heyday, it hosted celebrated singers such as Jovita Fuentes and Atang de la Rama; from highbrow opera to the more popular zarzuela and vaudeville, the Met had the best to offer. Though damaged during the war, it was rebuilt and continued to be a haven for artists and entertainers until it began to decline in the 1960s, as other venues—and the growth of moviehouses in such places as Avenida Rizal, Escolta, and Cubao, followed by the establishment of the posh and modern Cultural Center—gained primacy among audiences.

At one point or other in its slide to abject decrepitude, the Met became a boxing arena, a movie set, a martial arts studio, a gay bar, an ice cream parlor, a TV stage, and a refuge for the homeless, among other incarnations. In 1978, Imelda Marcos took an interest and had the theater restored to its old glory, but then it fell again into disrepair, and was shut down in 1996 in a wrangle over ownership between the city government and the GSIS. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Mayor Fred Lim renovated and reopened it in 2010, when it was declared a “National Treasure” by the National Museum, but yet again it succumbed to politics, bureaucracy, and benign neglect; after a concert by the rock band Wolfgang in mid-2011, it was locked up by the GSIS.

In July last year, the ownership question was finally settled with the GSIS selling the property off to the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), and shortly after the NCCA received P270 million from the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) for a fourth and hopefully final restoration, which the NCCA expects to complete by 2017.

It was this Met that we entered that Sunday. We were greeted by my UP colleague and one of the restoration project’s consultant-architects, Gerard Lico, who assigned two young but very capable juniors to guide our group on an all-access tour of the building. The lobby was buzzing with the enthusiasm of student volunteers from National University who, after an orientation and a safety briefing, filed into the structure behind their team leaders.

We followed them into a dark and cavernous hulk (the electricity had yet to be brought back), and encountered a touching mix of fragility and resilience. The Met had to be cleaned prior to restoration, and thus we were being privileged to see it at its most hapless state. There was dust and rust everywhere, and the wooden floorboards, reduced to a pulp, were crumbling beneath our feet.

Even so it demanded attention and respect, and we trod slowly, reverentially. Through the squalor emanated a lingering magnificence—the echoes of long-stilled operas, the footfalls of performers scurrying down the corridors. In one room was a tangled mass of costumes—a sailor outfit unmistakably from The Sound of Music—and when we stepped out onto the broad stage, you almost expected the spotlights to burst into life and the phantom audience to roar in approval. There was a hole in the stage floor and water in the orchestra pit, but nothing, it seemed, beyond repair, beyond human care.

Out on the roofdeck, beneath the Moorish spires and the batik-inspired tiles, a small tree had sunk its rope-like roots into the masonry. I found myself hoping that it would be spared the restorer’s saw. Reprieves beget reprieves, and it would provide a fine organic testament to the Metropolitan’s endurance. (See more pics from our walking tour here.)

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Penman No. 127: Some Inflight Education

IMG_0231Penman for Monday, December 16, 2014

 

ONE OF the things I like about flying is the onboard fun that I can look forward to—the movies and the music, to be more specific. At my age, and with all the mucking about that I’ve done, I should be sick of these things and ply myself insensible with the free beer or wine somewhere between Anchorage and Nagoya, but the honest truth is, I’m not. I’m eager for entertainment, which is the only way I can forget the fact that I’m going to be up in the air for the better part of a 24-hour day. I don’t have a fear of flying; it’s boredom I can’t abide.

Being up there means that I can catch up on all the movies I never saw and didn’t even know existed. Beng and I almost always take in a movie after our weekly foot massage (such is life in the 60s), but we’re slaves to what’s out there, and not being too much of a cinephile I’m positive I’m missing out on the good stuff by sticking to the mall fare.

That changed last week when I flew home from Dulles airport outside of Washington, DC to Terminal 3 on the fringes of Pasay—a distance of 8,548 miles, according to Google. That meant 11:30 hours of self-amusement to contemplate, but I think I hit the jackpot—a trifecta in sporting terms—by watching three great movies on one long trip (I actually saw four, but I don’t think Hercules: The Thracian Wars is going to win the Palme D’Or).

I can’t get enough of documentaries, and I actually watched this one twice—the first time on the inbound flight last September, and again coming home. It was an HBO special titled Six by Sondheim, about the life and work of the lyricist-composer perhaps best known for that song everyone loves to sing but nobody really seems to understand, “Send in the Clowns.” (Reader Ivi Avellana-Cosio finally made sense of it for me.)

I just enjoyed the presentation the first time I saw it, but this second time, I was furiously scribbling away on my notebook with a fountain pen in the half-light, as Stephen Sondheim spoke about the creative process behind six of his best songs. Anytime you see me taking notes, it has to be that good, so I’m going to save the best of Sondheim for another column, which the material richly deserves. But just for starters, this was the man who wrote the lyrics and libretto for West Side Story when he was 25—a task he chafed at, wanting to do the music instead—but it proved to be a great learning experience, and Sondheim would go on to become a master teacher himself, like his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II and West Side Story collaborator Leonard Bernstein.

It was Bernstein, come to think of it, who once said that “Music is the only art incapable of malice,” which makes a good segue to my second choice, a film suffused with malice but whose central character, played by the Briton Tom Hardy, exudes an odd naivete. I’ll spare you the spoiler, but The Drop is as quiet and as deliberate a murder mystery as they come. Set in a bar in Brooklyn, The Drop has no car chases, no photogenic panoramas, and co-star Noomi Rapace puts it best when she squirms and says “I don’t want to be here.” We don’t, either, but we can’t help staying and looking, because we fear for the safety and the happiness of our unlikely hero, a quietish bartender who seems intent only on saving damsels and dogs in distress—at least until he draws a severed arm out of a bag; but I’ve already said too much.

And Tom Hardy makes a good segue to the last item on my playlist, which I watched on the Tokyo-Manila leg. He doesn’t appear in it, but is quoted—or I should say more than quoted, because we hear his voice again, speaking like a head in a paper bag, coming out of the mouth of someone who looks nothing like Tom Hardy, the British comedian and mimic Rob Brydon.

The movie was the rather tepidly titled The Trip to Italy, and the only reason I bothered to click on it was because I mistook it for a travelogue that would take me back to some postcard-worthy renditions of Tuscany and Umbria. Of course—away from the neorealism of Fellini and his crew—nearly anything in Italy is worth a postcard and indeed a book. That’s the burden of Brydon and his fellow comedian and travel companion Steve Coogan, who get sent on assignment as their real selves to trace the footsteps of Byron and Shelley in Italy while feasting on veal and artichokes and an endless parade of smart brunettes.

It’s a road movie and a buddy movie all at once, but it’s not Easy Rider or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Real men don’t tool around the countryside in a Mini Cooper, twirling pasta on their forks while quoting the Romantics (“romantic poetry” to most guys comes with a small “r” and is best represented by Kenny Rogers and Michael Bolton).

The Trip to Italy is the kind of talky romp that fans of that taciturn trio of Seagal, Stallone, and Schwarzenneger would absolutely hate. Ninety percent of the movie is conversation—make that intelligent, hilariously intelligent conversation, and 50 percent of that 90 percent is comic impersonation, with the two guys doing their irrepressible impressions of Michael Caine and Marlon Brando, making Coogan and Brydon the Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel of roadside repartee. But for all the silly banter, there’s a poignance that underscores this movie that seems to be going nowhere, except deeper and deeper into the male psyche.

I thought I was up there for a load of entertainment, but instead I got a dose of inflight education. I can think of far worse ways of killing time.

(Posters from imdb.com and wegotthiscovered.com)

Penman No. 35: Return to Radio

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Penman for Monday, February 25, 2013 

I ACCEPTED an unusual invitation for an interview a couple of weeks ago—unusual because of the medium involved, which was radio, specifically DZUP, the on-campus station of the University of the Philippines. DZUP station manager Rose Feliciano asked me to guest on her noontime show so I could talk about the UP Institute of Creative Writing and its flagship programs, and I was happy to oblige—not only because, as UPICW Director, it’s my job to promote the institute, but also because I’ve always had a warm spot for radio, and remain a fan of the medium.

For Filipinos weaned on the Internet, radio must seem like a blast from the past, and, in a very real sense, it is. We’re told that the first local radio stations came on the air in June 1922, so we’re just nine years away from celebrating radio’s centennial in the Philippines. While there’s some dispute as to who really invented radio, no one disagrees with the fact that Guglielmo Marconi made the first successful radio transmission in 1895—when our revolucionarios were just plotting their moves against Spain—and received a British patent for it the year after.

Of course a century’s just a drop in the bucket of human history, but in terms of technology, it’s virtually an eternity. The idea of an invention remaining just as useful after a hundred years boggles the mind, in an age when, say, the floppy disk gave way to the CD, which then gave way to the DVD and then the USB drive, all within the span of a few years. And of course radio today is a far cry from the rasp across the ether that it was at its inception (you can hear a pin drop and bounce off the floor on FM), but the basic idea remains the same—a message is electronically transmitted and received, completing the cycle of communication.

I belong to that generation of Pinoys for whom radio, and not even TV, was our main source of information and entertainment while we were growing up. I remember listening to radio soaps such as “Eddie, Junior Detective” “Erlinda ng Bataan,” and “Gabi ng Lagim.” This last program, a horror show, would go into a TV version (on MBC, Channel 11, if I remember right), but there was nothing like being in your room and quaking all by your lonesome at every creak of the door or every drag of the chain, all these creepy sounds magnified by your fervid imagination.

And that was the magic of radio, especially in the pre-visual age. TV and film may look busier, but they’re actually more passive, in that they require little more of the viewer than for him or her to sit back and be flooded by images and sounds. Radio reaches deep into your brain and forces you to supply the missing image. (When I was very small, I was convinced that there were little people inside the big wooden box that ruled the living room, and was perplexed when I managed to peek into the back of the cabinet and could find nothing but glass tubes.)

One British commentator explains the continuing relevance of radio this way: “Radio is at once intimate and universal, capable of keeping you company like a proper pal and able to impart the gravest of news with a little respect rather than the hubris of its flash-git brother, TV. And it’s also brilliant at being (a) bridge builder…. I remember sitting at traffic lights as one of my British radio heroes, Chris Evans, cracked a joke on his breakfast show a decade or so ago; I turned left and right to see a plasterer in his pick-up truck cracking up and a suit in a Jag grinning at the same moment at the same joke, right there, live—and it was moving. It was like an advert for something but it rang true.

“The thing is this: radio does what we do, it sounds like we sound…. Radio’s better at being really well-behaved. It doesn’t need to be lit, over-orchestrated or faked. Radio requires a bit of description, it’s got an artistic bent; radio’s beauty is that it’s a bit abstract—it’s painting pictures, while TV’s just taking photos. Radio is also the secret to younger-looking skin because no-one can see you.”

But who listens to radio these days? I know I do—I tune in to the news the minute the car rolls out of the driveway, if only to check out the traffic situation, although of course I get to listen to the commentary (admittedly often insipid) as well. At night, on our way home from a movie and dinner, Beng and I gorge on the free medical and legal advice on radio for dessert.

Like that Brit said, radio comes across to us like an old friend—sometimes funny, sometimes silly, sometimes even truly useful and irresistible, such as during impeachment trials, disastrous floods, and post-election vote counts. And I know we’re hardly alone—it’s a safe bet to say that in an archipelago like the Philippines, radio remains the best and the cheapest bridge across the islands, shaping the tastes and opinions of millions of our countrymen, particularly the working poor who have to leave for work on jeepneys and buses at five or six in the morning.

I do wonder if my teenage and twenty-something students still listen to radio; I suspect they don’t, preferring to retreat into the individualized, hermetic cubicles of their iPods rather than engage in the community-building enterprise that’s radio. Perhaps I should worry, but I don’t. DZUP just marked its 55th anniversary, and I have little doubt that some version of it will live to be a hundred. In the same way that print survives and continues to be needed in this era of electronic and digital media, radio will continue to find its audience, for as long as the human voice appeals to the human ear and to our dreaming brain.

(Photo from dreamstime.com) 

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 4: Writing for Dolphy—Almost

Penman for Monday, July 16, 2012

THE RECENT passing of Dolphy, inarguably the most talented and best-loved Filipino comedian of his generation, brought back some warm memories—not just of me as a kid enjoying Dolphy and Panchito do their “song translation” routine every Sunday on “Buhay Artista”, but also of what could have been a historic opportunity to work with this comic genius in a non-comic way.

The time was the late 1970s, and I had just started out in my screenwriting career with Lino Brocka, for whom I had already written some scripts. Lino and I would go on to do more than a dozen movies together, but the big one that got away was a project that Lino had lined up for Dolphy, Pilar Pilapil, and the very young Niño Muhlach, who had already been introduced as a dramatic sensation in Tahan Na, Empoy in 1977. Shortly after Empoy, which was a big commercial success, Lino was asked by a producer—Jesse Yu of Lotus Films, who had bankrolled Empoy—to think of a project that would involve Dolphy.

Lino then asked me to work up a storyline and a treatment, and we came to the agreement that it would be interesting if we took Dolphy out of the gay comedies he had become famous for (such as 1969’s Facifica Falayfay) and put him in a straight, dramatic role. After a week or so (that was all the time we had back then, when movies were routinely shot within a month), I came up with a storyline I tentatively titled Si Abe, Si Bugoy, at Si Pilar (yes, I liked Pilar Pilapil’s name so much that I decided to keep it for the character) where Abe was a kutsero driving his caritela in the Binondo area, Bugoy was his nephew and sidekick, and Pilar was a lady of the night. It shouldn’t be too difficult for you to guess the rest of the story from there (cut me some slack—I was only 23, and enamored of Fellini, neorealism, and all that jazz).

In any case, the movie never got made; the reason I heard, which could have been true or not, was that Dolphy thought it too abrupt a departure from the norm, his norm. I was crestfallen, but soon got busy with other Brocka projects like Inay (my personal favorite of all my Brocka scripts, a light domestic comedy starring Alicia Vergel) and Mananayaw (with Chanda Romero, breathlessly described by the movie blurb thus: “She’s Wild… and Dangerous! It Takes More Than Love To Tame Her!”). Meanwhile, Dolphy did go on to work with Lino and another very talented scriptwriter, Dandy Nadres, on the delightful 1978 Lotus melodrama Ang Tatay Kong Nanay, where Dolphy played a gay parent caring for a young son, Niño Muhlach.

I never did get to write a script for Dolphy, which was too bad (certainly more for me than for him). In those days I would’ve given my right arm for the love of art, and what the client wanted still mattered less to me than what my feverish imagination was urging; I had convinced myself, rightly or wrongly, that I could’ve written a script that Dolphy would have loved, once he had actually read and acted it out.

I don’t think that I ever got to meet Dolphy in person, either (not that I met all that many stars; despite scripting two dozen movies, I never became an industry insider, although I remained a lifelong fan of such fine actors as Dolphy, Nora Aunor, Vilma Santos, Gina Alajar, and Jacklyn Jose—and, of course, Sharon Cuneta, for whom I wrote three movies).

Well, I did get to write for Dolphy—in a way, in another capacity. When his autobiography—told to Bibeth Orteza and titled Hindi Ko Ito Narating Mag-isa (Quezon City: Kaizz Ventures, 2008)—was about to be published, I received a request to read the manuscript and to write a blurb for the back cover, and I was happy to oblige, a full three decades after our little Binondo project got aborted. Here’s what I said about that book, and about the man:

“This is an extraordinary memoir of an extraordinary man who has gifted generations of Filipinos with laughter, but whose own life has been a struggle to balance life and work, to meet the demands of family and fatherhood, to tame his prodigious passions. This story is told with searing candor and compassion, not only by Dolphy himself but also by the many people whose lives he touched (and, in many instances, brought forth)—his women, his children, his friends, his colleagues. I haven’t read a biography like this, ever, and the uncensored, unmediated first-person accounts strike home with a power and a poignancy you’d be hard put to find in any screen drama. There are moments of humor and irony as well, and all in all we gain a truly moving picture of a brilliant but complex man whom we feel like knowing, in many senses, for the first time.”

Today, with Dolphy gone, these words sound truer than ever, and I would urge you to go look for a copy if you really want to understand Rodolfo V. Quizon, beyond the well-deserved but familiar praises following his death. I was abroad during the book’s launch, but I soon received my copy, autographed thus: “To Butch Dalisay, Thank you for the extraordinary blurb. You are a gem of Phil. Literature. Mabuhay ka and God bless, Dolphy.”

I don’t know if Dolphy was just being his gracious self, or if he had actually read one of my novels or stories, but what I really wanted to tell him—forget the novels and the stories—was, “Naku, Dolphy, kung alam mo lang, I would’ve written you a script you would’ve been so proud of—sayang!” The sayang, again, was more mine than his, because he certainly didn’t need my skills to prove his acting genius. (One favorite Dolphy scene of mine—I’m not sure from where now—has his impoverished character sniffing a dried fish suspended over the dining table, and then sending the fumes down his gullet with a handful of rice.)

I’ve been asked since, “Does Dolphy deserve the National Artist Award?” I’ve always thought so, but it’s a good thing that the Palace didn’t succumb to the enormous pressure to give it to him in a hurry, just because it seemed like he was about to go. He’ll get it, in good time, for the right reasons. If he’s where most people seem to think he is, looking down at us with an arched eyebrow, he’ll see it happen, and crack a smile, tip his hat, turn on his heel, and saunter off, whistling.

[Dolphy’s pic from http://www.inquistr.com]