Penman No. 243: A New Master of Prose

Jurado2

Penman for Monday, March 20, 2017

 

 

BECAUSE OF my new administrative duties at the University of the Philippines, I was able to join the UP Writers Workshop for only two days this year, but it was time enough to make a wonderful discovery in the person of a Filipino-American writer whom I had never met before but whose voice, I predict, will resonate more loudly in the years to come.

There are 12 fellows, as usual, in the 2017 workshop, all of them mid-career writers who already have at least one book or film or theater production under their wings and who are currently at work on new projects. This workshop has become a rite of passage for most Filipino writers, and it’s always a privilege for those of us who’ve been on top of it to be able to help our finest literary talents in Filipino, English, and other Philippine languages achieve their potentials.

I wish I could have met all of this year’s fellows, but as it happened, it was Wilfredo “Willy” Pascual whom I got to know best, because we gave lectures about writing together to a large audience of teachers, writers, and students in UP Los Baños. From his talk and workshop and from a subsequent chat with him, I learned that Willy—born in 1967 in San Jose, Nueva Ecija—is a largely self-taught writer who has now spent half of his life overseas, mainly in Thailand and the US. “I had a checkered education,” he says laughing, “with a year in UST, a year in CEU, and so on, but I never finished anything.” It’s clear that his real education came from his voracious reading and his varied experiences, some of which are memorably chronicled in his first book, the privately published Kilometer Zero.

But what fascinated me about Willy’s work is his ongoing project, a long essay about his search for the personal story of a little-known Filipino-American actress from Cebu named Elena Jurado, who appeared in a small role as an Arabian dancer in a silent film titled White Hands. The essay is, of course, really about two searches: one for Elena, and the other for what Willy—a gay Filipino-American—calls his “rightful place.”

We ask our workshop fellows to preface their work with their “poetics”—an explanation of why they write what they write—and here’s part of what Willy wrote there:

“I remember the artist Roderico Jose Daroy (1954-2014) who rescued shards, refuse, and fragments and brought them home. The objects occupied an entire floor in a rented bungalow in Bangkok. I saw his orderly spread of old picture frames, hardened watercolor cakes, vintage prints in various stages of decomposition. I walked around it, sat down as if on a shore contemplating the sea of dissolution in front of me. They were meant to be exposed to the elements, the flow of time. There was an inherent wildness to it, a constant beginning and ending. I felt tethered to it. I like things that grow. Decay. And all the deviations in between. If I could be a superhero for one day, I would like to have the powers of mutability and permeability. I would be a grain of purple rice, an industrial crane that in a whim can turn into a broken microscope, the gum you are chewing now. My secret joy will be those states in between when I am neither one nor the other.”

And this comes from the essay itself:

“Elena Jurado was interviewed by Wilbur Hall, a forty-plus miner and rancher who wrote weekly features for the Chronicle. The paper ran Wilbur’s story with photos of the fair Filipina actress next to the bearded Hobart Bosworth in a dapper single-breasted suit and bowtie. The 55- year-old, tall and blue-eyed Bosworth, widely known in his time as the Dean of Hollywood, had portrayed historical figures and beloved literary characters lost in time and strange places. He slept for twenty years as Rip Van Winkle and missed the American Revolution. In the earliest film version of L. Frank Baum’s everlasting tale, he was the wizard who appeared in different forms and a disembodied voice. With the magisterial Bosworth holding a script, Elena was introduced in these publicity stills, short wavy hair parted on one side, wearing the adorned ensemble of the Filipina gown of her time. Gone were the European voluminous bell-shaped skirt and the indigenous wrap-around tapis. In its place was a more streamlined cut with an elegant trail pooled on the floor. The upper garment was a fine gauzy layer of fabric: the collarless blouse winged with elbow-length sleeves—wide, airy, suited for warmer climates; the Spanish-influenced scarf folded around her shoulders and fastened in front. She smiled at the camera, listened to Bosworth, and struck a dramatic pose—arms outstretched, palms upward, head slightly turned, lips parted, eyes yearning, almost ethereal. I’m not exactly sure what to make of this vessel’s gesture and expression, this suspended aria. She looked like she had broken through the clouds. And if there was a word or even a sigh uttered, it had been preceded by Bosworth’s pointing finger.

“…. Thousands flocked to the movie palace on opening day and saw a golden throne in the foyer’s octagonal rotunda. Overhead, a cast iron lamp illuminated the vaulted ceiling. The rotunda led to two grand staircases with tapestries on the wall. One depicted the siege of Troy, the other the birth of Rome, the twin brothers Remus and Romulus suckling a she-wolf. Inside the auditorium, the world’s largest gooseneck steel brass supported the balcony. Spanning 108 feet and weighing ninety tons, it braced the boxed seats occupied by industry giants, among them Rudolph Wurlitzer, William Hearst, and Michael de Young. Theirs were the most expensive seats at ninety cents each, commanding a full view of the auditorium: the ceiling’s central dome, its light changing from fiery sunrise to purple dusk; the walls lavished with bold relief, every column, pilaster and parapet carved with scrolls, swags, urns and coat of arms—an inflamed vision in rose and old gold, multiplying and morphing endlessly, excessive, consuming. You think you’re seeing more but you’re not really sure what you’re seeing.

“…. I spent weeks in the archives poring over Jacobs’ photos with a magnifying lens. How do you not lose yourself in this exuberant tangle of forest and empires? The more I saw, the more I read; and the more I read, the more details I saw in each photo. It sucked me into a vortex. My eyeballs became porous and the hungry gaze of ghosts streamed through them. In this world of men and empires, a young Filipina appeared on the giant screen.”

There’s a stunning conclusion to Willy Pascual’s search—he actually locates her gravestone—and I can’t wait for the essay to be finished and for this prose master’s second book to appear.

WillyP

 

Penman No. 242: A Husband’s Purpose

Dog

Penman for Monday, March 13, 2017

 

 

I’M NOT a dog person—next to my wife Beng, my marmalade tomcat Chippy was my best friend for twelve years until he meowed goodbye in 2012—but when I saw the trailer for this new movie A Dog’s Purpose, I just knew that I had to take Beng out to see it.

Beng loves dogs; at any given time, she has six or seven of them running around the yard. Her favorite, Bunso, invariably greets her when we get out of the car with a yelp and raises his paws for a shake and head rub, maybe even a sloppy kiss. I cringe when I see that, especially the part where the pooch’s wet tongue flicks across a cheek I might be visiting myself. For Beng, it’s just one more proof that dogs are more faithful than men, never mind that we don’t have tails to wag to flaunt our extravagant affections.

Of course, Beng knows the names of all her dogs, and who sired whom three generations removed. To me, they’re all noisy little mongrels distinguished by the fact that some are white, some are brown, and some are black. As you can imagine, over the years, we’ve given away scores of puppies to neighbors and relatives who thankfully couldn’t see beyond the cuddly cuteness to where certain recessive genes assert themselves. I become vaguely aware that the litter (and I suspect that’s where the word’s other meaning came from) is gone when a deep and abiding silence descends upon the household, at least until the other dogs demand their share of the food budget.

I’m not sure where my indifference to dogs comes from. Discounting guppies in water bags and terminally ill mayas in bamboo cages, we didn’t have pets as children—my four smaller siblings were a handful enough for my mom—so that’s probably one reason. My one dog memory from childhood involves a barking bitch and her pup whom I met on the street; I was nine years old and summering in my provincial hometown, but even at nine I had begun to read a lot, and one of the things I read was “Barking dogs don’t bite.” Well, this one did, and I grew up to be a skeptic from that point on.

At the same time, and strangely enough, I was a big fan of Lassie, and became something of a pest in the eyes of our TV-owning neighbor, parking myself in front of their TV nearly every afternoon in anticipation of another episode of Lassie chasing down scumbags and finding her way home after straying 200 miles. So I knew dogs were smart, and maybe that’s where the problem was—there could be only one top dog in the house, and as far as I was concerned, that position was already taken.

But back to the movie. Beng and I see a lot of movies, usually after a foot massage and a panciteria dinner. It’s as predictable as Tuesday, but life’s like that when you edge past 60; you don’t want too many surprises messing up your week. At least I don’t; now and then Beng makes mewling sounds about trying out new dishes or even new restaurants, and to be gracious I’ll say, “Okay, since we’ve had the miki bihon in this place half a dozen times now, let’s see what it tastes like across the street!” This is how we’ve survived 43 years together—understanding, compromise, and a little generosity.

The G word was on my mind last week when I suggested that we watch the damned dog movie. Usually we subsist on some iteration of Fast & Furious—that’s how I get my kicks, by watching cars crash into concrete walls and skulls get smashed by sledgehammers (“Isn’t violence relaxing?” I ask Beng over the popcorn). Once in a while, typically when a new iPhone hits the market, I treat Beng to a movie without Jason Statham, Dwayne Johnson, or Vin Diesel in it. I scored big with La La Land; you know she had fun when she asks you to look for the soundtrack, which is what the house will sound like for the next week, over the woofs and the whimpers of our canine company.

Beng likes movies like Hidden Figures and Sunday Beauty Queen where strong, smart women are smiling as the closing credits roll, where good people go to heaven, and where frogs turn into princes (she’s still waiting for that to happen). Whether it’s a happy or a sappy ending, she’s likely to cry over something. (She was probably the only person on the planet who wept when the Soviet Soyuz rocket ship docked with the Space Station—“Isn’t world peace wonderful?” I remember her saying.)

So I knew she was going to weep buckets when I took her to the dog movie; for me, watching her watching the movie makes it all worthwhile. Now this is going to be a spoiler, but if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll know that A Dog’s Purpose is all about canine reincarnation, and about finding your way home (which, again, is apparently on every presumptive Lassie’s script).

I lined up for our tickets—we usually get D15 and D16, about midway across the theater—but dozens of families had also come out for the mutt show, and now only V15 and V16 were available, way up in the balcony where all the young couples nested. When I showed Beng the tickets, she giggled and said, “Are we going to neck?” I mumbled some incoherent, noncommittal reply, suddenly feeling very frog-like. She thought it was a funny idea, and threatened to call our daughter Demi in California, to tell her that her parents were going to go necking in the moviehouse.

Thankfully the movie started, and soon enough, as one dog died after the other, Beng was pulling out her tissues and sniffling serially, and I touched her on the cheek to assuage her grief. I could’ve licked her right there, but I could imagine Demi going “Ewwwww!” I left it to Bunso to do the licking later—having, for that day, served my husbandly purpose.

 

Penman No. 233: A Ray of Filmic Sunshine

Sunday_Beauty_Queen_poster.jpg

Penman for Monday, January 9, 2017

AS SOMEONE who wrote about 25 full-length screenplays for various film projects and directors in another life between the late 1970s and early 2000s, I really should be more interested in the remarkable developments that have taken place since in local cinema, especially on the indie scene.

But I have to confess, with some guilt and shame, that I haven’t kept up with what our younger, post-Brocka and post-Bernal directors have produced, except for the occasional viewing of a Brillante Mendoza or a Lav Diaz film, or outstanding documentaries such as last year’s Curiosity, Adventure and Love and An Open Door: Jewish Rescue in the Philippines. There are some personal reasons for this estrangement (not worth getting into at this time), but I do realize that I’ve missed out on a lot of good material while bingeing unpatriotically on Hollywood and Netflix.

I must say that the Metro Manila Film Festival and its seemingly bottomless decline from its glory days ages ago to the inevitable iteration of Enteng Kabisote contributed to my dismay. This most recent MMFF, however, seemed open to letting a ray of filmic sunshine through, with new criteria and a new selection process that put a premium on quality over commercialism. When I saw the list of the people involved and when I noted that their final selections were fresh titles by new directors, my expectations rose and I told Beng, after Christmas, “Let’s go see a movie!”

We’ve managed to see only two MMFF films as of this writing, but in both instances, our hopes were well rewarded.

Sunday Beauty Queen, which eventually won the Best Picture Award, documents the labors of Hong Kong’s OFW community in putting together a beauty pageant to ease the pangs of loneliness and the drudgery of their work. Directed by Baby Ruth Villarama, the film tracks pageant organizer Leo Selomenio—herself a longtime domestic helper—and the lives and stories of several key participants, all of them hardworking DHs. These girls, clearly, are no Gemma Cruzes or Pia Wurtzbachs, but even those of us who may scoff at the predictable inanities of beauty pageants will appreciate how the idea of “beauty” itself has been turned inward by this film, whose insistent positivity prompted me to tweet, as I stepped out of a cinema, that it was a “beautiful film about truly beautiful people.”

It wasn’t lost on me that I myself had written a novel, Soledad’s Sister, about OFWs, set briefly in Hong Kong, and had more than once observed our compatriots’ festive Sunday gatherings in Statue Square. Novels like mine tend to be morose reflections on human suffering, but there’s nothing like a well-crafted and even-handed documentary to bring out the verve and the tenacity that must accompany and cushion all that sorrow, and Sunday Beauty Queen draws on Pinay resilience in spades. The ultimate crown its subjects wear—and they are all winners—is that of dignity. Bravo, brava!

The other movie we chose to see was Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 2, with the irrepressible and hugely talented Eugene Domingo reprising her title role. We hadn’t seen the original movie from 2011 (and are now sorry we didn’t), but had no trouble wading into the premises of this sequel, which has Eugene playing herself as a comebacking star and tormenting her director (Kean Cipriano) with her “suggestions” for “improving” the script. It’s a riotously satirical project through and through, well-acted by its ensemble and well-scripted by the unfailingly sharp Chris Martinez, intelligent without being pretentious.

I may have chuckled more appreciatively than others in the audience, having gone through many of the absurd situations and propositions Eugene’s character raises in the film with her director-scriptwriter. I know I said at the start of this piece that I didn’t want to talk too much about how and why I got fed up with working in the film industry, but I feel like I should share at least one incident, from around 20 years ago, that’ll help explain why I moved from writing film scripts to writing novels and biographies.

Let’s set our scene in the offices of a big film studio, somewhere in Quezon City. I’ve been called to an urgent meeting by the producer because the movie we’re shooting (yes, we’re actually in the shooting stage) needs a new ending. Why? Because the studio’s Big Boss, who keeps track of the bottom line, doesn’t want our hero to die, like we’d originally planned; dead heroes bomb at the box office. So now we have to figure out a new extro, and the producers’ friends and alalays are all generously available and willing to help us think the ending through.

“So Gabby doesn’t die at sea when his banca is run over by a big ship,” one of them suggests, “but of course Sharon doesn’t know that, and in despair, she accepts Eric’s offer of marriage. But on the way to the wedding, she asks the car to stop by the beach, where she and Gabby used to promenade. She’s in her wedding gown, and she walks on the beach thinking about Gabby, until she reaches the tree they used to stand under. So she does some muni-muni, remembering their happy days….” At this point, another alalay interjects: “Ay, you know what, it will be so kilig if she looks up at the tree, and she’ll see the face of Gabby shimmering on every leaf!” I take a huge gulp of water to drown the welling acid in my gut.

“She makes a speech and tells the absent Gabby how much she truly loves him,” the original contributor ventures breathlessly, “and then she walks away… to her marriage and her life with Eric…. But it doesn’t end there! Because… because when she drives away, we see that there’s movement from behind the tree—it’s Gabby! He’s alive!”

There’s clapping and cheering all around the table, until somebody has the temerity to ask, “But why doesn’t he show himself to her?” It’s a question met with profound disdain. “Because—don’t you see?—Gabby is now in crutches, he lost one of his legs in the boating accident, and he loves Sharon too much to make her share her life with a cripple! So, nobly, he lets her go, as the theme song plays to the closing credits…..”

Appreciative sighs greet the revelation, as some of my water sputters onto the table.

Thankfully my director and I found a way to weasel out of that inspired conclusion, and the movie was shot and finished. I collected my paycheck, and resolved to do my best to write just stories, novels, nonfiction, and columns from that moment on.

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. 88: Whatever Happened to the New NAs?

Penman for Monday, March 3, 2014

I GOT a series of messages from a fellow member of the Philippine Macintosh Users Group a few weeks ago, but it had nothing to do with Macs or computers; of all things, it had to do with the actress Nora Aunor and the National Artist Award. I thought it was interesting and compelling enough to take up in this corner, since I’d been wondering about some of the same things myself.

Before I go one line further, let me say that I was a member of a fairly large lower-level committee that was part of the recent selection process for the National Artist Awards. I signed a non-disclosure agreement when I joined that committee, so nothing I say here will be emanating from our discussions in that committee, which will remain confidential.

What’s no longer a secret, since it’s emerged from other sources online, is that a number of people, including Nora Villamayor (aka Nora Aunor), have been recommended for recognition as National Artists. The recommendations of our committee went up to yet another committee or council for final evaluation, before being forwarded to the Office of the President for proclamation, prior to the conferment of the awards themselves.

So far, so good. The prescribed process was rigorously respected and followed by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, which oversees it (the board of the Cultural Center of the Philippines weighs in, I believe, at the last stage prior to sending the final list off to Malacañang). This was of keen interest to many Filipino artists and the cultural community—not just the names of the prospective NAs, but even more importantly, the process itself—given how the Palace, in the past and most recently in 2009, had cavalierly disregarded the rules and common decency to hand out the award to its favorites.

It’s been half a year, however, since that final list reached the OP—and so far, that’s where it’s been, gathering dust and gathering rumor. The loudest of these rumors has it that Nora’s run-ins with the law—presumably a question of morals—have held up her proclamation, as well as that of the others in her batch, and those before them. (Let’s not forget that, as a result of the infamous dagdag-bawas that happened under GMA, the proclamation of legitimately nominated National Artists such as the late Federico Aguilar Alcuaz and Lazaro Francisco—not to mention that of the eminent musician Ramon Santos, who was unceremoniously dropped to make way for others far less qualified—was indefinitely postponed.) Another bit of speculation has it that the Palace was betting on the late Dolphy, rather than Nora, to make it through the selection process, and that if Dolphy’s not getting it, then neither will Nora.

That will be a very sad and silly thing to do, if there’s any truth to the scuttlebutt. I respect and admire the work of both Nora Aunor and Dolphy, and myself would like to see them both recognized as NAs. I’ve even had the pleasure and the privilege of writing a couple of filmscripts for Nora (among them, “Ina Ka ng Anak Mo”) and of writing a back-cover blurb for Dolphy’s searingly excellent autobiography, released shortly before his death.

But if Dolphy—the comic genius, but also easily the popular and sentimental choice—was indeed excluded for whatever reason from the final list of recommendees this time, penalizing Nora with a similar rejection isn’t going to make things right. Instead, I’d be the first to sign on to a new campaign to endorse Dolphy in the next round of selections. Employing a moral argument is just going to make things worse, by introducing a spurious element into the issue. The religious conservatives won’t like it, but the plain fact is that artistic excellence and personal morality have never made a necessary if a happy marriage; let’s not ask of our finest artists what we don’t and can’t demand of our national heroes.

Early last month, my PhilMUG friend Don Rapadas wrote NCCA Chairman Felipe de Leon, Jr. a letter to inquire about the case, and he gave me his permission to quote from that letter:

“I am Zandro G. Rapadas of the Nora Aunor for National Artist Movement, and it is my privilege to write to you and thank you for the honor you bestowed on Ms. Nora C. Villamayor at the 6th Ani ng Dangal Awards held last Sunday, February 2. It was a well-appreciated and regarded state recognition for the international honors that Ms. Villamayor brought to the country in 2013, particularly for her Best Actress wins at the 7th Asian Film Awards in Hong Kong, and at the 3rd Sakhalin International Film Festival in Russia.

“With all her achievements to date locally and abroad, there is no doubt that Nora C. Villamayor’s time has come to be officially recognized and honored as a National Artist, hence our official nomination of her to the Order of National Artists in November 2012….

“The media and the public have known of the six artists endorsed for confirmation, proclamation, and conferment by Malacañang since early October last year, and we welcomed it with much rejoicing, because a new set of National Artists means the restoration of trust and respect for this state honor, which was unfortunately tarnished with the 2009 controversy involving artists added by Malacañang for proclamation and conferment.

“We believe it was fair enough to make this information known to the public because the decision by the Joint Boards of the CCP and NCCA has already been made and submitted to Malacañang, and what follows should be transparency in the final stage of the process and, on the part of the public, vigilance to help ensure that the transgressions of 2009 will remain a thing of the past. After all, this is a state honor, and the institutions involved operate on public funds, hence the public interest. Moreover, the deciding officials are public officials, and a ‘public office is a public trust.’ Certainly, no one can take us to task for being watchful this time.

“And watchful we have been. We know that after the Honors Committee convened to discuss the endorsement, they went back to your office and requested you to comment on issues raised about morality and past legal cases against Ms. Villamayor, your candidate for National Artist for Film and Broadcast Arts. And we understand that the NCCA has informed Malacañang that it does not take issue with the points raised, and that the Office of the Executive Secretary, who chairs the Honors Committee, has acknowledged receiving this reply early in January this year, and was passed on to the Malacañang Protocol Office for the information of other members of the Honors Committee. Since then and up until last Tuesday, February 4, the latest tracking of its status notes that it’s still with the Protocol Office.

“Why it’s taken this long, we do not know and we do not understand. But what we do know is that out there in the print and social media recently, many are already wondering what’s keeping the Palace from officially proclaiming the new set of National Artists. And included in this anxious waiting are some questions on why the NCCA and CCP have kept mum on the matter. I have attached in this email correspondence a few of these expressions of concern against the long wait.

“On a final note, I wish to underscore that this is not just about our anxious waiting for Nora C. Villamayor’s own cause, but more importantly our desire to see that the original dignity of the National Artist honor is restored with full respect and regard for its original intent and purpose, despite it being subject to political prerogative.”

Don Rapadas’ last point is an important one to note—this is as much about the process as the person. February, our National Arts Month, would have been the perfect time to honor our new National Artists—including the rightful ones from the previous batch; let’s not wait another year to make these long-overdue amends to Philippine culture’s overlooked heroes, and let’s hope Don gets his answer soon. 

(Photo from philstar.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]