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7.18.2012

DOLPHY: QUEEN OF COMEDY















“You should stop making personal films and make the ultimate Dolphy movie instead.” This was a professor of mine talking to some young filmmakers, with a measure of both snark and con I’d imagine but also meaning it, much as this was back when the idea of the ultimate Dolphy movie tended to ring partially like a joke. It did stick to my craw, give it that, and long enough for the notion to gain enough weight and sink in. The ultimate Dolphy movie, then. What would it be like? And has it been made? My pondering of these two matters may have been casual but oddly continual.

Or perhaps not that odd. Rifling through Dolphy’s vast and varied filmography, for me, is like sifting through layers of nostalgia, condensing hundreds of childhood afternoons into a body of work.. They were, invariably, agents of my private cinephilic ferment. Sure, most of the films were saddled with one-trick directors and by-the-numbers scripts. But all of these Dolphy would rise above and invigorate and sometimes transform into something else. The monotone of stereotype is something all comic leads from Jerry Lewis to Adam Sandler lapse into and I remember being told that plans were once afoot for a think tank tasked to develop projects for Dolphy that would pry him loose from this. Age eventually brings a sense that his earlier material bristled with genuine anarchy and subversion and that the later ones conformed to convention and formula. But no matter how pedestrian the material got, Dolphy’s ungraspable comic wiles would set most of it on fire. This is what the possibly mythical think tank may have wanted to harness and re-direct.

The queer act Dolphy minted with Jack and Jill is one of his two most enduring archetypes. And it almost forfeits its undeniable comic charge for the way it allegedly misrepresented the homosexual community, which it actually didn’t. It bowed to the mores of its time, unfortunately the mores of our time still, every time it finished up reforming a character into heterosexuality, sure. But, arguable lack of subtlety aside, which is an issue of tone and attack rather than condescencion, Dolphy’s gay characters feel hewn from the street and crosses no lines. Vice Ganda tends to come off more like caricature, like exploitation. Still, this is what his work in Gil Portes’ Markova: Comfort Gay, which Dolphy himself produced, and Lino Brocka’s Ang Tatay Kong Nanay, sought to nuance and broaden and perhaps even overthrow.

The problems with Markova have more to do with the overly earnest script but centering it is the fragile humanism of Dolphy’s performance, invaluably reinforced by Joel Lamangan as his best friend, who may essentially be playing himself, but somehow one-ups the creepy soldier he played in Lav Diaz’s Hesus Rebolusyonaryo. A spar and volley with someone of equal measure, be it Panchito, be it Nida Blanca, has always been the diesel of Dolphy’s comedy. And every scene he and Lamangan are in here feeds blood into the pulse of the film. Even better is the drag queen forced into fatherhood that he plays in the Brocka film, where Dolphy merges his flamboyant queer with his other iconic comic persona, the proud to a fault Everyman, and turns it into a tour de force. He remains gay at the end of both films, too.

Much as these two remain colossal, tenable go-tos for Dolphy’s reserves as a character actor, framing them as paradigms for the ultimate Dolphy movie, or at least the ultimate Dolphy queer movie, is to make the idea seem like a rehabilitation, when it shouldn’t be. Markova and Ang Tatay Kong Nanay are departures. And the ultimate Dolphy movie needs to be situated within his métier. And of all his queer films, Luciano Carlos’ Facifica Falayfay, in which his eponymous character is forced to become a pretend-girl by his mother’s desire to have a daughter, is crucial if only because it was the point where he leveled his comedy of pratfall and retort up into something beyond mere Chaplinesque riffing, gaining also a sense of a young master at last governing his wild gifts. The ultimate Dolphy queer movie? Why not? His going straight near the end does make contextual sense, but let’s just pretend he and leading lady Pilar Pilapil ended up as BFFs instead of lovers. Then we’re good to go.

  *Originally published in Phil.Star Supreme.

FAST CHEAP OUT OF CONTROL

















Primo Salvo In Vibracolor
Dina Gadia
Silverlens

William Burroughs will be name-checked at some point, figured might as well front-load it, and in the manner of laying down the law at that. There are other referents, of course, but Burroughs is the source of the Nile, so to speak. His influence over many things has been so over-emphasized as to reek almost of cliché and certainly of laziness to invoke, but it’s impossible to avoid. What’s relevant here is his central process, the cut-up technique, which involved the inserting of other people’s text into his own and a shape-shifting of form as an aftermath, a literary method that smacked of ritual, of casting the runes. No wonder he nursed this adamant belief that it was a conduit to sorcery and who’s to say it isn’t. More pragmatically, it was the primordial voltage for mash-up culture, and you can sense its trace elements in everything from plunder-phonics to fan fiction to hip-hop. But his name comes up, too, out of how he had this obvious kinship with pulp, with science-fiction and horror primarily, with superheroes and erotica, with its flamboyance and hysteria.

The relevance of Burroughs goes beyond how the title of Dina Gadia’s new show, Primo Salvo In Vibracolor, has all the shock and tang of a Burroughs title, which of course it isn’t. Pulp is also the base matter of her collages and paintings and installations, and her fundamental process the mash-up, willfully mismatched juxtapositions of art and copy. The art here being dated, banal images from old encyclopedias and lifestyle magazines and vintage advertising, which are in and of themselves, signifiers of conflicting modes: utopia and repression, obsolescence and nostalgia, death and memory. The copy being garish and bombastic pulp titles, some taken verbatim and some themselves mashed up, serving as commentary, as counterpoint, as annotation, as re-contextualization, as punch line.

And that last qualifier is far from a dis, given how the sense of humor in the work is prevalent to the point of being insidious, another thing it shares with Burroughs, moreso when it leans towards a queasy strangeness, which it does most of the time: the panther growling over the dinner table spoils in Fangs Into You , the caveman lugging hollow blocks in Everything In Modernation, the spiritualists trying to exorcise the blancmange in The Spoiler and those creepy hairy things in the two works called The Hair! The Hairrrr! In some cases, though, the humor achieves the give-and-take immediacy of a stand-up routine. There’s the matinee idol lothario peeking out of the garish pink bed as the Tagalog word for “hell” floats ominously in Let the Love Flow. And the dolled-up socialite, dressed in minty cobras with the word “karanasan” (“experience”) emblazoned underneath in Display of Hard-Earned Callousness. Or the three manicured men having a laugh in nothing but their undies, immaculately bereft of wrinkles, under the insinuating logo of the defunct Manhunter comic. And in A Cultural Weekend Exploitation Away, the word “holiday” hovers gleefully over a cartoon model peddling a cannibal rite like a game show girl. There are nuances to mine here, sure. The “ho hum” sign in We All End with Lines of Ending Cliché I is a riposte to the ubiquity and dominance of the Hollywood sign, which it emulates in size. And the two young girls in We All End with Lines of Ending Cliché II are shackled by the anchor they hug for comfort and safety. Ultimately, its collective dialectical urge has to do with bashing the stereotype, taking it apart and putting it together again. But like any good routine, elaborating further would neuter the buzz, like having to explain the joke.

Fast and cheap and out of control: there’s a catch-all that nails the quintessential ethos of pulp. You could nail the quintessence of Gadia’s work here with it, too. The thing it slightly misses, on both occasions, is the vibrancy. There is a tawdriness on the surface, sure, but that tawdriness is as much an aesthetic directive as it is a function of osmosis, and it is a tawdriness that is not without its charms. Just as Burroughs recognized a visceral potency in the pulp he revered and appropriated, so does Gadia, and she seems fueled here by her desire to revel in the relative rawness and ugliness of her chosen subjects, aiming as she is for that boiling point in pulp where process becomes product and where “bad” bubbles over into “good”. In many ways, she’s trying to replicate her own pleasures with it and in many ways, she has. Prima Salvo In Vibracolor deserves the Burroughsian allusion. And as mutated and recombinant as its pulp is, it has all its prime qualities: fast, cheap and out of control, right. As deep-seated as its resonances run, its delights are immediate and it’s funny as all hell.

*Primo Salvo In Vibracolor ran from May 24- June 23, 2012 at Silverlens.

7.14.2012

AIN'T NO LOVE IN THE HEART OF THE CITY

MNL 143
Directed by Emerson Reyes 
written by Emerson Reyes and Ade Perilla





*Note: an FX, for those who aren't aware, is one of the staples of  public transportation in Manila and is, essentially. a mash up of a cab and a very small midibus.




The bigger fish fried, with regards to Emerson Reyes' MNL 143,  a loose-jointed portmanteau pivoting around an FX* driver's fruitless search for his longlost love,  has to do with how its brief but tremulous history has brought to harsh light what has become the quintessential discourse of Philippine cinema in the noughties: when is an independent film truly independent? Cinemalaya has long basked in a glory that has re-purposed what was really a confluence of media muscle and high-impact branding, that name being a particular stroke of genius for coinage and connotation,  into its highly arguable equity as the layman end-all be-all of independent cinema. At least up until it disqualified Emerson and his film over, of all things, casting issues. At least, for a brief time, back then.

At the gregarious height of the very public furor, even before a single frame was shot, MNL 143 had become provisionally known as the film that outed Cinemalaya for misrepresenting itself as a grant-giving body, and the sovereign one at that, when its dynamic and philosophy was closer to  a boutique studio, beholden as it was to the show business caprices of its selection committee and the purse strings of its benefactor.  Predictably enough, now that the festival is fast approaching,  status quos have been restored and not a rustle heard about the scandal.  MNL 143 will always be a cautionary both of what happened and what may be happening still, but on its shoulders now unfairly rests a tremendous amount of polemic that it shouldn't bear, at least not anymore, as it unwittingly hangs its failure or success on the wrong things. And the irony is that, for something so freighted, it's an almost diametrically modest work: plotless, lackadaisical, blithe.

MNL 143 sidelines its diffident Romeo, and his ordeal,  for the parade of strangers who flit in and out of his cab, casting the same laconic, slightly curious but mostly transient eye on them, as those of us who've ridden cabs like these day after day have. The effect is like watching someone else channel-surf. And if nothing sticks perhaps that's out of how nothing is really meant to. This temporal, claustrophobic, often uneventful, and familiar pocket universe of our lives as commuters is the universe of the film, and one suffused with the random, from the banal to the amusing to the touching but never the truly consequential. Even when things actually start to happen, and despite the satisfying surge of endorphin near the end,  they happen with a peculiar lack of fanfare, as if to say that the love of your life is just another fare who gets on your cab and gets out at her stop, another unfinished story, another interrupted arc, another brief life with no closure. It's also Emerson's canny way of throwing us off the film's scent.

But there is a scene halfway through, where the lovelorn cabbie (Allan Paule), who is the film’s center of gravity or rather its disarming lack of it, turns on the radio and breaks down to a lovesick ballad. Granted, it’s a reined-in breakdown, overwhelmed yet understated, but even as it smacks, at first, of something plucked out of a glossed-up studio rom-com, it slowly and inexorably becomes discomfiting as it lingers longer than it should and even longer than that, until the ickiness spills over from mushy verging on mawkish to something approaching poignancy. It is the first and only time in the film he confronts how much of a cross his longing has become, how much it bristles with deep-seated regret, but it's enough to reveal its hand. The unmistakable emotional timbre of MNL 143 really draws from the kitschy jukebox pop you hear when it opens, thusly distilled as country music by way of 50s balladry by way of unguarded sentimentality by way of shameless corn, which is how we also dismiss our feelings when we wear our hearts on our sleeve, perhaps for fear of giving ourselves over to the harm that comes from doing so.

We are a people who not only succumb to mawk when no one's looking but whose reflex action after we've cried our hearts out is to shrug. And the nonchalance that makes MNL 143 so breezy, so amiable, is really this casual, perhaps even endemic, optimism we conduct our lives with, the passive belief that everything will turn out OK and even if it doesn’t, well, that’s OK, too.  It’s a sentiment that dovetails neatly into the real-life backstory of  the film, which almost never got made but eventually was, under duress and with less than a quarter of the original budget, and becoming, too, in the process, a de facto figurehead against the artistic repression we had foolishly thought we were rid of. The making of MNL 143 may be a lofty achievement but the film itself is a triumph of under-reach.