Saturday, April 18, 2009

Mga panahon ng himala

Next month, respected and multi-awarded Philippine writer Ricky Lee is reissuing his 1988 anthology, "Si Tatang at mga Himala ng Ating Panahon." The news of Ricky's latest endeavor prompted me to head to my kangkungan to exhume my old copy of the book, which I bought from National Bookstore almost 15 years ago, when I was still in college and my dream to become a filmmaker was still in fever pitch.

The collection is a showcase of Ricky's skills not just as a screenwriter, but as a writer, period. There are about 20 articles in the book, a collection of short stories, magazine features, interviews, and a screenplay, revolving around roughly three themes.

The earliest works in the anthology are very political in nature. "Dapithapon ng Isang Mesiyas," "Pagtatapos," "Ang Mahabang Maikling Buhay ni Kumander Tangkad," "Si Tatang, " and "Servando Magdamag" are all sturdy political stuff, and the truly wonderful thing about them is the fact that he wrote them all when he was a teenager, which says tons about Ricky Lee as a young man, and where he is coming from as an artist.

The articles in the book that many people might find most fascinating are those in which Ricky focuses his attention to Manila's underbelly, using his eyes like how a documentary filmmaker would use a hand-held camera: probing, non-judgmental, but almost loving. These articles, written in a crisp, colloquial Tagalog (his trademark) that dares you to ignore it, are an endless parade of midnight souls, of prostitutes and pimps, and other creatures of the night, like characters from a Fellini phantasmagoria or a Lou Reed song. "Umusad man ang gabi't walang iwang customer ay may pag-asa pa rin sila. Pagsara ng bar alas dos ng umaga'y pupunta sila lahat sa Luneta upang salubungin ang umaga. Naroroon silang lahat tuwing madaling araw, mga call boys at call girls galing sa iba't ibang bars at night clubs, akala mo'y nagpatawag ng kombensyon ang patron saint ng mga puta...Naririto ang kanilang pamilya, ito ang kanilang buhay. Di magtatagal ay lalabas ang araw, sisikatan ang lahat, walang pinipili, mga puta man o hindi, CP at CB at CG, mga stowaway, biktima at nambibiktima, saanman ang teritoryo, lahat nang wala sa bahay, mga batang lansangan." Reminiscent of that last scene in Ishmael Bernal's "Manila By Night," in which the creatures of the night end up in Luneta park at dawn to welcome another day.

But of course. The articles in this anthology drank from the same teats of anger, frustration, heartbreak, and unrest that nourished those great Filipino films from the late '70s and early '80s. Sometimes I forget that he wrote many of them.

However, my favorite articles in the anthology are those in which Ricky Lee proves that he is not only a great fictionist and political writer, but also a great chronicler of Philippine showbiz and the movie industry. Aside from Ricky's distinctive voice as an artist, I think they are what make this anthology more special than other literary anthologies out there, and what sets Ricky apart from other "serious" Philippine writers. I truly believe that there should be more books written about Philippine movies and showbiz, perhaps the most colorful there is in this part of the world. Where's our own "The Kid Stays In The Picture" or "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls"? Where are the definitive biographies on Brocka and Bernal, of early Philippine cinema, of Sampaguita and LVN studios and even Mother Lily? "Manila By Night" alone deserves its own book, as well as the body of work of Joey Gosiengfiao (that's going to be a bestseller). And frankly, I'd line up to buy an anthology of vintage chismis from the pages of Orig and Kislap magazines. You can have your anthologies of Palanca award-winning works and the poetry of so and so, but when I was growing up in the '80s, ordinary people cared only about what's in those magazines or in Liwayway, back when movies were EVENTS: the glory days of theater tours and palengke tours, of premiere nights at New Frontier Theater, Kuya Germs' baratilyos, and those giant hand-painted movie billboards in Cubao wherein everybody looked fat. Before cellphones and PEP, huge swaths of Philippine rainforest were destroyed for paper so that people can write about and read about artistas and their shenanigans. Respect.

Among Ricky Lee's film work, nothing towers above "Himala," the acclaimed Ishmael Bernal movie, the screenplay of which is the centerpiece of the anthology. Not only do we get to see Nora Aunor's famous lines in print, Ricky also includes anecdotes on the writing of the screenplay and the making of the film, like how the cast and crew were unaware throughout the shoot that a crazed woman was imprisoned by her husband in one of the rooms of the house that stood as Elsa's residence. (I have my own Himala story: when I first saw it in a festival in SM during the World Cinema Centennial Celebration, the reels were not in correct order, so it was like watching Pulp Fiction. A deconstruction!)

But perhaps the biggest miracle in the creation of Himala was that the producers gave Ricky Lee total creative control in writing it. Imagine if they didn't.

My favorite article in the book is "1976: Isang Taon ng Kadaldalan at Kabuluhan." It was the year I was born. According to Ricky, it was "ang pinakamadaldal na taon sa pelikulang Pilipino" when everybody had something to say about Philippine movies. It was the year in which Brocka's "Maynila Sa Mga Kuko Ng Liwanag" took home all the awards, and the year the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino and the UP Film Center were established. But most especially, it was the year of classic Filipino films: the controversial "Sakada," the inscrutable "Nunal Sa Tubig," "Insiang," "Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon," Ligaw na Bulaklak," "Itim," "Minsa'y Isang Gamu-Gamo," and Mario O' Hara's "Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos" (which, after snooping around in the microfilm division of the UP Main Library eons ago, I found out was the movie playing in Manila's theaters the week I was born). But apart from all this heady stuff, it was a year of sex in Philippine movies. "Dinumog ang mga basang kamiseta't masisikip na jockey at nang maglabasan ng sinehan ang kalalakiha'y nagpadamihan ng nakita. Saang sinehan naligong mas bold si Alma Moreno? Si Vilma Santos nga ba ang nakahubad na itinali ni Eddie Garcia sa Mga Reynang Walang Trono, binuhusan ng gatas kondensada at pinadilan sa pusa?" Seriously, where is the time machine parked?

If you're a Filipino guy and you were born in the late '70s, you probably got compared a lot to child actor Niño Muhlach. I sure was. "Ay kamukha ni Niño!" "Pakurot sa pisngi, parang pisngi ni Niño Muhlach!" My cheeks still feel numb. Muhlach was a megastar at the age of four. According to him, he probably made 90 films when he was a kid. In his book, Ricky Lee gives us two articles on Niño, one when he was at the height of his popularity, and one when he was already an awkward teenager with career prospects a big question mark. Such is the life of former child actors. It would be fascinating to read a third article on Niño, after the drug problems and other dramas and his success in the food business. I once saw Niño Muhlach in person while I was waiting for a jeepney to Philcoa in front of his ensaymada store in N. Domingo in San Juan. I'm not sure if I was starstruck, but I pretended not to see him. Somehow I got the feeling that he wanted to be recognized. But no one was looking.

I grew up in a small picturesque town in the province, which, especially in the '80s, was a favorite of movie outfits for location shootings. Word travels fast in a small town; a neighbor of a neighbor can tell somebody on the street that there's a location shoot at such and such place with so and so actors and almost instantly, we kids would be running towards the area as if relief goods had been air dropped in the Sahara. The artistas usually stayed in this white house in the plaza owned by somebody who worked for Regal films (he later won as konsehal because of his popularity among the townspeople), and there we would be at his window, our small hands grasping tightly the window grilles and stepping on his plants to see what the movie gods have sent us to gawk at this time. I remember seeing Liza Lorena through those windows. Isabel Granada. An exotic-looking Aiko Melendez when she was 14. Our childhood was peppered with moviestar sightings: a "bloodied" Rudy Fernandez on a balcony, Tony Santos Sr. sleeping on a folding chair in the plaza, Anita Linda, Richard Gomez on horseback, Maricel and Gabby outside our movie theater, Snooky waving at us while being made up in my aunt's panciteria. There was even a Hong Kong martial arts movie when our town was transformed into medieval China! When "Tagos ng Dugo" was being partly shot in our town during fiesta season, we were at the perya one night and were just instructed to turn our backs so that Strawberry (years before her unfortunate demise), playing a young Vilma Santos, could walk by as the cameras rolled. And I could still hear Maryo J. De Los Reyes shouting "direct yourself!" at his assistant director at five in the morning (yes, we were already up and watching before we prepared for school) because fake blood spurted improperly from Zoren Legazpi's chest.

And then there were the crew. The alalays. The tagatimpla-ng-kapes. The smelly guys with the cables. The ones who used to tell us kids to step back or shut the hell up. "Ang mga maliliit na tao" whose lives and pains Ricky Lee was able to capture in one of the articles. Ricky treats his subjects--whatever their status in life--and the minutiae of their existence, with compassion and humanity. "...'Di sila puwedeng mapagod. Ang artista kapag inaantok, bibigyan ng kuwarto at ng treinta minutos. Ang maliliit na tao, bibigyan ng masamang tingin." "'Pantasya ko nga,' sabi ng isang crew, 'balang araw me pelikulang ipalalabas, and nakalagay, A Film By, saka hindi pangalan ng direktor ang kadugtong kundi mga pangalan namin.' Dahil pelikula rin naman nila ito. Kasama rin naman dito ang pawis at dugo nila."

"Iyon ang panahon ng bomba. Batuta Ni Drakula. Saging Ni Pacing. Hayok. Uhaw. The Bold and the Beauties. Sa mga titulo lang ay alam mo na kung anong mga kababalaghan ang nagsisirko. Ako'y Dayukdok. Apoy Ng Kaligayahan. Playgirls In The Night. May isang titulo'y Gutom, di naaprubahan ng censors, para makalusot ay pinalitan ng Diyos Ko, Patawarin Mo Po Ako, Ako'y Nagu-GUTOM!" Oh yes. Every other decade or so, the Philippine movie industry goes through a phase wherein it churns out a lot of softcore (sometimes hardcore) flicks that the public would always lap up, including a bevy of starry-eyed starlets willing to shed their camisoles for a few turns on the spotlight. Its first golden era was in the '70s, when said movies dominated people's imaginations, perhaps to forget the political and social upheavals happening in the country at that time. One actress that came out of these movies was Yvonne, whom Ricky Lee brilliantly profiles in the collection. "May mga artistang kapag kinausap, sasagot ng magalang pero ang isipan ay nasa susunod nang appointment, kausap ka pa ng katawan pero iniwan ka na ng isipan. Hindi ganito si Yvonne...Kapapanalo lang niya ng Best Supporting Actress sa Urian Awards para sa kanyang papel bilang putang kaibigan ni Alma Moreno sa Ligaw Na Bulaklak." "'Alam mo, mahal, di sana talaga ako pupunta sa Urian dahil ang mga kalaban ko'y mahuhusay - h'wag na nating sabihing mabibigat dahil n'ong sabihin kong mabibigat e nagtawanan ang mga tao."

Right after reading the article, I was like, I want to meet this person. I do not know Yvonne. I don't recall her name from my childhood. I wonder where she is now. I got introduced to her through the article. Who is she? (Or was she?) I wonder if I ever saw her pictures before, if not on TV perhaps in my aunt's dog-eared copy of Liwayway. Could I have seen her pictures before and didn't know it was her? In my town there used to be a movie theater. From what I hear, it even used to be a vaudeville theater before the war. In the early '80s, it would show from time to time bomba flicks, the promo photos for which would be plastered on the walls of the theater lobby like wallpaper, with naked bodies on top of one another like donuts in a donut shop. Was Yvonne in those pictures? I wouldn't know. It was also a time of Dolphy movies. Of Joey de Leon in drag. Of Panchito and his flaring nostrils. It was a time of double features, when we could get in for free because my uncle knew the owner. When people could smoke in the theaters, eat banana-cue, no air conditioning, and the smell of piss everywhere. It was a time of unbridled joy, when we could enter the heavy maroon curtains into this dark chamber and expected to be entertained. And we all were. But everything has an end. Just last year, I went home and saw the once magnificent movie theater of our childhood, torn down, its pieces scattered on the ground like shattered movie dreams.

"Si Tatang Si Tatang at mga Himala ng Ating Panahon" isn't just a showcase of Ricky Lee's prowess as a screenwriter, fictionist, and chronicler. It is also a rare glimpse into a world that simply doesn't exist anymore.

(PBA09sn6745n )

No comments: