J. Pilapil Jacobo
The felicity of “pagdating sa dulo” as an axiomatic phrase that parses out the sense of limit careerist ambition must contend with in Ishmael Bernal’s debut film is grounded not so much on the breaking point the culture industry seeks to delay through simulacral pleasure (to repeat this observation is not the task of criticism that seeks to be contemporary), but on the woundedness that the body must acknowledge just because it has known the erotic too soon, and has acted on its persuasions too haphazardly, as in the folk song from which the proverbial line is derived, “Leron, Leron Sinta,” where the sense of an arrival (“pagdating”) toward a terminus (“dulo”) metonymically configures the failures of adolescent prurience, particularly when the virile boy commits the mistake of taking his beloved girl as nubile hostage, without knowing the extent of his tumescent capability (“nabali ang sanga”).
While what Bernal does to the autochthonous irony embedded in such a poetic is pitch-perfect, its improvisational method is nonetheless irreducible to an employment of modernity through the most technological form film art could assume at that point in the history of cinema in the Philippines; rather, one must recognize the auteur’s counter-intuitive analysis of the contemporary cinematic state by way of a primitivist gesture that examines the tumult of what is regarded as its present by ransacking the contents of a cabinet of curiosities through the penumbral chamber of cinema itself. The secret sex such a closet withholds must now display an amorous insecurity engineered to function as counterpoint to the climactic motive of self-exposure, mistaken thereafter as autocritique by the very consciousness basking in its apprehensions of the cognitive nude, if it is to become ostensible that art could no longer visualize the orgasm that it prides itself to vibrate in all shameless facility.
That a sense of an apotheosis should project this thesis on the abyss says so much about the access to negativity Bernal had allowed himself to navigate, in the first instance of germinating a language for film in these parts, so that the aesthetic employed to evaluate its own experience could also be constituted alongside the contentious spaces which overdetermine the conditions disseminating its resistance. As it were, the negativity was more than enough to visualize a primary statement on the political economy of desire a technique of mediation had conspired to naturalize as relevant and historic, because popular and current, in many ways no longer antipodal to its colonial sources, always already folklore to the masses hypnotized by its blaze.
The restoration that was accomplished at L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna and which inaugurated the 3rd World Premieres Film Festival at the Cinematheque in Manila would proffer Ishmael Bernal’s vision of a city signifying signs of being more predisposed to its own twilight, even at a most early crepuscular instance. I thought I was seeing Jacques Rivette’s “Paris Nous Appartient” again, but the reckoning with loss was too stark, I knew it wasn’t going to be a “Paris Belongs To Us.” (1961)
II. Habit Naturel
Pagdating Sa Dulo opens with a scene of burlesk, the stripper Ching (Rita Gomez) laying down the premise of the terminus: every speck of skin that has been anticipated can only be revealed upon that moment of divestment. The truth of her naked body is not covered with mystique; what the deferral of deshabille enables is only a speculation of her sex.
In Roland Barthes’s critique of the striptease, and through Annette Lavers’s translation, we are instructed on how this paradox is punctuated: “la nudité comme habit naturel de la femme, ce qui est retrouver finalement un état parfaitement pudique de la chair (nakedness as a natural vesture of woman, which amounts in the end to regaining a perfectly chaste state of the flesh).” The body is itself lingerie, and the layers of diaphane concealing this softness should be the rigid language of gazing. Bernal traverses the units of the indeterminacy behind such coquetry by appositioning cinema to the fundament of its playfulness; the director chooses to render his thesis in black-and-white to disavow the truth that cinema pretends to display, and further expose the illusory value that is misrecognized in the exchange between screen and voyeur.
The terminus does not fulfill orgasmic release, as it only pretends to promise it. Again Barthes/Lavers: “Contrairement au préjugé courant, la danse, qui accompagne toute la durée du strip-tease, n’est nullement un facteur érotique. C’est même probablement tout le contraire : l’ondulation faiblement rythmée conjure ici la peur de l’immobilité (Contrary to the common prejudice, the dance which accompanies the striptease from beginning to end is in no way an erotic element. It is probably quite the reverse: the faintly rhythmical undulation in this case exorcizes the fear of immobility).”
The choreography that dictates a stripper to move in a certain way, to move toward a confession on the parts of privacy, is less an elaboration of how one enchants another by way of seduction, than a series of paranoid acts against statuariness, which could be imperfect and still index the beautiful—a terminus that crosses the boundary that may nominate random movement to the calculus of dance energizing that broken circle of maenads depicted by Henri Mattise.
Could this be the critique of a cinema that wanted so bad a “La Nouvelle Vague” of its own? If the image were to be transfixed upon its own pretense, how could the picture imagine the terms of its motion? Bernal was thinking beyond the pace of his time’s mentalities.
III. Nevermores, Hereafters
In its encounter with the terminus, with itself, so to speak, Pagdating sa Dulo contends with the resistance of cinema to negate its veritable image through an engagement with “reflexivity,” a decision that was described in 1995 by film critic and scholar Joel David as “the best example in Philippine Cinema.”
Ching, a consummate dancer of the striptease, gets her chance at movie stardom one night when Kalapati, a film envisioned with avant-garde resistivity by a director (Eddie Garcia), is shooting at her club; the scene is a riot, requiring a shriek from a bit player, and Ching obliges without surrendering her sense of frivolity. The filmmaker takes notice of his extra’s sense of excess and conscripts her to his project as a stand-in. When the female lead (Rosemarie Gil) gives in to her diva entitlement, Ching becomes “Paloma Miranda,” and the indefatigable producer (Zeneida Amador) calls up her obsequious publicist (Ernie Zarate) to draw up her discovery’s media persona. Ching’s lover Pinggoy (Vic Vargas) abandons her before the film is launched, but gets involved with showbiz as a stuntman when his taxi driving can’t provide for his family. Kalapati proves to be a flop at the box office, prompting the director to be a recluse at his mansion, where he painstakingly edits his documentary films. Pinggoy turns into the most successful leading man of the bomba genre, thanks to a columnist who will do anything to satiate his homosexual fancy. Desperate to take back her lover and sustain a career, Ching transforms herself from serious actress to screen siren, and stars with Pinggoy in Pagdating sa Dulo, a bomba movie directed by a distracted Joonee Gamboa. Pagdating sa Dulo (I) ends with the debut of Pagdating sa Dulo (II), with an inebriated Ching/Paloma struggling to ascend the staircase that leads to the dark chamber of the cinematheque.
I can cite three conceptual moments which demonstrate how Bernal performs this exemplary rehearsal of the “mise-en-abyme,” recuperated by David as “inescutcheon construction” in his discussion of Christian Metz’s reading of Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963) and Michael Taylor’s preference for “mirror construction” in the translation. These moments are “moments” out of their heterochrony, their place in the sequence a dialectical aspect of a procedure deemed strategically as prior:
A) First, is correspondence. An early scene emblematizes the mirror, particularly when Rita Gomez’s talent of repartee allows us to relish her delivery of “Taxi driver ka, taxi dancer ako, bagay tayo!” Here, the mirror is unmistakably erotic, as far as the virago is concerned. The driving and the dancing correspond without question, and the insistence of “taxi” as vehicular incident to the tenor of this encounter between two dynamos, embodied machine and machinic body, denies suspicion. Miss Gomez is so sure of it, even when her Ching would like to accrue some degree of ambivalence. Of course, Vic Vargas refuses the reversal of the terms of victimage; there is something archaic burning within that torso of his that one can be convinced his resistance to Rita Gomez’s modern bustiere may still be effortless. Vic and Rita are irresistible as a pair onscreen. Somehow, their breathlessness together recall Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, even in their most sinister scenes.
B) Then, substitution. After affirming singularity, and the dissimulation of all manner of difference, the Spiegel reverts to its “inappropriate” motive: to replace the real. And more, to steal the recognition of the real away so that the replacement can look: seamless. Seemless? Rita Gomez prefigures Nora Aunor’s enslavement by an abusive bit player and Vilma Santos’s obsessive-compulsive take on the “ekstra” by becoming such “seam/seem.” In the film, one does not complain that Rita replaces Rosemarie. There is destiny in the supersession. Her speculum could only be more precise as an analytic of the beautiful above everything else, which is also: beautiful. Watching Anita Linda tremble in Sawa sa Lumang Simboryo (1951) and Sandy Andolong fumble in Salawahan (1979), I thought: Rita had mastered the Threat of a more alluring image. Hail, the queen of “daot”!
C) Last, negativity. On the one hand, there is the competition between Eddie Garcia’s art film Kalapati and Joonee Gamboa’s bomba movie Pagdating sa Dulo; no film-text can monopolize the sphere of the image. And enclosing these two is Pagdating sa Dulo itself; no film that struggles to be contemporaneous with cinema must come to terms with extremities within itself. On the other, one cannot ignore Eddie Garcia’s brooding interpretation of the anti-industry film artist who must come to terms with himself defeated as a vanguard aesthete. This is Bernal looking at Avellana looking at Bernal visualize an Orphic statement on the death of Philippine cinema at its moment of nascence. And yet, the negative is the materiel that makes film resist a Eurydicean abyss. In one scene that is more pedagogical than didactic, Garcia instructs Gomez on the practices of editing within a principle of cinema as ultimate device of the erotic: If I replace this frame with your beloved’s face, your eyes shall burn (montage is all); if I decide against his face, in your eyes: emptiness (montage is nothing).