Portrait of the Filipino through his country’s artists

Published July 25, 2021, 7:30 AM

by AA Patawaran

IMAGE OF AN ARTIST Lea Salonga as Eponine in Les Miserables, John Arcilla as Heneral Luna in the film of the same name, and Arjo Atayde in the series Bagman

Every time I hear Lea Salonga sing, I hear the voice of every child reaching as high a note as she could as though all her dreams rested there, the girl who would join neighborhood competitions held on makeshift stages at basketball courts, as well as the boy, whose parents, buoyed by their son’s promise, would sign him up at a summer singing program with a voice coach.  

There, lost in Lea’s voice, creating “The Movie in My Mind” or mooning over “I Dreamed A Dream,” I would see myself in the company of all the young people who dreamed of going as far as their voices could take them and not only people who did make it far and are making it farther, like Rachelle Ann Go, but also all those who continue dreaming, who are still dreaming, even if the dream were confined to bathroom concertos.

Every time I stood this close to Ely Buendia back in the day, in my youth, when he was just this scruffy looking boy singing soulfully at gigs with his band Eraserheads at this old drinking place, the hole-in-the-wall bar Club Dredd, on Scout Tobias Street in Quezon City, I would feel just as close to every teen learning to play the guitar, exploring their most ardent personal passions, finding ways to self-expression, and exploring kinship with those who listened to the same type of music.

I would imagine a song like “Tindahan ni Aling Nena (The Store of Nena),” an old song from the Eraserheads’ early 1990s demo tape Pop-U, which eventually made it to their 1993 debut album Ultraelectromagneticpop, being a hit at Club Dredd, with all the Pale Pilsen-guzzling, sisig-crazy boys thinking of things they couldn’t have right then—girls and guitars, cars and cash, and such. But “Pare Ko,” also a hit track in both the album and the demo tape that started it all, sounded like an anthem for Liberation Day to the 1990s youth, who relished a sense of freedom in the obscenities included in the lyrics.

I dream that I was born early enough, decades earlier, to have caught the movie adaptation of National Artist of the Philippines (Literature) Nick Joaquin’s play, A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino, by yet another National Artist, the first to be given the distinction for his work in film, Lamberto Avellana. But no doubt, had I even been alive to watch such a movie in 1965, my absence would have been among the reasons the film was such a flop when it ran for five days at the Rizal Theater (where now stands the former Makati Shangri-La). 

But now, I sometimes find myself watching clips on YouTube, where the black-and-white film has been uploaded in about seven or eight 15-minute segments and I regret not having seen the screening of its restored edition at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) in 2015. 

The point is not how we use a tool, but how it uses us. —Nick Joaquin

Portrait starred Daisy Hontiveros-Avellana, the filmmaker’s wife and also a National Artist (for Theater), as Candida and Naty Crame-Rogers as Paula, the two spinster sisters who personified Nick Joaquin’s portrayal of a society turning into a shadow of its former self, set in Intramuros just before World War II and, in Joaquin’s prophetic vision, just before it was overrun by slum dwellers and a string of Intramuros Administration leaders who were all powerless to prevent the Walled City’s descent to what Joaquin described as “just another jungle of slums.” 

ANGER IN THEIR EYES Candida, Bitoy, and Paula looking up at the Letrato del Artista como Filipino (A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino)

I know none of the actors in the cast, except Vic Silayan, who played a journalist as well as narrator in the film, but there were some familiar faces who played many a bit role or supporting role in what, I believe, was the golden age of Philippine cinema, the black-and-white movies I used to watch in my youth on afternoon TV. 

Still, I am hooked to the screen of my smartphone whenever I watch Portrait on YouTube, the lines delivered in impeccable English with a smattering of Spanish, suggestive of a time so far removed from us now, “an age of lamplight and gaslight,” wrote Joaquin, “of harps and whiskers and fine carriages, an age of manners and melodrama, of religion and revolution.”

Some critics find it awkward that the dialogues were in English, but I don’t. Maybe I prefer to see it in the language in which Nick Joaquin wrote it. Maybe I didn’t see any of the actors speaking their lines with difficulty, at least not with as much difficulty as today’s actors would deliver theirs in Tagalog, or in Taglish, or even in Beki (a sort of Filipino slang associated with gay culture). Maybe the choice of language helped establish how singularly rare a film like A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino has become.

GRIEF OF THE RICH Daisy H. Avellana as Candida and Naty Crame-Rogers as Paula in the film

Some critics, while conceding that Avellana’s film take on Joaquin’s play is a classic, a gem, its place in Philippine history on terra firma, describe it as “not easy to watch.” I don’t agree, as based on how I imagine the way we were back in the age, I’d like to think that it was as close to the ground as it possibly could. One scene, for instance—in which Paula and Candida, unable to switch on the lights in the house and afraid that the electric company had cut off their power supply, were so terrified of what the neighbors would say, only to be relieved as darkness fell to discover there was a blackout—would resonate with viewers even now who struggle to pay the bills, including the Meralco bills, month after month.

I do think there is art, where people dream, as long as people dream, and I keep my eye out on it, not only in the museums, or in the galleries, or at the CCP, but also on the walls crawling with graffiti, on pop radio (though all our radio stations, except DZfE 98.7, have raised the white flag to commercial invasion), in the movies, whether it is Heneral Luna or Echorsis, or in a web series, like Gameboys or Bagman.

It is in art, indeed, should we open up our hearts, that we can find ourselves, especially now that we no longer have statesmen among our leaders to truly represent what is in our best interest, especially now that the art of discourse, the art of persuasive speaking or writing, has been lost on those who have the power to shape our dreams, especially now that we only consider ourselves a proud race when our brothers and sisters make it to Broadway or the West End, win a fight against a world champion, dress up a queen or a princess or a Hollywood star, fetch a fortune at Christie’s or Sotheby’s, bring home a Cannes award, become Miss Universe, or even come this close to becoming the next American Idol.

Art is on the everyday street, though often the scholars, as well as the art writers and the critics, succeed in keeping it out of everyday people’s reach by elevating it too high in the realm of the cognoscenti.