Friday, January 12, 2007

An Amado Lacuesta film retrospective

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Michelle Aldana in Segurista

In the wake of all the deaths we've experienced this year--of Robert Altman, Sven Nykvist, Gordon Parks, among others--I've completely forgotten the tenth death anniversary of a man who could make me laugh till I cried, whose work was witty, incisive, profane, moving.

I'm referring to Amado Lacuesta Jr., one of the finest Filipino scriptwriters, and a valuable resource to filmmakers--Butch Perez, Tikoy Aguiluz, Ishmael Bernal, to name a few. It's the tenth year of his passing (like James Brown, he chose the first day of 1997 to shuffle off this mortal coil), and to mark the occasion, the UP Film Center with help from his son, Sarge Lacuesta (an award-winning writer himself), has scheduled a retrospective of films written and co-written by the man at the Cine Adarna Theater, Magsaysay Ave Entrance, UP Campus, Diliman, Quezon City, on January 23 to 24 (please click on the blog post's title for more information).

By way of tribute (and atonement for failing to remember), here's an excerpt from an article I'd written for a Lino Brocka / Ishmael Bernal tribute, collected in my book:

From Two of a Kind

Bernal's Hinugot Sa Langit (Snatched from Heaven, 1985) is altogether more thoughtful fare. The script, by Amado Lacuesta, takes a tabloid subject--abortion--and presents the issues and dilemmas with admirable subtlety. Maricel Soriano's pregnant office girl has no feminist agenda, no militant point of view; she's just someone trying to scratch out a living, and a child would be an insupportable burden. But even better than Bernal's complete lack of didactism is his beautifully quiet sense of drama. Soriano listens to her mother on the phone: a chance remark makes Soriano think of the consequences of her act. No music, no sound effects, most of all, no hysterical acting: just the camera closing into her face as the tears well up. One of the loveliest and saddest single shot in all of Philippine cinema.

Working Girls (1984) is a script by Amado Lacuesta, who seems to specialize in depicting the business class. Here, he draws a wonderfully cartoonish sketch of Philippine business (or more accurately, Philippine monkey business), from the highest executive to the lowest secretary. Not all the sketches are successful: Maria Isabel Lopez's descent from receptionist to prostitute is soporifically predictable; Rio Locsin's pregnancy problem requires a full-blown soap series to do it melodramatic justice, while Chanda Romero's martyrlike working wife is exactly that: irritatingly martyrlike (Romero, to her credit, gives a movingly understated performance). Much better are Carmi Martin as a lusty, half-blind secretary and Edu Manzano as her hilariously anal-retentive boss; and Gina Pareno, doing a wicked parody of Locsin's problem by pretending to be pregnant, and by the same man (Tommy Abuel)--when Abuel offers her the same amount of money he offered Locsin, Pareno doesn't turn it down out of some ridiculous sense of delicadeza; she haggles for a larger amount. Bernal directs the film with admirable fizziness; the slapstick portions are light and graceful comic ballets.

(Manila Chronicle 9/12/96)

Here's something I wrote on his death that never got to published mainly because when I submitted it, the international film magazine (who shall remain nameless) didn't feel he was "significant enough."

Not significant enough? Jesus Christ. Comic writers get scant enough respect in Hollywood; they get less in Asian, particularly Philippine cinema. I wanted to howl and gnash my teeth; I wanted to bash my head in--wanted to bash his head in. I ended up putting away the article till I could include it in my book, and--finally--use it now:

Amado Lacuesta: Working Boy

The first time I ever saw him was in the Ateneo High School Chapel, lying in his coffin. His eyes were closed, the lines and folds about them slack, his generous lips pressed firmly together. The lines look like they had settled just before I looked into the coffin; the eyes and mouth look as if they had just shut. Pictures ring the coffin and they showed me a man with a wide smile, enjoying himself hugely. He resembled the character Geoffrey Rush portrays in Shine, the genius pianist who can't stop talking and laughing, the words tumbling pell-mell out of his mouth. Amado Lacuesta died just two days before, and it seemed to me, looking at him in his coffin, that this was the first time ever he was so silent.

He wrote movies; a simple statement to make and unremarkable on the surface. We tend to forget that the many good films we watch and love often begin on paper, as a written screenplay. As William Holden put it in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard: "They probably think the actors make up the lines as they go along." That's Holden speaking, an actor casually tossing off his line with a touch of bitterness--making it all the more memorable, of course. But it was the team of Charles Brackett, D.M. Marshall and Wilder himself who conceived the line, the scene in which the line was spoken, and the story in which the scene belonged.

Lacuesta didn't begin writing for movies; he began as a banker in stock trading, which was a rare and unusual job at that time (People didn't put much stock in them, then). He was senior officer in Multinational Investment Bancorp when he wrote a script for a contest sponsored by The Experimental Cinema of the Philippines. He only placed top ten, which didn't discourage him--far from it; he went and wrote a script for Viva films, which Ishmael Bernal directed in 1986 as Working Girls. The film had a glittering all-star cast: Rio Locsin, Hilda Koronel, Tommy Abuel, Carmi Martin, Gina Pareno and a relative newcomer, Edu Manzano. It was a critical and commercial success; even the theme song was a hit.

Working Girls did show something rare, if not totally new in Philippine cinema: it showed middle-class men and women, working in an office. Not an advertising agency, as some of our lazier scriptwriters are fond of using, but a bank, with details and dialogue that only someone actually working in the banking industry can possibly know.

Maricel Soriano worked in a realistically depicted office in Lacuesta's Hinugot Sa Langit (Snatched From Heaven, again directed by Bernal), but that wasn't his prime concern; abortion was the selling point of the movie (Soriano was pregnant by an unscrupulous playboy, played by Al Tantay), but again, that wasn't his concern. His concern was to show a woman with a problem and two alternatives, one of which is condemned by society. Lacuesta had a "message," to be sure, but he never forgot that it was a drama first; the message is all the better served for that. The movie is remarkably sad, coming from the writer of Working Girls and from the man who smiled so widely in his pictures.

Lacuesta didn't just do comedies and dramas. He did action biopics--Philip Salvador's Balweg; he--surprisingly--helped Ricky Lee write Lino Brocka's Macho Dancer. It would be difficult to learn for certain what he contributed, the world of lower-class gay and bisexual dancers being far from the world of the bank officer; but Lacuesta did help demonstrate that imagination and research, and not sexual orientation, is what writes scripts.

One of Lacuesta's last scripts was Mumbaki (Medicine Man), which was a flawed but ambitious treatment of the Ifugao culture. In Segurista (Dead Sure) he helped Pete Lacaba create one of the few truly intelligent Filipino film scripts made in recent years.

Lacuesta didn't just write scripts, and he didn't always work in banks. He wrote for television, doing the mini-series Manila with Jaclyn Jose and Ishmael Bernal; he wrote every episode of Sic O'clock News, one of the wittiest and most sophisticated local comedy shows ever aired. He wrote plays, one of which--Katapusan (Ending) about an end-of-the-world cult--was staged recently. He wrote a Palanca-award winning children's story, and shared the award with an 8-year old girl--his daughter. He wrote songs and composed music, writing the opening song for the 1991 Asean Games.

He did all this and at the same time his banking career; in fact, he had been president of Prime Savings Bank about the time of his death. I was curious enough to put it to his son, Sarge Lacuesta (a writer for the Evening Paper), that Lacuesta might have overreached himself, working in so many fields. Sarge shrugged and smiled: "But he lived so much! He tried so many things; he was a kind of Renaissance Man."

"You mean," I asked, "if he had to do it all again he wouldn't do anything any different?"

"Oh, he must be smiling right now," Sarge assured me, smiling that distinct Lacuesta smile. "He must be laughing his head off."




He also did a few episodes I think of a Channel 13 Sunday afternoon series called "Dear Teacher" withe Bernal, a Nida Blanca episode from which made me want to be a maestra. And I will always love "Working Girls." My favorites were Carmi ("Sabeeel, this must be loooove!"), Gina (to Raul Leuterio played by Tommy A: "Hindi na tayo nagkakalayo ngayon. I'm a Makati girl now. In fact, I can speak English already. Ansafaflu, ansafaflaaaaaaaa!") and Maribel. I love that department store scene where she was hesitant at first to buy the clothes she chose, and then changes her mind after Joel Lamangan tells her its okay. I recently sat beside her at a dinner after the showing of this indie movie called 'Seroks' by Ed Lejano (it's good and Maribel was, too). She was so madaldal, chatting about film and art in Chicago which she visited recently, that I whispered to Raymond, feeling ko I was inside 'Working Girls.' Hindi ba kay Mads din ang 'The Graduates?' Favorite ko din 'yan.

Noel Vera said...

I don't know about The Graduates, but he did the Prigidyer episode of Shake Rattle and Roll for Bernal. That was a hell of a concept--a killer fridge! Worthy of Amazing Stories or The Twilight Zone (no, maybe too wild for Twilight Zone; come to think of it, it was too adult for Amazing Stories), and it had a horror-comic-erotic tone all its own. He loved beautiful women, and it showed in the films he wrote.

That's what I like about Lacuesta--he made you think, he made you laugh, he turned you on.

Tikoy told me that his idea for Segurista was that Michelle Aldana would have her first orgasm with Gary--she wouldn't know what it was, and she went to bed with hundreds of men. A crazy, romantic concept, maybe too romantic, but I wish Tikoy had put it in. I think it did inspire the "Hawaii Five-O" scene between Michelle and Gary, where you were sure she had an orgasm...


I know someone who refused to open their ref for a year after watching Pridyider.

Noel Vera said...

One year! At the end of that year I'd be afraid to open the fridge...