Saturday, August 01, 2009

Carlos J. Caparas, National Artist.

In honor of Carlos J. Caparas, who was recently made National Artist, an early article on one of his cinematic masterpieces:

Fidel’s Favorite Film 

Tirad Pass, or: The Last Stand of Gregorio del Pilar

Starring Romnick Sarmenta, Joel Torre, Tommy Abuel, Mikee Villanueva
Written and directed by Carlos J. Caparas
Highly recommended by the MTRCB

Carlos J. Caparas’ version of the fall of Tirad Pass is an artistic, dramatic and historical disaster--a triple threat by all accounts. We’re talking bomb, as in atomic, maybe even thermonuclear.

To add insult to injury, no less then the president of our country recommends this film. “One of the best films I have ever seen” he is quoted as saying (which begs the question: are the cigars you’re so fond of smoking full of just tobacco, Mr. President?). With his endorsement, the MTRCB’s, the secretary of the Department of Education’s; with a reportedly 40 million-peso budget, and the current interest in history, this being the country’s centennial year, how can the film not make money? 

And it is making money: hand over fist, the way a child molester steals candy--or worse--from a baby. 

Wonderful news, you might say: other historical projects are in development, and this can only encourage them. Wonderful news, that is, till you see the movie itself.

It begins with a dedication to the Chief Executive, which may explain his enthusiasm for the film. It goes on to sketch a simplistic version of Katipunan history, underlining (highlighting, italicizing, printing in bold, bright colors) the nobility of the republic’s first president, Emilio Aguinaldo (and--by association--the republic’s latest president, Fidel V. Ramos). The flagrant bottom kissing of these scenes would turn any leader’s head (Again, I hope so*). 

*I sincerely hope President Ramos endorsed this film for cynical or manipulative reasons. If he was sincere--if he endorsed the film because he liked it--then I‘d really be worried about the state of Philippine government today. 

That’s not the worst of it: to preserve Aguinaldo’s cartoon heroism, the film has Bonifacio killed by the villainous Spaniards. This, if anyone knows his history, is like having Ninoy Aquino shot by Communists to make Marcos look better. 

It’s not just the wholesale rewriting of history; the details are equally irritating. Joel Torre as Aguinaldo spends most of the film scowling and looking generally irritated—who wouldn’t, with hair like that? But at least the attempt to give Torre the semblance of a crewcut is fairly accurate; Del Pilar and the rest of his youthly crew sport modern ‘dos that could have come out of the nearest Fanny Serrano beauty salon (Are we to assume that people of the 1890’s gel, tease and blowdry their hair?).

Then there are the writing implements. After all the effort of using feather quills dipped in blood, Sarmenta drops the melodramatic nonsense and scribbles into his pocket dairy with a ballpoint pen or sign pen--can’t decide which, though the head looks suspiciously Kilometric. 

Or how about the moment where a girl shot through the chest sings in a beautifully operatic voice? The image is so startling you shake your head and wonder if perhaps Caparas is an artist after all: Werner Herzog had a modern-day boat hang from a tree while conquistadors sailed underneath in Aguirre, The Wrath Of God; Alex Cox had Ed Harris rescued from Nicaragua by US Marines in Walker. Is Caparas’ shamelessness actually a kind of surreal style? 

Then something broke the spell (the audience laughed its head off) and I came to my senses. I shuddered at the manhole I had nearly stepped into--insidious, the influence of a Caparas film! To paraphrase a famous saying: bad filmmaking corrupts; absolutely bad filmmaking corrupts absolutely.

I can’t even begin to count the ineptly staged scenes, the unintentionally hilarious dialogue, the unbelievably embarrassing performances that pepper the film like 12-gauge buckshot. Caparas achieves the near-impossible task taking 40 million pesos in production budget and turning it into yet another cheap massacre movie. You want to ask: where did all the money go? To the overbright costumes with plastic buttons? The lame New Year’s fireworks that passes for military artillery? The sharpened bamboo stakes? I like to think a good chunk went into catering: one scene had a mouthwatering array of watermelons and pineapples that put the rest of the film to shame (don’t you think a film has problems when the ongoing drama is upstaged by fruit?). 

The siege of Tirad Pass is memorable for the endless number of Filipino stuntmen that suddenly stand up, clutch their chests as if heartbroken, and fall over, impaling themselves on conveniently placed bamboo stakes. It’s also memorable for the way the American extras just keep going up against that hill, only to be stopped by a few paper-mache rocks thrown at their heads. The way this scene is shot, the Americans look as if they’re having more fun than the Filipinos (Actually, they look as if they’re having more fun than the audience).

Sarmenta, like Aga Muhlach, is an improbably pretty actor with a lot of untapped talent. Unlike Muhlach, he doesn’t try to coast on his cute looks; he actually gives a performance. He tries gamely here--you have to give him that. But he has no character to play and no one to play against. Poor Sarmenta, left stranded in the middle of a psuedo-epic, is posing for tourist postcards.

He has two scenes that stick out--in the first he murders a Filipino in cold blood (the man just lies there, helpless), his reason being that this Filipino was working for the Spanish (Sarmenta has a point, though this comes off as being less than compassionate). In the second one of Del Pilar’s sharpshooters loses his cool and wants to run; Sarmenta points a gun at the man’s head and threatens to blow his brains out if he doesn’t back down (the man promptly does, is just as promptly shot dead). The scenes play in such a hysterical tone you wonder if Caparas thinks Del Pilar was a psychotic megalomaniac (the pot calling the kettle off-white).

Then there's Tommy Abuel (excellent actor, one of the best). He gives a performance as a religious revolutionary that would have been classic if this had been a comedy. In one scene he steadies a gun against a cross as he fires (Harvey Keitel does something similar in From Dusk Tll Dawn). Abuel is caught and put before a firing squad of Spaniards. They shoot; Abuel laughs out loud. He can only be killed by bullets fired from Filipino-held guns. So the commandant--for the first time in the history of Caparas flicks--does something intelligent: he switches the firing squad from Spanish to Filipino sharpshooters, which wipes the smirk off of Abuel’s face double-quick. Still wondering how I should feel about this scene.

There’s a lot more wrong with the film, but I’m writing an article, not a multivolume novel. It should be obvious though, that this isn’t one of local cinema’s prouder moments--fact is, I can’t think of a moment for which I could be less proud--unless someone has the bright idea of sending this turkey to film festivals abroad. Then, I believe, I would actually campaign to raise money for airline tickets so I can follow the film wherever it goes, stand outside the theater, and warn people not to watch. Call it my sense of patriotic duty--seems to me it’s the least I could do for my country. 

(Excerpt taken from Critic After Dark: A Review of Philippine Cinema. Click here to order online.)

Some links:
Petition declaring Carlos J. Caparas is not qualified to be National Artist

Eulogy on the death of a meaningful National Artist Award
Statement from National Artist Ben Cabrera

Concerned Artists of the Philippines statement


Quentin Tarantado said...

You expressed admiration for Joey de Leon as She-ra. I think Caparas can be validly thought of as an artist in the same league.

Noel Vera said...

Far as I know Joey de Leon doesn't suck up to the government for his National Award.

Anonymous said...

joey de leon also sucks to the present government; remember he used to critizice arroyo but when tito sotto turncoat he became meek as a lamb

Unknown said...

Great read! Kung tutuusin, Caparas deserving the National Artist award is only reflective of GMA deserving her Presidency.

...I guess we can let it slide, so I can remind my children and children's children that the Philippines went through a dark dark time.

Anonymous said...

I hope previous National Artist awardees would have the sense to surrender their award to the committee to protest this latest travesty.

Anonymous said...

may i ask you mr noel vera, what is your contribution to philippine arts???

am no fan of caparas and neither of you but between the two of you, i think philippine art would still survive without your unoriginal criticisms (o di ba, kala mo ha, kilala ko ang kinokopyahan mo ng style!) while caparas' contribution (however minute) to film (esp. the massacre genre he created) will stand the test of time.

i dare you to delete my comment...

Noel Vera said...

Nothing's original under the sun, even Caparas. He's basically taken Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Wes Craven's Last House on the Left (which in turn was inspired by Bergman's The Virgin Spring) and set it in the Philippines. Only in a clumsier, less talented manner.

Anonymous said...

"while caparas' contribution (however minute) to film (esp. the massacre genre he created) will stand the test of time."

i beg to disagree. All of his film, massacre films or not, are plain crap.

i dare you to have a one day marathon of all of his film ewan ko na lang kung makapagyabang ka pa.


Noel Vera said...

Maybe they will stand the test of time--Ed Wood, Uwe Boll, Jeannot Szwarc...who's to say these cinematic geniuses will be forgotten?

dodo dayao said...

Tirad Pass sounds like a hoot,sort of like anonymopus trashtalking . . .the opera singer with a chest wound in particular. Now I want to buy some beer and chips, throw a party and watch it. But then again, maybe I'll just stick to the beer and chips.:)



i've taken the liberty of adding this in my facebook posts.

Unknown said...

"joey de leon also sucks to the present government; remember he used to critizice arroyo but when tito sotto turncoat he became meek as a lamb"

That was only because when he spoke out against Erap back then, it almost tore his friendship with Tito and Vic apart. Remember what happened in Eat Bulaga, there was tension then.

He realized sacrificing his friendships for stupid politicians won't do him any good. At least Tito is a politician HE knows.

Noel Vera said...

Dennis--sure thing!

Dodo--it's a form of self-flagellation. And they say critcs have an easy job.

Adrian--didn't know that. Thanks for the context.

Anonymous said...

"That was only because when he spoke out against Erap back then"

im not talking about erap im talking about arroyo. see this: joey de leon always had a snide remark at arroyo on his noontime show before and after edsa dos- remember tito sotto was still aligned with erap back then(and i remember tito also took part at the so-called edsa tres). But i havent again heard joey critisize arroyo when tito turncoat and run under arroyo's KAMPI banner in 2004. So joey de leon's credibility is not immaculate as others claim to be but nonetheless joey de leon is way way better than the obnoxious willie revillame

Anonymous said...

Kahit ano pa ang pagtatanggol ni Carlo Caparas sa sarili niya bilang nahirang na National Artist (kasama na si Cecille Guidote Alvarez), di pa rin mawawala ang pagdududa ng taong bayan lalo na't kilala siyang tagapagtanggol at kadikit ni Gloria Arroyo. Paalis na sa posisyon si GMA, kung di pa ngayon, iniisip ba nila na wala na siyang pag-asa maging National Artist kaya dapat ngayon na ang panahon habang nasa posisyon pa siya? Sige na, nandiyan na, tanggapin na. Hindi naman tayo pakikinggan eh, matigas ulo eh. Pero tandaan natin na tatatak ito sa kasaysayan ng National Artist Award, na minsan isang panahon, nabahiran ng pulitika at pagdududa ang isang dakilang adhikain.

Noel Vera said...

Hopefully the next administration (if there will be a next administration, and no GMA declaring martial law, or GMA successfully doing a cha-cha) will do something. National Artist recall, anyone?

Anonymous said...


Perhaps, it is more effective, if people like you keep reminding the public of how Caparas and Alvarez got their titles of national artists. Maybe, they would have a change of heart and surrender their medals that were fraudulent acquired.

I'll take your word on Caparas. I know of C. Guidote: her plays at St Paul and Fort Santiago and their(with Heherson) hideaway to the US from the Marcos reign.

I think that she is in some desperate mode to recover lost time for she never got anywhere with her high school - college drama/direck skills in the US.

As you can surmise, Heherson had embraced the very things he despised in the Marcos administration. He has become, as one would say, more practical. Power, it seems, is more practical than principle.

The Alvarezes wants the good life before going to the other side. Fuck what other people say and think.


an0nym0usth0ughts said...

I was taking my Philippine History class when Tirad Pass came out the big screen and my history professor told us to wrote a reaction paper about the it(hee NO CHOICE).

To my surprise its the most bizarre film I ever watched. It made me think that Caparas is either a surrealist film maker or he's just have a poor sense of taste. Also it makes me wonder if Fidel Ramos really did watched this film. Well since he highly recommends it, I guess not =))

For the love of our country, I dare you all to watch this film. Then ask yourself... "Deserving nga ba si Carlo J. Caparas? Anu moral lesson sa film?" (Bahala na kayo kung anu sagot nyo, hee)

Btw, I have to give credit to Tommy Abuel's acting talent. (Ang galing ni niya dito and lalo nya ako pinahanga! *clamp*clamp*)

@Noel: Would you know who did the screenplay of this film? I googled it a lot of times, but still I can't seem to find it... It makes me wonder... =))

Noel Vera said...

Looking back to my article, I find someone (a Chronicle staffer, apaprently, who did the research) put down Caparas as the writer.

It's surreal and bizarre in an Ed Wood way. If he wondered, if he said he might not be worthy, I might say he ought to have the award, on sheer weirdness alone. But anyone who hangs on so tight to an object deserves to have it pried from their fingers--along with any fingernails that happen to be embedded in it.

Anonymous said...

Sa unang pagkakataon nabahiran ng mabahong pulitika ang mundo ng mga "genuine artist". Carlo Caparas is talented ok, but lets face it that there are more credible artist/novelist should i say like Mars Ravelo who have been disrespected by this freaking award

Que horror itong si Manoling Morato when he said he doesn't know about Mars Ravelo? Walang gurang na hindi nakakakilala kay Ravelo. He was already a great novelist before Caparas was born. Shame!!!

Noel Vera said...

If Gerry de Leon and Lino Brocka thought enough of Ravelo to adopt his comic stories into movies, that says something, I think.