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.)
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