INTRODUCTION TO THE FILMS OF KIDLAT TAHIMIK:
ON THE POLITICS AND AESTHETICS OF FILIPINO CINEMATIC ART
By E. SAN JUAN, Jr.
Despite having won numerous international awards, Kidlat Tahimik (Eric de Guia) remains virtually unknown except for a few film aficionados. Recently his name appeared in Manila newspapers when his 4-story "Sunflower" house in Itogon, Benguet, burned down. His sons escaped, but his precious collection of art was destroyed. Built by his father from recycled wood in 1972, the house is symbolic for Kidlat: "Only a charred sculpture of an Igorot man playing the flute remains of the house. It stands by the gate. I lost all my memories in that house" (The Manila Times, Feb. 16, 2004).
It can be said that Kidlat's films all deal with memories of creation and destruction. They embody historical recollections of the national past acccompanied by a critical inventory of what is important and meaningful to be saved for the future. This essay intends to explore the method in which the colonial past of Filipino society, its current crisis, and problematic future has been translated into visual tropes and symbolic figures in Kidlat's two films, Mababangong Bangungot (Perfumed Nightmare, 1977, 91 minutes, winner of the International Critics Award at the Berlin Film Festival Award), and Turumba (1981-83, 94 minutes, winner of the Top Cash Award, Mannheim Film Festival). My comments are meant to provoke questions and arouse interest in the topic of what constitutes a properly Filipino cinema.
Since 1983, Kidlat has been experimenting with a film entitled "Memories of Overdevelopment" about Pigafetta, the Malayan slave who lived after Magellan's death and circumnavigated the world. Meanwhile, he has just completed a semi-autobiographical film, Bakit Yellow ang Gitna ng Bahaghari (Why is the heart of the rainbow yellow? 1980-1994, 175 minutes). Aside from personal reminiscence, the film also tries to capture the texture of political life in the Philippines from the dark days of the Marcos dictatorship, the "People Power" revolution that overthrew the brutal regime, the turbulent period of Corazon Aquino's rule and the atrocities committed by vigilantes, up to the withdrawal of U.S. military bases, the earthquake that devastated Baguio City, the Mt. Pinatubo eruption, the energy crisis of the nineties, and the revival of indigenous movements by the end of the century. It is a panoramic photograph of a historical sequence in the vicissitudes of a neocolonized people/nation in the process of self-emancipation.
The Perfumed Nightmare
For those who have not seen the two earlier films which I analyze below, allow me to describe them in broad strokes. Perfumed Nightmare involves Kidlat's awakening from the "cocoon of American dreams," a span of 33 typhoon seasons since his birth in 1942 during the Japanese Occupation. The "perfumed nightmare" refers to his existence in the lotus-land of American cultural colonialism. By using the jeepney, a recrafted vehicle left by World War II GIs, as a symbol of the historical passage from the past to the present, the Kidlat persona in the film crosses "the bridge of life" into the village where normal routine is defamiliarized for him by his listening to the Voice of America broadcasts. This obsession becomes catastrophic but also educational.
Fascinated by America's space program, Kidlat becomes the head of a Werner von Braun fan club. His enthusiasm for progress leads to his managing for an American businessman a chewing-gum ball machine concession in Paris and Germany. After a parodic enactment of a summit meeting in Paris, the film leads to Kidlat's disillusionment with progress; he finally realizes that machines and efficient technology destroy certain values necessary for human freedom and happiness. He returns to his village, resigning from the Werner von Braun club, and affirms that he will find his own way to liberation, even though the idealized past of precolonial Philippines cannot be restored.
Hallucinatory, naively accomplished, humorous and surreal, Kidlat's fable supposedly demonstrates the native's magical prowess of producing a substantial art-work for only $10,000 (the cost of the outdated film stock), with the help of Werner Herzog and Francis Ford Coppola's studio Zoetrope which distributed the film.
Turumba is actually Kidlat's first film. It focuses on one family's traditional occupation of making papier-mache animals for the Turumba religious festival in a Filipino village. Everything changes when a German agent buys all their stock and orders more for the Oktoberfest celebration in Germany; soon the family's seasonal occupation becomes a year-round routine of alienated labor. Eventually the whole village is converted into a jungle assembly line to produce papier-mache mascots for the Munich Olympics. With the intrusion of electric fans, TV sets, Beatle records, and the compulsion of work schedule, the traditional rhythm of family and village life is irretrievably broken.
Success for the family coincides with the emergence of a local proletariat whose innocence is ironically shrouded by the turbulent storm, emblematic of the revolt of nature, that overtakes the whole village. Is this the judgment of a subliminal conscience, or the ironic comment of a sagacious historian? J. Hoberman remarks that the film is "not only amusedly Marxist but mock German in its low-key nostalgia as the old-time volkische gemeinschaft succumbs inexorably to the bad, new gesellschaft of industrial civilization." Just as the first film rejects modern progress and its dehumanizing effects, Turumba laments the passing of the old sacramental unity of man and nature, opting for a middle way of compromise: the bricolage of the film-maker, reusing the past to renew the present and thus initiate a more imaginative, organic, integral future.
Both Perfumed Nightmare and Turumba use realist scenarios to project an allegorical rendering of the Filipino experience under U.S. colonial domination and its disastrous neocolonial sequel. What engages my interest here is the vision of the future inscribed in the films, and how their cinematic methods may hopefully allow popular energies to intervene in blasting the burden of the nightmarish status-quo--the legacy of colonialism and corporate globalization--which Kidlat addresses more directly in his more politically astute concoction, Bakit Yellow ang Gitna ng Bahaghari. On the latter film, we can postpone our commentary for another occasion.
Revisiting the Primal Scene
Pigafetta mentions the slave about five or six times.... Possibly the first man to circumnavigate the world was a slave...a Filipino. -- Kidlat Tahimik
The controversy over the bells of Balangiga in 1998, the year of the Centenary of the First Philippine Republic, may yield more than a journalistic and diplomatic fruit. It offers an unsolicited pretext to explore the implication of certain appraisals of Kidlat Tahimik’s film art, in particular, The Perfumed Nightmare, and its postmodern resonance. This somewhat gratuitous timeliness may in turn open the closure of ludic Eurocentric postality to its victims. At least, this will counter the postmodern amnesia regarding U.S. imperialism.
Shortly after General Emilio Aguinaldo’s revolutionary forces inaugurated the Republic in 1898, the Filipino-American War broke out, resulting in the death of about a million Filipinos, the destruction of the nationalist government, and the U.S. colonial domination of the Philippines for over half a century.
One of the few incidents in which the Filipino revolutionary army inflicted a devastating defeat on the United States expeditionary forces was the attack at Balangiga, a town in Samar province, on September 28, 1901. Of the 74 soldiers in the 9th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. army stationed at the town, 45 were killed and 22 wounded—almost the entire regiment. In retaliation, Gen. Jacob Smith who commanded the Marine battalion sent to reinforce the U.S. occupation troops ordered a mass slaughter—“The interior of Samar must be made a howling wilderness” (Vizmanos 1989: 14). This unofficial U.S. policy of indiscriminate pacification made the War an unpremeditated rehearsal of Vietnam and a template for the colonial and neocolonial subjugation of Filipinos for the next century. We have not yet fully recovered from the effects of that “howling wilderness” which becomes, in Kidlat's film, the roar of rocketships and destructive machines.
When the American veterans of the Indian Wars and the Philippine pacification campaign returned, they brought with them three bells confiscated from the Catholic church in Balangiga two of which are kept at Francis Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. On the occasion of the Centenary, the Philippine government requested Washington to return one of the bells and a copy of the other; the military has so far refused. A retired general who is civilian adviser to the base justifies the refusal: “We don’t have to rewrite history and give back the bells because, yeah, our men were involved in atrocities too…Those bells were used to make the attack against our troops” (Brooke 1997: A6).
Genealogy of Fantasy
For whom the bells toll is a question that has been answered by John Donne, Hemingway, and others. It is a question Kidlat Tahimik revived in 1975-77 when he was composing Mababangong Bangungot (my literal translation is “Fragrant Asphyxiations”). The background is significant. It was the period of the Marcos dictatorship characterized by the wanton violation of human rights and the plunder of the economy by foreign corporations aided by comprador oligarchs and semifeudal landlords. It was a regime of violence sanctioned by the U.S. government which subsidized Marcos and his Pentagon-advised generals with an average of $100 million foreign aid from 1972 to 1986. The assassination of Benigno Aquino, and the return of the old ruling elite has reinforced the neocolonial stranglehold of the United States, making The Perfumed Nightmare less a retro, nostalgic film than a reminder of what has been missed or forgotten.
At the center of the film is the image of the bridge—passageway of animals, people, and machines—connecting past and future, reality and dream, countryside and city, tradition and modernity. It also symbolizes for Kidlat, the narrator-protagonist, the ever-present possibility of self-fulfillment: “I chose my vehicle and I can cross all bridges.” Werner von Braun and space travel (from the Philippines to France and Germany) form part of the cluster of themes expressing the drive to modernity, or in general the impulse to transcendence. Space-time compression, the assertion of the national right to self-determination, and the affirmation of community intersect in Kidlat’s dream of journeying to the United States, the site of Cape Canaveral and the Statue of Liberty.
The dream of space travel aborts into an escapade in Europe as petty bourgeois middleman. Kidlat becomes a willing captive of the American businessman whose chewing-gum machines evoke the myth of entrepreneurial individualism associated with the figure of Werner von Braun. But soon the bridge metamorphoses into enclosed spaces of escalators, fortress interiors, and narrow urban streets, impelling Kidlat to fantasize: his jeepney becomes a winged horse traversing boundaries and flying above the ruins of modernized Europe.
The trope of the bridge easily links the local and the global, individual and society. It is a marker of continuity amidst change. Associated with it are the image and voice of Kidlat’s father, veteran of the revolution against Spanish colonial tyranny, whose absence marks the substitution of authority figures in the film. Kaya, the hutbuilder, evokes his independence and creativity. His father’s revelry at managing a horse-drawn vehicle anticipates Kidlat’s gusto as jeepney driver around whom secular and sacred activities gravitate.
Tragedy evolves into a bizarre metamorphosis of images. After the father is killed on the San Juan bridge in August, 1898, the incident which sparked the Filipino-American War, the mother gives to Kidlat the figure of a wooden horse carved from the butt of his father’s rifle. This symbol of revolt then appears perched on the front of his jeepney, occupying center-stage at the last sequence when Kidlat returns to the supermarket after “blowing away” leaders of the industrialized West at the farewell party of his American patron; it appears in the last shot when the mother closes the window of the nipa hut and foregrounds the wooden horse atop the toy jeepney Kidlat gave to his sister. His father’s presence, mediated by Kaya and the mother, signifies the desire for autonomy and freedom, the weapon of his breath likened to the winds blowing from Amok mountain, an immanent force of nature.
The film-maker intervenes. We hear the refrain: “When the typhoon blows off its cocoon, the butterfly embraces the sun.” Messenger from the domain of the rural “third world,” Kidlat blows through the chimney of the supermarket, transforming the fragment into a rocketlike apparatus that dismantles the alienating technology of the modern world and guarantees the superiority of human will-power against machinery and business. After this, he declares his independence and resigns from the Werner von Braun Club which he originally founded. The credits at the end register the impact of Western technology around the world in the postcards celebrating Werner von Braun and space exploration. Has Kidlat really escaped the seduction of Western technical mobility and differentiation?
Analogues of Uneven Development
Can we hazard formulating a thesis for the film? The Perfumed Nightmare is, in historical context, an allegory of the Filipino artist’s quest for self-determination and claim to recognition. It tries to recuperate the suppressed energies of the revolutionary tradition through parody and adhoc quotations: for example, witness the boy scout jamboree where the American delegate was rebuffed. But this collective project is sublimated in various ways: in folk religion, in the image of Kaya and the hutbuilders, in the circumcision and flagellation rituals, and most memorably in the long sequence on the Sarao jeepney factory.
In the most famous commentary on this film, the leading American Marxist critic Fredric Jameson focuses on the “naif” quality of Kidlat’s cinematic technique—the use of 8mm color movie camera, nonsynchronized sound, characters from real life, etc.---and the postmodernist bricolage that evokes “the wonderment of sheer reproduction and recognition.” This follows clues suggested by the German philosopher Friedrich Schiller who once distinguished between naïve poets who create instinctually and depict reality as is, and sentimental poets who try to embody an idealized nature in form.
Neither naïve nor sentimental, or both at once, Kidlat Tahimik typifies the artist from an unevenly developed, neocolonized formation where capital operates in a way different from that in the metropolitan societies. For example, the demise of handicraft exemplified by the Zwiebelturm in Germany, or the phasing out of streetvendors in Paris, is vestigial compared to the destruction of homes and whole forests to make room for a highway in Balian, Laguna. Tahimik’s art registers the symptoms of a cultural production overdetermined by capitalist private property (the ice factory), communal modes of work (hutbuilding, bayanihan), archaic ideology (flagellation, patriarchal standard of manhood), petty commodity business (jeepney transport), and feudal-bureaucratic arrangements (police, martial law). The film bears in its montage, cuts, shots, lighting, and other stylistic devices the signs of all these combined modes of production and reproduction.
We need to go beyond the formulae of rhetorical analysis and deconstruction of tropes. Instead of engaging in the customary hermeneutic gloss on the film (which simply replicates New Critical formalism in this area), I would like to comment on why the film text lends itself to a wide variety of interpretations. Can this film be considered a specimen of “third world” postmodernism? What kind of audience-position does it offer and what kind of reception does it enable? Can we make use of this film as a pedagogical agency for social enlightenment and transformation? In short, can Kidlat Tahimik be simply judged on the basis of his class affiliation, or can his films be deployed for emancipatory purposes? What follows is a preliminary review of possible answers.
It seems that what has provoked the animus of Filipino intellectuals is the kind of colonizing patronage instanced by Jameson’s treatment of The Perfumed Nightmare. Obviously, Jameson is searching for art-forms and cultural practices that resist late-capitalist commodification and reification, hence his theoretical constructs of “national allegory,” “art naif, “ Soviet sci-fi films, and American conspiracy film genre. His framework is the totalizing (but not absolutizing) mode of cognitive, geopolitical mapping by means of which he and other citizens in the West can find a position to understand the global relations of forces and grasp possibilities of social transformation in a time when all spaces (nature, the unconscious, and even the “third world”) seem to have been preempted by the enemy.
Roland Tolentino has competently surveyed the objections to Jameson’s approach and also expressed reservations about certain of Jameson’s observations, for example, the conversion of the jeepney from parody to pastiche, Kidlat as clown, the utilization of body imagery, and so on. Tolentino is correct in taking Jameson to task for a literalist instead of the properly historicizing view:
When Jameson mentions that Perfumed Nightmare is not a direct intervention to Marcos’ dictatorial regime because of its lack of connecting images to the regime, he is limited by his lack of a “native informant” position. In the film, the town’s patron saint is St. Mark, known locally as San Marcos. The cultural regime of rituals can therefore be paralleled to the political culture of the Marcos dictatorship (1996: 123),
In addition, the American boy scout who rides Kidlat’s jeepney (eventually pushed out to the carabao sled at the back), the figure of the policeman, the reference to “discipline and uniformity” echoing a well-known slogan of the martial law regime, the Marlboro Country billboard in the barren landscape, and others, all index the atmosphere of regulation under the U.S.-Marcos dictatorship.
Such traces or indicators escape the understanding of the hegemonic intellectual unfamiliar with the historical specificity of the only U.S. colony in Asia. The obsession with a totally administered and commodified society has obsessed Jameson and Frankfurt Critical theory to the degree that only a negative dialectics (Adorno) or a messianic utopian break (Benjamin) can remedy this fatality.
Despite his stress on utopian space, Jameson shares this flaw with the platitudes of Western Marxism. This time, instead of Kidlat Tahimik’s film being read as a national allegory where the private dilemma resonates with public meaning, it is selectively construed to reinforce a “first world/third world” binary, as already noted by the aforementioned critics. I am surprised that nothing much is made of the white carabao (beautiful outside but ugly inside), the speaking role of the Virgin Mary, and above all the wooden Pegasus-like horse that becomes an icon at the prow of the jeepney. The motif of resistance against U.S. imperial domination and liberal market ideology becomes secondary or completely obscured when the focus on bodies and Foucauldian genealogy of exoticized details (circumcision) preoccupy the critic.
Limits of Postmodernist Absolutism
We can adduce here the usual arguments against postality theories (Ebert 1996). Postmodernism focuses on pastiche and bricolage over against Bakhtinian multiaccentuality or Brechtian distanciation. For his part, Jameson enthusiastically celebrates the novelty of a refunctioned handicraft mode of work inscribed within an industrialized system of production which distinguishes uneven development. The film sequence detailing the Sarao factory workers performing their specific functions and roles in the assembly line stands out for Jameson as exemplary:
….unlike the ‘natural’ or mythic appearances of traditional agricultural society, but equally unlike the disembodied machinic forces of late capitalist high technology which seem equally innocent of any human agency or individual or collective praxis, the jeepney factory is a space of human labor which does not know the structural oppression of the assembly line or of Taylorization, which is permanently provisional, thereby liberating its subjects from the tyrannies of form and of the preprogrammed. In it aesthetics and production are again at one, and painting the product is an integral part of its manufacture. Nor finally is this space in any bourgeois sense humanist or a golden mean, since spiritual or material proprietorship is excluded, and inventiveness has taken the place of genius, collective cooperation the place of managerial or demiurgic dictatorship (1992: 210).
Jameson's observations are suggestive though somewhat tangential. As the Filipina critic Felidad C. Lim (1995) has pointed out, this is not only false to the empirical situation but also a distorted and misleading interpretation. There is a grain of validity in her objection. Instead of being cooperative and pleasure-filled, the Sarao factory is perhaps more alienating and dehumanized than firms in the notorious free-trade zones since here semifeudal patronage conceals exploitation, the violation of minimum-wage labor laws, sexism, and other excesses. What looks like bricolage is really systematic cannibalizing of “dead labor” in the interest of profit. On the surface, this refunctioning of waste materials can serve to emblematize Kidlat’s theme of converting “vehicles of war” into “vehicles of life.” But a long time had already elapsed since World War II when U.S. army jeeps were first refunctioned as civilian passenger transport; such jeepneys are now produced from other sources.
Aside from the ironical innuendo on the duplicity of Sarao, the film’s jump-cut to the toy gift that Kidlat paints for his sister performs a shift in discursive register. It elides the process in which the machine changes from a utilitarian or commercial means to a symbolic one when it travels to Paris and Germany: its last notable service was to ferry his pregnant wife to the hospital. The jeep thus indeed becomes a “vehicle of life,” enabling him to finally break off from the mystique of Werner von Braun as he leaves Germany.
Another point may be stressed here. When Kidlat in Paris declares his independence from America and the West—he resigns from the von Braun Club—the site where he “blows” away the Western leaders gazing down on him resembles the old hoary ramparts of San Juan bridge where his father confronts the U.S. aggressors and meets his death. What needs underscoring is the running commentary that his father and millions of Filipinos refused to be bought for $12 million dollars—the price the U.S. paid to Spain for ceding the Philippines at the Treaty of Paris. An alternative
history is thus proposed.
Something More Beyond Sight
We have already noted earlier the bricolage nature of Kidlat's cinematic technique. Realist classical cinema—flagellants with bleeding flesh, the block of ice sliding out of the jeep, the circumcision process, and so on—may be found aplenty here. But the whole construction of The Perfumed Nightmare may be described as modernist and avantgarde. It follows Brecht’s rule of interrogating the reason of the status quo by interrupting narrative, underlining contradictions within an emerging unity by distanciation and displacement--the defamiliarization or estrangement of what is accepted as normal, natural, routine.
This is where Kidlat's films differ from conventional or commercial productions. The principle of montage and strategic cuts in the two films serves to question the illusionistic or auratic power of representation found in classic realist cinema which interpellates individuals into bourgeois subjects. According to Stephen Heath, montage aims to overcome mimesis, introspective psychology, the hero as unified consciousness, and the need for identification. What critical cinema of this kind seeks is the ushering of subjects into “permanent crisis” so that reality can be questioned and transformed. Aside from montage, the production of a “third meaning” through the friction between image and diegesis (following Barthes’ semiotic analysis  ) can be explored.
Kidlat Tahimik follows modernist and avant-garde methods not by choice but more by necessity. In one interview, he describes his method of composition:
The way I make my films is like collecting images; it’s like making a stained glass window. You collect colored pieces of glass over the years. Today I may find a broken beer bottle, tomorrow I may find a 7-UP bottle. I’ll have all these in a box and maybe two years later, I start sorting them out and I may find a pattern: if I like a landscape or profile, I pursue that and I finish the film by shooting any holes that are still missing in that stained glass mosaic…Maybe I’m just an accumulator of images and sounds and then I make tagpi-tagpi [patching up] and sew them together…. I just work with images and I put my sounds on and then I put a flow of thoughts and start juggling the sequences back and forth. I don’t try to find surrealist images even in the way it happened in Perfumed Nightmare. I was a madman when I was making that film and I still am. I sometimes wonder how certain elements enter the film.(Ladrido 1988: 38).
This craft of allowing “found” materials may be naïve at first glance, but the spontaneous gathering and invention of images gives way to the next stage of conscious organizing and synthesizing. Kidlat Tahimik exploits the objective richness of his materials, but this does not mean allowing the unconscious or automatic instinct to take over. In fact, the opposite is the case: the conscious investigation of experience forces attention to the modalities of representation. This becomes patent in the scenes depicting the meeting of the von Braun Club, the passport picture-taking scene, the ceremony of Kidlat’s leavetaking, and so on.
Stylization and self-referential techniques predominate. Thus instead of sustained dramatic sequence—the longest ones are the flagellation and circumcision scenes--we get individual and short shots combined in an extended temporal structure. This structure also prevents the formation of aesthetic aura by risk-taking cuts, as in the shift from wide shots of ricefield to Kidlat’s sleeping face, from shots of carabaos in mudpools to the Virgin Mary in procession, even while continuity is provided by radio transmission of rocketship launchings, rock music, and the Igorot chant that sutures disparate scenes together. One result of this seemingly random splicing is the prevention of boredom or ennui.
The montage seems jerky at times, especially in the sequence of urban traffic, where repetition of motifs is absent. But the overall impression is not the “polyphony of decontextualized voices” characteristic of postmodern films like Blue Velvet which seek to recreate the cultural experience of past eras.
Pastiche may perhaps describe the sequence happening in Paris and Germany—here Kidlat ceases to have control over his vehicle (that is, his life) since its direction is determined by the American entrepreneur who dangles before the von Braun admirer the bait of a visit to America, the land of von Braun and rocketships. But pastiche is foiled with the counterpoint of an underlying historicity that is interrupted: the death of Kidlat’s revolutionary father, the loss of control of the “vehicle” of independence by Filipinos. This is the unifying theme that undercuts the temporal discontinuity and generic heterogeneity of the whole: the potential of decolonization, the possibility of socialist revolution.
Toward a Tentative Reckoning
It may be instructive to compare The Perfumed Nightmare with Kidlat Tahimik’s later film, Turumba. Mike Feria considers this latter film technically the best mainly because of a clear narrative line punctuated with “disquieting humor” (1988: 36). The theme of Turumba, as I noted earlier, is the destructive and unstoppable power of modernization. It unfolds in the change of the traditional way of life of a family in Pakil, Laguna, who makes papier-mache dolls for a living; the family’s dream of wealth is nearly fulfilled at the cost of disrupting their organic solidarity: the father becomes bureaucratic manager who abandons his role in the annual “turumba” festival, the grandmother becomes a quality control officer.
In hindsight, Kidlat Tahimik believes that it is “my smoothest film to date,” more like canvas instead of collage, with “color elements and the sound and everything” blending.” He also testifies that except for his nephew Kadu, all the characters are real people who played themselves in their actual work as blacksmith, cantore, Aling Bernarda who fixed the clothes of the Virgin, and so on. Kidlat confessed that he “was always fascinated with the blacksmith because of the way he made Mercedez Benz shock absorbers into real beautiful bolos” (Ladrido 1988: 42).
In this film Mang Pati, the blacksmith, functions as the bricoleur, the free spirit, who converts the scrap iron of rusting Japanese war vehicles left in the jungle into useful tools. He stands for the independent artisan resisting the encroachment of the baneful capitalist division of labor that seizes hold of one family and destroys the enchantment of life centered on religious ritual and intimacy with nature’s rhythms.
A “third meaning” often insinuates itself when various forms of signs and sounds—the family playing together, the father conducting the band, the cable transmitting radio and TV signals, the sounds of nature and traffic—intrudes into the unfolding of the business routine and demystifies its rationality. We are then led to reflect on the mode of representation as images. characters, and actions are distanced and displaced from their natural environment. We begin to discriminate between what is made up and what pretends to be natural or inevitable.
One more point needs to be emphasized. Despite the ingenious and witty cuts, the film follows a logic of causality based on the presence of the market and media of communication (radio, TV, highway traffic, exchange of goods). The narrative intelligence centered on the curious and dutiful son of the cantore provides the unifying consciousness that allows a degree of identification; in the midst of the accelerated pace of the “assembly line” production, the shots are dragged on to suggest psychological
introspection. A voyeuristic element insinuates itself in certain scenes when suspense develops—will the family meet the production deadline? What will happen to the turumba festival in the absence of the father?
But despite this tendency to classic expressive-realist cinema, the invocation of a disruptive nature—the typhoon winds—distracts us from the failure of the film to present the unrepresentable, the Munich Olympic festival, scene of international carnage. We are brought back to the immemorial present: the festival procession of the Virgin Mary winding back into the cavernous womb of the church, surrounded by the chanting and singing of the people, the undying matrix (in Bakhtin’s dialogic thought) of vitality, resourcefulness, creativity.
It is not far-fetched to say that Kidlat Tahimik overcomes the seduction of technology and speed by a suggestion that what is complete is really uncomplete and unfinished. In this, Turumba rejoins the pioneering first work in asserting the auteur’s control and shaper of a critical dialectic based on the transforming movement between production and representation, the disclosure of social relations as historical and changeable.
Reverberations from Quiet Lightning
Ultimately, despite his deceptively elitist or naif pose, Kidlat Tahimik should be judged as an adequate or deficient makeshift artist mediating between the containment strategy of a nativist romanticism proud of one’s ethnic heritage and a radical critique of colonial mentalities and neocolonized sensibilities that block change and liberation of individual potential. To be sure, this judgment is very hypothetical; Kidlat's career is not yet over, so the verdict may not be forthcoming for some time yet.
Lacking a full assessment of Kidlat Tahimik’s other works and those in progress, I can only provisionally conclude here by speculating on what audience position and effects the films may have.
So far the consensus is that Kidlat’s films are primarily addressed to a Western metropolitan audience and critical consciousness. They have never been commercially shown in the Philippines; only the government’s Cultural Center of the Philippines has exhibited them at certain times. Our interest approximates the reasons why, for example, Teshome Gabriel (1994) once speculated on the possibility of a distinctive “third world cinema” patterned after the three stages of the national-liberation struggle theorized by Frantz Fanon.
However, despite some analogies, I do not think Kidlat Tahimik is concerned with indigenization, combatting the “world cinematic language” of Godard and Coppola (Copolla is his North American distributor), or vindicating the folk/oral art of the Igorots and other ethnic groups in which spirit and magic predominate. There is indeed spatial concentration in both films demonstrated in wide and panning shots, long takes, graphic repetition of images, with few intercutting between simultaneous actions, rare closeups except for comic touches, with lots of witty juxtapositions and humorous parodies.
Kidlat's’s filmic practice, however, cannot be categorized as “third world” throughout; it is a mixed and unevenly developed practice which, for the most part, stimulates critical reflection by techniques of displacement and distanciation. Only rarely does it summon hypnotic identification with heroic protagonists because the illusionistic power is always undercut or decentered by the devices we have noted. Its realism is intermittent, adhoc, conjugated with stylized self-reflexive gestures and idioms. The audience-position it allows, I think, will chiefly be skeptical, inquisitive, and partisan—even wrongheadedly utopian as Jameson’s; it can at best contribute to catalyzing an agency that can raise consciousness and maybe mobilize a critical mass for the collective task of radical social transformation. In any case, any thorough evaluation of Kidlat's cinematic artistry will have to defer to the critical sensibility of Filipinos who are involved in the process of the popular struggle for national liberation and democracy--the masses of workers,women, peasants, intelligentsia, and professionals--without which art such as Kidlat's films cannot be properly appraised and fully appreciated.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
E. SAN JUAN, Jr. was recently visiting professor of literature and cultural studies at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan and lecturer in seven universities in the Republic of China. He was previously Fulbright professor of American Studies at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium, fellow of the Center for the Humanities at Wesleyan University, and chair of the Department of Comparative American Cultures, Washington State University.. Among his recent books are BEYOND POSTCOLONIAL THEORY (Palgrave), RACISM AND CULTURAL STUDIES (Duke University Press), and WORKING THROUGH THE CONTRADICTIONS (Bucknell University Press). Two books in Filipino were launched in 2004: HIMAGSIK (De La Salle University Press) and TINIK SA KALULUWA (Anvil); his new collection of poems in Filipino, SAPAGKAT INIIBIG KITA AT MGA BAGONG TULA, will be released by the University of the Philippines Press in 2005.