ISHMAEL BERNAL (1938-1996)
Pro Bernal, Anti Bio
By Jorge Arago
When Ishmael Bernal died in 1996, his coffin had to wait an hour or so, unattended, back of the domed chapel of the University of the Philippines in Diliman.
A mutual friend of ours who happened by found the setting incongruous and fairly hilarious. “But what are you doing here?” he found himself asking incredulously.
Over a decade earlier, he had repaired with a heavy heart to a funeral parlor to assess his grandmother’s embalmment and for a full minute was paralyzed at the sight of a cadaver and cerements that bore no resemblance to anything he had seen before. It turned out that his clan’s dear departed matriarch had been dispatched by mistake to Cagayan Valley.
There was little a gang of friends huddled together in the mortuary chapel could do but convulse in furtive then uncontrolled laughter, bowed heads knocking one another like bump-cars crashing and uncrashing in a circus. But it was wayward laughter. It faded in and out of our lives. It animated an entire sequence in Manila by Night. It was grist for Bernal’s mill where all his friends worked at one point or another, as part of a chorus of laughter.
His coffin would be moved later in the day to the UP Film Center where it would lie in state for a week. As venue, it was perfect. It had enough room for bereaved benefactors and wards and comrades in Pasolini’s mishaps and politics.
He had finally agreed, after years of hesitating, to be the Film Center’s director, after he would have returned from Paris where he had committed to introduce a Gerardo de Leon film to a French audience at the June 12 Independence Day celebration that year.
It was an idea of Virginia R. Moreno who at the time was the Filipinos’ representative to the UNESCO offices in the French capital. A 35 mm print of the Gerardo de Leon classic had been left to gather dust and mold in 100% humidity for decades until the Germans offered to restore it. She would take along for good measure one of Bernal’s own, Aliw, which was saucy, efficiently edited and had French subtitles. We trusted her; she was familiar with the UNESCO’s Byzantine ways.
Bernal did not make it to Paris: he died June 2. He had always stood in awe of how de Leon’s precisely framed and impeccably composed scenes added up to convey ravishment and collapse. At the French consulate where we had met a few days before we were to have left, he said he looked forward to the chore as prelude to his new status as academia’s conduit to the film industry. He was done with films. Wating was his swan-song. He was now a has-been as director.
He looked very fresh in a white shirt he wore as we waited for our visas. It is firmly etched in my mind probably because it was the last time I saw him alive. And he sounded different. In the preceding months he had been obstreperous. He quarreled with everybody he loved, with Nena and Marilou Diaz-Abaya, and he threatened me if I continued to be friendly with a young lover of his, in particular. He was in great pain. In May his toxicologist tried everything to get him to detox. He agreed but not before he had raised enough funds for Nena’s heart bypass. He didn’t know what he would do if Nena died ahead of him. It was the only thing he was sure of categorically.
The Film Center was phenocryst in the groundmass constituted by the university where I met Bernal in a freshman Geology class, when I was “thin as a pistil” he said, although he himself could not have been more substantial than a tendril.
We were both under 20. The university just turned 50, but already a good-sized boat in comparison to the leviathans put up by religious societies since Hispanic times. He thought the university had the greatest influence on his life and would donate all his films, working scripts, and books (inadvertently including some of mine).
Bernal finished his A.B. English in 4 years flat. Among his contemporaries, only Jose Maria Sison, for whom he would be courier, tasked with delivering letters to his future wife, would finish it in less time.
He went to France and got a licentiate in French in Aix-en-Provence. Coming back to Manila, he taught French at U.P. in Clark Field, was make-up artist at a production of Murder in the Cathedral, worked as floor manager of the first discotheque in Manila owned by Betsy Romualdez, left it before gangsters took over, put up a coffee shop in Malate, studied the guitar, left for Poona Film Institute and a 3-year course in directing films and nearly caused a diplomatic crisis when he threatened to quit on the 3rd year (the first postcard I received from him complained that Poona looked like Santa Rosa), reviewed films for the Chronicle, met up with Eddie Rodriguez and Lisa Moreno who gave him a film to direct then fired him when they couldn’t understand what he was doing, then did Pagdating sa Dulo which starred Rita Gomez, one of a very few good friends he would make in the business.
Here my memory must make an aside, otherwise I will forget. Summoned by Rita to New York city where she stayed with her children in the last few years of her life, Bernal had called her up from JFK to say he would shortly be on his way. She asked him how he wanted to see her: with or without a wig she wore on occasion for she was bald from the chemotherapy she had been undergoing as treatment for her lung cancer. “As you are of course,” Ishmael answered too briskly he thought to reassure her that he was not tired at all from the long trip from Manila and wanted to see her straightaway. The sight of her made her feel like a collapsing tent in The Greatest Show on Earth.
Rita was awesome with five sons mature beyond their years and probably beyond the expectation of their fathers; the first of them was her leading man when her career started in the fifties, one escaped by a backdoor when his son by Rita first visited him in his office as mayor of a town in Metropolitan Manila. One was super-rich, but I can’t remember his name. The one she loved best was an American who had fallen in love with her in the sunset of her life. On a visit to Manila after she died, he would be astounded by the fame of a woman whom he assumed was the simple seller of tickets in a Manhattan theater who fretted the hours inside a lobby booth.
Pagdating sa Dulo (1971) was Ishmael’s first film based on a script he had written in the course of his studies as a Colombo Plan scholar in film direction at the Poona Film Institute in India.
They would go on to do many more films. A number of them were comeback films, as the industry referred to a film that featured a star on the rebound from giving birth, a passionate affair, an experiment in idleness and money, or an excess of mass or wrinkles in the wrong places. Rita took good care of herself and never ruined her curves or looks. Her comeback films however needed to rise higher than the last one in substance, scope, or derring do. She was a fine cook and loved to prepare for us ox-tail kare-kare. She was a great lover from what I have gathered through the years that I have known her as host in her spacious house in Quezon City or as visitor to one of many apartments I would share with Bernal. Rita’s most colorful threat was she’d give you a Ferris Wheel ride you’re liable to forget your own name. She was a great enemy. At a public tribute to her in Los Angeles, as she spoke onstage propped up from behind by her sons who were afraid she didn’t have enough strength to remain standing, she gave hell to a fellow actress in the audience who had earlier praised her.
A Bernal film about which practically nothing is known is Scotch on the Rocks to Forget, Black Coffee to Remember. It is the title of the themesong written by George Sison for Pilita Corrales, but neither of them has seen it to date. Since it was made on the second year of the Marcos martial law regime it has not been dubbed and on the two occasions that it was screened privately, Rita and I had fun reinventing the script, tossing each other lines while Bernal chortled beside us. I needed to convince Rita, after it was first spliced in sequence, that one did not make films to win awards. It is not known where the only print is kept, or if the screenplay originally written in English even exists.
U.P. certainly felt like home to a generation that, cast out of its mother’s womb, had to dive straightway into a traumatic involvement in war with imperial Japan only to surface in a recurrent American dream of yet another empire.
The Fifties sucked like a conflux of nightmare, menstruation, incontinence, nocturnal emission and less than lucid dream. It was a boring time to be alive or to break out of the inertia of cycles scaled to the herd’s interests. One might have thought the war a chastening experience for the insular Filipinos, enough to keep us from opening our legs soon afterwards. But it seemed to have had the opposite effect. We scrambled for war damage payments from the belligerents while excoriating our alacrity. We caused a tsunami of speeches in the public realm valorizing combat, guerrilla daring, missing flesh and bones, unprepossessing scars, castratos who would not see the dawn, and on to the recent pornographic take on comfort women whom the war-weary Japanese soldiers treated like sashimi. And when history suggested a “Take 2” we gallantly sent a battalion to Korea, among them Fidel Ramos, and generated enough curiosity to drag in Benigno Aquino Jr. as well. We failed in consequence to see the traffic in our timber for housing in Buddha-land, as Japanese eco-studies have claimed. We even launched the first airline in Asia.
Bernal remembered seeing fighter planes on fire, plummeting to earth to become objects of curiosity like tektites to boys his age growing up de trop in Manila. “You mean when you pissed during the war,” I would interpose in the humor we came to prefer for its formulaic irreverence and irony, error and eros, “you didn’t always look down at your vagina?” He clearly remembered that he was leaking, holding on for dear life when he saw his first dogfight. He burst out laughing then got back at me by saying at age 3 or 4 one didn’t know enough of the reasons God created hymens and hermaphrodites, because one ran around a lot swinging like guys in the first Olympiads. “But when you were 4 years old I was a suckling babe,” I said. He looked away then sealed my coffin by observing that I had been a lucky babe for the past 50 years.
Ishmael Bernal grew up in the Santa Mesa district where a mestizo streak persists to date, with his mother Elena Bernal, in an extensible family setup under the proximate wings of a maternal grandfather Lope K. Santos, who had survived a jazz age image of a man in white sharkskin, beloved of ideologues and obreros, Rizalistas and fragile Spanish-speaking Tagalas.
They lived not far from where the conquistadores had built in late-18th century a pied-a-terre, its back to a river which bisects the city before debouching into Manila Bay. It would pass on to American civil governors at the turn of the 20th century and to Filipino presidents since the end of the Pacific War, as the Yanks reference the backdrop to the Filipinos’ cameo role in a theater of World War II.
But a more important landmark than Malacanang Palace to Bernal was Embassy theater, a minute’s dash from his childhood niche, which provided him with an early arsenal of images to use later in what we called Project Wham+a, for Winning Hearts and Minds plus arse, after an American hybrid of Madison Avenue stratagems vis-a-vis the exigencies of the war in VietNam where victory was elusive in the 60’s. We affixed arse as a realistic ancillary target and motivation of a film director’s career.
But how did they survive the war and the years that followed, I remember asking Bernal more than once. He said that Nena (as he used to address his mother privately) must have accepted labada from soldiers–labada being generic for any activity that fetched subsistence money.
One could not possibly bash or bang the assumption that during a war soldiers were more likely to have money and the means to make more.
The subject might indeed be better left for Alzheimer’s to evade in its own time and polymorphous perverse ways. But as I see no end to either war or infantile audit and inquisition, I can only repeat after Nicaraguan kids I once watched in a documentary film, singing in a bright and breezy hut chosen no doubt for its political eloquence, the while holding armalites (or Kalashnikovs of gypsy song): Da me la mano hermano.
Save that Ishmael and I were siblings in guerrilla wars against middle class totems and taboos, innocence and ignorance. Once he got me to squeeze a night with Aruna Vasudev, editor of Cine Maya and director of the New Delhi Film Festival. To cap a couple of hours as interpreter (with Agustin Sotto) of Chito Rono’s Private Show, I inveigled her into visiting a gay bar to watch a Spider Man act which Nick de Ocampo had made famous.
It showed a guy named Oliver stuffing a ball of thread into the “citadel of his integrity” as Orens of Arabia called it and crawling all over a stage to locate nails on which he would hook and hang his gossamer signature. I earlier told Aruna to watch her back because it was a Fassbinder /Jean Genet kind of place and she was likely to get stabbed in the back just for wearing an expensive-looking sari.
She squirmed and obviously wanted to quit on Oliver but I got her to extend her stay for increments of half a minute until finally it was over and Oliver was beside us and Aruna had to fork out a few dollars for Spider Man who had a daughter and grandmother to feed but probably didn’t get any royalties from the worldwide cinema web he helped create for an Afro-haired Filipino.
Another regular guest of Ishmael was an author who must have been fairly famous because I saw several books he had written displayed on a table side-by-side with the likes of Derrida and Foucault in one of the bookstores in the Sorbonne area.
Marilou-Diaz Abaya, sipping espresso with him in a sidewalk café in Paris, said he stayed spitting distance from where Sartre used to reside with his Beaver. She found it pleasantly surprising that people came to their table to get his autograph.
Ishmael said his specialty as a highly placed bureaucrat of the French health ministry at the time was drugs and forms of insanity. We could not forget therefore the temper he displayed when Ishmael broke by accident the lid of his w.c.
But he is not likely to forget either how, in one visit to Manila in the late 80’s, (when Ishmael felt that Cory and the Philistines had taken over and he vociferated against Lily Monteverde for ramming Cris Aquino’s film debut down his throat) on the Frenchman’s way back to his hotel, I slipped his Filipino driver an Alice B. Toklas cookie which I had baked below the 98.6 degrees F. stipulated by aficionados. Ishmael’s psychotherapeutics guru remembers how, just as he prepared to step out of his car, his driver unaccountably drove on and around the hotel then back again, and that he did it several times, but in post-revolutionary Manila, in the cockles of sporadic coup d’etat, he was verily a suckling crone.
Friendly fire as the Americans in Iran Iraq or Afghanistan might say these days in respect of wars that elude our simple humanity and lead us into loops of functional rationality.
For some years after we first met Ishmael never mentioned his father. He did make brief references to an uncle in Mariano Toledo to whom his mother was married: a tall man who lumbered unsmiling across our field of vision for many years, at their house in Caloocan, whose windows he would shut when Nena would play an opera; then upstairs of When It Is a Grey November in Your Soul Coffee Shop in Malate, where I often crashed in the late Sixties, before Ishmael left for India and the Poona Film Institute.
I would be a conspirator in the task of making it known to Nena that her only child had long known who his biological father was; that they had met ( I tried to annoy him by asking if it was like James Dean in a scene from East of Eden but I never succeeded) before he went aboard a cargo ship that would take him to France (among the passengers was an Indian who would borrow his toothbrush) to get a licentiate in French at Aix-en-Provence; and that cinema was instrumental in introducing him to his father’s family as well as in getting him to call Tio Mar “Father” toward the end of their lives which had come in fairly quick succession, for Nena died within a year of Ishmael (I could not bear to see her, she was never quite the same, she told someone who had asked her why she never visited Ishmael’s old room that she would not be responsible if she never came down again), and Tio Mar within a year of the woman he had taken care of with unquestioning devotion.
Bernal used to say, in getting me to agree to write his biography, that there was nothing I forgot and pretended to overlook the fact that I remembered only odds and ends and irrelevant details. He tempted me with the admonition to by all means “Tell all”. He even agreed to record a number of conversations on subjects usually considered germane to a biography. The tapes were mercifully lost in a fire that destroyed everything I had ever owned except what I was wearing and, by happenstance, a suitcase bursting with Bernal’s photos, notes, and occasional journals, enough surely to start a bio.
“But what if I died ahead of you? What if I died of AIDS?” I tried to get out of it once. He gave me a baleful look, said that there was a 15 year window to the HIV virus, and that he had long ago accepted that one of us would die from it. We laughed. But although laughter provided us the only mutually acceptable resolution to many an issue, it was not to say that our laughter never ended or the silence that followed was never uneasy or an issue never recurred or that remembering did not abhor the vacuums that it inevitably disclosed.
Since Bernal was conferred the National Artist Award, friends and relatives have not ceased to remind me that the honor calls for some changes in my perspective. I guess it means I cannot repeat Bernal’s considered opinion about who has the smallest tool in the film industry of his time, I must desist from identifying the venerable actor who found an ahas na bingi under his bed, I need crazy glue to prevent me from echoing Lino Brocka’s horrified scream of “Ecsta-NO!” at the sight of a pro-active protrusion that had earlier driven Bernal to rave “Ecsta-SI!” I may not speak, by the same token, about the difficulties he experienced in doing a short film for Amnesty International about the late unlamented Alex Boncayao Brigade and its pet peeves. But the National Artist Award itself, especially in the halcyon days BC (Before Caparas), is a safe subject on which I am free to abreact, before fungi from Alzheimers override my memory entirely.
I remember that It was the birthday of Marilou Diaz-Abaya, but the honoree at the “victory party” that night to which she had sent out invitations earlier in the week was Bernal who was named National Artist that same day.
Arriving with another mutual friend who was his favorite astrologer and my oldest nephew who was one of his favorite “goons” in front of the house that was once the residence of one of Philippine cinema’s most popular actors in the 1950’s, I wondered if the night might not require good manners which I had mostly lost.
In the living room a photograph of Bernal welcomed guests, clipped to Marilou’s easel and updated in different calligraphies by the current summum bonum: ”oh di ba?” to whichI imagined the proper response was “oo naman”, but I couldn’t suppress a riposte in “eh kun di man?”
Earlier in the evening, Marilou Diaz-Abaya had been seen on a television news program trying to unravel certain aspects of the controversy into which the film industry had been sucked by the resignation of Nick Tiongson from the regulatory body that had approved the film Live Show, with its not so much explicit as arresting content, for explicitness was only to be expected of a work which contains a lot of nudity(one eventually gets used to it as to clothes in a fashion show). What seemed more interesting question was how the performers were able to maintain their sanity at par with their arousal level.
The rallies and assorted street theater for Live Show had had the effect of getting Tiongson out of the Review Board and Abaya and Laurice Guillen to resign from the selfsame directors’ guild which Marilou had founded and Ishmael had helped nurture. In a few more days, three more directors who were present at the party – Rory Quintos, Olive Lamasan and Chito Rono — would follow suit, as though in support of Marilou’s search for a cause that would engage her attention as much as Manoling Morato’s neurosis for example had once engaged her triumvirate with Bernal and Lino Brocka.
Lalli Lacaba, widow of Emmanuel (for whom a National Artist award in Literature is richly deserved and should have come much earlier than many such), would point out to me that Guillen’s religious beliefs gave her no choice. At any rate, Guillen had come to the party with a pre-Raphaelite picture of beauty in her daughter and an incredible hunk who looked like the president of the Pat Boone Fans Club of Tuguegarao in pre-Cambrian times.
On being told that Tikoy Aguiluz was also expected, I found myself remembering that on being invited to become a member many years ago, Tikoy had demurred, unwilling to join the guild’s constituency for which he had invented the felicitous typology of “homos and hoodlums.”
But of course things change and just the previous day I had been told by Virginia Moreno that Tikoy had fought all the way for Bernal for the year’s National Artist Award in cinema, while Nick de Ocampo of Mowel Fund had cast his lot with Eddie Romero, who continued to be his boss after Diaz-Abaya and Bernal had resigned as directors from Mowel Fund.
When Bernal had guested in Eddie Romero’s 13-part series for television Noli me Tangere, Bernal could not help assaulting every so often the gaps in Romero’s proficiency in the new medium.
Bernal, who was kinda speedy, had found Romero’s plodding almost unendurable maybe because it contrasted with Romero’s facility on any subject. “Dare me! Dare me!” Bernal said to me late one afternoon at the Bishop’s palace of the Vigan Cathedral where Romero was shooting. Bernal had been on the verge of an eruption since the previous day, when Romero had shot a scene with Ishmael in another Vigan-for-Binondo house, and the set had included some photographs on some wall and Bernal thought it was unforgivably wrong. Everyone was now on tenterhooks as Bernal sporadically observed that Romero waas doing it all wrong. I was too busy commuting between the set and the Vigan SVD seminary carrying Rizal’s Latin texts for the older priests to translate and had no time to explain to Bernal that Romero was victim in a crossfire between the producers and the designers: the latter were paid a pittance and tried to get back by wittingly introducing errors into the production. OMG.
In a gathering sponsored by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts a few months earlier, Virginia Moreno had been egged on by Carmen Guerrero-Nakpil to speak up for NVM Gonzales, National Artist in Literature, who needed dialysis regularly, for which the stipends of a National Artist are woefully inadequate. According to Moreno, Virgilio Almario, a future National Artist himself, had called her speech a “sob story.” I guess one should know what that means. Aurelio Estanislao did not even try to start to dialyze. He knew he couldn’t afford it and opted to die sooner than later. As Romero might have observed awards are stacked against the awardees, honor against the honoree.