By TITO GENOVA VALIENTE
Business Mirror / Reeling
Wednesday, December 28, 2011
FRIENDS know me as a non-Christmas kind of person. In other words, I do not ache if there is no Christmas tree in the living room. I am also the first in the family to suggest that the Christmas tree be hauled back to storage the day after Christmas. The sight of Christmas lights in October is a major personal irritant and so is the playing of Christmas carols when September sets in. I do not believe in our reputation as the country having the longest celebration of Christmas; we just have very entrepreneurial businessmen who are able to mark September as the earliest time one can sell tinsels and Christmas CDs. And consumers who buy into that great mercantilist myth.
The season, however, can pull up surprises. The whammy can even attack the core of any jaded person, this author certainly included, and hit it where it matters most—the heart.
For last Christmas, or four days ago, I received from my nieces and nephew what I thought to be a tablet, the electronic kind and not the one you gobble down to ease pathological pains. Would a tablet or an iPad make me drool? I doubt it.
Anyway, there were two sets of flat objects wrapped in nice red and green and gold. What was inside temporarily suspended the mean in me. There hidden by the wrapper, and soon revealed, was my own Christmas epiphany: two movie DVDs, original and not pirated, and a CD, original and not pirated. The films were Banaue and Bona. Two “Bs” that truly matter in Philippine filmography.
The film Banaue is known as Gerry de Leon’s final film. Certainly, it is not his best but the last work of a great artist is always significant. Kurosawa Akira’s Madadayo (literally, “Not Yet”) comes to mind. It is not Kurosawa’s best, not even among his 10 best, but people search for it, like the Holy Grail. Nora Aunor, the icon of the unwashed, unschooled and considered then as not a very articulate actor, directed once more by a compleat director, an Atenista, an elite. Too bad we are not the documenting type. I am curious how the two interacted; I wonder how de Leon handled Nora in Banaue this time. Earlier, in the trilogy Fe, Esperanza, Caridad, Gerry de Leon directed Nora in the final episode. Nora soared above the quirky and campy material because of a sincerity that is seldom seen in a performer being directed by an established auteur. This was 1974. Nora Aunor was good but not excellent. She was altogether compelling. For someone who had not yet shown us her range, she opted to underplay a role that had always been played over the top—and still is—by established but less sensitive actresses in a gothic film that require grand gestures. That was a sign that we were at the shrine of a thespian that would prove to be terrifically original.
It would take two years more before the entire Filipino film industry stood up and applauded a Nora Aunor performance in a film called Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos. Not even the charm of two proto-centerfolds, Christopher de Leon and Bembol Roco, put together could outshine the gilded characterization of Rosario. The Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, organized that year, put their seal of approval for the very first time and declared Aunor their Best Actress.
The other gift-film is Bona. This must be, outside of Bernal’s Himala, one of the well-written about films of Nora Aunor. I have seen this film over and over, and written about it in newspapers and academic papers but never got to own a copy. The triumph of Bona is unique for any actor in the Philippine movie industry because here Nora is acclaimed both as producer and actor. As a producer, she takes credit with Lino Brocka comments like the one from Elliot Stein of The Village Voice, who declares that he has seen Bona three times and has “not yet had a fill of it.” He describes Bona as not only a movie but “an act of civil disobedience.” For her performance, Nora Aunor is hailed by Francois Cuel of Cinematographe for evoking “Giulietta Masina in La Strada—a Gelsomina to keep company with the kid who acted superbly in The Bicycle Thief.”
Giulietta Masina was wife and muse to Federico Fellini. She was Gelsomina in the film La Strada directed by Fellini, a film that received the first Best Foreign Film Oscar. Masina was petite, like Aunor, but I am certain it was not her physical stature that commanded comparison.
The ultimate gift, though, in my own selfish way of assessing things, is the music CD. The collection includes a wide array of Kundimans, Tagalog evergreens and some adaptation of regional songs. The first cut is the Magi’s choice: a reinterpretation of Larry Miranda’s classic “Marupok na Sumpa.” In the version of Miranda, the song is cloying but nevertheless seductive in the smoky and flirty ’50s way.
How would a newcomer interpret that?
On TV, we always see singers and actors doing the ’80s and the ’70s and even the ’50s. Almost always, the approach is to make fun with the music, instead of having fun with them. The particular setting is misread; the genre insulted; the viewers miseducated.
This is where Nora Aunor’s reading of a very old, and a very unfashionable song, triumphs. The singer acts out the words and, in the true intelligent fashion, crafts for us a world where men brood over failed love and women wallow in delicious torment, and lovers slash their wrists through music because society is still in control of personal passion. Thus, Nora Aunor reads the lines: “Sumumpa kang ako ay iiibigin/At ang pagsuyo mo’y di magmamaliw/Sa init ng halik/Nagtiwala ako sayong paggiliw.” Even as the words are fervid, Aunor sings them with a sadness that is packed tight and dulcet. No sighs and no chokes. There is only one note here that presages the passion that goes deeper and deeper and those are in the last syllable of “halik”, which the singer brings down to a remarkable depth unheard of in this land that celebrates the shrill and the belted.
Nora goes to the second stanza and here she barely lifts the level of emotional arousal. “Pinaasa-asa mo ako sa iyong pag-ibig/ Na ako ang mahal mo hanggang langit/Ang sumpa mo pala’y/Marupok na bula ang kawangis.” The last syllable of “pala’y” is treated with Aunor’s magnificent lower register, which is all blues and gospel and grandeur. Think Mahalia Jackson, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. No other singer would explore this note in the island and by a music industry predisposed not to put premium on these lower notes.
Comes the refrain, which has the following lines: “Kailanman ay di ko malilimutan/Na ikaw pala’y salawahan/Luluha ka rin at pagdating ng araw/Maalala mong ako’y iyong mahal/Mapait na luha at pagdurusa/Ang sa aki’y naiwang alaala/Buti pang mamatay/At sa langit ako liligaya.”
Again, Nora Aunor never attempts to reach for the jugular with these lines. I have heard singers push the drama in the line “Luluha ka rin at pagdating ng araw” that are obviously already trembling with melodrama. But she merely sings them. If there is theater in this stanza and all over the song, it happens in the line “Maalala mong ako’y iyong mahal,” where “ako’y” is extended and carried over into “iyong,”and climbs to “mahal,” where the vibrato becomes a wider tremolo, and somewhere in between the words, one hears the edge, the sharp metallic rise in what is a voice of velvet, echoing despair through the discipline of music. Words like “salawahan” are easy candidates for over-emphasis but Nora Aunor relies on the melody behind the words and the sweep of the violins. This is once more the technique where she looks at the camera and the latter amplifies what her face registers. In the recording, one senses a singer who loves and respects the lyrics and proceeds naturally from the embedded beauty of the sound.
Even when she reaches the lines “Buti pang mamatay/At sa langit ako liligaya,” there is no embarrassment of a flamboyant suicide note but a celebration of lovely lyrics and a melody that never gets dark, just lushly sentimental, with a nervous lilt, and an awesome terrible beauty.
When Nora Aunor recorded this album, she must have been very young and the song must have been the “corniest” to any young singer then. Where then did her decision come from to sing the song as sincerely and as exquisitely, loving the music as if she was to that golden period born and respecting the lyrics as all true artists would? There are no easy answers.
You can call it instinct. You can call it artistic honesty. You can call it genius. You can call it the gift of Nora Aunor.
You can also run to buy this CD, actually the Volume 2 of Nora Aunor’s Mga Awiting Sariling Atin. There are many more good songs in the compendium but that one cut is enough to grant you a true catharsis, a release from grief, and allow you to welcome a wonderful New Year.
In Photo: Even in her youth, the Superstar already had a precocious genius, recognizing the value in a song’s lyrics and showcasing a brilliant sense of restraint in her reading.