|NORA AUNOR in HIMALA|
Written by Tito Genova Valiente / firstname.lastname@example.org
Oct. 25, 2013
IN 1969 a grandmother in Bikol, named Emilia Agovida Genova, set aside her blue scrapbook and started on a new one. The old folder contained photos of the actress she considered to be most beautiful, even when crying. The actress was Amalia Fuentes, the artista who represented the glamour of the period. Fuentes happens to be Bikolana, from the Partido area.
Emilia was not discarding Amalia Fuentes. She would always be the most beautiful face for this grandmother.
Emilia was starting to compile clippings from Philippines Graphic and other magazines of the period. Her idol this time was the opposite of Amalia, whose photo always appeared beside Elizabeth Taylor. Emilia, in fact, believed, Amalia was far lovelier than Liz, with the Filipina counterpart possessing, according to this grandmother, more refined features.
But there was another idol. She was Nora Aunor. The name did not glisten. It sounded like any of those regular names appearing on identification cards of clerks, salesladies, bus conductors. And yet, Emilia repeated the words: Nora is also beautiful. Nora is a good singer. She does not strain. She is simple, but outstanding and overwhelming in her simplicity.
Emilia did not mind that Nora was not the equivalent of anyone in Hollywood or in Europe. She should not be a version of anyone. She was Nora Aunor. Original. Not yet a Superstar, but a star nevertheless. Emilia fancied also the thought that Nora came from a very poor family. She worked hard. She sold water. Big deal. But in those days drinking water was not bottled the way they are commercially done now. Nora, small and hungry, had her own bottles and went on to gather the water from faucet made free for all water vendors in the town of Iriga. Then she sang her way to fame. She sang the song that Emilia loved. Old songs that became very real and very sad by way of Nora’s voice.
Emilia liked Nora Aunor’s voice. Solid. Incomparable. Big.
She did not sound like anyone. She was not the version of anyone. Early in her singing, Nora already exhibited the mark of a true artist: She never imitated. She sang the songs—all those maudlin, sentimental ballads—and took them home with her. And Emilia was with those songs. Emilia slept with that voice, with those songs. And forever loved the singer and the woman who sang the sadness and the joy, mostly the bereaved themes about being mistaken, of forever loving someone, for the beloved.
The next day, Emilia would wake up and look forward to the stories that Nora Aunor in her films would narrate with such ease, with such grace—with such truth.
THE day that my grandmother shifted her idolatry from Amalia Fuentes, the glorious mestiza combining the pulchritude of the gene pools brought by invasion and colonization, to Nora Aunor, Malay and genetically unconquered, perceived to be unadulterated, was also the day and perhaps days before that and years after that, that an ideological rush took place. A belief had changed. A perspective had been altered. A way of seeing was validated. A nation, or a massive chunk of that nation, had changed. All because of this petite young girl.
One can really never understand the impact of the arrival of Nora Aunor until one revisits the archives of film stars in the 1960s and toward the 1970s. The colonial history of the land has nurtured Americans and Spanish, as well as German and French, blood to form exotic species.
Then Nora came. She was a new face. She was a new height standard. She was a new color of skin. Hers was no template, for no one was before her and no one, strictly speaking, followed. In the absence of a template, she built singlehandedly a temple for sheer talent, unschooled, un-workshopped.
It was 1969. A bit earlier, Sampaguita Pictures had introduced the Star 66. By late 1960s, the Rosemaries and Shirleys were at the cusp of fulfilling their planned destiny. Was it a ploy or a trick that Nora got introduced in some of the films of the Star 66? The titles of the films were frothy and almost inane. All Over the World. Out in the Country. She would be billed above the title in one film. And the rest is resplendent history.
People took note. She stood out because she was small. Like her performances marked by a silence akin to a mime, her presence was etched in the minds of viewer because she was, in the language of the colonial mind, a non-presence.
How dare she! The chutzpah of this brown-skinned girl to come out and entertain and be an actress! Few people predicted that she would banish the sexism in the word “actress.” In the 1990s critics started to refer to Nora Aunor as actor. Degendered, and this should be accompanied by a wink, Nora would soar to greater heights—femaleness and maleness, after all, are limiting conventions. And Nora is unconventional. But Nora was the subaltern whose power to speak, to follow Spivak, had been doubted for a long time. She could not be doubted now because she could be Cinderella. She was, as her early films would announced, out in the country. But Nora was not from any idyllic farm, not from the house near the meadows, but from a small town about to be urbanized. She was the proto-urban poor with the strategy to survive. Street-smart, she was not irritating. She was charming and humble. She fought and taught us to fight. Later, she would be Pacita M and Flor Contemplacion, icons of diaspora and the affliction that labor export would bring.
She was there now, on the world’s stage as provided by cinemas when they were movies. She was not only talking and making jokes amid the lovely actresses in fine fashion, with middle-class manners made first-class, she was singing. Real singing. It did not matter to her first fans if some people thought she did not have class. That would come later and it would not be about class, as in posturing and posing and giggling, but in awareness. Class consciousness.
Nora Aunor would bring to the fore, more than a magisterial lecture in social change, the meaning and contradiction about class. And inequality.
Her songs, the early songs, were like her early films, bereft of any social message that would make her a force to reckon with in the future. Think of revolution. Or at least of protest. But her fans loved those songs. Emilia loved them and hummed them. This time you’ll be gone/And you’ll come back no more/Yes, I know you don’t love me anymore. Then the guitar enters crackling and metallic. Cheap sound. This was the amateur contest once more where she got Darigold and Liberty milk in cans and some sweet cash to pay the debts that just piled up and piled in the sari-sari store. She was continuing her craft, as if easing the detachment from her constituents, assuring them of loyalty. She was singing songs that would free her from the contempt of the petty capitalist who taunted Nora how she could never rise from penury. The lines were straight from B-movies that Nora would soon save from extinction.
Nora would sing Hawaiian songs. Why? There is no clear response, except to say that the songs, were an extension of the caper of a film she did in Hawaii. The point is after Nora sang about tiny bubbles, the entire Philippines started to sing Hawaiian songs and matrons and young girls started to dance the hula. Those who had not been exposed to Nora Aunor’s rendition of “Moonlight Becomes You” would hula a joke around her music. But Nora was first a voice before she was the thespian.
Listen to her sing “Dio Como Ti Amo” and marvel at her capacity to read the song and divine the monumental dolor in it. The English words of the song would sound ludicrous when paid attention to, but in the vocal craft of Nora Aunor, the in-your-face theatrics and lush lament of the song tremble into a short one-act play about loss. Forget about the diction; when she finally says “God, how much I love you,” remember all the loves—sensual or filial—that you lost because you did not express to the loved one your love, and how much you care for them with God beside you. Or at least with the name of God intoned for the grief and helplessness in the love that got away. Nora Aunor, in this case, is the “Patrona of Grief.” She guides us into sorrow and out of it.
It is perhaps the tragedy in Nora that she stopped singing such songs when she started performing in films and theater. Thus, it is the greater tragedy of this artist that something about a botched procedure has caused her to be unable to sing again, presumably forever but perish the thought. Vinyl discs and tapes and reissued CDS, however, are there to remind us of The Voice. Again, listen to her sing “Marupok na Sumpa.” Here she employs her lower register, allowing gravity to ground her regret. Ang sumpa mo pala’y marupok na bula ang kawangis. The lines are still about bubbles but they are not tiny anymore. The lambent beat is gone. The majesty is in accessing a song of yesteryears, when women wallowed in a love battle where men forever make vows but break them anyhow. Can the subaltern speak? Yes, in Nora, the woman may be downtrodden but the woman sings—and sings the blues and the shackles of amour away.
All those who admire her pray that she be able to sing again. If Nora’s achievements were merely in her music, she would already be assured of a chapter in this country’s popular history. But from songs, she proceeded to grace the silver screen. As if that was not legitimate enough, she entered the arena of theater, perhaps to show critics and fans that the legitimate stage is legit only if the plays presented could teach the nation once more about repressive structures, explain them, and help in the liberation of those who view such works. DH is one such piece.
In the opening scene, Nora as an overseas Filipino worker talks to a seaman. She comforts the man who is getting sick. The lonely man tells Nora’s character that he would only feel all right if she sings to him. She sings a forlorn Christmas carol. The white spotlight trains on the two characters, a diminution of the Pieta form, with Nora the Madonna not in sorrow but in a flight of emotion that runs from confusion, comfort and disconsolation, in the manner that only Nora Aunor could muster. There is no dry eye in the audience. Without missing a beat, Nora stands and shatters the illusion of performance. She is a domestic helper. She is complaining how difficult is the scene. The dramatic situation in a foreign land that made people cry is a play! We are in the middle of a rehearsal. Bravos erupt. More bravos would jolt the open-air Rajah Sulayman Theater in the next days, threatening to bring down the loose bricks from the walls of the famed ruins. The line for the succeeding performances would snake down to the moat, as fellow actors openly confessed to going to the performance to learn from Nora.
This is the same Nora whom directors—and detractors—then said could not act. But as with geniuses, other geniuses recognize the signs. Even as critics would not yet see the gift of Nora, directors like Lamberto Avellana and Gerardo de Leon would pay her tribute in the omnibus titled Fe, Esperanza, Caridad.
Mario O’Hara, Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal would handle Nora at certain points of her glorious career. By way of NV Productions, Nora would produce and star in two of the greatest Filipino films by local and international standard. These would be Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos and Bona.
Nestor de Guzman of the UP Press and a great fan recalls that Nora formed her production unit at the age of 21. That was 1972, and Nora planned her production business in September of that year, around the period that martial law was declared. Nestor says this must have been a portend of the future, for Nora would be caught intensely in the political upheavals of the country.
At the age of 20 or 21, the present crop of actors and actresses and entertainers has nothing substantial to present. One hears about comedians filling the Big Dome with the crowds lapping up their antics. At the end of the night, that is all there is, as Peggy Lee would put it. At the age of 23, Nora was the first Gawad Urian Best Actress awardee, an award from the oldest, most prestigious group of film critics. The award would move the aesthetics of film review into a level that would soon help the local film industry address its mediocrity and crass commercialism. The award was an attempt also to address the ills that the Famas had contaminated on the industry.
The film that won Nora Aunor her first Gawad Urian is the war classic Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos.
Very young and untested, Nora would shock the audience with a performance that was hitherto unseen in its rawness that was so unbridled, one was scared how the thespian built the core of such character. Scene after scene of relentless theatricality, Nora navigated the journey of a woman who was in love, and slept, with the enemy. No other film would be brave enough to employ a Greek chorus of some sort after this film. Nora survived some of the most stilted scenes. She shimmered in scenes with Christopher de Leon and Bembol Roco, who were at their best in this film.
At the age of 26, Nora produced Bona. Brocka’s film is Nora’s film, as well. The notion of the auteur is interestingly challenged in this film, where critics laud Nora for subverting her own celebrity. In Bona, she would be a fan to the ambitious stuntman of Philip Salvador. This must be the most physical of Nora’s works and she succeeds mightily in many scenes where her body or the other actor’s body are violated. And yet, the brutality in the scenes are well-remembered because even in the rush and tremors of certain actions, one sees the face of Nora—that face!—contorted or saddened, battered even and blank. The camera loves her and Nora returns always that love in performances that possess distinct technical awareness but always, always, gripped by a passion and a poetry that could only come from someone who knows how to crystallize the human experience.
The film Bona would go on to become one of the most critically celebrated Filipino films. It earned a berth in a listing of “One of the Best 100 Films in the World” by the Museum of Tolerance, Los Angeles, in 1997. Bona is also listed in the 100 Acclaimed Tagalog Movies by Mel Tobias.
From a singer-actress who sang a Tom Jones song to dwarves amid a banana grove, Nora would essay roles that plumb the depth and range of characters. A story goes that Nora’s career was aided by a dwarf she befriended when she was small. The story of luck and wealth with a duwende is common in our culture. But Nora’s dwarf is really more the artist’s duende, that elusive magic in a dancer’s movement, the sheer impossibility in the high notes scaled by a soprano, the dark depth in the actor’s portrayal.
Nora had become so great, we needed something mystical to explain her power and her glory.
The ultimate mysticism of Nora came through a film titled Himala. Dissertations and critiques abound regarding this film. If there were still doubts about her genius as an actor, Himala became the point of conversion for many. As Elsa, Nora once more brought the power of irony as the beginning of knowledge. This is Ricardo Lee’s great work and Bernal surpassed himself in this tale of faith and doubt, of personal journey and collective unconscious. Nora was a palette of colors and a tabula rasa. She was all and nothing of this all. It was as if she abandoned all her cautions as an actor and as a celebrity. Lost in the tumult, she allowed to be killed, or rather the script killed her. This was most unusual then and now. No one killed leading men and leading ladies. But Nora did die in that scene after delivering a line that would grace comedy bars and drunken bouts among admirers. “Walang himala!” Gays and straight alike know the context and the contours of this line.
Nora, of course, knows that her death in Himala is always metaphorical. Nora understands metaphors. Her bed in the small hut that she went home to, her body tired after selling bottled water, her success, her songs, her velvet voice we tenderly think of in repose, her failed love and her failure in politics, the changes in her ideologies—all this and more are metaphors. The great films that she produced and starred in, and the songs she lifted from the musically mundane are terrible and terrific metaphors of the nation that this actor fully, truthfully represents.
Nora Aunor is good literature. As Tabish Khair puts it, “Good literature perhaps provides one of those rare spaces in which the invisible relations between language and reality, between the symbolic and the material, are condensed into the tension of art.”
In Khair’s words, gaps or their equivalent noise or silence can push the language to the limit. This is perhaps the best legacy of Nora, the fact that she provides us always by her own brand of acting, bravura in its use of silences and pauses, the facility to read into the realities she does not evince but rather implies or leaves without commentary.
Note how her Shaleha in the much-awarded Thy Womb disappears into the cultural landscape of Southern Philippines, neither Muslim but neither lowland Christian also. Note how her Mabuti in Ang Kwento ni Mabuti is not about morality but about the language of choices. The language is always cinematic.
It is not surprising that impecunious moralists always summon moral clauses when investigating Nora as a model, forgetting in the process that Nora Aunor’s work is not about prescription or proscription but about liberation. Drugs and love relations and their impact on a prosaic life are also two elements people bring against Nora Aunor’s art, again neglecting that Nora’s life is not her art; rather her art is life—and that art is ours.
It is enough that she has shown how social mobility can, indeed, take place because of art. It is enough that she has shown hope to all water vendors and all those whose languages were not nurtured by schools that favored a foreign language. Language that addresses the nation’s griefs and crisis can be invented if need be. And Nora Aunor is that amazingly creative, inventive artist. As a true artist needs to be.
And as for the rest of the fans out there, Nora Aunor is someone to treasure and love. In those words, art and all its manifestations are put to rest even as this nation continues to find ways to define itself in the journey to a kind of future where earthquakes rule and politicians are helpless in the rumblings of the land and the grumblings of a population, that where life is fleeting, art is always veritably long.