Feature by: Tiffany Limsico
From Noel Vera
It was never love, ma'am.
No it wasn't.
I remember meeting you at a party (I think Teddy introduced us, or was with us anyway). Don't remember what you said or what I said, but did remember it was an easygoing, funny conversation, and you had opinions acerbic and otherwise about all kinds of films and all kinds of film people and I found myself laughing my head off. Sharp wit, the kind that slices belts and buttons without alerting the wearer, leaving them shuffling about with their pants round their ankles.
Then you said something offhand without thinking twice that I wish to this day I could remember but can't, not a single word, but I do remember stopping in my tracks. I remember staring, a brow – maybe both brows – raised.
I was thinking as I felt the blood rush and my cheeks warm: "that's not something a proper lady would say. Not something a respectable Filipina would say." And it wasn't.
Not disapproving – far from it. Not embarrassed, either – well, not entirely. Tell the truth I felt like one of your victims: pants round ankles, exposed for all to see, don't care, don't give a shit. Suddenly I understood the appeal flashing had for perverts in overcoats: they were exposed and in the grip of an incomparable high.
You never noticed, of course (thank god); you were chatting away. At least that's how I remember it.
I did research on your career – what, you thought my gonads were doing all my thinking for me? You were still an artist, albeit a more than usually interesting one, and a possible subject for an article or two, maybe an interview. Not an easy task at the time: IMDb was just starting out with barely a Filipino entry available, DVDs were not a common medium and few if any Filipino film were on commercial video anyway.
I managed to re-watch the films you helped co-write for one reclusive Filipino genius; this time taking a closer look at the women's roles, and at what I considered the weakest among your collaborations (for the longest time I had a low regard for him as a comic director). I remember you mentioning that your most substantial contributions went into this underrated picture, the silly, somewhat sweet wit involved (he had originally conceived of a much darker comedy). Saw the film you helped write for one of the leading filmmakers of Philippine cinema (about an adultery), noted the lead actress' dialogue, and how the story was told mainly from her point of view (also happen to know whose life the film is really based on, but that's another story).
I remember you once visiting my workplace, the head office of one of the country's major banks. Everyone's heads turned to follow as you walked past cubicle after cubicle to stop at mine. We talked; I think you gave me something, and left.
My officemate, usually laugh-out-loud boisterous, hissed at me in an awed whisper: "Noel, who was that?"
"Oh, a friend."
"She looked like a fucking movie star!"
He has asked me advice on love and women ever since.
I managed to snag video copies of the two films you are proudest of (don't ask me how). One was the portrait of two lovers too young to be married. The emotional intensity of it was painful; I remember you telling me how much personal experience went into that film, that some of it was about your marriage, and I think it shows.
As for the second –
"What did you think of it?" you asked.
"It's awful," I said. "Terrible film."
I remember your face going blank; I'd been too cruel. "Let me put it this way," I added. "It hit me where I live. I'll never be the same."
By some synchronistic coincidence I had recently read Pauline Reage's (a.k.a. Anne Desclos) short novel The Story of O. The intensity, the terror, the heedless, selfless sexuality – that was what I found in your film.
All evoked without a single nude scene, without a square inch of gratuitously exposed skin.
Feminists protested the picture, you told me; I don't know what they were talking about – the film's protagonist seeks the freedom to be a sexual being, even seeks the freedom to be self-destructive. That's about as powerful a feminist statement as I've seen anywhere, male or female, Filipino or otherwise.
If there's any basis to their objections, perhaps it's too powerful a statement – it wreaks havoc on their sense of political correctness, their desire for polite relations between sexes. It in effect mounts their assumptions from behind and brutally violates their comfort zone – that's why they hate it.
"What did you think the film was trying to say?" you asked.
"I don't know – that sex is a threat and a thrill? A drug perhaps? That a good husband means a life of boredom, an exciting lover a life of danger?"
"No," you said. "That women are expected to change to suit the men they're with."
And you were right – women are transmutable beings, chameleons, ever subject to change, said change (willingly or unwillingly) often subject to a man's approval (though some have learned the trick of shaping that approval to their advantage). Women are powerful and submissive, captive and manipulative, sometimes a combination of all at once. It was a revelation.
I remember our talks – our rambling, endless conversations as we told our stories and hopes and regrets to each other, me marveling at your soft, catlike laugh, you waiting patiently (or is it impatiently?) as I, for an embarrassing few moments (it must have been out of sheer exhaustion, or because we'd been at it till two, three in the morning), snored on the line. You should have hung up on me; always wondered why you didn't – why you simply waited for me to snap to.
I remember you telling me about your first time - how you never warned him that you were a virgin, and when he realized this he pushed himself away and walked out to wash away the blood. Never told you this, but I wished I was your first time - surprised or not, I'd like to think I'd have been more tender.
I remember at one point listening over the phone as you wrote the ending to one film, of a woman giving birth, how your nimble imagination leaped here and there, deciding: "no, that's not how it should go; no, it has to end now," trying to figure out a way to make the birth scene fresh, different. I remember the panties. "She has to take off her panties."
"I never thought of that."
"No one does. When they do the scene, they never remember the panties."
I remember contributing a bit of dialogue to the male lead, something cute and corny, and what a rush to hear it spoken on the big screen weeks later (not the first time; I've made more substantial contributions to other films, but it was your film and I was, however small the part, in it).
We don't see each other anymore; we don't talk over the phone. Once in a while I hear about you from mutual friends. From time to time I spot your name onscreen – your latest film, not quite so well executed by others, but inside the good-to-fair work I recognize the distinct influence of your hand, your sensibility taking a melodramatic situation or a classic religious theme and finding fresh perspectives within tired premises. I see your films, I know you're still around, still active, and I'm content.
It was never love, ma'am, just something cruder and sharper and not a little fiercer. Which was why I had to be careful – why I never wrote those articles, or did that interview, or allowed for any possible circumstance where I might reveal too much (even this letter feels dangerous).
No regrets for having met you (never), some regret for allowing you to slip away (I have my life, you have yours (and your son's), but still, but still). I stand here in my fashion, watching the bright spark of you burning half a world away, and I marvel at the warmth.
Image by Darlene Lin
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