Pagdating sa Dulo (Ishmael Bernal, 1971)
English Title: At the Top
In Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz Ke Phool (Paper Flowers, 1959), a film director, played with piercing sensitivity by Dutt, sees his career flounder as the career of his muse, a beggar he discovers while shooting a scene in his adaptation of Devdas and subsequently grooms to become a very successful actress, blossoms. The painful downfall of the director who at one time was celebrated by crowds of adoring fans after a very successful run of one of his films and at a later time is seen alone, walking the paved ways of his former studio in tattered rags, unrecognizable by his friends and peers, destroys the very core of these double lives that are forced to exist to suit the inflicted fantasies of working in cinema notwithstanding the need to endure the realities of living. Amidst the several musical interludes, the film lyrically reflects on the gargantuan gap that separates the facile glamour of the silver screen and the material, spiritual and emotional poverty of everything else.
Ishmael Bernal’s Pagdating sa Dulo (At the Top) ends with a striking sequence that consummates the hypocrisy that was portrayed in the carnivalesque affairs of the film. Ching (Rita Gomez), scandalously tipsy after a day of lonesome drinking, and Pinggoy (Vic Vargas), who attempts to salvage Ching from further embarrassing herself in public, see a mob of adoring fans, separated from their fantasy world by a metal gate and obviously oblivious to the excesses of their fleeting limelight. Their faces transform. The once self-absorbed alcohol-glazed gestures of Ching and the guarded yet clearly affectionate concern of Pinggoy suddenly breaking to give way to faces jolted by a sudden but timely awareness, of how far they have gone up and how far they have fallen. As with Dutt’s immortal masterpiece, Bernal, by mapping an actress’ deliberate and painful rise to the top, reflects on the disconnect between the realities of life and the quasi-realities of cinema that debilitates the men and women who chose to indulge in its promising allures.
The film opens with Ching, then a stripper, performing to the lustful stares of her patrons. She arrives home, slowly climbing the stairs, with every step turning into a gargantuan struggle as she carries herself and all her life’s worries up to her room. There, she breaks into a silent yet tearful soliloquy until Pinggoy arrives, attempting to woo her into bed only to be rebuked. Bernal finally breaks the several minutes of quiet yet persuasive storytelling with the first of the many arguments between the eternally incongruous lovers, with Ching’s vocal frankness overpowering Pinggoy’s contained machismo, to the point of the latter attempting to wrestle Ching’s dominance with violence, only to end in conciliation and lovemaking. In that initial sequence, Bernal adequately summarizes Ching and Pinggoy’s relationship. By portraying with painstaking detail the overbearing imperfections of their life together, characterized by the graveness of Ching’s discontent with her current state in life as afflicted by Pinggoy’s paralyzing satisfaction over his existence as a cab driver, Bernal sets the stage not only for the couple’s surprising reversal of fortune, initiated first by Ching’s discovery by an idealistic film director (Eddie Garcia), and later on, the forced entry of Pinggoy to showbusiness (he figuratively and literally penetrates his way to fame and fortune), but also the accompanying transformation of their less than ideal but honest union into a publicized and sensationalized sham.
Pagdating sa Dulo is an impressive first feature. It confirms Bernal, very early in his career as a filmmaker, as a director who fully comprehends the value of the moving image. There are very impressively directed sequences, perfectly composed with every minute gesture or piercing gaze from the actors timed and orchestrated to evoke a subtle sensibility that is all at once strange and fascinating. The opening sequence, with its several minutes of quiet assuredness that unpredictably erupts in domestic cacophony, arrests in the way it portrays the couple’s weariness of their meager existence. Nearing the film’s conclusion, Bernal revisits the pensive mood of the opening sequence in the gorgeously shot sequence right before the film’s culminating summation, only this time with the two lovers in the heat of their careers yet suffering from a different malady, one that is caused by the callousness of the professions chosen for them by fate. The intoxicated air slows seems to slow down the sequence, which is further elaborated by the film’s recurring musical scoring. Ching, wearing a glamorous gown yet clearly under the influence of alcohol, flutters down the stairs as Pinggoy climbs up to fetch his former lover and current onscreen partner. You wait, even wish for an emotional outburst, a torrid embrace, a crazed kiss, even an exchange of harsh insults, yet nothing happens. The silence unsettles.
The director, presumably patterned by Bernal after legendary filmmaker Lamberto Avellana (director of well-regarded films like Anak Dalita (The Ruins, 1956), Badjao (1957) and Kundiman ng Lahi (Song of the Race, 1959)), becomes Bernal’s mouthpiece for his aches and hopes for Philippine cinema. Bernal has made startlingly accurate observations, pertinent up to this day. The dichotomy in Philippine cinema, as characterized by two existing and seemingly irreconcilable halves that form it (one half is a capitalist creature, more interested in profit-making than culture-creation; the other half is the problematic so-called independent film scene, where most of the interesting works hail from but is largely ignored by the populace), becomes the wellspring of his woes and frustrations. Kalapati, the film he made with Ching as lead actress, is a flop at the box office, to the ire of his producer, which will eventually lead to his voluntary decision to dedicate himself to making artful yet unseen documentaries. The director represents the consummate Filipino artist who is unfairly pushed outside the expanding bubble of public consciousness despite a veritable grasp in his artistry simply because integrity is not bankable. One of Bernal's most understated tragic figures, the director persists despite living a life of unfulfilled ambitions: his marriage is a failure, his film that sought to marry truth and cinema is a failure, his unpronounced affection for Ching is also a failure.
Pagdating sa Dulo opens with Ching exploited by the several men who paid money to see her dance and strip. It ends with Ching similarly exploited by her adoring audience who await the screening of her movie, a titillating feature that promises only to sexually arouse. At the top, everything is the same except that their sacrifices are bigger, their risks are greater, and the money and fame they reap only entrench them deeper into the system, changing them completely. It's a tremendous film; probably ranks right up there with Dutt's Kaagaz Ke Phool as one of the best films about filmmaking ever made.