Monday, June 21, 2010

Ang Himpapawid (The Heavens)

Ang Himpapawid (The Heavens)
Directed by Raymond Red
Written by Raymond Red and Ian Victorino

NOTE: The real Ang Himpapawid was to be Raymond Red's first feature. It is to this day unmade and exists in two forms. One as the short film A Study for the Skies. And the other as a glimmer in the filmmaker's eye. The following speculates on how the film might have been had it been made the way it was intended. The piece was originally published in the UNO April 2010 fiction issue.

“Poetry is nearer to vital truths than history.” – Plato

History’s always been more toy and maybe riddle to Raymond Red, something to play with and crack, to ransack and suspect, to bother and tweak. The doyens of the mainstream always come to history as if it were plutonium or dogma, that is, with wariness and reverence, and the fallout is blah, wimpy, cushy, safe - - - Jose Rizal, right. Raymond’s three historical fictions run less on set design and textbook exactness but more on dialectical fumes, not buying into the perceived truths of the subjects it hones in on, cross-examining the scuttlebutt, inventing wild theories. And each one feels, in varying degrees, like some aesthetic cage match between the budding classicist and the berserker experimentalist in him. Granted, Sakay (1992) was a stalemate. And the avant-garde tingles in Bayani (Hero) (1991) will crank up empathically, Raymond tells us, in the new cut he’s readying. It’s his obscure first feature, Ang Himpapawid (The Heavens) (1990) - - - the one that almost never got made, the one that Roman Coppola came this close to producing, the one that started life as an aborted fairy tale installation piece made up of slides - - - that fully realizes this delightful frisson. Conceived in embryo as a Super8 feature and at first given over to the organic tangents that specific pairing of form and format anticipated, Raymond shot it finally on 16mm, perhaps to save himself a few headaches, but without sedating its fevered exoticism.

In thumbnail a historical fantasy, but envisioned with a finicky verisimilitude, Ang Himpapawid, set in the twilight of the Philippine-American war and sheathed in dreamy expressionist tangles, is centered by two childhood friends turned freedom fighters - - - Julian (Rene Aquitania) with his head in the clouds and Pedro (Jeffrey Tigora) with his hand on the rifle trigger. Both have a vivid dream of freedom and an even more vivid dream of taking flight to attain it. And in lulls between the spurts of gorgeously-realized conflict, both conspire to jerry-build - - - with little more than a gusto verging on the naïve and spilling over into the nutty and whatever spoils and detritus they can amass - - - an aeroplane that can fly them away to the freedom of their dreams. As one flying contraption after another fails, their obsession turns fevered and combative , embroiling themselves unwittingly in a secret war of their own making against the enemy. Less a historical pastiche as it is an allusive parable on the mechanisms of beautiful failure, Ang Himpapawid could well be Raymond’s sneaky allegorization of his filmmaking process and the turbulent backstory of his film .

No work from the birth pangs of indie seemed to cry for a second look more. Or a third. And a third of many, at that. The noise the critics made was enthusiastic, but sparse for something as freighted with expectancy, with pedigree. But I missed this one in its first run out of having neither the age nor the will nor the curiosity. All that would come later but by then it had flown under the radar, and into a cultural fog, and I would finish up infatuated, for years, with a ghost.

The good news, of course, is that the centerpiece of the new Raymond Red retrospective, which swings from his first battery of shorts to his sinewy new Himpapawid (Manila Skies) is the belated return of Ang Himpapawid ,out of mothballs and back into the light at last. A film this loaded with vulnerabilities, it might help to leverage expectations a little before going to see it, undo the ribbons of fabulous rumor that has since mummified the piece, but not really by much, and I know this because that’s as far as I get. I was still dosed up coming in, prone to letdown. And I kept waiting for it to drop. And it wouldn’t. Not with the pulpy arcana of its parade of aeronautic malfunctions. Not with the stumblebum band of guerillas. Not with the way you can’t tell the corporal from the corporeal. Not with that coup de grace sleepwalking sequence that it turns out wasn’t in the script. It feels like one long mysterious and beautiful and maddening surge of cognitive dissonance. It also feels like his masterpiece.

Ang Himpapawid folds itself into a wrinkle in time with as much speculative fervor as Ang Magpakailanman (Eternity) (1983). And more than Raymond’s later, more sober historical fictions, it is this meta-textual and meta-textural faux-antique, predating Guy Maddin and equal parts Brakhage and Murnau and apparition, and more historical science-fiction than anything, that Ang Himpapawid feels of a piece with, trembling, as it does with the same metaphysical solemnity, the same aesthetic nerve, the same puckish mischief. In its sublime final shot, where everything is explained and nothing is, the film opens up a brand new universe of possibility and in the gap between two worlds - - - classical and experimental, mainstream and independent, fact and fiction, captivity and emancipation - - - crosses over from the wounded lie of history into the vital truth of poetry. * * * * *

*First published in UNO April 2010

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