Tisoy vs. The Punks
On MTV, Philippine Cinema and You Can Dance If You Want To
Google “music video” and you can trace its origins as a practice as far back as the late 1800s. Oh, it was performance footage for the most part, but isolated pockets were going out on limbs, laying in the ramparts. Jean Luc Godard had an indirect hand in matters, about as much as the direct hand Richard Lester had with his A Hard Day’s Night and Help!. That entire syntax he came up with in A Bout De Souffle, the shakycam and the jump cutting and the whiplash rhythms, it was all prescient without knowing it, virtually the cloth from which music videos would be cut. You go to it and you go to films like Bob Rafelson’s Head and Nicholas Roeg’s Performance and to little oddments like Dylan’s iconic Subterranean Homesick Blues and the Who’s Happy Jack and the Beatles’ Strawberry Fields Forever and to the lab experiments Todd Rundgren and Devo were conducting. You go to these not just for the DNA signatures, though. You go to these for having the bright idea that you can make little movies from songs without having to pick through Hollywood musicals for surplus or training a camera on some guy and having him sing to it.
They were all taking from other, myriad strains of cinema instead, or even other, myriad strains of culture in general, and in many ways, were pushing the form even before they had a name for it, and really, even before they were even aware there was a form to push. Pushing it closer to short film, to experimental narrative, to conceptual piece, closer to the music video as we know it today, notwithstanding all the excesses it accrued. Boiled down, all those primordial music videos name-checked back there, among others, were borne out of the need of independent filmmakers (D.A. Pennebaker, Peter Goldman) to do something and bored rock stars to feed blood back into their pulses, tiny little spurts of experimentation to while away the time waiting for the zeitgeist that would detonate all of what they were doing to calcify, blissfully unaware of the footprints they were making.
The task at hand here is to find, if any, similar overlaps between Philippine pop cinema and Philippine music videos, the bearing of one on the evolution of the other. But I’m not sure if I can say some parallel evolution took place. Ever since the local music industry appropriated the form, there has been a steady increase in production values and with the outbreak of the digital revolution, a proliferation of music video careerists, the music video becoming a refuge for Filipino film school graduates with nothing to film and, down the line, for anyone with a digital camera. Oh, there was already an active independent experimental cinema in the country lining the fringes back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when MTV first broke, our own Pennebakers and Goldmans if you will, in Raymond Red (Manila Skies) and Joey Agbayani (Lola) and later in Aureus Solito (The Blossoming of Maximo Olivero), but by the time they became the emergent bands’ go-to men, the music video had more or less become the global music marketing parlance it is, meaning the template was set, the laws laid down, leaving no room for a learning curve.
Not that any was needed, the short film being the métier of nearly every independent filmmaker recruited to make a music video—and something like Aureus’ longform video for the Eraserheads’ Ang Huling El Bimbo (aka The Last El Bimbo) almost instinctively went against the grain anyway. For the most part, there were catalogues of tropes to nick, styles to mimic, concepts to retro-fit, rules to break and unbreak. A learning curve would only amount to a lot of fuss you didn’t need, moreso when the form practically came with an instruction manual. All you had to do was crack it open and dig in. Other than the most rudimentary transfer of energies, there really was little significant overlap between cinema and music video.
Go to Maryo J.De Los Reyes’ iconic but crummy Bagets (1984), though, and the argument turns a slightly different shade. Its gaudy colors, its editing rhythms and its incessant fondness for montage was a template in and of itself for the local youth comedies of the ’80s, that misbegotten horde, whose most beloved trope was the tendency to suddenly break into elaborate song and dance at the oddest moments and not in the culturally endemic manner of Bollywood, would count among its vile ranks such epics of trash as Hotshots and Campus Beat and the almighty The Punks among many, many, far more misbegotten others. Bagets and the rest of its sort seemed suspiciously and terribly influenced by MTV.
Not to dismiss leakages and osmosis, not to mention how slavish appropriation of whatever’s working for the West has always been domestic mainstream studio-made cinema’s particular brand of kung fu, but there’s a sudden breaking into elaborate song and dance too, in Ishmael Bernal’s (Himala) postmodern-before-there-even-was-such-a-thing-as-postmodern Tisoy! (1977). But it comes in at an even odder time, just after the title credits, so it’s not as if you’re ready and it’s not as if he throws a rope before plunging us into it but there you go—street sweepers in full-on Busby Berkeley mode! It’s nowhere near as well-oiled as the Busby Berkeley invocation would suggest, sure, there’s another proto-MTV sequence involving a traffic jam that’s more wittingly and precisely realized, but it’s a ballsy move even for someone who has built a career on ballsy moves. It throws you on enough of a loop so you start expecting that nothing here will settle into a groove you can see coming. And it doesn’t.
Nobody talks much about Tisoy!. Not when they talk about Bernal, not when they talk about the heights of ’70s comedy, not when they talk about ahead-of-its-time. Which is a bit of a shame. Rather, and rightly so, everybody talks about Mike De Leon’s Kakaba-Kaba Ka Ba? (1980), which starred Christopher De Leon and Jay Ilagan too, and came three years later and has the same subversive energy and has one or two dance numbers as well but feels a lot less anarchic and a lot less funny and a lot less fun put up against this.
My aunt remembers Tisoy from college, back in the late ’60s, in all its iterations: the Nonoy Marcelo comic strip, the play that came out of it, the eventual TV show, the Lauro Pacheco movie with Jimmy Morato and Pilar Pilapil, all that. Tisoy was their youth cult, their generational totem, their Scott Pilgrim. Their Bagets, if you will. But even she hadn’t heard of this. And even if she did, it’s possible she wouldn’t recognize it. Nonoy Marcelo wrote the script for this one, sure, and roped in his comedy titan cousin Bert Marcelo, who has been the constant through all the versions. But the Bernal Tisoy! was not so much a remake as a turning on its head. It’s a relic of its time—it’s near-topical in jokes, mostly pivoting on local cinema at that time, only working after some digging into, for one—but I saw it just a few weeks ago, some 33 years too late, and it’s temperament is weirdly fresh, weirdly now.
I bring it up and Kakaba-Kaba Ka Ba?, too, because they both predate MTV but both too are uncannily possessed of a grasp for its rhythms and energies and language, as if they were as prescient without knowing it as Godard was. And who knows if maybe they are. That something as arch and irreverent and out-there as Tisoy! would have bearing on something as safe as milk and dull as bathwater as Bagets and the rest of its sort may be a little too much to suggest but the membranes that connect them make sense. It’s something far older than MTV here. And might have its roots in something embedded in our cultural psyche and in the psyche too of Philippine popular cinema of the ’50s and ’60s and even the ’70s, in the vaudeville aesthetic it sucked at the teat of, in the belief of entertainment as being everything to everyone, in that urge to put on a show… right now.
There is something oddly, sweetly, wondrously intrusive every time someone dances in a movie that isn’t a musical and it’s done right or even if it isn’t but feels like it was or even if it plain isn’t. A breaking of the fourth wall almost, a spinning off into another planet, even the ones that enmesh themselves in the action through a sieve of logic, like the Madison bit from Godard’s Band of Outsiders or when John Leguizamo and Mira Sorvino dance to Marvin Gaye in Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam; but more so when it doesn’t, like the exhilarating coda to the Takeshi Kitano Zatoichi and that lovely bit near the end of Quark Henares’ Keka that feels kindred with the dancing in Tisoy! and Kakaba-Kaba Ka Ba?. They’re all digs, sure. But you can parse a hum of affection coursing through it. Not obviously and, really, I’m mostly just guessing. And possibly projecting my own peculiar affection on it, itself most likely colored by an idiot love for crap and a tinge of nostalgia for it. Oh, it’s silly and naïve but it’s this naïve silliness, this utter disregard for everything, that counts for its untrammeled enthusiasm, for the purity of its unwitting anarchy, and for my screwy fondness for it.