It’s difficult to imagine childhood without Dolphy, even when all he was to me was the image of a father on television, even as who I identified with was Maricel Soriano or Claudine Barretto playing his daughters in two different sitcoms, across two different generations. At some point this father image became interwoven with that of Enteng Kabisote, father to Aiza.
The images are real to me, the characterization of fatherhood that was protective but had difficulty providing, that was faced with the rich mother-in-law who disapproved, that struggled financially but had a posse who depended on him, underground as the economy was that they all created and fueled.And then I grew up, became more interested in shows other than sitcoms, if not the globalized culture that cable TV suddenly provided.
As we speak now, it’s easy to think the Pinoy sitcom dead. Because doesn’t it feel like exactly that, if our notions of its success happened last with “Home Along da Riles,” “Okidokidok,” “Ok Ka Fairy Ko”?
Many other things have died in popular culture since John Puruntong.
John is dead. John lives.
Or does he.
Who killed the pop culture star?
In current times, the answer is simple: popular culture as controlled by capital and global taste and spectatorship for sure. Because it has to be said that along with the death of the sitcom, there was the rise of the reality show; alongside the death of comedy, the rise of the romantic-comedy. Suffice it to say when John Puruntong and Enteng Kabisote died, replaced they were by <insert name of current matinee idol here>.
No characters, just names.
If not just people, which is what the reality show industry, this landscape of celebrity and the business of show has made of entertainment in current times. There was a time when we didn’t care so much about the personal lives of our celebrities, a time when there was a clear line drawn between the personal and the public persona, a time when the roles actors played in movies and on TV were far far from who they were in real life.
This was the time when John Puruntong was part of our real universe, even when he was fictional. A time when we knew Dolphy could only be distinct from the characters he played, and therein would lie the power of portrayal: if you’re playing something you aren’t, you so aren’t, and you do it successfully, is that not more difficult, if not more skillful, than say the matinee idol making us all swoon and bringing on the giddy with a ka-loveteam?
Dolphy was actor, and the measure of how good he was at it wasn’t so much that we laughed, but that we have concrete images of him in character. And that we are remembering these characters now, in Dolphy’s death, must mean something, yes?
Even when generations before mine would see him doing gay roles. He was after all doing this before anyone else did, something he took pride in: he did “pagbabakla” first! This speaks of how this is valuable to him, which should be reason enough to reassess these portrayals, yes? We might listen to Peque Gallaga who says that Dolphy’s portrayal of gay roles might have been precisely powerful because his real persona was so macho, so Pinoy macho in fact, that this must have meant much for openness if not acceptance. Maybe at the very least, the beginnings of discourse that isn’t about the easy and acceptable lambasting of the homosexual.
The effects of popular culture images are a tricky thing after all, and who’s to say, how do we say, that this dynamic between Dolphy as person and his gay roles is all negative?
And then there is the fact that he endured, given the changing landscape of TV and movie culture; Dolphy wasn’t one to concede, or engage in elitism, just because, or god forbid, stoop as low as it has gone. Instead, in what can only be the most tragic of times for the business of show, Dolphy proved hopeful.
Then it becomes a rundown of the fleeting but more recent images of Dolphy. Him with many of his kids on Quizon Avenue on the one hand, singing on a Sunday noontime show on the other. That Dolphy and Willie Revillame moment in the special “Talentadong Pidol,” another awarding ceremony that had Willie presenting Dolphy with a lifetime achievement award, where they perform together in matching all-white outfits (or am I imagining this last one to have happened?).
His guesting on “Eat Bulaga” at 80, doing a comedy number of old with Vic Sotto to promote “Dobol Trobol.” His refusal to run for office, lest he win and then what? The FPJ campaign that had him onstage, raising Da King’s hand. Watching “Father Jejemon” in 2010 and thinking: wow, he’s gotten old. Watching “Nobody Nobody But Juan” and thinking: wow, he’s become braver with age. Watching him in “Rosario” and thinking: dammit, you appear for what, 20 minutes in this movie, and you actually bring me to tears?
That station ID that had him as its center, with a red nose, telling us that here he was, and we all had reason to smile for Christmas.
Dolphy did his thing, remained as the characters he portrayed on TV and in movies, and built on the icon and celebrity of old. That is, still refusing to talk about his past and his private life, insisting only on revealing certain things, and surviving the changes in popular culture. There is no oversharing here, no revelations (with tears!) to be shed on nationwide television, if only to ascertain the next movie’s a box office hit.
Instead there was class. And grace.
Even the exit, you gotta admit, was exactly how we’d like it: no images of the sick man in the ICU, no Dolphy as old man. No family milking the crisis for all its worth.
And so we are left with just John Puruntong and Kevin Cosme, and if you’re lucky, just Dolphy the dancer, the theater actor, one of a pair with Panchito, the king of comedy, the father of the sitcom.
That has to matter.
Who needs a National Artist Award?
That this question is even being asked is a measure really of the kind of discourse we engage in when it comes to culture. It’s telling of the kinds of conversations we have with each other, it’s exactly what will keep someone like Dolphy from getting the award, excuse me, what has kept Dolphy from winning the award.
Does it matter now that he’s dead? Of course it does. Does it matter to him? Maybe not.
But it matters to us, doesn’t it? Now more than ever, at this particular juncture when the NAA is being discussed in this manner, in fora that heretofore and generally didn’t really care for it. This might be the first time this award has mattered on a national scale, that is, as something that we’re asking the man on the street about, as something that’s being discussed on radio, something that’s being discussed on Facebook and Twitter.
And this is unlike that time when we talked about the NAA in relation to Carlo Caparas getting it: that was about questioning the presidential prerogative that allowed Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to remove people from a list, and add more people to it. That was about whether or not certain people deserved it, whether or not that person who was removed by GMA was less deserving.
In the case of Dolphy, the public discourse has not been about whether or not he deserves it, but about the question why wasn’t he given it in 2009? There’s no one else who deserves it other than him, so goes public sentiment.
Generally, these NAA decisions happen without us knowing how or why. That Cecile Guidote-Alvarez, with a questionable NAA tucked under her belt, revealed that Dr. Nicanor Tiongson had spoken loudly against Dolphy’s awarding seems beside the point. Dr. Tiongson’s rebuttal after all confirms: he “believed that the two icons <Dolphy> created for film and TV – the screaming gay and the happy-go-lucky poor man – have, in the majority of his movies, equated gayness with abnormality and mindless frivolity on the one hand, and romanticized or deodorized poverty on the other.”
In the beginning I thought, good lord, how limited this academic reading of Dolphy, what a sweeping generalization. Can’t Dolphy’s effect be bigger and larger, be more complex? Can’t his effect on me matter? Can’t his effect on generations of movie going and TV watching public hold some water?
But now that I think about it, and with all possible and due respect to the body of work of Dr. Tiongson, I find that in light of the NAA, this can only be a breath of fresh air: for once, we have a sense of how our national artists are judged, how they have to answer to this kind of scholarly and academic rigor. How in the end, the question has to be: why was there no one who defended Dolphy against this assessment? And given that we now know that the scholarly perspective carries so much weight, what other disciplines are involved in the NAA’s decisions? While we’re at it might we answer what other aspects of being artist are considered, held closer to the light, before notions of national and the value of this award come into play? Do criteria change given the different artistic practices?
At the very least, now there is a bigger public that cares about the NAA on the one hand, the people who get it on the other. At least we might be able to engage in more intelligent discussions about it, especially as we grapple with notions of transparency and cliquishness, the public and the academe. It might do the latter well to engage with us who aren’t allowed to hear what they have to say about decisions that can only be about us given culture, given the question of what’s national, and who exactly is artist.
One would like to think that as interest in the NAA grows, there lies the possibilities for its changing, if not the renewal of its credibility. Maybe.
Dolphy, national artist ko
It is clear to me why Dolphy deserves the National Artist Award: his history from theater to TV to movies, his long-running TV shows, his box office hit movies, his ability to maintain a removed but connected relationship with his followers and fans. His were images that informed the kind of ideologies we might have about fathers and husbands, his was an image of the every man’s, every gay’s, struggles and successes at particular historical junctures. His was a bravery and intelligence that allowed for movies like “Nobody Nobody But Juan,” “Rosario,” and “Father Jejemon.” His was the ability at making people laugh, yes, but even more so at making us see how much of the every man, the father, the husband, the priest, the aged is also necessarily us in the way that we might exist collectively as a culture, distinct in our roles, but the same.
Dolphy taught us to look in the mirror and see difference. Then he said, you do not need to cross over to the riches of Donya Delilah, because your continued struggle validates you by and in itself. Your struggle is identity enough.
Here is why it surprises me no end, that PNoy has not stepped up, if only to take on the task of declaring of Dolphy as National Artist. Here is why I cannot for the life of me imagine why it’s so difficult for this government to even declare a national day of mourning. Or why they’re taking so long, when the nation has been mourning since Dolphy died.
They say let the NAA judges decide. But how might we be allowed to imagine Dolphy getting this award at this point? The only difference of 2009 to the present is that now Dolphy’s dead and people are asking why he hasn’t gotten the award yet. The only difference between PNoy declaring Dolphy national artist already, and the NAA declaring him after deliberations, is the date of declaration.
Context is all that has changed: Dolphy is dead.
Long live Dolphy? Not to this government it would seem.
Maybe that we think it, is enough.
This was written for and originally published in GMA News Online, July 13 2012.