By Menchu Aquino Sarmiento
Directed by Timmy Harn
IF THERE had been an award for Best Soundtrack at the recently concluded QCinema Film Festival, Timmy Harn’s Dog Days should have won it, hands down. Bold and daring, shamelessly derivative, with wailing trombones, brash percussion, melancholy lounge piano, the excellent soundtrack variously enhanced and complemented the stark black and white cinematography, just as the right hymn might during a religious service. Because Dog Days has the transcendent quality of religious homage to film itself. A particular favorite is the insistent electric thrumming bass, while the girlfriend Maureen (Barbara Ruaro) leans out of a car window, and thoughtfully puffs on a post-coital cigarette as she gazes at the trees speeding by overhead. Her pixie haircut and the elegiac road trip setting evoke the French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) of Jeanne Moreau by Goddard, and even Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.
Harn’s film is a purely cinematic experience in the sense that it does not rely on conventional plot and logical, sensible dialogue, but uses so many hallowed cinematic memes like manic neural connections, zinging and pinging wildly, to move the film along. But Dog Days is not always lyrical. One may sense that if John Waters and David Lynch had a baby, he might have been Timmy Harn. The aged, mottled godfather who takes over the drug dealer Evelyn’s territory bears a definite resemblance to David Lynch. The story’s sensibility is very Pinoy: that of blood sacrifice, seasoned with high and low camp, such as in the scene where the hero’s best friend unexpectedly dies. During the wake, as the staid grandparents brokenly mourn, Michael (Ybes Bagadiong) grabs the urn and pours the ashes out on the living room carpet, earnestly explaining that’s how his friend would have wanted it. What he does with his unborn child is something else. Being Pro-Life acquires another dimension.
The protagonist Michael Jordan Ulili is a child of sin. His mother Carmen stole her sister Rochelle’s (Adrienne Vergara) boyfriend Erving, who got her pregnant then disappeared. In atonement, Carmen gives up her life, bathing her baby Michael in her blood, the way that the mythical Achilles was bathed in the river Styx by his mother to make him immortal. Carmen’s goal is more modest. She wants her son to become a basketball legend, never mind that he grows up to be short-limbed and stumpy. Her death has given him the gift of being able to shoot a hoop with unfailing accuracy from the other end of the court. To make up for stealing Erving from her, Carmen has her friend Luis (Marcus Adoro) who has witnessed her sacrifice, leave baby Michael with the skanky Rochelle. Adrienne Vergara seemed simultaneously possessed by both Edith Massey (the egg lady in John Waters’ Pink Flamingos) and the drag queen Divine — quite a feat, actually. She is surely one of the most intelligent actresses working today with a wide and unpredictable range.
The theme of blood sacrifice as panata (vow) runs throughout the film. This is as Pinoy as the standard Holy Week flagellants and voluntary crucifixion re-enactors. The bad guys, the Manrique father and son, get jacked up by declaring “For the blood!” at every opportunity. In a wishful inversion of circumstances that could only happen in an alternate universe, an American basketball coach visits the Philippines to recruit players for the NBA — not in Imperial Manila, but in Olongapo no less.
The very Asian (Pinoy too) belief in ancestor worship and animism has Carmen’s soul transferring to Erving’s Galant Sigma, the only thing he left her with, and which is also the only thing she has to leave to her son. When Michael starts banging Maureen in the car, he does not realize how gravely he has disrespected his mother — hindi niya binigyan ng kahihiyan ang ina niya. It’s far worse than when unseeing passersby cluelessly knock over or trample upon the punso (mound) where the nuno (elves) dwell, and suffer some temporary discomfort as a result. Michael’s knee totally gives out, which ruins his basketball prospects. It’s downhill from there, what with Maureen’s pregnancy, and Michael losing his athletic scholarship. Their respective families throw them out. Homeless and penniless, both turn to shabu, using and pushing. In the end, another blood sacrifice is the only way to make things right again. Pinoys love stories with a moral lesson somewhere, and Dog Days is full of it, even without the happy ending.
MTRCB Rating: R-18
By Menchu Aquino Sarmiento