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Thursday, March 5, 2020

Beyond the Canon: Perfumed Nightmare + The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser

It is no secret that the cinema canon has historically skewed toward lionizing the white, male auteur. Beyond the Canon is a monthly series that seeks to question that history and broaden horizons by pairing one much-loved, highly regarded, canonized classic with a thematically or stylistically-related—and equally brilliant—work by a filmmaker traditionally excluded from that discussion. This month’s double feature pairs Kidlat Tahimik's Perfumed Nightmare (1977) with Werner Herzog's The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974).

By Richard Bolisay

In May 2017, the Cinematheque Centre Manila screened The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) as part of its Werner Herzog retrospective. In attendance was the Filipino filmmaker Kidlat Tahimik, who briefly appears in the film. In the scene his character, along with Kaspar Hauser, is one of the Four Riddles of the Spheres presented to a curious audience as exotic creatures in a freak show. Called Hombrecito, he is described as “an untamed Indian from the sunny shores of New Spain” and “plays his wooden flute night and day” because otherwise “all the people in town will die.” When the ringmaster says that he speaks Indian, the poker-faced Tahimik stops playing the flute and speaks a local Tagalog saying about criticizing someone: “Bato bato sa langit ang tamaan ay huwag magagalit…” At this moment the Cinematheque audience, engrossed in the seriousness of the period film, roared with laughter, the context of which would obviously not occur to non-Filipino viewers who might interpret the scene as a minor narrative detail, or not recognize Tahimik at all. For the Filipino cinephile, however, this short sketch in one of Herzog’s major films affirms what has long been known of Tahimik: he is a presence that never bores, an artist that can make an audience pay attention.

Born in Baguio City in northern Philippines, Eric de Guia (Tahimik’s birth name) studied in Manila, took up theater in college, and eventually pursued an MBA at Wharton. He found himself in Munich during the 1972 Olympics, where he lived in a commune and met his wife and a German film student whose projects became his first foray into cinema. One day Herzog showed up as a substitute teacher and saw Tahimik and asked him if he was an actor. Months later the German director was giving him instructions on the set of Kaspar Hauser. They remained in touch afterward: Tahimik showed Herzog a cut of Perfumed Nightmare, shot in the Philippines, France, and Germany, and the latter remarked, referring to his unconventional style: “Ah Kidlat, you are best at your detours!”

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser

One struggle when viewing films from Asia in a Western setting, which seldom happens the other way around, is the tendency to compare the Asian filmmaker and his sensibility to a supposed European and American counterpart, hence Tahimik, in the 1970s and 1980s, would often be likened to Godard and other French New Wave directors due to his crude, unorthodox storytelling. The politics of such dynamics, reliant on a hegemonic framework, has dangerous consequences. Like Hombrecito in a circus, Perfumed Nightmare has been exhibited for its distinctiveness, revered for its formal experimentation and discourses on neo-colonialism, but flattened by compliments from countries known for their repressive international policies and soft power.

Perfumed Nightmare is a docufiction, providing glimpses of Tahimik’s life in the province and sharing his comical musings on his town and its lack of progress. It’s as much a palimpsest of political history, buoyed by its filmmaker’s childlike drifts and guided by his inner spirit, which he fondly calls his duwende (“mischievous sprite”). Like most good documentaries, it travels through time and allows for an incisive look into lives in the past: the rituals observed during Holy Week and circumcision, Tahimik’s obsession with Wernher von Braun and Miss Universe and Voice of America, the people in the community who make nipa huts and sell ice candies and drive jeepneys, the short distance between Laguna and Manila but the huge difference in their rhythm, the captured time and space on both the geographical and social strata.

Perfumed Nightmare

Like most good fiction, it is engaging without being simplistic, connects issues without making hasty generalizations, and raises more questions than answers. With the overlapping of Tagalog and English in the voiceover, and its fascination with bridges and vehicles, Perfumed Nightmare recognizes the post-colonial as essentially colonial, and Tahimik’s cosmopolitanism speaks volumes of the political climate in the country in the 1970s and 1980s—with the brutality of President Marcos’ martial law and the beginning of what would be the most extensive social transformation in Philippine society: the export of human labor.

Whenever Kidlat Tahimik (which translates as “quiet lightning” in Tagalog) introduces himself by his assumed name, it expunges the Eric de Guia who has been completely accepting of American dominance and asserts an attempt at decolonization in however slight a way, if it is ever possible. Whenever he interrogates—e.g. “If the small markets work, why supermarkets?” “If the small chimneys work, why the super-chimneys?” “If small airplanes work, why super flying machines?”—it demonstrates resistance. Before leaving Munich, Herzog told Tahimik: “You can never be a good Bavarian director.” It was a compliment, a piece of advice for him to listen to his inner duwende. And that encouragement made Perfumed Nightmare what it is.

Join us for Beyond the Canon on Sun, Mar 8 at 4pm.

Richard Bolisay is a writer and film critic based in Manila. He teaches film at the University of the Philippines and is one of the artistic directors of the collective Cinema Is Incomplete. He is the author of Break It to Me Gently: Essays on Filipino Film, published in 2019.

Photos courtesy of:
Perfumed Nightmare: Les Blank Films
Enigma: Shout Factory / Werner Herzog Filmproduktion
© 2020 Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.

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