Oh What a Show! — The Greatest Showman

show

This is where we have a clean break with musicals based on Broadway. The movie musical has elements that makes its performance incomparable with the old theater – the narrative, the music, the dances, plus the ever-powerful eye known as the camera. And here, the eye takes us through the rise and fall narrative based on the life of P. T. Barnum, and the music and the dances really entertain. But we’re experiencing everything for the first time, no expectations, no disappointments, just fresh anticipation that we’ll be going home after the show with a song to hunt down in Spotify to animate our day.

The opening sequence declares, “This is the Greatest Show,” well — it probably is not but surely one of the greatest, yet that exaggeration is fine. “A Million Dreams” is a flashback to the rise of P.T. Barnum, and we are treated to the delight of sights and sounds in a run down house in the forest that soon ends on a Manhattan skyscraper with dance steps performed at the fringes of the roof.

“The Other Side” which is the song and dance performance about two gentlemen negotiating a work arrangement over drinks is plain genius. The technical difficulty of mounting this part of the film deserves recognition. From the choreography that syncopates to the beat, to the lyrics (I imagine this is how Steve Jobs pirated the Pepsi Cola CEO to run Apple in the 80s), and the musical arrangement as the drinks are rolled in and the performers are gulping them to the punctuations of the drum. They must have been drunk after the shoot. Of course, nobody in real life should do that.

The trapeze act with the lovers singing “Rewrite the Stars” is marvelous and breath-taking, another “for show” only, not recommended to be done at home. When the sequence started, I was cringing on my seat, whispering to myself, this can’t be happening. But the performance bar has been set, love is the topic with Romeo and Juliet characters swinging on a fifteen meter high trapeze, nothing can compare.

There is no doubt that this musical has fully explored the artistic possibilities of the film in the musical form, but the question is are we getting enough substance?

In the lectures of Michel Foucault, he spent some time about the predicament of the “freak”, how they have been outcasted by society. Foucault describes the human monster as a breach of the law and stands outside of the law in the 18th century. But in this movie, P.T. Barnum spins this prejudice and turns it into a show. Of course, the pejorative connotations of the circus will probably stick around for a long time, and the New York critic states at the heart of the film that the circus is not art, but somebody else might describe it as a celebration of humanity. That is very clever I must say, a very subdued declaration that is not only double-hearsay and loose opinion, yet it is there floated around for everyone to ponder.

But I would be an advocate for the sole reason that people in those times did not know any better. Freaks were hidden, considered as the offsprings of sinners, cursed to be outcasts, with no hope and place in society. To be able to isolate the thought that the freaks are curiosities but otherwise normal and bet a dollar people will pay to watch the freaks, that is akin to a scientific paradigm shift. So, I am claiming that statement, “The circus was a celebration of humanity.” I said it, and probably will say that again and again. The circus was a breakthrough. We should acknowledge that we wouldn’t have encountered the freaks and the elephants in the normal course of things were it not for the guy who thought that they could be put on exhibit for a buck. Nevermind, if they were made to ride a horse while shooting blanks and wearing weird but happy costumes.

Be that as it may, the sustainability of the circus business is off the table, especially because we know so much more now, and the human and animal rights advocates are saying something right — the freaks are no different from us, and the animals need to thrive in their own environment. Further, this is no way an endorsement of P. T. Barnum as a hero of sorts. While P.T. Barnum of the movie follows Campbell’s myth of a hero, the real life P.T. Barnum is a much more complex character. I’m pretty sure, he played both hero and villain depending on one’s inclinations. This is the tricky part with material based on true-to-life stories, the melding of the fiction and the non-fiction is contentious and the standard of what elements to editorialize or fictionalize is relative. That matter is for the historians to deal with. It is enough that the film declared that it is based on P. T. Barnum’s life, and is not a documentary. Thus, comments about the historical accuracy of the film are irrelevant to its artistic merit.

Indeed, the movie is an exemplification of the “show”. Every note, streak of light, shadow, beat, and word that the movie brings form part of an artistic system that is hooked on the metaphor of the Greatest Showman. The amusing part is it declared that the circus is not one that could be called art, as if to say, and proudly and rightly so, that this movie is.

As a final note, the soundtrack is now on endless repeat mode on my Spotify. Not quite as edgy as the ones from La La Land, which were written by the same guys, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, but the addition of the African drums and the dramatic pauses at the end instead of the grand coda are welcome. These songs relate very well to the mini-events of the daily grind, replete with meaning, a little bit Disneyesque, but might as well be used as a soundtrack for life.

Ang Larawan: The movie as hope

I think the best approach to enjoying “Ang Larawan” is the one in which the viewer temporarily breaks off with its original version as a play and watches it as a movie as if it was originally conceived and produced as such. Having read the play and having seen the production of the musical version years ago, I was telling my wife, this could be a sleeper, especially so that I have developed this habit of dozing off on a film if its first ten minutes fail to interest me. But she made a bet that I wouldn’t because the language of Larawan, which is Filipino (although I think it is Tagalog at its finest) would keep my interest piqued and help me stay awake. Then, the film started to roll.

I wasn’t just awake, I was fully engaged.  From the opening sequence, in which I was debating with myself whether the set was in Intramuros or the old Villavicencio house in Taal, Batangas, to the final scene  when the last procession of the La Naval in October 1941 before the war broke in December that year was shown, the movie had me on a roller coaster of emotions. And my verdict:  Say goodbye to your play Nick Joaquin. This play of yours is no longer your own. We are part of it now.

The two ladies, Candida and Paula, describing themselves as “lukaret” had me rolling in laughter. I haven’t heard that word in a long time, and Rolando Tinio, the translator, managing to insert that in the sequence after the fallen high society dames realized that they were being stupid for thinking that their electricity was cut off during a blackout war drill is pure genius. Don Perico’s song “Hindi simple ang buhay”, the wailing of a morally-compromised ex-poet and successful politician hits the level of the guts. Ay! — the shock of recognition when I remember that the once and future President, Raul S. Roco, considered a career in poetry before going to law school. The Conga sequence provides much of the comic relief and keeps everything interesting, as if telling the audience, we know this is heavy stuff, let’s dance.

But Larawan takes you to that part where Candida and Paula are confronted with the ten thousand dollar question, to sell or not to sell their old man Lorenzo Marasigan’s obra maestra. I was half-laughing and half-crying at this scene, asking myself what would I do if I were in their shoes? Being the husband of an artist and knowing the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune as Shakespeare puts it, I know it might happen to me or my children once (God forbid!), and we will have to choose: a prized artwork or the next meal? Having lived a daily and meaningful existence with an artwork that adorns the abode, one’s experience of parting with great art for a paltry sum feels like eternal damnation, an unforgivable act of shame, and a prostitution of one’s life and humanity.

Yet still,  Larawan has a final highlight that throws the audience in cathartic ecstasy. As the elder Marasigan siblings threaten to drag Paula and Candida out of the house, the hermit artist comes out of his room, embraces the sisters, and looms large on the screen, his face full with the expression of love, hope, and defiance against the onslaught of the call to go with the modernizing way of the world. Meanwhile, the La Naval procession outside approaches the house and the camera zooms in on the Virgin Mother whose miraculous intercession is credited for the Spanish victory over the invading superior Dutch forces several centuries ago, as if to say that where all hope is gone,  the fire and brimstone of war at your door, your siblings and friends have sold you out, and the last drop of energy in your bones about to give, the devotion to the Virgin Mary is the last sanctuary for all of us battered souls.

Writing as Quijano de Manila, Nick Joaquin himself describes in his essay, La Naval de Manila, the experience of seeing this annual procession,

“Many an October evening while watching this procession of La Naval, and having divined, by a general excitement, the approach of the image, he has heard the cries and trumpets of the passing concourse. He has seen her blaze into vision against the skies of his city, born upon cloud of incense and music, her face on fire with jewels and mysterious with the veneration of centuries, with gleaming rainbows forming and falling all about her and silken doves bobbing whitely among her flowers of gold and silver—Oh, beautiful and radiant as an apparition!—the Presence at Lepanto, Lady and Queen and Mother of Manila, the Virgin of the Fifteen Mysteries.”

The play ends with Bitoy Camacho’s elegiac pleas  among the ruins of the Marasigan house as he calls on Candida, Paula, and Lorenzo Marasigan who died in their house during the war. The movie cuts off the sequence and with good reason. This is a movie and not a play. The language of the film is light and shadow. Where the play ends with a speech, the film ends with a scene of a life long gone but beautifully preserved in images and song.

Tolstoy would have approved. While the movie doesn’t preach, hope is a theme that permeates its every scene; hope that springs from the love between sisters and the sisters and their aged father. It was love that moved the long retired artist to paint an obra maestra to save his daughters from the poverty and the onslaught of decay in the last days of old Manila; the same love that kept the sisters together and ultimately what moved them not to sell their father’s dying gift. And love it is that kept the characters of this movie and the inhabitants of old Manila to preserve the tradition of the La Naval, a brotherhood amidst destruction and death animated only by faith and hope in the Mother of God.

I emerged from this film with a profound infection of love and hope. Living in the conditions similar to old Manila, a threat of nuclear war from North Korea, despair among the citizens where a phony drug war is used to subterfuge institutional abuse, I imagined myself as the patriarchal Lorenzo Marasigan with that unforgettable expression on his face as if to say the words that are also the rallying cry of this film: contra mundum!

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Links:

Official trailer

Official website: Ang Larawan

Portrait of the Artist as Filipino by Nick Joaquin

Larawan: The Movie

Our Lady of La Naval de Manila

Intramuros

Nick Joaquin