Kidlat Tahimik, the renowned filmmaker from Baguio City, is arguably most famously known from his 1977 movie Perfumed Nightmare which is also often considered as one of the first Filipino indie films. Perfumed Nigtmare treated the idea of development as it was exported to the Philippines by its then American colonizers. In the end, Kidlat, who was also the main character in the film, met disillusionment instead of satisfaction.
We should ask: what has happened to the idea of progress Kidlat Tahimik both filmed and lived with and came up in the name of Perfumed Nightmare? When the storm blows the cocoon, the butterfly embraces the sun and more or less got burned, and hence, must opt for a new path and a new destination. A path and destination that are both self-set, as the film would tell towards its end. The bridges were either left unfinished or destroyed and so Kidlat’s and the film’s exhortations: choosing one’s own vehicle; choosing one’s own bridge. The capitalistic monster continues to haunt and more terrifyingly so as it commences its late stage and purports to construct avenues for human development in the name of its genuine objective: perpetual growth of capital and profit for the weal of the few at the expense of the majority. Classical slogan-ish message adroitly transformed by the film into a clean narrative profuse with well-placed, mostly bricolaged images.
Tahimik was President of the Wernher von Braun Fan Club, an individual harboring the American dream in a manner and for reasons we very much certainly know. The film is not scarce with interesting and meaningful opposites: the title (Perfumed Nightmare) itself intrigues with its play on opposites. During the opening credits, we could see the words “Isang film ni Kidlat Tahimik.”
What I read is that at the onset, the film is preparing the audience to the tricky ironies it will present and perhaps it wished for them to ruminate intently on. Kidlat is captivated by the American Radio Show and the Miss Universe and perhaps we were already dismissing him as the typical Americanized rural Filipino. Still, Kidlat’s roots are firmly Filipino: the insular atmosphere, the bamboo nuts which they plod on, I think these hardly mutable spatial configurations and elements keep Kidlat from being totally drawn to barbaric Americanization. He lives with fellow Filipino probinsyanos, drives the uniquely Filipino jeepney across the locality and ultimately, as I wish to look at it, these engagements within his lived reality constantly posed the threat to complete Americanization and likewise sustained the potential of revealing the actual motivations behind this process.
Kidlat got an offer to work abroad and refusal seemed unfeasible. The film exploits its own narrative to show how America dwells in spirit both in another physical land and in that land’s people’s hearts and minds. On their journey, Kidlat and a female companion had to stop in order to pee and then the camera pans to the right to reveal a landscape and eventually a Marlboro country billboard. The connotations are rich and this richness can be situated tenably in several contexts. Through brands like Marlboro, the American spirit proves to continue to thrive in its former colony. Arriving at the airport, Kidlat appeared insane with joy. Disillusionment will arrive in a matter of one flight.
Cracked Paradise: Tahimik abroad
This is how the commencement of the stint abroad can be put in words: America is paradise. Kidlat was yet to reach America, but his initial exposures to Europe evidently already thrilled him. However, the series of events led him to his realization of his perfumed nightmare. Some words I caught which perhaps foretold or signified such realization are as follows: If small markets work, why build supermarkets? If small planes work, why super flying machines? An answer might have been already stated in a genius or lunacy of analyzing the course of history of society: production is dedicated not to needs but to profit.
As an ending, Kidlat resigned not only as President but member of the club. The message of his indictments can be read simplistically: I choose my vehicle. I choose my bridge. However, one can always probe possible complications. How can this not be read as wayward individualism? To what extent does it espouse the enforcement of self-agency in the face of socio-economic forces and their concomitant narratives? As Kidlat was disillusioned by the American dream, how can we gauge his ensuing change of understanding of the realities outside himself? Is it still significant? One can propound that we can settle at where the film settles: Kidlat seeing first-hand the thing with foreign countries which ultimately curtailed his zealous desire to go to America, and shatter his lofty ideas about the country. This was furthered with valid and thought-provoking questions and insights, but how can one formulate a more solid understanding of the whole?
These are questions emerging from evaluative purposes, which are not entirely what I aim to do here. As Terry Eagleton said, we speak of ourselves when we do evaluation while we speak of the text when we do criticism. Still, I believe evaluation and criticism cannot wholly exist without the other and this is something that shall be welcomed.
As a final note, Tahimik’s Perfumed Nightmare masterfully exploits its formal properties, particularly the narrative itself, the point of view and the editing to come up with an artistic whole delivering a coherent point. Through the ways of seeing of Kidlat the Club President and the screwy juxtapositions of images in a number of frames and sequencing of clashing images, Perfumed Nightmare reveals the stink of the American-glossed idea of “development” we have been dreaming about. It is something one would not want to be into, as evinced in the end by Kidlat resigning from the Club and returning to the Philippines.