‘Burlesk Queen’ Onto The Height of Pathos


The title, Burlesk Queen, with its Tagalized spelling of “burlesque,” immediately striking up an image of novelty and distinction all its own, and inspired by the actual period of Philippine entertainment in the 50s and 60s, is rooted in concrete historical perspective contributing immensely to its achievement of exemplary unity in film art.

To film buffs like Ricky Lee, who at the time was only just beginning to mull the idea of turning scriptwriter, it became necessary to check the shooting script of Burlesk Queen, ostensibly for the festival committee, but in reality, I didn’t bothered to find out. He didn’t get to realize that with Castillo, what script is written on the typewriter is barely half of the work one gets to finally see on film; the other half is written on the spot as an imperative of the limitations in local filmmaking, like creativity on the set, lack of logistics for production design or camera requirements, etc. That—on the spot scriptwriting—happens to be my cup of tea, which figures perfectly with Castillo’s creative style, method of work, whatever you may want to call it. Lee, definitely, won’t get to first base with Castillo in such a methodology.  At any rate, the best proof of the pudding is the tasting, never mind who the baker is.

Burlesk Queen opens with Virgie Knight (Rosemarie Gil) performing onstage. Traditionally movies begin by establishing the main character. Does Virgie’s opening dance defy the tradition? Not at all. Virgie may be taking time a bit too much in her dance so that she impresses the spectator as the main character in the story, but what is transpiring onstage is not an actress delineating a role but rather an image, an idea, of which the dancer is a mere representation. And what is that image, that idea?

Burlesque.  And under the principle of montage, when two representations are juxtaposed to each other, i.e., joined together, the juxtaposition produces a qualitatively different theme. By making the idea, image of burlesque as its opening number, Burlesk Queen upholds revered canons for artistic expression. On aesthetics in general, the film conforms perfectly with the Aristotlean test for art: “at once, brilliant, beautiful and whole.” Burlesque is a thematically-hewn visual delight, appearing as sudden as the opening shot.  By literary standard, Burlesk Queen conforms to the dictum of story development proceeding from the development of the main character. The actual start of the story is Chato’s (Vilma Santos’) affectation by the main theme, the burlesque dance.  Adherents of montage will amaze at the theme of burlesque, from scene one onward, permeating every scene and every detail of these scenes with astonishing, exquisite, if tedious, consistency.

Note this story flow. After Virgie’s performance, she and Chato take snack at an eatery, Chato expressing her desire to dance burlesque like Virgie so as to earn a big sum by which to buy her crippled father a wheelchair. Coming home, Chato excitedly relates to her father, Mang Roque (Leopoldo Salcedo), how nice Virgie’s dancing is—burlesque. In relating thus, Chato does hip bumps and gyrations— burlesque. Mang Roque expresses aversion to Chato’s job as attendant to—burlesque. All the way to Mang Roque’s distaste for the food pasalubong Chato brings him which he says he cannot stomach for being a proceed of . . . burlesque.

Even up to this point only, it becomes clear that the film has had a firm grasp of the tenets of montage, has grappled with, and has overcome, the problem of building compositional structure for achieving organic unity. But the extent of such unity must go all the way to the climax where the desired pathos must be experienced, so that the testing of the validity of this observation must be continued all the way to the finale.

What comes next? Virgie goes home to her own third-rate flat, swinging to a boogie tune from a transistor radio slung by a hand on her shoulder. The gait, the sway, the music, including the erratic electric light that goes on and off — all of these effect a retention of the aura of the burlesque theater. The ensuing quarrel between her and lover Ander (Roldan Aquino) centers on Virgie’s failure to get further advance payment for her dancing, what else but burlesque? For failing to give Ander the money he needs, Virgie is deserted by him then and there, and as he steps out of the house (off-frame), banging the door shut, the impact causes the light to turn off for good—certainly the theatrical way of ending an episode of a show as well as a transition to the next episode.

And what transpires next? In a flat-like Virgie’s, the morning after, a rough-edged, if attractive, cheaply-sexy-looking woman who Ander, in his lines, reveals as a nightclub hostess (Dexter Doria) is urging him to get dressed pronto (he is naked in bed, his front covered only with a pillow—isn’t this burlesque!) and accompany her to the dressmaker to get an outfit she had ordered. In one respect, aside from being exposed (his nakedness does this) now as a gigolo victimizing women in the flesh trade, Ander serves as the unifying thread with the immediately preceding scene with Virgie. In another respect, the club hostess’ urging Ander to accompany her to the dressmaker is a crafty method for making the aberrant Ander to stay on-line, i.e., stay within the theme. For at that very moment, who should be figuring in the dressmaker’s shop but, yes, Virgie, trying on a new costume for her stage act, again yes, burlesque.

This dress shop sequence is a particularly interesting specimen for study. What are its elements? Virgie trying on her new costume. Chato snickering at the window with a friend as she exchanges naughty glances with Jessie (Rolly Quizon, presented here for the first time), who is playing pool with barkada across the street. The arrival of Ander and the club hostess, who engages Virgie in a verbal tussle over burlesque. Lowly folks crowding in the surroundings, as audience in a theater. While a pair of musician beggars endlessly play a violin and percussion instrument, rendering music that completes the theater atmosphere.

Truly, indeed, as montage requires, a film to be art must conform to the law governing organic unity in natural phenomena. Lenin, the great leader of the Russian proletarian revolution under whose influence Eisenstein developed the montage theory, puts it this way: “…the particular does not exist outside that relationship which leads to the general. The general exists only in the particular, through the particular.”

Hence in Burlesk Queen, scene after scene, and detail after detail to their minutest proportions within each scene, nothing exists that is not within the central theme of burlesque.  In this dress shop sequence, Virgie makes like unaffected by Ander’s having completely abandoned her for the club hostess, but in the dressing room where she repairs to after the verbal clash, she gives vent to all her sorrow from having lost Ander forever. At precisely this point, Chato is exchanging love gazes with Jessie. Here we have a pretty lucid illustration of a rule in dramaturgy that has been a tradition of Greek tragedies whereby qualitative leaps in thematic development are always in the opposite. Chato’s joy at a nascent love affair with Jessie is contraposed to Virgie’s grief brought about by the end of her relationship with Ander. Yet though such qualitative leaps go separate ways, they stay confined within a seeming thematic parallel by which both leaps contribute to the building of a compositional structure necessary to maintain the organic unity begun earlier on at the opening. Virgie drops into depression and is so drunk during one burlesque presentation in the theater that she is not able to answer the call when her number comes. Now, who should come onstage to take Virgie’s place just so to placate a maddened crowd but a young dancer—Chato!

Love and hate, joy and sorrow, emotions going their separate ways, but perfectly maintained within the never-for-a-moment-missed parameters of the central theme of burlesque. More than bare feelings, the emotions actually represent images building up for another qualitative leap in the drama by which to finally attain, along strict criteria of Greek tragedies, the ultimate height of pathos. – Mao Gia Samonte Manila Times February 12, 2009

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