Imelda, Stage Mother: Thoughts on The Kingmaker

How Lauren Greenfield’s documentary is a story deprived of an ending.

by Manuel L. Quezon III
Feb 14, 2020

Nearly a generation separates Ramona Diaz’s documentary, Imelda, from Lauren Greenfield’s documentary, The Kingmaker, also on Imelda. Diaz’s work opened the curtain, so to speak, on the Last Act of Madame Marcos’ life: her transformation from Iron Butterfly to Celebrity Stage Mother. Greenfield’s work, on the other hand, not only hoped, but obviously intended, to cover the closing of the curtain on this Last, 20-year, Act: would the Celebrity Stage Mother succeed in her plot to put Ferdinand Jr. a.k.a. Bongbong on the throne—the same one from which his father (and her husband) had been toppled 30-odd years ago?In between the two efforts was a creative exploration (and musical artistic collaboration, with Fatboy Slim) of Madame as Imeldific, the musical Here Lies Love, by David Bryne, who once bicycled his way around our town. As a creative effort, it may have hit home more effectively than efforts aimed at documenting reality: for as Imelda quotably put it in Greenfield’s documentary, “Perception is real, and the truth is not.” Which is an Imeldific way of saying that old truism that perception trumps reality.

Byrne, trying to tell truth through music, could be more fiercely independent of Imelda than any documentary film-maker, because a documentary maker trying to portray truth on film, would, by necessity, have to include Imelda’s version of the “truth,” surrendering center stage, for however limited a time, to a proven show-stopper: Imelda’s portrayal of herself. What both have in common, then, is the well-honed Imelda Act, one part demented fairy godmother, another part bumbling Cruella de Vil, with a Merry Widow soundtrack often verging on Loony Tunes. Watching both documentaries reminds you that Imelda as Entertainment is pure Las Vegas: she is the old lounge singer, in feather boa and sequined gown, belting out time-tested, time-worn tunes in an act unchanged over half a century, which remains box-office (and vote-getting) gold.

And so, as it turned out, both documentary makers ended up victimized by Madame Marcos. Diaz, bedazzled by the Imeldific, unintentionally, but thoroughly, became complicit in the ultimate aim of the Marcoses, which was to rehabilitate themselves; her documentary revealed an Imelda so charmingly peculiar, such eccentrically good copy, as to be defanged and purged of her blood-drenched fangs as the surviving half of the Conjugal Dictatorship, becoming, instead, a Merry Widow drawing madcap charts in between long lectures on duterium.

Greenfield, more consciously committed to exposing Madame for what she was, by contrasting her attempt at being a Blithe Spirit with the testimony of the victims of her husband’s regime, still ended up robbed of the point of her documentary, by Imelda’s failure to achieve kingmaker status. Her darling son, as it turned out, despite decades of careful plotting, proved incapable of achieving the vice-presidency. The entire premise of the Greenfield effort, to chronicle the climax of the Marcos Restoration, did not foresee its turning out a dud. Here was Madame, armed with billions and an elephantine memory, a host of still-loyal retainers, a galaxy of on-again, off-again allies, and with a loyalist presidential candidate, Rodrigo Duterte, seemingly ready to merely warm the presidential seat for Ferdinand Jr.—and still, Bongbong couldn’t even win the vice-presidency—being beaten, like dear old dad, by a woman. A widow. Imagine that!

It probably seemed too much a rerun of the past for even Greenfield to consider the possibility of a Marcos defeat. Greenfield, in the end, did her best to contrast Leni Robredo with Ferdinand Jr., both turning out somewhat pale shadows of the epic antagonists of 30 years ago, Cory Aquino and Ferdinand Sr. Which means that the electoral upset managed by Leni Robredo still appears, in documentary terms, at least, a disappointment.

The introduction of Rodrigo Duterte—himself the son of a Cory Crusader, yet also the son of former member of Marcos Sr.’s first cabinet—could have introduced a kind of incomprehensible spoiler into what was otherwise a clear-cut, and thus rather boring, case of history repeating itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time, as farce. Meant to be the Marcos’ secret weapon, did he end up only fulfilling part of the bargain? He gave the Great Dictator a state funeral, but what of securing a favorable electoral protest for the son? Here could have been a truly dark and twisted tale of political skullduggery. But it wasn’t told. Instead, he appears, and then sort of wanders around the rest of the documentary like a lost rottweiler.

Simply settling for chronicling the eventual exposure of the Marcos’ Restoration Scheme as a farce, wouldn’t have been a bad idea. For there is something truly farcical in everyone, from Madame on down (including her husband’s victims and a new generation of Marcos critics) taking Ferdinand Jr. seriously, only for him to be so clearly exposed in the documentary as a callow, hollow, vessel for the ultimate disappointment of a dynasty’s hopes and dreams for a successful sequel. We are, after all, a nation whose film industry has produced Shake, Rattle and Roll XV; what’s a Ferdinand Part II compared to that utter milking of a time-worn concept? Ferdie and Meldy, after all, started off as ersatz Kennedys, in an era when Philippine pop culture sported crooners marketed as the equivalent of their American counterparts. And we remain, as more than one observer has quipped, a nation where old foreign acts still find reliable audiences.

But Greenfield’s documentary, though deprived of an operatic ending, had set up the Marcoses as a relentless, corrupting, corrupt, political force. So it couldn’t quite go down the road of farce, which would mean settling for the final verdict on the Marcoses as having been on a Fool’s Errand. So, instead, the last part of the documentary stumbles around, lost. Greenfield’s Imelda documentary was conceived as the chronicle of a historic ambition about-to-be-fulfilled, only for the ambition to be foiled, when the documentary was nearly done: all crescendo, with no climax.

All things considered, then, the Marcoses will always be lucrative box office, at least as far as their home turf, Ilocos Norte, or even the Senate, which is always a 12-candidate mixed bag of nostalgia, novelty, and occasional competence, are concerned; but consider this: the Marcos Highway was renamed Aspiras Highway, meaning the Great Dictator’s been supplanted by one who was merely his Minister of Tourism. If even the Solid North can demote its Apo, what more the seeming inevitability of a Marcos Restoration? A bonafide blockbuster requires real star power: creating that for Bongbong proved beyond the skill of even the most devoted of Stage Mothers, herself past her prime. She’d worked, for three decades after their fall from power, to make it seem inevitable that her son would redeem his father’s name; in one election, that son threw away their armor: that aura of invincibility.

Nearly a generation separates two Imelda documentaries: Diaz’s, which turned her into a reality-show celebrity, and Greenfield’s, which aimed to chronicle the reality show’s dud-fated effort to spawn a spinoff. In focusing on the ageing antics of Marcos loyalists and the stern, but greying, outrage of the Marcos’ victims, both ignored the larger audience for whom the Marcoses may remain a box-office draw, but still, a niche market. The last few minutes of Greenfield’s documentary comes too close to exposing this: Imelda is tired, older than old; an old campaigner, she instinctively croons and warbles when the spotlight’s on her; but the zest is gone from her eyes, and instead, revealed, for the first time, is the realization she is, finally, a has-been. A stage mother whose baby couldn’t cut it.

The Kingmaker will be screened at UP Cine Adarna, University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City, on February 25. For more information, check out the UPFI Film Center Facebook page



Manuel L. Quezon III.

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