The Perfumed Nightmare (1977)
Kidlat Tahimik’s The Perfumed Nightmare is a wildly enchanting masterpiece, one of a kind in the truest sense of the word. It is truly magical, not only because the main protagonist, Kidlat, embodies child-like fascination for the world and what it can offer, but because it demonstrates an individual’s capacity to express and shape one’s own history, thereby showing a way to resist a grand narrative, or an ‘official account’, of our story. In this case, 'our history' denotes both the history of Philippines, and the history of modern world.
The Perfumed Nightmare is directed, starred, and narrated by Eric de Guia, A.K.A., Kidlat Tahimik, which means ‘Silent Lightning’ in Tagalog. The main protagonist, Kidlat, is a humble jeep-bus driver in a small village, and fascinated by all things American, from American radio program to the images of white American beauty queens. However, the subject of his ardent admiration is a German-American scientist, Wernher von Braun, the man who ‘made a bridge to the moon’. To Kidlat, von Braun represents the progress of humankind and the glorious splendour of modern civilisation. In his enthusiasm, Kidlat becomes the president and founder of Wernher von Braun fan club, which consists only of village children. Throughout the duration of the film, Kidlat maintains his unassuming, childlike attitude. Thus, the film, though intellectually profound, does not come across as pretentious. If anything, it might appear wild, crazy, and even funny.
Yet, there are signs that this film has more to it than meets the eyes. For example, it is hard to imagine that Eric de Guia was ignorant of the legacy of Wernher von Braun. The scientist was also the creator of the V2 Schneider rockets, arguably the first Inter Continental Ballistic Missile, which later became the key instrument of mutually assured destruction policy (MAD) during the Cold War. Despite the fact that von Braun was a member of NAZI party and the SS, the OSS gave him immunity, brought him to the USA, and put his talent to use, despite Truman’s insistence that no former Nazi party member would be recruited to work for the USA. All this was possible by means of Operation Paperclip, an OSS program set up solely to manipulate wartime records of desirable former NAZI members. To circumvent Truman’s restriction, the OSS systematically whitewashed desirable subjects’ pasts and created false wartime records for them. In case you forgot, von Braun also left a mark on the history of film, as he was the man who inspired the role of Dr. Strangelove.
Thus, it is clear that Kidlat is not Eric de Guia; Kidlat is created as a court jester who mocks his Western masters by pretending to be simple and primitive. His outrageous tactlessness is only a means to deliver his critique and wisdom to the masters in their comfortable thrones. By setting up von Braun as the man who represents modern civilisation, Eric de Guia, by disguise of Kidlat, is questioning the very nature of modern civilisation. Therefore, whilst we laugh or smile at Kidlat’s supposed naïveté, we soon realise that it is we who are naïve and ignorant of the history, of the nature of our civilisation, and of the future history which we are creating by doing nothing. And we also realise that, despite the appearance, the subject of this film is no laughing matter. Because, after all, this film is an unflinching meditation on the destructiveness of modern civilisation as a whole. Through the unlikely journey of Kidlat, de Guia confronts the official history of the Philippines, as well as the official history of humankind by creating his own mythology against the ‘objective account’ of the modern world.
Despite all this seriousness, The Perfumed Nightmare brims with the joy of film making. The exuberance we experience through this film is genuine, and it cannot be reduced to the comic excellence of Kidlat the jester alone. The sheer enthusiasm expressed by de Guia and his crew in creating this unique masterpiece is truly infectious. Unlike Tarantino’s work, there is little or no reference and homage to the history of cinema here. Instead, like the main character Kidlat, the entire film expresses the wild curiosity and excitement of creating and experiencing a film. Although it is true that to make such a profound film with the appearance of primitivity requires a deep intelligence and an outstanding creative instinct, one cannot help but be enchanted by the excitement which the entire crew must have felt throughout the filming. There is truly a childlike quality to the joy of creative expression embodied by this film. I know of no other movie which is capable of expressing such an excitement while dealing with a serious subject such as the destructive nature of modernity. The Perfumed Nightmare, despite the somber title, manages to be simultaneously profound and funny, political and mythological. For this reason alone, The Perfumed Nightmare must be visited and revisited, not only because the subject matter is as relevant as ever. It is also an outstanding creative feat.
Now, before ending this article, let us ask one more question. Who actually is Eric de Guia, after all? This Filipino prefers to present himself as Kidlat. He travels as Kidlat, directs as Kidlat, and performs as Kidlat. After the completion of The Perfumed Nightmare, it is as if the person previously known as Eric de Guia was replaced by Kidlat Tahimik. Yet Kidlat cannot exist without Eric. Then, who are they, really? My take is: Eric is a Sancho Panza. He walks besides his mad and wild master, Kidlat, without drawing attention to himself. But Kidlat did not absorb Eric. Eric accompanies every step Kidlat takes, even though it is Kidlat who does all the talking.
Still, there is an important difference between the literary masterpiece by Cervantes and this cinematic gem. Whilst the Spanish author was Sancho Panza himself, it is not clear at all who gets the credit for creating The Perfumed Nightmare. In fact, it is impossible to measure the contributions and the influences of each in this film. And this ambiguity arising from the invention of history and the reinvention of oneself through it is one of the most fascinating qualities of this movie.