Kidlat Tahimik's "Perfumed Nightmare" Remains an Unlikely Masterpiece

Max Goldberg May 18, 2006

Early on in Kidlat Tahimik’s visionary, comic documentary “Perfumed Nightmare” — screening this Sunday at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts courtesy of SF Cinematheque — the director offers a striking metaphor for his filmmaking process. In a series of long shots we watch as the discarded frames of American army jeeps are refashioned into the ornately adorned jitneys that bump down the Philippines’ many dirt roads. Driving a jitney is how Tahimik’s onscreen character makes a living, but, more the point, this resourceful transformation demonstrates the director’s vision of creativity in a globalized world as an act of reappropriation. It’s a vision put powerfully into practice with “Perfumed Nightmare,” a Filipino art film in which process is ultimately indivisible from form.

Largely forgotten today, “Perfumed Nightmare” created a minor sensation upon its release. After meeting Werner Herzog during a stint in Berlin, Tahimik set about making his debut on a shoestring budget (reportedly under $10,000), incorporating found footage and borrowing plenty of equipment along the way. Finished in 1977, “Perfumed Nightmare” was entered in that year’s Berlin Film Festival and came away with the coveted International Film Critic’s Prize. It took until 1980 for the film to be distributed in the U.S. (first by Francis-Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios and then by El Cerrito’s Flower Films), but when it was, critic J. Hoberman mused that, “‘Perfumed Nightmare’ seems likely to become some sort of classic.”

Watching the film a couple of decades later, it remains difficult to categorize and still seems very much ahead of the curve. Tahimik follows discards the typical model of “objective” documentary (the kind innovated by Robert Flaherty, refined with cinema verite, and still very much in vogue today), instead choosing to integrate himself into the film. But Tahimik, partly out of necessity for a workable narrative device, takes even more liberty than his German mentor does in shaping his onscreen persona. The resulting character, a naive Filipino enamored with U.S. culture and technology, allows Tahimik to probe globalization in the context of a (somewhat) linear plot.

The film begins with Tahimik’s character living in a rural village but dreaming of America and the West. He’s the president of fan club dedicated to rocket scientist Werner Von Braun, lives for Voice of America radio broadcasts, and drives his jitney by a towering Marlboro advertisement. America isn’t the only power Tahimik-the-director is concerned with — he’s also taken with the Catholic Church, at one point flashing to a twin picture frame enshrining the Virgin Mary and Miss Universe side-by-side — but it is the loudest of colonialism’s many faces. Tahimik’s onscreen character eventually travels to Paris and Germany to work for a capitalist in the gumball business, and disenchantment comes quickly — a giant supermarket which puts Tahimik’s food vendor friends out of business is mostly responsible — though it’s a disenchantment fraught with ambivalence.

Describing plot, it must be said, only gets you so far. The documentary’s form rivals film studies-favorite “WR: Mysteries of the Organism” in its eclectic pastiche. Staged and improvised material of Tahimik interacting with Filipino villagers and, later, Europeans co-mingles with newsreels of Western politicians, ethnographic footage of puberty rituals, and lyrical interludes featuring the Filipino countryside. All this, of course, doesn’t take the dense soundtrack into account. Sound being cheaper than vision, Tahimik goes for broke with a virtuosic melange of radio broadcasts, sound effects, and dialog, all grounded by the protagonist’s foundational voiceover.

“Perfumed Nightmare” isn’t always even, and Tahimik’s lack of resources can make for some rough going, but, in this case, the lack of clarity seems appropriate. Tahimik is, after all, grappling with a pretty messy subject in globalization. Early in the film, his character comments how a story of airplane travel is worth more to him than actual money; later, he curses the West’s tendency for wasteful super-sizing. Although the earlier perspective may be more naive than the later one, this isn’t a matter of right and wrong. Rather than presenting an invective against globalization, Tahimik considers it as a multi-sided system, hugely appealing in some ways, while deeply troubling in others. By probing globalization with cinema — a quintessentially industrial medium — the director’s deliberations become ingrained in the creative process itself. The film ends with Tahimik’s character declaring his own independence, but, by this point, he’s only affirming what’s been made altogether apparent by the film’s unique approach.

It’s unfortunately difficult not to think of “Perfumed Nightmare” as something of a dead-end, both in terms of Kidlat Tahimik’s unfulfilled filmmaking career and in the sense that underground Third World documentary never exactly took off. But perhaps it’s unfair to levy these concerns upon “Perfumed Nightmare,” an important film in any context. Part of what makes outsider filmmakers like Tahimik so valuable lies in their ability to explode deep-seeded categories like, for example, “documentary.” Watching the film today I’m reminded of a very different, but similarly resourceful and sensational outsider work: Jonathan Caouette’s “Tarnation.” If the ricocheting cultural signifiers in “Perfumed Nightmare” are any indication, it’s a connection Kidlat Tahimik might find very interesting.