ELY CRUZ passed just a few weeks ago, an event that was little noted by newspapers, or even by the studios he worked for. A tragedy, because he was a master cinematographer who worked for filmmakers as diverse as Mike de Leon, Peque Gallaga, Gil Portes, Chito Roño, and Tikoy Aguiluz.
Cruz was a believer in onscreen realism, in camera movement that served the narrative and isn’t just for show. He was also a believer in shadows — in veils that added depth to a shot, preserved the mystery of a character’s inner life, lured the viewer from his seat into the film frame.
Cruz was born on Feb. 18, 1948, in Taguig, Rizal. He majored in commerce for two years at Arellano University then got a job as visual artist at Channel 13, working his way up to news cameraman, shot and directed the series Vigilantes, and (in 1975) was chief cameraman for the Metro Manila Commission’s Metro Magazine.
Cruz’s first film assignment was as camera operator in Mike de Leon’s short Monologo (Monologue, 1975) and later, with Rody Lacap, as cinematographer in De Leon’s first feature Itim (Rites of May, 1976) — presumably where Cruz learned to play with shadows as the film was a gothic drama, about a wheelchair-bound paralytic living in an old Spanish colonial mansion, and the young woman who haunted him. The wheelchair motivated the film’s gliding shots as the camera followed the paraplegic; the harsh incandescent lights from above gave the characters a lonely brooding look.
Cruz would parley his gift for darkness into a career working on (among others) noir and horror. In the OG Shake Rattle and Roll (1984) he helped Ishmael Bernal craft a sexy deadpan witty short about — I kid you not — a killer fridge. The scene where Janice de Belen, on a hot summer night, cools herself standing before the appliance’s opened door — you both cringed and stood at attention, watching the fridge breathe deep of her sweaty nubile body. In Eskapo (Escape, 1995), Cruz’s camera managed to capture the uncertainty of the first few days of Ferdinand Marcos’ Martial Law — the late-night raids, the improvised incarceration (Serge Osmeña is locked in a dentist’s waiting room while Geny Lopez takes a nap on an X-ray table), the terror of waiting for an unknown fate.
Tikoy Aguiluz’s Tatarin (Summer Solstice, 2001) showcases the contradictory impulses that drive Cruz’s imagery: documentary-like footage of 1920s-style dried noodle production, the basis for the Moreta family fortune, versus relentless percussive dancing (as if disco were repurposed for a fertility ritual) underneath a gigantic balete tree — background realism against which is launched a celebration of pagan sensuality, the film is a spirited reenactment of that oldest of battles, the war between sexes.
Perhaps Cruz’s purest expression of realism can be found in Gil Portes’ ‘Merika which finds Mila (a quietly astonishing performance by Nora Aunor) in bed trying to rise but unable to — it’s winter morning in Jersey City and the windows are bright with sun but it’s a bleak light, a cold light, a light that can barely warm fingers, much less melt the surrounding ice. In the film’s opening minutes Cruz evokes America in the eyes of Filipino immigrants: a strange, unfriendly country far from the familiar voices of family and friends, a land of the free where you spend most of your time fending for yourself. Made for a pittance with a production barely able to afford the cost of location shooting, Portes and Cruz (and, of course, Aunor) fashion a fine film about the great migration; if Ozu were ever persuaded to leave Japan you might imagine him coming up with something like this — I can think of no higher praise.
Then of course there’s the film for which Cruz will be best remembered, Peque Gallaga’s erotic masterpiece Scorpio Nights. Legend has it that the sex scenes — between a lonely young housewife (Ana Marie Gutierrez) and the obsessed college student (Daniel Fernando) observing her through a hole in the apartment ceiling — were shot and choreographed like action sequences, and I believe it. Gallaga and Cruz take their cue from Lino Brocka’s Insiang and shoot the housewife mostly through mosquito netting, a gauzily tinted lens through which one watches this obsession-inducing object of desire. The film is a triumph of style over substance — Gallaga took a notion from art director Rommel Bernardino and with Cruz’s help fashions a grubby lower-middle-class neighborhood complete with communal showers and a never-ending karaoke chorus accompanied by guitar. It’s not crafted to mean anything and isn’t meant to be anything and still without trying it’s a potent metaphor for life under Marcos: where the best game of all to play involves tiptoeing past the fascist patriarchy’s guard and literally fucking in the face of death.
Cruz is described by writer-director Frank Rivera as “a good man” who “shared his craft with his co-workers. He was particularly kind to me because he was my first cameraman when I started directing… we clicked immediately. He will be missed.”
Cruz’s daughter Mariel, also a cinematographer, had this to say: “As a father, he would always make sure to make up for lost time… ramdam namin na he’s proud of us (we felt he was proud of us)… dahil lagi niya ako isinasama sa shoot when I grew older, sa kanya ako na inspire to be a filmmaker (because he always brought me along to shoots, when I grew older he inspired me to be a filmmaker).
“As part of a team naman, his staff and crew are always all praises for him. Madami siyang natulungan na crew (he helped many crew members) to be better at their craft and to move on to better positions. Marami siyang crew noon na DOPs na ngayon (many of his crew members have risen to become directors of photography today). Until now, they still consider him as their mentor.
“Obviously he is one of the greatest in Philippine cinema, pero never niyang ginamit iyan para maging mayabang (he never used his status to brag).”