Millennial Traversals – How to Become a Film Critic

This was drafted and published in my second year as member of the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino – too soon to be calling out my colleagues, but I’ve never let up since (cf. “Pinoy Film Criticism: A Lover’s Polemic” in the August 2013 issue of the Manila Review). The organization’s officers tsk-tsked me during the next meeting after the article came out, and said that the group needed to discuss the issues I raised. That (typically?) never came to pass. The one productive result for me was an extended one-on-one I had with Bienvenido Lumbera, discussing the problem of tone and distance in critical writing – proving once more than nothing gets wasted even when your best intentions result in a half-baked piece of crap. [Originally published in “The Arts” section of Who (November 28, 1981): 27-29.]

Anyone can become a film critic. One need only browse through the countless movie magazines that have been published since the abolition of the print media council to find proof and, possibly, pluck in such a statement. For film criticism is here to stay. The indispensability of film reviews to the survival of the industry itself is rivaled only by that of intrigues and controversies. Even the forthcoming film festival [the 1981 Manila Event, predecessor of the Manila International Film Festival], an undertaking of dubious motivations, will include a screening of local films chosen by whom the organizers consider the country’s film critics.

Furthermore, any movie publication worth its newsprint seeks to restore the prestige lost by its reliance on gossip and pornography by playing up relatively serious film articles. For the movie writer who wants to acquire as wide a readership as possible and maintain his dignity at the same time, film criticism affords the best compromise.

Film criticism, to begin with, is not literature. Fossilized fogies who maintain that it is a specialized form of writing are either sore over the prosperity of those whom they consider hacks or simply frustrated film critics themselves. The aspiring film critic who has no intention of venturing into academe, however, has nothing to fear from such absurd assertions. Neither does film criticism entail membership in a critics’ group: the only existent one in the country, by not having accepted new members this year, may be bent on extinction. Besides, apart from the fact that its awards are under fire from various sectors of the movie industry, the group, as pointed out by a tabloid columnist, cannot wield the influence of a corporation (which it is not).

Local film criticism is a simple matter of using any of a number of convenient and easy-to-master approaches, which could be categorized according to the disciplines they fall under.

Power plays

True to the nature of Philippine politics, the political approach to film criticism is the most simplistic yet the most effective one available to the beginner. Contrary to academic requisites, however, it does not necessitate the mastery of every possible ideology; one of two will do. The first is rightist film criticism, wherein anything directly or indirectly supportive of the present dispensation may be labeled true, good, or beautiful, or combinations thereof. The basic defense here is that film, like any other mass medium, should serve its audience by serving the latter’s leadership. This is best achieved by depicting the leadership’s preoccupations, usually consisting of amorous adventures and counterinsurgency operations.

The rightist film critic will find a ready body of praiseworthy work in National Media Production Center documentaries and Ramon Revilla or Anthony Alonzo movies. He will find a receptive audience through various government, military, and corporate publications. The leftist film critic, on the other hand, would thrive best in a campus setting. He would have to contend, though, with the possibility of press censorship. This risk considered, the leftist film critic is sure to find a gullible readership so long as he conforms to Marxist ideology. To fulfill the requisites of historical materialism, he can cite a number of movies that have fallen prey to the paws of the establishment’s appointed watchdogs, the censors.

Movies as old as Patria Amore (1929) and as recent as Sakada (1976) lend themselves conveniently to the leftist political approach since, by virtue of their having been banned in some form or another, they need not be subjected to aesthetic evaluations. Their very absence can, in a sense, be made to speak for themselves. The more insecure leftist film critic can take a corollary stance – that of the angry young writer who maintains that nothing of filmic import can ever be produced within a capitalist set-up. Here the job is considerably simplified to castigating every movie that comes along. Lino Brocka’s movies on squatters, for example, can be criticized for presenting problems, but not the solution – which, of course, is revolution.

Populism

Readers of movie magazines should by now be familiar with the standard assertion of movie scribes that the movie-going audience is the only valid judge of cinematic taste. The justification here is at once both romantic and democratic, premised as it is on the verity of film as mass art. To wit: since the masses alone determine the fate of movie projects via their peso votes, a film can only be as good as the extent of its viewership. This way, box-office bombs can be defused without attendant critical commotion.

The populist film critic will not be wanting in outlets. Writers for movie magazines are currently among the highest paid in print media and, as stressed earlier, are under pressure to provide a semblance of scrutiny for the productions they publicize. The social approach to film criticism would endear the practicing critic to both successful producers and the masses of movie-goers responsible for that rarity, the box-office biggie. For lending prestige to propitious productions and articulating the people’s preferences, the populist film critic should certainly deserve all the prosperity and popularity due him.

Traditionalism

The last approach comes closest to film criticism as commonly conceived; even then there are subtle but significant variations that the beginner should be made aware of. The first requires a background of film history, so that current movies may be judged according to their semblances to acknowledged masterpieces. The traditionalist critic, in this regard, can rave over Regal Films’ musical-comedies on the basis of their generic affinities with Manuel Silos’s works – taking care to let go of the fact that the latter were innovative while the former are not; or he could commend Dolphy’s or Chiquito’s fantasy movies for reminding him of Manuel Conde’s costume comedies, so long as he makes no mention of the latter’s technical excellence and good taste.

Another possible approach to local film as art involves references to other art forms. The connoisseur-critic could justify a favorite director’s poor pacing by calling his style “poetic” or “painterly”; or, in a more nationalistic vein, he could defend tearjerkers or action movies by drawing respective similarities to the senakulo or moro-moro.

Cultism

The most popular artistic approach, however, makes no reference to any art form other than film itself. The cultist-critic’s standard refuge lies in the auteur (French for “author”) school of film criticism. Auteurism involves the insistence on the film director as the sole creative force behind cinematic art. This approach conveniently does away with the consideration of various contributions to a collective complex.

The cultist-critic could, for example, openly express his enjoyment of Dear Heart or Hello, Young Lovers, since the same respective directors of Hindi sa Iyo ang Mundo, Baby Porcuna or Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag should presumably have had, however subtly, some sense behind their scenes. Taking the cue from a self-styled cultist for Fernando Poe, Jr., the cultist-critic could also build a case for similar actor-directors like Eddie Garcia and Eddie Rodriguez as underrated compleat-auteurs.

Ready to roll

The aspiring film critic’s best preparation consists of a listing of degrees, awards, organizations, plus a subsidiary catalogue of films seen and books read. Even careless compliments might prove to be of some good future use. All these he should be able to recount at the drop of a – pardon the pun – pen. For the aspiring critic can, depending on his curriculum vitae, get away with anything so long as he constantly reminds both editors and readers of his qualifications. For this reason he can also afford to be subjective in his evaluations; in fact the less he knows the more he has to be subjective, since even the semblance of a framework could provide rivals with a basis for demolition.

Also the aspiring film critic should realize as early in his career as possible that he could never survive on film criticism alone; at the same time he should take heart in the fact that others before him have devised various means for survival. Some have resorted to press relations work for those whom they deem the more sensible members of the movie industry. The rationale here lies in the defensible proposition that the well-intentioned are worth working for anyway.

Footholding

The more fortunate film critics have managed to strike the ideal balance between profit and presence by writing columns. Columnist-critics can get away with almost anything; this, however, can prove disadvantageous, as in the case of former People’s Journal mainstay Giovanni Calvo, since offended parties would usually wait for more opportune moments before striking. This columnist-critics can turn to their advantage by encouraging opponents to air their grievances, thereby acquiring more material for future write-ups.

The Filipino film critic will know he has arrived when he could write as infrequently as possible and still be regarded as someone to deal (in more ways than one) with. To solidify his reputation he should first join a film organization or critics’ group, then find an alternative source of income. At this stage one action complements another: just as infrequent writing minimizes his exposure to extensive counter-criticism, his landing some preferred position would be facilitated by his expanded curriculum vitae.

Finally, the Filipino film critic should steel himself against guilt. For not only will he be watching the (onscreen and otherwise) decline of Philippine films, he will also be contributing to it just as he could, materially speaking, make it contribute to him in return. With his help the movie industry may yet succeed in sustaining its critical condition until further developments reel in.

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About Joel David

Teacher, scholar, & gadfly of film, media, & culture. [Photo of Kiehl courtesy of Danny Y. & Vanny P.] View all posts by Joel David

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