Leave-Taking [The Original Introduction to Fields of Vision]

Dated “April 1994” and written in “New York City,” this draft (circa pre-email era) probably did not reach the publisher. When I went over the final version of the book manuscript, I was surprised to find the section intros mashed together to function as the entire volume’s opener. I dashed off a quick text culled from the third-to-last paragraph that begins: “There is a sadness, romanticist but still inevitable, in offering up a body of work that one has carefully and tirelessly assembled” to the end of the said paragraph.

The biggest question I was dealing with as these articles were being written had to do with a gap in Philippine film criticism. The mode of practice prevalent during the late ’70s, when I started out, tended toward a rectification of what is now termed impressionist writing – i.e., the articulation by the critic of (usually) his responses to the film text, with the assumption that such an individual would be qualified to so declare his views by virtue of some form of authorization, mainly that of higher education.

The imposition of martial rule in 1972, however, rendered unsavory such essentially authoritarian notions, although Bienvenido Lumbera had been arguing for a paradigmatic shift long before then. Not surprisingly the organization he helped found, the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino (MPP), carried out the twin projects of valuing films as worthwhile discursive texts and subjecting them to formal and analytical fragmentation. Certain senior members, specifically Lumbera, Nicanor Tiongson, and Petronilo Bn. Daroy, also undertook a revision of Philippine film history along a Marxist line, one that separated form and content and valorized the latter within a now-standard framework of progressive politics. This approach, reflected in the organization’s award-giving criteria, has not been contested even by the current crop of purportedly poststructuralist local critics, who have made more of an issue out of the dispensable premise of the relatability of traditional Philippine theater with cinema.

What became apparent to me in my stint with the MPP was the fact that the group’s practice actually adhered to a view of film that can loosely be characterized as “classical” (and it must be emphasized here that basic terms in film history do not always correspond to and carry the same meaning as the same terms in Western literature). The role of the filmmaker was duly appreciated by the group, but only within the auteurial hierarchization that recognized the creative team, and within it the director before all the rest; the role of the spectator was also acknowledged, but only as a passive construct, for which the critic was to supply independent and superior recommendations. Discourses on contexts of production were to be undertaken only in special situations, as a matter of strategy: there was after all real and present danger in being too insistently critical of a system of martial rule that was assuming national-socialist characteristics reminiscent of fascist dispensations.

The importance of the MPP’s critical position in promulgating oppositional film appreciation cannot be overemphasized. Yet with the reintroduction of liberal-democratic institutions after the fall of the Marcoses, the challenge was for Philippine film critics to update themselves with the state of cultural discourse in more developed contexts. I remember the shock of realizing how many contending schools of thought had proliferated and been discarded in the field – a paralleling of the several possible steps and missteps in industrial modernization that had also passed us by. The current ethos of correctness abroad dictated that one progressive formation would be as good as any other, but what concerned me was how far removed this postmodernist position was from the, well, premodernist situation we were coming from. In fact Philippine academe itself was still grappling with the issues of the applicability of modernist methodologies in mass media when I rejoined it as first student and then faculty. Not surprisingly an emergent group of critics, with whom I was at first counted, took to renouncing the now-established representatives of classical film practice. More distressingly still, this new group just as quickly diverged between those who submitted to the nihilistic anti-totalizing terms of textual deconstruction and those who wanted provisional considerations of the workability of available cultural setups.

I cast my lot with the latter group – a more difficult position, I realized even then, in that it could be perceived by the old-timers as collusive with the extremists, and by the latter as collaborationist and opportunistic. My agenda, however, proceeded from an admittedly personal motive: I had come to see where modernist approaches in cinema could be made to function in the Philippine cultural situation, and could neither stand discarding these just because more developed countries had done so, nor make much of the latest in high theorizing simply because it happened to be proving workable in other national contexts. To take one mode of practice in particular, that of canon formation, which I anticipate will be the equivalent of a flashpoint for this present volume: one could dispense altogether with the notion of a canon itself, but I had chosen to set up counter-canons, just as the MPP set up (and is still continuing to do so) its own against earlier ones. My view is that it was the persistent and ultimately frustrating redefinition of “the” critical canon that led to the current refusal to admit to any form or act of canonization whatsoever, rather than some theorist’s brilliant perception that (re)canonization would never lead anywhere anyway and that it better be disallowed before it even gets underway. Besides which the supposedly definitive listing in Fields of Vision, the ten all-time best Philippine films, was done by what could be considered a super-critics’ group and thereby invites as much revision (of both the group and its choices) as it does detotalization.

I do not see myself returning to these frameworks and their methodologies, apart from what may prove to be occasionally useful in the always circumscribed practice of reviewing. There is a sadness, romanticist but still inevitable, in offering up a body of work that you have carefully and tirelessly assembled but for the purpose of outgrowing it yourself. I could also categorically maintain that these writings, although mostly subjected to deadline pressures, never took for granted that they were in many ways the only ones of their kind; perhaps that helps explain why I wish there were more of them, not necessarily by myself, and why I feel I could never be mean-spirited or cavalier in looking back at this phase, just as I was once looking back on classical critical practice then.

As a final libidinal release, indulge me my listing some names: Bienvenido Lumbera, Nicanor Tiongson, and Isagani Cruz; Ricardo Lee, Ishmael Bernal, and Nora Aunor; Ellen Paglinauan, Gigi Javier-Alfonso, Delia Barcelona, Lilia Quindoza-Santiago, Brenda Fajardo, Laura Samson, and the late Patricia Melendrez-Cruz; Ricky Lo, Thelma San Juan, Vanessa Ira, Ester Dipasupil, Iskho Lopez, and Eddie Pacheco; Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr., Joi Barrios, Glecy Atienza, and Teddie Co; Pete Lacaba, a critic’s editor; Karina Bolasco, my first publisher, and Esther Pacheco, my current one; Bliss Lim, Roland Tolentino, and Chris Millado; Jon Hartmann; and Theo Pie.

Some of the people I acknowledged have extended support that goes far beyond anything that I could ever hope to achieve, equal, live up to. But the limitations I have pointed out (granting that the history of criticism observes a developmentalist teleology) have nothing to do with these names and everything to do with what I am. Until Philippine cinema can be seen by its local and foreign observers as capable of engaging a wider array of analytical methods and procedures than what current practice has so far demonstrated, this book can at least serve as saturator, the means by which succeeding similar attempts can be reduced to the level of latecomers, if not also-rans.

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Section Intros

Part 1: Panorama

The essay that opens this section – and, in effect, the whole book – was ironically the last to be written. I had originally intended it to be the equivalent of a summing up for this volume, since it would also conform to the historical chronology of structuralism being the last of the approaches that could still be regarded as modernist. But using it as an opener serves an even better complex of purposes: it could serve as a situationer for Philippine cinema, explain my position vis-a-vis then-prevalent practices in Philippine film criticism, and exemplify my belief that however patterns of development (intellectual and otherwise) may have evolved elsewhere, we ought to be able to insist upon a workable degree of autonomy in exploring our own formations. The dichotomy between classical Hollywood and European “art” models that serves as a premise here would also be less viable today even in the Philippines – an insight that surfaces elsewhere in some of my more film-specific reviews; but what the essay contributes is a heretofore still-untried consideration of the non- or anti-Hollywood influences in local cinema. Unfortunately the journal that was supposed to publish this work folded up, so to speak, at the last instance.

Part 2: Viewpoints

This section is divided into three subsections. The first two turn on the now-traditional opposition between artistic and commercial endeavors: “Creations” deals with the former and “Speculations” with the latter, though another and currently more fashionable way of putting it would be to regard the first as tackling auteur-related issues and the second as concerned with spectatorship possibilities. These reviews got longer and my involvement in the releases became more intense – both instances of which did not always recommend these essays to orthodox (though still oppositional) publishers. Once comparative (two-film) reviewing, an earlier practice of mine, became more popular among other local writers, I tried stretching a little, as it were, intending to stop when I had reached the arbitrary figure of six films in one review. But with the four-in-one maximum that I had managed so far and also included here, I realized that not only had I reached six in a sense (since one movie was a three-in-one package of shorts), I may also not be able to give fair emphasis in the end to too many titles under the same critical project; this even assumes that it would be possible to find a framework workable for such an equal-opportunity compilation. The third subsection, “Positions,” consists of reviews not of films this time, but of film situations. One might want to read a structural progression in this subsectional arrangement, from textual through spectatorial to contextual; or from a recognition of the author through her construction by the viewer to her absence; or from the formal through the psychological to the political. I would argue though that such insights were never part of a master agenda on my part – hence the prerogative I took in raising, say, auteurist or spectatorship questions in a contextual issue, and so on and vice versa. In the end I would suggest that these pieces be taken on individual and autonomous terms first, the way that they were all originally intended to be published, and that whatever paradigm emerges be regarded as the reader’s gestalt which the author would be only too glad to share.

Part 3: Perspectives

These canonizing projects proved to be too popular for my own comfort as film critic, with responses coming in from far and wide – I still have a letter from an Australian cable station asking me how they could avail of the “ten-best” Filipino films for possible broadcast; a colleague accused me of “canon-forming during a time of canon-busting,” then proceeded to enumerate his choice of films. I mention this not so much to demonstrate the contradictions in our appropriations of contemporary Western notions: some local writers have even insisted that poststructuralist ideas are neither Western nor foreign the way prestructuralisms were, but to each her or his jouissance. My concern begins rather with the irresistibility of such canonizing activities in the first place, drawn subjectively from the relief I felt after I had done each one of them. I could only venture speculative explanations, however: It may not be the time or place for full postmodernist commitment on our part; or Too many official canonizing (mostly award-giving, but also punitive) bodies demand counterpart responses; or Canons will never be final so long as works continue to be produced, but people need them anyway as a form of shorthand criticism; or We may be simply and blissfully capable of nonchalance and masochism at the same time (my favorite rationalization, though I wouldn’t die for it). Perhaps part of the appeal of any canonizing activity is the combined fact that it tends to generate large-scale responses even as it does not demand radically new ideas or methodologies. By way of citation, “Worth the While” draws from Film Comment editor Richard T. Jameson’s annual “Moments Out of Time” feature; “Ten-Best Filipino Films” recalls a number of regular (most in/famously Sight and Sound’s) as well as one-shot survey projects; and “Great Philippine All-Time One-Shot Awards Ceremony” was just my way of pushing all these efforts to their logical as well as illogical extremes. I would point up though the now-outmoded positivist skills that went into these enterprises, and am entirely ready to admire (and perhaps pity) attempts to outdo them on the same, if not better, terms. Meanwhile here they stand, invoking hypothetically infinite levels of definitude and delirium, testaments to the sinfully inordinate pleasures I once derived in their undertaking.

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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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