Fields of Vision – Positions

1. ASEAN Affair

Anyone old enough to have participated in our last supernational film activity, the Manila International Film Festival (MIFF), will now be suffering a seven-year itch that the recently concluded 1990 ASEAN Film Festival will barely be able to alleviate. Part of the reason lies in the unfair observation that the countries that constitute the Association of Southeast Asian Nations don’t have film industries as active as ours; two of them, in fact – Brunei Darussalam and Singapore – don’t even have film industries at all.[1] In maintaining that we happen to have the most impressive system and products of film within the organized region, we at once find an area, no matter how economically dispensable, where we reign supreme, and at the same time allow ourselves the indulgence in the reverse modesty we so masochistically enjoy inflicting upon ourselves: shucks, fellas, we the best? – it’s only film, see, and we don’t even take it seriously, really….

You didn’t miss much if you weren’t at any of the free screenings at Robinsons Galleria; you’d only have acquired some insights, if you were there, on the popular preferences and concerns of our regional neighbors, something our archipelagic isolation has rendered secondary to media-raised Western issues. Moreover, you’ll only confirm that we excel where others don’t, which isn’t particularly impressive when you consider that they excel where we don’t either; and to pursue this materialist line of thinking to its painful and paranoid conclusion, it may appear that our better-developed neighbors simply conceded, in true Oriental fashion, some silly recreational businesses to us, so as not to make us appear too backward.

Excel we did anyway, and that is something that ought to be put on record, something no one – warped logician, commercialist financier, negligent government official – can take away from us. Malaysia’s Hati Bukan Kristal [The Heart is Not a Crystal] (dir. Rasas Ahmad Alauddin, scr. Adibah Amin) and Indonesia’s Taksi [Taxi] (dir. & scr. Arifin C. Noer) all flounder in melodramatic mush, notwithstanding the claims of the delegates of their respective countries that each was one of their best outputs last year; Taksi, in fact, boasts of having won all the major prizes in the Indonesian Film Festival. Both entries revel in romanticized fantasies of social and sexual desiderata that resolve in comfy establishment positions. In Taksi two men in love with a singer-actress have to live with her insistence on emotional and financial self-reliance, while her managers (and admirers) must accept her potentially career-destructive confirmation of her married status. Hati Bukan Kristal starts off with a journalist getting piqued by an enterprising female colleague; a dangerous and sensational assignment brings them together, and guess what happens next.

The Thai film, Puk Pui [Tell Them We’re No. 1] (dir. & co-scr. Udom Udomroj, co-scr. Thongkao Makampon) affirms what was warmly evident even during the MIFF: that our latitudinal fellow Asians have a way with the camera and with cinematic storytelling. They seem to be driven more by angels than by demons, as we tend to be. Puk Pui isn’t anywhere near the social-epic accomplishments of Luk E-san [Son of the Northeast] (dir. & scr. Vichit Kounavudhi), which won an MIFF special jury prize as well as the Office Catholique Internationale de Cinema award. Comparatively, Puk Pui is linear in its narratory design, detailing the coming-of-age pains and pleasures of a lower-class boy who somewhat accidentally acquires the reputation of being a jinx; in being rejected by most everyone he encounters (save for a female classmate who, like him, loves to dream big), he manages to interact with a wide variety of social types, urban, and rural. His age group and unusual affliction help justify a string of humorous incidents and running gags, including some of the most charming bits of movie slapstick this side of the globe.

Add some years of cruel and bitter hardship to these characters, and you’d be close to the material of the local entry, Gumapang Ka sa Lusak [translated as Dirty Affair] (dir. Lino Brocka, scr. Ricardo Lee). Close, I said, but not all there. Gumapang Ka doesn’t have the grim surfaces that the Indonesian and Malaysian entries exhibit, apparently in order to drive home their preoccupation with realist issues; neither does it proffer the delicacy and good cheer of the Thai movie. What it has, relative to the other entries, is an irruptive delirium made entrancing by a deadly serpent’s-eye finish, put together with something akin to the witchery of twentieth-century Eumenides. The ironic thing is that all the festival entries, Gumapang Ka included, were custom-made products paraded in a venue where innovation is, or at least should be, the prime criterion for success. What the ASEAN event should try exploring is the expansion of audience interest and critical participation, via the standard resort to award-giving; the ASEAN capital whose turn it is to sponsor the festival could be made to shoulder all expenses and responsibilities for such a competition. Before this could be implemented, of course, the countries should agree to the usual terms of fair play and the unusual exemption from any form of censorship. The entries may be further contracted, should they win certain prizes, to participate in a tour of exhibition in all the member-countries; as in the MIFF, the host country may be allowed to enter two films for competition.

Coming from a country whose entries have been demonstrating clear superiority for some time, such a proposal might meet with charges of self-serving motivations. Moreover, the organizers themselves might not want to see one another in a competitive context. What needs to be emphasized, however, is the importance of arousing the interest of the festival’s intended beneficiary, the ordinary Asian movie-goer, so a free-for-all in this instance might be preferable to a safe-for-some.

[First published April 17, 1991, in National Midweek]

Note

[1] The same year this article came out, Singapore started film production, an activity that continues to the present.

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2. Carnival Cinema

Cinevision 2000 the presentation was called, but the site itself called to mind the provincial fairgrounds of my childhood, gone to seed. Situated within the carnival area of the Philippine Center for International Trade and Exhibition (Philcite), Cinevision 2000, which was actually billed “Adventures of America,” could be reached from the nearby Philcite entrance by walking (but more often squeezing) through an open-air platform and a succession of kiddie and adult rides, the non-existent pathway obscured even further by food and souvenir booths of various sizes.

On a less frenzied night you could probably make out, once inside, the dome that ought to be held as ultimate proof of how fanatic you are about filmic presentations. You wouldn’t feel too lonely as fanatic, though, since the Cinevision screenings are regularly jampacked with more enthusiastic (and thereby less pretentious) carnival thrill-seekers. Running for the entire length of the Philcite carnival season, Cinevision 2000 made up the only unique film event of Christmas 1989. Wave Cinema, which featured video movies, closed down its singular Cubao venue two years ago; the Rizal Park Planetarium operates year-round and doesn’t really offer movies, unless an audiovisual mishmash of penlight projection and slide-tape presentation proves extraordinary enough for you to forgive the crudeness of it all.

The carnival charged five pesos for entrance, while the Cinevision 2000 booth made the same amount per head per presentation; since there were three (presentations, not heads) in all, and since I shamelessly admit to film fanaticism, my, well, only adventures of America thus far cost me a reasonable twenty pesos, roughly a third of what I could have spent to watch all the concurrently showing Metro Manila Film Festival entries.

One item in my recent past motivated me strongly enough to brave the Christmas crunch, despite the fact that I was otherwise too yellow, in the original sense, to do regular shopping: in a First-World country about a year ago, I realized the most exciting and insightful audiovisual treats in a fairground. One of these was a 380-degree movie presentation highlighted by continuous panoramas, facilitated by projecting the images through slits between screens. The exhilaration of movement mellowed quickly, however, since only the forward-moving portion provided the delight of discovery; the scenes blurred by the sides, and receded wearily in back. Moreover, the novelty of an uninterrupted horizontal line of vision wore off with the instinctive preference for a frontal point of view, and served to raise the next logical question: once one decided on a consistent lateral orientation, what would be seen beyond the upper or lower screen edges?

The answer brought the experience back to the familiarity of regular movie-going: nothingness, the masking off of the “reality” of the screen, intended (as per early expressionist theory) to draw the audience into the screen’s center, but also essentially a reminder of the literal limitations of the frame. Cinevision 2000 in this sense improved over the overseas production by opening up, as it were, the perpendicular boundaries, and by negating the backside view by a most basic device – seating the audience. To be sure, the means by which this was facilitated was far from sophisticated. A circular portion of the carnival site was sectioned off with a domelike structure, with the smaller center elevated and covered with canvas. Half of the inner portion of the dome was painted white, the other black; the edge between colors arched exactly from one side to its opposite. A gigantic 70mm. 180-degree “Sensoscope” projector was titled upward toward the white side, but where you sat (roughly at the center) your entire frame of vision would be encompassed by the screen.

All three films – fifteen-minute entries titled “Cavalcade of Thrills,” “Horizon,” and “Wild Wild West” – contained similar elements of non-stop point-of-view motion from various elevations of land, sea, and sky, including climactic roller-coaster somersaults. “Wild Wild West,” the best of the lot, opened with what appeared to be an authentic old-time black-and-white silent film featuring a sheriff-vs.-varmint shootout, its fadeout dissolving into a tunnel scene that emerged into a Sensoscopic car chase. None of the films observed a narrative, although two of them had voice-overs in German that the audience was willing to ignore. All were blatantly manipulative, with one instance of what seemed to be a mountainside car-race participant’s falling off a cliff and soaring over the shoreline – a helicopter shot that initially observed the contours of the road to mislead the audience into believing it was driving rather than flying. The Filipino movie-goers’ high threshold for filmic experience was evident in more than just the turnout of crowds. Each and every turn leap, spill, and near-miss was rewarded by squeals of excitement; considering that the moviemakers obviously aimed at cramming as many such gimmicks as possible into their products, each screening amounted to a virtual screamathon, probably rewarding for the psyche but definitely not for the eardrums.

After an entirely overwhelming first salvo, however, I began wondering if this sort of innovation could be put to good use the way conventionally ratio’d screens lend themselves to film magic. A minor difficulty would be the confirmation of distortions at the edges once the camera stops moving to allow actors to do their thing. Greater trouble may lie not with the stars but with the too-perfect simulation of reality: if the illusion achieves a totality previously denied by black borders, what’s to prevent the viewers from contributing their share to the action? From another perspective, this may be one way of rationalizing the financial infeasibility of attempting this kind of format locally. A future carnival, in a future festive season, might yield a presentation whose potential would outweigh any objections or reservations regarding its effectiveness. After all, when we speak of cinema, this was how it really started – as a mere fairground sideshow that refused to fade away.

[First published February 7, 1990, in National Midweek]

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3. Classroom as Theater

One of the predicaments I still have to solve as a teacher of film is the formulation of a proper response to colleagues who do not teach film whenever they go into their standard lamentation of how appalling the decline in student literacy has been. On the one hand, I do not have much of a choice except to agree. One of my undergraduate courses was journalism and during our time, the exceptional competence in English or Filipino that we associate with our most outstanding graduates today was the norm. (“Our time,” not to unduly alarm anyone, was about a decade ago.) On the other hand, the discussion of causes invariably points toward the very subject matter I teach, which is film in its expanded audiovisual sense. Most everybody who believes in being somebody feels compelled to consider a preference for audiovisual language as an illegitimate, or at the very least sub-academic, pursuit. The conclusion does not require considerable leaps of logic to reach: the great masses of our people exhibit this preference for nonprinted material – film, komiks, TV, radio, theater (including religious rituals) – and, if we assume that these media could also function as languages, they may even be literate in those terms. But since the same sector of the populace is uneducated (inadequately educated, actually), then literacy in these kinds of media would not be such a big deal compared with the ability to read and write.

Official educational policy has upheld this view for close to a century now or ever since film, the first and most successful audiovisual medium ever, has been in existence. To be sure, literature, whether oral or written, has had a longer and in many ways more glorious history and deserves the strongest possible emphasis in any educational system. However, the evidence of the past ninety-plus years cannot be ignored either: people continue to be lured away from the two (or maybe even three) Rs. During our time our teachers complained that their generation wrote better, as we are now saying to our students, and as our students who will go into teaching will surely be saying to their students.

The trend contrasts impressively with whatever observation we can make about film. Actually since virtually the entire first half of the life of Philippine cinema has not been preserved, we can only talk about the latter half, comprising the 1950s up to the 1990s. If our literature and, by controversial extrapolation, our readers got worse or at least did not get better, our films (and our moviegoing audiences?) on the other hand definitely improved over the years. The average Filipino goes to the movies (and also “reads” komiks, watches TV, listens to the radio, and so on); that much we all grant. But then again, average Filipino students, who necessarily constitute a smaller portion of the populace, are different in the sense that they go to school, where they are made to read and write; afterward they go out of school, sometimes for good, and then behave much like average Filipinos. That is, they go to the movies, “read” komiks, watch TV, listen to the radio, and so on.

It would not do those who set our educational policies any good to resist this reality. Film, or film language if you will, is much too accessible, mainly because it is profitable – and when we begin talking about economics these days, that could not be too much of a good thing. What we should start with is what we already actually have. Some of it is not bad at all: film language is real, meaning it allows for easier translation and a whole lot of crosscultural interactions, in comparison with the printed word. Moreover, the level of film literacy of Filipinos is arguably superior to those of their neighbors in the immediate Asian region, if we go by the percentage of quality outputs available locally in relation to those of nearby countries and (a more contestable criterion) the level of Westernization in local film technique.

The movies have lately been assuming part of what the educational system has been unable to accomplish because of the latter’s still essentially elitist orientation. Local cinema has, at one time or another, criticized militarism (and, by association, the previous fascist dictatorship), advocated democratic processes, upgraded the image of women and queer folk, and provided an awareness of the existence of a colonial past. It continues to supply its audiences, majority of whom are impoverished, with insights into their conditions and with reflections on their dearest aspirations. Recently, it has also embarked upon the risky venture of castigating the white man and the traditional politician, simply by casting these types as villains rather than heroes this time around.

It has also proved capable of other things that some of us would consider unacceptable or even harmful, but then this all boils down to the fact that, officially, we do not take this, our national pastime, seriously. We teach our students how to read and write, and when possible to read and write well. We also assume they know how to choose the films to watch, and we may even be correct. But as to choosing the films well – well, they haven’t complained about still being in the dark in their approaching hundredth year of solitude, have they?

[First published October 17, 1990, in National Midweek]

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4. Film Critics Speak
[Prepared with Mau Tumbocon & Patrick D. Flores]

To begin with, we observed that the entire spectrum of existent Filipino criticism is evident in film; in short, cinema is the most widely discussed art form in the Philippines. Practically all publications acknowledge this widespread interest by devoting regular sections to film, and film commentary is also making inroads in television and radio. It is the level of commentary, however, that leaves much to be desired. As far as general impact can be gauged, we can safely state that serious film evaluation is performed and sustained primarily by the handing out of awards by various bodies. We cannot deny the publicity mileage this generates, especially since the sheer number of award-giving winners could go on for as long as the very last trophy during the very last ceremony still has to be handed out.

There are six established award-giving groups, as of last count, some of them clearly overlapping in claims and functions. Although one could argue the relative merits of each, we would rather take the larger and more controversial stance of stating that film discussion, although heavily promoted, is also seriously trivialized by award-giving. There is no focus of discussion, except the comparative aesthetic achievements of the nominees – and even then the fact that film is too complex an aesthetic system to be subjected to this treatment is glossed over. We would also like to point out that the movie industry labors under government neglect, particularly when compared with the institutional support provided by the Marcos dictatorship. We do not endorse the kind of self-serving and overscaled meddling suffered by our practitioners during the latter years of the dictatorship. On the other hand, we agree with some of the industry’s advanced sectors that relief from taxation and censorhip, as well as cash incentives for quality productions, no matter how occasional, resulted in an atmosphere of sanguinity then, and would still be welcome features today.

At this point we would like to go into one particular, and that is – the need to implement an honest-to-goodness system of film classification, one that does not result in the tampering of the work on anyone’s part, and that also presumes the liability of the practitioners strictly within the context of absolute freedom of expression. Meaning to say, one should be held responsible for violating our existing laws on the limits of expression, but one should also be allowed to complete the process of expression to begin with. We welcome the role that education plays in making the audience more aware of the nature and potentials of its favorite mass medium. However, we believe that the availability of such education is too elitist to be truly effective. A student first has to reach college and study in particular schools, mostly the expensive ones, in order to be able to take courses dealing with film. To specialize in the field, the student has available to her only one school, the State University. For advanced studies, she has to go abroad.

We enjoin all our fellow film critics to persist in popularizing film discussion without trivializing it. We seek to encourage sober discussions in as wide a spectrum of our audiences as possible, and recognize the cruciality of the role that Filipino film artists have been playing in conducting dialogues, no matter how limited, among themselves, with film commentators, and with the audience. In cooperation with our educational institutions as well as the mass media, we call for the expansion and development of local film scholarship, in order to provide a firm basis for popularizing film commentaries.

Lastly we would like to maintain the manifold advantages of expanding opportunities in film. Government could help a great deal in facilitating our filmmakers’ participation in foreign festivals and markets, counting the costs in terms of additional income and prestige rather than the personalistic self-image of whoever happens to wield power at the moment. We need to have more schools offering film courses and full-blown degrees in the field, as well as higher studies specializing in the medium. We envision the resulting network as a possible venue for alternative film products, with an eventual bearing on mainstream production. We also stand as one with our colleagues in pursuing the thoroughgoing professionalization of criticism in the Philippines, so as to enable serious film commentators to practice and grow in the craft without the distractions of unrelated income-generating activities or the temptations of public relations work that could compromise the formation of well-informed, carefully thought out and expertly articulated opinions on film.

[First published October 3, 1990, in National Midweek]

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5. Shooting Crap

When Joey de Leon claims he couldn’t care less about critics’ complaints regarding his use of toilet humor, the issue doesn’t revolve on the soundness of his argument. Toilet humor, as used in the context of this debate, is unofficially understood to be a sub-category of obscenity – in direct opposition to our moral guardians’ shibboleth of wholesomeness. By extension, the argument goes, toilet humor, as a form of obscenity, is socially undesirable and therefore should be subject to suppression. No one has ventured to raise the issue of legality so far, although this would clinch the controversy in a convenient way. Anyone, De Leon included, could easily answer that the antiquated nature of our censorship laws renders such an approach amorphous at best; still, the issue at stake remains unarticulated.

Joey de Leon gets away with toilet humor – has the right to it, in a manner of speaking – simply because he has been so darn successful of late. During the early days of his trio with the Sotto brothers he might have taken the pounding with, well, a grain of salt; their always moderate and occasionally pleasing box-office returns could serve to ease the sting somehow. But now he has struck it rich, and it’s not so much the pwer he holds ove the characteristically purchasable movie press: appearances to the contrary, he’s not that crude, and he need not be so in the first place. It’s the implication of so fail-safe a formula on so financially frank a system, when any project without De Leon’s pretensions to satire – without De Leon himself, even – could now be assured of record-shattering box-office returns by merely purveying shit jokes on primetime.

In short, the moguls owe so much quantifiable gratitude to Joey de Leon for this good-as-gold discovery. Not even Imelda Marcos’s pera-sa-basura [money-in-trash] projects could prove as conclusively as Starzan et al. did that the sound of cash registers ringing could compensate for the fumes of unflushed concepts. And even if a movie writer had enough sense (and guts) to dismiss the big-timers’ current sanguinity with what may eventually be known as the De Leon formula (endless swigs of castor oil following entire plateloads of goodies, with a movie crew on the alert), a rebuttal happens to be waiting in the wings from the opposite direction. The logic runneth thus: to question a person on the basis of principle is a simple thing to do, but when that principle happens to enjoy popular support, then the possibility of claiming to be better than the majority, antithetical to the democratic premise of raising questions on their behalf in the first place, emerges. This puts the De Leon “critic” in a position too awkwardly similar to that of the cultural censor, who derives his raison d’être from the perverse notion that the people, even (or especially) in a democracy, could not know what is good for them.

There may be two ways out of the impasse that both sides find themselves ranged against at the moment. One is that of historical materialism – which basically posits that nothing lasts forever, least of all a thing of no real value. Just as Dolphy’s piss jokes and Tito, Vic and Joey’s snot jokes saw their respective heydays come and go, so will Joey de Leon’s fecal fixations – if not in the near future, then along with De Leon himself, may his sould find peace (no critics in heaven?) come the time. The trouble with this attitude is of course its superciliousness, consciously partaking as it does of the same judgmentalist approach that it initially seeks to distance itself from. The only other option, which may seem the least desirable because of its passivity, used to be impossible to adopt because of the polarizing consequences of the previous political dispensation; if Marcos were still around, the toilet-humor controversy would have been resolved in favor of one side or the other, eventually depending on the perceived benefits to the state.

It may be time for a little more sophistication then. How about regarding such devices as attempts at cultural innovations, the breaking down of taboos in preparation for possibly more serious discourses in future? Part of my reservations about De Leon’s objectors is the sneaking suspicion that the campaign would not have taken on a strong degree of outrage had Starzan, if not the rest, been a Critically Defensible Work of Art. But what if, then? Would we have expended all our intellectual resources defending a crap scene (as was proved aesthetically viable in an early Wim Wenders masterpiece, Kings of the Roads) – eyeball-to-eyeball with Manuel Morato if necessary, just because art’s sake was at stake in this instance?

One way of looking at the situation is through the perspective of guerrilla strategy. Filipino film censors have traditionally been suckers for artistic provocation; the best way to get their danders up in the past was to inject an offensive aural or visual detail in an otherwise integral prestige project. But beyond the delight of watching them mouth the most culturally illiterate justifications for the imposition of already ill-advised policies, the consequences – stricter censorship procedures, mangled or banned products – were definitely too exorbitant for all those involved. Since in their view the less artistically minded products pose proportionately less harm to the community, why not allow such items to take the lead in toppling the ramparts of convention? Come the time when a real and responsible filmmaker will find it absolutely necssary to put in a cussword or a toilet scene or a subversive idea, the precedents would have been set, the producers would have been satisfied, the masses would have been bored with the usual treatment, and everyone might be a bit happier with the attempt. Had Ishmael Bernal done Manila by Night (whose entire toilet pick-up scene, among countless others, was deleted in the original release) late last year, he might have to thank, among others, Joey de Leon for the trophies he’d now be collecting.

[First published April 4, 1990, in National Midweek]

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6. Fleshmongering

One of the early distinctions, dubious though it seems, of the 1990s is our latest designation of what we’d all known the past two decades or so: that the sex film is marketed primarily for its audience’s carnal titillation. Ever since institutional controls on the treatment of sex eased up (though gave up would be the more satisfactory description) during the ’60s, our film practitioners had been relying on a series of merely suggestive, sometimes even coy, labels for what were in a sense products of a worldwide and continuing cultural revolution. The first word was bomba, drawn from the political turbulence of the period of its emergence, the pre-martial law years. One would expect that the original namesake – the pro-activist sector, not Roger Arienda (whose nickname would not have stuck had his public ignored him) – would have resented the industry’s adoption of one of its virtues to refer to a diametrically opposed form of passion, personal rather than social. Instead, both sides seemed to have arrived at an understanding that they had more in common as subversives committed to certain material ends, and so demonstrators then were not averse to patronizing the latest sex flick, just as the more sensible bomba practitioners, particularly Ishmael Bernal, Lino Brocka, and Celso Ad. Castillo, would turn out socially critical subjects once 1081 had effectively closed the season of open expression for both camps.

Bold, the next term, served to consolidate a number of mildly descriptive labels, among which “wet look” proved to be the most graphic (and therefore most popular). “Bold” is of course antediluvian relative to bomba; even Gerardo de Leon’s FAMAS record-setter, Huwag Mo Akong Limutin, which copped out on an abortion scene (reputedly its most shocking feature), was called worse things by the censors – and this was during the 1950s. But what revitalized the genre, allowing it to even surpass its predecessor, was precisely the aforementioned social consciousness that our filmmakers developed along the way. No bold film was ever as, well, frontal as the typical bomba movie was; on the other hand, no bomba product could equal in significance the best martial law-era movies that employed sex either as additional come-on or as legitimate topic for filmic discourse.

The decline of the Marcos regime made possible an approximation of the bomba era, while the fall of the Marcoses led to a complete backslide. Obviously “bold” wasn’t bold enough anymore. The acronym penekula (from penetration + pelikula) was coined ex post facto, with the renewed moralism generated by the 1986 revolution plus the cheaper resources afforded by video combining to making graphic sex films too notorious and small-time for a reputable and long-term undertaking. And so we now have sex trip, although where it will take us is really the big question. The name is still too novel for generalized considerations, associated as it is with an aspirant-to-major studio, Seiko Films, which still has to pay its dues for industrial success by way of awards-worthy projects. If the term sticks, it won’t be the first time a studio engineered a classifiable trend in movie-making: if my memory serves me right, Regal Films, then also a struggling outfit, identified itself with bold-film production, to the point of incurring the ire of a culture-meddling Imelda Marcos.

The main difference, however, is that all these titles – bomba, bold, even penekula – managed to redeem themselves with projects memorable for more than just their extent of skin exposure, while “sex trip” just happens to be more frank a description than the rest. Nothing on the order of Nympha, Pagdating sa Dulo, or Tubog sa Ginto from the bomba era, Aliw, Brutal, Burlesk Queen, Karnal, Moral, Salome, Sinner or Saint, or Manila by Night from the bold period, or Boatman, Private Show, Scorpio Nights, or Takaw Tukso prior to (but within the spirit of) the penekula trend can serve to so far justify the sex-trip films as worthy of, say, aesthetic appreciation by the year 2000. Not even the emergence of a performer comparable to Yvonne, Chanda Romero, Rio Locsin, Amy Austria, Lorna Tolentino, or Jacklyn Jose, or the spectacle of an established star like Eddie Garcia, Vic Vargas, Rita Gomez, Vilma Santos, or Gina Alajar trying on genre for the possiblity of career enhancement.

A kind remark is in order, though, and it is the recognition of the fact that the sex-trip trend is laboring under a severly imposing tradition. Any self-respecting artist would think twice, to say the least, before allowing her product to be called, under whatever currently fashionable appellation, a Pinoy sex film. What the name “sex trip” has going for it, however, is something stronger than a mere sense of history: there appears to be the promise of profit in the term, not to mention the convenience of an abbreviation. How far the potential can be contracted, pardon the puns, should give way to every imaginative attempt at its expansion.

[First published April 18, 1990, in National Midweek]

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7. Firmament Occupation

Generally but strangely regarded as one of the perennial problems of Philippines cinema is what has come to be called the “star system.” Stars, or extremely successful movie performers, demand astronomical figures that invariably limit a project’s allocations for other aspects of production. The obvious logical lapse in this formulation is the way performers are distinguished from the rest of the elements of film – as if directing, scriptwriting, cinematography, editing, and clapboard operation, among other activities, can contribute to a movie’s excellence, while acting cannot. Worse, this assumes that characters, the central feature of commercial cinema and a whole lot of non-commercial movies as well, are separable from all the other things that go into the completion of a filmwork.

The problem lies in the fusion of two highly charged terms to a situation that isn’t remediable by any long shot, much less a close-up. “Stars” exist wherever intense human activity is complemented with high visibility; cinema happens to be the most obvious and permeative modern-day example, but one can have stars in other contexts too – politics, academe, religion, fashion design, smuggling, entomology, etc. The absurdity of aspiring toward a star-less ideal can be seen in the execution of a political system that averred as much: first, the masses themselves became the supposed stars; eventually, the leaders, in the guise of representing their constituencie, assumed for themselves positions of prominence. The other word, “system,” is the one that compounds the problem. As far as movie histories anywhere have exhibited, there may have been vacillations between a studio system and an independent system (and a trend toward total government intervention locally during the latter part of Marcos rule), but there has never been so far such a thing hereabouts as a star system. Strictly and analogously speaking, a star system depends, in full material terms, on the existence of stars – meaning, stars not only facilitate productions by the guarantee of their presence, but also provide the wherewithal for the productions themselves.

The combination is crucial. A star may have been the entire motivation for a particular project, while on another occasion she may have engaged in film production, but unless she invested her own money in the first instance and carried enough box-office clout to be the movie’s main attraction in the second, then she would never have been essential part of the movies system; she’d be just a star, if that were semantically possible, in the first place, or a star who happened to produce in the second. In the beginning it wasn’t all that simple, precisely because matters were much simpler then. Anyone who had both money and ego could go into movie-making: one could cook up her own project, assemble a production staff, direct them and herself, and collect the returns in good time. The giants of early Hollywood cinema – Charles Chaplin, D.W. Griffith – and their local counterparts – Jose Nepomuceno, Vicente Salumbides, among others – were virtual one-person studios, with every possible filmmaking skill, including lead performing, arrogated unto one and the same individual.

To a certain extent we still have devotees of this almost-ancient era who try to keep the faith when they can: America’s Woody Allen and our very own…well, Celso Ad. Castillo. Filmmaking, however, and turn-of-the-millenium life too, have becoome too complex and fast-paced and expensive to allow for integral approaches to anything, especially creative endeavors. This we saw for ourselves with the story of our studio system. The producers, three of them actually, who had enough foresight and managerial skill to allow for specialization and long-term planning eventually dominated the industry, giving rise to a so-called Golden Age of stability and consistency of output during the 1950s. But because the Big Three moguls refused to recognize the even more specialized claims of movie workers, including stars, to extreme fluctuations in income, insisting instead on fixed salaries as the basis for industrial professionalism, the less principle-obsessed outfits were able to bid for the services of the talents who mattered, and consequently toppled the system of studios.

These more pragmatic producers, who called themselves independents, gave rise once more to the possibility of self-production, this time with a more lucrative twist: not only would a star entitle herself to the proceeds of her own film, she would also be able to guard against creative sabotage and, most important, boost her stocks further in the market for acting services. The rate of a Fernando Poe Jr. or a Dolphy would now be computed on the basis of the profits either of them could realize if the FPJ or RVQ production houses took charge of the projects, rather than how much their previous films had made for their respective financiers. Hence what we have at present is really a historical confluence of two opposing systems – studio domination (three major outfits) and independent production, with a highly distinctive and restricted (and aging) star subsystem subsumable under the latter; there also happens to be an even smaller but less definite circle of performers who produce films, but not necessarily themselves in these films, and much less themselves to sell such films.

Are these categorizations always significant? Not so much in the consideration of how the presence or absence of a star in her own production provides any form of psychological (or now-emergent ideological) modifications, but more in the area of pinpointing what constitutes a problem for study, rather than an occasion for well-worn rhetoric. Take out censorship or taxation, and you could conceivably realize some forms of improvement in film production, if not in film quality; Marcos-era experiments in industry control provided more-than-adequate proof othe workings of such dynamics. Eliminate stars, and if they don’t get replaced, then maybe the movie system itself has burned out.

[First published May 30, 1990, in National Midweek]

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8. Blues Hit Parade

What may soon evolve into a form of cultural schizophrenia, if it isn’t at that stage already, is the current contrariety of attitudes toward the state of Philippine cinema. On the one hand are the pessimists, who resumed their lamentation once it became clear that the four-year-old 1986 revolution was not going to result in anything on the order of the best outputs of the Marcos years; on the other hand, the optimists point out that, after the revolution’s alarming dead stretch, local movie producers never had it so good, with one box-office record after another being broken in rapid succession. I must stress at the outset that my sympathies lie with the latter group, and that the lure of lucre just happens to be one obvious and too-practical reason. For too long the critics of Filipino movies took their calling in an adulterated sense – i.e., judging severely instead of judging fairly, which is the primary definition of criticism. What we may be hearing now is a reassessment of the worsening portion of Marcos rule as the glory years of local cinema, but if you go back to that era, you may have difficulty distinguishing the condemnatory tone of critical writing then from what you may be able to find today.

The upshot is that since our industry practitioners were not made aware of the excellence of their collective performance then, they had to accept the rejection of their situation along with the system that spawned whatever merits it contained. In short, after the change in political administration, everyone was completely in the dark as to where to begin – a return to active institutional support (Marcos’s example) was out of the question, while on the other hand the movie-going public seemed to have fled along with the regime, leaving almost a year-long period of nothing but box-office traumas.

Congratulations then are in order for our industry leaders, for the success of their concept of a turnabout. I feel confident enough to even bet that no other local industry has managed its own resurrection in as financially triumphant a manner as did our movie practitioners. Balancing the absence of absolutely reliable box-office reports with the assurance that no one in his right mind would readily boast of grand profits owing to an ornery tax situation, the recent feats of box-office records being broken much more often than they ever used to be would be something quite phenomenal. And yet…this time our critics are on target in bemoaning the decline in quality of our movies, and we have enough reason to fear that the enthusiasm of local producers may be verging on recklessness. The reason hinges on the correlation of both factors: box-office returns are not enough precisely because of the absence of quality in the outputs that facilitate these returns – not so much because of the absence of long-term or overseas profitability, much less a non-material consideration of the implications on cultural hygiene.

The danger of relying primarily on lighweight material to draw in heavyweight profits lies in the demonstrable possibility that what used to be relatively lighweight may not turn out to be so anymore, especially if it proves profitable enough. The mechanics can result in some truly panicky complications: quickies make more money, so more people want to be in on the action, thereby spreading thin the amount of cash available for profits; among the interested parties would be the government, which can (and did) increase its share through taxes, thereby diluting even further the profitability of easy movie-making. The possible scenario veers between less box-office winners (and record-setters) and cheaper quickies – with the worst case combining both. And the closer we approach either situaton, the farther away we get from the possible solutions. The decline in local, or more accurately Metro Manila-based, profitability points to the potential of exploring the only regional market that has proved historically viable: the Cebuano-language circuit, now worth another serious consideration because of the economic resurgence of the South; Cebuano movie production, however, petered out in the past precisely because the region could not provide the profits that Metro Manila can offer, so this results in a closed circle, with everyone left out.

The other option is the exportation of our products, and here we must initially contend with both our colonial sense of inferiority plus the slow pace of returns – possibly necessitating the offering of initial titles as sacrifices to the altar of long-term investments. Once these are surmounted, an even greater hitch emerges: the international-scale quickie would of course be Cecil B. DeMillean beside its Pinoy counterpart, and coming from our premise that big-budget production would be too infeasible at this point, camote cultivation might not seem so small-time an alternative after all. A sadder consequence awaits those who appreciate film for reasons that render mammon secondary. The big, proud, expensive movie would be as much a part of the past as the mammoth, its appropriate namesake, while the modest achievement will become too costly to produce on a regular basis. We can fantasize about Hollywood brats coming to the rescue of our masters the way they did elsewhere – until we wake up and realize that the countries these now-needy filmmakers represent once worked hard to create a favorable impression on the international film community, while all we every really did was produce quickies to break our box-office records, with our own government making sure that the profits did not outstrip its capacity for “sharing” them.

Ah well. Maybe then we can all learn to read and write in a common language and arrive at some plateau of achievement, before we discover how to level it down once more, but that would be another (non-filmic) story.

[First published June 27, 1990, in National Midweek]

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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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