Fields of Vision – One-Shot Awards Ceremony

This attempt at what I originally titled “Great Philippine All-Time One-Shot Awards Ceremony” (with due acknowledgment of Alfred A. Yuson’s Great Philippine Jungle Energy Café [Quezon City: Adriana, 1988]) arose directly from the objections I raised with the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino or Filipino film critics circle’s reliance on fixed-category annual award-giving. The intent was semi-satirical, indicated by the titles (of the article as well as the award itself – so kindly avoid quoting in earnest any of the results as a “Joel David Award” or some variation thereof). This was originally printed in National Midweek’s February 20, 1991, issue (pp. 28-29), but by the time it was anthologized in 1995 in Fields of Vision, I wished I had updated it with a category I thought I could subsume under, or list after, Cinematography. Just for the sake of demonstrating the flexibility of the exercise, I added the new award, for Production Design, and note that the post-Manunuri group I helped organize uses a variation of the description I provided in the Performance category.

With the 1980s’ decade-end approaches the prospect of yet another season of award-giving. Traditionally there’ve been two questions associated with this practice – both of which lend themselves to a whole lot of seemingly intellectual and deliciously controversial debates: first, who’ll be the top-grosser(s) in tems of trophies? and second (and more important, in the eyes of serious observers), which body will be the most credible in its choices?

I must admit I’d indulged once or twice in these issues in the span of my short critical career thus far; moreover, I found the ready response of readers, regardless of their professed distance from my position, spirit-stirring. Actually I suspect any Filipino critic will be overwhelmed by any form of reader response, judging by the sheer rarity of feedback activity in this field. On the other hand, after an entire decade of witnessing award-sweepers and award-giving bodies multiplying like loaves in fishnets, one eventually gets to wondering about the purpose of the miracle: it’s fish that belong in fishnets, and loaves that ought to be on well-serviced tabletops. In short, when what we need are various species of opinion, what we get are not-too-dissimilar spheres of judgment rendered in the exact same format of formal ceremonies that dispense sets of identical statuettes.

I suppose an entirely new distinction lies in store for the first award-giving body that owns up to this state of affairs. If it weren’t too painfully paradoxical, I’d suggest a trophy-in-waiting for the first such body that consciously and willingly folds up, in recognition of the superfluity of having too many, and even functionally overlapping, award-giving groups, as well as the need to advance filmic discourse beyond the scope of absolutist pronouncements. Toward this end I’d also strategize by exploiting another parallel paradox, the ultimate awards ceremony, the one that should end all others, at least up to this point in history. This we can do by opening at least the most basic categories to all existing achievements in Philippine cinema, deciding on winners to the best of our ability, then holding the main event. Since the last would be the most difficult for me to accomplish, I’d like to presume, on the basis of my being this idea’s proponent, the sole execution of the first two procedures.

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So without much ado, not even your usual performance numbers and acceptance speeches, attend herewith the Joel David awards for excellence in Philippine cinema:

Best Film. Regal Films’ Manila by Night (1980), a vote seconding that of the biggest majority of Filipino film critics and experts – including myself and supervised by myself again – the survey results of which helped sell out the magazine that published it. The film had one of the most precarious origins among local movies, with the original version banned and later mangled and its title changed (to City after Dark) by Marcos-era censors. The integral version was later released, this time by another Marcos-era film body, the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, due to a providential cultural quirk: the ECP had to justify its exemption from censorship and taxation by resorting mainly to artistically defensible activities.

It won’t be much of a surprise then to discover that some of the other winners in this here’s batch were in some way or other connected with the organization; not that I was one connected either (I was with the public relations department), but this was also the period in which local artistic expertise was at an admirable acme. Manila by Night is figuring out as the central example of a formal discourse on local cinema that I’m attending to and I’m sure that most other types of theoretical activity won’t be able to deny its masterliness as well.

Best Direction. Logically, the best film is always the best-directed. Ishmael Bernal, whose censored version of Manila by Night won the Urian best-film prize, lost in the best director category by a slim margin for an unusual reason: the film had a defective plastic surface, which was compounded by its mangled condition. This form of logic was subsequently and successfully challenged by the release of the integral version (apparently intended for the film’s aborted international screening), which benefited greatly from careful laboratory supervision. No more cruel twists of fate this time, the wind being presumably clear of cultural and critics’ politics: Ishmael Bernal in Manila by Night has done the most impressive local directorial job ever – thus far.

Best Screenplay. I cast my vote for Ricardo Lee in Moral in 1982, along with only one other member in that year’s Urian body, and I could say with pride that if there ever was Manunuri member who had integrity and renown, it was (and still is) him, Bienvenido Lumbera. Moral itself can be defended in retrospect as its year’s best film, but on the level of the category under discussion, the screenplay’s been published in book form for everyone to judge for herself. Lee has labored under a lot of early conquests and later rebuffs, with his pre-Moral scripts for Jaguar (co-written with Jose F. Lacaba) and Salome winning Urian awards and the back-to-back book edition of Brutal and Salome copping a special prize from the first National Book Awards batch of the Manila Critics Circle.

Moral (an ECP Film Fund-subsidized product and official Manila International Film Festival entry) is cast in the same multiple-character mold as Manila by Night, but it delimits itself by concentrating on fewer and female characters and compensates thorugh a whole lot of impressive characterization and intelligent structuring. The screenplay (and its published version) did not receive any recognition whatsoever, except from the Metro Manila Film Festival, which also holds the distinction of awarding by its lonesome the next category’s winner.

Best Performance. When we speak of actor, actress and their respective supports we actually refer to performance one and all. In this category the winner was easy for me to determine as early as the year she was competing for the Urian – and, as in the instance of Moral, she lost. No other performance, male or female, lead or supporting, comes close, and all later screenings of whatever other films may be in contention bear this out: the entry, produced by ECP and directed by Ishmael Bernal and scripted by Ricardo Lee, is Himala, and the performer is, of course, Nora Aunor.

For the record, several times did a vociferous La Aunor bloc demand a recount in the Urian, but we just could not muster the extra vote that would alter the decision. Himala qualified for the same international festival where Manila by Night almost competed, but the ECP refused to send the actress on her terms; again, she lost by a single vote. I may be perceived as kind in championing such lost causes, but my fearless prediction is that history will be far kinder. Already Himala, wherever it is being re-screened, is eliciting the same reaction: what a difficult role, and what a transcendent performance.

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Best Cinematography. The best Filipino cinematographer who ever lived has died, but not before perfecting his transition from black-and-white to color, and attaining his peak – and that, by simple extrapolation, of Philippine cinema as well. All that had to happen was for Peque Gallaga, who did the epic ECP production Oro, Plata, Mata, to recruit Conrado Baltazar, who was then already being credited for making a series of Lino Brocka films noirs seem larger than they actually were, for Regal Films’ Virgin Forest.

The film itself incribed a semi-cricle in Gallaga’s career by being screened at the ECP venue, the Manila Film Center, where his earlier release (also by Regal), the sex film Scorpio Nights, had acquired for him a strong measure of notoriety from both establishment and opposition moralists. Virgin Forest, despite being Gallaga’s best film ever, bore the brunt of the backlash, Baltazar’s work along with it. Baltazar himself never found another such oppurtunity: both Gallaga’s and Brocka’s next significant epics, Isang Araw Walang Diyos and Orapronobis respectively (curiously dealing with the same subject matter of rural vigilantism), were to be made almost simultaneously the year after his death.

Best Production Design. How fitting that a belated addition acknowledges the variability of film presentations. The winner in this category, in contradistinction to the rest, never had a regular theatrical run. This was not so much because it was shorter than most regular releases (since, as most film historians will be capable of confirming, early films tended to observe far shorter screening times than they do today); it was because the product itself was unclassifiable by standard-release categories, with fictional and documentary elements, and with its achievements ascribable to both the filmmaker as well as the subject/performer, attaining the status of “art film” not just aesthetically but by literally presenting the subject’s art work onscreen.

The complete title of the work as originally released in 1991 was Yuta: The Earth Art of Julie Lluch Dalena, with Hesumaria Sescon listed as director, although the Internet Movie Database shortens the secondary title to The Earth Art and includes Dalena as co-director. The members of the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino declared this their “best short film” for the year, but Kritika, the short-lived critics’ organization I participated in, listed it and Elwood Perez’s Ang Totoong Buhay ni Pacita M. as Gold Prize winners.

Best Editing. A kink came up in this category, after a discussion with a film expert who, for some important reason, shall remain unnamed. My choice was Lino Brocka’s Orapronobis, which was edited, as per its credits, by George Jarlego and two non-Filipinos, Sabine Mamou and Bob Wade. The complication isn’t so much the fact that the film may have been finished counter to its makers’ preference, although some amount of hush-hush talk to this effect once circulated. The issue dwells more on the reality that certain types of material may seem less expertly edited precisely because of the greater ambitions they aspire toward. Manila by Night and Moral, for example, may be sprawling and ambiguous in parts, but this could only certainly be ascribed to the necessity of letting go of pure or perfected technique in order to allow some non-plastic aspect of the material to develop.

In this respect my source suggested Mike de Leon’s Kakabakaba Ka Ba?, which won the Urian directing and editing trophies over Manila by Night. I find both positions valid: Orapronobis is as editorially perfect as anyone has ever gotten hereabouts while Kakabakaba is as editorially ambitous in the same sense. Both were done by brothers, Kakabakaba by Ike Jarlego Jr. The phenomenon of tie-giving has its place in our awards system, so my preference is for both titles – and, in effect, for the gifted clan that has been putting together some wonderful films for several generations now.

Best Sound. Another clan holds fort in this area, the Reyeses. Luis and his son Ramon teamed up for some impressive sound-studio results, mostly in Mike de Leon films. The elder Reyes had also worked with, among others, Gerardo de Leon, while the younger one continues the tradition with some of our better filmmakers. Technically I’d say that a Gallaga film, Oro, Plata, Mata, which credits Ramon Reyes for sound, would be one of the best I’ve seen – and the best I’ve heard, in the strictly plastic sense.

But in an interview with Ramon himself, he avowed that his ideal of good film sound is one that draws from the more difficult live-recording than from the more controlled studio-dubbed system. Over the years I’ve learned to appreciate what he meant: you give up some amount of crispness and clarity in exchange for ambience and authenticity, and a good soundperson can always make the tradeoff preferable. Reyes held up as an example Brocka’s Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag, which he and his father worked on, and I still have to find a better live-sound (and living-vision, which is of course directorial) film. Even the music, done by the precocious Max Jocson, was as unprepossessing yet eerily natural as the film’s aural design. The Reyeses earned a well-deserved trophy from the 1975 Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences for this film, and they earn mine all the way too.

Best Music. I’d settle for a Jocson score, with its incomparable admixture of minimalist principles and observance of the primacy of natural film sound. On the other hand, we’re really speaking of music here as distinct from sound, so I guess this could justify a score that heralds itself as unabashedly Orphic, capable if necessary of existing independently of the film that it accompanies.

The many times I watched Tikoy Aguiluz’s Boatman, whether at the MFC, a downtown theater, or on videotape playback, it’s the lush, expressive, achingly beautiful music I always wound up appreciating. Jaime Fabregas did some other highly competent scoring before and after this film, and even won an Urian for a relatively minor accomplishment in Scorpio Nights. Boatman was in the running the last year I was a voting member, but the prejudice against “bold” MFC films was then going too strong. This time around Fabregas in Boatman still gets my vote, man.

Sequitur

The problem with such state-of-the-art criteria is that early-state entries get excluded. The earliest awardee, Brocka’s Maynila, is from only fifteen years back, while the latest (prior to a post-publication addition), Orapronobis (another Brocka film), still has to be locally released. As problematic proof of its cyber-age existence, Orapronobis also happens to be the first Filipino film made available in laser-disc format.

Maybe someone else should come up with a qualified set of awards, like the best silent work (if anyone can remember or find any such thing) or black-and-white title. I would be very much embarrassed to hand out qualified awards though, much less receive them. I would rather stick to my list, and draw up a new one once the scenario changes too significantly to be ignored. Who knows? It could be as soon as the next couple of film releases, or as far away as, heaven forbid, the closing credits of our lifetime.

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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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