Fields of Vision – The Last of Lino

The standard opposition between Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal existed mostly in the minds of film observers and practitioners who were invested in one or the other, despite the fact that both filmmakers expressed fondness for each other and engaged in, at its worst, a friendly rivalry. The differences between them unfortunately infested critical opinion, magnified in malignant proportion when European filmfest agents swooped into town and decided that the politically naïve director who nevertheless boasted of polished surfaces would be preferable to the campy and boisterous sophisticate who had a deeper understanding of and preference for Third-cinema traditions. Although initially less threatening to his global marketers because of his reliance on generic Hollywood models and steadfast opposition to martial-law dictatorship, Brocka inevitably outgrew his mid-career orientation and made perceptible stabs at narrative complexity, thematic ambiguities, and spectatorial appeal – qualities that were associated with Bernal, just as Bernal made a disturbing turn into orthodox leftism. That both adventures were cut short before their protagonists realized what ends they would lead to is one of the many tragedies that, in the minds of many of us, confirmed the end of a significant era. This semi-autobiographical piece was originally drafted as the epilogue to my second volume of film articles, Fields of Vision.

My affinity with Lino Brocka became more literal than I could have ever imagined after he had died. My instinctive response was to declare a study of his works as master’s thesis topic, but I eventually had to face the fact that, apart from the formidable resources the attempt would require, this was also my way of evading the reality of the loss his death had engendered. Meanwhile I had requested my librarian mother to clip whatever biographical information was available, and it was she who discovered that Lino’s father’s first wife was the Bicolano Brocka that we were somehow related to. What impressed me was the distance between us – a remoteness that could only be bridged, had he still been alive, by a complex social formality. Strangely, it was such a formality that characterized the few interactions I had with him. The first time we were introduced, I had just published my first (and fortunately last) John Simon-inspired review, which happened to deal with his then-latest release, Angela Markado. I’d been forewarned by accounts, from acquaintances and the media, of his temperamental responses to criticism, but we carried on as if I had commented on something as irrelevant to our concerns as the weather.

Maybe he understood my obsession with trying out as many approaches to film writing and analysis as possible; in any case, my encounter with him opened to me the possibility that the artists I was dealing with could be concerned with the same thing, differences in media practice notwithstanding. Having witnessed what Lino and his colleagues, in their pursuit of knowledge through praxis, had to endure from commentators who were more concerned with their own personal criteria of correctness than with the artist’s learning process, I had the dubious benefit of knowing right from the start that I was placing myself in a somewhat similar situation.

The interventions of history were of not much help either. The machinators of martial rule were clever – and I grant this as someone who was privileged to work within the Marcos administration – but they necessarily left little room for cultural sophistication, beyond the basic and ultimately frustrating application of guerilla principles. Hence mass media were approached by their practitioners with an understanding reminiscent of First-World appreciation circa the 1950s, when US media institutions were both monopolistic and discomfortingly allied with government. Artistry in the classicist sense constituted the surest acceptable defense for subversive practice, so in general the more mass the medium (and therefore the more subject to establishment interests), the harsher the critique toward it; such a view also conveniently induced a critical attitude toward the government, since this was the entity that exercised control over media.

Practice in media was therefore regarded as compromise at best, and nowhere was this principle more in evidence than in film. Competition-oriented awards served to emblemize this essentially watchdog function, providing a much-needed alternative to financial and political incentives. The 1986 people-power uprising, in its dismantling of the structures of cultural patronage in film, similarly obliterated the modes of practice that were utilized to counter the excesses of the dictatorship. The question Who/What is the best artist/product of the season? (effectively akin then to asking who or what best embodied opposition to the dictatorship) has given way to Why should only one winner at a time be proclaimed in so many categories, why these categories in the first place, and why this set of winners at this time?

Using the development of Western critical thought as framework, I realized that entire schools had passed us by, in the meantime that we had to rely on early useful ones. One’s mission could then be facilitated by simply flash-forwarding (or should we say push-processing?) to the present, accepting contemporary theorists’ assertion that past approaches had proved flawed and were thereby generally dismissible. Other people had other ideas – Lino Brocka, for one. Where it would have been easy for him, given his international stature and local clout, to simply assimilate state-of-the-art competence, he preferred to run the gantlet in wooing back the mass audience that had accounted for his early triumphs in the industry. This meant a modification of his film-noir expertise and a whole lot of melodramatizations, so much so that prior to his resumption of foreign-financed production, he was being written off by most critical quarters as no better than the other Marcos-era talents, who were regarded as more decent in their preference for inactivity over crass practice.

Lino possibly had as many tragedies as there were who loved him. To my mind, his greatest was expiring right on the verge of what could have been an astounding artistic take-off, judging from the evidence of his last few serious local works, Hahamakin Lahat, Gumapang Ka sa Lusak, Sa Kabila ng Lahat, and the still-unreleased Orapronobis, plus the projects that had to be taken up by others – Huwag Mong Salingin ang Sugat Ko and Lucia and, in play form, Miserere Nobis and Noli Me Tangere; and these were just the ones that had already attained some measure of development – many more of equal or greater ambition were allegedly being considered. At no other time, in terms of his mastery of the medium and understanding of its mass appreciators, was he better qualified to stake a claim as major Filipino artist than when he bowed out. Many of us local critics managed to sharpen our faculties at the expense of Lino’s less-than-able output; but much more was lost to us by his death.

His own contribution to my convictions appears to be more lasting. I managed to somehow catch the tail end of formal awareness and appreciation of whatever media one happened to be interested in – film and literature, in my case. This has somehow enabled me to relate with a small and highly select number of local critics who extend their notion of praxis to include artistic production, inform their critical practice with an understanding or at least the pursuit of what constitutes effective expression in the local context, and believe in the importance of historical continuity for our specific purposes. One would think at first that between, say, a believer who comes in straight from the latest cultural theories and someone who exhibits the qualities mentioned above, the distinctions would be too subtle as to be negligible. Recent organizational practice, however, has demonstrated that the differences can be both salient and crucial.

In the final analysis, one needs to reckon with the current state of cultural maturity and proceed from there. Artists may be up for annihilation in the West, and well they may be, given the overly extended period of their ascendency. But to impose the same attitude here, where people still exhibit difficulty in distinguishing true artists from bogus ones and cannot even always count on cultural institutions for assistance in this regard, would be tantamount to misguided zealotry. To go about busting canons is perfectly called for, if the canons have themselves been drawn up with the maximum possible systematization and thoroughness. But with all our available ones so far shot through with methodological imperfections, then the act of assisting in creating better ones first will prove more helpful in refocusing attention on issues of credibility, reliability, and defensibility. The critique of such a listing (of which I hope the ten-best survey appearing in this volume will be the first definitive one for Philippine cinema) will of course be more difficult and complex, but this only means a more advanced and rewarding discourse in the long run.

I could not always hope to convey the fun I had in what was in a sense a new adventure every time; I could certainly indicate here though the heavy-heartedness with which I accept that such a mode of practice cannot be sustained forever, at least not while our concrete local condition remains the way it is and has been for as long as I remember. Sometimes I still find it hard to believe that certain foreign practitioners have built careers on the basis of one or a few others of these occasionally all-too-easy attempts at film coverage and analysis, but then even Lino himself realized, sometimes to everyone’s discomfiture, that material existence was never always fair.

What comes after this work will, or at least should, strive to be something as different as this was from the first. It could be more tightly structured and cognizant of recent philosophical issues, or it could be either one or the other or nothing like anything I mentioned. Whether my colleagues in criticism like it or not, my cue has somehow already been set…by among others Lino Brocka, who never allowed anything humanly surmountable to get in the way of what could have been merely fun. What a way to go.

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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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