The National Pastime – Ethics First

This article was first read at a Philippine studies conference, in an unsatisfactory panel where one paper reader, confronted with a difficult question, resorted to berating the audience for, in effect, not possessing the same level of film savviness that he had. I lost the original paper I drafted and wound up expanding the presentation version to approximately the length and depth I preferred and submitted it in time for journal review. I managed to recount a few of the citation sources I used for the present reprint; but the greenness of the scholarship, the occasional philosophobia, the reliance on dualisms, the erasure of the spectator, the hectoring tone – these still manage to disturb me, though not as intensely as they did when the piece came out. Possibly because I discovered a few things that I took for granted then: one was that someone else had anticipated my article “A Second Golden Age” by identifying precisely the same phenomenon a month earlier…and that someone was me; less facetiously, I recognize here a striving toward original theorizing, a possibly less-useful ideal today but an earnest expression of seriousness of purpose that would move me if it had been written by someone else rather than my naïve and sentimental self. [The essay came out on pp. 190-97 of The National Pastime.]

The eventual centennial of film in the Philippines some time during the forthcoming decade may serve as sufficient excuse for its beneficiaries to pay tribute to the medium – and, in the course of doing so, inquire as well what has been done for the medium in return. This concern is actually larger, nationwide at least, in scope than it may sound at first, once we agree that most Filipinos do benefit from the industry, and if we grant (as well we should) that entertainment alone could be counted a crucial aspect of well-being. The best way of summarizing, both for outsiders as well as ourselves, our contribution to the medium of film is by presenting our practice in it in the form of material proof. A truly comprehensive retrospective of outstanding outputs in Philippine cinema, however, would of course be next-to-impossible to mount, and would in a way always preempt the succeeding batches of work by defining them in advance, instead of observing the proper historical method of allowing the future to modify the present.

A more economical way would be to reduce this summary to a logically acceptable abstraction. I cannot overemphasize the advantage here as being primarily, and probably exclusively, financial, since the entire history of ideas in film thus far all points to a succession of overdeveloped, inconclusive, or half-basked systems of thought that, for the last quarter-century at least, have never proved adequate for mainstream film practice. The reasons are not difficult to comprehend once we view these developments in film theory in the light of essential film practice. The nature of film theorizing began with fanciful speculations regarding the still-to-be-created medium in the 1800s and even earlier, as Western artists sought several ways of reconciling the presentation of reality, its spatial and temporal properties intact, with the delight of having such a presentation in a final, permanent, concrete, and disseminative form (Canudo 58-65).

Closely related to this seminal tendency was the consideration of properties inherent in specific media of expression, and how these may interact with one another. Film, as we can easily discern in retrospect, served as the vital link between theater (reality as raw material) and literature (imagination distilled and preserved for posterity). But on the way to its realization, it first underwent an intermediate technological stage – photography – that also drew in the basic principles of the visual arts, of painting, sculpture, and architecture. Hence it should come as no surprise to learn that proper theorizing on film had always been technology-based and media-comparative, with the aim in mind of determining the purpose of the medium vis-à-vis other existing media. And it never came together in one metaformulization, for the simple reason that the technology of film, which dictated the pace of basic film theorizing, took all of the first four decades of the new medium’s existence to develop.

The advantage of this sort of step-by-step dissection of the emergent technology for us latter-day observers is apparent in more ways than one. First it gives us a clear understanding of the mechanics of film according to individual elements isolated and maximized in practice; in addition, it supplies for us, as it no doubt did for its contemporary observers, a body of output that constitutes undeniable proof of the same medium’s potential for superior artistry, even in its relatively underdeveloped phase. The major stages in the technological development of film, in chronological order and according to attendant progressions in film thought, would therefore be the “fine” photographic approach, the discovery of montage, the improvement of film stock, and the introduction of sound. Color, for all the happy critical salutations that it first occasioned, has remained an innovation similar to the standardization of screen proportions: everyone observes it, more or less, but everything done with it so far, including the violation of its conventions for purposes of artistic experimentation, has never led to any significant extension of the technical capabilities of film the way the other developments had.

Back to top

Specialization Pros & Cons

Academic film training has been responsible for the relative professionalization of film practice in the major international industries, including the United States with the emergence of the so-called Hollywood brats; with the necessary policy support, it will also surely provide a much-needed overhaul of values, if not systems, in the Philippines, with the introduction of academic degrees starting at the University of the Philippines (UP). What remains clear from this outcome was the increasing specialization of film practice, to the detriment of truly protean thinker-practitioners. No longer was it acceptable for filmmakers, or people close to them, to articulate their highest philosophical concerns; publicists or reviewers would do just as well, inasmuch as practitioners were not expected to have big overriding questions to confront. Film academicians, on the other hand, were expected to remain above the din of commercial practice, way up in ivory towers of productive speculation on film, lest they be suspected of harboring motives of crass materialism, considering how easy it has always been to benefit from casual associations with show business.

Toward the middle part of his career the realist theorist André Bazin hailed the Italian neorealist movement and proceeded to define its physical parameters (65). Here finally was a locus of film practice that may have been national (actually post-World War II Rome) in origin but which also had the potential of spreading out as a socio-industrial ideal instead of the usual exportable technology. Bazin consistently chronicled the directions and upheavals of the movement based on the output of its practitioners, but he died before any major transformation had taken place. Further developments in film ideas were to share these crippling effects on film practice. Certain academic film institutions have provided what seems to be a satisfactory means out of this impasse, by calling such recent suppositions in cinema “methodologies” instead of theories (cf. Nichols). The complications posed by such speculative actuations for a situation like that of ours should be immediately obvious. With the country on the threshold, optimistically speaking, of economic development, a community of reactors influential and skilled enough to provoke interest and discussion in such undertakings would be hard-put to come by. Moreover, the aforementioned distance such methodological ruminations afford from practical purposes of film creation could become the basis of widespread dismissal by the public.

One possibility offers itself – one premised on the emergence of Italy as a national force in world cinema with its own distinct contribution, neorealism, despite its Third-World economic status then. Neorealism itself had been posed in the past as an appropriate model for our national cinema, grounded as it was in the selection of immediate and available thematic sources as compensation for a paucity of filmic resources. Such a notion is of course self-limiting in terms of both theme and technique; neorealism itself, as we have already seen, refused to remain as it had been in its country of origin. Filipino filmmakers have had noteworthy enough periods of apprenticeship in the craft, what with the adaptation of realism during what is now known as the first Golden Age in the black-and-white period (1946-59, per Bienvenido Lumbera) and the influx of New-Wave influence in what is now emerging as a second Golden Age during the Marcos era, 1975-85, coupled with the already mentioned academic institutionalization of film starting at UP. The strategy aims at the creation and sustenance of a socio-industrial system that will allow for maximum creativity in film, given the realities of our current cultural setup.

Articulation of this theory will be difficult and long-drawn-out, and highly dependent on the results of film practice and experience. The outline will initially observe ethical rather than aesthetic prescriptions, and may move into practical, possibly technological, dimensions depending on developments both local and international. Never has such a formulation been undertaken on a major scale anywhere beyond what had been propounded for neorealism, and even then Bazin’s articulations ended with a description of the movement, not (unusual for the man) with anticipative attempts to suggest or explain where it was going. How can such a movement of creative ferment graduate to making contributions on the world-class scale of film technology, or at least film technique? Clearly this theory is premised on the real potential of film to link up with national development. The theory’s premise posits a conception of film as a distinct and vital entity, with a physical – in fact, industrial – dimension capable of interacting, clashing or harmonizing or coexisting, with the other institutions at play in both the cultural and politico-economic realm.

“Film” in this instance may also constitute an abstractifiable variable that includes the dynamics of film practice as reflected in the products of the industry. The reason here is that it is necessary to have a basis for generalization more final and conclusive than what historical minutiae can provide. This is the advantage that film possesses over, say, a political institution: the products of the latter would still be individuals or, at the most, processes based on individuals, and therefore always subject to the vagaries of human behavior. More traditional artistic activities, on the other hand, would not have the major industrial status that makes film a force to reckon with even on a social scale; the final “filmmaker” is, auteurism aside, still the collective responsible for a production, unlike the book’s writer or the play’s author. Once the conscious pursuit of this theory gets under way, and survives the country’s economic advancement, it would then be a simple matter of claiming the financial and logistical subsidies necessary for the initial implementation of an expansion of the medium’s technological capabilities. Hence the program for the prevalence of film should work for the strengthening of creative prerogatives in film practice and the flourishing of concomitant imagination in film theory and criticism. This may be mapped out according to four areas, all of them overlapping with one another: governmental, educational, industrial, and ideological.

Back to top

Areas of Concern

Government. A reorientation of state cultural policy has to be effected, with the current dispensation disabusing itself of the misconception that the provision of institutional support for the industry, recalling though it may the previous regime’s expressed tactics, will consequentially stigmatize the practice. The Marcos government undeniably went overboard in favoring film over other mass media, but if the other media were able to rise in opposition, this was simply because they were less totally controlled compared to film, and more predisposed to propagandism in the first place. A number of institutional modifications though may still prove irresistible to the present government in a strictly monetary sense, and may be utilized to provide the necessary support on both domestic and international fronts. Locally, I refer to the provision of tax rebates through a film ratings board that classifies films preferentially according to open and evolving criteria of quality;[1] as in the past, the government could allow itself, in the form of service fees, a reasonable percentage of the collections, prior to turning these over to the rebate winners.

Censorship of film, although unconstitutional, still cannot be successfully confronted, since its roots are more cultural than pathological, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. A mechanism for international exposure, where such a practice could be scornfully dispensed with, should be set up with strong emphasis on the marketing of local products to prospective foreign buyers. Allusions to the Manila International Film Festival might crop up, but then where the latter strove for prestige and goodwill, to the point of opening up the local market to international sellers, the new edition should seek to completely reverse this trend. Interest in Filipino products need not be drummed up in this same venue; the government should instead be compelled to facilitate the permission of local films and filmmakers to participate in foreign festival competitions, and perhaps extend incentives to successful participants via a tie-up with the film ratings board (e.g., automatic or additional rebates for international festival winners).

One last governmental contribution would be entirely unprofitable, but just as indispensable. The national film archives should be restored to a status of true autonomy, instead of its current and anomalous attachment to the local censors body, wherein archival personnel can presumably be tasked with neglecting, and thereby destroying, titles deemed detrimental to the ideals of the mother entity. Government could ease the burden on itself by requiring producers to deposit prints of every film output that comes along as a condition of the permit to exhibit, thus enabling itself to concentrate on reproducing or acquiring titles of more valuable vintage.

Education. Meaningful film education can and should be concretized through the expansion of academic film offerings. The state university should take the initiative in enjoining other colleges and universities to offer degrees in film, so as to further minimize the elitism still associated with the program. A position of academic leadership, meanwhile, can be promoted through the implementation of graduate-level film programs, still based in UP. A proposed course for requiring film study in secondary schools, which integrated film appreciation with social studies and literature and included teacher training, should be revived, updated, and implemented alongside an institutional plan to harness existing movie theaters to screen the titles necessary for study.

The ideal to be aimed at in the educational thrust is the thorough professionalization of the local industry, wherein prospective film applicants are best expected to present academic credentials. The long-standing demand for professionalism will thus be supplied with a solid and reliable means of enforcement, rather than the personalized character rebirths fashionable at the moment. Moreover, alternative cinema, which has been languishing this past decade for want of a mass audience capable of appreciating the self-conscious artistry of its outputs, will be able to utilize the network and audiences of educational institutions as among other things a springboard, from which a passage to the government’s international festival-market may be devised.

Industry. Studio domination should be seen as a means of achieving stability in the industrial system, while independent productions tend to be receptive to innovations in practices. Thus while a too-powerful entrenchment of studios (as was the case during the first Golden Age) is always in danger of stagnancy, an open season among independents could only result in resistive abuse. The balance currently obtaining between studios and independents should be maintained for as long as possible, preferably by legislative means. Naturally, since the metropolis tends to favor established outfits, independents should seek other still-lucrative venues. Foreign festivals are currently receptive to Third-World products, but the wherewithal necessary for participating therein would prove too imposing for truly struggling productions. Independents should take heart in the emergence of the South as a national economic force; the Cebuano-language audience, which has always been dependable (though not as profitable as that of Manila), might even now be ready for a resurgence of regional viewing fare. An Iloko movie or two might also perform creditably at the tills, if only as a reaction to the renewed pride and consciousness of the South.

Meanwhile, the importation of foreign films would be better rationalized than delimited. Toward this end, small and scattered art houses, rather than the mammoth and inaccessible Manila Film Center of the past, may be set up to accommodate what mainstream theatrical circuits would be reluctant to exhibit. The influx of video would make the control of the entry of foreign films a futility; neither has it satiated the appetite of the public for movie-going, as originally feared. More important, foreign films provide one of the most effective and perhaps the most inexpensive means for local practitioners and audiences to update their knowledge of film language and culture. In more practicable terms, the proposed art houses could eventually take over the function of the movie-houses commissioned to provide logistical support for secondary-level film education.

Back to top

Ideology. Creative activity should encompass, as it occasionally used to, the application of experimental or multifarious modes of expression to native-sourced material, without necessarily requiring the burden of additional technology. Ideological debates as presented and developed in various fora of national concerns should also be made to reflect in film products with proper dramatic treatment, rather than the dualisms that still typify local discourses. Both requirements depend primarily on the contribution of the writer, so aesthetic groundwork should seek to modify the claim of auteurism upholding the director as the most important creative factor in filmmaking. The industrial aspect could make its contribution, however small, by giving emphasis to writers’ credits in publicity materials, and in providing prominence to writers’ achievements. Better still, film educators should take care in maintaining a strong orientation in liberal arts and literature, and instead reserve the mostly technical approaches of visual training for craft purposes.

In the end what should be striven for is the primacy of filmic argument over its counterparts in sociopolitical realms. Critical activity should aim to develop a breed of reactors capable of figuring out the means by which film expression transforms raw ideology into modified or higher statements which, in being ultimately aesthetic, transcend the limitations of their origins. All too often film commentators are either inadequately prepared buffs with ulterior motives of crashing into the industry, or highly qualified sociopolitical experts whose air of condescension toward the medium stifles their appreciation of the virtues of filmic thinking. Innovation and sincerity of expression then, rather than conformity to a pre-given sociopolitical prescription, should be the guideposts of critical reaction. Critics should be measured according to their intellectual flexibility and adherence to the potential for plurality of media formats and achievements. This of course is not equipollent to the current multiplicity of awards for film and related media, and would better be served by a proliferation of filmic discussion in print; incidentally, this view also ascribes to electronic media[2] the more ephemeral function of film reviewing.

Finally, excellence of critical expression should once more be given strong emphasis in the local literature of cinema. This would of course be facilitated by the proper liberal-arts and literary orientation in film education mentioned earlier, but with the additional challenge of developing other Philippine languages, starting with the national language, in terms of their capabilities for critical expression. The abiding principle here is the property of written as well as visual language largely sharing intellectual appeal and an attendant expectancy of fluency of usage: if critics could demand that filmmakers perform at or above par in their craft, then likewise should filmmakers demand that critics write well, if not better.

Several of these issues as presented either belong to the best intentions of both film practitioners and observers at present, or have in fact been realized by them, if only occasionally. The question of feasibility, however, could not be a major issue at this point, since what I have outlined is based entirely on current realities. With the conversion of these recommendations into a movement of national significance, the formulation of a theory of Filipino film may be made – belatedly perhaps, but happily nonetheless.

[First published September 1989 in Philippines Communication Journal]


[1] This concept, adapted from the successful implementation of the Film Ratings Board during the Marcos era’s Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, was eventually re-implemented, with even the original institution’s name intact.

[2] Prior to the dissemination of new media, the only “electronic” media at this point were radio and television.

Works Cited

Bazin, André. “De Sica: Metteur en scéne.” What Is Cinema? Vol. 2. Trans. Hugh Gray. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971. 61-78.

Canudo, Riciotto. “The Birth of a Sixth Art.” 1911. French Film Theory and Criticism: A History/Anthology, 1907-1939. Vol. 1. Ed. Richard Abel. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988. 58-65.

Lumbera, Bienvenido. “Problems in Philippine Film History.” Revaluation: Essays on Philippine Literature, Cinema and Popular Culture. Quezon City: Index, 1984. 193-212.

Nichols, Bill, ed. Movies and Methods: An Anthology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

Back to top

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

Comments are disabled.

%d bloggers like this: