The National Pastime – Issues 2

Film since February 1986

The two years since the 1986 February upheaval have spawned various situations for each aspect of Philippine mass media. A reversal has figuratively taken place in print, with what was once the alternative press now lodged in the establishment, in more ways than one. Whatever the apprehensions of practitioners for the future, in terms of the drift toward conservatism, consistency of circulation, and activities of trade-unionists, local print media – flourishing as it used to before the imposition of martial rule – once more enjoys the approval of our American counterparts for being freer than it may have a right to be. An irony has occurred in radio, the very medium that more than any other was directly responsible for the turnout of people power crucial to the overthrow of the past regime. Today the airwaves are better known as the domain of loyalists of deposed President Marcos, but the notion doesn’t seem too farfetched when we consider that radio has a captive mass audience, print has a more discriminating readership, and television is simply too expensive. With television the status quo may be said to have obtained, once we take for granted the shift in political loyalties. Viewership is as high as usual, but the proliferation of outlets as realized in the example of print failed to come about in the case of TV, partly because the huge financial outlets (only so many channels on the dial) promotes too fierce a competition. In one instance, the only newcomer, Channel 2, has been accused of restoring to controversial marketing strategies, particularly in terms of piracy of other stations’ programs, since its resumption of operations last year.

For the spoiled darling of local mass media, however, all three descriptions have applied in succession. From the period of the contested election that led to open anti-Marcos defiance, to until a few months afterward, the movie industry suffered a reversal so serious that insiders were comparing it to the situation three years back – when the obscene success of an international film festival led to moralistic backlash in the form of revitalized censorship. The irony was that, instead of acceding to the call for progress with responsibility, the movie industry chose to fall back on formulae that had proved effective prior to the slump. As a result, the local audience, which was ready for a cultural reorientation and reliant on the movies for a significant portion of this function, has been reconditioned to respond to the lure of escapism – the same element by which the previous regime had maintained a fantasy of fulfillment among the masses. Once the process of miseducation had again taken effect, the entire system had of course regained its status quo.

But with a noteworthy difference this time: what had once been prevalent was no longer necessarily acceptable. The most obvious indication of internal dissatisfaction with the movie industry’s recent actuations is the shift of its best and brightened talents to the related field of TV with a few others practicing in print, whereas in the past the movement, if any occurred, was in the opposite direction. The reluctance of the system of movie production to advance with the times is not difficult to understand. Among all the existing forms of mass media in the country, that of film realized its potential for political advantage along with the emergence of then-presidential candidate Ferdinand E. Marcos. Two terms later, each credited in no small part to the box-office successes of self-serving pseudo-biographical movies, the mechanisms for institutionalized control of the film industry were set up: the militarization of the censorship body in the middle period of martial rule, then the founding of a development agency right after the announced lifting of emergency powers.

Paradoxically the repressive atmosphere induced a reaction so daring and, because of the multi-levelled nature of cinema, so creative that observers even in other countries took notice and expressed admiration. These instances, however, were the extremes that contrasted with the rest. Eventually the mainstream, as a counter-reaction, calcified into the production of propagandistic action movies, cynical bold films, sleek melodramas, and inconsequential fantasy pictures. Thus the current dispensation, during its period of struggle, found in print and radio, and later TV, less resistance to its messages of criticism and dissent. Film was too closely guarded, and more complicated as a medium besides, to accommodate what was in the main an informational need. The then-opposition took note, and responded accordingly. After President Aquino’s takeover, film became the most neglected mass medium as far as the new government was, and still is, concerned. Its function of providing revenues through taxes that reduced gross intakes by more than a third was deemed sufficient to allow its open-market operation. The measure of freedom granted the more cooperative media, however, was denied the industry, on the hoary pretext that, revolutionary accomplishments notwithstanding, the masses’ morals still had to be safeguarded. Institutional support, which was necessarily non-profit in nature, was similarly held back, again with the use of the false logic that the system might have to resort to immoral movie screenings, as it did in the past, just to be able to support itself financially.

A strategy for salvation may be found in alternative action – the same measure that worked for the other media under discussion. At the moment, only two – intensive film education and alternative production and screening – have proved workable, and even then, on isolated terms. While the State University has graduated the country’s first batches of film majors, a plan to introduce film appreciation in high-school curricula fell through. Though an independently sponsored alternative film festival succeeded, the sponsorship of short-film competitions, from which cash incentives used to spur further production, has only been lately (too late, some practitioners claim) revived.

One last example will help clinch the argument. Although virtually every aspect of the movie system has been organized – from concerned artists to critics and even journalists – the inevitability of unionism still has to reach the most ordinary of movie workers. What the industry has at present are the extraordinary apparatus of an academy comprising guilds as well as a setup for a workers’ welfare fund – both of which are dominated by producers. Most curious indeed is the progress visible in print companies, in which trade unions have proliferated since the revolution and, in one instance, managed for a time to take over the operations of a now-defunct newspaper. In mid-1986 a major effort was exerted to once and for all organize movie workers for union purposes but, as in the attempt to implement film appreciation in high schools, the project failed to attain fruition.

All the failures so far may be traced to the same source: the apathy of the powers-that-be toward the potential for progress of the movie industry. The presence of censorship and the absence of institutional support, these two abide. Marcos-era experiments in providing one without the other merely proved that both are expressions of the same concern, on the part of authorities, that could either encourage or discourage responsible performance on the part of the industry. Specifically, the lifting of censorship without an institution to nurture the creativity of artists led to excesses on the part of filmmakers prior to the declaration of martial law, while the provision of institutional encouragement amid stringent and arbitrary censorship led to excesses on the part of government after the lifting of martial law.

Freedom and support then: one cannot exist for long without the other, especially in industrialized culture. Perhaps such was the intention of the past regime in allowing one innovation exclusive of the other, so as to prove the industry’s incapability of addressing the demands of progress. The possibility of withholding both or either is out of the question. As to whether the government will overcome its bias against the movie system and eventually allow it the means by which it could measure up to the challenge of growth and development, the prospects are so far in increasing danger of flickering out.

[First published December 1986 in Philippines Communication Journal]

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People-Power Cinema

To begin with, there isn’t any celluloid commemoration, whether factual or fictionalized, of the February 1986 revolution. The only one ever attempted, Four Days in February (Marilou Diaz-Abaya directing from Jose Dalisay Jr.’s script) has been shelved and, due to the recent reversals in the political fortunes of the Armed Forces “reformists,” has been for all practical purposes rendered stale as yesterday’s pan de sal. All this may be for the better. For one thing, the revolution is widely perceived by all its major participants, regardless of their positions on the political spectrum, as still finished, although I shudder to think what further upheavals await us. More important, those heady days 20-or-so months ago (more like a generation since, you’ll agree) seem better consigned to memory: at least there’ll be a multitude, millions literally, of versions of what actually transpired, rather than a few interpretations unfairly imbued with the aura of credibility through plastic manipulations.

A problematic, however, can be sensed from the fact that local film criticism has been thrown into disarray by what outputs actually turned up, rather than by what have been turned down or out. Not a single serious product made since February 1986 – serious releases immediately after, but those could only have been made before the revolution! After is what matters, and the trail so far is littered with melodrama and fantasy, hardly the stuff for the sensible artistic discussion we used to know…. Well, not quite, if we count in the occasional bold and action film. But save for last year’s critics’ awardee Takaw Tukso, the former has been nothing if not the now-standard exploitation vehicle, while the latter has evolved into that most unsatisfactory mutant, the real-life hero’s story.

There may be a more positive stance one can take, and I believe it’s not only practicable, but absolutely indispensable, if our so-called critics are to assume once more their relationship of mutual nourishment with the industry. The problem is that the dark days of dictatorship, pardon the bromide, fostered in us an equation of grimness with seriousness. The fact that our culture is predominantly Catholic didn’t help: what comes easy is always suspicious, if not downright sinful, so value increases in proportion so suffering. The application of this sometimes-but-not-always valid assumption to film criticism becomes painfully obvious if we re-view (watch all over, that is) the titles that seemed to matter during the Marcos years. Admittedly a handful of great ones will continue to stand out, but I’ll bet my sense of vision that a disturbing proportion will emerge as having been admirable for some form of political or social daring, and nothing more. To an extent more than we care to admit, we were actually putting a premium on titles with an eye to watching the powers-that-were, who never had enough good taste to begin with, squirm from the references. Artistic achievement assumed secondary value, the icing on the pie in Imelda’s face, and sometimes, especially in the case of genre (standard box-office) titles, even became a liability because of its threatening nature. Why, if a bold or fantasy or action or melodrama movie were to be given serious consideration, who’ll pay attention to the latest academically engineered agitprop work of what’s-his-name, when his budget, not to mention his skills, couldn’t even begin to compare with the industry’s full-blast capabilities?

Of course this entire state of things became possible only because the viewing public occasionally made known its support through its patronage, and so our sociological framework of the masses seeking enlightenment during a period of oppression comes full circle. But now they’ve come to prefer escapist entertainment, and our pinpointing responsibilities on film- and policymakers will only amount to so much barking up the wrong signpost. The February 1986 revolution remains, after all, a happy memory, a veritable dream-come-true no scripted theatrical experience could ever hope to match. The desire to somehow extend the good feelings, even if only in the confines of a movie house, is where we’re starting from. If we’re loaded with titles that provide nothing but happy endings – which is actually the current case, even among our favorite pre-revolution filmmakers – then we better start looking for new values to champion, rather than imposing old ones. And if I may add the obvious, this is as good an opportunity as we’ll ever have to return to simple virtues of classicism rather than imposing old ones. And if I may add the obvious, this is a good an opportunity as we’ll ever have to return to simple virtues of classicism in cinema – the well-told tale done with utmost competence, adding appropriate points for imagination. Where this will take us is anybody’s guess, including mine, but what matters right now is that film artistry, though always somehow with us, has never had, for reasons often beyond our control, its proper place in our hearts.

[First published October 28, 1987, in National Midweek]

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Studious Studios

The return of the studio system used to be one of the most abused bogeyisms brandished before us by prophets of gloom of various persuasions and motivations in the local movie industry. The scare died down recently, for the simple reason that the threat of studio re-domination never really returned. That was then, of course, and now all developments, to use a euphemism, indicate that no other setup exists other than that founded by and upon our modern-day movie moguls.

To be sure, the early confusion may have been numerological in nature. The last time a studio system flourished, it was manifested in the form of a trinity: a major, a rival, and an underdog, more popularly known as Sampaguita, LVN, and Premiere after the war. Movie stars, in an apparently instinctive bid to appropriate the axis of power among themselves, contributed greatly to the reshuffling, by attempting to violate the rule against shuttling from one outfit to another. The collapse of the studio system may have been due to the studios’ resistance to the upward mobility of their personnel, including their most prized possessions, their contract stars. All that was needed was for an entire pack of aspiring underdogs, then as now calling themselves independents, to provide lucrative options for discontented performers who’d break away from their money companies only to find themselves blacklisted (as a form of collective protection) by the other biggies.

The star system, however, never really prospered beyond an individualized basis, for roughly the same reasons that the independents eventually yielded to the superstars: the individual entrants were too self-sufficient to coalesce or forge alliances, and the local market could only accommodate so much – three at a time, it seems. In a manner of speaking, the industry’s system has never really been based on independents or stars, not once; only on studios. Once the inadequacies of the alternatives between independents and superstars became clear, the time was ripe for another season of studio domination. Three at a time, then. With Agrix and Bancom battling for supremacy during the 1970s, and a number of worthy stragglers, notably Crown-Seven, striving for third place, warnings began to be raised. Agrix folded up, so did Crown-Seven, leaving Bancom at the top and Regal, for a time an underdog, the closest rival. Bancom was then dissolved along with its larger conglomerate, and the apparent jinx suffered by those in the position of major was enough to pacify the pessimists.

Without much fanfare Regal took top place, while Viva came on strongly enough to claim the status of rival. Only an underdog-newcomer, the Marcos government’s Experimental Cinema of the Philippines (ECP), made enough noise by way of threatening to dislodge both occupants, and the rest of the movie industry as well, from their profitable circumstances. It took the February 1986 upheaval to eliminate, among others, this last obstacle in the re-establishment of the studio system. Seiko assumed the unlamented ECP’s underdog role, and happy days, at least for the mogul-owners, were here again.

So far all the evidence favors the reincarnated versions over their predecessors. They’ve been wise enough to allow the sharing of contract stars among themselves – to the detriment of the personalized social-cum-thespic training the old studios used to proffer, impose even, on an in-house basis. Lately they’ve even outdone themselves on a conceptual level. For where the old studios employed certain generic trademarks with which to identify themselves – LVN with musicals and costume spectacles, Sampaguita with fantasies and tearjerkers, Premiere with gangster stories – the present ones have taken to exchanging their corporate images with one another: Viva, which prided itself on gloss, has been attaching its name, rather than that of its sister company Falcon, to low-budget crime stories like Ex-Army and Boy Negro (formerly associable with Seiko) and recently came up with a Regal staple, a quickie musical comedy, in Buy One, Take One; Regal, on the other hand, has been taking tentative steps toward comparatively big-budget but komiks-based products (after its quickie formula failed to work in recent succession), with Nagbabagang Luha and the forthcoming update of Dyesebel; Seiko likewise has begun glossy productions in earnest, what with the satisfactory box-office returns of Hiwaga sa Balete Drive (more Regal in its comic-horror bent) and Isusumbong Kita sa Diyos (definitely a Viva formula).

Most of these efforts were premised on the prospects of renewed moviegoer interest after the usual approaches became too predictable for (financial) comfort. No doubt the novelty of the old images carrying over into the new offerings had something to do with the encouraging turnout of viewers: Viva’s Sharon Cuneta and Phillip Salvador shedding their long-cultivated glamor, Seiko’s struggling also-rans suddenly basking in lustrous production values, Regal’s campiness to be enhanced (or perhaps defeated) by an uncharacteristically big budget. What is left for these modern-day mammoths to do is confront their one last impediment to immortality. In more than just the spiritual sense, the old studios passed away along with their founder-owners. The way the present ones are being run, it becomes easy for opponents to hope, if not in the progressive enlightenment of the moguls, in the eventual demise of Mother Lily, the del Rosarios, and Robbie Tan – a sure thing anyway, given the still-limited lifespan we have all been heir to. Decentralization may be the immediate logical response, although there remains one better strategy, the very factor that keeps certain LVN and Premiere titles in the consciousness of current film observers despite the virtual inactivity of the original producers: the word – but are we ready for it? – is, of course, quality.

[First published July 20, 1988, in National Midweek]

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An Update

Legislated aid for film appears to be the only way to go, since the dictatorial whim that set up certain support bodies in the past could not assure their sempiternity. This type of recourse, however, takes too long and allows too many things to go wrong. In the rush to come up with much-needed solutions, what have we been given thus far? For one thing, a system of censorship that, through legalese mumbo-jumbo, claims it isn’t so, although the effects are very much the same. Then a system of rating (as opposed to classification) executed by the self-same body, with criteria preempted by moralist biases. And last, a proposal to restrict foreign-film importation – as if the video revolution had never taken place, and as if we, especially as audiences, could do without exposure to the latest strides in world cinema. Clearly these are halfway measures at best, the ideals consisting of: a classification system that doesn’t coerce its applicants in any way, and that doesn’t result in tampering with the submitted work on anyone’s part; a rating system with financially remunerative consequences and utilizing overtly artistic measures; and a rationalization, rather than delimitation, of foreign-film imports, prescribing a system of priorities based on obtained and provable merit: award-winners first, for example, then non-winning nominees, and so on down the line, with undistinguished entries coming in last, where they belong. Other areas our lawmakers should begin exploring are film education and the development of markets for export. Late as ever, of course, but better than never.

[First published October 24, 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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