Millennial Traversals – Reflections on a National Pastime

I had hesitated in tracking down this, my first attempt at an academic article, since, though the effort may have been suffused with good intentions, it bypassed the processes essential to guaranteeing rigor and contemporaneity. The late Professor Raul R. Ingles was insistent that I provide Philippines Communication Journal, the first scholarly periodical of the University of the Philippines’ College of Mass Communication, with an article that would introduce the concerns of the then-fledgling college’s newest program, overriding my objections about the lack of any (time for an) appropriate course, conference, or workshop where I could present my findings. I also had my doubts about the peer “reviews” the article underwent, so I never even bothered to keep any record of the resulting publication thereafter. Since my commitment to Ámauteurish! necessitated my tracking down a hard copy of the journal, I was surprised to discover, alongside my expected dismay at how primitive the article’s basic insights were, that in my desperation I had been driven to imagine a scenario where installation-video or convergent-media art might emerge; also, and more humbling, that my articles since then had not really progressed all that significantly beyond this first one. I would also have objected to the title used during publication, but the original one (which I am restoring for this posting) supplied me with the inspiration for naming my first book. [This article came out on pp. 43-48 of the fifth issue (volume 2, dated December 1987) and has never been reprinted anywhere until now.]

How literate indeed are Filipinos? With the use of the most reliable research instruments available, I daresay any scholar can reasonably challenge the myth of the high standard of literacy in the Philippines. The proof shouldn’t be too surprising, and neither should it panic the more innovative sectors of local society. Language, the fundamental determinant of literacy, had been a problem even before the interventions imposed by Spanish and American colonial administrators.

There has never been a serviceable common tongue to unite diverse ethnic groups populating the archipelago, though there may be certain nationalists arguing for the viability of English even as others insist on the validity of Filipino, both sides in all fairness conceding to the exoticism of the former and the prematurity of the latter for highly advanced local applications. On the other hand, the national psyche hasn’t exactly remained dormant throughout this period of cultural inadequacy. As is the case in various other Third-World settings suffering the same sort of divisibilities, a significant degree of literacy has been facilitated by a medium of communication that functions independent of any other linguistic system except its own: the cinema, ironically introduced by normally antagonistic industrialized nations.

Proof of such relatively advanced local literacy is bolstered by the movie-going behavior of the Philippine masses. Not only are they the most avid movie viewers in the world (as duly recorded by a recent edition of the Guinness Book of World Records), they also patronize enough – though definitely not all – quality productions to maintain a steady supply of admirable titles, at least as much as would be necessary to sustain a number of competitive and overlapping annual award-giving bodies. More important for our purposes, Filipino film artists have managed to come up with a handful of works capable of initiating intelligent discussions on the future of the medium – as may become apparent later.

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Emergence of Movies

The difficulty in tracing the history of film, in the Philippines as anywhere else, is that the medium itself is too complex to allow for definitive individual credits. Various sources point to about as many pioneers of as many as four nationalities – French, Spanish, American, and Filipino – involved in the introduction of cinema to the country (de Pedro 26). Hence, short of arbitrating issues that require much more resources than would suffice for a film evaluation, and that would lead to discoveries of disputable significance besides, the responsible observer can only begin with an acknowledgment of the collective nature of film enterprise.

She could go on with a reiteration of the need for systematic institutional preservation of as many types of local film output as possible, if only to enable historians to settle the more mundane questions of who-did-what first and thereafter. Movie-going emerged as a predominant social habit within the past two decades as encouraged by the recently deposed dictatorial regime, and the reasons are not so difficult to comprehend, given the benefit of hindsight. For among all the existing forms of mass media in the country circa the twentieth century, that of film realized its potential for political advantage with the ascendancy of Ferdinand E. Marcos, both of whose presidential terms he personally ascribed to the box-office impact of pseudo-biographical pictures (de Vega 26-27). It was also during the Marcos years that mechanisms for institutionalized control of the local industry were set up or strengthened: the militarization of the censorship body in the middle period of martial rule, and then the founding of a developmental film agency, tasked with the provision of financial subsidies, tax rebates, archival services, alternative productions and venues, and even an international festival, right after the announced lifting of emergency powers (David 5).

Paradoxically such a repressive atmosphere induced a reaction so daring and, because of the multi-levelled nature of cinema, so creative that observers both here and abroad took notice and expressed admiration. But because these instances represented extremes that contrasted with the rest, eventually the mainstream, as a counter-reaction, calcified into the production of propagandistic action movies, cynical sex films, sleek melodramas, and inconsequential fantasy pictures. As for the current (post-Marcos) political dispensation, especially during its initial period of struggle to prevail, it found in other mass media – print and radio, and later even television – 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.

Hence from a status of high – if not almost exclusive – favor, film in the Philippines has now fallen to a state of near-total institutional disarray. The government apparently considers the industry’s function of providing revenues through taxes (that reduce gross intakes by more than a third) sufficient excuse to allow its open-market operation. The measure of freedom granted the more cooperative media, however, is still being denied film practice, on the accustomed but now officious pretext that, revolutionary accomplishments notwithstanding, the masses’ morals still have to be safeguarded. Institutional support, which is necessarily non-profit in nature, is similarly being withheld, again with the use of faulty logic – this time the argument that the system might resort to immoral movie screenings, as it did in the past, just to be able to support itself financially.

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Mass Medium

Politics is only one aspect of the present administration’s reluctance to support cinema in the Philippines. Lack of awareness about the potential of the medium, in more than just the propagandistic manner exploited by the previous regime, provides a possibly more crucial cause of passivity on the part of local policy-makers, including education and culture officials. Film is the first major confluence in the age-long attempt to capture reality, specifically its aural and visual attributes, in the totality of its existence in space and time. Because of its technological derivation from photography and the obvious space-time affinities with theater, film was at first regarded as a handmaiden of these other art forms – i.e., as a series of moving photographs that told stories staged, as it were, for the camera, and presented before an audience seated in a darkened auditorium, just as a theatrical production would be (Canudo 58-65).

The basic dialectic that initiated the development of film as a medium unto itself lay precisely in this misconception about its function: one side posited its value for documentation, while another alleged that it should tamper with such static preservation of reality and arrive at higher forms of truth by arranging a series of documentations in a logical, or at least chronological, sequence. After a partially successful bid among the realists (as the pro-documentarians became known) to advance their cause by promoting visual expressionalism, the formalists (the pro-storytellers) came up with the concept of montage, which in its skillful application ascribed a higher value to the result of a juxtaposition of two or more documentations, or shots (Bazin, “Evolution of the Language of Cinema” 23-29).

But just as expressionism, especially as practiced by its prime exponents the Germans, tended in its purest form to defeat the realist intention by its insistence on distorting reality,[1] so did montage, as evidenced in the output of its Soviet proponents, veer toward too much abstractification at the expense of dramatic involvement, the very objective of formalism. Here we find the two elements that make cinema such a dynamic form of expression: one, the shot, the repository of objective visual (and later, with the introduction of sound, aural) reality; and the other, the cut, the subjective discontinuation of the shot to replace it with another shot or to end the presentation altogether.

A further development in this regard, although claimed by realists, actually accommodates both positions in the argument, and in fact has been suggested as a throwback to the theatrical tradition. Premised on a discovery of the creative possibilities of the long take, or unbroken shot, the realists declared the redundancy of montage in lieu of arranging details or even blocking movement according to the spatial depth of a single frame using deep focus, as the technique was called (Bazin, “Evolution” 30-40). Roughly instanced, a filmmaker need not keep cutting from one image to another within a given setting; all she has to do is direct her actors and objects within a single camera setup, maximizing the availability of foreground, middleground, and background, at best allowing these to correspond to various levels of subjective presentations of reality.

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Outstanding Samples

Not surprisingly, all the canonical items in world cinema so far observe the essential outline of the aforementioned debate – the expressionist M (A City Looks for a Murderer) (dir. Fritz Lang), the montage watershed Battleship Potemkin (dir. Sergei Eisenstein), the deep-focus appropriators Citizen Kane (dir. Orson Welles) and Rules of the Game (dir. Jean Renoir), plus a number of relatively newer titles in color. And as may only be expected from an industry almost wholly dependent upon advancements in foreign technology, the Philippines has had a handful of titles that parallel the aforementioned progression: Cesar J. Amigo’s Sa Atin ang Daigdig and Gregorio Fernandez’s Malvarosa during the black-and-white era, and Lino Brocka’s Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag and Eddie Romero’s Ganito Kami Noon…Paano Kayo Ngayon? of more recent provenance. Sa Atin ang Daigdig, an overlooked and truly rare (only one copy, in 16mm., known to exist) item, and Maynila demonstrate the realist mode in their preoccupation with their protagonists’ physical environments, while Malvarosa and Ganito Kami Noon uphold the formalist tradition with their emphases on narrative presentation. Curiously, the scriptwriter of Sa Atin ang Daigdig eventually made Ganito Kami Noon – a debatable illustration of the primacy of formalism in film development.

Deep focus achieved moments of visual brilliance in the body of work of the late Gerardo de Leon. Unfortunately his concerns did not attain the same degree of immutability that his technical contributions do, so a revaluation of his accomplishments in light of his thematic limitations would be in order. A more estimable triumph in local utiliation of the technique is Ishmael Bernal’s Manila by Night, which fused a vision of perversion and brutality in the metropolis with in-depth execution of not just visual details but aural elements as well. The resultant aggregate is cohesive enough to withstand normal expectations of plot-based developments, allowing a character-intensive exploration that in turn provides a more abstract impression of a more comprehensive persona – that of Manila. For all its surface imperfections, particularly in terms of lighting and editorial indulgence in sex scenes, Manila by Night remains the one Filipino film capable of commencing productive contemplation about the future of cinema beyond national concerns. Skeptics are entitled to point out that this type of non-linear people-based presentation of milieu is nothing new in cinema, let alone literature (inclusive of theater); even Hollywood, bastion of reaction in world filmmaking, came up with successful milieu films like George Lucas’s American Graffiti and Robert Altman’s Nashville prior to Manila by Night, and followed up with Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill afterward. Yet a good half-decade or so since its original release, Manila by Night stands as a unique Third-World adaptation of an ideologically inflected narrative device that could only have originated in an industrialized context.

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The Challenge of Video

Meanwhile the global film community seems to have assumed a wait-and-see posture in response to the strides made by operatives in video. This attitude is compounded locally by the lessened priority accorded cinema by current administration officials, as explained earlier. In fact virtually all serious local film artists have shifted media, some of them for the first time, and most are now involved in television, as commercial a video outlet as any, with the major movie outfits following suit. Exponents of video, merchandisers especially, naturally valorize their medium as the future of mass communication, implicity prognosticating the decline, if not the demise, of cinema. Pragmatists in film concede to the eventual likelihood of video supplanting film in so far as cost-effective technological competence is concerned.

But the very property that makes of video (circa the mid-1980s) such an ideal long-term investment also sets it apart, in a way, as inferior to the merits of cinema. Video relies on electronic transmission and reproduction – a difference that will always be perceptible even to the least sophisticated viewer. The direct use of light in film – to record an image and then project it on a screen – more closely approximates the process of human vision than does video. The relationship, to borrow a more exact physical concept earlier used by deep-focus realists, may in fact be described as asymptotic (Bazin, “Umberto D.” 82) – i.e., cinematic reproduction of reality approaches further than video, though neither can actually supplant the scientific principles involved in human perception of nature.

Where does this leave the hapless Third-World practitioner then? Quite simply to the confidence that film will retain qualities distinct from video, at least for the present, just as it had managed to distinguish itself from theater. One admittedly less-precise way of imagining these differences is: on a continuum of literary capacity as opposed to documentary immediacy, theater will lie at the former extreme and video at the latter, with film straddling the rest of the line. The behavior of video in this regard proceeds from the proposition ventured forth by the film expressionists – several decades too early as it now turns out. For video, by its electronic nature, possesses the property essential to stimulating audience awareness of its existence as a medium in itself, without the necessity of distorting the reality it seeks to capture.

This double-edged attribute of video is literally apparent in the relative acceptance of television documentaries over film newsreels, just as on the other hand movie melodramas are capable of claiming more viewers than can TV soap operas. With influences to draw from two extremes of the documentation-vs.-storytelling continuum, filmmakers should be all the more prepared to undertake further experiments with the medium, prior to breaking out in an eruption of media forms within singular and self-contained opera (the plural form of opus). Limitless possibilities for artistic accomplishments are realizable in such an envisioned supermedium as one that integrates every available major form in the depiction of movement from among several possible levels of awareness.

Film for one has proved itself receptive to implosions of disparate genres, as propounded and applied (but mislabeled “explosion”) by the French New Wave critics-turned-directors, and may therefore only be waiting to take the lead over what used to be the domain of theatricalized art “happenings.” Again occurs the issue of awaiting the cue from industrially advanced countries before striking out on our own. The question should be not so much a matter of pride as of practicality. The prospective supermedium’s technological components as well as the dimensions of its stagescreen will have to be standardized and, more important, manufactured in bulk – requisites that leave out sub-industrialized economies like the Philippines’. On the other hand, no one, regardless of industrial advantage, can foster a monopoly of intellect, so at least in this area of expertise, we can enjoy a speculative free-for-all.

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Exploratory Age

As our best minds try to figure out how to appropriate the future of mass communication – in which video shall find its true worth and film shall continue to play a major part – local film practitioners should learn to discard their xenophobic frames of mind and exploit the entire reservoir of ideological wealth in artworks from the so-called West. In particular, themes of existential absurdism and alienation as well as structural surrealist devices should be more than enough to complement the concerns of moral degeneration usually articulated by local film artists when they want to appear serious.

The time has come for Filipino film appreciators to correctly ascertain that the political daring of Manila by Night is nothing new, even in the local context, but that its experimentation with form sets it apart anywhere, validating its attempt at subversion. As for still-foreign themes and devices, absurdism and alienation seem like more universal phenomena compared with the parochial practices of plastic gimmickry indicative of certain sectors of the Western avant-garde, while surrealism can replenish local comic stocks at the same time serving as vital linkage with unfamiliar technology.

The aim is not so much to outdo Western performance in the exercise of filmmaking, although who would refuse such an engaging by-product? The challenge for local film practitioners is to own up to the certainties of radical departures possibly in the very nature of the medium itself, and prepare for this eventuality (with its attendant demands on thematic adjustments) by paying attention this early to new manners and techniques with which to approach the medium. Only then can film be made responsible to its continual evolution and to its preeminent role as mass medium for extensive communicatory purposes.

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Note

[1] An explanation is in order here: for how could a realist line of thought have branched off into the proposition that reality should be distorted? The answer originated from the then newly emergent Gestalt psychology, with its emphasis on perception. Film theorists devoted to this school of thinking believed that film becomes truth in proportion to its audience’s awareness of its properties – hence the call to distort reality to be able to provoke this sort of realization in the viewer.

Works Cited

Altman, Robert, dir. Nashville. Scr. Joan Tewkesbury. US, 1975.

Amigo, Cesar J., dir. Sa Atin ang Daigdig. Scr. Eddie Romero. Philippines, 1963.

Bazin, André. “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema.” What is Cinema? Vol. 1. Trans. Hugh Gray. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968. 23-40.

———. “Umberto D.: A Great Work.” What is Cinema? Vol. 2. Trans. Hugh Gray. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972. 79-82.

Bernal, Ishmael, dir. & scr. Manila by Night. Philippines, 1980.

Brocka, Lino, dir. Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag. Scr. Clodualdo del Mundo, Jr. Philippines, 1975.

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.

David, Joel. “ECP: Indispensable to Movie Industry.” Supplement: Special Report on Film Industry. Manila Evening Post. (September 28, 1983): 5.

De Pedro, Ernie. “Overview of Philippine Cinema.” Filipino Film Review 1.4 (Oct.-Dec. 1983) 26-27.

De Vega, Guillermo. Film and Freedom: Movie Censorship in the Philippines. Manila: De Vega, 1975.

Eisenstein, Sergei, dir. Battleship Potemkin. Scr. Nina Agadzhanova-Shutko & Sergei Eisenstein. USSR, 1925.

Fernandez, Gregorio, dir. Malvarosa. Scr. Consuelo P. Osorio. Philippines, 1958.

Guinness Book of World Records. Annual. New York: Bantam, 1983.

Kasdan, Lawrence. The Big Chill. Scr. Barbara Benedek & Lawrence Kasdan. US, 1983.

Lang, Fritz, dir. M (A City Looks for a Murderer). Scr. Thea von Harbou & Fritz Lang. Germany, 1931.

Lucas, George, dir. American Graffiti. Scr. Gloria Katz, Willard Huyck, & George Lucas. US, 1973.

Renoir, Jean, dir. Rules of the Game. Scr. Carl Koch, & Jean Renoir. France, 1939.

Romero, Eddie, dir. Ganito Kami Noon…Paano Kayo Ngayon? Scr. Roy Iglesias & Eddie Romero. Philippines, 1976.

Welles, Orson, dir. Citizen Kane. Scr. Herman J. Mankiewicz & Orson Welles. US, 1941.

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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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