The Reviewer Reviewed

I responded to a review of my work only once, with decidedly mixed feelings. I would have preferred to keep quiet, as I had earlier, regarding more vicious and unfounded attacks on my work and person. At this point, however, I felt that I could not bypass the opportunity to point out the differences between the reviewer’s expectations and the objectives that should have been readily discernible in the book being reviewed. Unfortunately (probably because of the bad blood I had accumulated from enduring earlier attacks), my response had an unnecessarily sharp edge that I now wish I could have blunted before sending the letter. For this reason I decided to conceal the details of publication, which I am certain the author, a senior colleague, would have preferred as well.

Unfocused View of RP Cinema
[Author anonymized]

Reading Joel David’s Fields of Vision can produce a feeling like that generated by a lively intellectual conversation: the sense of challenge and excitement that comes from an encounter with a fine mind thinking deeply about important matters. One may disagree with some of his opinions and applications, but one can hardly avoid being stimulated by the scope of David’s scholarship and reasoning.

This book is a learned and provocative work, precisely because it raises so many questions that get at the heart of the challenges on the study of Philippine cinema. That it does not answer all the questions it raises is far less important than that it calls the reader into the conversation on different terms.

The book is neatly divided into three parts: Panorama, Viewpoints, and Perspectives. Part I is an overview of the New Cinema in retrospect, tracing the effects and influences of neorealism, cinéma vérité, film noir, and surrealism on Philippine cinema. This chapter is the most informative and a welcome contribution by the scholarly author to our deeper understanding of our own local cinema.

The big problem I encountered not only in this chapter but throughout the book is, David’s train of thought is something difficult to follow because of his peculiar style of writing and his penchant for unfamiliar words and ambiguous phrases, such as “imbricated” (ix), “multiplicity of participations” (3), “high-gear editing” (40), “shimmying exoticism” (13), “overscaled meddling” (108).

Part II contains the main body of the book. It is divided into sections with some titillating subtitles: “Demachofication,” “Sequacious Cebuano,” “Movable Fists,” “Mudslung.” Under each heading are listed the movies under consideration.

This chapter, though, creates some problem for the readers who are not familiar with the movies of the 1970s and ’80s. For instance, how could the reader understand what the author is talking about a certain a movie, if he does not know anything about the movie?

Take this example: “Nevertheless the device in Hot Summer has been wisely confined to the movie’s expository portion. Once the entire framework has been set up, the finishing touches admirably point up to a sound internal logic at work, employing the same principle of sensible character-based development observed in Paano Kung Wala Ka Na” (53).

I myself have not seen either Hot Summer or Paano Kung Wala Ka Na. An example of a scene or scenes from either or both of the movies cited would enable the reader to understand and appreciate what David is trying to say.

David could have given an excerpt from the movie Biktima to illustrate what he calls “an excessive cocksureness of approach” (95), which he averred victimized that movie.

For me, the best part of the book is Part III, where David proposed a list of Filipino film highlights (“Worth the While”) to prove that film as a medium still contains the country’s most consistent artistic achievements.

Noteworthy also is “Ten Best Filipino Films Up to 1990,” a credible selection of the ten best collated from the individual choices of more than thirty respectable film artists, film critics, directors, producers, and academicians.

The Ten Best list is sure to generate controversy. David himself, after collating and tabulating everything, concluded that the number of respondents was still not exhaustive, that there is still a critical community somewhere left untapped. But the list should be regarded as the beginning of a healthy debate, rather than the final word on the matter.

Taken as a whole, the book is a gold mine for which film students and film buffs can only be grateful. What the book perhaps lacks in focus is amply compensated by a wealth of informative material about Philippine cinema. It will be a most welcome addition to any film library here and abroad.

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Letter to the Editor

[Date & addressee anonymized]
Dear [Editor] –

I received a copy of a review of Fields of Vision in [your publication] through my publisher, but I didn’t have the time to write a response until today’s US holiday, Independence Day, ironically liberated me from my work sked. [The] review was appreciative and encouraging, and also evinced an attempt to be critical at the same time. I have not had problems with critics expressing reservations about my books, although for the first time, I feel that I need to contest a number of [the reviewer’s] premises.

To begin with, [the reviewer’s] complaint that the writing uses “unfamiliar words and ambiguous phrases” is something that may be expected from a layperson. However, any academic ought to be able to determine the meaning of a word like “imbricated”; a media professor ought to be able to know what “high-gear editing,” “multiplicity of participations,” and “overscaled meddling” refer to, unless film, performing-arts, and cultural-policy terms happen to lie outside her or his sphere of expertise. Someone urgently needs to introduce the poor fellow to that basic research tool called a dictionary, upon which he might realize that whatever is “unfamiliar” and “ambiguous” about these examples may have all been a function of his hazy sensibility.

Even more serious is the clear possibility that [the reviewer] may not have been reading carefully enough. For one thing, he misquoted one of the book’s articles’ titles – i.e., “Sequacious Cebuano,” which is meaningless, was a mix-up of two different titles, “Sequacious and Second-Rate” and “Sedulously Cebuano.” Furthermore, he ascribed to me the phrase “shimmying exoticism,” when in fact in the published text it is in the plural, enclosed in quotes, and attributed to John Grierson in the latter’s description of the work of Robert Flaherty. More glaringly, “multiplicity of participations” is not only similarly quoted and attributed, but is also immediately followed in the book by a paraphrase of Roland Barthes’s semiotic redefinition.

The surest indicator that [the reviewer] may have been expecting a book of reviews when in fact he was presented with a body of criticism was when he demanded that the articles should have presented “an example [sic] of a scene or scenes from … the movies cited [to] enable the reader to understand and appreciate what David is trying to say.” The premise in reviewing is that the reader may be encouraged in or discouraged from watching a current release; in criticism, on the other hand, the reader is expected to have seen the item being discussed (or eventually make the effort to watch it), regardless of the author’s appreciation of or antipathy toward it.

Moreover, when did serious discourse ever make a claim to accurately represent the texts it was dealing with? A critique of, say, Crime and Punishment or The Bridges of Madison County (either the books or the films made from them) could never hope to fully recount their texts’ contents, and would only waste space and printer’s ink in trying to do so, when a journal or index or annotated bibliography might be able to provide that same function more effectively. If supplying a plot summary were necessary to the discussion, then by all means such a summary should be expected. But when [the reviewer] gripes that he does not understand what an “excessive cocksureness of approach” means and expects to find it in the movie’s narrative, he just might be in the dark regarding the embarrassingly antique insight that film is primarily a visual medium.

I would not even bother to speculate as to the possible reasons why [the reviewer] thinks that an anthology should have “focus,” and what he thinks this focus should be. It saddens me to note that [the reviewer] has not grown much in the intervening years. Is his notion of film theory still a matter of (mis)taking the elements of film in the context of classical Hollywood practice as the theory of film? Does he still refer derisively to Philippine movies when searching for samples of “bad” or “failed” applications in relation to the Hollywood model? Does the fact that a university press decided anyway to publish my manuscript indicate anything to him about how far gone the times have changed in relation to his ideas?

Thank you for providing this opportunity to engage in dialogue with one of your reviewers. I could have hoped for a more constructive exchange – a “multiplicity of participations” in effect, post Barthes – but my responses were imbricated in the excessive cocksureness, resulting in overscaled meddling, of the said reviewer’s “shimmying exoticisms,” to borrow once more from the late great Grierson.

Sedulously yours,

Joel David
New York City

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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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