Times Journal interview

In 1991, a few months after The National Pastime was published and a few weeks after it was launched, I was interviewed for a now-defunct daily, the Times Journal. The session was a one-shot two-hour exchange that took place at the office of what was then the Film Department (now the Film Institute) of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication. Not all the points I wished to raise about film criticism came out, but then the purpose of the exercise (arranged by Anvil Publishing) was to publicize the book rather than raise issues.

tj-interview

Distinguishing the Film Critic from the Reviewer
Vanessa B. Ira

Since I grew up reading film reviews before the much-endorsed literary classics, it became my lifelong obsession to find out just what “film reviewers” are. They analyze current movies, fine, but if this were so, where do the “film critics” come in? What is a film “reviewer” and what is a film “critic”?

A call from Joel David, University of the Philippines film professor and author of a new book of “over 50 reviews” called The National Pastime, allowed for either the validation or demolition of personal guesses, observations, and biases. Since I was sure I’d never be the same after an authority set straight my thinking on the matter, I scribbled some of these views, as they say, for posterity.

I repeat, the following definitions are “pre-Joel David,” and do not at all reflect his views or opinions:

Film reviewers use the “I” more than the film critic – draw your own conclusions from here. The word for film critics is “intense,” the words for film reviewers are “casually passionate” (especially when they’re doing the worst of the worst Regal movies).

The film critics’ language takes some getting used to (“putative,” “proferred,” “decontextualizes”) while the film reviewers’ is like, well, ya know, like this. Film critics are name-droppers, film reviewers are “phrase-coiners.”

Film critics are long-distance runners, film reviewers are quick-writes. Film reviewers have more fun and it shows, film critics may have fun doing what they’re doing but refuse to show it. Film reviewers write for moviegoers while film critics write for film critics and film students. Film critics are “teacher-types” while film reviewers are “student-types.”

To be sure, I read the distinguished professor’s (there, I sound like a critic) book before the interview. I did not wish to go out there in UP territory lambasting film “critics” or “reviewers” only to find out that Joel David was one or the other. To be sure too, I asked him point-blank what he calls himself.

“I prefer the badge of honor [to be called a] film critic,” David answered my question.

From there, he distinguished the reviewer from the critic.

“The more serious of film students would probably appreciate critics’ writings more,” David said. “Then again, reviews and criticisms serve different purposes. Reviews show how a person responded to a film so there is this tendency to become personalistic. There is also the tendency for reviewers to get known.”

A critic, on the other hand, owes it to himself to be critical of his own subjectivity. Ideas matter more than any reference to the personal. As a critic, one has the option to “defer judgment.” In a way, one must humble oneself.

If one were to draw two extremes, David, explained, reviewing is to journalism as criticism is to film theory and the application thereof. So it is that there are more expectations for film critics to have some sort of a film education.

The last point was particularly intriguing. I had always wondered how local film critics felt about treating in all seriousness an industry which generally refuses to take itself seriously. In short, isn’t a painstakingly written critique of Pido Dida much ado about nothing? Absurd?

Joel David came alive and caused us to unexpectedly veer away from the original topic of the interview. From thereon, we talked about the film critics in our society. The professor lamented that some local reviewers make their analyses using Hollywood standards. This isn’t practical in a nation that cannot afford slick-looking movies.

“We’re asking Filipino reviewers not to question in the traditional way,” David said. “Because if you do, you’ll wind up condemning the taste of the masses. We cannot rely purely on aesthetics.”

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The goal is to understand Filipino culture and society even better by turning to different approaches in evaluating our films. It works this way: You don’t, for instance, write that “Maging Sino Ka Man is a commercial film that teams up the komiks queen Sharon [Cuneta] with the number one action star Robin [Padilla]. She screams, he hardly talks, just grunts.”

The way of the (local) critic is to take note of the last few box-office hits and compare them with this latest one. What do they have in common?

The way of the critic is to note that Maging Sino Ka Man and Pido Dida have leading men who are poles apart from their leading ladies in character and in looks. That they have politicians’ kids – Kris Aquino and Sharon Cuneta – carrying the films. What does this say then about showbiz and politics in this country? How do these affect the moviegoing habits of the Pinoy?

“Then too, critics should be aware of the aesthetics of poverty,” David said. “It’s a matter of their compensating in other areas such as storytelling, subject matter, and treatment.”

Readers of Joel David’s collection of reviews will recognize the critic’s standards. The reviews in The National Pastime: Contemporary Cinema were written over a ten-year period, since the time David was graduated from UP with a second degree in Film.

“I was supposed to cover film press previews,” he recalled his earlier days. “But because I was usually late for the events, I’d end up reviewing the movies.”

The officers of the Manunuri [ng Pelikulang Pilipino, or the Filipino Film Critics Circle] liked David’s reviews so much that they invited him to join.

“Of all the local critics,” David said, “ I admire Bien Lumbera the most. He came at a time culture, not to mention film, was not taken seriously. He came at a time when the criteria for judging cultural pieces were Western-oriented. But Lumbera rose above that.

“He came up with the insight that one way of understanding Tagalog films is by relating them to traditional forms of Pinoy entertainment such as the zarzuela and bodabil.”

Whenever he thinks of Lumbera, David realizes that his own struggle wasn’t as momentous. David and his colleagues from the recently formed Young Critics Circle come at a time when Filipinos are conscious of defining their identity.

Said David: “We may be semi-confused, but we also have to accept that we are still young culturally. It’s really a matter of determining who we are.”

Isn’t it ironic, I asked, that as the rest of the world is gearing itself for life in the so-called Global Village, here we are, turning inward, and perhaps even defensive about anything not Filipino?

“Not really,” David said. “If we were to compete in international film festivals, for example, we would stand out by showing what makes us unique from the rest of the world. You become interesting to the foreign crowd that way.”

Speaking of filmmaking, does a good critic necessarily make a good movie maker?

“We owe it to ourselves to at least know how to make films, and to actually make them, so we don’t just tear other people’s films apart in our reviews.”

But does this hold true for that other kind of film judge – the film “reviewer”? Find out as soon as we discover ones willing to speak for their sort.

[First published March 12, 1991, in Times Journal]

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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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