Source Exchange for “The Transnational Pastime”

This exchange conducted on Facebook’s Messenger app formed the basis of “The Transnational Pastime: An Interview with Joel David,” conducted in early 2017 and published in the June 2017 (volume 4, number 1) issue of Plaridel. The interviewer was Paul Douglas Grant, a professor of film at the University of San Carlos in Cebu City. Answers that I first drafted as Notepad text files and attached to the Messenger service are indicated by the descriptor “From text file” and indented (appearing as italicized material in smartphone apps).

Feb 23rd, 9:28 p.m.

Paul:

Hi Joel, so…can we start with just getting a kind of run-through of your career, your work with the Manunuri, you studies abroad, your publishing history, your current work, etc.? And then maybe having written a number of books on Philippine cinema (and I see that there is a forthcoming book on Manila by Night!), you could talk a bit about the decision to have an online presence, and in particular your very generous approach to sharing your materials, for instance the PDF versions of your books that you have posted for free on Amauteurish! From there I can get a bit more precise. I’ll try to cause you as little pain and hassle as possible.

Joel:

Hi Paul, I’ll try to draft a reply so that it won’t get lost when FB Messenger crashes (which happens occasionally on my laptop). Then I’ll send it to you tomorrow, if that’s all right with you. Thanks for being considerate about the “pain and hassle,” although I’m at the stage of discovering pleasure in pain. Never too late for anything, as they say.

Paul:

Haha OK, OK, no rush either. Just to get the ball rolling. Thanks so much for doing this Joel.

Feb 25th, 5:02 a.m.

Joel:

From text file:

My film criticism was something that started out as an option that evolved into a phase and that eventually solidified before I knew what to do with it. I started writing book reviews for the high-school paper – which sufficiently impressed the teachers who were then deciding whom to send to some secondary-school press conference. In college I attempted a few film reviews but felt frustrated about my inability to grapple with the terms of the form. But film was the medium du jour and most publications were interested in it. I was also determined to avoid the economic and political analyses that had marked me as an activism-oriented campus journalist, so my shift to cultural writing included a few more movie reviews. As you can imagine, the local critics group (Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, or Filipino Film Critics Circle) had to downgrade their definition of “critic” to include reviewers, or else they’d have comprised only two members (Pete Daroy and Bien Lumbera) and maybe two associates (Doy del Mundo and Nic Tiongson).

I knew I needed a lot of leveling up after interacting with the best film artists of the time, and even more after I joined the Marcos government’s Experimental Cinema of the Philippines. I read up on the standard early-film discourses (Arnheim, Balazs, Eisenstein, Bazin, etc.) plus active practitioners, with emphasis on stylists like [Pauline] Kael and the Philippines’s Nestor Torre (his early years). Kael was occasionally wrong and sometimes terribly so, but I was fascinated by how she could figure her way into sounding just right – a skill I might need in case I’d do regular reviewing. For some reason many prominent local critics of the time preferred John Simon, who to me was too willing to sacrifice insight for the sake of displaying wit and erudition.

During the late years of the Marcos regime, the University of the Philippines introduced the first undergrad film program in the country, and since I’d completed a bachelor’s in journalism at the Institute (now College) of Mass Comm, the ECP designated me to take the major courses so that the agency could eventually offer its own film courses. I said that if I took the equivalent of an extra sem, I could complete a second degree, so in effect I became an ECP scholar, required to complete the courses plus an occasional public-relations piece for the agency. The Marcoses were ousted, ECP was dissolved, and I had a film degree that no one else shared since it took the other majors much longer to complete the program. I tried industry work but got delegated to entry-level production-assistant tasks at starvation wages, then I retried journalism and TV scriptwriting – but all these jobs disappeared as media workers were unionizing for the first time and the panicked owners figured that shutting down their companies (and reopening them under different names) was the easiest solution.

The dean of UP mass comm bumped into me and said that, since I was the program’s first and only grad, I should teach film. Ellen J. Paglinauan, who adjusted her Fulbright program from geography to film, had just returned from the US and became my colleague and mentor. She knew my up-or-out deadline was approaching and that I could better serve the faculty with a film degree, so she helped me work out a Fulbright application. The politicking on the Philippine end was terrible, but fortunately the Institute of International Education “corrected” the Philippine-American Educational Foundation’s list of recommendees and repositioned the education minister’s daughter from first to somewhere near last, and (according to Ellen) ranked me on top. That was why no amount of pleading from PAEF could convince me to settle for any of the less-expensive choices. It was NYU or bust, although that also amounted to hubris on my end. The Fulbright was for a master’s degree; when NYU accepted me to the doctoral program, I could only apply for another US government grant (like another Fulbright) if I resided outside the US for two years.

UP was interested in getting a Ph.D. holder for the film program and told me to find work and apply for student loans. I managed both and intended to pay off all my loans once I reached a managerial level at the economic-database company that hired me, but I could only manage to reduce my loan amount by half when my residency deadline loomed up. Back in Pinas, UP could not provide me with the means to repay my loans either; my mother sold some property to settle my account, with the understanding that I should repay her instead. That’s how I took the first offer to teach in Korea, on exchange; upon returning to UP, my salary was withheld for some mix-up that I had nothing to do with, so I sent out an SOS to friends in Korea – which is how I found the university where I’m currently working.

Re the website: this was also part of another slow process of realization. The Korean university announced that a personal website was part of its tenure requirements, so I read up on blogging, observed some dynamics (useful also for teaching cyberculture classes), and launched the website…by which time it was no longer a university requirement. But then in seeking out ISI-listed publications to fulfill the bulk of the university’s tenure specs, I stumbled on Ateneo de Manila University’s Kritika Kultura, which was open-access, an obvious ideal combination of prestige and availability on the level of profit-oriented academe that had somehow never occurred to me before. Researchers were asking for copies of my out-of-print books, so I arranged with certain publishers to work out new and expanded editions – but publishing, like all the other predigital media forms, was no longer as vibrant as it used to be. I was fascinated enough with so-called film piracy via the Quiapo Cinematheque (with Laikwan Pang’s studies as guidepost), and also became familiar with the work of Jojo Devera and other people invested in reviving and strengthening the public domain.

To me it’s still entirely rational, once we take out the element of finance as the ultimate arbiter of success. Jojo and I have stable jobs that allow us to engage in blogging activities, in which the actual price of (in my case) paying for a domain and WordPress’s custom-design privilege isn’t all that exorbitant. I get to dispense with the guilt of telling researchers that my books can be found in certain hard-to-access libraries, as well as preempt sites like GoogleBooks from monopolizing readers with uploaded versions of my sole-authored books that I’d rather update and revise if I get another chance, which is now. It doesn’t really stop publishers from wanting to have exclusive rights to my future output, and I get to keep myself busy with feeding the machine, with the additional leverage of defying it (by getting my manuscript out on the blog) when it misbehaves.

The Manila by Night monograph and the special Philippine cinema canon volume for YES! Magazine are exceptional cases: I’d accumulated enough material about MbN, from my dissertation preparation onward, so that I was able to edit Kritika Kultura’s first film forum devoted to articles on the movie, and that provided me with the impetus to pique the interest of Arsenal Press’s limited queer-films series; Summit Media (the YES! publisher) saw some mini-reviews (which I collectively titled “Short Takes”) for a personal canon of 100 local film titles that I uploaded on Amauteurish!, and offered to buy the rights to them, upping the fee if I participated as a consultant in their one-shot canon project. Re downloadable copies of my own books, plus more PDFs of other materials – these are all in the future. I imagine I’ll need to spend for and train in page-layout software, so that I might be able to circulate the books better. All in good time, like everything else.

There’s a point, or a line, where I move from surrendering my own copyright to claiming those of others, when I find out-of-print material (usually institutional in nature) where the publisher is difficult to determine and often is already defunct. I know enough to tread carefully here and I generally wait until there’s enough of a social-media interest in an issue relatable to the material.

Maybe I should end here for now. The answers ran (or rambled) on for a while. Hope this can provide enough to help you formulate questions. Best regards.

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Feb 25th, 8:21 a.m.

Paul:

Great thanks Joel. Rambling is great! I’ll get back to you ASAP. Salamat.

Feb 27th, 9:53 p.m.

Paul:

Wow this is really rich, is it all right if I just go back for a second, concerning your publishing history. So for instance you mention your dissertation (BTW who was your adviser?), was this not among your early publication efforts? If my chronology is correct you had already published The National Pastime before going to the States. Then in Wages [of Cinema] and Fields [of Vision] it feels like the tone of the writing changes and becomes much more contemporaneous with the kind of poststructural film writing that was such a mainstay in Anglophone film studies. Is it fair to say that you were the first to really bring that approach to film writing in the Philippines?

Feb 28th, 4:25 a.m.

Joel:

I’ll need another day to answer, Paul, if you don’t mind.

Feb 28th, 6:49 a.m.

Paul:

Of course! No worries, and thanks again for what you’ve sent already. I’ll back off shortly.

Mar 2nd, 4:42 p.m.

Joel:

From text file:

Sorry for the delay in writing out my response. My diss adviser was the late Bob Sklar, and Bob Stam, Toby Miller, and Ellen Paglinauan were on the panel. I managed to spin off some chapters into journal papers, and even read books on revising theses for book publication, but I never had the time to work on that project. I was hoping this second half-sabbatical I was granted [for spring 2017] could provide me with the time to devote to that. Then I realized I’ll have to overhaul, rather than revise, some chapters, so I thought of writing them out as papers first. Looks like it will take longer than I would have preferred.

National Pastime and the second book, Fields of Vision, were meant to be just one book, an anthology of film journalism (articles and reviews) in two manuscript volumes. I tried to interest some university presses in it but they all gave two-year (or longer) timelines, so I went to Anvil. They said they could produce it in three months, which was just right for me, but I later realized it was too fast. They wanted only half of the manuscript I submitted, plus pictures (when I preferred to have none), and a glossary of film terms. A layperson editor took charge and insisted on an approach that could be summed up as “if it’s about movies, then I shouldn’t have to put in too much work to understand it.” I thought that was fair to a certain extent, but I also realized that it meant that an opportunity for casual readers to learn something new (by meeting the author half-way) was being discarded. That’s the reason why the glossary I was forced to write contained some sarcastic passages.

The remaining articles from the original volume would be my second book, I thought, and I brought the MS to the Ateneo Press just because Prof Esther Pacheco told me they wanted to handle my next title. But when I compiled the MS, I realized Fields of Vision would just be echoing National Pastime, so I held off until I was able to do some “academic” (mostly quantitative and canonical) exercises, with the rationale that all of the available local samples were too deeply flawed to be taken seriously. The third book, Wages of Cinema, was meant to be strictly a personal middle stage between completing my graduate requirements and starting work on my diss. I mentioned to Prof Laura Samson, then the director of the University of the Philippines Press, that I had performed this strategy of gathering my (necessarily not ready for primetime) material so I could find a workable direction for my final project, and she asked to take a look at the manuscript. In a few days she said she wanted to publish it as a book so could I grant her permission to do so. I thought fine, at least I’ll have some feedback [from readers] on how to improve the material even if in the end I wind up pulling it out of the publication process for being too callow, but apparently the readers signed off on it without any major changes.

So the approach you mentioned was deliberate in the sense that I looked for ways beyond repeating each previous book’s approaches, but it was also accidental in that I would have been more cautious about getting the stuff out if I had a name to uphold by then. People immediately told me about some progression they noticed – from classical to structuralist to poststruct – so I incorporated that insight in the back-cover text of the last book, but it wasn’t something that needed to be done if anyone had asked me. Each book generated some negative comments but I only answered the one (re Fields of Vision) that complained that the text required readers to do some work on their own. The fourth “book,” Millennial Traversals, was essentially a digital-edition mop-up operation, where I compiled everything else I’d written on film and media up to 2016, so that anything by me could be accessed in book form. Like I might have mentioned to you before, I’m hoping to get all the digital editions of my books in e-publication formats so that they could be downloaded and printed or read at the reader’s convenience. When I’ll manage to do that is the question.

Answers to your 2nd batch of questions, sir.

Paul:

Great, thanks, Joel. Hopefully I can leave you alone after this.

Joel:

No prob if you have further queries, Paul.

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Mar 8th, 9:39 p.m.

Paul:

Hi Joel, quick question. What was your dissertation? That was quite sad about Sklar, he taught my diss prop seminar. What a tragic end.

Also, when did you put up the site, i.e. what year? Thanks Joel.

Mar 9th, 1:31 a.m.

Joel:

Re the website first: the 2014 record states that it went “live” on June 13, but that I was adding features since March of that year. But since it was originally part of the list of tenure requirements, I remember setting up another website, with a Korean webmaster, in 2009. I forget its name now (its URL was http://www.joeldavid.net, but I’m not so sure about this either), and I remember updating it (via the webmaster) five or six times. I realized that if I were to have my own website, the best arrangement would be to have as much control over it as possible – which is why I undertook some quick research on blogs and observed the more active ones (especially Michael Musto’s La Dolce Musto, when he was still with Village Voice). As I must have written to you earlier, these activities became part of my preparations for teaching the Cyberculture undergrad class, and later the Digital Humanities grad class, at Inha University. I must have opened a WordPress account in 2011 or 2012, since I kept tinkering with blog templates and formats for a while before I launched the website. I decided to make it archival in nature, after I saw all the trolling and spamming that went on in the blogs that weren’t moderated by their owners, and the badmouthing and resentment that went on when the blogs were moderated. Since anything archival would be less topical than ordinary web logging, it would justify my refusal to entertain any type of commentary and help me avoid this no-win situation. In late 2013 I also concluded that the free WordPress services would yield a stale-looking design. I subscribed to the most basic among their several paid features, and immediately the improvement in appearance was satisfactory enough, so I kept this arrangement. I also wanted a showy, trashy, corny, pretentiously funny name, but the best I could do was settle for a mash-up between “amateur” and “auteur” – amauteurish.

The dissertation was titled “Primates in Paradise: The Multiple-Character Format in Philippine Film Practice” – which is undergoing a really long process of revision, as I must have told you earlier. I don’t want to rush it at all, since it’s got a core that’s worth refining as carefully and ambitiously as possible. I’d cannibalized some chapters for journal articles that I’ve published, as a way of undertaking the revisions. Some books and several articles (including in the New York Times) have already come out on multicharacter movies, which is fine, since the phenomenon is fairly new in the US, with Robert Altman as its pioneer. Since one of my bachelor’s degrees was in journalism, I know enough about the relative worth of the scoop (or being the first to report on something significant) vis-à-vis the interpretive or feature article: it’s extremely rare for both to be the same, and between being first to report and coming up with the best article on the same topic, I’d rather leave the privilege of being first to others. That’s the reason why one of the people I was mentoring described me as “bukas-palad” or open-palmed, meaning that I didn’t mind cluing in people to useful bits of info, even exclusive ones. For me, the real competition lies in how well anyone reads any material. If you’re chronologically last and no one else follows, the careless smart-ass observers would focus on the fact that you were last; but the real implication is that you were definitive, since no one could add anything after you came along. Di ba?

Apr 12th, 2:26 a.m.

Paul:

Hi Joel, quick question (and I see I never thanked you for the last response! Thank you!). You mention that “Jojo and I have stable jobs that allow us to engage in blogging activities” – who is the Jojo you are referring to? Almost done with this thing, and I added a few transition phrases just to organize the flow of the text, I hope that’s OK with you. I have to make it look like I did some work.

Joel:

Re organizing, structuring, and correcting interview material – that’s part of the magic, as we know as students of film. The Jojo I’m referring to is Jojo Devera, who runs the Magsine Tayo! Tumblr blog. I don’t know if I’m repeating info I already gave you, and sorry if I do, but Jojo’s an avid collector of Pinoy movies, sometimes with titles that can’t be found anywhere else. Unlike the typical archivist-hoarder, he makes an effort to remaster what he has and post the results on his blog for free. It tends to alarm still-active producers and distributors, although he recently found his own ways around the problem of having to take down the movies that producers don’t want to make readily available. First, he gets the approval of the filmmaker, or maybe another producer also involved in the production in question. Next, and worst comes to worst, he had a lawyer advise him that film owners can only claim overseas copyright if they’re listed as foreign distributors of their films. Nevertheless he still concedes to producers’ claims just to be able to avoid too much fuss. In the past, they were able to petition YouTube to shut down his website. In the last few months, he migrated all his film uploads to Vimeo, which (according to him) has better terms for uploaders. His troubles are reminiscent of the Quiapo Cinematheque controversy, when “legit” DVD distributors (with the encouragement of Imelda [Marcos]’s pal, Jack Valenti), insisted on outlawing videocopies that sold for Php 20 so that people could be forced to buy their stuff that would cost Php 1,000 or higher. The producers aren’t really overcharging the public this time, although Mike de Leon supposedly priced his 3rd World Hero at Php 3,000 per copy (I bought Marie Jamora’s director’s cut of The Missing at Php 2,000 and it was worth it). But the legit copies are just too hard to find, and besides, Jojo’s material comes from older videos or TV broadcasts, sometimes censored or shortened for airtime. So a number of film researchers (JB Capino’s the most vocal one) have come to Jojo’s defense; I’ve been acknowledging his help in several of my research projects, since if he’s got a rare copy of anything, he won’t hesitate to share it with you.

Paul:

Wow thank you Joel, this is all new to me, i.e. no repetition. Thanks so much.

May 3rd, 9:45 a.m.

Paul:

Hi Joel, it’s me again…. Can I just check with you about a couple of publications that you might have written for? Sagisag magazine, Midweek magazine, Diliman Review, and Humanities Diliman. Were these important for you?

Joel:

Not Sagisag. It folded up before I started freelancing after I was graduated in journalism. Not Humanities Diliman either – one of my submissions languished too long with them so I pulled it out. (Unless they printed it without my knowledge and skipped the peer-review process.) Diliman Review – I only remember getting published there once, although the office was my favorite hangout whenever I revisited the campus. Some members of the staff were also with the Literary Apprentice, so I submitted a piece to them as well. National Midweek was where I published regularly for almost its whole period of existence. I was with another periodical when I started, so I used a pen name. The former chair of the critics group I drifted away from wanted to invite me to join them, but he had a good laugh when he found out it was just me. Most of my writing for Midweek was subsidized in effect by my teaching at UP – Midweek rates were next to nothing, but you could barely survive as a UP instructor either. I just learned to live on a tight budget, a skills set that was useful for living, studying, and working in NYC later. Today it’s still the same. All the writing I do, including maintaining my blog, is subsidized by my teaching. But the difference between the Philippines’s national university and a second-rank school outside of the capital city in Korea is tremendous. You get the impression that [in Korea] you could live strictly as a scholar and the institution will cover your needs as a matter of course – no need to beg for anything.

Paul:

Oh man that’s enviable. I keep trying to imagine what it will be like to go back to the States and work as an adjunct at five or six different universities just to make ends meet. Here I can get by, but it’s not sustainable. Anyway, what was your pen name at Midweek, does any of it appear online?

Joel:

Re the Diliman Review connection – when its editor, Bien Lumbera, started a journal at the Cultural Center of the Philippines titled Kultura, he encouraged me to provide them with critical material (including lengthy reviews). That’s where my Second Golden Age article originally came out. My Midweek pen name was Jojo Legaspi. My entire Midweek output has its own listing on my blog. I mention the pen names I used in a still-to-be-updated “How to Use the Blog” page. I don’t really remember my underground aliases in the student movement, or kept copies of what I wrote then. It’s amazing how [the late National Democratic Front chair] Tony Zumel had his whole collection of UG writings printed in book form, but they’re of a highly specific genre (agitprop we used to call it, or agitational propaganda). I don’t think I’ll want to be remembered for the literary accomplishments of that type of writing. You lived and studied in NYC too, right? Everyone who does that goes through a specific (and special, but we don’t want to self-aggrandize no?) experience that non-NYers will never understand, or will probably perceive as a type of neurosis.

Paul:

Wow great! Personally I’d love to see those writings from the underground. Yes I lived in NY for a big part of my life and definitely had periods where I had to struggle for work there. Can’t imagine now what it’s like to be an academic there!

Joel:

Couldn’t be caught with keeping [the agitprop material], Paul. It would be like admitting I wrote them, which would have been true. But I also made sure to use a “dead” journalistic style so I could deny authorship. To be honest, the writing [I did there] dismayed me, but that’s probably why I never got suspected of being a UG contributor. At NYU I roomed with Bliss Lim, who was a former student of mine and a published poet. We realized we’d be writing scholarly material for a long time, so we had some intensive discussions on writing style. Mainly how the “flat” approach that our teachers prescribed in order to foreground content was as much a myth as objectivity in journalism. We hoped to reach a point where we could come up with a better formula, but that would have been impossible. It was enough to just know where the seams were. In fact I think Bliss found a great way to use poetic devices in her scholarly work. I’m more prosaic like everyone else, so in theory a lot more technique is available to us, but there’s always the danger of falling back on the ones that we’re already able to handle well. It’s strange how an obsession with style was palpable among writers in English during the time we were in college. Probably because of the awareness that you could be suspected of succumbing to colonial mentality. That’s also probably why a lot of local writers in English are stylists, in addition to whatever their area of specialization happens to be.

End

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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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