Source Exchange for Review of Heneral Luna

I’m including the buildup to the exchange on Heneral Luna between me and Jerrold Tarog, the film’s director and co-writer. I had been introduced to Tarog by Johven Velasco, his mentor at the University of the Philippines Film Institute. He was a major at the College of Music, located beside the College of Mass Communication, and was dropping by for a quick hello. After having been nodding acquaintances for several years (in the course of which Velasco’s sudden departure occurred), I managed to reconnect with him on the social network. [Passages in Taglish were translated to English.][1]

Monday, August 5, 2013, 11:23 AM

Joel
Hi Jerrold, it’s Joel David. Congratulations on the Cinemalaya [Philippine Independent Film Festival] results. Was Sana Dati [which had won best film and director] part of the trilogy that includes Confessional and Mangatyanan? (If so, what’s the title of the trilogy if you don’t mind? I read it somewhere and noted it but I left those notes behind in Korea. Won’t be returning until February next year [when my half-sabbatical ends].) Will there be further screenings lined up for it?

Monday, August 7, 2013, 9:02 AM

Jerrold
Hi Joel. Yes. Last film of what’s called the Camera Trilogy. Theatrical release September 25.

Joel
Thanks! Sent you a friend request.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013, 1:52 AM

Joel
Hello Jerrold, I hope you don’t mind if I ask you directly some questions which I need for fully evaluating Sana Dati. These have to do with the larger work, the Camera Trilogy.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013, 1:52 AM & Tuesday, October 22, 2013, 5:55 PM

Combined Q&A between Joel & Jerrold
1. The 3 films have characters who own & operate cameras. Is that all that unifies these films?

Plot similarities: main character goes to the province, his/her life is changed, comes back with what we expect is a new hopeful outlook on life but actually reaches a compromise. Visual similarties exist particularly in shot composition during certain important events (e.g. the wide two-shot with characters facing each other). They may be trivial but they add to overall visual integrity. I imagine the plots of all three films as clotheslines from which we hang the real concerns of the trilogy, which would be, among other things, the loss of innocence and the resulting compromises we’re forced to make to reach certain truths – maybe there’s some cognitive dissonance at work in the characters’ lives. In Confessional, the conclusions are on a socio-political level. In Mangatyanan, cultural (albeit disguised). In Sana Dati, personal. Side note re Mangatyanan: the film was an attempt at allegorical filmmaking. There’s a reason why Laya’s mother is named Luzviminda. There’s also a reason why Laya chose to forgive her mother instead of her father who molested her.

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2. I can detect some progressive agenda in Confessional (critique of local-govt political roguery) and in Mangatyanan (womanist agency). What I could see in SD was a reworking of the runaway bride narrative, including the expected containment where she accedes to committing to her conventional future. My other problem was that the main character could get away with being a runaway bride mainly because her class position affords her that privilege, and in the end some empathy is directed toward her bridegroom for having the patience to tolerate her. Am I misperceiving the narrative’s intent?
Except perhaps for Sana Dati’s attempt to subvert Pinoy genre conventions, I hesitate to identify a “progressive” agenda in any of the three films primarily because the stories are founded on very cynical roots. All three films present different levels of “giving up,” accepting loss, and moving on with a handicapped position as starting point. Accept that one is damaged then maybe there’s hope afterwards. If that kind of cynicism can be called progressive, so be it. The resulting empathy for Robert Naval in SD is partly borne out of said attempt to subvert genre conventions. Who expects the perceived bad guy to be the real good guy, after all? As for class issues, upper middle class is the film’s milieu. We cannot fault the characters for existing in a privileged position and having no social agenda within the film’s universe at that particular time the story was told. Maybe if the story started with Robert’s attempt to run for governor and focused on the resulting cynicism borne out of his loss (“You can’t be a public servant and a politician at the same time”) there would’ve been class and social commentaries in the film. But there are none, and the film is happy to exist without one.

3. If my previous observation has some degree of accuracy, would it be wrong to say that the trilogy isn’t actually concerned with progressivity after all? Or that whatever seemed progressive in the previous films was just incidental – that these are really texts that seek to uphold specific middle-class individuals as heroes of their own cine-narratives? I’m asking strictly in the spirit of wanting to know what you had in mind. As you might be aware, this line of questioning does not automatically uphold the artist’s intention as the only correct interpretation, but it definitely counts as a privileged perspective, so I’d greatly appreciate being apprised of what your project was all about. Many thanks!
Mostly answered in #2. They cannot be considered heroes. They are middle-class losers, trapped by selfishness (Sana Dati), emotional trauma (Mangatyanan), or ignorance/cowardice (Confessional). In the end, they reach a 50-50 compromise: Ryan Pastor knows the truth but chooses to keep it hidden, Laya forgives her mother (accepts fate as molested country) but not her father, Andrea Gonzaga says “I love you” to Robert even if it’s not completely true (she looks away from Robert at the last shot).

Saturday, October 10, 2015, 8:52 PM

Joel
Hi Jerrold, warm congrats for the success of Heneral Luna, which (as I told [co-producer] Ting Nebrida) I appreciated highly. I was willing to write a review but I needed a 2nd screening, but then I had to return to Korea before it opened in theaters. I keep trying to caution some academic acquaintances to keep in mind that it’s meant as a popular piece, and was received [by the general public] exactly in that way. But then I’m no longer surprised at their insistence on feeling superior to the work. [Brickbat deleted] I’m writing for another reason as well. I was being asked to revise the biography of Johven Velasco for the Cultural Center of the Philippines’s Encyclopedia [of Philippine Art’s 2nd edition], then I saw a review you wrote of his posthumously published book, titled “Velasco’s Legacy.” I remember Ellen [Ongkeko-Marfil] forwarded this to me, but I don’t remember if this got published, and I also googled the title and your name and apparently it’s unpublished. Would you mind if I posted the review on my archival blog? We’ll put your name and announce it as your article. (There are a few other pieces on the blog not written by me, but they’re all duly acknowledged.) Best regards and I’ll be looking forward to your historical trilogy, whatever shape it takes.[2]

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Sunday, October 11, 2015, 12:28 AM

Jerrold
Hi, Joel. Wow. Totally forgot about this. It’s all fine with me. Post away. Thanks for taking the effort to caution academic critics. I find it funny that intelligence doesn’t really make one immune from adopting a myopic viewpoint. Most of the criticism thrown at Luna boils down to what the critics wanted the film to be. Somehow they can’t judge the film based on what it was trying to achieve. Anyway, we just laugh it off over here. Let me know if you’d like to see the film again for review purposes.

Sunday, October 11, 2015, 7:31 PM

Joel
Salamat for the green light. Re acad critics – I didn’t caution them directly, just entirely in passing. But when an extended discussion came out, I could sense that some of them were aware of people’s warning about the paradox of claiming to be pro-people while disparaging something the audience “voted” for. The tone became defensive [as a result]. I continued upholding examples of [netizens] who differed with the film’s statements but whose perspective did not include the sense of penalizing any of the people behind the project. [Further disparagement of organized critics] I got immediate clearance from [editor & publisher] Cri-en del Carmen Pastor to review Heneral Luna for her NY-based The FilAm (my usual outlet). The timing seems right because the film will be released end of October in NYC. So could you send me the link to the [screener file]? I promise to keep it confidential and never to download it. Also, in case I rewatch it and I’ve got some further questions, hope you don’t mind if I ask you.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015, 10:08 AM

Jerrold
[After providing link] Do let me know once the review is out. And, yes, I don’t mind answering further questions.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015, 8:34 PM

Joel
Went thru the movie and still appreciated it, warts and all. I can argue it’s your best, but since that’s a matter of opinion, we’ll leave that for the review. If I may ask some questions, which have been raised by some commenters already.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2015, 8:34 PM & 11:29 PM

Combined Q&A between Joel & Jerrold
1. The worst that can be said about focusing attention on Pinoys as our own worst enemy is that it can have a cynical mercenary effect – i.e., it will make the movie palatable even to illiberal American observers, since their country isn’t condemned as heavily as its actual historical role calls for. Were you aware of this possible accusation and how did you work this out?

I was aware that I was leaving many things out, especially regarding the role the Americans played during the war. But that was the whole point of the opening disclaimer. Luna is less a history lesson and more of an indictment of certain Pinoy traits that have been in existence even before the Americans came. Was it the fault of the Spaniards? Maybe. But in our current state, is it really useful to condemn our colonizers and lay the blame on them for our troubles, or should Filipinos get their act together and move forward since we’re already enjoying certain freedoms we never had before? It’s very important to acknowledge what America did but that would be an entirely different film. Clinton Palanca in Spot.ph said it best: [Luna] is a two-hour treatise on the current state of the nation, couched in costumes and poetic intonations of a fictive 1898.

2. A few people I knew who might have been progressive or sympathetic [toward the film] refused to watch. I later figured out that they were Cavite-based, or were born in Cavite. Personally I’m glad the movie refuses to perform the humanist act of sparing everyone from blame. But doesn’t the film plug into the “we’re too parochial to be a nation” argument by criticizing certain participants according to their place of origin?
I will have to refer to one of the film’s inspirations: Nick Joaquin’s A Question of Heroes, where the author identified cavitissmo and regionalism as instrumental to the collapse of the revolution. I think once people read that and Vivencio Jose’s The Rise and Fall of Antonio Luna, they’ll pretty much understand our take on things. Some historians have told me that regionalism doesn’t exist but I beg to disagree. Regionalism isn’t the cause of our troubles now (probably because traditional and social media have done their part in addressing our commonalities) but, back then, when people would proudly identify themselves by their place of origin, I believe it played a big role. However, you can’t deny that Filipinos are still clannish today. Whether that contributes to our feeble sense of nationhood, I’m not sure. Maybe.

3. This is the closest you’ve gotten to a full-length studio assignment, even if it’s an indie studio [that produced the film]. The indicators would be not just the budget and scope, but also the fact that you were hired to work on a script that was written by the producers. How were you able to make sure that the movie would not wind up the impersonal & mechanical metteur-en-scène type of output? Sorry, these queries sound difficult and may not even be resolvable. But I’ll appreciate any light you could shed. Again, I’m not out to judge harshly (or so I hope). I’m also taking the opportunity to learn from the experience of watching and interacting. Maraming salamat! And congrats several times over!
I actually once did a full-length film for [mainstream outfit] Regal called Aswang. Not too proud of that one though. I asked permission from the producers of HL to rewrite the original script, which was entirely in English. I added more humorous bits (especially the dynamics among Luna, Roman, and Rusca), toned down the more theatrical dialogue, added and deleted scenes, and put in every cinematic flourish I could think of that was appropriate to the piece (including the reference to [General Antonio Luna’s painter-brother Juan’s prizewinning masterpiece] “Spoliarium”). That’s how I always turn an existing screenplay into something more personal – by rewriting it and making it somehow my own. I did that in my [omnibus-horror series] Shake, Rattle & Roll projects too.

Thanks a lot, Joel! I didn’t mind the questions at all. It’s a breather from the countless questions that have been asked ad nauseam in god knows how many interviews I’ve had. Hope it helped clarify things.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2015, 12:34 AM

Joel
Very honest & admirable answers. I always make a point of understanding where an author’s coming from so that I don’t wind up imposing my own should-have-beens in my reading. Sometimes I quote directly, but generally I just use the author’s intention as starting point. I haven’t seen your horror films so that’s a gap in my familiarity with your output. Also the critical treatment that Heneral Luna deserves right now won’t be one more review (like what I’ll be doing) but rather a scholarly article, to be able to inspect the innovative phenomena that it participated in – social media, historical discourse, indie-mainstream intersections, etc. Times like these make me wish Johven were still around, because he would have found the perfect way to attain the perfect critique. That’s also my ethos in film criticism: the effort should always be worthy of the object that it’s studying, otherwise it won’t have a shot at any kind of long-term significance. Once again, salamat for your effort in formulating your answers. I’ve always maintained that the best artists are the ones capable of critical thinking (which is why critics should also understand the artistic process). That plus connecting with the mass audience – a difficult challenge that only few have been able to hurdle. HL’s Exhibit A for that standard of achievement.

Jerrold
Thank you very much, Joel. Yes, I do wish Johven were around. I would’ve wanted to know his thoughts on everything that’s been happening. I truly appreciate your effort in knowing where the creators are coming from. That helps a lot in the discourse. I’ll be looking forward to your article.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015, 8:52 PM

Jerrold
[After reading a draft of the review] I don’t see any inaccuracies. It’s all good with me. Love the closing statement! Haha.[3]

Notes

[1] The review I wrote, “Antonio Luna’s Fall and Rise,” was published on October 15, 2015, at The FilAm.

[2] The other installations in Tarog’s second formal trilogy would be biopics of Gregorio del Pilar – being produced as of first quarter of 2018 and titled Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral [Goyo: The Young General] – and of President Manuel L. Quezon.

[3] Subsequent discussions in this message thread pertained to Tarog’s participation in a foreign film festival as well as his responses to a takedown of Heneral Luna, attributing the rise of fascist sentiment to the film.

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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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