Auteurs & Amateurs: Toward an Ethics of Film Criticism (Lecture Version)

Many thanks to the International Association for Ethical Literary Criticism for inviting me to deliver a plenary lecture on ethical film criticism. I may not also be everyone’s idea of a film critic, especially if you bump into me during more casual occasions than a literary conference. In my own feeble defense, I would begin by mentioning that what we might count as the basic output of a film critic, the movie review, was one of my earliest articles as a campus journalist, over forty years ago (David, “Birds of Omen” 43-45) – but let’s keep that scandalous detail to ourselves, shall we.

Since then, my odyssey as a Filipino film critic was marked by a few firsts: first fresh college graduate to be invited to the Filipino film critics circle, first former student activist to work in the Marcos dictatorship’s film agency, first and only graduate of the country’s undergraduate film program (my second degree actually), first to publish a local prizewinning book in film criticism, first Filipino to be accepted to a doctoral film program, first director of the national university’s film institute; although one last first – to teach a graduate course in pornography and feminism – will again be probably not to everyone’s liking or appreciation.

I take this personalized narrative-based mode because the lessons I learned about ethical practice in film criticism were hard-earned and initially defiant of then-existing values and ideas. But before we move on to what those insights might be, allow me to point out a problem, more of a kink really, in the expression “ethical practice in film criticism.” What I mean by this is that, contrary to commercial practitioners’ expectations, and in line with the thrust of the conference, film criticism always-already presumes ethical practice. This would be its most vital, though also most obvious, resemblance to literary criticism.

I may also need to make clear this early that I depart from the premise of what we term ethical literary criticism in a crucial manner. One way of understanding why this distinction must be made is in the industrial definition of film production as opposed to literary activity. To better comprehend the comparison, let’s consider each sphere during the recent past when media technologies had yet to begin converging in digital formats, and were therefore distinct from one another. In literature, the entire manufacturing activity comprising the use of all types of printing and copying machines, plus binding and distribution systems, can never be fully equated with actual literary production. A significant, unknowable, but possibly greater amount of literature is necessarily created privately, almost entirely by individuals, and an invaluable amount resides in the collection and maintenance of written material, not all of it printed in the still-contemporary sense.

Film, on the other hand, is emblematic of what we should really call the post-literary mass medium, in the sense that without the presence of an industry, it would not exist – except, at best, as theater. From beginning to end of the filmmaking process, one or more machines are operated by technical specialists, even in the case of the simplest possible type of production, the home movie. In fact the most distinct type of movie we recognize today, the film event, is premised on industrial spectacularization, with its megabudget appropriation, cast of thousands, reliance on preexisting commodities such as hit prequels or comic books, and global distribution system, with a showcasing of the latest digital-graphic applications as an essential component of its attraction.

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My sentimental education regarding this matter proceeded from my stint in the Marcos-era film agency, heightened by my film-school internship, and concretized in the year-long freelance work I conducted, in effect replicating what I did right after completing my first degree, in journalism. Allow me to interject here that freelancing in media is the one thing I would never recommend to any fresh graduate, unless she or he has a masochistic streak. Nevertheless, I had enough of a background in student activism and government service to sustain me with a few overweening delusions: first, that scouting the field for the best option can be done while earning a living; second, that media outfits would be fair enough to reward hard work rooted in academic training; and third and most unreasonable of all, that a free radical could effect some changes significant enough to improve the system.

In my short autobiographical account of my stint as production assistant for a mainstream studio, I mentioned a notion I’d hoped for that somehow became a reality: today, graduates of any of the country’s few film programs get hired by film and media outfits on a regular basis (David, “Movie Worker” 13). An even luckier few of these degree-holders manage to skip an on-the-job training process and make local and sometimes global waves with their first few film projects. Yet the lesson that impacted my practice as film critic did not appear in this account I wrote. It was something I formulated later, after returning to film commentary by being designated the resident film critic of a prominent weekly newsmagazine.

I will admit that I wished that when I first stated my newly formulated ethical premise, my colleagues hailed me as harbinger of a useful and progressive insight. In reality, I collected a number of verbally abusive responses then, and still do so occasionally today. Strangest of all, for me, is the fact that these almost entirely come from representatives of the national university, bastion of claims to Marxist ideals in the country. My aforementioned premise runs as follows. Because of its industrial nature, film practice enables individuals to support themselves and their families and acquaintances. We kid ourselves if we merely focus on the high-profile examples of celebrities and producers and major creative artists: the majority of people working on any sufficiently busy project would actually be working-class, as I had been when I worked in the industry.

When a project ends, one could sense a festive atmosphere, with people simply relieved that the struggles and headaches that they sustained through several weeks, sometimes months or even years, of mostly physical labor, have finally come to an end. Yet on the ground, there would also be palpable anxiety: which upcoming project can they latch onto, in order to be able to continue maintaining a decent source of income? Corollary to this is their hope that the project they just finished earn back its investment, if not become a hit, because this means the producer would be able to bankroll a future film, with the strong possibility of rehiring them.

I tracked this logic to its extreme conclusion and realized that its ethical core was solid enough to apply to any kind of project. Even a supposedly aesthetically dubious undertaking, like a genre film, or a socially disreputable effort, like a trash or pornographic entry, still represents a godsend to any impoverished member of the film crew. And if the said dismissible output makes a killing at the box-office, this may be unwelcome news to society’s moral and aesthetic guardians, but it certainly portends nothing but glad tidings for the project’s collaborators – its producers and artists, of course, but its workers as well, silent though they may be.

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I was taken aback, and still tend to have the same response, by the magnitude of the hostility exhibited by academe-trained experts whenever I attempted to articulate this critical premise. In retrospect, of course, I can see where my should-be colleagues were coming from. The class-based orientation of orthodox Marxist training behooves them to focus on the role of captains of industry – producers, financiers, investors – and subject their judgment of a film product to the moral depredations wrought by capital. As a consequence, profitability, according to this view, should be its own reward already, so a movie that hits pay dirt ought to meet higher expectations or face critical dismissal. Bound up with this judgmental mindset would be the known political sympathies of the major entities behind the production, as well as the operations of narrative formulas, with genre projects suggesting a questionable set of motives, and “low” or “body” genres confirming the producers’ and filmmakers’ surrender to decadence.

The one auspicious and relatively recent development on this front is that a progressive strain in feminist thinking, which we might call the sex-positive anti-censorship school (Kleinhans and Lesage 24-26), has set out to recuperate these modes of practice that once resulted in what we might term film detritus, or types of movies that so-called respectable experts and institutions would have jettisoned from any canon-forming activity; some of the more familiar examples would include pornography, horror, tearjerker melodrama, toilet-humor and slapstick comedy, home and diaristic movies, even advertising and propaganda.

This development was affirmed on several institutional fronts during the last few years of the 20th century. For example, of the over 200 titles classified as “condemned” or “offensive” by the US Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency from 1936 to 1978 (Catholic News Service), several showed up in the so-called Vatican Film List (SDG), which were supposedly endorsements to the faithful of nearly 50 titles, presented by the Pontifical Commission for Social Communications on the occasion of cinema’s first centenary in 1995. What this meant was that movies once regarded as immoral by religious standards, were later admired as insightful windows into the human condition. When I was in the process of completing my cinema-studies doctorate, the top-ranked American film schools started announcing courses on US skinflicks of the 1970s, now regarded as a Golden Age in porn production; a previously X-rated film, John Waters’s Pink Flamingos (1972), was an arthouse hit, as was an even earlier entry, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965), described as Russ Meyer’s tribute to bosomania. Films with outright pornographic sequences can at present be submitted to compete in the A-list film festivals of Europe, and even win major awards for the effort.

What this made evident to me was the fact that in popular culture, no pre-existing judgment is guaranteed to last forever. Just as the historical heroics and Biblical epics and costume dramas that once dominated US Academy Awards are only screened for camp amusement today, and the downgraded B-movies of that same era are now considered essential to studies on the development of film language (Monaco 7-10), so can we indulge in the engaging exercise of identifying which contemporary forms of audiovisual media happen to endure the disapprobation of authorities in government, academe, and corporate-sponsored institutions. Only those among us who still cling to beliefs in eternal verities in approaches to popular culture, will be dismayed by the constant revision and repudiation of standards that mark contemporary evaluations of film and cultural artefacts, and will probably be surprised when today’s so-called trash items become tomorrow’s objets d’art.

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I might need to clarify, however, that my insistence on recognizing the cruciality of continuing film-production activity to the sustenance of an industry, does not imply that I desisted from formulating negative commentary during the six-year period when I had to turn in reviews on a weekly basis. What my premise precluded, in my personal practice, was the use of sweeping condemnations like “worst movie ever made,” unless I could mix in tonal shadings of irony or camp. Put another way, anything that could lead to the conclusion that such-and-such a release should never have been made would make me think more than twice: I could just as well be commenting on the potboilers I had worked on, and if they’d never been made, how would I have survived?

How then should I evaluate the moral worth of a film that I had to review? The answer to this entailed a two-stage procedure, one building on the other, and once more provoking unusual controversy. The first necessitated a bout of critical self-awareness on my end, a condition that applies as much to resident critics as to contemporary bloggers, especially those who set out to cover sudden concentrations of new or old releases, such as film festivals or retrospectives. When an editor or publisher stipulates that the critic must review everything on a given slate, the latter ought to initiate a constant negotiation regarding which releases are accordant with her level of competence or interest, and which ones lie beyond the scope of her abilities. I was fortunate during my resident-critic years that the movie industry was churning out up to four local releases a week, not to mention the far bigger amount of foreign releases that were being distributed. So picking out a film or two or more, out of five to ten choices, was a far better ratio than the one-to-one requirement imposed by some internet websites on their reviewers.

The second stage, as I mentioned, was when troubles would arise – not with my casual readers, but with my self-appointed critics. The method I observed took shape after the usual formal-slash-sociological, form-and-content approaches I used, left more questions than answers in their wake. Mostly these would revolve on another bout of self-doubt: how sure was I that any declaration I made was certain to hold up through an unpredictable future? As an example, a canon-creation project for Philippine cinema, ongoing for nearly a decade already, yielded several surprises when we went through the few major films of the past half-century (David and Maglipon). Among the movies released during the martial-law period of 1972 to 1986, for example, several titles acclaimed for their political daring felt, in retrospect, like melodramas in desperate search of significance. What stood out today, with some of them increasing in stature and integrity, were the honest-to-goodness flat-out melodramas, dismissed by film critics of the time for being flighty, apolitical, decadent, tending toward camp, and produced by a studio suspected of reveling in covert sponsorship from the dictatorial regime.

The ideal critical approach would therefore set down any conclusion we can make about a movie as strictly provisional, subject to further developments in cultural and political history. But what about the more problematic film-texts I mentioned earlier – i.e., the movies that enjoyed popular patronage? Would there be a means of presenting findings about these releases without falling into the trap of the high art-vs.-low culture binary? The only method I could think of during the time was to contact actual members of the mass audience. When I’d encounter friendly get-togethers in the congested neighborhoods where I resided, I’d approach the people I knew and chat about the movies they just watched or were planning to watch. Refreshingly, these were people who were unconcerned about my academic intent or the impression they would give about themselves among the intelligentsia. So when I asked them for the reasons behind their choices, they never felt obliged to genuflect before the altar of moral worth or aesthetic significance. What they’d provide instead was a unique though residual form of cultural logic, more helpful in elucidating why any current box-office hit was raking it in, regardless of its critical standing.

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Even today, one could see this deplorable and potentially tragic separation between the chattering classes, which would include all of us here, and the mass audience, or the public at large, or what we increasingly recognize as the majority of online netizens. When confronted with the reality of inconsistencies in voters’ choices, our colleagues would tend to explain this away by describing them as uneducated, unsophisticated, devoid of higher moral senses, vulnerable to petty corruption, oblivious to the consequences of their decisions. This type of academically acceptable though horrifically anti-progressive approach was what I attempted to evade via the admittedly casual anthropological research I conducted before setting out to articulate my responses to any contemporary film release during my time as resident critic. Once again, for reasons that I cannot (and prefer not to) fathom at this time, colleagues tended to react violently when I set this out as a prescription.

The first time I laid it out, rather than used it as a means of explicating specific popular films, a trend in Philippine cinema was arousing the ire of people across various political divides, even opposing ones. This was during a time, a few years after the world-famous February 1986 “people power” uprising, when the surest guarantee of box-office performance was for any movie to resort to toilet humor (David, “Shooting Crap” 109-10). Characters would be seen on prime-time TV trailers clutching their tummies or butts, rushing to toilet cubicles, with diarrheic sounds emanating from inside and characters in the vicinity responding to what appear to be unpleasant odors. The exponent of this funky trend was a comedian named Joey de Leon, still-popular today, whose latest exploit was a wildly successful comic-romantic setup that played out during the real-time real-life segment of a noontime variety show (Zamora).

Gamely accepting the challenge to defend his use of toilet humor on a TV talk show, de Leon found himself confronting the right-wing pro-Church chair of the censors board, as well as a leftist academic famed for being occasionally censored and thrown in jail by the martial-law government of Ferdinand Marcos. During a time when the members of the left-leaning Concerned Artists of the Philippines were conducting a series of rallies to protest post-Marcos censorship policies, this was the one remarkable moment when representatives of both sides came together for a common cause – to castigate de Leon’s reliance on a borderline-obscene strategy for provoking audience laughter. I criticized the spectacle via the following remark:

to question a person on the basis of principle is a simple thing to do, but when that principle happens to enjoy popular support, then the possibility of claiming to be better than the majority, antithetical to the democratic premise of raising questions on their behalf in the first place, emerges. This puts the … “critic” in a position too awkwardly similar to that of the cultural censor, who derives his raison d’être from the perverse notion that the people, even (or especially) in a democracy, could not know what is good for them. (David, “Shooting Crap” 110)

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One direct aftermath was that a few years later, I encountered the aforementioned artist-academic during my graduate studies in the US, and got berated by him for violating some code of bourgeois behavior that I could not decipher. I later figured out that it might have been because of the article I had written: I had taken extra care not to mention him by name, but there was certainly no denying the widespread coverage of his full-on theatrical performance as offended moral guardian on live TV. What I could have explained, if he had been able to simmer down and engage in a sober discussion, was that the moviegoers I had talked with certainly did not regard themselves as cultural dupes longing or willing to be taken in by a possibly cynically motivated comic talent. The key lay in the still-prevalent euphoria over the people-power event, when the country’s major artists all focused on projects that would commemorate the ouster of a long-entrenched tyrant and the restoration of democratic institutions.

The movie audience responded to these predictable and frankly sanctimonious texts by withholding their patronage of local film releases. As a result, from an average of nearly 170 films produced during the Marcos years, sometimes hitting as high as over 230 productions in one year, the local industry came up with 120 titles the year after people power and barely 100 the year after (David, “Annual Filipino Film Production Chart”); many of these in fact were sex films intended for the minimally policed rural circuit. The country’s most successful studio, Regal Films, managed to persuade audiences to resume their movie-going habit by providing comic fantasies featuring a breakout child actor, Aiza (now Ice) Seguerra (“Aiza Seguerra”). While these appealed to women and child viewers, Joey de Leon found a means of filling the gap for more mature audiences, including males, by seizing on a deliberately uncouth rejection of the spiritualistically inspired religious revivalism induced by what people still refer to today as the “miracle at EDSA.”

The difficulty of pursuing this particular configuration of critical framework cum method is further complicated by the stylistic demands it makes on expression. The principle I follow stems from the differentiation between academic writing and criticism. The only Filipino film critic recognized as a National Artist, Bienvenido Lumbera, prescribed an approach to writing criticism that conflated it with scholarship: “the writer must not be imprisoned by cuteness or [snark]. I think that’s a very strong tendency when one is beginning to write, when you fall in love with a manner, an expression, a point that you want to make, and you put that across and sacrifice the object you’re talking about” (Lumbera 72).

My own response, as a graduate-studies scholar confronted with the demand to observe an “objective” and “impersonal” presentation of research findings, was to constantly seek ways to query, if not subvert, this requirement, rather than allow an entire arsenal of literary possibilities to go to waste. In doing so, I managed to realize that the process of deconstructive jouissance can operate beyond analytics, via the mechanics of style. In criticism, especially in reviewing for a general readership, the playpen covers a far wider territory. The expressive demands may be greater, but the potential to involve the reader in formally discursive challenges, with the commentary providing a fixed reflexive coordinate to the film or films being discussed, would be worth the extra effort of drafting what we may call the creative critique.

The ideal to strive for would be an industrial intervention, where the critic helps articulate, for the artist as well as the audience, the film-text’s historical significance and significations, the development of the project’s auteur or auteurs, the industrial limits posed by budget, technology, and training, and how these may be overcome, and the larger social, political, cultural, regional, and global concerns (if any) where text, auteur, and audience may position themselves in pursuit of further insights or benefits. Such instances of intensive interactions among critics, creatives, and consumers have been few and far between, in the experience of Philippine cinema. Nevertheless, they have been known to happen, and have generally proved fulfilling for all parties concerned. The goal in observing a useful and progressive ethical approach to film criticism would be to ensure that critics’ contributions to the growth and development of cinema become a more-or-less permanent feature of creative cultural activity.

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Works Cited

Aiza [sic] Seguerra.” Wow Celebrities! (August 1, 2008).

Catholic News Service (Media Review Office). “Archived Movie Reviews.” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. No date.

David, Joel. “Annual Filipino Film Production Chart.” Ámauteurish! (February 25, 2016).

———. “Birds of Omen.” Philippine Collegian (July 26, 1978): 3, 6. Reprinted in Millennial Traversals: Outliers, Juvenilia, & Quondam Popcult Blabbery (Part I: Traversals within Cinema) in UNITAS: Semi-Annual Peer-Reviewed International Online Journal of Advanced Research in Literature, Culture, and Society 88.1 (May 2015): 43-45.

———. “Movie Worker.” National Midweek (November 4, 1987): 15-16. Reprinted in Millennial Traversals: Outliers, Juvenilia, & Quondam Popcult Blabbery (Part II: Expanded Perspectives) in UNITAS: Semi-Annual Peer-Reviewed International Online Journal of Advanced Research in Literature, Culture, and Society 89.1 (May 2016): 13-16.

———. “Shooting Crap.” National Midweek (April 4, 1990): page(s) unkown. Reprinted in Fields of Vision: Critical Applications in Recent Philippine Cinema (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1995): 109-12.

David, Joel, and Jo-Ann Q. Maglipon. SINÉ: The YES List of 100+ Films That Celebrate Philippine Cinema. Summit Media, 2019 (forthcoming).

Greydanus, Steven D. “The Vatican Film List.” DecentFilms: Film Appreciation and Criticism Informed by Christian Faith. No date.

Kleinhans, Chuck, and Julia Lesage. “The Politics of Sexual Representation.” Jump Cut 30 (March 1985): 24-26.

Lumbera, Bienvenido. “Critic in Academe.” Interview. National Midweek (April 4, 1990): 20-22, 46. Reprinted in Millennial Traversals: Outliers, Juvenilia, & Quondam Popcult Blabbery (Part II: Expanded Perspectives) in UNITAS: Semi-Annual Peer-Reviewed International Online Journal of Advanced Research in Literature, Culture, and Society 89.1 (May 2016): 65-74.

Meyer, Russ (director). Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Scriptwriter Jack Moran. Performed by Tura Satana, Haji, Lori Williams, Ray Barlow, Susan Bernardo, Mickey Foxx, Dennis Busch, Stuart Lancaster, Paul Trinka. EVE Productions, 1965.

Monaco, James. The New Wave: Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette. Oxford University Press, 1976.

Waters, John (director & scriptwriter). Pink Flamingos. Performed by Divine, David Lochary, Mary Vivan Pearce, Mink Stole, Danny Mills, Edith Massey, Channing Wilroy, Cookie Mueller, Paul Swift. Dreamland, 1972.

Zamora, Fe. “Netizens Go Gaga over AlDub.” Philippine Daily Inquirer (August 17, 2015).

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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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