Book Texts – Commentaries: Pinas

People-Power Cinema

To begin with, there isn’t any celluloid commemoration, whether factual or fictionalized, of the February 1986 revolution. The only one ever attempted, Four Days in February (Marilou Diaz-Abaya directing from Jose Dalisay Jr.’s script) has been shelved and, due to the recent reversals in the political fortunes of the Armed Forces “reformists,” has been for all practical purposes rendered stale as yesterday’s pan de sal. All this may be for the better. For one thing, the revolution is widely perceived by all its major participants, regardless of their positions on the political spectrum, as still finished, although I shudder to think what further upheavals await us. More important, those heady days 20-or-so months ago (more like a generation since, you’ll agree) seem better consigned to memory: at least there’ll be a multitude, millions literally, of versions of what actually transpired, rather than a few interpretations unfairly imbued with the aura of credibility through plastic manipulations.

A problematic, however, can be sensed from the fact that local film criticism has been thrown into disarray by what outputs actually turned up, rather than by what have been turned down or out. Not a single serious product made since February 1986 – serious releases immediately after, but those could only have been made before the revolution! After is what matters, and the trail so far is littered with melodrama and fantasy, hardly the stuff for the sensible artistic discussion we used to know…. Well, not quite, if we count in the occasional bold and action film. But save for last year’s critics’ awardee Takaw Tukso, the former has been nothing if not the now-standard exploitation vehicle, while the latter has evolved into that most unsatisfactory mutant, the real-life hero’s story.

There may be a more positive stance one can take, and I believe it’s not only practicable, but absolutely indispensable, if our so-called critics are to assume once more their relationship of mutual nourishment with the industry. The problem is that the dark days of dictatorship, pardon the bromide, fostered in us an equation of grimness with seriousness. The fact that our culture is predominantly Catholic didn’t help: what comes easy is always suspicious, if not downright sinful, so value increases in proportion so suffering. The application of this sometimes-but-not-always valid assumption to film criticism becomes painfully obvious if we re-view (watch all over, that is) the titles that seemed to matter during the Marcos years. Admittedly a handful of great ones will continue to stand out, but I’ll bet my sense of vision that a disturbing proportion will emerge as having been admirable for some form of political or social daring, and nothing more. To an extent more than we care to admit, we were actually putting a premium on titles with an eye to watching the powers-that-were, who never had enough good taste to begin with, squirm from the references. Artistic achievement assumed secondary value, the icing on the pie in Imelda’s face, and sometimes, especially in the case of genre (standard box-office) titles, even became a liability because of its threatening nature. Why, if a bold or fantasy or action or melodrama movie were to be given serious consideration, who’ll pay attention to the latest academically engineered agitprop work of what’s-his-name, when his budget, not to mention his skills, couldn’t even begin to compare with the industry’s full-blast capabilities?

Of course this entire state of things became possible only because the viewing public occasionally made known its support through its patronage, and so our sociological framework of the masses seeking enlightenment during a period of oppression comes full circle. But now they’ve come to prefer escapist entertainment, and our pinpointing responsibilities on film- and policymakers will only amount to so much barking up the wrong signpost. The February 1986 revolution remains, after all, a happy memory, a veritable dream-come-true no scripted theatrical experience could ever hope to match. The desire to somehow extend the good feelings, even if only in the confines of a movie house, is where we’re starting from. If we’re loaded with titles that provide nothing but happy endings – which is actually the current case, even among our favorite pre-revolution filmmakers – then we better start looking for new values to champion, rather than imposing old ones. And if I may add the obvious, this is a good an opportunity as we’ll ever have to return to simple virtues of classicism in cinema – the well-told tale done with utmost competence, adding appropriate points for imagination. Where this will take us is anybody’s guess, including mine, but what matters right now is that film artistry, though always somehow with us, has never had, for reasons often beyond our control, its proper place in our hearts.

[First published October 28, 1987, in National Midweek]

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Studious Studios

The return of the studio system used to be one of the most abused bogeyisms brandished before us by prophets of gloom of various persuasions and motivations in the local movie industry. The scare died down recently, for the simple reason that the threat of studio re-domination never really returned. That was then, of course, and now all developments, to use a euphemism, indicate that no other setup exists other than that founded by and upon our modern-day movie moguls.

To be sure, the early confusion may have been numerological in nature. The last time a studio system flourished, it was manifested in the form of a trinity: a major, a rival, and an underdog, more popularly known as Sampaguita, LVN, and Premiere after the war. Movie stars, in an apparently instinctive bid to appropriate the axis of power among themselves, contributed greatly to the reshuffling, by attempting to violate the rule against shuttling from one outfit to another. The collapse of the studio system may have been due to the studios’ resistance to the upward mobility of their personnel, including their most prized possessions, their contract stars. All that was needed was for an entire pack of aspiring underdogs, then as now calling themselves independents, to provide lucrative options for discontented performers who’d break away from their mother companies only to find themselves blacklisted (as a form of collective protection) by the other biggies.

The star system, however, never really prospered beyond an individualized basis, for roughly the same reasons that the independents eventually yielded to the superstars: the individual entrants were too self-sufficient to coalesce or forge alliances, and the local market could only accommodate so much – three at a time, it seems. In a manner of speaking, the industry’s system has never really been based on independents or stars, not once; only on studios. Once the inadequacies of the alternatives between independents and superstars became clear, the time was ripe for another season of studio domination. Three at a time, then. With Agrix and Bancom Audiovision battling for supremacy during the 1970s, and a number of worthy stragglers, notably Crown-Seven, striving for third place, warnings began to be raised. Agrix folded up, so did Crown-Seven, leaving Bancom at the top and Regal, for a time an underdog, the closest rival. Bancom was then dissolved along with its larger conglomerate, and the apparent jinx suffered by those in the position of major was enough to pacify the pessimists.

Without much fanfare Regal took top place, while Viva came on strongly enough to claim the status of rival. Only an underdog-newcomer, the Marcos government’s Experimental Cinema of the Philippines (ECP), made enough noise by way of threatening to dislodge both occupants, and the rest of the movie industry as well, from their profitable circumstances. It took the February 1986 upheaval to eliminate, among others, this last obstacle in the re-establishment of the studio system. Seiko assumed the unlamented ECP’s underdog role, and happy days, at least for the mogul-owners, were here again.

So far all the evidence favors the reincarnated versions over their predecessors. They’ve been wise enough to allow the sharing of contract stars among themselves – to the detriment of the personalized social-cum-thespic training the old studios used to proffer, impose even, on an in-house basis. Lately they’ve even outdone themselves on a conceptual level. For where the old studios employed certain generic trademarks with which to identify themselves – LVN with musicals and costume spectacles, Sampaguita with fantasies and tearjerkers, Premiere with gangster stories – the present ones have taken to exchanging their corporate images with one another: Viva, which prided itself on gloss, has been attaching its name, rather than that of its sister company Falcon, to low-budget crime stories like Ex-Army and Boy Negro (formerly associable with Seiko) and recently came up with a Regal staple, a quickie musical comedy, in Buy One, Take One; Regal, on the other hand, has been taking tentative steps toward comparatively big-budget but komiks-based products (after its quickie formula failed to work in recent succession), with Nagbabagang Luha and the forthcoming update of Dyesebel; Seiko likewise has begun glossy productions in earnest, what with the satisfactory box-office returns of Hiwaga sa Balete Drive (more Regal in its comic-horror bent) and Isusumbong Kita sa Diyos (definitely a Viva formula).

Bernard Bonnin and Susan Roces, and Sharon Cuneta and Richard Gomez (left to right) as one another’s generational counterparts in Pablo Santiago’s Buy One, Take One (1988).

Most of these efforts were premised on the prospects of renewed moviegoer interest after the usual approaches became too predictable for (financial) comfort. No doubt the novelty of the old images carrying over into the new offerings had something to do with the encouraging turnout of viewers: Viva’s Sharon Cuneta and Phillip Salvador shedding their long-cultivated glamor, Seiko’s struggling also-rans suddenly basking in lustrous production values, Regal’s campiness to be enhanced (or perhaps defeated) by an uncharacteristically big budget. What is left for these modern-day mammoths to do is confront their one last impediment to immortality. In more than just the spiritual sense, the old studios passed away along with their founder-owners. The way the present ones are being run, it becomes easy for opponents to hope, if not in the progressive enlightenment of the moguls, in the eventual demise of Mother Lily, the del Rosarios, and Robbie Tan – a sure thing anyway, given the still-limited lifespan we have all been heir to. Decentralization may be the immediate logical response, although there remains one better strategy, the very factor that keeps certain First Golden Age titles in the consciousness of current film observers despite the virtual inactivity of the original producers: the word – but are we ready for it? – is, of course, quality.

[First published July 20, 1988, in National Midweek]

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Shooting Crap

When Joey de Leon claims he couldn’t care less about critics’ complaints regarding his use of toilet humor, the issue doesn’t revolve on the soundness of his argument. Toilet humor, as used in the context of this debate, is unofficially understood to be a sub-category of obscenity – in direct opposition to our moral guardians’ shibboleth of wholesomeness. By extension, the argument goes, toilet humor, as a form of obscenity, is socially undesirable and therefore should be subject to suppression. No one has ventured to raise the issue of legality so far, although this would clinch the controversy in a convenient way. Anyone, de Leon included, could easily answer that the antiquated nature of our censorship laws renders such an approach amorphous at best; still, the issue at stake remains unarticulated.

Joey de Leon gets away with toilet humor – has the right to it, in a manner of speaking – simply because he has been so darn successful of late. During the early days of his trio with the Sotto brothers he might have taken the pounding with, well, a grain of salt; their always moderate and occasionally pleasing box-office returns could serve to ease the sting somehow. But now he has struck it rich, and it’s not so much the power he holds over the characteristically purchasable movie press: appearances to the contrary, he’s not that crude, and he need not be so in the first place. It’s the implication of so fail-safe a formula on so financially frank a system, when any project without de Leon’s pretensions to satire – without de Leon himself, even – could now be assured of record-shattering box-office returns by merely purveying shit jokes on primetime.

In short, the moguls owe so much quantifiable gratitude to Joey de Leon for this good-as-gold discovery. Not even Imelda Marcos’s pera-sa-basura [money-in-trash] projects could prove as conclusively as Starzan et al. did that the sound of cash registers ringing could compensate for the fumes of unflushed concepts. And even if a movie writer had enough sense (and guts) to dismiss the big-timers’ current sanguinity with what may eventually be known as the de Leon formula (endless swigs of castor oil following entire plateloads of goodies, with a movie crew on the alert), a rebuttal happens to be waiting in the wings from the opposite direction. The logic runneth thus: 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 de Leon “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.[1]

There may be two ways out of the impasse that both sides find themselves ranged against at the moment. One is that of historical materialism – which basically posits that nothing lasts forever, least of all a thing of no real value. Just as Dolphy’s piss jokes and Tito, Vic and Joey’s snot jokes saw their respective heydays come and go, so will Joey de Leon’s fecal fixations – if not in the near future, then along with de Leon himself, may his sould find peace (no critics in heaven?) come the time. The trouble with this attitude is of course its superciliousness, consciously partaking as it does of the same judgmentalist approach that it initially seeks to distance itself from. The only other option, which may seem the least desirable because of its passivity, used to be impossible to adopt because of the polarizing consequences of the previous political dispensation; if Marcos were still around, the toilet-humor controversy would have been resolved in favor of one side or the other, eventually depending on the perceived benefits to the state.

It may be time for a little more sophistication then. How about regarding such devices as attempts at cultural innovations, the breaking down of taboos in preparation for possibly more serious discourses in future? Part of my reservations about de Leon’s objectors is the sneaking suspicion that the campaign would not have taken on a strong degree of outrage had Starzan, if not the rest, been a Critically Defensible Work of Art. But what if, then? Would we have expended all our intellectual resources defending a crap scene (as was proved aesthetically viable in an early Wim Wenders exploit, Kings of the Roads) – eyeball-to-eyeball with Manuel Morato if necessary, just because art’s sake was at stake in this instance?

One way of looking at the situation is through the perspective of guerrilla strategy. Filipino film censors have traditionally been suckers for artistic provocation; the best way to get their danders up in the past was to inject an offensive aural or visual detail in an otherwise integral prestige project. But beyond the delight of watching them mouth the most culturally illiterate justifications for the imposition of already ill-advised policies, the consequences – stricter censorship procedures, mangled or banned products – were definitely too exorbitant for all those involved. Since in their view the less artistically minded products pose proportionately less harm to the community, why not allow such items to take the lead in toppling the ramparts of convention? Come the time when a real and responsible filmmaker will find it absolutely necssary to put in a cussword or a toilet scene or a subversive idea, the precedents would have been set, the producers would have been satisfied, the masses would have been bored with the usual treatment, and everyone might be a bit happier with the attempt. Had Ishmael Bernal done Manila by Night (whose entire toilet pick-up scene, among countless others, was deleted in the original release) late last year, he might have to thank, among others, Joey de Leon for the trophies he’d now be collecting.

[First published April 4, 1990, in National Midweek]

Note

[1] Viewers of the TV program where Joey de Leon found himself fending off attacks from both political positions would have recognized Manuel L. Morato, designated chief censor by then-President Corazon Aquino and subsequent candidate for the presidency, representing the conservative sector; and Behn Cervantes, theater and film director, critic, actor, and professor, and former political detainee, representing orthodox progressives.

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Fleshmongering

One of the early distinctions, dubious though it seems, of the 1990s is our latest designation of what we’d all known the past two decades or so: that the sex film is marketed primarily for its audience’s carnal titillation. Ever since institutional controls on the treatment of sex eased up (though gave up would be the more satisfactory description) during the ’60s, our film practitioners had been relying on a series of merely suggestive, sometimes even coy, labels for what were in a sense products of a worldwide and continuing cultural revolution. The first word was bomba, drawn from the political turbulence of the period of its emergence, the pre-martial law years. One would expect that the original namesake – the pro-activist sector, not Roger Arienda (whose nickname would not have stuck had his public ignored him) – would have resented the industry’s adoption of one of its virtues to refer to a diametrically opposed form of passion, personal rather than social. Instead, both sides seemed to have arrived at an understanding that they had more in common as subversives committed to certain material ends, and so demonstrators then were not averse to patronizing the latest sex flick, just as the more sensible bomba practitioners, particularly Ishmael Bernal, Lino Brocka, and Celso Ad. Castillo, would turn out socially critical subjects once 1081 had effectively closed the season of open expression for both camps.

Bold, the next term, served to consolidate a number of mildly descriptive labels, among which “wet look” proved to be the most graphic (and therefore most popular). “Bold” is of course antediluvian relative to bomba; even Gerardo de Leon’s FAMAS record-setter, Huwag Mo Akong Limutin, which copped out on an abortion scene (reputedly its most shocking feature), was called worse things by the censors – and this was during the 1950s.[1] But what revitalized the genre, allowing it to even surpass its predecessor, was precisely the aforementioned social consciousness that our filmmakers developed along the way. No bold film was ever as, well, frontal as the typical bomba movie was; on the other hand, no bomba product could equal in significance the best martial law-era movies that employed sex either as additional come-on or as legitimate topic for filmic discourse.

The decline of the Marcos regime made possible an approximation of the bomba era, while the fall of the Marcoses led to a complete backslide. Obviously “bold” wasn’t bold enough anymore. The acronym penekula (from penetration + pelikula) was coined ex post facto, with the renewed moralism generated by the 1986 revolution plus the cheaper resources afforded by video combining to making graphic sex films too notorious and small-time for a reputable and long-term undertaking. And so we now have sex trip, although where it will take us is really the big question. The name is still too novel for generalized considerations, associated as it is with an aspirant-to-major studio, Seiko Films, which still has to pay its dues for industrial success by way of awards-worthy projects. If the term sticks, it won’t be the first time a studio engineered a classifiable trend in movie-making: if my memory serves me right, Regal Films, then also a struggling outfit, identified itself with bold-film production, to the point of incurring the ire of a culture-meddling Imelda Marcos.

The main difference, however, is that all these titles – bomba, bold, even penekula – managed to redeem themselves with projects memorable for more than just their extent of skin exposure, while “sex trip” just happens to be more frank a description than the rest.[2] Nothing on the order of Nympha, Pagdating sa Dulo, or Tubog sa Ginto from the bomba era, Aliw, Brutal, Burlesk Queen, Karnal, Moral, Salome, Sinner or Saint, or Manila by Night from the bold period, or Boatman, Private Show, Scorpio Nights, or Takaw Tukso prior to (but within the spirit of) the penekula trend can serve to so far justify the sex-trip films as worthy of, say, aesthetic appreciation by the year 2000. Not even the emergence of a performer comparable to Yvonne, Chanda Romero, Rio Locsin, Amy Austria, Lorna Tolentino, or Jaclyn Jose, or the spectacle of an established star like Eddie Garcia, Vic Vargas, Rita Gomez, Vilma Santos, or Gina Alajar trying on genre for the possibility of career enhancement.

A kind remark is in order, though, and it is the recognition of the fact that the sex-trip trend is laboring under a severely imposing tradition. Any self-respecting artist would think twice, to say the least, before allowing her product to be called, under whatever currently fashionable appellation, a Pinoy sex film. What the name “sex trip” has going for it, however, is something stronger than a mere sense of history: there appears to be the promise of profit in the term, not to mention the convenience of an abbreviation. How far the potential can be contracted, pardon the puns, should give way to every imaginative attempt at its expansion.

[First published April 18, 1990, in National Midweek]

Notes

[1] Sharing this admittedly anecdotal detail regarding what may be Gerardo de Leon’s other major missing film (aside from Daigdig ng mga Api): the scriptwriter of Huwag Mo Akong Limutin, Jose Flores Sibal, turned out to have been a distant relative on my father’s side. We had our first and only conversation literally on the eve of his departure as migrant to the US – I didn’t know then that I would have my own opportunity to pursue graduate studies in the same country a few years later, and got too busy when I arrived to be able to contact anyone. Before he left he turned over a copy of his script for the missing de Leon title, which I read before depositing the manuscript with the University of the Philippines Film Center. It deserves a more extensive discussion, but I might opt to provisionally echo the same response when I read how dismayed Petronilo Bn. Daroy was when he managed to watch Daigdig before it got lost. The narratives that de Leon was handed could only hope to touch on sensitive material (agrarian reform in Daigdig, abortion in HMAL). Daroy was the best culture critic of his generation and de Leon the best Filipino film stylist who ever lived. Cold War culture abhorred any hint of resistance to contemporary patriarchal authority – which is why one will have to search elsewhere for evidence of a successful collaboration, starting with de Leon’s subsequent project with Sibal, the period adaptation of José Rizal’s El Filibusterismo.

[2] The sex-film trend that succeeded Seiko Films’ sex-trip was termed titillating film, intended to designate more open anatomical depictions, including female and male genitalia. This predictably resulted in conflicts between liberals and moralists, with the Catholic church (via the interventionist Cardinal Sin) weighing in at one point. Significantly, both sex-trip and titillating-film trends constituted the first instance of more than one sex-themed fad being initiated by the same studio (Seiko Films, whose hype was handled by seasoned publicist Oskee Salazar – per Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr., founding chair of the Young Critics Circle and founding director of the US-based Filipino Arts & Cinema International). José B. Capino, in “Soothsayers, Politicians, Lesbian Scribes: The Philippine Movie Talk Show,” ascribed the new trend to “more relaxed censorship laws” (Planet TV: A Global Television Studies Reader, eds. Lisa Parks and Shanti Kumar [New York University Press, 2002], 262-73).

Caution should be exerted in the historical exercise of recollecting the acronyms carefully and cleverly formulated by Salazar. ST for sex-trip was meant to evoke a jokey Taglish vulgarism, “standing titi” or erect penis (the masculine counterpart of HP or “happy puki”), while titillating film was shortened to TF and nothing more; the immediate pop-culture referent in this case was “talent fee” – an utterly innocuous expression, inasmuch as the transgression was already performed in the very descriptor “titillating,” as suggested in the foregoing ST. The claim by a film authority that the actual abbrevation was TT Film must be regarded as culturally illogical and therefore spurious, erroneous, and presumptive.

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Firmament Occupation

Generally but strangely regarded as one of the perennial problems of Philippines cinema is what has come to be called the “star system.” Stars, or extremely successful movie performers, demand astronomical figures that invariably limit a project’s allocations for other aspects of production. The obvious logical lapse in this formulation is the way performers are distinguished from the rest of the elements of film – as if directing, scriptwriting, cinematography, editing, and clapboard operation, among other activities, can contribute to a movie’s excellence, while acting cannot. Worse, this assumes that characters, the central feature of commercial cinema and a whole lot of non-commercial movies as well, are separable from all the other things that go into the completion of a filmwork.

The problem lies in the fusion of two highly charged terms to a situation that isn’t remediable by any long shot, much less a close-up. “Stars” exist wherever intense human activity is complemented with high visibility; cinema happens to be the most obvious and permeative modern-day example, but one can have stars in other contexts too – politics, academe, religion, fashion design, smuggling, entomology, etc. The absurdity of aspiring toward a star-less ideal can be seen in the execution of a political system that averred as much: first, the masses themselves became the supposed stars; eventually, the leaders, in the guise of representing their constituencies, assumed for themselves positions of prominence. The other word, “system,” is the one that compounds the problem. As far as movie histories anywhere have exhibited, there may have been vacillations between a studio system and an independent system (and a trend toward total government intervention locally during the latter part of Marcos rule), but there has never been so far such a thing hereabouts as a star system. Strictly and analogously speaking, a star system depends, in full material terms, on the existence of stars – meaning, stars not only facilitate productions by the guarantee of their presence, but also provide the wherewithal for the productions themselves.

The combination is crucial. A star may have been the entire motivation for a particular project, while on another occasion she may have engaged in film production, but unless she invested her own money in the first instance and carried enough box-office clout to be the movie’s main attraction in the second, then she would never have been essential part of the movie system; she’d be just a star, if that were semantically possible, in the first place, or a star who happened to produce in the second.[1] In the beginning it wasn’t all that simple, precisely because matters were much simpler then. Anyone who had both money and ego could go into movie-making: one could cook up her own project, assemble a production staff, direct them and herself, and collect the returns in good time. The giants of early Hollywood cinema – Charles Chaplin, D.W. Griffith – and their local counterparts – Jose Nepomuceno, Vicente Salumbides, among others – were virtual one-person studios, with every possible filmmaking skill, including lead performing, arrogated unto one and the same individual.

To a certain extent we still have devotees of this almost-ancient era who try to keep the faith when they can: America’s Woody Allen and our very own … well, Celso Ad. Castillo. Filmmaking, however, and turn-of-the-millenium life too, have becoome too complex and fast-paced and expensive to allow for integral approaches to anything, especially creative endeavors. This we saw for ourselves with the story of our studio system. The producers, three of them actually, who had enough foresight and managerial skill to allow for specialization and long-term planning, eventually dominated the industry, giving rise to a so-called Golden Age of stability and consistency of output during the 1950s. But because the Big Three moguls refused to recognize the even more specialized claims of movie workers, including stars, to extreme fluctuations in income, insisting instead on fixed salaries as the basis for industrial professionalism, the less principle-obsessed outfits were able to bid for the services of the talents who mattered, and consequently toppled the system of studios.

These more pragmatic producers, who called themselves independents, gave rise once more to the possibility of self-production, this time with a more lucrative twist: not only would a star entitle herself to the proceeds of her own film, she would also be able to guard against creative sabotage and, most important, boost her stocks further in the market for acting services. The rate of a Fernando Poe Jr. or a Dolphy would now be computed on the basis of the profits either of them could realize if the FPJ or RVQ production houses took charge of the projects, rather than how much their previous films had made for their respective financiers. Hence what we have at present is really a historical confluence of two opposing systems – studio domination (three major outfits) and independent production, with a highly distinctive and restricted (and aging) star subsystem subsumable under the latter; there also happens to be an even smaller but less definite circle of performers who produce films, but not necessarily themselves in these films, and much less themselves to sell such films.

Are these categorizations always significant? Not so much in the consideration of how the presence or absence of a star in her own production provides any form of psychological (or now-emergent ideological) modifications, but more in the area of pinpointing what constitutes a problem for study, rather than an occasion for well-worn rhetoric. Take out censorship or taxation, and you could conceivably realize some forms of improvement in film production, if not in film quality; Marcos-era experiments in industry control provided more-than-adequate proof of the workings of such dynamics. Eliminate stars, and if they don’t get replaced, then maybe the movie system itself has burned out.
[First published May 30, 1990, in National Midweek]

Note

[1] I was not surprised to learn later that this insight had already been articulated, although I first heard the name Edgar Morin as the co-director of Jean Rouch of the pioneering cinema verité entry Chronique d’un été (1961). In a later class on film stardom, I read an English translation of his 1957 book Les stars – which was not the first time a notion I’d worked out turned out to have been affirmed (or challenged) by a previously articulated idea.

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Blues Hit Parade

What may soon evolve into a form of cultural schizophrenia, if it isn’t at that stage already, is the current contrariety of attitudes toward the state of Philippine cinema. On the one hand are the pessimists, who resumed their lamentation once it became clear that the four-year-old 1986 revolution was not going to result in anything on the order of the best outputs of the Marcos years; on the other hand, the optimists point out that, after the revolution’s alarming dead stretch, local movie producers never had it so good, with one box-office record after another being broken in rapid succession. I must stress at the outset that my sympathies lie with the latter group, and that the lure of lucre just happens to be one obvious and too-practical reason. For too long the critics of Filipino movies took their calling in an adulterated sense – i.e., judging severely instead of judging fairly, which is the primary definition of criticism. What we may be hearing now is a reassessment of the worsening portion of Marcos rule as the glory years of local cinema, but if you go back to that era, you may have difficulty distinguishing the condemnatory tone of critical writing then from what you may be able to find today.

The upshot is that since our industry practitioners were not made aware of the excellence of their collective performance then, they had to accept the rejection of their situation along with the system that spawned whatever merits it contained. In short, after the change in political administration, everyone was completely in the dark as to where to begin: a return to active institutional support (Marcos’s example) was out of the question, while on the other hand the movie-going public seemed to have fled along with the regime, leaving almost a year-long period of nothing but box-office traumas.

Congratulations then are in order for our industry leaders, for the success of their concept of a turnabout. I feel confident enough to even bet that no other local industry has managed its own resurrection in as financially triumphant a manner as did our movie practitioners. Balancing the absence of absolutely reliable box-office reports with the assurance that no one in her right mind would readily boast of grand profits owing to an ornery tax situation, the recent feats of box-office records being broken much more often than they ever used to be would be something quite phenomenal. And yet…this time our critics are on target in bemoaning the decline in quality of our movies, and we have enough reason to fear that the enthusiasm of local producers may be verging on recklessness. The reason hinges on the correlation of both factors: box-office returns are not enough precisely because of the absence of quality in the outputs that facilitate these returns – not so much because of the absence of long-term or overseas profitability, much less a non-material consideration of the implications on cultural hygiene.

The danger of relying primarily on lighweight material to draw in heavyweight profits lies in the demonstrable possibility that what used to be relatively lighweight may not turn out to be so anymore, especially if it proves profitable enough. The mechanics can result in some truly panicky complications: quickies make more money, so more people want to be in on the action, thereby spreading thin the amount of cash available for profits. Among the interested parties would be the government, which can (and did) increase its share through taxes, thereby diluting even further the profitability of easy movie-making. The possible scenario veers between less box-office winners (and record-setters) and cheaper quickies – with the worst case combining both. And the closer we approach either situaton, the farther away we get from the possible solutions. The decline in local, or more accurately Metro Manila-based, profitability points to the potential of exploring the only regional market that has proved historically viable: the Cebuano-language circuit, now worth another serious consideration because of the economic resurgence of the South; Cebuano movie production, however, petered out in the past precisely because the region could not provide the profits that Metro Manila can offer, so this results in a closed circle, with everyone left out.

The other option is the exportation of our products, and here we must initially contend with both our colonial sense of inferiority plus the slow pace of returns – possibly necessitating the offering of initial titles as sacrifices to the altar of long-term investments. Once these are surmounted, an even greater hitch emerges: the international-scale quickie would of course be Cecil B. DeMillean beside its Pinoy counterpart, and coming from our premise that big-budget production would be too infeasible at this point, camote cultivation might not seem so small-time an alternative after all. A sadder consequence awaits those who appreciate film for reasons that render mammon secondary. The big, proud, expensive movie would be as much a part of the past as the mammoth, its appropriate namesake, while the modest achievement will become too costly to produce on a regular basis. We can fantasize about Hollywood brats coming to the rescue of our masters the way they did elsewhere – until we wake up and realize that the countries these now-needy filmmakers represent once worked hard to create a favorable impression on the international film community, while all we every really did was produce quickies to break our box-office records, with our own government making sure that the profits did not outstrip its capacity for “sharing” them.

Ah well. Maybe then we can all learn to read and write in a common language and arrive at some plateau of achievement, before we discover how to level it down once more, but that would be another (non-filmic) story.

[First published June 27, 1990, in National Midweek]

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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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