MOVING PICTURE: WORLD’S SHORTEST PREQUEL
Floodwaters in certain parts of Sampaloc district would rise chest-high by grade-schooler’s proportions as recently as during the late 1960s, and my brothers and I would wallow through invisible potholes and visible sewage just to be able to get home in time to avoid alerting the household to our absence. It didn’t seem as depressing as it sounds, because soon as we got home we’d drop paper boats from the window sill and marvel at how automobile spillage would form rainbow-colored patterns amid the raindrops and waves. How to convey the values and dimensions of this primal aesthetic experience, beauty in detritus, has been the greater challenge of my work as film critic and teacher. Often my impatience has engendered a style that’s reflective of both aspects of such a childhood impression – didactic, I think, but with an incongruous informality. Formal college-level training dwelled on the incompatibility of the combination, and so my early work tended to assume the tone of Moses mandating monotheism on Mount Sinai, handing down revelations whose densities abhorred loose or open ends.
The further from academe I grew, the less self-conscious my notions of style became; at the same time I could not help but uphold the same standards for the works I selected for evaluation. With the inevitable maturation of my personal faculties, I somehow approached an ideal (rarely achieved, of course) of readability amid discourse complicated even for myself. Necessarily this involved periods of selectivity as well as rest and consolidation, but methinks the consequences are different for critics who rely on exigencies of artistic production, rather than artists who depend on critical evaluation; for in the final analysis, the artist could assume critical functions, at the very least for herself, while the critic can never really work in a vacuum, even (or perhaps especially) when working on theoretical issues.
I do badly regret not having come of age during the start of my self-proclaimed second Golden Age of Philippine cinema during the mid-seventies, although I suspect that more effective groundwork had been accomplished during the more turbulent pre-martial law years. As a college-fresh neophyte who honed my fangs on political and economic animadversions, I could draw from the likes of, say, Aliw and Aguila, but Manila by Night and Kakabakaba Ka Ba? from the same period seemed too intricate to unravel and too deep to reach then. I found sufficient leeway to try various approaches thereafter, but at the expense of otherwise praiseworthy attempts in Angela Markado and Batch ’81. And just when I decided to return to school, for which I had to hold down a job – both as full-time preoccupations, out came a full and consistent flowering of films, unaware even that late of the searing effect of the then-forthcoming February 1986 people-power uprising.
Only afterward could I graduate from chronicler to confident commentator, with the rather desperate optimism that, like what happened after the early post-martial rule dry spell, another Golden Age would not be long in following. Invariably my appreciation of paper boats and grease rainbows made the excursion through Manila’s bloodstreams worth the plunge. Along the way I could get my fill of doing retrospective commentaries, but then the best part consisted of divining what could come next and occasionally seeing it fulfilled in some form or other.
Alternative author’s pic for The National Pastime, taken by National Midweek official photographer Gil Nartea.
My list of great film-writers all have some profound contradictions crisscrossing their works, and this, more than anything else, makes reading them doubly difficult. Given the luxury of a lifetime, I’m sure I’ll be developing a few swivels and turnabouts here and there; already I know which of my past output, aside from the ones I’ve already mentioned, I could renounce in the name of personal progress, but meantime I did write them once, and became interested enough to stand by them even through the trauma of publication. So they appear as they do now, contextualized only by their respective dates of issue, in order to maybe show how far I’ve come (or gone), and perhaps qualify the shortcomings of the worthier items.
There’ll be an entire future to face, marked in the meantime by the impending close of the current century. Film, as I’d written elsewhere, will undergo further and radical transformations in terms of technology and approach, and what we consider Third-World practice is on an ascendency. There won’t be just floodwaters to cross, there’ll be entire oceans to swim, and though by then I might be sounding different, difficult even, I guess we’ll all be lucky, though we’ve long deserved it, to be where it’s at come the time.
[First published October 3, 1990 in National Midweek]
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The standard opposition in Philippine film culture between Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal existed mostly in the minds of film observers and practitioners who were invested in the stature of one or the other, despite the fact that both filmmakers expressed fondness for each other and engaged in, at its worst, a friendly rivalry. The differences between them unfortunately infested critical opinion, magnified in malignant proportion when European filmfest agents swooped into town and decided that the politically naïve director who nevertheless boasted of polished surfaces would be preferable to the campy and boisterous sophisticate who had a deeper understanding of and preference for Third-cinema traditions. Although initially less threatening to his global marketers because of his reliance on generic Hollywood models and steadfast opposition to Ferdinand Marcos’s martial-law dictatorship, Brocka inevitably outgrew his mid-career orientation and made perceptible stabs at narrative complexity, thematic ambiguities, and spectatorial appeal – qualities that were associated with Bernal, just as Bernal made a disturbing turn into orthodox leftism. That both adventures were cut short before their protagonists realized what ends they would lead to is one of the many tragedies that, in the minds of many of us, confirmed the end of a significant era. This semi-autobiographical piece was originally drafted as the epilogue to my second volume of film articles, Fields of Vision.
My affinity with Lino Brocka became more literal than I could have ever imagined after he had died. My instinctive response was to declare a study of his works as master’s thesis topic, but I eventually had to face the fact that, apart from the formidable resources the attempt would require, this was also my way of evading the reality of the loss his death had engendered. Meanwhile I had requested my librarian mother to clip whatever biographical information was available, and it was she who discovered that Lino’s father’s first wife was the Bicolano Brocka that we were somehow related to. What impressed me was the distance between us – a remoteness that could only be bridged, had he still been alive, by a complex social formality. Strangely, it was such a formality that characterized the few interactions I had with him. The first time we were introduced, I had just published my first (and fortunately last) John Simon-inspired review, which happened to deal with his then-latest release, Angela Markado. I’d been forewarned by accounts, from acquaintances and the media, of his temperamental responses to criticism, but we carried on as if I had commented on something as irrelevant to our concerns as the weather.
Maybe he understood my obsession with trying out as many approaches to film writing and analysis as possible; in any case, my encounter with him opened to me the possibility that the artists I was dealing with could be concerned with the same thing, differences in media practice notwithstanding. Having witnessed what Lino and his colleagues, in their pursuit of knowledge through praxis, had to endure from commentators who were more concerned with their own personal criteria of correctness than with the artist’s learning process, I had the dubious benefit of knowing right from the start that I was placing myself in a somewhat similar situation.
The interventions of history were of not much help either. The machinators of martial rule were clever – and I grant this as someone who was privileged to work within the Marcos administration – but they necessarily left little room for cultural sophistication, beyond the basic and ultimately frustrating application of guerilla principles. Hence mass media were approached by their practitioners with an understanding reminiscent of First-World appreciation circa the 1950s, when US media institutions were both monopolistic and discomfortingly allied with government. Artistry in the classicist sense constituted the surest acceptable defense for subversive practice, so in general the more mass the medium (and therefore the more subject to establishment interests), the harsher the critique toward it; such a view also conveniently induced a critical attitude toward the government, since this was the entity that exercised control over media.
Practice in media was therefore regarded as compromise at best, and nowhere was this principle more in evidence than in film. Competition-oriented awards served to emblemize this essentially watchdog function, providing a much-needed alternative to financial and political incentives. The 1986 people-power uprising, in its dismantling of the structures of cultural patronage in film, similarly obliterated the modes of practice that were utilized to counter the excesses of the dictatorship. The question Who/What is the best artist/product of the season? (effectively akin then to asking who or what best embodied opposition to the dictatorship) has given way to Why should only one winner at a time be proclaimed in so many categories, why these categories in the first place, and why this set of winners at this time?
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Using the development of Western critical thought as framework, I realized that entire schools had passed us by, in the meantime that we had to rely on early useful ones. One’s mission could then be facilitated by simply flash-forwarding (or should we say push-processing?) to the present, accepting contemporary theorists’ assertion that past approaches had proved flawed and were thereby generally dismissible. Other people had other ideas – Lino Brocka, for one. Where it would have been easy for him, given his international stature and local clout, to simply assimilate state-of-the-art competence, he preferred to run the gantlet in wooing back the mass audience that had accounted for his early triumphs in the industry. This meant a modification of his film-noir expertise and a whole lot of melodramatizations, so much so that prior to his resumption of foreign-financed production, he was being written off by most critical quarters as no better than the other Marcos-era talents, who were regarded as more decent in their preference for inactivity over crass practice.
Lino possibly had as many tragedies as there were who loved him. To my mind, his greatest was expiring right on the verge of what could have been an astounding artistic take-off, judging from the evidence of his last few serious local works: Hahamakin Lahat, Gumapang Ka sa Lusak, Sa Kabila ng Lahat, and the still-unreleased Orapronobis, plus the projects that had to be taken up by others – Huwag Mong Salingin ang Sugat Ko and Lucia and, in play form, Miserere Nobis and Noli Me Tangere; and these were just the ones that had already attained some measure of development – many more of equal or greater ambition were allegedly being considered. At no other time, in terms of his mastery of the medium and understanding of its mass appreciators, was he better qualified to stake a claim as major Filipino artist than when he bowed out. Many of us local critics managed to sharpen our faculties at the expense of Lino’s less-than-able output; but much more was lost to us by his death.
His own contribution to my convictions appears to be more lasting. I managed to somehow catch the tail end of formal awareness and appreciation of whatever media one happened to be interested in – film and literature, in my case. This has somehow enabled me to relate with a small and highly select number of local critics who extend their notion of praxis to include artistic production, inform their critical practice with an understanding or at least the pursuit of what constitutes effective expression in the local context, and believe in the importance of historical continuity for our specific purposes. One would think at first that between, say, a believer who comes in straight from the latest cultural theories and someone who exhibits the qualities mentioned above, the distinctions would be too subtle as to be negligible. Recent organizational practice, however, has demonstrated that the differences can be both salient and crucial.
In the final analysis, one needs to reckon with the current state of cultural maturity and proceed from there. Artists may be up for annihilation in the West, and well they may be, given the overly extended period of their ascendancy. But to impose the same attitude here, where people still exhibit difficulty in distinguishing true artists from bogus ones and cannot even always count on cultural institutions for assistance in this regard, would be tantamount to misguided zealotry. To go about busting canons is perfectly called for, if the canons have themselves been drawn up with the maximum possible systematization and thoroughness. But with all our available ones so far shot through with methodological imperfections, then the act of assisting in creating better ones first will prove more helpful in refocusing attention on issues of credibility, reliability, and defensibility. The critique of such a listing (of which I hope the ten-best survey appearing in this volume will be the first definitive one for Philippine cinema) will of course be more difficult and complex, but this only means a more advanced and rewarding discourse in the long run.
I could not always hope to convey the fun I had in what was in a sense a new adventure every time; I could certainly indicate here though the heavy-heartedness with which I accept that such a mode of practice cannot be sustained forever, at least not while our concrete local condition remains the way it is and has been for as long as I remember. Sometimes I still find it hard to believe that certain foreign practitioners have built careers on the basis of one or a few others of these occasionally all-too-easy attempts at film coverage and analysis, but then even Lino himself realized, sometimes to everyone’s discomfiture, that material existence was never always fair.
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What comes after this work will, or at least should, strive to be something as different as this was from the first. It could be more tightly structured and cognizant of recent philosophical issues, or it could be either one or the other or nothing like anything I mentioned. Whether my colleagues in criticism like it or not, my cue has somehow already been set … by among others Lino Brocka, who never allowed anything humanly surmountable to get in the way of what could have been merely fun. What a way to go.
 It should no longer surprise observers from this period that the person being referenced here was Cannes Film Festival publicist and selector Pierre Rissient, who died in May 2018. Wolf Donner and Moritz de Hadeln, directors of the Berlin International Film Festival, were more appreciative of Third-cinema traditions – and therefore supportive of filmmakers like Kidlat Tahimik and Ishmael Bernal – but were far less influential than Rissient. I managed to mention a further so-far undiscussed issue in my monograph Manila by Night: A Queer Film Classic (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2017): “Brocka, like his serious films, was formal, reserved, and masculine in deportment; Bernal was boisterous, catty, inclined to camp, and effeminate. Although both acknowledged being homosexual, Brocka … went through a phase of being ‘discreet,’ forbidding queer behavior at the Philippine Educational Theater Association and quarreling with journalists who played up his gay inclinations. Whether this implies that homophobia played a factor in the Cannes festival’s gatekeeping is up to scholars of gender to tease out” (99n15).
 A problematic aspect of Lino Brocka’s personality, evident in the many interviews he granted and (mostly) compiled in the posthumously published volume Lino Brocka: The Artist and His Times (ed. Mario A. Hernando, Manila: Sineng Pangkultura ng Pilipinas, 1993), is that he refused to acknowledge any error that may have arisen in his filmmaking or real-life output. Yet his subsequent works would evince that he had reconsidered those same positions and was striving as best he could to rectify them. In the instance of his films panned by local critics, he would point out how foreign film festivals provided those specific titles with raves and prizes. Local reception to Philippine releases that bypass the process of securing audience patronage in order to garner overseas esteem has shifted considerably since then: filmmakers no longer need to evade censorship, and have been known to disparage Filipino audiences to court the sympathy of foreign commenters and viewers. It would certainly not be meaningless to speculate that Brocka, had he still been around, would be the first to repudiate this state of affairs.
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To commemorate its second anniversary issue, National Midweek announced an “Ordinary People” omnibus feature and asked four authors (including me, as well as Rudy Villanueva, Juaniyo Arcellana, and Melanie Manlogon) to detail our ironically non-ordinary experiences in the arena of labor. A rather cringe-inducing tagline, accompanying an inapposite TV studio setting, announced: “As continuity person, his work was to record everything that went on during the shooting. But he also carried camera equipment, made coffee for the star, parried the verbal abuse of irritable crew members. And he was a University of the Philippines graduate.” I loved my work at the magazine so much it didn’t matter. Curiously, the fantasy I expressed toward the end of the article – that of local film (and media) work acquiring a semblance of professionalism in terms of academic preparation – eventually came to pass, not exactly in the way I anticipated, but then such are the vagaries of fate. [Published November 4, 1987, on pp. 15-16.]
Confession of the week: I was an ordinary movie person. Actually I still am, were it not for the impression that film commentators hold significant influence over the industry – a consensus held by most industry personalities including, not surprisingly, film commentators. But to get to the point: I once actually started wondering what all the hoopla over the position of film critic was. I’d been writing more or less regularly on local cinema since the turn of the decade, and had a membership (and occasional officer status) in the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino [Filipino Film Critics Circle], plus employment in the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, to show for it.
Still, there remained that disturbing atmosphere during movie occasions – previews, premieres, parties, and other such assemblages outside of the physical processes of movie-making – that anyone who could be present only at the presentation of a work could not actually have been involved with it and was therefore, for all intents and purposes, an outsider. A critic, for that matter, got away with slightly better treatment, some form of deference really, that to my mind has lost its original basis for existence, but that ought to be another story.
So in 1984, when the University of the Philippines announced the opening of a bachelor’s degree in film – the first not just in the country but in the immediate Asian region as well – I lost no time in re-applying for student status at the mass communication institute which was handling the course program. (Not quite accurate: I lost an entire semester, having learned of the program’s existence exactly when the ’84-85 academic year started, too late to arrange for my return to school.)
Anyway there I stood, for more than a year the only qualified film applicant in the history of Philippine education, willing to undergo whatever it would take to make me a part of the movie system at last.
What lay ahead, I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies. A major outfit sounded out a call for assistants in production, and as far as I knew, I was the only one who responded then. More than a month of follow-ups afterward, I finally got in – as an apprentice, I was forewarned, and for the rival of the company I had applied with. An apprentice, I was made to understand, gets free food but no pay, and is responsible for … well, whatever comes up during production. Break a leg then.
Someone who took charge instructed me to record everything that went on during the shooting – the blocking of everyone and everything on the set (including the lights), the position of everything that appeared in the camera viewfinder, the lines of dialog, the movement of actors, atmosphere people (a euphemism for extras), and physical objects, not to mention the usual details of date and sequence and scene numbers, location and performer(s) – for which I needed to continually refer to the script, a copy of which was provided me much, much later. Continuity, the job was called, although I distinctly recall carrying camera and related equipment, preparing coffee for a certain performer, and parrying the verbal abuse of several particularly irritable crew members. Plus I had to buy a stopwatch (I borrowed one instead) to time the individual takes, and reproduce as many copies of a certain form on which to keep my records.
I finally was able to plead for the reimbursement of the two reams of continuity forms that I had to mimeograph, and the film’s director, who provided me with invaluable recollections of the previously flourishing regional cinema with which he’d been involved, batted for a consolatory sum of money that the producers provided to defray part of my transportation expenses. At this point the creditors, who extended financial assistance so that I could be able to finish my second degree, were impatient for some material results. Without the benefit of clear thinking, I agreed to replace a would-have-been batch mate in a big-budget semi-period piece. As it turned out, the guy and his group mates edged me out in a more substantial fund-raising project, while the movie project I got into got shelved for alleged shortage of funds.
To the rescue came the muse I had abandoned. A colleague in writing, now into editing (while I was contemplating the feasibility of going insane), asked me to write for the publication she was handling. On what? I asked. The movies, she answered, since that’s where you’re now. I lay aside insanity for the moment but it arrived anyway in another form. The first production outfit I had applied with immediately after graduation this time offered me a respectable-enough designation in an out-of-town project. By then I was already making twice as much as the offer (which, I was assured, was already somewhat beyond standard rates) just writing for the publication and a television show on the side. When the movie I said no to got released, it made good box-office business and was reportedly its producer’s critical favorite, while the publication I had cast my lot with folded up and the TV show shut down.
Hope springs eternal even for those who never learn, but I’ll respect whatever way you interpret that: my alma mater somehow remembered it had an only graduate lying around (close to the literal sense) somewhere, who’d not only be the only academically qualified film worker in the country but also the only qualified film instructor as well.
So coming full circle now, what easier way to augment the predictably pitiful (but not for me, you bet) income that teachers receive? Why nothing else, or nothing less, than good old-fashioned semi-scholarly commentary on films. At least, this way I get to torment not only my students but my readers as well, and with a little bit of luck and a considerable amount of self-delusion, even the industry might consider restructuring its professional set-up in lieu of an oncoming onslaught by starry-eyed and financially secure film graduates – and doesn’t that add up quite logically, dramatically even, with this historical era of countless coup attempts? Anyway, till that moment arrives, I’ll be happy where I am. I guess.
 After a few other (expected) false starts, the production thesis became a viable option in the eventually upgraded College of Mass Communication. Extremely few undergraduate candidates, in fact, choose the research option.
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A CULTURAL POLICY EXPERIENCE IN PHILIPPINE CINEMA
The autobiographical voice can be used to upset stable notions of the subject. That voice can tell not only of the past but of the difficulties that fragment and unsettle the narrative flow. And against [a] rather generalized account of the problems inherent in speaking, the autobiographical voice may yield specific instances of struggle against the ideological centering of the subject. (Probyn 115)
The final account of an object says as much about the observer as it does about the object itself. Accounts can be read “backwards” to uncover and explicate the consciousness, culture and theoretical organization of the observer. (Willis 90)
Overquotation can bore your readers and might lead them to conclude that you are neither an original thinker nor a skillful writer. (Gibaldi and Achtert 56)
In 1982, at the age of 23, I was designated Head of the Writers Section of the Public Relations Division of the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines. Barely three years earlier I was in semi-hiding while finishing my bachelor’s degree in journalism at the University of the Philippines, on account of my aboveground involvement as managing editor of the student paper, which had run exposés on, among other things, the identity of the thrill-killer (a nephew of Ferdinand Marcos) of a UP student, as well as Imelda Marcos’s plan to raze down slum shanties (blamed in the Marcos-controlled press on arsonists) in order to construct recreation and commercial centers in their stead. I was also in charge of a propaganda unit of the student underground, and it was always ironically safer to assume that the military intelligence was aware of the fact, given the ease with which activist circles could be infiltrated. Upon getting my degree I was invited, along with a select few, to observe a newly opened guerrilla zone in the Cordillera mountains north of Manila; we had to carry arms, move along steep trails and cross the Chico River (whose proposed dam the Igorot and Kalinga tribes were opposing) by night, partake of the tribes’ viands consisting of insects, dog meat, and carabeef, and hide in rice granaries when the local militia raided the villages.
I backed out of my underground commitments after that experience, partly because I decided (as might be expected of a petit-bourgeois intellectual, as per classical Marxist prescriptions) that I much preferred to write, but also because the whole cause of our difficulties in the student movement – sudden shifts in assignments, reversals in criteria for evaluation, special projects without follow-up instructions – was laid bare for us by the New People’s Army officials who were our guides: the Communist Party of the Philippines was undergoing one of its most serious political upheavals ever, one which would result in a split between those who advocated the implementation of Mao Zhedong’s policy of encirclement of urban centers from the countryside and those who believed in carrying guerrilla warfare into the cities via assassinations of selected enemy targets (Abinales 40-43). I was too young to be overwhelmed by the implications of such challenges, but I also was not old enough to overcome my feeling of betrayal over the fact that such vital (and, I felt, life-threatening) information was withheld from me and my comrades, ostensibly to ensure our complicity with whoever happened to be in charge of our cell systems.
I therefore proceeded to undertake legit media freelance assignments, though I also had to avoid my earlier specialization in political and economic issues. Culture it had to be, then, which in Philippine terms is virtually synonymous with movies. True to my orthodox Marxist orientation, I preferred film reviewing to society-page reporting, and by 1980 I was invited to join the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, which was then the only other award-giving body for local cinema, as opposed to the corruption-ridden Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences or FAMAS. About this time the eldest Marcos offspring, Imee, was negotiating with the MPP and the Concerned Artists of the Philippines, headed by such Marcos oppositionists in culture as Cannes Film Festival mainstay Lino Brocka, in order to get their cooperation in setting up the institutional support system that would become the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines. I got in through the recommendations of contacts in both the MPP and the CAP.
The fact that this was an activity that could fall under the rumpled rubric of cultural policy could not have occurred to me then. By the standards of the still-in-place Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zhedong Thought that I was coming from, I had compromised my ideals the moment I severed my links with the underground; anything I did aboveground, even in conjunction with people who might still have been in touch with subterranean personalities, was my own Cross to bear or nut to crack, mixed idioms notwithstanding. About a decade later, halfway around the world, I might have taken heart from Tony Bennett’s suggestion that
Cultural studies might envisage its role as consisting of the training of cultural technicians: that is, of intellectual workers less committed to cultural critique as an instrument for changing consciousness than to modifying the functioning of culture by means of technical adjustments to its governmental deployment. (Bennett, “Useful Culture” 83)
Bennett of course was drawing from a number of assumptions that had transformed certain principles that may have been originally attributable to Marx. In terms of my field of involvement, for example, Stuart Hall was already then writing that popular culture may be formulated in terms of “the people versus the power-bloc: this, rather than ‘class-against-class,’ is the central line of contradiction around which the terrain of culture is polarized” (238). Bennett’s take on this formulation of the field of contestation for the cultural activist would have sounded strange to any Marxist engaged in political tasks then: cultural policy, he declared, would entail cooperating with ideological state apparatuses (ISAs) “rather than writing them off from the outset and then … criticizing them again when they seem to affirm one’s direst functionalist predictions” (“Putting Policy into Cultural Studies” 32).
Philippine politics under martial law would have been reconcilable with this perspective, but only through a roundabout process. Genuine opposition then (as contrasted with the state’s series of official opposition parties) was divided between the so-called national democrats or natdems (an alliance comprising the CPP, NPA, and the National Democratic Front, a coalition of aboveground left-leaning organizations) and the considerably smaller circle of social democrats or socdems, identified with the also-then-outlawed Social Democratic Party. It would be possible to relate the agitation within the natdems to defy Maoist dogma by taking the revolution into the cities with the socdems’ better-funded and more visible Light-a-Fire Movement – i.e., first attempts at what the Marcos regime declared was urban terrorist bombings. Natdem support was Third-World-based, if China were to be taken on its claim to being part of the Third World, while the socdems, whom the establishment press branded as steak commandos, were living (it up?) in exile in the US. The natdem line on Marcos was that he was a US-supported fascist, while that of the socdem – in order to whip up US support – was that he was a Communist. In retrospect, and with a little stretching, both were technically correct: Marcos was as much a reactionary authoritarian who sanctioned the brutal oppression of disenfranchised groups (though this was minor compared with his other abuses), while his apparently pathological quest for affluence and system of crony capitalism led him to using fail-safe legal justifications for the takeover by government of the most profitable economic institutions in the country, converting these into monopolies.
Hence, if the Marcos regime were not Communist, as the socdems charged, but pseudo-socialist in terms of state control of capital, then would it not be possible to work out ways and means of furthering leftist ideals within, say, a receptive government institution such as the ECP? As I had already related, this way of thinking could never have occurred to me, and my guess is that it might have sounded, to use Fredric Jameson’s term in his reaction to Bennett, obscene to Bennett himself, had he found himself in such a context. This is not to dismiss however Bennett’s inquisition into the thorny/muddy (the Philippines is tropical) realm of cultural policy. Closer to what most of us then were sensing, and managed to confirm by our participation, was Bennett’s oral response to a conference question thus:
Even where the government – in the sense of the party in power – is conservative, it does not follow that the bureaucracies that they [sic] superintend function like seamless webs and that there are no contradictions within them…. One of the most instructive aspects of the experience of working with government cultural agencies is to realize that – whilst Althusser says they function via the category of the subject – some of them just don’t seem to function at all! There’s a real lack of coordination between different branches of government and this makes many openings that can be utilized. (“Putting Policy” 36)
Again, though, it would not be entirely accurate to say that Marcos’s martial-law machinery was as inefficient as all that – after all, the man had held onto the presidency for over two decades during which he (in a manner of speaking) singlehandedly made himself one of the richest men – and his wife the richest woman, per a 1980s Fortune edition – in the world at one point, while reversing an entire country’s status from the fastest-developing to the least developed in Southeast Asia. More to the point is the personalistic nature of Philippine social relations, traceable to the communal values of the country’s rural and tribal communities; among the first things about Filipinos that foreigners notice, for example, are (traditionalist) Filipinos’ unabashed tactility as well as embarrassment over the handling of wealth and private property – hence, to indulge the issue further, Marcos’s renown for having or forcing his way with women and his infamous concealment of his financial and real holdings.
As far as the ECP went, people were participating with ears attuned to the goings-on in Malacañang Palace, the presidential residence. It was consistently observable that Imee Marcos was as contemptuous of her mother as she was attached to her father. Imelda in turn was vocal about her desire to get some genuine European royalty interested in Imee; when the latter had an affair with a sportsman from an oppositionist family, who (to make matters worse) was married to a beauty queen who was widely speculated to have been one of Marcos’s conquests, things started falling into place. In a way, this foreshadowed the succession of hubris and stop-gap measures that characterized the assassination of socdem figure Benigno Aquino Jr. (hubris) and the call, under international pressure, for snap presidential elections (stop-gap) which resulted in the so-called people-power revolution of February 1986.
What happened in 1982 was the kidnapping of Imee’s lover, Tommy Manotoc, by the NPA, according to the military, though of course this was already getting recognized as a knee-jerk reaction on the part of the government (Aquino’s assassin, also assassinated, was to be similarly identified as a Communist gunman). Mysteriously, Imee got back both her man, in a crudely staged rescue mission, and the position of Director-General of the ECP – which everyone expected to be headed by Imelda or John J. Litton, her (and Jack Valenti’s) subordinate. Imee’s fulfillment in her role as wife and mother-to-be was something which both cultural activists (aligned in Imee’s camp) and Imelda’s loyalists sought to take advantage of; so long as Imee held the top position, however, it was “our” camp that mostly won out in the end.
On two levels, then, we at the ECP had to contend with Hall’s observation that
If the forms of provided commercial popular culture are not purely manipulative, then it is because, alongside the false appeals, the foreshortenings, the trivialization and short-circuits, there are also elements of recognition and identification, something approaching a recreation of recognizable experiences and attitudes, to which people are responding. (233)
Our admittedly not-conscious application of this principle had to do with both working within, through, or out of the range and breadth afforded by palace intrigues, and at the same time providing at least a semblance of actual support for the ECP’s constituencies whenever possible. The degrees of successful possibilities also varied between mother and daughter: in Imelda’s case I could only hope to put in a few words of universal encouragement to artists’ struggles against authoritarian systems in her Manila International Film Festival speech welcoming Xie Jin, then recently “rehabilitated” by the People’s Republic of China; in the case of Imee (who asked for material on extremely short notice), I could sneak in, for example, a promise that she would provide subsidies for independent film projects, then derived secret satisfaction in learning that some filmmakers called on her next day to seek fulfillment of her pledge. This was not to denigrate the symbolic achievement in marshaling Imelda’s MIFF, however. Despite Bennett’s claim that “the programmatic, institutional, and governmental conditions in which cultural practices are inscribed … have a substantive priority over the semiotic properties of such practices” (“Putting Policy” 28), it might be possible to re-assess the expulsion by Imee of the MIFF from the ECP as resulting in comparable status for both institutions, and providing the ECP with less of the goodwill (along with the notoriety of the Manila Film Center’s scaffolding collapsing on about 200 workers, many of whom had to be buried or killed in order for the construction to be completed on time) that the first MIFF had engendered.
In terms of the ECP’s camp (pun incidental) positions, then, the MIFF, as already mentioned, was Imelda territory, as were the Film Archives of the Philippines and the Film Fund, which provided subsidies for mainstream film projects. The service groups – public relations, where I functioned, and theater management – were in good hands, as far as we were concerned – meaning these were controlled and staffed by people from Imee’s circles in theater or the UP (where she and I were non-acquainted classmates before my activist years); more significant in terms of industry impact were the Film Ratings Board, which rebated the taxes of quality (measured according to plastic aesthetic worth) productions, and the Alternative Cinema Department, which produced full-length works by new directors and screened heretofore unavailable, censored, or banned foreign and local productions. One consideration in evaluating the efforts expended in attempting to implement progressivity in these areas is Hall’s admonition to avoid thinking “of cultural forms as whole and coherent: either wholly corrupt or wholly authentic. Whereas,… [in actual practice,] they play on contradictions” (233). Accordingly, it would be possible to say that, for example, the trend in sex films initiated by the MIFF, while denounced by both the censors and the left (including the MPP and the CAP), also made it possible for a number of filmmakers to come up with critiques of contemporary Philippine society using frameworks of social decadence (Scorpio Nights, dir. Peque Gallaga, 1985), protofeminist consciousness (Company of Women, dir. Mel Chionglo, 1985), or neocolonialist intrusions (Boatman, dir. Tikoy Aguiluz, 1984); moreover, in order to prove that the libertarian spirit applied to more than just sexual themes, previously suppressed films (notably Manila by Night, dir. Ishmael Bernal, 1980 and Sakada, dir. Behn Cervantes, 1976) were granted permission to be exhibited at the Manila Film Center. On the other hand, the breaks provided new talents by the Alternative Cinema Department also proved to be a mixed blessing, but in the opposite direction; the newcomers turned out to be either politically uncommitted or incapable of surviving in the industry at large. A more rewarding activity was the same department’s unofficial mobilization, along with the CAP, of film artists in a series of mass actions against censorship. The irony of one government institution agitating against another was not lost on the chief censor, the late Maria Kalaw-Katigbak, who promptly invoked the fact of her being a presidential appointee and therefore on the same bureaucratic level as Imee Marcos.
The Aquino assassination led to a number of responses: the abandonment by Imee of her ECP responsibilities (supposedly to concentrate on her legislative assignments, although it became clear eventually that she was preparing to emigrate with her new family); the defection of a number of key personnel – some to opposition media, others (including myself) to the government’s less high-profile media center; and, finally, the dissolution of ECP, to be reconstituted as the Film Development Foundation of the Philippines under Litton – an entity which set about screening quickie sex films without regard to their sources, and sending its officials to trips abroad to solicit support for an MIFF that was already announced as not forthcoming in the foreseeable future. One way – perhaps the easiest – of accounting for this ultimate instability in what has turned out to be the only largely positive contribution of the Filipino government to its film industry is to maintain that bigger political considerations overrode such smaller cultural concerns. This leads us to Jameson’s dissent with Bennett’s call for participation in ISAs, stemming from the former’s view that culture
is not a “substance” or a phenomenon in its own right, it is an objective mirage that arises out of the relationship between at least two groups. This is to say that no group “has” a culture all by itself: culture is the nimbus perceived by one group when it comes into contact with and observes another one. It is the objectification of everything alien and strange about the contact group. (Jameson 33)
From the preceding account we can discern that the “two groups” in Jameson’s stipulation did not, perhaps even could not, remain consistent over time: first were the us-and-them formation of the Imee-vs.-Imelda camps, which almost instinctively coalesced into the ECP vis-à-vis the higher government organ (constructible in this sense as the Office of the President of the republic) as a response to the Aquino assassination, leading in the end – of the Marcos dictatorship, that is – to a still-to-be-problematized government-vs.-the people/the opposition binary. This fluidity, in the delimited sense used here, somehow serves to confirm Ian Hunter’s critique of the implications of Hall’s concept of articulation:
The notion of a general struggle between contending classes or “rival hegemonic principles” over ideologies or cultural meanings becomes unintelligible. Instead of appealing to the ideological articulation (in either sense) of class interests, we must look to the differentiated array of organizational forms in which cultural interests and capacities are formulated, if we are to engage with the forms in which they are assessed and argued over. (Hunter 118)
Hunter poses an even more difficult challenge in cultural practice, especially when such practice is ongoing, when he opines that “It is necessary to abandon the ethical posture and forms of cultural judgment invested in the concept of culture as complete development and true reflection” (115); in the ECP experience, this became manifest in the concurrence between the MPP and CAP on the one hand and the Board of Censors for Motion Pictures, which in turn called on a then-oppositionist Catholic Church to denounce the proliferation of sex-genre films at the Manila Film Center. The puritanism of the left has continued to play into the hands of media-control advocates consisting of both commercialist producers and always-interested conservative politicians, including members of the clergy. The absence of any form of support (apart from box-office responses) for sex films resulted in the marginalization of both their production and distribution after the February 1986 “revolution” – i.e., they continued to be produced, but only as B-items for exhibition in provincial circuits that could not be restrained by the censors (who wield police powers) because, as Corazon Aquino’s censors chief alleged, these circuits were military-operated. What may be necessary here is therefore an appreciation, on the part of responders, especially those in academe, of the “play on contradictions” mentioned by Hall (233) in the continuing popularity of the sex-film genre, beyond its strictly pornographic dimensions.
A further direction – that of the spectator – is implied by Meaghan Morris in her consideration of colonialist interventions:
When the voice of that which academic discourses – including cultural studies – constitute as popular begins in turn to theorize its speech, then … that theorization may well go round by way of the procedures that Homi Bhabha has theorized as “colonial mimicry,” for example, but may also come around eventually in a different, and as yet utopian, mode of enunciative practice. However, I think that this can happen only if the complexity of social experience investing our “place” as intellectuals today – including the proliferation of different places in and between which we may learn and teach and write – becomes a presupposition of, and not an anecdotal adjunct to, our practice. (Morris 41)
What this in effect suggests is the creation of a divide, if necessary, between what Philippine academicians and the media (which is heavily influenced by representatives from academia) hold onto as moral even in their most radical political agenda, and what “the people,” properly problematized, believe anyway, as manifest in their insistence on such supposedly disreputable film fare as escapist fantasies, blood-and-guts violence, stops-out melodrama, and graphic sex outings. Simon Frith’s recuperatory reformulation of the high-low dichotomy might prove to be a more workable starting point, rather than the poststructural extreme of discarding all measures for excellence as implicated by their formulators:
If one strand of the mass cultural critique was an indictment of low culture from the perspective of high art (as was obviously the case for Adorno, for example), then to assert the value of the popular is also, certainly, to query the superiority of high culture. Most populist writers, though, draw the wrong conclusion; what needs challenging is not the notion of the superior, but the claim that it is the exclusive property of the “high.” (105)
Of relevance here might be the concept of subcultures, so as not to fall into the trap of homogenizing the movie-going masses:
The study of subcultural style which seemed at the outset to draw us back towards the real world, to reunite us with “the people,” ends by merely confirming the distance between the reader and the “text,” between everyday life and the “mythologist” whom it surrounds, fascinates and finally excludes. It would seem that we are still, like Barthes, “condemned for some time yet to speak excessively about reality.” (Hebdige 140)
While therefore it may be necessary to accept Jameson’s description of the intellectual’s necessary and constitutive distance from classes of origin and chosen affiliation, and from social groups as well (40), it would also be useful to consider the principles, rather than the prescriptions, that underlie Bennett’s pronouncements on cultural policy:
If we are to write an adequate history of culture in the modern period, it is to the changing contours of its instrumental refashioning in the context of new and developing cultural and governmental technologies that we must look. This is not to say that the changing coordinates of “culture’s” semantic destinies are unimportant. However, it is to suggest that these derive their significance from their relations to culture’s governmental and technological refashioning. (“Useful Culture” 77)
How these tensions apply to a Third-World context characterized by a triple form of neocolonial (US) political, (Japanese) economic, and (Vatican-State) religious dependence is the question that Filipino cultural activists will have to seek answers to. I could, to be flippant about it, complete my tour of these colonizing influences by visiting the Vatican; or, more seriously, I could return to the Philippines and assume once more a role in cultural policy, or remain in academe and provide critical responses to developments in local culture. Where I come from, I can only productively engage in one activity at a time. Like those of the Philippines, my (mis)adventures still have to be played out.
Abinales, P. N. “Jose Maria Sison and the Philippine Revolution: A Critique of an Interface.” Kasarinlan: A Philippine Quarterly of Third World Studies 8.1 (3rd qtr. 1992): 5-81.
Aguiluz, Amable IV, dir. Boatman. Scr. Rafael Ma. Guerrero and Alfred A. Yuson. AMA Communications, 1984.
Bennett, Tony. “Putting Policy into Cultural Studies.” Cultural Studies. Ed. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler. New York: Routledge, 1992. 23-34, Discussion 34-37.
———. “Useful Culture.” Blundell et al. 67-85.
Bernal, Ishmael, dir. and scr. Manila by Night. Regal Films, 1980.
Blundell, Valda, John Shepherd, and Ian Taylor, eds. Relocating Cultural Studies: Developments in Theory and Research. London: Routledge, 1993.
Cervantes, Behn, dir. Sakada. Scr. Oscar Miranda and Lualhati Cruz. Sagisag Films, 1976.
Chionglo, Mel, dir. Company of Women. Scr. Raquel N. Villavicencio. Athena Productions, 1985.
Experimental Cinema of the Philippines. The Second Edition. Unpublished annual report. Metro Manila: ECP Public Relations Division, 1984.
———. Year One. Annual report. Metro Manila: ECP Public Relations Division, 1983.
Frith, Simon. “The Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent: Defending Popular Culture from the Populists.” Diacritics 21.4 (Winter 1991): 102-15.
Gallaga, Peque, dir. Scorpio Nights. Scr. Rosauro de la Cruz. Regal Films, 1985.
Gibaldi, Joseph, and Walter S. Achtert. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. 3rd ed. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1988.
Hall, Stuart. “Notes on Deconstructing ‘The Popular.’” People’s History and Socialist Theory. Ed. Raphael Samuel. London: Routledge, 1981. 227-39.
Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Routledge, 1979.
Hunter, Ian. “Setting Limits to Culture.” New Formations 4 (1988): 103-23.
Jameson, Fredric. “On Cultural Studies.” Social Text 34 (1993): 17-52.
Morris, Meaghan. “Banality in Cultural Studies.” Logics of Television: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Ed. Patricia Mellencamp. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. 14-43.
Philippine Collegian. Weekly student newspaper. Quezon City: University of the Philippines, 1978-79.
Probyn, Elspeth. “True Voices and Real People: The ‘Problem’ of the Autobiographical in Cultural Studies.” Blundell et al. 105-22.
Willis, Paul. “Notes on Method.” Culture, Media, Language. Ed. Stuart Hall, Dorothy Hobson, Andrew Lowe, and Paul Willis. London: Hutchinson, 1980. 88-95.
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Commissioned by a student publication during my exchange stint in Korea. I knew then that other folk would be paying attention, so I did a roundabout way of name-dropping the previous foreign locale I’d lived and worked in.
I could have been one of the many jinxes that started upending the Paradise that was New York City since the nineties. The World Trade Center was first bombed a few months after I arrived and collapsed a few months before I finally left for home. A demented tourist shot a number of sightseers at the observation deck of the EmpireState building – a structure that loomed right outside the office where I worked for almost eight years. An unemployed immigrant also shot several passengers on a train leaving the city for the suburbs. The stock market plunged twice, first because of the Asian economic recession, then because of the overvaluation of dot-com shares.
In all instances except the last, foreigners were considered responsible for what happened. Yet this was one of the contradictions about living in that city, as opposed to living elsewhere in North America: everyone there was a foreigner, or had descended from one. Of course virtually all Americans are non-native, but it seemed that only when they get to New York do they care to point out how, at some point in the past, they actually belonged elsewhere.
The place had a certain way of exacting payback. I was supposed to be able to finish my studies, my share of the all-American dream, through the all-American method of working hard. What didn’t show up in the equation was that the money I’d earn, the largest I’d ever make in my life up to that point, would amount to less than nothing in the face of the exorbitant cost of living. I eventually wound up with my graduate degrees, plus a few thousand dollars’ worth of student loans.
In the face of such an unwelcome and unmitigated disaster, how did I manage to muddle through? If I thought then, as I do now, that the place was just as badly (or even worse) hit than I was, that would have been no consolation. Once I left the city, I’d have to wait out two years working in the Philippine national university before I could find a job that paid decently enough to pay off the loans.
The answer would be self-evident enough to anyone living in New York. The place itself has enough talent and diversity to make even the poorest resident occasionally feel lucky to be alive. A master violinist from a major Chinese orchestra, a black doo-wop trio with remarkable timing and perfect harmony, a female performance artist who could assume unusual poses for long stretches, Peruvian musicians invoking the Andes through their charango and panpipes, and so on … and these were just the characters one could encounter performing for loose change in the subway.
When the major opera houses announced their new seasons, I’d be in line for my student-priced tickets, each one a tenth of what a Broadway musical would cost me. One of the little secrets of long-time “cultured” New Yorkers is that they never go to Broadway, only to the opera, although my reason for attending was that I was a student of the spectacle (of cinema, but before that, historically speaking, there was only the stage). When my out-of-town friends would insist on Broadway shows then complain about how backward the stories were and how old-fashioned their politics played out, I’d try to convince them to try an opera, which would have the same brand of outmoded ideological positions, but with better music, finer singing, and grander staging. Besides, I’d say, Broadway’s origins lay in a lesser form, the Viennese operetta. No go, though; seemed like people in the rest of the world would not respect any of their friends who went to New York and spent their time on presentations that did not feature pop stars and current music.
I always envied those who’d been to the great museums of Europe, but every so often the New York institutions would mount retrospectives that would be the equivalent of the usually-dead artists coming back to rework their magic: Joan Miró, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, the circle of French surrealists, and of course the shock artists whose exhibits Rudy Giuliani attempted to thwart. In my specialization, I’d taken the number of free and discounted film screenings so much for granted that, when my home university asked me for my first-year viewing list, I was amazed to jot down, based on my notes, brochures, and tickets, over 300 titles of the widest possible array of movies, from high art to trash, from festival favorite to disreputable pre-Disneyfied Times Square run, from fun genre sample to structural-materialist cerebration (my favorite, which I made sure to watch twice in its entirety, was two hours of Michael Snow whirling his camera on various axes from atop a Canadian mountain).
There’d be food my friends and I would treat ourselves to when we had the spare funds, categorized according to nationality: Greek (authentic but also occasionally the code word for all-around New York diner), Italian, Mexican, French, Spanish, Ethiopian, Malaysian, Indian, Korean, and the always-reliable Chinese. Wines could be found for as low as $3 a bottle, so I could indulge my alcoholic depression by pretending I was learning vintage and vinification.
All in all the range and breadth of distractions would be enough to make you believe the place was worth living in despite its inadequate services and pugnacious population (and hey, I was one of them too for a time). Enough to sometimes forget what you originally came for, in fact. The first time my late father saw me again, he said: “I can’t believe it – I never thought I’d live to see the day when you grew old.” He said I reminded him of Rip van Winkle, a New York character created by a New York author. And at that point I knew the dream was over. I was finally back home.
[First published May 2, 2005, as “Growing Old in New York (Or Small Worm, Big Apple)” in The Hallym Post]
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