I am strongly endorsing Ricardo A. Lee, more popularly known as Ricky Lee, for the Order of the National Artist, for his achievements in the fields of film and literature. I am familiar with several of Lee’s output since our tenure as colleagues in the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, from which we separately organized a film-revival and book-publication proprietorship, Cine Gang. Aside from holding what was then the most successful revival series, we managed to publish a bestseller, a back-to-back edition of Lee’s scripts for Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Brutal and Laurice Guillen’s Salome; the book was not just the country’s first screenplay publication but also won a National Book Award during the first year of the Manila Critics Circle.
In the process of my own growth as film critic and scholar, I count as my direct influences Bienvenido Lumbera and Ricky Lee. Lumbera provided me with basic principles in evaluating film samples; Lee encouraged me to work on style, expression, and perception, and taught me that risk-taking was useful even if it resulted in failure, as long as I managed to draw lessons for further growth from it.
These were of course the same principles that Lee observed for his own productivity. In undertaking advanced studies in cinema, I determined for myself that Philippine film culture has been fortunate in having three definite contemporaneous geniuses in different fields: Ishmael Bernal in directing, Nora Aunor in performing, and Ricky Lee in writing – by which I refer not just to scripts and fiction but also film journalism and criticism. As you can tell from this list, only one has been honored with the Order of the National Artist, and posthumously at that. I might also add here that my critical duties have not been affected by this conclusion. That is, I still have on record certain work by the three individuals where I expressed reservations or objections to some of their output.
My determination of the exceptional giftedness of an artist derives from my study of critical and creative processes. As far as my own praxis has enabled me, I can definitively say that the line dividing criticism and artistic production is an artificial and unnecessary one: as much as I allow myself the benefit of drawing from journalistic and literary modes in writing, I have also learned to be grateful when I can observe artists demonstrating a process of critical self-reflection, deciding on ways to upgrade their output accordingly, and sharing with the rest of society the fruits of what is necessarily difficult-yet-invisible labor.
One needs the benefit of time as well as resources to be able to reveal such evidence of constant reflection and innovation. The artist capable of intensive critical processing would be someone whose output can be mapped out over several years, providing evaluators with periods where their concerns remained consistently remarkable, followed by succeeding periods where their approaches shifted, generally for the better. The artist’s initial success in her or his early strategies would be the means by which she or he could be able to harness whatever elements may be necessary for inspiration or execution.
This is the reason why in Lee’s case, I would advise evaluators to look beyond his record in film, just as Bernal once participated in theater, television, and journalism, and Aunor has crossed over into theater, television, the recording arts, and now new media. After demonstrating, early enough in his career, an ability to pull off the most challenging literary applications in film scriptwriting, Lee continued providing occasionally rewarding material, but also allowed people who completed his scriptwriting workshops to make names for themselves.
Instead of opting to rest on his laurels, he resumed published writing and drew in techniques, insights, even personalities from local cinema, in an impressive array of journalistic and fiction pieces. Hence to list the “best Ricky Lee writing” would involve a dizzying crisscross of genres and formats: Ishmael Bernal’s Himala, Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Moral, and Lino Brocka’s Gumapang Ka sa Lusak, among several others, for screenplay; Si Tatang at mga Himala ng Ating Panahon, for book anthology; Pitik-Bulag sa Buwan ng Pebrero, for published stage play; Trip to Quiapo, for writing manual; Sa Puso ng Himala, for commemorative volume; Para Kay B and Si Amapola sa 65 na Kabanata, for the novel (admittedly I still have to read his more recent work); “Kabilang sa mga Nawawala,” for metafiction; “Mga Batang Lansangan” series, for reportage; a clutch of short stories, interview articles, and film criticism too accomplished to subject to any kind of ranking among themselves; and so on (with biographical material – his own and others’ – announced among his forthcoming projects).
No other Filipino, not even Lee’s mentor Nick Joaquin, has had such a distinctive, variegated, and high-caliber record in a wide array of literary forms (although admittedly Joaquin does put up a good fight in short fiction). I have witnessed Lee occasionally being penalized by award-giving bodies for refusing to be confined to only one style, format, and/or genre. That to my mind is not how critical thinkers should think, or how genuinely creative artists should be permitted to proceed. I have always set out to warn students of criticism, including aspiring reviewers, to never set limits for the output of any artist under study, since the latter’s liberation from the boundaries set by tradition can also release us (as critic-evaluators) from fixed expectations in style and analysis.
There may be other significant reasons to endorse Lee for the Order. I trust that letters of endorsement from other individuals or institutions may be able to mention these, although from my own perspective, I can also maintain that excellence in artistic performance cannot be attained without a concomitant impeccability in one’s character. Lee’s personal willingness to assist in the education of children of indigent families is a little-known fact that even he might refuse to divulge or confirm, but it motivated many of his friends, myself included, to pledge to emulate his example when we attained the financial capability to do so.
Inasmuch as I mention little-known output, to bring our focus back to the concern of writing: Lee has an entire body of literature that he wrote or co-wrote using aliases or without credit, or ghostwrote for others (including Lino Brocka’s much-reprinted acceptance speech for the Magsaysay Award). Having the stature of a National Artist would enable friends and researchers to dig up as much of this body of work as can be salvaged for proper crediting and archiving, to add to the undiscovered gems that only a select group of people have been privy to so far.
I trust I have managed to articulate as much of the justification that I can formulate for Lee’s proclamation as National Artist of the Philippines. Thank you for your attention. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have further questions about this letter.