NUT’s Kernel

When I started looking out for bylines of prolific Filipino writers in English, Nestor U. Torre’s was the one I wound up reading most often. His writing style could be summed up in a string of adjectives that would soon be considered embarrassing, if not unacceptable, for anyone caught up in the call to resist Ferdinand E. Marcos’s then-emergent fascism.

11011He didn’t help matters for his standing among progressives when martial law was finally declared, and he moved from the opposition’s already-shuttered Manila Chronicle to the Philippines Daily Express, edited by a brother of the First Lady. Yet this was the period of the ascendancy of Torre (or NUT as he preferred to refer to himself) as film commentator. He was also known as the director-writer of Crush Ko si Sir (1971), a pre-ML vehicle for Lino Brocka’s muse Hilda Koronel. A few years later, a movie by another gifted critic-director, Ishmael Bernal, would attempt the same sly reference to Macoy’s womanizing, but the censors by then were sharp and fast enough to take action: Aliw, Sir! simply became Aliw [Pleasure] (1979).

11011These connections will become significant later, but not enough focus was placed then on NUT’s film writing, just as it was relegated to the background in nearly all the tributes paid to him by his colleagues in theater. This was the moment when film was setting out to stake its claim as a creative activity worth taking seriously. Most reviewers, then as now, claimed academic credentials and wrote accordingly. Like Bernal, however, NUT stepped in from an immersion in pop culture. Academia eventually came around to appreciating that kind of orientation, but it was too late for NUT.

11011Hence the (usually self-serving) drama of asking after theoretical foundations and political allegiances was just about to assert itself, but NUT first made sure that the local intelligentsia would be enthralled and challenged by the prospect of film analysis and evaluation written for its own sake. He published film reviews in a breezy, amused, occasionally ironic, sometimes self-deprecating manner (hence his acronym), in a style that serious students of English literature recognized as highly accomplished. Of his Chronicle-era batch, only Bernal came close, but then “Ishma” eventually pulled away by attaining success as a filmmaker.

11011When a NUT review appeared in the Express, some of my classmates and professors would engage in discussion about it. I remember a senior stating that his take on Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) was better than what came out in foreign newspapers – so I did spend some time afterward at the national university’s main library to check out the claim. Around this time an announcement involving NUT came out, one that I was still too young to realize was ominous: he and the other reviewers published by the Express were forming a critics’ organization, with NUT as founding chair.

11011I was to subsequently become a member of this group, the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino (Filipino Film Critics Circle), which was how I learned about NUT’s departure. He was able to work on his last film project, Ang Isinilang Ko Ba’y Kasalanan? [Is It Wrong to Give Birth?] (1977), the year after the group launched its still-ongoing annual awards. At the meeting where it was discussed, the other members raised questions pertaining to its lack of political content and its derivative quality. He walked out and never showed up again.

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11011The MPP prided itself on objectivity and admitted being harsher on its own members who aspired to industry practice. NUT’s misfortune was that he was the first to be subjected to this type of critical interrogation;[1] ironically another founding member, Behn Cervantes, released Sakada [Plantation Peons] during the year of the MPP’s founding. It had enough so-called social relevance to be considered subversive and was eventually banned by the government. Not surprisingly, it elicited rave reviews from the MPP members and was able to receive citations in major film categories, though its later unavailability excluded it from the awards competition.

11011Still another founding member, Pio de Castro III, came up with Soltero [Bachelor] in 1984 and was rewarded with nominations from the group for direction, performance, and technical categories. Yet although AIKBK was completely bypassed, it had qualities that placed it a cut above the other two films: it featured eight women at a well-known halfway house for unwed mothers-to-be, and although the narrative finally gave precedence to the male superintendent burdened by empathizing with the expectant mothers, several of the individual stories succeeded in focusing attention on the plight of outcast women.

11011I remember AIKBK coming out a few months after Brocka’s Lunes, Martes, Miyerkules, Huwebes, Biyernes, Sabado, Linggo [Monday through Sunday] (1976), which had almost the same number of female characters but which more easily capitulated to the central tale of a son seeking his mother and discovering how she worked as a has-been hooker in Olongapo. Unfortunately these last two films may be lost for good, so we have no way of revaluating the merits of NUT’s entry vis-à-vis the others. All I can attest, to the best of my recollection, is that it left a far more positive impression on me than all the other films I mentioned except for Aliw, which finally succeeded in interweaving its fallen-women tales into an impressive equal-opportunity balancing act.

11011I had only one interaction with NUT, years after he gave up most “creative” film activities including his distinctive brand of film reviewing.[2] We were covering a 1980s film set troubled by serious conflicts among the artists and producers. Upon arriving, he immediately launched into an expertly parodic performance of film buffery (not all that far removed from buffoonery): he would mention an obscure decades-old movie title and state what its opening-day gross was, then he would start mentioning bit players no one ever heard of, as well as running times of ancient films no one had seen. “Isn’t it great to waste everyone’s time with information no one will ever need?” he went.

11011I later asked him what he thought film critics should be doing if they wanted to make a positive contribution. “Make sure to connect,” he said, “and don’t take things too seriously.”[3] Bibeth Orteza, whom I remember made the strongest impression in AIKBK (where she was ironically only one of two newcomers), once mentioned that NUT was determined to compile an anthology of his early articles – so at least his stature as film critic could be recouped. This was before he had his stroke in 2018, after which his mother died, he contracted Covid-19, and passed away last April 6, at 78. He was determined to recover from his stroke, but got exposed to the pandemic virus via his physiotherapy program. He will be remembered for several accomplishments like public relations and theater activities, but not for far more significant ones, which will remain one more cultural anomaly in our time that demands to be redressed.

Notes

First published April 14, 2021, as “NUT to Film Critics: ‘Don’t Take Things Too Seriously,’” in The FilAm. The author acknowledges discussions on NUT with Lulu Torres Reyes, Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr., and Jerrick Josue David.

[1] The only social-media posts that acknowledged NUT’s stint as founding chair of the local critics circle came first from Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr., head of the FACINE International Film Festival, and later from the Directors Guild of the Philippines. All the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino came out with was a post announcing the birthday of its oldest founding member.

[2] One positive result for Pinas pop-culture commentary was NUT’s turn to television criticism, explicated in Louie Jon A. Sánchez’s exemplary assessment in Filipino, titled “Kritisismong Pantelebisyon at si Nestor U. Torre Jr. [Television Criticism and Nestor U. Torre Jr.]”: “During Torre’s active period, he was the only one who focused insistently on reviewing programs in the hurried and impatient medium. When his byline started appearing less frequently starting in 2018, after he suffered a stroke, there was also a decline, in my view, of a high quality of commentary on television in our publications” (Squeeze News Agency Services, April 14, 2021; my translation). See as well “Mga Kislap-Diwa: Ilang Tala sa Mga Gawa ni Nestor Torre Jr. [Ingenious Insights: A Few Notes on the Output of Nestor U. Torre Jr.]” by the same author (also SNAS, April 14, 2021).

[3] As someone who occasionally gets scolded for supposedly incompatible elements in my writing, I can confirm for myself, and anyone who cares to take notice, that I don’t always faithfully conform to the best-intentioned prescriptions of my predecessors. (Sometimes I even perform the exact opposite of what they advice, but that’s a subject for another article.) The incompatibility I mentioned hinges on my pursuit of useful – and inevitably serious – insights while aspiring to wield the airiest tone I can muster. This constitutes my guarantee to myself that every writing activity poses a formal challenge constantly in danger of failure. Certain contexts are more permissive than others in allowing this anomalous combination (blogs included, fortunately), and such precarious balancing acts don’t always succeed, but I draw some lines whenever necessary: against airheaded whiners who think I should settle for simpler ideas, and against high-minded pretenders who disavow the usefulness of laughter.

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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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