Writing Pinas Film Commentary: Forebearance

Film is an illusion. The audience just sees a lot of shadows on the screen. The emotion is in the audience. The trick is giving them something that unleashes that and suddenly they endow the images with their emotion. My theory is, when people say a movie is beautiful, I don’t think it can be unless there is beauty in the audience.

Francis Ford Coppola[1]

Essential disclosure first: I’ve never enjoyed teaching film criticism the same way I relish teaching theories of film (some more than others, understandably). My reluctance in teaching writing that requires the development of personal style is precisely because of what the term denotes: writing style is something that one approaches the same way that one deals with knowledge – incrementally, instructed by the best available models, ideally with sufficiently useful feedback and room for failure, shaped primarily by one’s needs and preferences.

11011Fortunately film programs never want for instructors eager to teach students how to write on film.[2] From another perspective, this was the reason I could not take the Paulettes, named after their idol and role model Pauline Kael, as seriously as the original: there has been only one occasion in film history for a female critic with a jazz-inflected writing style who made no bones about the subjectivity of her responses and took to demolishing all opposing opinions mercilessly; no matter how delightfully she wrote and spoke, the act of replicating her quirks and mannerisms in another time and place no longer seemed essential. When I noticed Filipino film students writing the same way that their teachers did, I felt sorrier for their being unable to realize what was delimiting and sometimes flawed about their instructors’ prescriptions.

11011On the other hand, once I had completed the apprenticeship I set out for myself by performing as resident film critic of a weekly newsmagazine in the late 1980s to early 1990s, I became increasingly focused on scholarly writing. As I just finished pointing out, I managed to figure out that, like any other literary genre, film commentary set out an entire clutch of rules to follow, but the basic requisites for competent film writing remained unchanged. Those who have been following my output even during the past few years will also realize that I’ve allowed myself the pleasure of engaging in scandal discourse, an activity I couldn’t get enough of, to be honest about it. Unfortunately the incidence of sensational showbiz developments that could withstand allegorizing as an embodiment of the national condition has been rarer than color celluloid prints from the studio-system era.


[1] From“Life Is a Great Screenwriter,” an interview feature by James McMahon.

[2] Another matter I have tackled elsewhere but can’t pursue here: writing on film, to me, involves the widest possible spectrum of activity, including scriptwriting and celebrity-gossip reporting; generally a bad writer in one area will wind up writing badly elsewhere. One may elect to do careless film commentary with the resolve to rein in one’s gifts until a “real” industry break comes along or until a “worthy” literary undertaking presents itself, but this kind of cynicism merely masks a poverty of spirit that will always become evident at crucial moments to knowledgeable observers.

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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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