Writing Pinas Film Commentary: Inklings #2

This next batch of tips focuses on the writing process, specifically on the issues that responsive film critics need to resolve before and during the act of writing.

Review or critique, or is there a difference? (Part 1)

As in the question regarding the difference between criticism and literature, there should be none in this case. The only trouble is that in practice, most people insist on one or the other type of output, accepting that one (criticism) is superior to the other (reviewing). When in fact the only difference that matters is that between good and bad commentary. No one should be surprised to come across bad criticism just as good reviewing can and does exist. And no, I won’t allow us to fall into the trap laid by the late John Simon (unfortunately idolized by an entire generation of Pinoy film critics), that reviewing is just bad criticism.[1]

11011We can proceed by viewing each activity in terms of the frame of mind the author brings to it. Reviewing involves a micro perspective while criticism is macro exertion. One will seem easier than the other – except again for the earlier precept I brought up: the seemingly simple or fun diversion is in fact what’s fraught with more danger and renders the writer prone to failure and embarrassment. If you need any proof, just take a look at the reviews that the “official” critics circle (there’s only one) requires of its members when awards season happens along.

11011Each member makes a valiant effort to prove the qualification of the author as an expert in Philippine cinema, but sinks from the homogeneity of the militaristic call to arms to defend the institution’s selections. Uniformity only looks impressive on troops, preferably those about to engage in actual warfare, but film commentary made to order to fortify the year’s canon fails against the macro challenge of upholding canons in the first place, vis-à-vis the always-urgent need to inspect and figure out the actual preferences of the mass audience … that the supposedly progressive circle avows as its primary beneficiary.

11011The surest way I can suggest to determine for yourself if you’re ready to embark on an extensive activity of providing film commentary will sound counter-intuitive. You will hear professions of passion, or at least of satisfaction, from nearly all the film appreciators you’ll encounter. It’s like a declaration of faith: I’m so into film, I live it and breathe it and can’t help but talk and write about it all the time – wait is this real celluloid OMG I just have to kiss it, yakety-yak. Pay no heed to this buffer-than-thou nonsense. When you find yourself engaged by a film-generated idea regardless of whether the film text in question affects you emotionally or aesthetically, then you’ll be in a better position to conduct research and evaluation than self-proclaimed film commentators.

11011On the other hand, if you find yourself impassioned by specific film releases and feel that your audience badly needs to be educated by you or a group you represent, the best course of action would be to pause until the delusion passes. If it morphs into an overpowering moral crusade, look for the nearest tall structure, climb up, and jump off.

Back to top

Review or critique, or is there a difference? (Part 2)

So micro or macro, which one should be it? Both, whenever possible. The reviewer who overlooks context, history, and the interplay of ideas just because these interfere with the call to provide subjective responses will just as surely fail as the critic who refuses to be honest with herself and dismisses the imperative of engaging the reader. The pros of each activity do not license the commenter to shunt aside the requisites that will ensure a well-rounded piece of work.

11011Finally, as if we didn’t have enough stumbling blocks to watch out for, I’ll be pointing out what to me is the most crucial one. This occurs when academically prepared authors venture into writing on pop culture. As I already made clear, I hold no judgment when people from any other (or from no) discipline attempt to tackle film material. The trouble arises when a subconscious form of colonial mentality takes hold, wherein the writer purports to display an expert grasp of existing (usually Western) theory and uses it to size up a local artifact, with the native sample always likely to fail in relation to the abstract ideal.

11011This would be pathetic if it were not utterly insidious. Any human exertion, in any period and place, rarely measures up to whatever perfect formal counterpart we can conjure up (its ideal essence, as expressed by Plato). This tendency comes from a secularization of biblical hermeneutics, which refers to the struggle to arrive at a correct and definitive interpretation of so-called holy scripture. Since our and our instructors’ training is rooted in theological assumptions, and our cultural capital derives from demonstrating competence in European languages starting with English, preferably prepped in Western institutions, we wind up with scholars who think they’ve been equipped with critical ideas and methods, eager to present themselves as proponents of whatever may have been hip or cool or edgy in the places where they studied.

11011We can and should value anyone who elucidates for us any new ideas, from any place, that happen along. But the more valuable critic is the one who realizes that theory, even and especially foreign ones, can be subject to critical analysis as well – can be challenged, modified, overturned, even rejected, depending on its evaluation in relation to urgent contemporary material conditions. (Even scripture should be treated the same way, but that’s not the war that needs to be won here yet; or rather, that war’s already been won.) So is this the best that any film critic can get – conversant with theory yet critical of it, sufficiently familiar and accepting of the film(s) under study? Not quite. Remember another even earlier point I raised, about humility. That should always remain the first object of any aspirant’s critical consideration: oneself.

Back to top

Watch and read the necessary texts more than once.

Pauline Kael, who I mentioned earlier, was famous for, among other things, claiming that she only needed to watch a film once in order to review it.[2] The resultant prose was brilliant, complex, witty, insightful, though sometimes premised on irrelevant detail or a possible misreading. I have read other film philosophers, starting with the foundational authors Sergei Eisenstein and André Bazin, and I recall a few instances where they talk about a contemporary or then-forthcoming function of film on the basis of a possibly indefensible assumption. (Speaking of philosophers, be very wary when Marxist-identified thinkers presume to write on film, unless you already subscribe to their ideology and there’s nothing else anyone can do for you; in fact nothing I can write about, with all my carefully finessed and updated Marxist notions, will be of help in that case.[3])

11011Advanced film thinkers – and I do include Kael in this category, despite the insistent rejection of her by many of my peers – don’t really have to be dependent on matching their ideas with any ordinary film release. When you are ready to do some theorizing of your own, after taking a comprehensive survey of film products and mastering all the relevant film and non-film ideas, then you can be dismissive of entire traditions and generations of practitioners if you think your notions will justify such radical purging.

11011In the meanwhile, you’ll just have to take my word for this: nothing will boost the critical credibility of any newcomer as a solid reading of a film-text coupled with a reliable grasp of related material, just as nothing will ensure long-standing embarrassment than a confidently declared conclusion that amounts to fake news. To be sure, a lot of pop-culture products get misread fairly often, by large sectors of the public. Our goal of course is to have, whenever possible, the certainty of accurate perception.

11011How you arrive at the right number of repetitions will depend on the conditioning you allowed yourself. For people of my generation, when getting to watch a film in itself was a luxury, with the product constantly in danger of getting lost for good, I could allow myself an occasional exception. (Many of the celluloid films I’d reviewed, and many more that I’d seen before I started writing on film, are in fact permanently lost.) But during the present historical moment, when films are increasingly easier to access, two screenings – one for gut response, another for note-taking – should be the minimum requirement.

11011What if a movie is just not worth watching twice? If your job is resident reviewing, you owe it to your own mental and emotional well-being to avoid those types of products whenever possible; your first desideration is to convince your superior, or yourself, to focus on titles that you can engage with, and allow yourself to stretch on your own terms. Remember as well that what you find unacceptable may be premised on entirely subjective responses. If you can’t stand, say, reptiles, body fluids, poor lighting, screaming voices, slapstick, atheism, or people of a certain race or gender (all conditions I’ve noted in people I’ve met through the years), then you’ll have to recognize that these may be conditions that don’t normally exist in the case of expert practitioners. You’d have to work on your own limitations first, and foreground these same limitations when you write. It would be ethically questionable to keep assailing your pet peeves while keeping your preferences closeted. People will not (and should not) be forgiving when they’re able to figure out what quirks you insisted on indulging.[4]

Back to top

Pay attention to your stylistic approach, to determine its adequacy.

As if working out your ideas weren’t hard enough, you’ll also have to be careful about how you’ll be expressing those ideas. Many starting critics adopt a shoot-from-the-hip approach, in the hope – and even confidence, if they’re less bright – that the resultant tone marks them as honest and straightforward. News flash: critics since ancient times have been writing that way, and absolutely no one remembers who they are today except for a few names mentioned in passing by annoyed authors; even worse, no one bothered to preserve what they wrote. The senior authors you may have read writing that way have either paid their dues in better-considered commentaries in their earlier period, or are just slumming around in an area that they think provides easy pickings (and should be denounced for it, but better just leave that to other senior authors like me).

11011Notice I mentioned tone, a really tricky stylistic permutation that involves the manipulation of elements like diction and syntax. It’s easier to achieve when you’ve attained a level of literary competence that allows you to play around as you write. People rarely display a mastery of tone at the outset, which is a way of saying that most writers have not fully attained the style they aspire to master.[5]

11011But here’s a secret most successful writers won’t tell you: whatever style you think you want for yourself, someone already pulled it off earlier, possibly in an unrelated genre. So part of your preparation, apart from reading the ideas you wish to contend with and viewing closely the films you wish to write about, is to read strictly for pleasure. Check out as many authors as you can read, in the cultural contexts that you find fascinating, until you find a writer whose voice seems to sound like how you would want to be heard by others (needless to add, we’re referring here to the printed, or digital, page).

11011This subjective type of reading should add to your store of ideas, but you should really be doing it in order to study how the author set those ideas down in a way that engaged you, her reader. As if that weren’t burdensome enough, I’d add that you should seek at least one other author with an approach opposed to the one you favor, but who also winds up provoking your interest. Meaning, keep reading on – which is why pleasure should be your primary purpose. If you’re able to find the best anti-writer to your earlier discovery (meaning someone whose voice you wouldn’t mind adopting as well), you’ll be able to perceive a dialectical difference in literary approaches, which may be able to contribute more effectively to the development of your own writing.[6]

11011I’ll close with two important pieces of advice along this line, but I’ll start with the one that I already mentioned at the start of this manual: never listen to a teacher who tells you specifically how to write, again unless you share enough ideological sentiment with this person and wouldn’t mind being considered her clone. But then why are you still reading this?

11011The second and possibly most important word of advice I as a writer can impart, is: be funny whenever you can. If a situation seems too grim and apocalyptic to laugh at, and you write about it unironically, like some prophet bearing the promise of a solution you somehow arrived at, then you should know that you’re already failing. Because you can always – spoiler alert – laugh at yourself. Try it and see: self-deprecation, when pulled off successfully, can ease your readers into some difficult or complex set of ideas that you want to present. And when you start out with that tone, you wind up committing yourself to a project that includes entertainment (at your own expense, if necessary) – always a noteworthy goal, in filmmaking as well as in criticism, despite what awards-obsessed practitioners might say.

Back to top

Notes

[1] From page 10 of John Simon’s “A Critical Credo” in Private Screenings.

[2] See pages 18-19 of George Malko’s “Pauline Kael Wants People to Go to the Movies.”

[3] Bias deserves its own extensive discussion. I recognize that it’s difficult to function effectively when devoid of it, but what I’d caution against is ideological bias of any kind. Media experts recognize that the most ideologically independent institutions (wire agencies, for example, or top-ranked academic journals) are the ones for whom reliability becomes a primary selling point. In this sense, ideological pandering becomes an easy way out, with sets of more-or-less fixed groups of appreciators and haters.

[4] The standard realization in psychology, originating from Freud, that hatred is actually a reflection on the state of mind of the hater has finally become acceptable in popular discourse, thanks to the efforts of race and feminist activists. Several Filipino authors and auteurs who traversed this shift in perspective will inevitably manifest reversals in their output. A favorite example of mine in Philippine cinema is Lino Brocka, about whom I’ve written more extensively elsewhere, most recently in my Manila by Night monograph as well as the corrigenda (actually a list of problematics) I posted on Ámauteurish!

[5] The first classroom exercise in my Pinas film-crit courses requires each student to write a personal letter to her best friend in order to point out a socially embarrassing habit that the friend needs to attend to. This comes directly from my experience of writing negative reviews in formal (a.k.a. “objective”) language and then running into the filmmaker in one of the many social occasions that a then-small industry enjoyed sponsoring. I’ve written elsewhere about their responses, which were always unfailingly fair and professional. I’ll be writing more about this, but not for and in the present text.

[6] Maybe a childhood fascination with cockfights (whose cruel methods appalled me only much later) accounted for this drive to find opposing authorial styles. I remember listing a number of favorite writers, but the ones whom I regarded as equally matched in terms of social awareness and linguistic innovation were Charles Dickens and William Faulkner. Even today when I read anything that reminds me of one, I’d find myself seeking out a sample of the other just to ask myself which one I’d consider more successful.

Back to top

You call these writing tips?

The mechanics of learning writing is what school attendance is for. Ideally a student should have sufficient competence in at least one language, official or otherwise, by the completion of secondary studies. College-level training could then supply the equivalent of what I endorse for authors anxious about stylistic expertise: the study of literature, to be able to identify models they can emulate and eventually surpass. Before the internet made a wide range of style guides (at least in English) available, I would spend study or work breaks rereading an author I admired, alongside one of many standard writing reviewers. During my earlier years, I would also draw up a list of style questions that I would ask from, starting with my high-school writing mentors. These could probably be served at present by the practice of crowdsourcing on social media, although my own efforts never yielded answers as satisfactory or definitive as when I looked up experts in person. For one practical bit of advice: master an academic stylebook (I’d recommend, for English writers, the Modern Language Association of America’s, since it’s formulated for humanities authors) and make any adjustments you feel will be useful, so long as you maintain consistency in your writing. Once in a while, look up a much older and necessarily dated reference (such as H.W. Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage) in order to have a sense of where today’s notions of (beyond-political) correctness came from.

Back to top
Proceed to next section
Return to previous section
Return to table of contents

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

Comments are disabled.