Professor Lumbera died in September 2021, a few months before he could turn 90. The whole country mourned for him, if we were to go by the combined simulacra of traditional and new media. That ought to be more than enough for anyone’s legacy, and before everything else, I ought to acknowledge that he deserved all the accolades pertaining to his role as teacher of literature, through which he influenced several generations of national university students. I cannot pretend to have full competence in evaluating the musical libretti and books of poetry on which part of his literary legacy rested, but I do have a passing acquaintance with his critical output as well as his exploits as film administrator, scholar, and critic.
the interview I conducted contributed significantly to a favorable evaluation by the jurors of his nomination. I had no way of finding out for sure, but I felt that even without it, he would have won anyway because of his prior record as author and activist.While I was pursuing my graduate studies in the US, he was declared a Magsaysay Award winner. A few acquaintances tried ribbing me by claiming that
I was foreign-based again, this time in the country where I was striving for tenure via the more rigorous global process, when I found out he was declared a recipient of the Order of National Artists of the Philippines. I had a longish personal short list of fellow citizens who I expected to place way before he did, and when Carlo J. Caparas, who was being excluded by previous winners led by Lumbera, complained that the decision-making process was dominated by an academic in-group, I felt that Caparas’s points deserved to be addressed, even if he did not deserve the Order.
I will raise just two related issues, one regarding Lumbera’s administration of the University of the Philippines Film Center (the springboard for the aforementioned interview) and the other regarding his role as academic adviser. Upon my return from US graduate school, I was appointed to the same position Lumbera held – also the position that was being prepared beforehand for Ishmael Bernal if only the latter had not suddenly been cut down by an aneurysm. Why was Lumbera replaced if he had certain sufficient qualifications, specifically as founding member of the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino and as author of books honored for their film scholarship?
Because he refused to recognize the attachment of the center to an academic program, effectively depriving the national university’s film students of access to facilities and equipment, not to mention a sizable collection of funds from film screenings and theater rentals. He parroted the canard that only the UPFC deserved to offer film courses and thereby allowed the institution to operate independently, with a lot of controversial practices by its officials, duly noted in the records of the university administration’s human resources office. Even when I was in charge, it attempted to solicit a million-dollar donation of equipment from the Japanese government on its own – which finally provided the singular opportunity for university officials to advocate for its abolition and irrevocable merger with the film program.
To his credit, Lumbera supported the merger, but this indicated a larger problem by then, one where he claimed to be either bird or beast depending not on whose side he was interacting with, but on which side was gaining the upper hand. I saw him only once since my return to Pinas in the early aughts, and thought that my disquietude that time came from his inability to recognize me. Which was unlikely, however, since I was forewarned by my faculty mentor, then also my supervisor, that he’d been suffering from memory loss. An acquaintance whose parent was coping with dementia taught me to watch for signs where the sufferer performs the markers of recognition but only comes alive when she encounters someone she actually recognizes.
The mentor I mentioned, Ellen J. Paglinauan, mapped out a strategy for graduate studies for me around the time I interviewed Lumbera. Since all that UP had then was a limited collection of grad-level film subjects mostly at the College of Mass Communication, I could major in the interdisciplinary Philippine Studies program and declare film as one of my areas. With MA in hand, I could proceed to a PhD also in film, in an American university via the Fulbright grant. Upon fast-tracking myself and reaching all-but-thesis status, I applied for and got the Fulbright grant, and applied for and got accepted to all the universities I listed as my preference. I necessarily had to specify MA-level studies since I still had to complete my degree, but Ellen assured me I could apply for a change in status before the scholarship commenced.
I’d also focused on a specific narratological interest (with inherent sociological potential) throughout my Pinas program. Lumbera was the only member of the faculty that the Phil. Studies coordinator endorsed as thesis adviser for film material, and I of course looked forward to an overlap between my study and his specialization in literature and society. He said he could not understand the first draft of the study proposal I submitted, so I prepared a second. After the third one, he said he’d prefer that I undertake the study of a Pinoy auteur or studio, and I had to explain that I was unprepared for that kind of project; take a few more courses, he said, but I said my coursework was complete and my US grad study program was looming up. Finish your MA there then, he went.
I still refused to give up and requested a deferment of my Fulbright program, which the sponsor approved for no more than one sem. Lumbera wouldn’t budge. I finally started the foreign-studies grant as a master’s student, and subsequently got accepted to the doctoral program, with CMC officials instructing me to stay put and apply for a work-study arrangement. This was the most expensive school in the most expensive city in the US, so I had to take out student loans via a guarantor, aside from working for a pittance. The pressures building up in that corner of the world came to a head with twin explosions at the World Trade Center – the first one when I arrived in 1993, and the second one demolishing the structure during the 9/11 attacks. The study proposal that got me accepted to the PhD program (as one of four out of a few hundred applicants) and invited by Robert Sklar to be his dissertation advisee was exactly the same submission that Lumbera insisted on turning down. It formed the basis of several articles and a book that film scholars from all over seemed capable of comprehending.
I knew I was suffering from some potentially serious psychological issues during my foreign grad studies but I wagered that these were linked to the locale, and for the most part I was right: they dissipated when I finally departed from the school, office, city, and country that dominated my existence for nearly a decade. That was how I knew, after seeing Lumbera again, that I would be adding to my list of must-avoids. I’d already resolved early on to reject his prescription of writing criticism sans style and disposition – flaunt it if you got it, is my stance. I made sure during my UPFC term that film students should have better opportunities via access to heretofore unavailable resources, before I sought overseas employment to repay my grad-student loans. I also have been making every effort since then to accommodate the topics in which my advisees express interest and demonstrate expertise; I’d conduct any necessary self-study to ensure sufficient competence on my end, and recommend other experts when I feel that the students’ selected materials exceed my grasp. Whatever Bien Lumbera was in these areas of film criticism, policy, and mentorship, I found myself functioning more productively by doing exactly what he would have avoided or refused in the same situation.
He was the last to die among my academic advisers, and I hope I’ll never need to point out again that he served as my antipodean figure, the one who showed me what not to do by demonstrating in actual practice how wrong it was. Ellen was diagnosed with cancer after being savagely pilloried for months by faculty whom she had accused of corruption; she told me she was mistaken in asking me to return to Pinas and, as her final counsel, urged me to seek tenure abroad. While Ellen was undergoing treatment, Bob Sklar perished in a vehicular accident while on vacation. Ellen followed my example in resigning, without any prodding from me, from the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, and succumbed to her illness around the same time that my tenure status in Korea was being decided. I may have been first among Pinas profs to clinch the distinction, but it was still too late for me to express my gratitude to these two for their letters of recommendation, among other more-essential matters. I was also on the verge of convincing myself that my grad-school traumas were entirely my fault, until the news about Lumbera’s passing enabled me, in his final inadvertent act of kindness, to be less harsh on myself.