Anonymity & Its Discontents

The presence of a couple (so far) of unidentifiable Pinas cinema-focused film-evaluation websites on the social network, one of which has accumulated a following in the thousands, induces a strong measure of unease and disgust in me. It didn’t require any extensive Freudian cure to figure out the cause. In what now seems like a lifetime ago, right before I embarked on foreign graduate studies, I found myself on one side of a conflict with an organized band of self-identified critics. A movie reporter suspected of being a government agent provided them with an outlet – a tabloid that only a few people bothered to read – from which they launched their attacks on everyone whom they considered guilty of supporting pop-culture capitalism.

11011Obviously the most complicit sector, the mass audience, became the structuring absence in their critiques, since their supposed Marxist position was intended to benefit the “people,” presumably including pop-product consumers. Their write-ups were, I kid you not, extremely convoluted and horrendously unreadable, with fog-index ratings that would overshoot Robert Gunning’s comprehensibility charts several times over. The reason was easy to deduce even then: call yourself a progressive, then denounce the people who produce and support samples that prove to be popular, and you’ll find yourself crawling and jumping through all the bumps, hoops, and handicaps that your own logic instantly sets up on your way to the self-valorizing endpoint where you install yourself as society’s cultural messiah. Add to this an unexamined aspiration to be an alternate and superior source of literature and you wind up with attempts at obscure metaphorical flights and unnecessary syntactic complexities, closer to doggerel than to poetry.

11011No wonder nothing from that outburst of self-righteous pretension survived to the present. The only vexation that gang provided was in masculinistically identifying their perceived “enemies of the people” (while fearlessly maintaining their invisibility of course) – specifically artists who took the extra effort of investing their social and political critiques with popular appeal,[1] and critics (like me and a few others) who made sure that their troubles were rewarded with good notices, if nothing else. A cousin of mine, who was then an experienced lawyer and later became a judge but died recently from the pandemic, said he could help me file a case for libel if I wanted to; I replied that I was already on my final extension in postponing the commencement of my Fulbright grant, so I couldn’t focus on anything else until I completed the study program.

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11011Where the contemporary socnet-based reviewers and the self-declared progressive critics of that era intersected was, as I belatedly realized, in their cowardly resort to anonymity. I would even argue that their motives were similar, even if the current anonymous reviewers would, from the looks of it, deny any left sympathies. Both types attempt to draw from an association with the heroic record of freedom fighters (initially against colonialism, subsequently against fascism) evading tyrannical systems by operating underground. Both are also, ironically and hypocritically, impelled by essentially antipopular animosities – which is why you can find the same kind of logic in the current anonymous socnet reviewers: they’ll find and grasp onto any academically validated excuse to denounce successful practitioners, although they’ve made exceptions for certain auteurs.[2] This is the reason why their claim to objectivity can be easily deconstructed, if our school-trained population only knew how to go about the process; if their actual identities were known, it would be a far simpler matter of determining how they benefit from the practitioners and producers they support.

11011Best we can do for now is turn to an analogous recent situation in politics. In the wake of an extremely divisive electoral exercise that was actually more regionalistic than ideological, certain supporters on either side of conflicting party-led campaigns started adopting aliases before issuing hard-hitting social-media posts. Their aggrieved opponents would then conduct investigations to uncover who these authors were, and initiate name-and-shame blitzes once their identities were determined. It would be easy to comprehend the tendency of an avid supporter of either side to inevitably harbor and express hatred for the opposite side, inasmuch as religious fundamentalists would be encouraged to do the same, and guess where this secular tendency springs from. The resort to the concealment of identity would likewise be understandable, but morally indefensible in the same instance, whichever side happened to be benefiting from the ruckus. As in the case of the tabloid gang I mentioned, the Philippine state no longer looms as an enforcer of proper behavior with total authority over one’s existence, where one can be legally declared a menace to morality and/or national security without the benefit of a public trial and consequently openly apprehended and punished by state agents.

11011Owing to the lessons from that highly contentious political transition about a half-decade ago, political propagandists have known better since then than to attempt romantic underground-activism drama the way that we used to practice it during the martial-law era of Marcos Sr. Hence to put it bluntly, these current anonyms infesting film commentary need to be flushed out as well, their backgrounds and affiliations held up to the light, the way that the rest of us – including the very folks I have differences with today, unlike the deservingly forgotten tabloidists of yesteryear – allow ourselves. Then again, just to uphold my constant contrarianism, how else would we be able to have examples of failed criticism that needs to cower behind masked identities, if bad critics were to think twice before making their declarations and announcing their ratings?[3] They’d be ridiculed out of existence, even if they were too clueless to realize their own mediocrity.

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11011They may have a few thousand followers now, but then there will always be privileged people too miseducated to be able to appreciate anything local, much less pop-cultural. One side fulfills a pathological need in the other, and I’d venture to bring in organized critics while we’re on a search for people who ought to know the right thing to do and have the means of doing it. While I’d expect critics’ orgs to watch out for these samples and call them out for their adverse impact on critical practice, once more I can figure out why they’d rather pretend they have better things to attend to. Because who else would be invested in protecting failed practice using organizational prerogatives? That doesn’t excuse their passivity, and when one day the history of Pinas film criticism gets drafted, their inaction regarding reviewers who function as faceless terrorizers of otherwise serious practitioners (who also offer up their names for historical judgment) will definitely be listed under the category of destructive negligence.

11011The long-term game is what these pseudonymous losers will be unable to play, unless they draw on humongous self-promotional resources. Extensive (and still-growing) is the list of critics who thought their claims to fame entitled them to compile their output for posterity, and whose volumes will be forgotten as soon as they’re no longer around to hype them up themselves. Then again, how about more anonymous film reviewers joining the fray and eventually organizing their own invisible critics organization, complete with annual awards dispensing air trophies for untitled films made by hidden talents, with a secret anthology to celebrate their historical intervention? Might as well have as much imaginative fun as possible while it lasts.


[1] While I would caution against regarding awards as infallible indicators of prestige, the processes of the Order of the National Artist have been irreproachable for the most part, outside of the meddling of Philippine politicians. As of 2022, all of the artists who were singled out for attack by these state university-based know-it-alls have become recipients of the award. Not to play the game of whether or not these names deserved the recognition, but what the title of the order bestowed was exactly what they strove for – artistry made for the nation, intended to be comprehended and valued by the nation. Which is where I put an end to this line of argument.

[2] One fascinating point made by observers is that the more popular anonymous reviewer(s) seemed to prefer selected openly queer practitioners, a commendable progressive turn in and by itself. But without foregrounding the website’s familiarity or benefit (or lack of either) with its author’s or authors’ favored practitioners, this kind of bias can be described with any number of adjectives, all of them neutral or unflattering. To my mind, the worst possible descriptor for its championing of some (but not all) Others for not-all-that-exceptional accomplishments, while denigrating these Others’ rivals as lesser artists and using a strategy associated with subversive activists, is that it’s as conservatively unqueer as it’s possible to get. Anyone remember that social mechanism called the closet?

[3] Another point that must be raised, which might help explain my seeming ambivalence. In media I remain libertarian, so just as the tabloid writers of long ago were unfairly mistaken in thinking I wanted to censor criticism that I disliked, I just as strongly would insist that awful net-era authors go about their business, so long as we know who they are, and so that any potentially sensible reader could be better informed before she continues patronizing the garbage they spew. As an enthusiastic appreciator of certain achievements in “trash” cinema, I wouldn’t mind making room for trash criticism, which has always been around anyway and which serves an admittedly selfish purpose for my occasional bouts of insecurity: how else would I know that I’m not really as terrible as my hypercritical inner self often declares, if none of these lousy practitioners ever existed?

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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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